Canon 20D DSLR Review


Fourth time is a charm...

Why the delay in this review? Mea culpa, mea culpa. I started using the 20D back in early fall of 2004 and had formed a pretty good impression of the camera by the end of the year. I'd even written most of this review by then. At the time I started using the 20D I was considering writing Canon eBooks similar to my Nikon ones. Then Nikon conspired to launch four new cameras in a short period of time (plus the Fujifilm S3 Pro had arrived), which put me in a testing and writing time crunch. This review got put aside for awhile as a result.

While I realize that there are some folk out there that would love to have me switch to Canon, this site is, after all, a Nikon-based site first and foremost, thus when needed, I divert all my attention to new Nikon products. I actually would have published the 20D review as it stood back in January but for one thing: I really wanted to take a closer look at the autofocus issue I point out to make sure it wasn't my inexperience with the Canon autofocus system that I was seeing. I didn't get the time to do that until late in the summer of 2005.

So, mea culpa. Yes, this review is late. But I'd rather have it accurately reflect my thoughts. As to further Canon support from me, I'd have to say it's unlikely that I'll do more than review the occasional camera. I will continue to purchase and use various Canon DSLRs from time to time so that I can better understand the differences faced with someone thinking about purchasing a new state-of-the-art DSLR, but it's unlikely that I'll write an eBook on those products. I suppose that if I had a full publishing staff behind me I might have the time to research and write more Canon info, but I don't. I'm a one-man band, and I've decided to concentrate on a single set of instruments.

The Basics

Well, I've dipped another toe into the Canon pool. The competition between Canon and Nikon in DSLR bodies is important for both companies, as they each are pressing the other towards better digital SLR cameras, more so than any other company or factor. Indeed, there's been an interesting leapfrog effect going on between the two companies, so understanding the 20D tells you something about where the Nikon's D100 DSLR replacement might end up.

The Canon 20D represents the fourth re-design of the Canon consumer DSLR (I consider the Digital Rebel to be a derivative of the 10D). Back in May 2000 we had the 3.1mp D30 at an initial price of about US$3000. In February 2002 came the 6mp D60 at an initial price of about US$2100. In February 2003 came the 6mp 10D at an initial price of about US$1500. And in September 2004 came the 8.2mp 20D at that same price point. If you look carefully at that progression, it's clear that Canon has put a lot of work into a very short period of time. Besides the obvious improvements in sensors and lowering of price, the bodies themselves and things like the autofocus system have been constantly worked on and tweaked.

In traditional Canon consumer fashion, the 20D is a light, smallish body (certainly when compared to the 1D and 1Ds), and a bit oriented towards all-automatic shooting. Unlike previous Canon consumer DSLRs, the 20D seems much more "finished" and polished. Perhaps its the simple touch of adding a rubberized grip, but the overall impression is of a higher build quality than, say, the 10D. There are still some jarring edges (like opening the compact flash card slot immediately turns off the power to the camera), but overall the impression is that Canon has paid excellent attention to detail.

Most people asking me about the 20D ask about it in comparison to the Nikon D70s, so here's a short table of some of the primary features (pink is better; if both are purple I judge the differences to be minimal):
Canon 20D Nikon D70s
Seven autofocus sensors controlled by single button Five autofocus sensors controlled by direction pad
3504x2336, 1.6x effective view 3008x2000, 1.5x effective view
Matrix (36 zone), partial (9%), and centerweight metering Matrix (1005 cell CCD), spot (1%), centerweight (adjustable) metering
Infrared and wired remote control only (optional) Infrared remote control and wired remote control only (optional)
30s - 1/8000 shutter, 1/250 flash sync 30s - 1/8000 shutter, 1/500 flash sync
ISO 100 to 1600 + 3200 in single stop steps, Auto in modest range ISO 200 to 1600 in 1/3 stop steps, Auto
E-TTL flash, flash exposure compensation, high speed sync support, rear sync I-TTL flash, flash exposure compensation, multiple wireless support, rear sync
5 fps, 20 shot buffer 3 fps, 20 shot buffer, very fast write
18 custom settings 25 custom settings
No grid lines On demand grid lines
24.2 Ounces (685g) 21 Ounces (595g)

Both cameras have: Bracketing, built-in flash, a variety of JPEG recording sizes and qualities, the regular exposure modes plus scene modes, a hot shoe, a menu and playback system that uses the color LCD, and a host of other features. Effectively, they are very similar cameras in the gross specifications, with the three big pluses for the 20D being faster frame advance, wider autofocus area, and that extra two megapixels. More on this as we get into the details.

