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Canon unveils successor to the EOS 20D - Continued

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Canon EOS 30D (Photo courtesy Canon)

This section explores in greater detail some of what's new in the 30D, relative to the 20D it replaces.

The EOS 30D: a refined EOS 20D

As we noted on the previous page, the 30D is best described as a refined 20D; shooting with the camera should remain largely unchanged, with the exception of the welcome increase in burst depth and more minor tweaks such as the addition of a 3 fps Low-Speed Continuous shooting mode and the ability to change the ISO while looking through the viewfinder. And most characteristics of the photos captured by the 30D should also match the 20D, since the 8.19 million image pixel CMOS sensor, multi-layer low-pass optical filter and DIGIC II processing circuitry are unchanged (though the 30D offers new image-related settings that will change the way in-camera JPEGs can look). The majority of the differences between the 20D and 30D appear when configuring the camera or reviewing photos on its rear LCD monitor. Here's a rundown of key changes:

Revamped image review A 2.5-inch (diagonal), 230,000-pixel TFT rear LCD monitor, which is the same component found in the EOS 5D and  EOS-1D Mark II N, is the most obvious outward difference in the 30D. Our experience with the 20D's 1.8-inch (diagonal), 118,000-pixel rear LCD monitor is that it's well-tuned for assessment of image brightness and its contrast holds up well even in moderately-bright ambient light. But it has an extremely narrow viewing angle.

The larger display in Canon's newest digital SLRs, by comparison, have an extremely wide viewing angle and are reasonably well-tuned for brightness assessment, but tend to go too flat and too dark too soon as the ambient light increases. On balance, we prefer Canon's 2.5-inch rear LCD, because of the size and viewing angle, but it's not an improvement in every way over what Canon has done before.

Canon has implemented other changes that impact the review of photos, including:

  • With Quick Review enabled so that the rear LCD automatically displays a photo after it's taken, it's now possible to magnify and scroll about the photo (Custom Function C.Fn-17-1 must be set).

  • The shooting information screen now includes the file size, a user-selectable RGB or Brightness histogram and, optionally, the AF point(s) active when the photo was taken.

  • canon_30d_menu01.jpgA new image auto-rotation option will be welcomed by those who frequently shoot verticals. As before, it's possible to set the camera to automatically rotate verticals upright both on the rear LCD monitor and in browser software later. Or to disable automatic rotation, so that verticals are flopped on their side both in the camera and on the computer. The 30D adds a third option: auto-rotate verticals when viewed on the computer, but not in the camera. This is the only Canon digital SLR to offer this capability currently.

  • The Jump feature during image playback can now leap back and forth 10 pictures at a time, 100 pictures at a time or by the date shot.

The image review changes from the 20D to 30D mean that the newer model closely mirrors the EOS 5D's playback features.

New Picture Style menu Gone is the Parameters menu in favour of a new menu called Picture Style, which made its debut last fall in the EOS 5D and EOS-1D Mark II N. Picture Style brings the controls for Contrast, Color Saturation, Color Tone and Sharpness into one place, much like Parameters in the 20D, though with more flexibility and control. Each one of these options can be adjusted in 8 or 9 increments (up from 5 in the 20D) with both finer control (owing to the greater number of increments) and a wider range of adjustment. The first three options have a 9-increment scale made up of a middle [0] position and a +/-4 range of adjustment. The last, Sharpness, is an 8-increment scale, where [0] is on the far left and, when chosen, disables sharpening. There are 7 increments to the right of [0], each representing a higher level of sharpening.

Like the existing EOS models with Picture Style menus, the 30D has six Picture Style presets: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome. Each of the first five represents a different colour look (roughly analogous to a film type), and each can have its canned combination of Sharpness, Contrast, Color Saturation and Color Tone overridden. Monochome is, obviously, a black and white setting.

The Picture Style menu presets are (descriptions in brackets are from Canon-supplied information, our own characterization of each preset is just ahead):

  • Standard (Sharpness set to [3], Color Tone and Color Saturation adjusted for vivid overall colour; this preset is equivalent to the Parameter 1 option in the 20D)
  • Portrait (Sharpness set to [2], Color Tone and Color Saturation adjusted for natural skin tones)
  • Landscape (Sharpness set to [4], Color Tone and Color Saturation adjusted for vivid blues and greens)
  • Neutral (Sharpness set to [0], other settings equivalent to Standard/Color Matrix 1)
  • Faithful (Sharpness set to [0], colour rendering equivalent to Digital Photo Professional's Faithful option and is meant to produce colorimetrically accurate colour under 5200K lighting)
  • Monochrome (for this preset only, the four controls are Sharpness, Contrast, Filter Effect and Toning Effect; this preset is similar to the monochrome Parameter Set in the 20D)

Our experience with the colour Picture Styles to date is that Neutral is a really fine general purpose setting, Standard produces pleasantly beefier saturation and contrast (but beware of reds blocking up) and Landscape can work wonders on scenics that are lacking in colour variation. By comparison, Portrait's tendency to shift skin tones to a strong reddish pink (we're not sure which flavour of humanoid Canon had in mind when they developed this Picture Style), and the overall not-quite-right colour appearance of Faithful means we've yet to select either of them for real work. Still, three out of five viable colour Picture Style options ain't bad, so it's good to see Canon's latest approach to colour configuration make it into the 30D.

