Pros: Fast operation, great picture quality, vast functionality, wide lens selection, dial function
Cons: Small screen, somewhat bulky, plain design, loud mirror noise, expensive, 'lens factor'
The digital camera evolution is just about to peak this year or next and in the wake of such progress, older models become obsolete faster than one can make them worth the money that was spent last year. You can render yourself immune to such inflation by simply ignoring trends for a while. If you don't shield yourself like that, one of the most tempting offerings these days is the Canon EOS 20D. But is it perfect or is it soon to be eclipsed by the cheaper but similar EOS Digital Rebel XT?
One thing is for sure, it's a great improvement over the Canon Digital Rebel from 2003. Further, with prices dropping the 20D body can be had for slightly more than $1,100.- and that's only $300 over and above the brand new Digital Rebel XT.
TABLE OF CONTENT
1. 20D or XT? / Body or Kit?
2. EOS 20D Main Features
3. Hands-on user experience
4. Useful Accessories
6. Essential terms of Digital Photography
7. Online resources
EOS 20D or REBEL XT?
This may be an unfair comparison but previously the EOS 10D got stiff competition from the Digital Rebel and even more so with an unofficial firmware hack that boosted the Rebel to near-10D functionality. So is the same true for the XT?
While I am not aware of any firmware hack for the XT yet, it may not be needed since the camera offers all vital software functions of the 20D and most differences are in the hardware. Just to name the most obvious, the 20D offers
- More rugged magnesium alloy body
- Faster 9-point AF system
- Faster shutter delay (65ms vs. 160ms)
- 8.5 MPx CMOS sensor
- Greater buffer for extended burst mode
- Faster burst rate
Beyond that the differences become minute, but the most important one for me was size and with it ergonomics. While praised in many reviews, the smaller grip of the XT feels too small to me and my hand felt clinched rather than "relaxed". However, if budget is your main concern, stop right here and proceed to the Digital Rebel XT as this provides almost as much camera for less money. In fact, if you 'need' to have the wireless flash controller intergated, of the two cameras Canon only gave the XT one. The 20D requires an external device. (ST-E2, $200)
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BODY ONLY or KIT?
So now that we decided to go with the EOS 20D, there is two possible path available to us. Since I already own several lenses (including the Canon EF-S 17-85mm IS USM f4-f5.6) I simply went with the body only. The kit lens is not a bad offering to get started, but sooner or later you will want to invest in a new (better) lens. In fact a better lens may be more important than the difference between 20D and XT, in case you want to make the most of your budget.
Note: Despite officially being compatible to "all" EF lenses, Canon's dSLRs may reject older lenses due to chip incompatibilities. If you see "Error 99" when using a 10* years or older lens, chances are that you are receiving this message because the camera rejects the old lens, especially if it works fine with the lenses listed above.
For more information on the EOS 20D kit, please follow this link.
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EOS 20D MAIN FEATURES
Okay, let's dive right into all the things that make the EOS 20D great. I will focus on the main features
Resolution: There is currently too much emphasis on the resolution of a digital camera. Granted, 8.2 Mpx sounds a lot more than 6.3 MPx as seen in the Digital Rebel. While this is an honest 30% increase, the real effect is less than this suggests as it becomes obvious when looking at the absolute numbers. The 20D's 8.2 MPx translate into 3504 x 2336 pixels while 6.3 Mpx are still 3072 x 2048 pixels. In other words, this gains 'only' 13% more pixels per direction (x, y). It becomes clear that resolution should not be the only reason for upgrading. However it allows for more flexibility regarding cropping.
Ergonomics: The body has the perfect size for my hands (I am 6'1" tall.) and most importantly, the grip feels like custom made for my hand (unlike the Rebel XT). The weight is relatively high but makes it easy to hold the camera steady. The controls are scattered over the body and while intuitively placed, I still find that both design and overall ergonomics (for blind operation) are not perfect though better than both Digital Rebel and Rebel XT. It may make sense to move the mode dial away from the right hand, but it felt quicker to me to have it right near my thumb since the left hand is on the lens anyway.