You get Program, Shutter-priority (Tv in Canon parlance), Aperture-priority (Av), and Manual exposure modes plus a faux Automatic depth of field mode; seven scene modes (Everything Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, and Flash Off); diopter adjustments for the viewfinder; a wealth of useful information in the viewfinder (though no frame counter); excellent, though not-quite-state-of-the-art autofocus; 36-segment matrix, and centerweighted (Canon doesn't specify weighting in the manual, which I find problematic for users who like to understand and control their equipment) metering; exposure compensation and three shot auto bracketing; and depth of field preview.

Reading the feature list of the 20D, you might wonder if Canon left anything out. The big missing piece is true spot metering. Flash abilities, though much improved over the first of Canon's consumer offerings, still seem a bit lacking; I would have liked to have the ability to turn the on-board flash into a controller for remote wireless TTL, ala the D70s. I'm also a little surprised that there's no built-in intervalometer function. Given the advanced amateur target of the camera, it seems like there are a few feature ommissions, though none that cripple the camera.

One issue of significance to a few users might be the 1.6x angle of view change versus the D70's 1.5x. Canon is now producing a series of EF-S lenses to help with the reduced angle of view, but true wide angle aficionados will find themselves taking a hard look at third-party solutions such as Sigma's 12-24mm or 10-20mm. The 17-85mm EF-S that sells as a kit with some 20D packages is a decent lens, but that gives us only a 27mm equivalency. The new 10-22mm Canon EF-S lens isn't what I'd call distinguished in ability, but finally gets Canon into the right focal length range for serious wide angle work. I'm sure that Canon will produce more EF-S lenses as time moves on, but right now I'd have to say that not only does Nikon have more DX lenses, but the wide angle capabilities of those DX lenses are arguably better than what I've seen from Canon's first efforts. For example, while the Canon 17-85mm EF-S includes IS, it also isn't optically as strong at the wide end as Nikon's less expensive 18-70mm DX lens (the D70s kit lens). Nor does Canon have anything close to the equivalent of the 18-200mm VR DX Nikon recently introduced. If you're thinking of the 20D as a serious landscape camera, make sure that you consider both the wide angle lens you'll be using, but also some of the other factors I point out, such as the acuity. The 20D doesn't automatically win a contest with the D70s in landscape shooting.

Overall, the feature set of the 20D is quite good, though like a lot of the Canon consumer bodies it doesn't try to win the game on feature set completeness (Minolta was perhaps best known for that tactic).

Handling

While most people look at the 8mp sensor as the "big" improvement the 20D provides over its predecessors, I don't. In my opinion the largest improvement over previous Canon DSLRs simply comes in feel and build quality. Most of the rough edges in UI design and seemingly unfinished body pieces that originally appeared on the D30 are all gone now. I've played with a lot of Canon consumer bodies over the years, and helped workshop students with trying to get the most out of them, but the 20D is the first I've encountered that has no significant flaw somewhere in its design.

That's not to say the 20D is perfect, but this is by far the best consumer DSLR Canon has produced in the handling department. My remaining gripes will be minor and don't get in the way of taking pictures, for the most part. The one exception is that compact flash compartment door. If you dislodge the door into the open position, the camera shuts off, no matter what it was doing. Fortunately, it's a little difficult to open the door, but it can be done with gloves on without you at first noticing.

The first thing you notice about the 20D is its heft and feel. While it's not a heavy camera, it'll be a shock to you if the last body you picked up was a consumer film SLR, even though the weight difference isn't all that much on a scale. Personally, a pound-and-a-half (685g) is what I find to be a nice comfortable point; the camera isn't so light that it gets easily "yanked" when pressing the shutter release, but it's also not so heavy that it is fatiguing to hold for long periods. The 20D's weight is backed up by an impression that no body part is flimsy or unprotected (the ON/OFF switch, for example is slightly indented so that it can't easily be bumped out of its position and isn't likely to snag on something).

Another new item (for Canon) that's immediately noticeable is that there's a rubberized grip material added to the areas where you right hand tends to grab the camera. This gives the 20D a more professional, textile feel that the D30 through 10D didn't have. Let's just hope that Canon's method of attaching these rubber grips works better than some of the Nikon models that have sported rubber. Nevertheless, the new grip material makes the 20D much more comfortable to hold for long periods, so I welcome the change, even if I someday may find I have to reglue it. (I guess I'd better explain that remark: on my sample, there are two corners where the rubberized material feels vulnerable to getting lifted by either constant movement over it or by accidentally hooking on something--remember, I work in the bush more often than not, so things do poke at my cameras all the time.)

