EOS 60D A great new feature spec, priced less than the 7D
I heard a story about someone asking for advice on an upgrade from a Canon EOS 400D. On being told that the 550D was a very significant advance, their response was that “it wasn’t a bigger camera” – and if they got an upgrade, it had to be a bigger one… There’s only one clearly visible groundbreaking feature the newly released 60D has that the smaller 550D lacks, and that is the rotating, tilting, swivelling, reversing rear-LCD screen. The other advances are not so obvious, but many will buy it simply because it is that bigger, familiar two-digit Canon body size.
The 60D has the same sensor as the 7D and 550D; a 1.6× factor CMOS with an ISO range from 100 to H (12,800), delivering 18 megapixels. It has the same HD video functions, including a wide choice of European, US and 'cinematic' standard frame rates at 1080p, 720p and SVGA. The still shooting rate is 5.3fps with a single Digic IV processor feeding SD, SDHC or SDXC cards. This falls neatly between the 3.7fps of the 550D (four-channel readout from the sensor, single processor, SD media) and the 8fps of the 7D (eight-channel readout, dual processor, Compactflash media). Shooting raw, the 60D achieves a burst of 16 frames versus nine for the 550D and only 15 for the 7D.
But there are other aspects of the 60D – technically an update to the 15-megapixel 50D – that leapfrog the 7D’s specification for a street price around £300 lower. For filmmakers, one of these features is so important it makes the 60D more viable than even the 5D Mk II – improvements to audio control. The onboard mono mic has a wind noise-reduction setting (needed, as it readily picks up wind noise) and the stereo mic socket benefits from a huge leap forward. The audio gain can be adjusted over 64 steps with a stereo level meter showing dB values including above-0 clipping. This is a first; no other digital SLR has such precise control of onboard sound level during filming. You are still told not to connect line sources to the camera, only microphones.
SD cards are considered a better choice than Compactflash for video, although the small door and single slot look a bit lost on a large camera body. Canon has incorporated Eye-Fi wireless control, including a screen display that shows camera activity when transmitting files. Eye-Fi cards are best set to transmit or upload JPEGs only, and to ignore raw files of this size. Here, Canon scores in a big way. There is no need to shoot JPEG alongside raw, as the camera has comprehensive onboard processing. Any raw file can be selected and converted to a chosen size and quality of JPEG with a whole range of parameters, from Auto Lighting to Picture Style.
The conversion engine is more fully featured than Nikon’s and, in experienced hands, will allow an image to be fine-tuned and saved without a laptop. The Eye-Fi card, if installed, can be set to see every new JPEG saved as you process them and to immediately transmit this to your server, router, or via a wireless access point to a range of web storage, sharing and publication sites. There is a carefully chosen combination of features that, as Eye-Fi develops popularity and services in the coming years, will prove to have foresight.
Getting the look
Canon’s DSLRs have always had bewildering levels of custom control, including Picture Styles fine-tuned on your computer and loaded back into the camera. The 60D adds a new layer of image control with Ambient Looks. Bear in mind you already have Picture Styles such as Faithful, Standard, Landscape, Portrait and Neutral, which can be fine-tuned.
To this, Ambient control adds qualities such as Warmth or Softness. Combined with further control of white balance, colour space, contrast, sharpness and then the provision of both Highlight Tone Priority and Auto Lighting Optimisation, I can’t begin to calculate the combinations possible.
Canon’s dedicated free Digital Photo Professional software can read all these settings from a raw file (if required) and replicate them, while simultaneously duplicating the lens vignetting, aberration and distortion correction, which can be enabled for in-camera JPEGs. And nearly all these custom adjustments are valid for video shooting as well – and this can be set up using auto exposure and ISO or under full manual control including ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
The additional features of the 60D mean it has more of a learning curve than the 7D or 550D. In the time I’ve had to review a camera of this calibre, it isn’t possible to encounter every situation where the custom setup and fine-tuning of output would save hours of post-processing work and create a unique look for the photographer. But it’s no problem to imagine how others will use the 60D.
Pair of images showing how the articulated screen can be used – with the 100mm macro lens, the picture with a bright sky area [top] was taken from below the subject at chest level aiming upwards. The picture with the darker background [above] was taken from above head height, viewing the composition from below on the screen while lifting the camera to be level with the butterfly. All illustrative pictures © David Kilpatrick.
Against these advanced features, you should consider the camera build. The 60D is heavier than the magnesium-body 7D, despite being the first to have a plastic skin and metal skeleton body in this series since the D60 of 2002. The construction is clearly a cost-saving measure as the 60D comes in at a fraction over £800 including VAT for the body only, at street price. The Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000 are its main competitors, as Sony hasn’t yet used the 16-megapixel sensor found in both these for a semi-pro model. Both have magnesium-alloy bodies, comprehensive weather sealing, and a correspondingly higher price tag.
The nine-zone autofocus in the 60D is the same as the 50D (launched in 2008), an all cross-type f/5.6 with a centre f/2.8 point, neatly placed above the 550D and not as complex as the 7D. As usual, I found wide area or fully automatic focus often hit the wrong target and simple centre spot focus was generally more predictable.
