My continuing love affair.......with the Canon 7D. Enhanced by the 60mm efs and a few LED lights

I'm taking a risk today.  I'm posting from my laptop and the screen isn't nearly as well calibrated as the monitor in my office.  I'll assume this looks like my model, Selena, and that the flesh tones are somewhere in the ballpark.  Apologies if it's bright purple.....

I don't have a scientific method of measuring the different ways in which various cameras handle color, I just know what colors I like to see and always how I like the contrast of the files rendered.  Now I'll head into heretical territory.  I recently did a big job for an ad agency.  24 portraits in two days.  On site.  I used two cameras.  My main camera was a Canon 5Dmk2 with a 100mm f2 lens tacked onto the front.  The other camera was my old Kodak DSLR/n with an even older Nikon 135mm f2.8 on the business end.  The exercise went like this:  Shoot the bulk of the frames with the Canon camera and, when I felt like I had what I wanted, pull up the Kodak and shoot an additional ten frames.  All the frames were shot under the same lights,  Profoto monolights in the 600 w/s and 300 w/s varieties.  I used a gray Lastolite target and did a custom white balance for each of the cameras.  I shot both of them in RAW.  I processed both sets of files in Lightroom 3.0

And what to my wondering eyes did appear?  Softer, smoother, more accurate tonalities and colors out of the Kodak camera.  Much easier to post process into pleasing files.  And whether it was a different "shoulder/toe" curve parameter or just more dynamic range, the Kodak beat the snot out of the Canon 5d2 in terms of holding juicy detail in slight overexposures.  Now, if I really dig in and spend the time I can get the two cameras to look a lot a like but when I show the files as 12 by 18 inch prints my art director friends choose the Kodak prints every time.  Every time.  The Kodak came onto the market in 2004.  In camera years that's like a decade ago.  The Canon is barely 18 months old.  Amazing.

In it's defense the Canon 5d2 has great detail and for most things, very decent color.  But it was enough to shake my nascent confidence in Canon's supposed supremacy as a portrait camera.  So I was expecting the 7D from Canon to be no great shakes.  But I was wrong.  When I go thru the same process and do the same white balances with the 7D it creates files that, while not quite as detailed as the 5d2, are much more pleasing in the eyes of this portrait photographer.  And I'm still trying to figure out why that is.  It's a newer sensor but not by much.  They have the same Digic 4 processors.  And the lenses are the same.  But I guess it's one of those things I'll never have a solid metric for because I'm pretty sure the guys at Canon don't want to get into a dissing war between their various cameras.

Suffice it to say that I started shooting with the 7D more and more.  That moved me to buy an interesting lens, against my better judgement.  It's the 60mm macro, EFS.  EFS means that it only covers the optical circle of the Canon cropped frame cameras.  Won't even fit on the front of a 5D2.  But it just seemed like the perfect portrait focal length for the 7D and other cropped sensor cameras.  It's nice and small and fits on the body well.  Not too front heavy.  And it opens up to 2.8.  Here's a photo sample from last week:
It's shot at 3.2 and some slow shutter speed but it looks good and handles well.  The combination works for a lot of the faster, candid portraits I sometimes do and it doubles as a macro rig when I need to get close.  The other two shots in this blog were done with the 70-200mm f2 (non-IS) which I mentioned recently.  It's an incredibly good lens and, if someone handed me $2400 and asked me to buy myself another long zoom I'd pass right by the new 2.8 type two, snap up another $600 f4 and stick the rest into something else.

In a previous review I wrote at length about the handling of the 7D and the responsiveness of the auto focus but my recent romance with LED panels has caused me to think more about the color handling characteristics of various camera models instead of the more common threads of discussion which tend to center around resolution and dynamic range.  I've found that both the 7D and the new 60D are much better in AWB than any other Canon camera I've had the chance to handle.  Much better.  And when I'm in the studio shooting under the non-continuous spectrum of my wacky LED lights I find that the cameras, when left to their own devices, hit the proper white balance right off the mark, unlike the 5d2.  If you throw the Kodak I mentioned into the ring you'd have the opposite of the AWB Bell Curve.  In the absence of a custom white balance shooting with the Kodak is like shooting thru a kaleidoscope.