Speed Dial: The EOS 20D sports a dial with "set" button and while it makes it easier to browse through menus, it's also very handy in the "Dial" shooting mode. (The power switch has 3 settings: "On", "Off" and "Dial".) It allows to adjust selected parameters during shooting. For instance, the 20D makes it very easy to shoot, read the histogram and adjust exposure and reshoot. All that's needed are the trigger, display and the dial. Excellent! The speed of the processor comes in handy to quickly evaluate the histogram.
Display: With only 1.8 inches the screen is the same as found in the Digital Rebel and the Rebel XT. The resolution of 0.1 MPx is nowhere close to comfortably review an 8 MPx picture, but acceptable within the size limitations. Common to most displays, the 20D goes near-blind under direct sunlight -- partly due to technology, but also due to the lack of an anti-reflective coating). Nevertheless, it works quite well indoors and in the shade to navigate the menu and check the histogram etc.. As with all SLRs the display is only used to navigate the menu and review pictures. It's off during aiming and idle time which saves energy and allows for about 400 - 600 shots from one charge.
Viewfinder: Vital to any SLR, the viewfinder of the 20D is one of the best I worked with so far. The diamond shaped auto focus points are a little bit unorthodox arranged in the viewfinder, and under most conditions that's a good thing. Typical for Canon's (digital) EOS, each point is backed by (red) LEDs which light up for the active focus point(s) to quickly verify that the right object is in focus. (Can be disabled.) The optical portion is well sized and bright. Of course the mandatory diopter adjustment is not missing either. A note to more serious users, the AF system improves with your lens and enables a precision center cross when using lenses with a maximum aperture of f2.8 or faster (enough light available). (i.e. EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM)
Sensor: The technical specs indicate that the 20D indeed uses a slightly different sensor than the Rebel XT. The additional 0.3 MPx, however, are used for supporting the white balance and other features rather than picture detail. Despite those differences, the 20D and XT are very close in quality all the way to ISO 800 and slightly differ in the ISO 1600 range. Noise is kept relatively low at all sensitivities ISO 800 and less. This is a welcome improvement over the original Digital Rebel especially for action shots and night photography.
E-TTL II flash: Canon recently upgraded the E-TTL flash system to now include also the distance information. (Only USM drive lenses communicate the focus distance to the camera.) This allows to adjust flsh intensity based on available light and take the distance related fall-off into consideration. The result is a more precise flash exposure.
Digic II processor: While not exclusive to the 20D, it's one of the reasons for its performance since it allows faster AF and WB calculations and ultimately improve quality of either. The Speed is a great thing, especially for candid shot. The startup time of 0.2 seconds is a great welcome and no more shots will be missed because the camera takes seconds to startup.
Shooting RAW: If you're scared by the larger file size of the RAW format, consider this: It can hold 12 bit color information per R, G, B versus 8 bit of the JPEG format. The latter would be no issue with TIFF, but very few cameras are able to save that format. Beyond the color information, RAW has another advantage in that information is unaltered and white balance and exposure can be easily adjusted even after the picture is taken. (Consider to invest in PhotoShop CS2 for the CameraRAW 3.0 module.)
Noise reduction: Finally Canon implemented an algorithm to reduce inherent noise coming from the manufacturing variations of each individual photo cell. Since each cell has its own noise level due to tolerances, the processor records this base level from a black picture and uses that information to correct the output and visibly reduce noise. This is mostly important ISO 800 and 1600 and it only works for exposures of 1 second or more.
Software: The Digital Rebel had a decent but very limiting software package included, with buggy RAW conversion and inconvenient picture organizing. The latest generation of DSLR cameras from Canon come with the superior "Digital Photo Professional" RAW converter which not only allows for more flexibility, but the conversion algorithm produces more detailed pictures (even from the Digital Rebel) by reducing color fringing and blur. The other tools I don't use since in their place I typically use PhotoShop CS2 or PhotoPaint 12.