Long-time Canon users won't have any trouble recognizing the controls for the 20D, as we still have the dual wheel concept being used as the design foundation. In this case, the rear dial that lays flat on the back to the right of the color LCD has a feel much better than I remember on any previous Canon consumer camera. The five major control buttons (three in front of the top LCD, two on the upper right back) are still all there and still have dual personalities. In the case of the top three buttons, I continue to have a problem with the fact that they all have exactly the same feel. That's not a big issue, since the only one of those buttons that can effectively be changed while your eye is at the viewfinder is the rightmost one, and then only for exposure compensation, but I'd still like that right button to be immediately identifiable by feel--even a small cross-hatching on it would make it simple to distinguish. With gloves on, I'd double this request--you can actually mistake the backlight button for the AF/WB button with gloves on.

Because AF type, white balance, metering method, frame advance, and ISO indicators aren't in the viewfinder, five of the six functions of those top three UI buttons just simply can't be done while looking through the viewfinder. This is acceptable on a consumer DSLR, though I really think we should get more than "acceptable" on a camera of this caliber. If you've used a previous Canon DSLR, you're probably not even going to notice that, though. Overall, the 20D is enough like the 10D or D60 or Digital Rebel in control design that you could move to it and not be really struck by any difference in handling.

Except for one thing, that is. There's a new control on the back of the 20D: a small, joystick type controller that sits above the big control wheel. This 8-way controller (which can also be pressed as a button in some actions) has three primary uses on the camera: it allows you to pick the autofocus sensor, it helps you navigate an image that's magnified on the color LCD, and it allows you to directly control the two-axis white balance adjustment system. To a Nikon user, it seems a bit awkward in actual use for autofocus though. Basically, you have to hit the AF point selector button and then move the joystick controller to select a particular autofocus point. Since you're likely to be using your right thumb for both these actions, this makes for a two-step process that's too slow for quick moving action. Here's how Canon should have implemented it: press the joystick in to activate focus selection and move it to select a point; your thumb wouldn't move and you can do this much faster and reliably. Likewise, I don't understand why the joystick controller doesn't work for navigating images in 9-at-a-time mode.

Still, having the joystick controller available for a number of actions does rid the interface of one thing that I've found annoying in the past: having to use the wheel to scroll through things when a more direct approach would have been appreciated. You'll find it useful; just not quite as useful as it could be.

In the hand, the 20D is quite comfortable and balanced. Hand placement is quite good and the controls can be operated with modest gloves on. Even though the right grip extension is quite pronounced, it fits a small hand well, and the slight contouring makes it easy to hold the camera with one hand (not that I recommend shooting that way!).

Some of the control placements may make the camera feel a bit uncomfortable to someone who has large hands or long fingers. Two controls that you tend to use more often--the exposure lock and autofocus point selector buttons--tend to force you to give up some of your grip on the camera to operate (you end up gripping the front of the camera mostly with the tips of your fingers with no thumb support). This is something big handed folk will find slightly more daunting than those with smaller digits. I'd say the 20D, like other consumer Canon DSLRs, is a body that best fits smallish hands; at least those folk won't feel contorted when using common controls.

A dial on the left top plate is used to set the camera's exposure mode (and the special scene modes). This dial is clearly labeled and easy enough to use. The scene modes restrict what other things you can set, but, like Nikon's scene modes, don't go far enough for me to make them useful. None of them really do anything particularly useful, in my opinion. The Automatic Depth of Field mode, while intriguing in principal, turns out to be rather limited in actual practice (and appears to be calculated from a circle of confusion of closer to 0.035, which is far too lax for a small sensor body [for the 20D, I'd use 0.015]).

Program exposure mode can be overridden (Nikon calls this Flexible Program for those of you trying to make direct comparisons). Unlike the D70s, where each dial turn gives you the next 1/3 stop alternative, the 20D does a very strange thing: it gives you a third of a stop alternative followed by a 2/3 stop alternative--every other 1/3 stop possibility is missing! It's as if they do a 1/2 stop change and then round to the nearest third of a stop setting. Given the other manual control on this camera, I would have liked to be a little more firmly in control of the Program overrides.

Manual exposure mode works like this: the dial on the top plate controls the shutter speed and the rear wheel control the aperture (just the opposite of the Nikon default, where front controls aperture and rear controls shutter speed).

