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|| News Item: Posted 2004-12-16

Hands on with the Canon 20D
By Robert Hanashiro, Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / USA TODAY

A sequence of Ichiro Suzuki. 400mm 2.8 w/ 1.4 extender 1/500 @ f/4, ASA800 with the Canon 20D.
There is a lot to like … actually love … about Canon's new 20D digital SLR.

There's the 8.2 meg-pixels. A beefed up buffer (over it's predecessors), now 23-frames. The great color. Low noise even at high ISO settings. And the much talked about improved auto-focus capabilities.

Leaving the technical aspects of this camera to more capable reviewers like Phil Askey and Rob Galbraith, what I will do here is try to give Sports Shooter readers a hands-on look at the Canon 20D after using it for 3 weeks at various assignments, including football and baseball games. My comments will be limited to my impressions on the 20D and how it handled under "game conditions".

First off, let's cut to the chase and try to answer what almost everyone who reads the Sports Shooter Newsletter wants to know: Is the auto-focus just as good as the 1D and the Mark II?


And no.

First off, my orientation is with PROFESSIONAL level equipment, so my thoughts about any camera I handle might be skewed a bit.

With that being said, I found the auto-focus on the 20D quick, responsive and the best of any "pro-sumer" level digital camera I have ever handled.

Combined with an improved shutter delay, the 20D was able to capture sequences that were dead-bang right for instance speedy Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki sprinting full-steam up the baseline to first base. The 20D was able to track him from batters box to the base and was tack sharp on a burst of 10 frames.

This is not something the previous cameras in this class (the 10D and D30 most notably) would have been able to do.

Canon generously lists the 20D at 5 fps and I have to say that it doesn't sound or feels like the camera is firing at 5 fps. During my three weeks with the camera I wasn't able to run a full test to find out what the actual firing rate was, but it sure didn't "feel" like it was 5 fps.

When subjects were running straight at the camera there wasn't a problem with focus tracking, however I found that the AF tended to "hunt" a bit when I attempted to shoot a football game. When plays were moving away or laterally from the camera, it seemed the camera (with a 400mm 2.8) struggled … zipping in and out trying to find a focus point to lock onto. Not having a feature like the Mark II's custom function 20 ("AISERVO tracking sensitivity") might have contributed to my feeling that the AF "hunted" or lost auto-focus tracking.

Nevertheless, the AF performance of the 20D is nothing short of amazing especially considering its price point in the market.

One thing I think most photographers who will be shooting sports (or with any glass of size and weight) with the 20D will want to get is the add-on vertical grip. The BG-E2 Battery Grip not only gives you a vertical shutter release, it also accepts two lithium ion battery packs or … and get this … 6 AA batteries. So if you're ever out in the field sans battery charger, you won't be S.O.L. if the juice in your 20D runs dry … standard AA batteries are available everywhere so you can keep on working in a pinch.

Another reason why I recommend buying the add-on vertical grip is because the camera tends to be very front-heavy and unbalanced even with a "short zoom" like the 16-35mm.

And since I am on the subject of the "feel" of the camera, I will warn those that want to go out every weekend with a 400mm or 600mm lens: take it easy because this camera is not as hefty as it's Big Brothers (the EOS 1D or Mark II). I love how light this camera is and it's the perfect "around the neck" body for a wide angle or short zoom lens, but I fear that it would not take the pounding day-in-and-day-out that Sports Shooters and PJ's tend to give their gear.

One thing I have always made fun of with consumer cameras is the little built-in pop-up flash. But not so with the latest pro-sumer bodies. I find that often a small "wink light" is all I need to fill in some shadows when shooting close to subjects in the mid-day sun. And the 20D did not disappoint when I needed either just a little fill light or more pop when shooting in near darkness.

The flash tube is raised a bit more than it is in previous models, so there is not as much of a vignetting problem when shooting close-in with lenses like the 16-35mm zoom where the top of the lens (and lens hood) blocked off some of the light.

I covered one Angels game under the lights at Anaheim Stadium with the 20D and files shot at ISO 800 looks clean and tight like I would expect from a CMOS sensor. I also felt that the images were a little "hot" … maybe by 1/4 stop, a little surprise bonus.

The viewfinder was extremely bright … especially when compared to the 10D … and was not cluttered with unnecessary info. Those of you used to using the Mark II or 1D will find the controls and layout a little different, but after using the camera for a day or two, I was able to find things intuitively and with ease.

While the 20D sports an improved buffer over Canon's previous mid-level digital cameras, bursts, especially when shooting sports, were problematic. In other words I "ran" the buffer quite a bit, especially when I was shooting at higher ISO ratings late in the day or under the lights at a night game.

However, I also feel Canon's super, wiz-bang, God's-Gift-To-Photographers Mark II is also lacking in that department. To tell you the truth, I don't know how the guys at SI can shoot action on RAW + JPEG with this kind of buffer.


With a sub - $1,500 price freelance photographers (and other who have to buy their own gear) have been really attracted to the Canon 20D. And as I said at the top, there is much to love about this camera:

• Fast, responsive auto-focus
• High quality files, even shooting at high ISO
• Small, easy-handling design
• Improved start-up time and shutter lag
• A pop-up flash that really works well
• The ability to use AA batteries in an emergency (with the BG-E2)
• And most of all, the price

The few drawbacks in my opinion are:
• Under-size buffer
• Unbalanced without the BG-E2
• ISO settings not in 1/2 or 1/3 increments (nit-picky, I know)

Is this a camera body I would buy INSTEAD of a pro - level model? If I were making my living in sports and news photography, probably not. If my livelihood depended on my equipment, I think I would tend to learn toward something that would withstand the use (or is it abuse?) that Sports Shooters and PJ's subject their gear to.

However this is a great camera, make no mistake about that, one that would work well as a primary body for many photographers working out there. Even for PJ's, its size and weight make it appealing for many situations and uses. For the money, there is not a better deal out there for Canon shooters.

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