Canon 70D: A DSLR For Everyone?

Exclusive Product Review

Speedy AF, hi-resolution and both user-friendly and pro-level features make the Canon EOS 70D an appealing camera for a wide swath of DSLR fans.

Snapshooters transitioning into photography enthusiasts are often faced with confusing choices when choosing a DSLR: Go with a low-end model that provides them with a familiar but limited shooting experience, or get a full-on enthusiast camera with a more extensive feature set that may be a bit intimidating, and therefore, discouraging. Many cameras have been introduced over the years that try to strike a balance between ease of use and easy access to more creative options. The Canon EOS 70D, available now from Adorama for $1,199, aspires to be such a camera. I spent some quality time with a freshly-minted 70D and Canon EF-S 18-135mm lens. (also available as a kit); let's see if it has achieved its wide-ranging goals.

Related: Watch Diane Wallace's quick overview of the Canon 70D on AdoramaTV

The Canon EOS 70D falls between the Canon EOS 7D, Canon's most advanced APS-sensor camera which has established itself as a widely-acclaimed camera for serious hobbyists and even semi-pro's, and the Canon EOS 60D,  which combines beginner-friendly settings and more advanced ones so users can “graduate” to higher degrees of control of the camera. (Sounds like the 60D is the one for both beginners and enthusiasts, right? Well, as you'll see, the 70D has some tricks up its sleeve that may make it the better option.) While less costly models such as the Canon Rebel T5i also have manual controls, they buried in the menus; the Rebel series is really geared towards users who want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses but who may be intimidated by more the plethora of choices on more advanced models.

In fact, the 70D is a refinement of the 60D and externally, it would be difficult to see the difference between them. The two models will, for the time being, live side by side in the Canon lineup, but there are many reasons the 70D may be a worthwhile upgrade. A new, proprietary 20 megapixel sensor with a wider ISO range, dramatically improved sensor-based Dual Pixel autofocus system, the inclusion of Wi-Fi, and touchscreen controls that streamline the camera's operation are among the key features that make the 70D a camera worth considering.

In the hands

As befits a camera for aspiring photographers, the 70D gives a first impression of durability (despite its mostly polycarbonate construction). At 5.5x4.1x3.1 it's a tad smaller than the 60D but weighs the same 1.66 pounds. It is weather-sealed against rain, dust and sand. Grasp the camera and you'll appreciate the generously-sized grip and logical placement of shutter release and most of the key controls within reach of your finger (the rest can be accessed on the back with your thumb).

The control dial, located on the left side of the camera's top plate, is divided into a Basic Zone and more advanced manual and semi-manual control. The Basic Zone lets you choose from: A+, which is fully automatic, the simplest, point-and-shoot mode and the go-to setting for first-timers. Disable Flash turns off the flash and sets the best exposure possible indoors, changing the ISO if needed to get a short enough exposure for a good hand-held exposure.

CA (Creative Auto) gives you some control over the look of your photo without needing to know about apertures and shutter speeds. Press the “Q” button to access the four options (Color variations, background blur, single or burst sequence exposure, and flash control), and SCN, which accesses the camera's seven scene modes: Portrait, Landscape, Close-Up, Sports, Night Portrait, Handheld Night Scene, and HDR Backlight Control (which I found to be effective in opening up shadow detail in contrasty scenes).

Tricky high-contrast lighting? A+ nailed it. The large dark area of this scene didn't skew exposure as expected. A+ mode did an outstanding job here. So, any first-timer could pick up the camera and get a well-exposed shot like this.

The rest of the controls, called the “Creative Zone,” are designed for more advanced users who are learning about or already know the basics of exposure: P, Tv, Av, M, Bold, and Custom modes. The custom modes, in the hands of a n experienced user, can be a powerful tool. For instance, you can reassign functions for nine of the dials and buttons. Want the AF ON button to be AE Lock? Done. Have the Multi Controller select the AF point? Easy. Other customizations include changing EV or ISO setting increments from 1/3 stop to 1 stop, for example, choosing 3-7 bracketed exposure shots, adjusting the tracking sensitivity of the autofocus, AF microadjustment, and much more.

Moving on across the camera's top plate past the pop-up flash to the right side we find six buttons: AF (choose one shot, AI focus or AI servo), drive mode (choose single shot or different speed burst rates, ISO, metering mode (full screen, center weighted, spot), and LCD illumination. Right above the shutter release is the AF area selection button; the default is auto select, but you can manually select the AF point by using toggling the multi-controller on the back of the camera.

When shooting in manual, shutter speed is controlled by the conveniently-placed main dial, while the rear thumb dial, which surrounds the four-way toggle control, sets aperture. In Av mode, the aperture is controlled by the main dial (it controls shutter speed in Tv mode) while the rear thumb dial moves the EV up or down.

Due to the placement of the swivel of the LCD monitor, Canon had to sacrifice the four buttons traditionally found on the left side of the camera back, but added them to the Q button, which quickly accesses frequently-used settings on-screen. I found that the most intuitive workflow was to press the Q then make adjustments using the touchscreen controls.