ISO and White Balance settings can be quickly changed without going to the menu system if nothing is being displayed on the color LCD. Press the appropriate button, twirl the dial on the top plate to get to the value you want (shown on the second LCD on the back), then press the button again.

The histogram display is still sub-optimal, in my opinion, and I'm a little irked that Canon hasn't gotten around to fixing it on their consumer DSLRs. It's too small and sometimes difficult to distinguish what's happening at the highlight extreme, which is exactly where we want to see the most information. The screen that shows the histogram just tries to do too much, in my opinion. The D70s has Nikon's usual large, easily visible histogram--you only have to see the two side by side to see how inferior the 20D's histogram is. Moreover, I really want to see the color channels, as well, which neither Nikon nor Canon is giving us yet on consumer bodies.

Custom white balance is obtained by taking a regular photo of a centered, neutral object, then going back and pointing the camera at that photo. Not only does this (temporarily) waste storage space, but it makes for a slightly slower than usual custom setting procedure (not that Nikon has always done right by this--the D100's custom white balance procedure is a bit labyrinthine; the D70s is better in this respect, and supports a better and faster measuring method [if you remember to press the button twice] plus the same "set from photograph" option the 20D does). On the plus side, on the 20D you can directly set Kelvin temps and make CIE space corrections to white balance using the joystick controller. Both of these things are functions I wish the Nikon consumer bodies had.

Surprisingly, image controls such as contrast, sharpness, saturation, and color tone are somewhat buried in the menu system under something called Parameters. (Nikon buries them on their consumer cameras under Optimize Image.) The good news is that you can define your own sets (3) for multiple image controls, plus there's a black and white capability built into the camera hidden here, too. Nice ability, but a bit buried in the menu system.

Continuous motor drive and the self timer are available via a separate button on the top plate, which is simpler than on most Nikon bodies, which often require a two-step process, but bracketing, Image Quality, Image Size, and a few other functions are only accessible through the menu system on the 20D. Fortunately, the menu system has been streamlined a bit from previous models and is easy to learn and use. Other than a few odd choices of words (such as Parameters, which is a vague noun), the menu system is mostly clear, consistent, and quick in actual use. The one place I'd say that isn't true is in the Custom Functions area, where Canon forces you to drop down a level to see what the other options are for a setting while wasting half the display with a summary of all the Custom Function values (as numbers, which won't mean anything to you until you've memorized them).

The 20D takes two types of lenses: the traditional EF mount lenses, and new EF-S mount lenses. The two kit lenses that are available (and other EF-S lenses) mount at a different point (white indicator instead of the usual red). Canon did it this way apparently because the EF-S lenses stick a bit further back into the camera than do EF lenses, and Canon didn't want people sticking EF-S lenses onto cameras that don't support them, as the rear elements might interfere with the action of the mirror. (I'm actually a bit curious about that. Other digital lens designers are all trying to move rear exit pupils forward away from the sensor and using a rear grouping that doesn't modify the light path; Canon seems to be designing differently.)

Previously Canon consumer DSLRs have had a serious slow-to-wake quality to them, but the 20D mostly breaks that habit. You can leave the power switch at the ON position and not significantly drain the battery while the camera is inactive. What you can't do is press, say, the Menu button and have the camera immediately awake (you have to partially press the shutter release first). I've left my 20D powered on for several days at a time between shooting sessions and appreciate the fact that I can simply just pick up the camera and shoot. One slight bauble: you need to press the shutter release partway to wake up the body--most other buttons won't wake the camera [the recently released 5D fixes this, by the way].

Overall, handling is very good to excellent on the 20D. If you're coming from another Canon body, you'll find yourself right at home and the new and subtle improvements will be immediately welcome. If you're coming from a Nikon body, you'll be less befuddled than before and probably settle into the differences quickly.

Performance

Exposure

The 20D matrix meter is pretty good at tough scenes, though I find it has a clear tendency to blow out highlight detail more than most of the Nikon matrix meters do (the recent D50 being the exception). That said, I didn't find any exposures in my initial test shots that I was uncomfortable with. The meter is consistent and you can always dial in exposure compensation or turn on the exposure bracketing if you need to guard against highlight blowout.

Be aware that metering changes when you press the exposure lock button to partial area metering (about 9% of the total image area). If you don't catch this distinction, you're going to have trouble getting the exposure you want. (I also don't like the fact that the only way you can cancel exposure lock is to wait for the camera meter to time out or press the focus point selection button; why wouldn't a second press of the exposure lock button unlock a locked exposure?)