There are also three user-defined settings, which can be derived from one of the included presets, or new Picture Style files can be loaded into these settings in the camera (Canon has three such files - Nostalgia, Clear and Twilight - available for download). It's not possible for the end user to create Picture Styles for the 30D or any other Canon digital SLR.

But the photographer that will gain the most from the move to Picture Styles in the transition from the 20D to the 30D is the JPEG shooter. That's because a by-product of the move to Picture Styles is the long-overdue option of disabling in-camera sharpening. A 20D RAW CR2 processed through Canon's DPP software can be impressively detailed; shoot the same pic on JPEG and the combination of mild softening that occurs during in-camera processing and a so-so sharpening algorithm add up to a JPEG that doesn't contain nearly the level of detail captured by the camera.

We fully expect that an unsharpened JPEG emerging from a 30D, when properly sharpened in Photoshop, will be noticeably more detailed than a 20D JPEG (though the CR2+DPP route will almost certainly still lead to the most detailed file possible from an all-Canon workflow). Canon's midrange and entry-level digital SLRs, right back to the similarly-named D30, have always forced some amount of ho-hum quality JPEG sharpening; it's great to see that, with the 30D, Canon has dispensed with this detail-harming restriction.

Burst depth has more depth The 20D's JPEG burst depth hasn't tripped us up. While officially it's 23 frames for Large Fine, in practice it's anywhere from about 20 frames to well over 40, which for a 5 fps camera means a fair bit of shooting time. Switch to RAW or RAW+JPEG, however, and that camera's 6 frame hard limit has meant missed pictures when we've attempted to shoot action on either of these settings. In fact we learned early on with the 20D to just not dial in CR2 when we anticipate any sort of burst shooting. The 30D doesn't contain additional buffer memory, but through some clever reworking of how image data is juggled from the sensor through to the CompactFlash card, the burst depth has been increased to 30 Large Fine JPEG, 11 RAW and 9 RAW+JPEG. As with the 20D, the JPEG burst depth is an approximation, whereas the RAW and RAW+JPEG numbers are hard limits (or at least they represent how a preproduction 30D body behaved in our testing when set to 5 fps).

The jump from 6 to 11 CR2 files in succession should make capturing RAW nearly viable for what we shoot, so this is a most welcome change. But we would have liked to see Canon load up the camera with more RAM still, thereby ensuring a large enough RAW buffer that we wouldn't have to worry about burst depth at all.

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Canon EOS 30D - rear view (Photo courtesy Canon)

ISO can be set in the viewfinder The first time we shot a concert in available light with a digital camera we appreciated how necessary it is to be able to change ISO quickly as light levels shift from bright to non-existent. The 20D requires that you pull your eye away from the viewfinder to change the ISO; in the 30D, when holding down the ISO button, the ISO displays in the information beneath the viewfinder and updates as the Quick Control Dial is turned. This will make the changing of ISO on the fly a much-quicker operation.

ISO is incremented in 1/3 stops From ISO 100-1600, intervals are now in 1/3 stops. ISO 3200 is also selectable (when C.Fn-8-1 is set), but it's a full stop jump from ISO 1600, there are no increments in-between. Of all the Canon and Nikon digital SLRs we've ever used, the 20D produces the cleanest, most printable RAW and JPEG files at the upper ISO settings. Being able to choose settings such as ISO 1000 or 1250 when shooting at certain indoor venues only sweetens the deal, though ISO 2000 and 2500 would have been equally useful.

Automatic long exposure noise reduction With the new Auto option selected in C.Fn-4, the 30D will analyse the level of noise in exposures between 1 and 30 seconds and apply long exposure noise reduction only if it deems it would be beneficial to the picture. And unlike the 20D, the 30D doesn't force the photographer to wait an amount of time equal to the exposure time while it applies long exposure noise reduction. This is a great feature of 1-series Canon's, the 5D and now the 30D when shooting time exposures of events that unfold continuously, such as fireworks.

