One year ago, November 2007, I decided it was time that I graduated from my Canon EOS 300D digital SLR into something a bit more professional when Canon released the EOS 40D. Earlier in the autumn i had borrowed a 5D and was struck by the speed of operation and ISO performance and now wanted something similar.
The EOS 40D seemed like a good buy; reasonable money, ISO performance rivalling the 5D,decent resolution (10Mp), 6.5fps and a tough magnesium body with professional controls and speed. So as soon as it was available I ordered it and it soon showed up. My plan was to go through the different areas of performance using real world photos taken during the last year. So, here we go!
The white balance on Auto is very good in sunny daylight and bright indoor light (using natural light from windows). On other occasions the custom settings are needed, cloudy and rainy days end up too cold and artificiallight (incadescent and light bulbs indoor) always end up too warm. Even when using the incadescent setting and lowering the saturation through picture styles the photos are too warm and has to be manually white-balanced and adjusted in post-processing.
When the white balance is set though, the 14-bit A/D conversion of the 40D produces photos full of beautiful colors and contrast. Find the right light and subject and the image can be tweaked while keeping all details and subtle color gradients.
6.5 Frames Per Second
The 40D are sometimes marketed as an 1D light, a semi-professional sports camera. That’s wrong, the 6.5fps are very handy, but not for sports. The auto-focus system is too slow and erratic totrack fast moving objects. What it is though, is an excellent tool for the portrait photographers and photo journalists seeking in-the-moment portraits on location. By taking multiple frames you have much better chance on nailing just the right expression and composition, I always have my 40D on the high-speed multiple frame Drive setting.
Another benefit of using the high-speed setting is to pick the sharpest frame when using long shutter speeds. Camera shake has several causes which all stem from the user, however, by taking several frames and keeping the release button pressed a number of them will be minimized. By using this technique you can generally use shutter speeds where camera motion is no longer a problem but instead subject motion will be the limiting factor (t>1/50s). I then scroll through the images and mark the sharpest (while zoomed in) and with regular intervals choose “delete all images” to delete all unsharp and bad frames. This is an essential technique to speed up the post-processing and sorting by only working with photos that are decent from a technical standpoint and getting rid of all the garbage as soon as possible. Needless to say, I produce quite a lot garbage that I discard but I make sure to save photos that might not be perfect but has the potential to be saved.
Low Light Performance
The ISO performance is very good, this generation of digital cameras (which really started with the 5D) is the first to match the image quality of film and provide better low light performance. ISO can be set to 1250 for noiseless results using the noise reduction in Adobe Lightroom set to 25/75 (luminosity/chroma).
When it gets really dark ISO 1600 still provides good photos that can be used in color with normal post-processing, underexposing 1 stop gives an effective ISO of 3200. The ISO 3200 (extended) setting can be used with very results by decreasing the saturation or making the photos black and white, they’ll have a slightly grainy look which can actually work to your advantage in some occasions. When it gets really dark a fast lens (F1.4-1.8), ISO 1600-3200 and 1-2 stops of underexposure gives you an effective ISO of 3200-12800 which is adequate for all situations where my eyes work satisfactory. The biggest problems then are not the actual image but the autofocus performance and the difficulty to focus manually since its so dark. Of course, I always want more ISO at better quality since it means that I can take photos of moving subjects when it gets darker, but the with the 40D and good lenses I’ve never felt really hindered by darkness.
As I’ve already mentioned the auto-focus system isn’t that great for tracking fast moving objects and it really isn’t that great at all when I think about it. When all focus points are used it is weighted to the center which means thatevery photo has to be reframed if you don’t want the focus plane to be in the middle of the frame. Since I take portraits with shallow depth-of-field most of the time and usually focus on faces and eyes there’s no other way than to focus, reframe and shoot. At least it hold the focus (when one-shot focus is chosen) so that successive shots have the same focus plane.
I’ve never really thought of the controls, which is a good sign I guess. The three custom Exposure Mode settings (camera user C1-3) are the only ones I use, and they are great. Each of those three programs contains an dump of every setting in the camera, I always start with the Aperture priority program in RAW mode with high-speed burst Drive and then choose White Balance, Aperture, ISO and Picture Style according to the situation. For most of the time I have a clear sky daytime setting (Auto ISO, F4, Auto WB) on C1 and indoor darkness on C2 (ISO 1600, F2.8, Incadescent WB) and then modify one of them and dump on C3 if I need to.
The scrolling when is really snappy and works great to scroll through photos. The screen is worse though, the low resolutionis adequate for checking basic sharpness and exposure of the photo but not much more. Since the camera uses 8-bit jpgs to show the RBG-histogram it’ll show highlight clippings even when they don’t exist in the RAW-file due to the increased dynamic range, so you’ll have to trust your instincts on that.
To sum things up, the 40D works very well as a camera, in fact it works great. It’s never really in the way, it lets me take the photos I want and the interface to the camera is fast and logic. I never use a flash and take photos 24h a day, the quality is great and the 6.5fps lets me capture the right moment. The Camera User Exposure mode and Protect Photos together with Delete All Photos speeds up my work immensely. The focusing, screen and white balance are minor annoyances that can easily be worked around.
See Dpreview’s in-depth review of the 40D for technical specs and comparisons.