In the history of digital photography, cameras have appeared occasionally that changed the whole game. Canon has done their share of innovation, certainly, and today they have brought a new, fresh approach to the concept of the HDSLR with the EOS 7D.

When HDSLR cameras first appeared, Nikon beat Canon to the market by a few months with the popularly priced D90. It shoots D-Movie mode at a maximum of 720p24—movie frame rate at the lower HD standard.

Canon's first HDSLR took no prisoners. The EOS 5D Mark II wasn't the first HDSLR on the market, but it instantly was the best. It shoots full HD images at 30 fps in 1080p format, making it completely compatible with the best HD broadcast standards. It shoots in Full Frame format with a sensor that is 24 x 36 mm big. In movie camera terms, it's more like a digital variant on a Vistavision camera. It misses a few things, though. It can not shoot in 24 fps, nor can it shoot in 720p mode at all. Your two movie choices are only 1080p30 and 480p30.

Within a few weeks of its appearance, 5DM2 customers were banging on Mr. Canon's head with a Big Need: "We Want Manual Control!" they screamed. And Canon delivered. A firmware update allowed HDSLR cinematographers to dial in any f-stop and shutter speed combination desired. We like companies that listen.

In the year since Nikon's D90 appeared, Nikon has followed it with the D300s, an HDSLR version of their great D300 DSLR, but the D300s still shoots the same frame rate and size of the D90. Who is listening, now?

During that same year, Canon brought out the Digital Rebel T1i (EOS 500D) which is an HDSLR that shoots 720p30 and an odd format of 1080p20. That last one is a brain-breaker. It's a non-standard format with 1920 x 1080 pixel frames, but only 20 frames per second. There is no practical use for it. While the frame rate is fine for casual amateur internet video, the size of the image screams Top Pro. It's a great looking image at a cheese-ball frame rate.

Oh, Canon, what are you going to do to fix that? Now we know.


Canon's EOS 7D is a camera that seems to have done nearly everything right. As a DSLR, it delivers an 18 megapixel still image from a new CMOS sensor and shoots in movie mode, too, delivering the holy grail of HD recording; 1080p30 shots of top-quality. But it doesn't stop there.

The 18 MP sensor certainly seems like the Big Deal one would point to first, but the thing that is on everybody's lips is that movie mode. Canon is no stranger to HD video, having produced some of the best HD gear in the world. Chances are, when you watch The Game on HDTV, you're looking through Canon glass. When you see HD documentary video, about 30% of the scenes you see are through Canon camcorders and/or optics. In short, their perspective on what makes a good HD image is aces.

The 7D's sensor is almost exactly the same size as the frame of 35mm movie film shown at your local multiplex cinema. When you shoot movies or stills with it, the same physics of depth-of field are in each frame. The CMOS chip has an active surface of 22.3 x 14.9 mm, a micro-hair slightly larger than Academy Aperture, but the stills it produces are 3:2 aspect, and HD movie files are 16:9 aspect. When movies are being captured, pixels are trimmed top and bottom, and on the camera monitor, this area is masked in transparent gray, allowing you to see, but not record, any detail in those parts of the shot.

Frame rates are several. You may shoot in 1080p30 for full HD professional recordings compatible with broadcast HDTV. Canon carefully tells you that this is actually 29.97 fps to be technically exactly correct for NTSC's odd "drop frame" recording frame rate.

You may elect to shoot at 1080p24. This is technically 23.976 fps to be compatible in time with NTSC playback of 24 fps movie film.

If you switch the camera to PAL compatibility, you can select 25 fps, and because the European designers were appalled with America's drop-frame delivery scheme back in the 1950s, they made sure their frame rate was exactly 25 per second.

It doesn't stop there. You can also shoot in the slightly smaller 720p format. The images look great on large HDTVs and are easier to sling around inside your computer. They also upload to YouTube and Vimeo easier. Surprise: 720p is 60 fps in NTSC mode and 50 fps in PAL, which opens up a different world of visual opportunities.

One of the Major Advantages of dedicated HD cameras is their "interlaced field" image structure. Instead of shooting progressive frames, they shoot fields—frames with every other scan line missing—for 60 or 50 motion updates per second. The next field fills in all the missing scan lines. This was worked out in the beginning of TV when CRT displays were the only way to make images. High field rates avoided perceptual flicker, and the 60/50 motion updates were an unintended side effect.

Canon has adopted that phenomenon as usable frames. Shoot in 720p60 or 720p50 and you can easily stretch scenes to 200% of their original running time for great looking slow motion. If you combine that with Final Cut Pro's Optical Flow motion interpolation, you can produce convincing ultra-slow motion in your final output.