Manual exposure users should note that you get only two stops of metering information on each side of 0.

Overall, ambient metering performance seems accurate and consistent, but a little hotter than I'm used to with Nikon equipment (there's no easy way to spot meter and test head to head, unfortunately--I did try center weighted and found the Canon to be about a 1/3 stop hotter than my D70s, but that's within the ANSI tolerances, so without testing lots of bodies I can't say that Canon is running their meters hotter than Nikon). I did find that I was consistently wanting to set a small amount of underexposure compensation with both my Digital Rebel and the 20D. (Confession: having used Nikon DSLRs for so long, I'm very sensitive to highlight detail. Indeed, when used well, that's one of the key attributes of the Nikon and Fujifilm DSLRs: they can capture extraordinarily subtle highlight detail.)

Flash exposures are another story, however. Flash exposures on the original Digital Rebel can be quite inconsistent, with a tendency towards being too bright (blowing out highlights). On the 20D I found the inconsistency to have been considerably reduced, but not eradicated. Outside Program exposure mode, the camera is really performing Standard TTL and has a tendency to produce slightly hotter flash amounts than I normally like. Fortunately, flash exposure compensation can be dialed in quickly and directly (while looking through the viewfinder), so you can deal with this issue, if necessary. Overall, I wanted a bit more options from the flash, specifically Manual flash levels and wireless triggers using the internal flash. Assuming you learn the idiosyncrasies of Nikon's flash system, something I'll admit takes me several hundred pages to describe, you'll end up with much more control over the internal flash on a D70s, especially for multiple flash. Still, E-TTL II seems to have solved many of the complaints I had about Canon's flash system.

Autofocus

One of the big marketing points about the 20D was its improved autofocus system. Indeed, I'd say that it is significantly improved over the 10D and Digital Rebel. In decent light it really doesn't matter which AF sensor does the focusing, it'll be fast and (almost) sure. As light levels plummet, the differing orientations of the outbound sensors start to come into play, and I've seen the AF performance drop significantly as a result (a typical problem with all consumer DSLRs). But in practice I didn't find any substantive issues in performance. The 20D is near or at state-of-the-art in autofocus performance for a consumer DSLR.

However, I do have one minor concern. Why do I say that? Because I get a little of what I call "focus wobble." Repeated focusing on the same object can produce slightly different results, with ever-so-slight misses in front of or behind the actual point with no predictability. This seems to happen more often in low light, but I've triggered it at least once in bright light. My working hypothesis is that Canon is using some sort of fall-back calculation in its AF system in certain instances. It's curious whatever the cause--I've not seen any Nikon DSLR be inconsistent in missed focus points. When a Nikon DSLR misses, it seems to always miss in the same direction and by pretty much the same amount, regardless of which way it was coming at focus or any other condition (as in the classic back-focus issues with a few of the original D70 models that came out of the factory mis-adjusted).

But my 20D will sometimes miss a bit behind, sometimes a bit in front of the actual focus point. Lest you think this is a deal killer, it isn't. As I said, it's minor, and it only seems to happen when the AF system is "stressed" (e.g. low light). Indeed, trying to come up with a repeatable test bed that allowed me to duplicate the issue enough so that I felt the issue was not just my imagination took me quite some time to construct and is one of the reasons why this review sat on my desk unfinished for so long. The problem seems more pronounced with consumer lenses than the L (pro) lenses I have available, which would indicate to me that there may be tolerance levels in the autofocus motors of the consumer cameras that are larger than the higher-priced lenses. Still, I've found conditions under which I can get repeatable, slightly wrong AF results. I note that 20D focus inconsistency does get mentioned on a number of the Canon-oriented forums from time to time, so I think this is a very real attribute of the camera you need to pay close attention to.

Again, don't get me wrong. The 20D's autofocus system works as advertised most of the time. Overall, it is fast to lock onto subjects and does so across a fairly broad area. For wide angle landscape work like I do most of the time, it's not an issue, as hyperfocal distance is more important than autofocus. And in normal lighting conditions I almost never encountered the wobble issue. But if I were shooting at high ISO values indoors (e.g. high school basketball--I first noticed the problem in some BBall shots in the local gym), I think I'd solely use L lenses and be watching my focus more carefully.

Moreover, anyone shooting action in low light with the 20D really needs to understand the physical orientations of the outlying sensors; some are vertical, some are horizontal, and those differences can indeed influence focus speed and accuracy in some framings with some subjects.