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HANDS-ON USER DATA
I found the EOS 20D very easy to handle. Functionality and quality feel powerful enough to cover even professional tasks. The predictive AF works flawless and low light autofocus as well as improved white balance are striking from a 2005 perspective (in this price range).
Size is relative and the housing is not the smallest ever, in fact, it's kind of big, but fits my hands perfectly. Further, it's not like you will fit the smaller XT in your pocket either. Once you carry a 'big block' with you, the difference is relatively insignificant. It feels well balanced despite the extra weight over the Digital Rebel. Often the lens is heavier than the body and obsoletes the weight advantage even of the XT.
The design reminds me a little bit of a traditional Mercedes interior: safe and boring. (Unless you think that a row of square buttons is stylish.) The housing itself is relatively traditional, but still well formed to blend in with the professional crowd. It's mostly the buttons that are a little uninspiring to me. Especially the functionally excellent dial sticks out as a design glitch. Having the control LCD on top is also traditional but in normal operation not immediately accessible without turning the camera.
Upon shooting the first pictures I was surprised how the 20D goes to business. I mean the shutter sounds potent and professional but also very loud. Upon closer examination it turns out that the flip-up mirror seems to have a great part in it. The shutter noise is relatively low compared to that. Other than that there is little to complain about the 20D in 2005 and possibly all the way to 2006. Speed is great, resolution is quite adequate for letter sized photo prints and tonal accuracy well defined. The natural interpolation of the Beyer sensor is well compensated by the included "Digital Photo Professional 1.6.1" software -- but not eliminated.
Functionality is awesome. The only thing I am somewhat missing from my old EOS IX is the Depth-of-field mode where one can sequentially define the closest and the farthest point in focus and the camera attempts to set the parameters accordingly. Just like the Digital Rebel and most modern EOS cameras the A-DEP mode is a fully automated version of that, but it doesn't allow the control of the older DEP mode as described above. A-DEP is best for group pictures but useless for something more specific.
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Lens: Probably the most versatile lens for the 20D is the Canon EF-S 17-85mm IS USM f4-f5.6 with true wide-angle and image stabilization. The basic kit lens is okay, but this one is worth the extra $500 in many situations. For better portrait photography take a look at the brand new EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM lens for better low light performance and sharper images due to the fixed focal length (incl. AR coating). It also provides 1:1 macro capability. To push it even further, you might think about a Canon EF-12 II extension tube.
To round up the package, the EF 70-300mm f4.5-f5.6 IS DO USM helps bringing distant objects much closer while keeping your picture steady with Image Stabilization.
Filter: Sure, digital makes many filters unnecessary, but a few are still better left to the traditional lens accessory. Most popular and hard to simulate otherwise is the CPL (Circular Polarizer), which essentially takes reflections out and allows to boost colors of otherwise washed-out surfaces (i.e. leaf) and remove reflection from water or glas to see 'further'. Beyond that a UV filter should be common practice to protect your lens from scratches. A ND (neutral density) filter allows to shoot at extreme brightness and a graduated ND compresses the dynamic between bright sky and landscape in some situations for more natural pictures. Beyond that there is almost nothing the electronic filters cannot do.
Flash: There is nothing wrong with the capable internal flash of the 20D, especially since it supports E-TLL II distance data, but sooner or later you will need something more powerful and even play with bounce flash for more natural exposire. The Canon Speedlite 420EX external flash is an excellent compromise between budget, size and performance. If money and bulk is no issue, check out the new Speedlite 580EX.
Note: The Speedlite must be an EX version to support E-TTL parameters.
Memory: is the one thing you can 'never' have enough of. Speed is relative and the burst mode capacity of the 20D allows to be relatively independent from memory speed. Nevertheless, it still helps in critical situations to store and review quicker. Top of the line right now is Sandisk's Extreme III with 20 MB/s transfer, but don't expect the 20D to be able to use all that bandwidth when shooting RAW. In this mode it's restricted to a set speed of about 4.5 MB/s as it takes about 16 seconds taking 10 pictures (7.2 MB/ea) from the first shutter noise until the access lamp stops flashing -- regardless whether it's 60x or 80x memory. Keep in mind that includes acquiring, processing and storing the picture! For reference only, the 20D fills 1GByte with about 110 RAW pictures (most detail). For specifics on memory I tested please refer to the respective review ...
