Canon EOS 20D SLR Review

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Canon EOS 20D

Steve's Conclusion

Canon's engineers had a tall order when designing the replacement for the venerable 10D - improve on a camera about which we said in our April 2003 review, "If you've been waiting for a reasonably priced, high performance dSLR camera your wait is over, the Canon EOS 10D is here!" A year and a half later, those engineers can be satisfied with a job well-done, having developed the 20D with improvements on nearly every facet of its predecessor while retaining the same $1499 street price the 10D carried at the time of its introduction.

The 20D's 8.2-megapixel CMOS image sensor packs 30% more resolution into its 22.5x15mm footprint than the 10D's 6.3-megapixel predecessor. In terms of resolution, more is always better unless high pixel density causes quality issues, as in the case of some high resolution consumer digicams. Be assured that the 20D's image quality is excellent, complementing its 8.2-megapixel resolution with lower noise at high ISO settings than the 10D. But most enthusiasts have neither the wall space to hang nor the finances necessary to routinely produce the 16x20-inch prints capable of being created from the 20D's images; what is the extra resolution good for? In a word, cropping. An increase in resolution of a digital image can be likened to an increase in the size of a negative in film photography. The more image content you have to work with, the more flexibility you'll have in your digital darkroom to crop an image to its most pleasing composition while still being able to create large prints.

Complementing the image sensor, the 20D's DIGIC II image processor improves the camera's responsiveness by every measure over the 10D. You'll notice it as soon as you turn the camera on, the 20D having a delay of only 6/10 second before capturing an image versus the 10D's delay of about 2 seconds. Waking the 20D from it's power-saving sleep mode, it took only 3/10 second to capture an image versus the 10D's 2 seconds, a difference that was quite noticeable in side-by-side field use. Image review offers a similar performance improvement, the 20D seeming to display an image on the LCD instantly after hitting the review button versus the 10D's 3 second delay. The 20D's speed of image review has spoiled me; after using both camera's side-by-side, I've grown intolerant of the 10D's "busy" delay when switching from shooting to image review. You, too, may find that the 20D's instant image review increases your tendency to "chimp". The 20D's responsiveness to every human input is impressive; the camera is always ready for your next action, never getting in the way of your work by imposing frustrating delays.

The 20D's shooting performance sets a new benchmark for enthusiast dSLR's. Shutter lag when pre-focused was well under 1/10 second, and felt faster than the 10D. Canon's claims of improved AF performance were verified; shutter lag including AF measured 3/10 second versus 5/10 second for the 10D in single AF mode, and 2/10 versus 4/10 in AI Servo AF mode. In single shot mode, I was able to capture images at 3/10 second intervals without flash, and every 6/10-to-2.7 seconds with flash, depending on subject distance.

The 20D's continuous shooting mode also produced impressive performance. I was able to capture 35 Large Fine images in 7.2 seconds, equaling Canon's claimed rate but exceeding their depth due to the use of a fast SanDisk Ultra 1GB CF memory card. The 10D could capture to a depth of only 9 images at a rate of 3 fps. The 20D's RAW capture rate remained at 5fps, but to a depth of only 6 images. The 20D's buffer and memory performance also impressed, taking only 12 seconds to flush a buffer full of RAW+Large/Fine JPEG images.

A moving subject is what normally determines the need to shoot in continuous mode, but it also requires a robust AF system capable of keeping that subject in focus. I tested the 20D's AI Servo continuous AF with both a fast moving Shetland Sheepdog and at a bicycle race; the 20D's AF system was able to keep up with both moving subjects easily. The 20D's combination of 5fps continuous shooting, depth of 23 or more JPEG images, and accurate continuous AF make it an excellent choice for sports and action shooting.

The 20D retains the same 1.6x focal length multiplier of the 10D, turning your 50mm lens into 80mm, your 70-200mm into 112-320mm etc. That's great if your shooting involves a lot of telephoto work, but it has disappointed wide angle shooters whose 16-35mm wide angle zoom becomes a 25.6-56mm standard zoom on the 20D. Canon recognized the wide angle limitations of the 10D, and improved the 20D to overcome them - first by equipping the 20D with a lens mount capable of accepting both EF and EF-S lenses, and second by developing the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens, having a 35mm-equivalent range of 16-35mm. Unfortunately, we did not get this lens for our test.

The 20D's ergonomics are very good; the layout of its controls will be familiar to 10D users, but with a few improvements. New on the 20D is the multi-controller, a small 8-way joy stick that's used to select the AF point, set White Balance correction, move the trimming frame for direct printing, and scroll a magnified image in playback mode. I found it quite useful and a significant improvement over the 10D, replacing the two-step process involving the Quick Control Dial and direction switching button to scroll in playback mode. In shooting mode, the multi-controller gives you direct access to your intended AF point without requiring that you turn a dial.