9999 photos per folder Another longstanding quirk of Canon's entry-level and midrange digital SLRs falls by the wayside in the 30D. Now, instead of the camera automatically creating a new folder every 100 frames, each folder can contain up to 9999 frames, the same as 1-series digital SLR models and the 5D. Choosing the manual reset option in the 30D creates a new folder, with file numbering starting at 0001 in that folder. User-customizable file names, an option in the EOS-1D Mark II N, as well as the manual folder selection function of several other Canon models, didn't make their way into the 30D.

More frames per charge Improved power management has increased the official frames-per-charge specification by 10% compared to the 20D, despite the fact the 30D's larger rear LCD is more power-hungry. The battery indicator is now the same as the 5D, which means it's stepped in four increments from fully-charged to depleted.

Spot metering The 20D has three ambient metering modes: Evaluative, Center-Weighted and 9% Partial. The 30D incorporates these three and adds one more: 3.5% Spot. The metering circle marking in the viewfinder has been shrunk, relative to the 20D, to properly represent the measurement area of the 30D's spot meter.

Refined multicontroller The 9-way multicontroller Canon introduced to its digital SLR lineup with the 20D is an interesting approach to the modern problem of providing a fast, easy way to manually change the active AF point when the autofocus system has more than about 5 points. We mostly like the multicontroller on the 20D, because its size and feel does make changing to an AF point that's up, down, left or right of centre a quick operation, even when wearing light gloves. But selecting an AF point on the diagonal is too hard, and it's also sometimes difficult to press the centre of the multicontroller to return the selected AF point to the middle. The 30D's multicontroller has been slightly reshaped, and the firmware that controls it has been altered, to address these operational concerns.

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Canon EOS 30D - top view (Photo courtesy Canon)

And more... Other 30D refinements include:

  • A drop in the camera startup time from a hardly noticeable 0.2 seconds to a nearly imperceptible 0.15 seconds.

  • User-selectable 5 fps (High-Speed Continuous) and 3 fps (Low-Speed Continuous) shooting modes. When set to High-Speed Continuous, an H appears next to the continuous shooting icon on the top LCD display. The 20D, by comparison, has a single shooting mode that operates at up to 5 fps.

  • Though the 9-point autofocus system and all aspects of its configuration and operation are the same as that of the 20D, the algorithm controlling autofocus in the 30D has been refined (though Canon has not revealed what has been addressed). The 20D's autofocus system is the most capable we've ever encountered in a midrange digital SLR; if you want better, you have to spend a lot more. We hope that Canon's tinkering with autofocus in the 30D only makes it a better performer than the already-capable 20D. Strangely, while many of the refinements in the 30D first appeared in the 5D last fall, the 30D did not get the 5D's 6 additional Assist AF points clustered around the centre.

  • Viewfinder information now includes a dedicated Flash Exposure Lock (FEL) indicator. The frames remaining counter is still a single digit, which means it will read "9" almost perpetually when shooting JPEGs, just like the 20D.

  • Camera error codes are now displayed on both the top LCD display and on the rear LCD monitor, with more information on what each error code means as well.

    canon_30d_menu03.jpg

  • PictBridge direct printing options have been expanded to include contact sheet printing, complete with file names, a 35mm film strip graphic along each of the 5 rows of 7 thumbnails and a 24mm x 36mm size for those thumbnails. The goal being to approximate the look of a traditional 35mm film contact sheet. There are two other new layouts - one with 20 thumbnails and up to 11 fields of EXIF data per thumbnail, and another that is comprised of a single image and EXIF data. There is also a Face Brightener option, plus new 4 x 8 inch, 8 x 10 inch and 10 x 12 inch print sizes. All of these new features come to life only when the camera is connected to a newer Canon PIXMA-series printer. The new Print/Share button on the back of the camera can also be used to initiate picture transfers over USB 2.0 to a computer.

DPP 2.1 headlines 30D software bundle

New versions of Canon software will be bundled with the camera. The software etched onto EOS Solution Disk 12 will include:

  • DPP 2.1 (Windows and Mac). In addition to being able to convert CR2 files from the 30D, v2.1 of Canon's flagship RAW conversion software adds user-configurable noise reduction in the Edit Image window, enhanced single image and contact sheet printing and a Tone Curve Assist function that automatically adjusts the tone on poorly-exposed photos. Also, in what will be a pleasant surprise for veteran Canon digital shooters, DPP 2.1 will be able to process RAW files from the EOS D2000 and EOS D6000 (after these cameras' RAW .TIFs have been converted to CR2s with an included utility). The D2000 and Japanese market-only D6000, which were introduced in 1998, are the last digital SLRs Canon co-developed with Kodak before going their own way with the D30 two years later. DPP 2.1 isn't expected to be able to process files from the twins of the D2000 and D6000, the Kodak DCS 520 and DCS 560, or the Nikon-bodied equivalents, the DCS 620 and DCS 660. It's also not known whether this version of DPP will be a Universal Binary on the Mac, though the timing of its release makes it unlikely.