If you want to dig deep into the 70D's options, hit the menu button on the upper left side of the back, where you can access all of the camera's shooting, preview, setup and custom settings. An info button shows you the camera's key settings at a glance, although a second press of this button reveals one of the camera's nice hidden treasures—a digital horizon level! In playback mode it can show simple image information or more extensive data including simple and RGB histograms.

Video: Prosumer-Level Features

The Canon 70D has several video options, topping out at 1080p HD at 30fps; in order to shoot at 60fps you have to set the resolution at 720p. It also offers 24fps capture for a more cinematic look. There's a wide range of settings, including manual audio in adjustment, multiple autofocus seetings including the ability to autofocus during shooting, white balance adjustment, color intensity, auto-correct ability for highlight and shadow optimization, and the ability to shoot 4-second “video snapshots.” Video quality was very good, and should please many aspiring digital cinema auteurs.

Wi-Fi: Six Ways To Wireless

A separate manual is devoted to the camera's Wi-Fi operation. There are six wireless connectivity options: transferring images between other Canon Wi-Fi-equipped cameras, viewing images and remote shooting on a smart phone, operating the camera via a remote laptop, printing images on a Wi-Fi printer, sharing and saving images on the Web via Canon's Image Gateway, or viewing the images on a media player. Setup will require using the above-mentioned manual the first time, to walk you through the process of registering a nickname and setting up each device's protocols, but I found that after a few minutes I was able to view images and control the camera with ease via my iPhone using EOS Remote app (available for iOS and Droid).

In the field: Strong Performance

As a long-time 7D owner, I immediately felt comfortable holding and using the slightly smaller and lighter 70D, but what I immediately noticed was that its autofocus was faster and more decisive—especially in lower light—than I've seen in the 7D or other Canons that I've used. Canon has borrowed the same viewfinder-based 19-point AF system (with a central dual cross-type sensor) found on the 7D. Canon also uses a proprietary Dual Pixel AF system, operated via Live View, where each pixel has twin photo diodes that can be read together for image capture or separately for fast focusing during movie capture. The result? Focus was almost instantaneous in Live view and movie modes, especially in the Quick Focus mode.

Action sequence with Niko the Wonder Poodle shot at 7fps. AF had no problem keeping up with him, despite his superhuman speed (in other words, he can outrun me).

Two Burst modes are available: 7 and 3fps. In general, I found the controls were well-placed and when shooting in the Basic Modes, operation was intuitive, although some first-timers may need help finding the basic modes. However, once you find the basic modes and the Q button, you will be able to go forth and take many great photos and when you're ready to take manual control, the tools you need are at your fingertips.

No visible noise at ISO 800: Portrait of my daughter, exposed manually with a window being the only light source, showed no noise at 100% enlargement, below. Results at ISO 1600 were nearly as good.

DxOMark Labs Image Quality Test Results

According to our image quality testing partner, DxO Labs, the Canon 70D scored just two points higher in overall image quality, which is surprising based on what we saw in our test images. Signal to noise ratio dipped below 30dB by ISO 1600. In the lab it beats the Canon 7D in low-light by a slight margin (although the 70D's images seem better than that in the field) but falls short of rivals the Nikon D5200 and Sony a77. That said, the 70D's image quality was the best Canon has achieved with an APS sensor to date. The higher pixel density results in great detail capture with no apparent compromise in image quality.

Image quality test results showed noise well controlled through ISO 1000, low but acceptable noise through ISO 2000, gradually increasing thereafter. Canon owners should be pleased with this result. Also good news: Actual ISO was generally within ½ stop below indicated speed, which is better than average.

Canon's in-camera editing options in both RAW and JPEG are impressive.  I was able to apply toy-camera, intense fine-art, and grainy black-and-white filters to images after the fact. It's easy: Press the Q button, then follow the prompts (with explanations on screen to guide you through) to apply filters.

Sample images

Color setting: Vivid.

Color setting: Faithful

Color setting: Monochrome

Color setting: Vivid

Color setting: Vivid. Note how the camera maintained accurate white balance in AWB.

Special In-Camera Filter Effects Added After Shots Were Taken:

Art Bold Effect Creative Filter

Art Bold Effect

Water Painting Effect

Toy Camera Effect

Grainy Black and White

Miniature Effect creative filter

Conclusion and recommendation

While the image quality is only marginally better than its predecessors, the big improvement in the Canon 70D is in its autofocus. It is considerably faster and more reliable, and the Canon 18-135mm IS STM long-range zoom lens that came with my evaluation model was quiet enough for video capture. The touchscreen operation provides a familiar, easy-to-use interface for beginners, and when you've learned how to take full control, you can graduate to the  “creative” modes.  It may not provide the build quality of a Canon 7D or the amazing resolution of any Canon full-frame sensor camera, but the Canon EOS 70D outperforms all other EOS APS-sensor cameras in the AF realm and is going to be an attractive choice for a wide range of first-time DSLR users as well as enthusiasts looking for a back-up body.

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