Battery Life

Battery life is excellent, as good as any consumer DSLR to date.

Canon rates the battery at about 1000 images at room temperature when no flash is used, and I can't find fault with that; if anything, my camera does better than that. Your overall battery life is going to be mostly determined by how much you use the color LCD more so than how many pictures you take, though. Needing more than two charged batteries for a day's worth of shooting isn't something I can imagine any 20D user encountering; I've been getting by with a single battery in most of my full day shooting sessions with the camera.

Write Speed

I was pleasantly surprised with the write speed of the 20D. After the poor performance of the Digital Rebel, I wasn't sure what to expect with the 20D, but if anything, it's slightly faster at writing images to a card than is the D70s (but it isn't quite as fast at clearing the buffer, so it's mostly a wash). On most of my fastest cards I was averaging between 5-6MB/second with raw files, slightly lower with JPEG (the fastest I achieved with JPEG was right at 5MB/second). Microdrives faired far less well, having only about two-thirds the performance.

Image Quality

Overall, the 20D produces very nice JPEG images, though they're a little "softer" than I expected (even with sharpness turned up). Color is good and well saturated, contrast is excellent in the mid-range of the tonal ramps, and overall detail is very good. You'll want to know more about each of those assessments.

Color isn't perfect. Indeed, when you run Imatest on the 20D at the camera's default settings, you'll find that while the greens and blues are dead-on accurate, the reds all drift towards amber in the CIE 2D space. The net result is warm skin tones, which a lot of people like, but not fully accurate color. Using Parameter 2 instead of Parameter 1 lowers this red drift, but at the expense of overall saturation and contrast. In time, I found that I preferred Parameter 1 with the Saturation tuned to average. Even then, though, the colors weren't perfectly accurate, just very pleasing.

Contrast is a tough subject to discuss, because there are multiple schools of thought here. For example, the Fujifilm S3 Pro favors expanded dynamic range over out-of-camera contrast, and you often have to post process some contrast back into many of its images because of that. What I've noticed on both the 20D and previous Canon cameras I've used is that Canon seems to concentrate on getting the middle of the contrast range right, at the slight expense of shadow and highlight detail getting shorted. Looking at a long gray ramp run, such as on the Kodak Gray Scale card, the blacks from 15 through 19 tend to block up on the 20D. The highlight end doesn't seem to fare as bad, but still has a tendency to block up a bit. But printed out, that slight "contrast compression" is exactly what most people want out of their snapshots. I think that Canon's target is dead-on to the amateur market's desire, but I find it sometimes problematic in my shooting (I live for shadow and highlight detail).

Detail isn't as well resolved for an 8mp camera as you might expect. I was a little startled at first when my 8mp Coolpix 8800 was producing "sharper" images than my 20D. Some of that has to do with sensor size and depth of field--the 8800 has a couple of natural DOF advantages there. But even with Sharpness set to high, the 20D wasn't producing the level of acuity I expected. I'm sure this is intentional and part of the Canon engineering design decisions. It may very well be an interaction with noise reduction, but I suspect it was simply a "we've got more pixels now so we don't have to be as aggressive with in-camera sharpening and antialiasing as we were before" type of decision.

The good news is that this tends to mask JPEG and moire artifacts. The bad news is that the D70s is a very aggressive camera in terms of acuity, so the difference between a 6mp "sharp" camera and an 8mp "soft" camera isn't as much as you'd expect in JPEG images. (Though I'd be lax if I didn't point out that the D70's aggressive behavior does tend to make noise more visible and more easily triggers moire problems.) That said, Canon's decision here doesn't bother me one bit, as I tend to always turn off in-camera sharpening and use my own post processing techniques to get to the detail without dialing up artifacts. If you're a never-post-process sort of shooter, you might find that Canon's default Sharpening settings doesn't go as far as you'd like, though.

Noise is well controlled in the 20D, though Canon afficionados will be surprised to hear that the 20D is not the lowest noise camera I've seen at ISO 1600 (the S3 Pro is, by a good margin). At the base ISO value, visible noise is pretty much non-existent (helped by the drop in the shadow tone ramp), while at higher ISO values the noise is not excessive and doesn't have the color noise properties that some cameras do.

I hesitate to comment much on raw files, as I don't have enough experience running different converters on Canon images to make the kinds of statements I sometimes do about Nikon raw files. But what I've seen with Photoshop CS and Capture One is impressive: the 20D can produce raw files rich with detail and tonal values and low in noise, exactly what a raw shooter wants.