So I did a little reading to see what I could find out.  Here's the factoid that I'm hanging on to:  Both the 7D and the 60D make use of Canon's Intelligent Focus Color Luminosity metering system.  It's part of the autofocus system but it uses color sensors to more effectively understand what's in the  frame.  It's only a suspicion on my part but I believe that this new measurement tool is also somehow tied into the overall camera white balance tools and this gives the newer cameras an edge over the other cameras in the system that don't share this technology.

Let's talk about flash for a moment.  I know a lot of wedding photographers swear by their 5dmk2's and I can understand why.  It's a good camera with a sensor that's capable of capturing a lot of detail.  But when it comes to flash and autofocus in dimly lit venues I can't see why these photographers don't rush to pull the 7D out of their bags.  The flash performance is a full generation ahead of the 5d2.  The autofocus lock on is two generations better and probably on par with the system in the 1Dmk4.  The flash makes use of the same IFCL metering system that I talked about above and in combination with the flash exposure lock button flash becomes as easy as shooting Nikon.

I put the camera and 580 ex2 flash thru their paces in the dimly lit ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel last thurs. night.  Legendary attorney, Joe Jamail, took the podium in a crowded ballroom to give a speech about UT's president, Dr. Bill Powers.  Before he launched into his speech he squinted at the spotllights illuminating the small stage and asked, "Can you turn those darned things down?"  They did.  And it dropped the overall illumination a lot.  Even though Mr. Jamail was in a dark suit and the stage was backed with black curtains the camera/flash combination did a great job nailing the exposure using the FEL spot pre-metering and locking in the settings.  I try to take only a few flash shots because, no matter how discreet you try to be, it still gets annoying.  I switch over to a preset custom banks which changes my settings to 2800 K color temperature, ISO 3200, spot metering and "Camera Neutral" color setting.  And I will say that, with a little noise reduction edged in, the camera performs quite well at what would have been extreme nose bleed territory for a cropped frame camera only a year ago.......

So where does this new found appreciation put me in terms of grabbing cameras for assignment?  Well, if resolution, sharpness and final reproduction size are all critical my choice will be the 5D2, hands down.  If I have to get the tiniest slice of focus and put everything else out of focus I'll also grab for the same camera.  But if I can shoot under 1600 ISO, need fast AF, need good out of camera color balance and good white balance, and if handling is critical it's the 7D all the way.  With my 20,  my new 35 f2 and the 60mm macro EFS I've got a nice, small and light "classic" photojournalist's set up that doesn't break the bank.  Throw in a couple of wide ranging zooms like the 15-85 and the 70-200 f4 and a 60D as a back up body and I have system I'd feel comfortable with on a very large portion of my jobs.

Thank the photo dieties,  they all take the same batteries.  Just a few random observations from a week of daily shooting....

Lit with a single LED panel blasted (ha, ha) through a Chimera diffusion scrim.

the holidays are upon us.  I humbly submit that a good book about photography will be most welcome by the photographers on your list.  Here are a few suggestions:






Paul Feng said...

I find observations like this from experienced guys like you very interesting. In part, that's because I'm "color blind," so have little ability to appreciate subtle (and sometimes less-than-subtle) distinctions in color.

There are, of course, many variables involved, but it occurred to me that the RGB (actually, RGGB) color filters in front of the pixels of the sensor could have something to do with it.

Anyhow, I'm another happy 7D user, though mainly by dumb luck, having upgraded to Canon's top APS-C crop body each time since the 10D. But I may just sit out the successor to the 7D (no really, I'm serious this time) - they got so many things right in this one, I'm a pretty happy camper.

John Krumm said...

Colors look good so your laptop must be okay. You almost make me want the 7D, except that I went crazy and bought the E5, my super Pen, which I really like.

Doug said...