The 20D's body is slightly smaller and lighter than the 10D, but not noticeably so. The built-in flash, although limited in range to about 12 feet, is effective for portraits, its pop-up height serving to reduce the red eye effect. If you need more flash power, the 20D's built-in hot shoe accommodates any of Canon's EX-series of speedlights. If you use an external flash or heavy lens, I recommend that you also get the battery grip, the BG-E2; it offers a comfortable grip in both portrait and landscape orientation, serves to counterbalance the weight of the flash and/or lens, and of course can house a second battery for extended shooting if necessary. But with the BP-511A capturing over 700 images before a low battery warning, I recommend that you keep the 2nd battery fully charged but in your bag rather than in the BG-E2; it's much easier to charge one depleted battery than two that are half-discharged.

One of the 20D's most valuable improvements over the 10D is the reduction in high ISO image noise. The sample image of the ice hockey game is an example; it was shot at ISO 3200, and produced an image with less noise than a 10D's ISO 1600 image. Images shot at ISO 800, like the volleyball sample, contained surprisingly little noise, and ISO 400 shots, like the bicycle race sample, contained no noticeable noise at all. The 20D will be in high demand from Enthusiasts who shoot a lot of high ISO, low-light images.

The 20D's AF system also benefitted from the attention of Canon's engineers. The increased number of AF points (9), improved low light performance, and apparent improvement in selectivity over the 10D results in a much greater percentage of shots with your subject in perfect focus. A shooting situation that demonstrated the 20D's improved AF was a sports field with a chain link fence background. The 10D was sometimes fooled into focusing on the fence, while the 20D consistently kept the foreground player in focus.

The 20D also excels at limiting noise in long exposures. It has a new Custom Function, number 2, which activates long exposure noise reduction using a dark frame subtraction method. I found that its use wasn't necessary, however; long exposures taken without C.Fn-02 were as noise free as those taken with it; you can see this for yourself by comparing the 2 statue sample images.

The 20D gives you considerable control over its in-camera JPEG processing. You can specify and later recall 3 sets of custom parameters for sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone; the settings have 5 steps, ranging from -2 to +2. In addition, there are 2 sets of default parameters; in the Basic zone, Parameter 1 is used, increasing contrast, sharpness and color saturation settings to +1, while the Creative zone uses Parameter 2 by default, with all settings at the neutral 0 value. The 20D adds a a new Black and White process which not only removes color from the saved image, but also offers a choice of yellow, orange, red or green filter effects that enhance the B/W image. It also offers color toning, with choices of Sepia, Blue, Purple or Green.

The bottom line: With 8-megapixel resolution, excellent image quality, reduced noise at high ISO settings, robust shooting performance, accurate AF, responsive Continuous AF, and improved ergonomics, there's a lot to like about the 20D. Canon has certainly set a new benchmark for what an enthusiast dSLR should be, and the under-$1500 20D even encroaches on the performance envelope of the professional camera's produced by some of Canon's competitors! Those in the market for a high-quality enthusiast dSLR, whether migrating from film or upgrading from consumer digicams, should place the 20D at the top of their short list. Users of the Digital Rebel and 10D may find the 20D's improvements sufficient to justify its purchase, especially sports shooters who will benefit from its improved AF and burst performance and reduced noise at high ISO settings. The 20D is yet another winner from Canon; the dealers should order plenty of them now -- they're not going to be on the shelf long enough to collect any dust!

Canon Posts EOS 20D Firmware Update

October 7, 2004 - Canon Japan has released the EOS 20D v1.0.5 firmware update that fixes the following:

  • Version 1.0.4 firmware released on October 4 had a bug in the program that handles the update. In cases where the update was performed with a lens attached to the camera, there were situations in which the firmware could not be updated correctly. The version 1.0.5 firmware fixes the version 1.0.4 bug so that the firmware can be updated correctly.
  • Fixes the problem of shutter release not working. In rare cases, the camera freezes and the shutter stops working if a lens removed or attached while the camera is in auto power off mode. (In other cases, the camera might hang up during continuous shooting.) - This problem has been fixed.
  • Improves reliability when using some CF cards. Improved reliability of communication with CF cards

Canon has also posted the following information: "When the firmware update operations are finished, turn the camera off and remove battery from the camera for at least two seconds. This will cause the new firmware to effect after the battery has been reloaded and the camera is turned on. When performing the firmware update operations, do so after removing the lens from the camera."

Continue on to
Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's EOS 20D Review

Imaging-Resource's EOS 20D Review

DP Review's EOS 20D Review

Rob Galbraith's EOS 20D Preview

Luminous Landscape's EOS 20D Preview

Digital Outback's EOS 20D Diary

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