Overall, I like the image quality the 20D produces quite a bit. For JPEGs at the default settings it's a bit softer and warm than you may want, so pay close attention to your settings if you're looking for high acuity and color accuracy.

Drawbacks

  • Hanging onto the True Amateurs. The scene exposure modes and lack of viewfinder information tell me Canon still has the rank amateur in their sights for this camera. Come on guys, the 20D is a far, far better camera than Joe and Jill Pointandshoot should be using (hint: Digital Rebel); don't carry over those design decisions.
  • Not so Flashy. Canon's default flash settings often seem hot to me (and on rare occasions a bit inconsistent). Still, the 20D is much better than the 10D was at flash, so Canon seems to be moving in the right direction with their algorithm changes.
  • Charmin-like Image Quality. Even at high sharpening settings the 20D's images are just a bit on the soft side with JPEGs coming out of the camera. I find it interesting how each new camera--Canon or Nikon--seems to antialias and render back and forth across the mid-point of the acuity line. The 20D is Canon's softest consumer camera so far, and you'll probably want to use post processing sharpening instead of the camera's abilities to get the most out of that 8mp.

Positives

  • It's the Image Stupid. Nice color, nice contrast, 8 megapixel size, and very printable out-of-camera JPEGs. The raw DCRs give you even more ability to pull high quality images out of this camera. Just watch the highlight exposure carefully and use careful sharpening in your post processing to get the most this camera has to offer.
  • Bang for the Buck! US$1499 for a full-featured, 8mp DSLR is as good as it gets here in mid-2005 [price has drifted downwards since then, but the point remains]. There isn't another comparable DSLR currently within range of the 20D at the price point, though I suspect that this advantage will disappear completely by mid 2006.
  • Canon is Learning. Build quality and handling are much improved over the 10D, D60, and D30. A pro won't have any troubles using the 20D as his back-up body to a 1D or 1Ds.
  • Steroid-free Performance Enhancements. Write-to-card speed is now fast and state-of-the-art, and the autofocus system is peppier, too. Couple that with the 5 fps frame advance, and the 20D borders on a camera that can be used seriously for sports.

By this point, I'm sure I've said enough to provide fodder for any loyal Canonista to start lobbing back at me. Some will jump on small things I faulted, others will claim my ratings are biased, some will nod their head about something I wrote but still claim I'm not being fair. The thing is, I have the opportunity to use virtually any DSLR that's been made (well, okay, I've unloaded some of my older cameras that weren't getting used and I've yet to try a Pentax DSLR). I regularly rotate through the bodies that are available to me, especially when I'm teaching workshops. If the Canon 20D were really the drop-dead, do-all, gotta-stop-using-Nikon camera that some folk claim it is (and who regularly send me email trying to convince me of that), I'd be gravitating more towards the 20D than some of the other bodies in my arsenal. But as much as I find the Fujifilm S3 Pro a frustrating camera to use, I like it's JPEG quality better than the 20D and don't feel I'm giving up anything substantive in terms of image quality. As much as the D70 and D100 are older models and "only" 6mp, I don't find that the 20D's 8mp is beckoning me in any way shape or form--the 20D has a slightly soft 8mp and the D70 has a slightly sharp 6mp; they're simply not as far apart as the increase in pixels might suggest. Remember, the difference between 6 and 8mp works out to be about 500 pixels in the long axis, or about 16%, not the 33% you might be thinking the numbers mean.

Don't get me wrong, the 20D is the first consumer Canon I've actually enjoyed shooting with. It has a nice feel, takes nice pictures, has plenty of nice features, and really is everything a non-pro needs in a camera. But it isn't a Nikon-killer, it isn't a no-brainer purchase decision, and it isn't going to be the sole product with those specifications for very long. It's just a very fine camera that many people will like a lot.

Yes, I'm being a bit defensive. Just as with my Digital Rebel review I fully expect some loyal Canon users to send me hate mail. I suggest they go back and carefully read what I wrote. I don't know what it is about Canon/Nikon (or Mac/PC, or Toyota/GM, Fujichrome/Kodachrome, or any other corporate rivalry) that inspires people to near religious crusades, but it's not worth the time and effort, folks. My reviews are just that, my reviews. Use them how you'd like, but I still always suggest that once you've read about a few cameras that sound like they might appeal to you, go to a camera store and try them out. It's not that difficult to try a D70s and 20D side by side. You'll likely prefer one over the other, and you'll be able to decide for yourself if any difference you perceive is worth the difference in price.

