A couple of weeks ago I bought myself a new camera – a Canon 7D. I’ve been wanting one for a while, because I was increasingly hitting the limits of my 400D. Most of my work is low light, and the 400D just isn’t quite good enough. At lectures I’m regularly struggling to get sharp+properly-exposed shots – here’s an almost worst case example, from last year’s Daniel Dennett lecture:

Daniel Dennett lecture

There wasn’t much light on him1, and it was an evening lecture so there wasn’t anything ambient from the windows. The background is badly lit, and he’s wearing a black jacket. Thankfully he’s a fairly still speaker, so you can push the shutter speed up to 1/30s and still get sharp shots2, but even then I was way underexposed. I’ve had to brighten this 300% in post-production (the equivalent of shooting at 1/10s) just to get it to still-a-bit-murky. And if you click through to the larger version, you’ll see the noise this has created – the back of the laptop is a mess, the shadows are extremely grainy, the jacket is a black blob…It’s not a good shot. It’ll just about do for web stuff, but you’d struggle to print it.

Most jobs haven’t been that bad, but more often I end up with something like this, from a Peter Atkins lecture at Oxford Think Week:

Peter Atkins at Oxford Think Week

I’ve got the moment, but – again, click through – it’s blurry. The lighting meant I was at 1/25s, and that’s well into the blur-danger-zone3. I hate it when that happens. I’ve improved this a bit over the last year by practising holding the camera steady, and being ready for shots, but there’s only so much you can do. At a certain point you need either a new camera, or a new lens. In this case, I decided a camera was better value.

The 7D is much more sensitive than the 400D, and less noisy with it. For any given 400D setting, I can essentially quadruple the amount of light hitting the sensor, with no downside. In Daniel Dennett’s case the 1/30s shot would have been properly exposed. At Think Week I could have increased the shutter speed to 1/100s, which is difficult to blur unless you’ve spent all day on the caffeine. Here’s a 7D shot of the awesome Adrian Shine (skeptical expert on Loch Ness and the stories that surround it), at CFI’s Monsters vs. Aliens event:

Adrian Shine at Monsters vs. Aliens

It’s not a like-for-like comparison – he’s lit better, and the background is lighter. But I was taking shots at 1/80s, and I spent all my time worrying about blinking/poses (he was less still than Dr. Dennett). The exposure, or blurring the whole shot, just wasn’t an issue. This was very nice indeed. There are also differences in the quality of the noise – I find luminance noise easier on the eye than colour noise – but I’ll stop before I get too geeky. Basically: ever since I started using the 7D, my usable-photo hit rate is way up.

It lets me do other things, too – here’s a shot of Aimee I took on Monday:

Spinny Aimee

My 400D could have taken the shot, but it would have been much more work. Jane spun Aimee around for 6 seconds, and I held the camera between them and got 21 shots. Most were way blurry, but a couple came out sharp. The 400D doesn’t have that kind of frame rate, and sometimes you just need the raw power.

I’m slowly getting to grips with the 7D’s other advantages, too. The autofocus is fast, and apparently does a wonderful job of tracking moving objects – though I haven’t tried that yet. It can shoot HD video, too – I had a quick try with Aimee, again. So it should keep me going for a looooooooong time. At least until plenoptic cameras come out, anyway.

Given my need for low light, my other possible camera was a Canon 5D Mark II, which was another £300 but has a full frame sensor. Full frame sensors are a massive leap in low-light image quality, certainly far more than the 400D -> 7D. But that would have meant replacing a couple of lenses, and the prices would have spiralled out of feasibility. Thankfully my choice was made much easier by the 7D being a better camera in almost every other way – the autofocus, frame rate, processing speed…it’s just a more modern camera. It can also provide exposure data to a wireless flash, which is a killer feature for me. There’s no doubt Canon will soon release a dreamy 5D Mark III that’ll combine the best of the two, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

It took a while for me to make the decision. It’s the first thing I’ve ever bought on hire purchase (well, actually on a 12-month 0% interest credit card, as per the advice of moneysavingexpert.com, but same difference), and I’ll be paying for it for a year, but I think it’s worth it. I’m doing much more photographic work, and I think this will help tremendously. I just might have to skip a holiday this year, is all.

I do have to laugh at something, though. People get very, very silly about cameras, and reading reviews is occasionally irritating. A common refrain in comparison reviews I read was the build quality of the camera. The 7D is made of magnesium alloy; the 400D is made of plastic. The 400D, I’m told, feels like a child’s toy in comparison. Having now made the leap, I would like to confirm that this is bullshit. Plastic is fine. The 7D’s extra durability and weatherproofing is certainly nice, and it feels solid, but the material itself? Get over yourselves. My 400D survived a hell of a lot – rain, snow, constant bashings – and the 7D’s magnesium makes it twice as heavy…If I ever start espousing snobby opinions like this, please stage an intervention.

So I’m very happy with my new piece of kit. Unfortunately, the damn thing developed a fault this afternoon. Whenever I turn it off, all the settings reset – apart from the time/date. If it weren’t for that last fact, I’d assume it was the internal battery, but I’m a bit confused now. This might explain another slight annoyance to do with the screen sometimes not remembering its last setting, though, and it’d be nice to have that sorted. I’ve opened a ticket with Canon support, so hopefully that’ll be resolved quickly…

Update: Canon replied to say it needed servicing, or – since it’s new – replacing. Which was annoying. But then I realised what the problem was, and why I am an idiot. I hadn’t spotted that the control dial – where you set Automatic, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, Manual etc . – was set to a custom mode. The custom modes allow you to save a bunch of settings for, say, fast moving objects. So if  you unexpectedly need to photograph something moving quickly, you can just switch to Custom Mode 1 instead of trying to rapidly switch everything to an ideal configuration. So the whole point of the custom modes is that the settings are locked, and reset when the camera is powered down. Ho hum. Like I said: I am an idiot. The Canon helpdesk didn’t figure it out either, but I should have tried harder. Aaaaaanyway.

  1. ever since I’ve made sure to liaise with the lighting guys []
  2. with a 300mm lens this means jamming myself against a pillar and taking a lot of shots, but hey, that’s part of the fun []
  3. unless you’re at a very wide angle []