Just to be a smartass...get a D3s and all but your resolutions problems will be solved :-)

In seriousness though. An interesting exercise last weekend at a wedding.

Me: D3s 70-200 SB-900
Eric: 5D2 70-200 580EX2

Shutter 1/200 ISO (1600) white balance set to the same in Kevin F/2.8 on both. 12 ft or so white ceiling.

To make the same exposures with the flashes, mine was set to -1/3, Eric's to +1. When he set his to -1/3 the frames were unusably dark. I can't explain this other than to suggest it's a metering issue, but I was definitely wowed.

neopavlik said...

Any interest in trying the 7D vs. the original 5D for a portrait challenge ?

Pretty sitter, she reminds me of Cassidy Freeman from Smallville.

Ira said...

Regarding the differences you're seeing between the 5d and 7d, I wonder if it might not be something in the way that Lightroom is rendering the raw files? Do you see similar differences if you compare out-of-camera jpegs? My understanding is that the Lightroom team customizes their profiles for each specific camera but I don't know the details of how they go about that.

kirk tuck said...

Ira, Same with out of camera Jpegs. In fact, I even see the difference when using Canon DPP software for conversions. I'll get it figured out eventually.....I hope.

Poagao said...

I agree the 7D is a fine camera, but "light" it ain't. It weighs even more than the 5DII and is nearly as large.

Anonymous said...


I check in frequently for your current reflections on the state of the art hardware. Obviously the Canon shooters are getting all the love these days after your brief but very exciting fling with the Olympus products (that was a wild ride by the way and a real thrill to see what the bastard cousin of the big names could do in capable hands...when are you switching to Pentax?;).
What I do want to know (or maybe I don't) is how much of a difference are we really talking? 7D, 5D Mk II, Olympus EPL-1...
I wonder if in your writing something down in comparison, even if you qualify it as being slight or small, that it tends to overstate how much of a real difference there actually is. That apart from professional scrutiny the level of technical competence is hair splittingly high. I mean really.
Keep throwing the ol'Kodak wild card in there too. Love that. I know of one behind glass here locally. I'm sketching the heist to obtain it right now. Your description of the luscious files and incomparable tonality more than one can bear.

Thanks as always for a great read.


Ron said...

Kirk, glad to hear you are liking the 7D more and more - it is still my favorite camera body for many reasons, even more so than the 5DM2.

Up in the middle of your post you refer to using your 70-200 f2 lens - guessing you meant to say f4.

The LED lights are looking pretty interesting - thanks for breaking ground on those for the rest of us.


Juha Ylitalo said...

Three days ago, you were telling how cheap and wonderful the Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 CM Macro is and now you are using Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro?
Interesting ...

Dennis Elam said...

What happened to the Olympus phase you went through? You seemed to really like the Pen, aka the new poor guy Leica, but just as quickly you seem to have gone Canon, like in the above shot, a few weeks back I gathered you would have used a Pen, 'oh the joy of light weight and simplicity'

what happened?
Dennis Elam

kirk tuck said...

Juha, You are allowed to have both. Just as I will tell you that the 60D is nearly as wonderful as the 7D but at a lower price. I have both because often we'll shoot events where it makes sense to have two cameras with a different focal length on both. I have the 50 macro because it's a great 50 for the 5d2. I have the 60 because it's a great portrait lens for the 7D. Really, you are allowed to own and appreciate as many lenses as you'd like.

kirk tuck said...

Dennis, there seems to be an undercurrent of sentiment that says, "You must mate with one camera system for life...." And we all did that in the film days. If you shot Nikon you shot Nikon. But you could always get newer and better film so no one really leapfrogged ahead in any category that defined image quality. Now new sensors are the new film and we keep getting newer and better film. And if you used to be a heavy film user the new body every once in a while is a much lower cost than buying film and processing.

That being said I still have and shoot with, two EP-2's and EPL and at least a half dozen lenses. But I've written about that system at length and don't have a lot of new stuff to add. When I shoot some new stuff I'll post it.