 
Quick Evaluation


Highly Recommended
; An excellent choice for the advanced amateur photographer, and the best Canon consumer DSLR to date, by far.

features
performance
build
value

Why no five star marks? While the 20D gets high marks across the board, it never quite hits it out of the park in any area. Performance comes closest to making it to five, with Value also being a close call, but I don't give half stars. To elaborate:

Features: the 20D falls a bit short on flash flexibility, useful customizations, and viewfinder information.
Performance: really really close, but the red color shift and overall softness bothers me, as does the AF wobble.
Build: little handling gripes get in the way; the lack of full integration of the multicontroller is one that sticks out.
Value: here the DR and D70s get in the way. Do you really get US$500 more with the 20D? For 50% more price, we need more to get five stars.

That said, it's a close call all the way. In the consumer DSLR market, the 20D is the new current state-of-the-art (the D70s is a very close second, which is why that Value rating didn't hit five).


Initial Review: 10/5/05:
Minor finish tweaks: 2/24/06

Switch or Not?
So the big question is whether the 20D is good enough to convince a Nikon user to sell their equipment and switch to Canon. My answer: probably not.

That's not to say that the 20D isn't a very good camera. It is. Arguably better than a Nikon D70s in several ways. But to make a full switch from one brand to another (it goes the other way, too: I wouldn't recommend a Canon 10D user to get a Nikon D70s instead of a Digital Rebel or 20D, either) requires that the difference be clear, convincing, and likely unmatched.

Let's start with "clear." The two clear differences come in the 5 fps and 8mp traits, with perhaps the autofocus being another area (at least for bright light, off center use). While 5 fps sounds great in theory, in practice, it's difficult to follow action while mashing the shutter release down, because the 20D just doesn't have the short viewfinder blackout times the Canon 1DMarkII or the Nikon D2h have. That limits just how useful that 5 fps is. The 8mp gives you cropping flexiblity more than anything else, but not as much as you'd think (~500 pixels horizontally, 300 vertically). Thus, the "clear" differences aren't as dramatic as they at first look.

Which brings us to "convincing." I'm just not convinced that any of the primary differences between the 20D and D70s can't be overcome by a careful shooter. When you add in the fact that the D70's out-of-camera acuity is higher than that of the 20D, the 8mp difference starts to wilt a little more. Yes, there are differences; no, 95% of the market isn't going to be getting anything useful from those differences. Given the US$500 difference in price, it'll take more convincing for me to say switching is useful.

Then there's the "unmatched." At present, the 20D wins on any number of small points. It certainly has more wins than losses in any box score. But as with the Digital Rebel, Nikon's "response" is probably just around the corner. The D100 is due to be replaced in fall-2005, and the D100 is really the camera that goes up against the 20D (the D70 really matches against the Digital Rebel, so it's saying something that it holds up so well against a more expensive, better specified 20D). Is the 20D likely to stay unmatched at the Nikon end? My guess is no. Whether Nikon can top the 20D with the upcoming D200 is another story, but I certainly expect them to at least match it.

So, the bottom line is that, in the consumer realm, I see no reason to make a switch from Nikon to Canon (or vice versa). Conversely, I see no reason to avoid the Canon 20D, either. It's a fine camera that does what 90% of the market needs done. If you're starting from scratch in the DSLR world, you could do a lot worse than pick something other than the 20D.

At the high-end pro realm, the story is a bit different. A number of pro wildlife shooters have noted that the 20D has the second highest pixel density of any DSLR (the D2x is the highest as I write this). Because you can't always approach wildlife as close as you'd like, pixel density turns out to be an important issue. And US$1495 is a lot less than US$4995, so the 20D does indeed attract pros. Too bad about the focus inconsistency, though.

But again, at the consumer level, the story is much, much different. You won't go wrong being a Canon user or a Nikon user. The 20D is a very nice camera, as is the D70s. Personally, most amateur users would be better served by buying a D70s (or Digital Rebel) and using the money saved to buy another lens or a better tripod.

Postnote: with the introduction of the Nikon D200 and 30D the question reverses: switch from a 20D or 30D to a D200? My answer remains the same: for most consumers, I see no compelling reason to switch horses. The recent 30D update to the 20D just reinforces that. You can point out a specific thing or two that one camera has that the other doesn't, but unless that thing is something you require, don't get hung up on the "newer is better" marketing spiel that every camera company keeps trumpeting. Indeed, a 20D doesn't take worse pictures just because a D200 or a 30D was introduced.





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