- Lexar 1GB CF Prof. (80x):
- SanDisk 512MB CF Ultra II (66x):
- Lexar 256MB CF Prof. (40x):
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Alright, I admit that I may be drunk by the "gadgedralin" infused from my new 20D, but it replaced a Canon Digital Rebel and all of the obstacles from that (good) camera were removed by the (better) EOS 20D.
Speed, sturdy construction and more flexibility are the main arguments to upgrade to the EOS 20D. However, most users will most likely not need all the functionality of the 20D and rather than paying full price one might consider saving about $300 and get the Digital Rebel XT instead. In that case one might invest the saved money in a new lens etc. which sooner or later is needed for the EOS 20D as well.
Having said that, I am very happy with my upgrade and the 20D now provides all the functionality that was missing from the Digital Rebel due to shortsighted Canon marketing of 2003 (to 'protect' sales of the more expensive 10D). Time flies and now it's between the XT and the 20D. Only this time it's mostly hardware differences. If you can afford it, the EOS 20D gives you more camera, but the XT is probably the most camera for the money right now.
Important: When upgrading the BIOS to 2.0.0 it appears that one must remove the lens or else the process will lock up (mine did at 94%). If that happens, the only way to recover is to remove the battery and reprogram the camera (without the lens). Somehow this whole process was a little 'quirky' but I finally got 2.0.0 on there and it works fine. Skip this one if you don't plan to use the wireless file transfer unit (it's about $1000) since support for it is the only change over v1.1.0!
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© 2005, theuerkorn
DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY TERMS
While not specific to the EOS 20D, let's review a few general parameters and what they really mean.
Resolution: The main argument in today's digital photography and yet one of the least understood is resolution. It takes about 300 dpi for photo quality prints and if all you're printing is 7x5 inch pictures, technically 2100 x 1500 pixels (3.15 MegaPixel) will yield the same visual result as a 8 MPx camera like the 20D. Moving up to a letter sized picture (8x11 inches), 300 dpi require slightly less than 8 MPx. However, you will most likely get by with 6 MPx since larger pictures are usually viewed from a larger distance and the roughly 250 dpi appear the same. Nevertheless, higher resolution allows to retain the 300 dpi in most applications despite cropping.
Note: This has nothing to do with your printer's resolution (inkjet or laser) -- unless it's a dye-sublimation printer.
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ISO speed: Unlike film, ISO has no influence on the resolution of your picture in digital cameras. It does, however, have an influence on the noise since sensors have a designed sensitivity (at which the amplitude of the electrical signal uses the whole range with the available light). The signal-to-noise ratio is usually excellent at that range (in cameras like the 20D). Increasing sensitivity or shutter speed allows less light to hit the sensor and partially use the maximum range. Hence, the resulting signal must be amplified. Aside from reduced color gamut (due to using a subset of the maximum range), the most visible side effect may be noise. This is simply an expression of the always present white noise of any electronic component, which of course gets amplified as well. The smaller the signal the closer it gets to the noise, and ultimately the greater the visible artifacts in the picture. Film, on the other hand, provides different crystal size for different sensitivities. Larger crystals absorb more light (i.e. ISO 1600) but obviously provide less resolution than smaller crystals (which in return sport less surface to absorb light).
Fullsize and APS-sized Digital SLR cameras are typically designed equivalent to ISO 200 sensitivity, which means that under conditions equivalent to ISO 200, the sensor receives enough light to use the full signal range for the best signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and full color gamut. Faster speed require amplification (compresses color dynamic range and decreases SNR), while slower speeds are nowadays a mere tribute to artistic freedom with no changes regarding gamut and SNR. Point-and-shoot cameras are hadicapped due to the much smaller sensor and show often even at ISO 200 visible noise.