In NTSC mode, your choices are 30, 24 or 60 fps . In PAL, 25, 24 or 50 fps.

But wait there's one more thing. If you wish, you can shoot in Standard Definition, 640 x 480 at 60/50 fps, too. On interlaced displays this looks like regular TV with extra-smooth movement.

Missing are options to shoot 720p in 24 fps, but given that the 1080p images look so incredibly good, the cries for that have dwindled to a low murmur. You can, after all, shoot in 1080 and re-render any movie files as 720 pixel tall scenes. 720 is exactly 2/3 of 1080.

Canon learned a lesson with customer feedback through the 5DM2. The 7D comes ready for manual right off the assembly line. HD movie modes may be shot with manual ISO, shutter speed and f-stop settings, giving the cinematographer a huge range of control.

Notes: Cinematographers are forever adding ND filters to their lenses to facilitate opening UP the f-stop in order to generate great looking selective focus. Blurred backgrounds are preferred, and even though ISO goes down to 100, that may preclude daylight scenes with a generous amount of motion blur while maintaining focus blur for many shots. In movies, blur is more often your friend than not. Close-ups don't like deep depth of field.

Still the One

As a still DSLR, the 7D is one of the best there ever has been. It creates a Large image that is 5184 x 3456 pixels big; 17,915,904 in all. Medium images are 8 MP and Small images are still 2592 x 1728 pixels for 4.5 MP images that retain more information than cameras with 6 MP imagers.

In Canon's own marketing speak, that Large image makes a picture about 17.3 x 25.9 inches at 200 ppi. Two things: After more than a decade of the "you need 300 dpi to be considered photographic," this standard has finally—finally!—been dropped for the more realistic 200 ppi figure, and at last we hear about how big a print that Large file is suitable for.

Of course, image quality is top drawer, as is Canon's usual practice. High ISO runs all the way up to 12,800 where noise is extreme. Think of stills up to about ISO 3200 and movies up to about ISO 1000 as being in the range of tolerable. Those smaller photosites are showing their limits. The ones in the 5DM2 are far quieter.

In fact, if you have an eye for printing, you can see that making a print from the 7D at 20 x 30 inches still places 170 camera pixels into every running inch of paper. For comparison, the cover of National Geographic is only 175 printing dots per running inch, and pictures really look photographic at any density from about 160 ppi on up, from inkjet printers.

Especially when the originals are as well defined as the 7D makes them. This camera frequently shows effectively single-pixel detail from optimum f-stop, stable images. Of course, it aliases fine detail for smooth shapes and photographic realism, as any camera should, but it's nice to know that the imaging system is operating at the top end of what is visually possible. The illustration at right shows what I'm calling single-pixel resolution.

Medium shots are exactly 75% of the Large ones, and those retain—as is customary for high-quality cameras, these days—far more than 75% of the image detail. Call it about 88% of what the Large frame delivers. Right there the file size ratio jumps down dramatically. Large files—the ones with maybe 12% more detail—at any compression setting, consume around twice as much JPEG storage space.

You must ask yourself: "Was that last meager slice of detail worth spending twice as much to store, archive and sling around the image?" I can understand the need for the ultimate file when the shot warrants it, but always?

Small files, at half size, still cover 2592 x 1728 pixels, big enough to be the master frames for time lapse sequences that become scaled to HD dimensions—or get transferred to movie film, for that matter. Small files are the absolute ne plus ultra in detail and easily cover 10 x 15 inch paper areas at 170 ppi. While their pixel map touts them as being only 4.5 MP, they really look about as good as 6 MP camera originals.

Compression Tax

Compression settings with Canon DSLRs are always Fine or Medium. There is no Basic. The Brazilian five-cruzeiros note detail here shows Fine, then rollover to see Medium, both sliced from the middle of a Large frame.

I can see a few minor moiré-associated details change from image to image, but I can't call either one superior to the other. The dot shows that the illustration has changed. Moral: Shoot with Medium compression and shoot more images. If there isn't a practical, repeatable obvious difference between them, then why pay the CF card data tax collecting things in Fine JPEG?

You can set the image up to be Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome, or any of three custom setups in which you have adjusted image parameters of Sharpening, Contrast, Saturation or Color Tone, which is a color refinement adjustment for skin tones, reddish to yellowish, not to be confused with the Hue adjustment experienced in other cameras. Monochrome mode facilitates the selection of internal color filters and printing tints.

