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

by Derrick Story

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.

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."

  • SLR-like shooting experience--Outstanding laser-matte focusing screen,, 95 percent frame coverage through the viewfinder, 3 fps motor drive, and 7 point autofocusing (auto or user-selectable) put this camera on equal footing with Canon's film-based offerings.

    Nasturtium closeup.
    Using a Canon 28 - 135mm USM Image Stabilizer lens on the EOS 10D, I was able to hand hold this shot in low light without a tripod (exposure 1/20th of a second). The 28 - 135mm has been a favorite film camera lens for a long time, and now I get to use it for digital photography too.

  • ISO speed ranges from 100 to 3200--It's not just that you now have a full range of "film" speeds available, it's also that the quality is good at those settings. At ISO 100 - 400 noise control is excellent, very good at 800, good at 1600, and acceptable at 3200.

  • Kelvin-selectable white balance--You can adjust color balance from 2,800° to 10,000° K in 100-step increments. This is like having a whole briefcase of color correction filters built right into the camera. Plus, there's no light loss due to filter density. And if that isn't impressive enough, there's even white balance bracketing so you can select the best color balance option later while editing on the computer.

  • Long lasting battery power--Real cameras don't run out of juice after a half day of shooting. The improved electronics of the 10D enable a battery life of 650 frames per charge of the Battery Pack BP-511 (without using the built-in flash). If that battery model number sounds familiar, it's the same battery Canon uses in the G-series of rangefinders. So if you own a G-series camera, you already have at least one backup for the 10D.

  • Accurate metering--The 10D uses a 35-zone evaluative metering system that's linked to all of the focusing points. Since accurate metering is so important in tough lighting conditions, this camera now enables you to tackle any kind of shooting. The metering range is EV 1.0 to EV 20.

  • Focal-plane shutter--With a range of speeds from 30 seconds to 1/4000th of a second, you have a broad selection to choose from in either dim lighting or bright. Flash synch is a very decent 1/200th of a second, which means that you can use fill flash outdoors.

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.

  • Non-35mm equivalent focal lengths--The 22.7 x 15.1 mm CMOS sensor is smaller than the 35 x 24 mm film size that Canon lenses were originally designed for. So your 28 - 135mm USM zoom lens is actually a 44.8 - 216mm lens on the 10D. (To calculate your specific lenses, just multiply the focal lengths by a factor of 1.6.) The good news that your old 70 -210mm zoom is now a nature photography ready 112 - 336mm telephoto. Bottom line, wide angle fans might want to start saving for Canon's new 17 - 40mm f-4 zoom lens to get the coverage they crave with this camera.

    Photo of SF Fire Department building.
    Wide angle photography isn't easy with the EOS 10D. Unless you have a 16, 17, or 20mm lens, you'll have to go across the street for any type of architecture shot. This image was recorded with a 28 - 135mm zoom on the EOS 10D.

  • Partial metering instead of spot--Canon insists on giving us "partial" metering instead of a true spot meter. The partial metering zone on the 10D is 9 percent of the frame. Five percent or less would be the angle of coverage that photographers want for spotmetering.

  • No media card included in the kit--Why Canon chose not to include even a starter CompactFlash card is beyond me. If the EOS 10D happens to be your first digital camera, you'll be sorely disappointed to discover that you can't start shooting pictures until you run to the nearest electronics store and buy some media. This is even worse than not including batteries.

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