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Lens factor: This is misleading as lenses don't change and neither do optical properties. A 50mm lens is still a 50mm lens whether it's used on a 35mm cameras or the EOS 20D. What's different is the field of view or cropping. So the smaller sensor is pretty much an excerpt of the 35mm version but other wise identical, provided it's taken from the same spot with the same lens. It becomes complicated when compensating for the cropping with a wide angle lens. Perspective is similar but depth of field (DOF) adheres to the optical properties of the lens.
For example, if a portrait was taken with a 105mm f2.8 lens, similar results in field of view (FOV) can be achieved with a 65mm lens on the 20D. However, since the DOF now obeys the laws of a wider angle, you will need a "faster" lens (f1.8) to achieve the same shallow DOF as the f2.8 does for 35mm cameras. You could also just step further away to use the same focal length and only your perspective changed now. The good news? This is mostly significant for control freaks and professionals only.
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Color gamut: Despite the term "digital", the actual sensor is still analog in a sense that the output signal is proportional to the light that excited the cell. This signal is typically overlaid with small noise. It's the AD converter (analog to digital converter) that determines how to convert the analog signal into bits and bytes and ultimately a digital picture. AD converters have a fixed conversion that determines into how many different 'steps' the signal range can be differentiated. To the user this ultimately means how many colors and shades can be distinguished. Typical for recent dSLR cameras are 36 bit color depth (12 bit per color R, G, B), however this is only available in RAW and JPEG would reduce it already in camera to 24 bit (8 bit per R, G, B). This has no effect on the overall gammut (dynamic range) and each end of the brightness scale is more critical with digital cameras ... unless you use Photoshop CS2 to create HDR pictures (48 bit) from different exposures to capture more of the bright and dark. (Tripod and static scene is mandatory!)
In comparison, film remains 'analog' all the way to the actual print. This allows more flexibility for pictures that were taken with a subset of the overall gamut and "pushing" yield better results than digital. Hence, it's more important with digital to get that "perfect" exposure! Different sensor designs allow for different color gamuts and most noteworthy is Fuji's Super CCD SR II sensor (as found in the FinePix S3) for increased sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratio.
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Image sensors: The Beyer configuration is the most commonly used type of sensor in digital cameras due to manufacturing and licensing issues. In this type, the pixels are formed by a matrix of R, G and B sensitive cells -- just like the human eye. A red cell would have a green cell as a neighbor and so on. Each cell captures brightness as the individual pixel and the picture processor combines the color values of the related pixels to determine the full color for this particular pixel. Since a single cell doesn't capture the whole information, interpolation is used to 'estimate' it from the surrounding pixels. This in return may cause artifacts like a slight blur or color fringes around the edges.
Unlike the Beyer sensor, the Foveon captures the full color information within the same cell space. It still splits the signal into R, G, and B but by stacking them on top of each other, it doesn't require interpolation between neighboring pixels. The end result is more defined for fine high-contrast edges.
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Printers: Today's ink-jet printers sport resolution of up to 5000 dpi, and that's seemingly exceeding the stated resolution for photo quality by far. But not so fast! One pixel in a conventional printer can only hold one of up to 8 colors. In order to emulate 16 million colors, a pattern of colors is needed. Typically one picture pixel is represented by a matrix of printer pixels to trick your eye into seeing a specific tone. This brings the extremely high resolution down to typical photo dimensions of 200 to 300 dpi, and explains why it's needed for Ink-jet printers.
Judging a digital picture by the printout is a dangerous thing since it requires a good calibrated system that includes camera, computer, software and printer. The latter most likely interpolates too, since the resolution most likely doesn't exactly match the picture. Hence, there are too many things that happen beyond the plain digital picture.
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Canon EF 70-300mm f4.5-f5.6 IS DO USM lens
Canon EF-S 17-85mm f4-f5.6 IS USM lens
Canon EF-S 60mm f2.8 USM lens
Canon Speedlite 420EX external flash
Canon EF-12 II extension tube
Canon Digital Rebel camera
Manufacturer's website (20D)
Most informative online review (20D)
Most informative online review (Rebel XT)
Memory card speed in EOS 20D