RAW shots can be Large size, Medium or Small. When I say large, I mean super large. The full size RAW image is about 31 megabytes. There are no clever integral routines that can save you from this awful fate. You get just a hair over three shots for every 100 megabytes on your CF card. Medium RAW images are a tad kinder at about 22 megabytes each, and are sized differently from Medium JPEG images at 3888 x 2592 pixels for a 10 MP image. The Small RAW option packs them in at about 14.5 megabytes per shot.

How is it that Nikon can pack a 12 MP image into 11.4 megabytes, and Canon can't save a 4.5 MP image in less than 14? Part of it is because Nikon allows you to select a 12-bit depth instead of Canon's always-imposed 14 bits all the time. The data space savings are much greater than a shave and a haircut.

Shooting at ISO 12,800 with the 7D is photography at the grainy edge. But Canon has controlled the shading, detail and colorimetry of these images well, even into the exotic extremes. ISO 100, 200, 400 look very clean. At 800 the grain begins, but it's tolerable for most uses at 1600. By ISO 3200, we are getting into rough territory, and by 6400, we are in the gritty documentary realm.

When grain builds, its a good time to switch to monochrome. Tri-X this!

Our example is displayed 1:1 at all the marked ISOs.

The fundamental contrast stays pretty even. If you print a 4 x 6 image from ISO 3200, you can't see the grain, and you would have to study dark areas of the shot to detect any color noise. Movies should avoid ISOs above 800 whenever possible. But you can shoot those in gritty ISO 12,800, if you wish.

You can customize high ISO settings in three different strengths, but as should be expected, this softens detail. At the Strong setting and ISO 12,800, you might as well be shooting Small frames.

The examples here have no ISO noise reduction at all.

Of passing interest is that the highest ISO setting has no intermediates between 6400 and 12,800. Dunno why.

The Battle of the Brands

Canon continues to refine its menu system, but still holds onto its basic format. While you can reach a huge range of things within it, we think it is about time they took a good, hard look at the superior menu system of the Nikon cameras, just for inspiration.

Certainly my own lack of comfort with the 7D menus will fade in time, but Nikon's in-camera options, processes, customizations, range of choices and depth of functionality is really about 50% greater than what the 7D offers. That said, the functions and options on the 7D are usually the ones you will use 95% of the time.

Examples: Monochrome image tinting on the 7D is limited to four colors with no possible control over color intensity. Nikon gives you nine colors, each with seven levels of color intensity. When shooting movie scenes, this makes a Big Difference. Nikon shots can range from the most subtle to the most blatant. Canon shots are middle of the road, always.

Fluorescent WB settings consist of one, count it, one, option. What Canon calls White Fluorescent, whatever that is. Nikon, on the other hand, has seven fluorescent bulb formulas in their Fluoro WB option setting.

Nikon has features that Canon needs to think about. Nikon's in-camera Retouch features don't suck, avoiding cheesy FX results. Canon has nothing like it. Nikon has three levels of JPEG compression, and even their lowest quality setting is really quite presentable, even on lower-resolution master files. Canon only offers two compression settings, but both deliver excellent results.

Nikon's menu organization is easier to navigate since columns of options can be (on the D90) 41 line items tall, but Canon limits their items to only seven line items per page, often parking items next to others that have no logical relationship. For instance, why are still image size and movie image size in two different pages, eight pages apart? What part of IMAGE SIZE didn't they get?

The difference in philosophies for these two system approaches is widely different, yet somehow Canon dropped their fine all-control-wheel indexing several cameras back. My old 20D is easier to navigate than the 7D. The 7D has the same rapid-response control wheel, but all it does now—for all its quick operation—is select among nine items, maximum. Dang.

And yet, when you look at the 7D comparing it to the Nikon models, it immediately shows a more graceful design, a more hand-friendly shape, an exceptionally fine image, a higher pixel count and stunningly better movie modes.

Would the still camera features of the 7D have pulled me away from the Nikon D300s? Not a chance. That camera has intervalometer, richer, deeper custom image and operation settings, a much larger custom MyMenu function, saner menu ergonomics, internal retouch features, 51-point AF sensing, 1004 sensor matrix metering, time zone clock setting, up to nine-shot bracketing, and many more choices for RAW recording, but its movie mode is not as hot. It will teach you about movie shooting, but the 7D will deliver final pro results.

Both Nikon and Canon have much future catching up to each other to do, but the 7D, with all those itches I feel from it, still comes out on top of the D300s, and way, way out front of the D90.

To Canon's Great Benefit:

The 7D can wirelessly call out to Canon remote flash units via a wireless link using the new EX-series Speedlights.

