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A Photographer's Review of the Canon EOS 10D Digital SLR

by Derrick Story
04/01/2003

The concept of digital photography is exciting. But in reality shooting with a typical digicam brings to surface a raft of frustrations: shutter lag is too long, images have too much noise, existing lens collections don't work, and those tiny optical viewfinders are just miserable. The early days of digital photography seem no different than every other emerging technology--promising, but exasperating.

When Canon started shipping the EOS 10D in March 2003, digital photography took a turn for the better. From the first grip of the magnesium body, this SLR feels right at home. Better yet, it shoots like a real camera. I'll delve deeper into the specs later, but to give you a sense of its capability, the EOS 10D has a 6-megapixel CMOS sensor, 3 frames per second (fps) "motor" drive with a shutter lag of only 190 milliseconds. It accepts the full line of EOS lenses and flash accessories, including Canon's excellent infrared wireless flash system. And the street price for this camera is less than $1,500 US. So you don't have to be a globe-trotting pro to afford the 10D. This camera brings high performance digital photography within reach of the advanced amateur.


Photo of camera from the front.
Photo of camera from the back.
From the front the Canon EOS 10D looks and feels like a real SLR. But the back of this camera exposes a digital soul containing a 6 megapixel CMOS sensor and CompactFlash memory. All photos by Derrick Story.

The Psychology of the SLR

Prior to the EOS 10D, the best values in advanced amateur digital photography were the highend "rangefinder" models such as the Olympus C5050, Canon G3, and the Nikon Coolpix 5000--all running between $650 to $1,000 US. These cameras feature terrific optics, big megapixel sensors, and an impressive list of useful features. I've tested these models and was impressed with the results.

The problem is they're not SLRs. Nothing matches the sensation of peering through a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) viewfinder and squeezing off a series of frames. Once you become immersed in the viewfinder, the entire noisy, distracting (and often ugly) world is eliminated from your perfectly-composed image viewed directly through the zoom lens.

Psychologically, it's comparable to enjoying a film in a darkened theater with surround sound, as opposed to watching a video on the family room TV with kids fighting on the couch. Very few things are as photographically satisfying as becoming totally focused on a subject entering the front of a big glass lens, reflecting off the mirror and projecting on to a laser-matte screen in the SLR viewfinder. You literally bond with this beautiful image in the camera.

That's not to say that rangefinder digicams don't have a place in the serious shooter's camera bag. Compactness and portability often increase the odds of having a camera in hand when something magical appears.

For years, Leica M rangefinders scratched this itch and have been used by great photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, who coined the term "the decisive moment." Today, cameras such as the Canon G3 with its rotating LCD viewfinder enable a portable style of photography that fits nicely in the creative shooters repertoire, as well as in the backpack. There is one major difference, however, between modern digital rangefinders and the classic Leica M that Bresson used. When Henri pressed the shutter to capture his decisive moment, the camera actually took the picture before the moment had passed...

Photo of Cory Doctorow.
This portrait of scifi writer Cory Doctorow was captured with a Canon G2 rangefinder with the wide angle adapter over the lens. I held the camera up over my head and pointed the lens downward toward Cory. The G2's rotating LCD monitor allowed me to comfortably frame the shot while holding the camera overhead. This shot would have been much more difficult with an SLR.

But shutter lag isn't the only reason why taking pictures with digital rangefinders isn't as satisfying as with SLRs. Undeniably, there's a emotional difference between these types of cameras. Holding a camera at arm's length and squinting at an LCD monitor in the bright sunlight feels much different than pressing the optical viewfinder against your face and getting lost in the image. And until recently, unless digital photographers had gobs of money to spend on pricey SLRs, they were denied this pleasurable experience in the digital world that they had enjoyed for years in the analog realm.

To some degree, the Nikon D100, Fuji S2 Pro, and the Canon EOS D60 brought digital SLR photography closer within the reach of the serious enthusiast. But none of those three cameras were "quite there yet" for various technical reasons. The Canon EOS 10D is the closest to date. So let's see why.

Digital Photography Pocket Guide

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Features that Matter for Traditional Shooters

This is not a comprehensive review of every nook and circuit of the EOS 10D, rather, a look at the features that really matter to traditional photographers who want a comparable experience with a digital camera. These are the aspects, that after the first few frames of shooting, have you thinking to yourself, "I'm finally home again."

Features That Will Frustrate Photographers

A reasonably priced state-of-the-art digital SLR isn't going to have everything traditional shooters expect to be included in a $1,500 camera. The 10D puts forth a good effort, but the wish list still has a couple items on it.


Shooting with the EOS 10D

One of the first things you'll notice, especially if you've been shooting with digital rangefinders lately, is that the Canon's LCD monitor is for reviewing pictures, not for taking them. It does have an excellent "Info" display that shows you the primary settings you've selected. But even that goes off once you touch the shutter release. This camera is designed for framing with the optical viewfinder.

You can set the LCD monitor, however, to display the picture right after you've recorded it. Even though I've used that function on other cameras, I've turned it off on the 10D. In all honesty, the 10D captures such good shots that I don't have to nervously review each one to feel confident during the shoot. If I do want to see the last frame, I simply press the review button and it appears right away.

