Camera Review: Canon EOS 70D

January 10, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything extraordinary about the Canon EOS 70D digital SLR, the successor to the consumer-level 60D. Even the 70D’s specs don’t jump out at you and scream this camera is something special: at least not until you get to the part about Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology. It’s this unique, on-chip phase detection that not only brings faster and more accurate autofocus to live view and video capture in the 70D but has implications for advancing autofocus speed and accuracy in other cameras as well.

As Canon’s latest (at press time), midrange DSLR, the 70D mixes in features from several of its siblings including Wi-Fi and a fully articulated touchscreen LCD. The camera is built around a 20.2-megapixel, APS-C-size sensor and utilizes Canon’s latest DIGIC 5+ image processor. With the new sensor and image processor, Canon seems to be more confident about the 70D’s ability to handle image noise and has increased the native ISO to a range of 100 to 12800, expandable to 25600. Continuous shooting speed has been increased to 7 frames per second as well.

Physically, the 70D isn’t all that different from its predecessor although, at 5.5 x 4.1 x 3.1 inches and 26.7 ounces (according to CIPA standards), it’s a little smaller and lighter. While I have relatively small hands, the camera was comfortable to hold thanks, in large part, to its well-contoured, textured grip.

Although the optical viewfinder offers 98 percent coverage, it is relatively large and bright, with enough dioptric adjustment that I didn’t have to wear my reading glasses to shoot. The red focus points still don’t remain lit when focus is achieved, but the black outlines around the focus area provide enough contrast to see what the camera is focused on.

What really stands out on the 70D is its 3-inch, high-resolution, fully articulated, touchscreen LCD. It works well in just about all lighting conditions and, when there’s a hint of a glare, all you have to do is tilt the screen to eliminate any reflections. I’m especially fond of articulated LCDs not only for overhead and low- and side-angle shooting but because the panel folds back into the body to protect the screen from scratches when it’s thrown into a bag with other gear. The touchscreen is responsive and fully functional, although I found that I was most comfortable alternating between tapping the screen and using the main dial or multi-controller to scroll through menus.

Although Canon re-positioned a few of the controls on the rear of the camera, the control layout is conveniently arranged. A large mode dial sits on the camera’s left shoulder in front of the on/off power switch. The dial, which offers a custom setting, among the standard shooting options, is lockable via a center button. While that guarantees you won’t accidentally change shooting modes, I’d rather be able to keep the mode dial unlocked so I can more quickly switch between, say, manual and aperture-priority modes. But that’s just a personal preference.

The right shoulder and grip are home to the well-angled shutter button, an autofocus (AF) area selection button, main dial and dedicated buttons for AF, drive, ISO, metering and a button to light up the top LED panel. On the rear you’ll find menu and info buttons, a switch to change between still and video/live view shooting, AF On, AE/FE lock and AF point selection buttons. Quick menu, playback and erase buttons are arranged near the multi-controller and multi-function lock switch.

The AF area selection button is a little too small, although the ability to change these AF options so easily is a welcome addition. I’m not crazy about the feel of the multi-controller, though; while the dial turns easily, it requires a little extra pressure for up/down/left/right movement. Overall, however, the 70D’s operation is fairly seamless with external controls. Quick menu access and internal menus are logical and easy to navigate.

While the 70D is a midlevel camera and doesn’t match the sophisticated assets of higher end models, it does offer a solid set of features for pros. In addition to the standard manual and semi-manual exposure modes, the 70D is equipped with Canon standards such as preset and customizable picture styles, multiple bracketing options and more. Noise reduction settings (auto, on, off) are limited, but the camera is pretty well-equipped with the core necessities as well as a variety of creative options.

New for the 70D is Wi-Fi. It’s relatively easy to set up, whether you’re using the camera as an access point or taking advantage of a wireless network. Wi-Fi allows you to transfer images and, perhaps more importantly, shoot (and change settings) remotely with Canon’s EOS Remote smartphone app, print images wirelessly and more. Manufacturers are still improving cameras’ Wi-Fi capabilities, but Canon seems to have done a pretty good job with the 70D and I experienced only a couple of glitches along the way.

Dual Pixel AF
The big news, of course, is Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology. Right now, the 70D is the only camera utilizing this technology but I expect (hope) to see it in future models as well. (Canon has announced that Dual Pixel CMOS AF will be coming to the C100 digital video camera in February 2014, in the form of a $500 upgrade.) When shooting through the viewfinder, the camera uses its standard 19-point AF system. But switch the camera to live view or video modes and that’s when the magic happens.

For most testing, I shot with the Canon EF 24-105mm, f/4 lens—one of 103 lenses that support the Dual Pixel AF system (you can find a list of all supported lenses on the Canon website).

In live view, autofocus was fast and accurate, although not quite as fast in extremely low light as it focused when using the viewfinder, which wasn’t a surprise. Still, AF was responsive (and accurate) regardless of lighting conditions, particularly when there was at least a little more light than my super low-light tests. AF tracking in live view, which is awkward at best, worked well although I didn’t test it extensively—I just didn’t have a lot of opportunities to conveniently shoot moving subjects from live view.

But where the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system really shines is in video mode. Because the 70D’s photodiodes (which are split into pairs) function both for phase detection AF as well as imaging and cover 80 percent of the frame vertically and horizontally, autofocus was smooth and fast. There was little, if any, hunting that occurs when contrast detection (or even hybrid AF) is used to achieve focus, and tracking worked better than I’ve experienced with any camera other than a camcorder. When listening closely, I could barely hear the very faint noise of the lens motor at work and assume that using an STM lens would solve this issue totally. The resulting video output was quite good as well.

Image Quality
Overall image quality was pleasing, although not blow-your-socks-off exceptional. It was noticeably better than the 60D, however, with more accurate colors and improved exposure accuracy. Low-light/high-ISO performance was improved as well. I generally turn off in-camera noise reduction and prefer to take care of image noise in post-processing. With the 70D, I felt very comfortable shooting at ISO 1600; less so at higher ISOs for the cleanest images but, in general, the camera did a pretty good job keeping image noise at bay.

Test shots were generally sharp, well focused—regardless of whether I used the viewfinder or live view—and details were nicely captured with the 24-105mm lens. Having just come off a stint of shooting with a couple of higher end full-frame cameras, I have to assume that my judgment may be a little clouded—but not by much. The 70D’s image quality may not wow you, but it’s better than expected from a camera in this class.

The Bottom Line
The 70D is a solid, midrange camera with the core features one expects from—and needs in—a DSLR. But aside from its feature set, good performance and image quality, the 70D offers groundbreaking technology with its Dual Pixel CMOS AF system, which provides faster, more accurate and smoother autofocus in live view and video than we’ve ever seen before.

Pros: Innovative and effective Dual Pixel CMOS AF system; solid core feature set; useful Wi-Fi options; responsive, fully-articulated touchscreen

Cons: Lacks advanced fine-tuning features in areas such as in-camera noise reduction; image quality is only slightly better than its predecessor (but still good for this price point)

Price: $1,199 (body only); www.usa.canon.com

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