Medium frames are a Full Eight Megapixels, and since they are reductions to 75% of the Large frames, they retain more information per pixel than the Large frames do. In practical reality they are about 13 MP in effectiveness. Medium RAW files are 10 MP.

RAW images can be Large or Small as well. The camera does an internal scaling that keeps detail as pristine as can be for the two smaller file sizes, and this lets you shoot super quality images in 18 MP, 10 MP and 4.5 MP, saving tons of file space. Medium RAW images take up only 69% of Large RAW files, and Small RAW files take up only 47% as much card space as the Large guys.

The AF point selection process is exceptionally versatile and quick to customize. Single point, Zone, Expansion from Single point or all 19 points can be easily selected as you shoot. This single feature alone makes up for a lot of other minor grumbles.

Meter evaluation is through a 63-zone matrix that Canon calls Evaluative Metering. Meter zones exactly coincide with AF points, making focus targeting and tracking real handy. Sure, it has Center Weighted, Partial (center 10%) and Spot meter options.

Lines on the playback monitor can show you six different aspect ratios as you shoot, making print aspect judgements possible—very handy for studio work.

High speed continuous shooting can be as high as 8 fps. It sounds like a machine gun.

A Silent Shooting mode is available, but reduces frame rate to about 7 fps.

A new BG-E7 battery grip doubles battery capacity and makes the camera look monster.

A monitor graphic Level and Horizon indicator is available for tripod and Live View modes. In Live View, it is somewhat transparent and smaller. If you allow, through button customization menu settings, the AF dots in the optical viewfinder can become your level gauge. It takes a while to get used to, but it keeps you horizontal and level within about 1/3 degree. Kewl.

Compression for moving images is H.264. Data rate is a maximum of about 6 megabytes per second. Get a fast, large card. And a fast, efficient, double layer DVD burner for archives. Those 9 GB of storage space will save only 25 minutes of original material. Oh, so that's why the images look so good.

No less than ten of the cameras exterior buttons may be customized to your preferences. After you've set up things, you can save the whole camera's preferences into three registers.

The optical viewfinder shows the whole frame. No crop.

A dedicated Q-button brings up a Quick menu that has most of the settings you would wish to frequently access (up to 14 of them). In a special "Creative Auto" exposure mode, the number of items is pared down to just five or six.

Movies are shot with mono internal mic sound, but add a stereo mic, and you get stereo audio. (I have, from the distant past, a stereo mic/earphone combo from Sony. It produces true binaural sound with the microphones sitting right in the ear, delivering absolutely phenomenal 3D audio to listeners who use headphones. The effect is stunning.) Audio level is automatic, but seems well-controlled.

It has a flash. Built-in. Not such a Wow until you compare that with the so-called pro models from both Canon and Nikon that do away with the handiness of a built-in fill light. This is a Big Thing with me and Canon delivers on the 7D this feature which is &%$#! absent on the $2700 5DM2. So there.

Stills can be taken IN THE MIDDLE OF A MOVIE SCENE! The movie will freeze+resume on playback at the point the still was shot, but hey, this makes for some interesting possibilities. The sound of the clicking camera will accompany the 1 sec freeze frame. It's a recording, but what the hey. Playback looks like you took a lot of trouble to make the shot a combination of moving and still images. You can shoot as many stills during the motion scene as you wish. Triggering stills can be achieved through a wired remote control. Even the TC-80N3 intervalometer will trip this. Remote record start/stop can be achieved with RC-1 or RC-5 infrared wireless Remote Controllers but only when the camera is placed in Self-Timer/Remote mode, and only after a 2-second delay.

Although the camera doesn't follow focus automatically during movie scenes, it can be focused using live image, facial recognition and fast 19-point AF before rolling the shot. During the shot, you may press the AF-On button to cause the camera to attempt a re-focus. You'll hear the lens on the cine soundtrack, and the lens focus will hunt in dim light, but it will eventually deliver a refocused image to the scene.

Camera buttons have been enlarged over those seen on prior models. Got gloves? This body is ready for you without feeling clunky in the least.

While prior Canon's had a dedicated click stop on the exposure mode dial for A-Dep, which attempted to provide automatic depth of field exposure structuring, we think they finally woke up to the factoid that somewhere between zero and none of Canon photographers ever used the feature. Now it is gone, but completely forgotten.

Hidden within the 7D are numerous tweaks to prior Canon features. We're still finding them by the hour.


The camera-top LCD has a nice backlight which draws about zero watts. How come it doesn't come on when you touch ANY button that affects the data there? I don't want a refrigerator to insist I throw a switch to turn the light on, either.