  • EOS Utility 1.0 (Windows and Mac). No, not EOS Viewer Utility, but EOS Utility, a new application emerging into the EOS digital SLR line with the 30D. EOS Utility integrates the functions of EOS Capture and CameraWindow, plus adds a few twists of its own. A Canon technical document describes the new software this way: "It is the gateway that allows users to download images to a computer, adjust camera settings, shoot photos remotely, monitor folders when the WFT-E1A wireless transmitter is used and even see images as they are shot.  It supports automatic image transfer using the Print/Share button on the EOS 30D, as well as selectable linked display in Digital Photo Professional and ZoomBrowser/ImageBrowser."

  • ZoomBrowser EX 5.6 (Windows)/ImageBrowser 5.6 (Mac). The main or only change is support for the 30D, including the processing of its RAW files through companion software RAW Image Task 2.3.

  • Easy-PhotoPrint Pro (Windows and Mac). This software for driving Canon printers enables printing of RAW files without first converting them and also can transfer data directly to a supported printer at more than the 8-bits-per-colour limit of today's Mac and Windows operating systems.

  • PhotoStitch 3.1 (Windows and Mac)

  • PTP WIA Driver/PTP TWAIN Driver (Windows)

Updaters for earlier versions of these applications will be posted for current Canon digital SLR owners on Canon's download sites, though a date for that has not been set.

What's Missing?

We like the 20D. A lot. Not because it's the ultimate digital SLR but because its strengths have been well-matched to our shooting needs. So, a 30D that builds on the capabilities of its predecessor does generate a measure of excitement around the Little Guy Media offices here. But we think that Canon could have thrown in a bit more in its replacement for the 1.5-year-old 20D, features that would add real benefit without seriously inflating the price. A greater increase in RAW and RAW+JPEG burst depth, a larger viewfinder image and quicker access to mirror lockup would have been welcome, as would enhancements to the use of Canon Speedlites. Speedlite-related changes we would have liked to see include the ability to set E-TTL II flash metering to Evaluative always (this is a critical advancement required by those who choose to always use AI Servo combined with rear-button focus). Plus, the functions of the ST-E2 wireless flash transmitter built into the camera itself would be fantastic.

The ability to configure and fire multiple Nikon Speedlights is one of the niftiest capabilities of the Nikon D200. In fact, given the likelihood that prospective purchasers of a midrange digital SLR, at least those not locked into a system already, will be directly comparing Nikon's latest digital SLR to the 30D, we wonder if Canon has done enough in refreshing the 20D to counter the siren call of the D200.

Don't take this as a recommendation of the D200 over the 30D. For one, we've only used a preproduction 30D, and then only briefly. More importantly, we've shot the D200 and 20D side-by-side for available light basketball over several weekends this winter, and the 20D is by far the better camera for this purpose. Not only were the ISO 800 through ISO 3200 frames massively cleaner and more usable, the percentage of in-focus frames was signficantly higher. In fact, we've ruled out using the D200 for this sort of assigment again. So, we don't think Nikon has in the D200 a camera that's a clear winner over the upcoming 30D by any means.

But, the D200's higher pixel count, greater burst depth, way-cool wireless flash system support, large viewfinder image, more expansive configuration options, reasonably smooth shutter and really quite nice feel in the hand may make it a more compelling offering to those comparing the two at their local camera store, despite the fact the Nikon will be a few hundred dollars more. For much of what we shoot, the 20D is a better choice than the D200, so it's likely the 30D will be as well. But for many shooters, those who can stick to lower ISO settings and don't shoot much action, the D200 may seem like the more appealing option.

The 30D is almost certainly going to be a fine camera in its own right, but it doesn't leapfrog the specifications of the competition in the way we've become accustomed from the supercharged Canon of recent times. It will be interesting to see how it fares against Nikon's hot-selling D200 as a result.

Availability

The EOS 30D is slated to ship in mid-March 2006 worldwide at an expected street price of US$1399. Chuck Westfall, Director/Media & Customer Relationship at Canon USA, says Canon has no plans at the moment to produce a special version of the 30D for astrophotography, as they did with the 20D and its star-gazing twin the 20Da.

The 20D will continue to be sold for some time after the ship date of the 30D, in the U.S. and perhaps other markets also. The typical street price of the 20D in the U.S. has already dropped well below the expected street price of the 30D, making the older model something of a bargain right now.

Links

Thanks to Chuck Westfall, Deb Szajngarten and Geoff Coalter for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

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