Did Canon need to omit a PC sync terminal? For the past five years or more, my cameras have either used dedicated flash systems or wirelessly triggered studio flash. I might want a terminal for special manual equipment or in case my Skyport battery dies, but it’s no great issue to use a hot shoe adapter. The mode dial has a central lock button that must be pressed before turning it to set to Auto, CA, P, Av, Tv, M or B, and a total of 15 positions, including a separate setting for video filming. This setting is at the opposite end of the click-stopped range from the Creative modes, and you can’t shoot movie footage without setting it. The dial doesn’t rotate continuously; past this setting is a stop. You must turn back to get to P (and so on). In comparison, the minimal mode dial of the 7D, without the clutter of consumer Scene modes such as Sports Action or Night Portrait, and the speed of the 550D dial without its click-stop lock, both have appeal.
Getting to movie shooting is slow compared to any DSLR that has a dedicated live view button and additional movie shutter release, instead of asking the live view button to double up. It’s an old-fashioned approach now, when most DSLRs give almost instant access to HD filming and instant return to your existing still shooting. But the viewfinder is now one of the best around in this class of camera: 96 percent view is close enough to 100 percent, and 0.95× magnification with a bright glass prism and well-corrected focusing screen at 22mm eye-point ensures comfort and clarity.
Swivel and tilt
The articulated rear screen is excellent, as is the large clear horizon level that can be displayed. Its sideways hinge makes it friendly for viewing from in front of the camera, unlike Nikon or Sony screens, which hang down below the body. It can easily be positioned for portrait format shots. It’s not surprising that Canon’s marketing hinges on this screen.
Yet something’s not quite right in the sensing of camera orientation and the screen position. Some shots taken at an angle upwards, as vertical compositions, ended up not rotated by the camera. Occasionally the screen view was upside down. Moving the screen a few degrees passed a point where it flipped to the correct way up, as on all such cameras. But I’ve rarely been confronted with an inverted image by another tilt-swivel screen. It doesn’t shut off if reversed to face the camera back, and live view or movie shooting does not end. You can be left with the screen active, and not visible, and the viewfinder blacked out, and even with movie filming continuing. Folding the screen away cancels live view or filming with most cameras, but not with the 60D. The camera has a good viewfinder information display and even better top plate LCD panel showing most of the essential settings, so there is no need to use the rear screen except for menu actions such as card formatting, or for image review and processing.
Compared to the 550D or the 7D – both of which I like – the 60D’s design now feels and looks old-fashioned, despite the advanced technology and extra features. The articulated screen does not change this; it just makes the 5D Mk II, 550D and 7D require an update. All cameras with live view and video benefit from a swivel and tilt screen. As to whether pro-market models in the 1D series would benefit, I’m not so sure, as the fixed rear screen is tougher and less vulnerable in hardworking situations.
The 60D sensor output – from the quality of its AA filter through to processing – matches the 7D rather than the 550D. I found results a touch soft, even with three excellent lenses (17mm f/4 TS-E, 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, and 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro). The pixels of the Canon sensor are packed around 12 percent more densely in linear terms than a 16-megapixel Nikon sensor, and in pixels per square millimetre, the Canon is more than 40 percent more densely populated. It’s easy to forget how much higher resolution the Canon sensor is, in these terms.
In-camera JPEG quality is hard to fault, while working from raw may require learning a few new defaults and settings to add punch to the fairly flat tones provided by a 14-bit raw conversion. It’s nothing new for Canon and the judicious use of curves and sharpness control in post-processing can add “pop”.
There is no absolute conclusion to draw about the 60D because, if you want that 64-step adjustment of stereo mic input with monitored dB clipping display, plus articulated screen and all the rest, it has no competition for HD movie shooting. The 60D appears to be priced perfectly but it will take some sales from both the 550D and the 7D.
The 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM proved, as expected, to be more accurate in focusing at 17mm than previous experiences with kit zooms at their wide end (15-85mm, 18-200mm, 18-135mm, 17-85mm). This is because it activates the central f/2.8 AF sensor. There is little advantage in this with long lenses; they focus perfectly well on all nine f/5.6 sensor points. Where the f/2.8 sensors show a big improvement is with very short focal lengths, which have too wide a latitude of focus confirmation on f/5.6 sensors.
I was able to compare this at 17mm and the 17mm f/4 TS-E tilt-shift lens, using manual focus confirmation, but the very short throw and lack of any focus scale at all on the TS-E made measurement difficult. Even with the f/2.8 lens, focus confirmation at a distance of 80cm was positive at all settings from 75cm to 95cm at 17mm. Use a 17-40mm L, with its maximum f/4 aperture, and the focus will confirm over an even greater range. AF is a rather unreliable lottery with any lens under 20mm. Having said this, at typical working apertures of around f/8, the 17-55mm lens proved as sharp as the 17mm TS-E, both limited by the sensor’s resolution and the anti-aliasing filter effect. Though the 17mm is made for full frame (an incredible shift lens, never before attempted for a 35mm format system), it’s a great PC lens for APS-C as well.
The 100mm macro proved less impressive; image stabilisation was not as effective, as expected, even at portrait and landscape distances, and with the 18-megapixel sensor there was a conflict between depth-of-field and image sharpness. The lens had to be around f/5.6 to have maximum bite without diffraction, but needed to be around f/16 for my macro tests. At this aperture it simply looked soft. On 10- or 12-megapixel APS-C Canons the same lens was sharp enough down to f/11, losing just a hint of edge at f/16. On full-frame 21 megapixels it’s still looking clean at f/16.
Only the 17-55mm f/2.8 was at its best on the 60D body. The 17mm TS-E was a bit wasted, all that angle of coverage not used – it deserves a full-]frame body. The 100mm macro is also far better on full frame, for a wider range of uses at all distances. All three lenses were excellent in their own right, but use with the 60D once again proved that lens choice with such a high resolution, small sensor DSLR matters far more than you might think.
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