After shooting an image, it may be displayed on the camera back monitor, just like every other camera in the universe, but in order to zoom into the shot to inspect things, you must press the Playback button—then and only then can you press to zoom in buttons to touch the shot. Why? It's here. It's now. I want to start doing things with it instantly, like zoomin in, scrolling to previous images, shrinking it to see how it stacks up with other shots in a bracket, etc. What on Earth purpose is served by insisting I press the Playback button to access these features? But tell me, how do I really feel about it?

I think Canon has never trusted me with deletion. Canon always insist that we go through a multi-control dance to delete just one image. Press the Trash button. Scroll to OK. Press the Set button. Get it wrong—start over. On a Nikon, you press the trash once and it becomes the confirmation button for your deletion. Dumping an image is a simple Press/Press and the shot is gone. In all the years I've been using both Canon and Nikon cameras, the number of accidental deletions due to Nikon's rhythmic easy delete is probably not zero, but geez, the number of angry moments and lost shots due to Canon's arcane, time consuming deletion routine is not zero, either.

The 7D has bracketing. Three shots only. They cover a broad range, but why no five-shot or seven-shot brackets? The Nikon D300 has up to nine shots in a rapid-fire bracket, and that's a competitive edge.


The 7D is a camera made possible through the exposure scheme known as the Rolling Shutter. This technique pulls pixel data off the image chip in serial "scan line" order. First the top x rows of image are lifted off the image chip, then the next and next, and next, until the bottom of the chip has given up all its data.

Any camera movement up or down, left or right can introduce motion artifacts into the shot that may show on playback, and certainly WILL show if any software image stabilization is applied. I call this phenomenon the Earthquake Of Jello effect, and, alas, it is here in the 7D.

Shots made at 720p 60/50 fps are almost free of the effect, and long exposure times tend to mask the effect. The best way to avoid the phenomenon is to keep the camera at maximum stability all the time. Hand-held "shaky cam" shots show it the most.

Dedicated HD cameras avoid rolling shutters. The whole image is swept off the image chip during a brief instant of "blanking" between successive frames or fields. What HDSLR tech needs is blanking. It will come in time, but it's not here, yet.

On balance this camera is a major force for DSLR and HD photography. We give it an A+.


If you are looking for the "true" HDSLR—one that will actually produce both top-quality professional stills and video, here's your cam.

The still images can only be bested by full frame cameras, and only then by virtue of their larger photosites. Moving images are clean, beautiful, smooth and thoroughly ready for prime time. Keep in mind that this recommendation comes from a guy who has spent the last five years writing seven complex eBooks about the Nikon DSLRs and HDSLRs.

Is it perfect? No. It's just dang good. (I cleaned that up.)

We're ready for your close-up...


Unfinished business: Nomenclature department.

We introduced the term HDSLR back in 2008 to describe the DSLRs that shoot HD. Do NOT try to control this term with Copyright or Trademarking. I thought it up, and I released it into the world as a term of convenience for the whole field of cinephotography. It has already entered informal speech on the subject, and that's the way it was intended.

Now we are faced with a nomeclature dilemma. As will be seen in the upcoming HDSLR eBook that is flowing out of my fingertips, we need a good, solid, agreeable term for photographers who shoot with these cameras. Making them work optimally requires a different discipline set than both standard still photographers and cinematographers posess. Sure, there is a ton of overlap, but it's worth thinking about a specialty term for the job title.

How about

  • cinephotographer
  • cineographer
  • cinetographer
  • digitographer
  • hdographer
  • movographer
  • pictographer
  • sceneographer
  • xtographer
  • shotographer
  • stillvidographer
  • plextographer
  • screenographer
  • photocine (via Bobbi Lane)

Or perhaps a term not represented here.

Ideally, the term would avoid video in the title in favor of movie or cine reference, while emparting some sort of nod to the still camera roots of its technology and form factor. Please feel free to feed back any comments on the subject here.

A Coming eBook

HDSLR cameras are the hot topic in DSLRs these days, so we are creating a new form of eBook about them. The coming "HDSLR: 1 Billion Essential Movie Secrets" is trying to be born before Christmas '09. It already includes hundreds of items that will help you shoot better, edit more gracefully and end up with on-screen results you can be proud of.

Our two in-house HDSLRs have been pressed into extra innings bringing you a wide range of camera-born examples and computer based tricks, techniques and work-arounds. In the eBook, images spring right off the e-page as you read through it.

Unlike previous titles, this one is not camera-specific, so the focus is on the HDSLR genre, specifically the movie mode, not the cameras themselves, but oh, boy, is it packed.



© 2009 Peter iNova. All rights reserved. Do not reprint. Simply add a link to this page.