But change and flexibility are more interesting than stasis and routine and the feedback I get indicates that people are interested in new stuff. So am I. Don't be surprised when the Leica S2 or the new Pentax MF get some inches of copy. It's about time to re-examine that niche for me...

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,
I've been enjoying your blog for several months, and I am glad to have found it. As an educator, I commend your explorations. You are teaching people important lessons about practicing, experimenting, finding new ways to use tools, etc. Thoughtful, dedicated practice in the craft is the overarching theme of your blog.

On a side note related to your Kodak experiment, I'd be interested to see what art directors would choose, if you threw in some pics from the EPL1 + zeiss 50mm (or perhaps the micro43 PanaLeica 45mm macro).


kirk tuck said...

Aaron brought up a very, very interesting question and it's one I go back and forth on all the time. In 2006, 2007 and 2008 I reviewed pretty much all the Medium Format digital cameras on the market for Studio Photography Magazine. At the time the state of the art was around 40 megapixels and the Phase One and the Leaf AFi7 were neck and neck for quality and resolution.

So here's the question: "You talk about all different kinds of cameras but how much difference is there, really?"

And it's a brilliant question. Let me try to answer it.

Here's the simplest answer: If you don't need to print bigger than the native file size of a camera and don't need really high ISO's then just about any camera will look great to most people right up to the biggest, non interpolated print size. If 7 by 10 inches at 300 dpi is a sweet spot for you and most of your shooting is done in controlled or bright light, then you will be very happy with a great 6 megapixel camera. If I'm shooting a swim meet for my son's Summer league team I know we'll be working in bright sun and the final use will be as a photo in a slide show projected through an LCD projector with less than 1280 rez on the longest side. My old Kodak DCS 760 will handle that in a heart beat. Magnificently.

The flip side of the equation is when you work for advertising agency clients who work large, need to be able to crop and still have lots and lots of res. They are the reason I bought the 5d2 and flirt with digital cameras, renting them as needed.

Then there's the color palette issue. Every camera gives you a file that has a different color balance and curve. Sure, with enough work you might be able to use PhotoShop to make all of them look pretty much the same. Sometimes I like jpegs and I nearly always hate sitting around playing with files on the computer so these differences between cameras have meaning for me.

If I shot weddings every weekend there's no doubt in my mind that I'd have a pair of Nikon D3s's or a pair of Canon 1Dmk4's. They do high ISO better than anything else. But for day to day stuff? Really not necessary.

I have some Olympus Pen equipment and I love it because it's so stealthy. No one tags you as a professional photographer so you can shoot just about anywhere and with abandon. And if I like my print sizes to something like 8x12 or 12 by 18 those cameras do a very convincing job. In fact, again, in good light or with studio light I could do many of the jobs I do with them alone.

If I shot a Pentax K5, an Olympus e5 or Pen EPL, a Canon 7d or a Nikon D300s at ISO 200 and shot the way I like to shoot, in open shade, in well lit interiors (because who cares about low light capability if the light is ugly??????) and I made 8 by 12 inch prints you would be hard pressed to tell them apart. After a while you might recognize their color signatures or the way they handle tonal curves but it wouldn't be a matter of better or worse, only different.

Hope this answers the question. It's also why I have more than one camera....

Anonymous said...

I agree. While most image quality tests spend a lot of time looking at resolution and high ISO performance, the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in metering (exposure), white balance and color palette are what matter most and make a bigger difference in the final image. It could be said that exposure and white balance are the photographer's job and not the camera's (while resolution and high ISO noise are inherent to the camera and there's not much the photographer can do about it), but being realistic I think that photographers have to rely on the camera's metering system, white balance system and default color palette quite some many times. And a capable camera in those areas will give you much better results than an inconsistent camera.

Not to mention if you're shooting JPGs (which is a very good option in many cases).

Anonymous said...

I think you explain things very well. People always want a final answer and, as you've pointed out, there's not always one to be had. Everything is a compromise. Each day you get up and decide which compromise to make.

The Photography Indonesia said...

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