Normally I have to wear my reading glasses when I shoot with digital cameras. They're needed mainly because I'm so dependent on the LCD monitor to frame the image, and all of those small-font settings (controlled by tiny buttons with even smaller labels) to program the camera. When I'm shooting with the 10D, the reading glasses stay in my pocket, except for when I want to examine pictures on the LCD. Otherwise, the diopter adjustment in the viewfinder enables me to easily read f-stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and flash status while I'm composing the picture. If you've shot with Canon before, and are used to working the thumbdial and exposure lock button, you'll feel right at home with the 10D.

Photo of Lilly.
The EOS 10D allows me to keep my eye in the viewfinder instead of fumbling with glasses trying to frame shots on a dim LCD monitor.

Focusing with this camera is pure joy. Mount one of Canon's Ultrasonic lenses, and marvel at how this camera quickly locks on to a subject. It doesn't have eye control focusing as with the Elan and the high end film cameras, but the 10D's 7-point focusing is very intelligent, and you can easily override it and set any single focusing point on the fly.

The 10D can focus in light as low as .5 EV without focus assist. If you want focus assist, then you pop open the built-in flash and it will emit enough light for the camera to lock on to the subject. Depending on how you have Custom Function #5 set, the flash with either go off when you make the exposure, or not fire at all. You make the call.

Surprising Features That Made Me Smile

Since you're not shelling out the really big bucks for the top of the line model, there are a few luxuries you'll have to live without. But not many. The EOS 10D costs about $6,500 less than Canon's flagship digi, the EOS 1Ds. Yet the 10D has lots of pro features that were a pleasant surprise for a camera in this price range. Here are my favorites:

Mac OS X Compatibility and Uploading to iPhoto

The EOS 10D delivers both good and bad news for Mac OS X users. The good news first--the EOS Solution CD, v5, includes OS X versions of the latest Canon applications: ImageBrowser 3.0, PhotoStitch 3.1, RemoteCapture 2.7, and File Viewer Utility 1.2. These apps run well and are still the best way to tap the immense amount of metadata recorded by the 10D. (Windows users have these apps plus a few additional goodies.)

Canon also includes Photoshop Elements 2.0 for Mac OS X (and Windows), a terrific image editor second only to Photoshop 7.0 (which costs bundles of money and isn't necessary for most shooters).

I was surprised however, that the 10D couldn't communicate with iPhoto 2.0 via the USB cable. The previous model, EOS D60, is on Apple's approved camera list. I figured that the 10D would automatically connect, but iPhoto couldn't see it.

I took the CompactFlash card out of the camera and used my PC Card adapter on the PowerBook. There was an odd delay, about 30 seconds, where the Mac was trying to figure out the information on the card. I couldn't do anything else during this time; all computer operations were halted. Then, as if the spell had been magically lifted, iPhoto launched, the PC Card appeared on my Desktop, and the media card was recognized by name, ready for uploading.

Screen shot.
When I put the 10D's CompactFlash card into a PC card adapter and inserted it into the TiBook, iPhoto could recognize it. But that wasn't the case using the USB cable connecting the camera to the computer.

I imported a batch of pictures and used the "Show Photo Info" command in iPhoto. The image metadata was there, including camera settings and ISO.

So for the moment, it seems that you'll need a media card reader to use the EOS 10D with iPhoto 2.0. Once the card and application recognize each other, things proceed normally. One feature that I was hoping Canon would include on this camera, USB storage device connectivity, still isn't there, despite the fact that Nikon and Olympus have been offering it for some time. If Canon were to go down that road, then drivers would become a non-issue. You plug in the camera, and it appears as a hard drive on your Desktop. It's that simple. I hope that Canon adds USB storage device capability to their cameras soon.

But other than the mysterious delay I experienced when I first inserted the PC card adapter into my TiBook, I haven't had any bumps in the road while moving images from the EOS 10D to the Mac. If I want to use FileViewer utility, I can. But for the most part, I just jam the CompactFlash card into the computer and let iPhoto take it from there.

Screen shot.
After uploading the images into iPhoto, everything seems to work normally, including the metadata display using the "Show Picture Info" command.

Is This the Camera for You?

That's the $1,500 question, isn't it? For many advanced amateurs and pros who already own Canon lenses, I think this might be the camera that firmly establishes them in digital photography. The EOS 10D combines true performance with excellent image resolution and the features that photographers want.

If you're a "wide-angle" shooter, however, you may want to wait just a bit longer before investing in a digital SLR, unless you have gobs of money for the EOS 1Ds, or if you already have a 16mm Canon wide angle in your camera bag. Even so, mount that 16mm on the 10D, and it's instantly narrowed to a 25.6mm lens. Decent, yes, but you probably didn't pay those premium dollars just to have a 25mm lens that you could otherwise purchase for a fourth the price. At this point in time, it's much more cost effective to put a wide angle converter on a high-end rangefinder digicam.

On the other hand, if you're a tele shooter, you'll think you've died and reached the afterlife. Your inexpensive 100 - 300mm tele is now a whopping 160 - 480mm monster lens, without any compromise in light transmission or performance. Nature and sports photographers take notice!

For long time photographers who've been ready to try digital, but didn't want to give up the exquisite SLR experience, the Canon EOS 10D is probably the camera they've been waiting for. It's a photographic tool that distinguishes itself regardless of the media it uses. And the fact that it's digital makes it all the better. I believe this is the start of a new era in photography.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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