The 7D is (still!) Canon’s latest and greatest prosumer camera body; it has generated a lot of interest, heated discussion, and plenty of confusion on the internet forums. I’ve shot the 7D extensively and thought I’d share some of my initial impressions and usage settings with you. I’ll start with the body’s construction. It feels quite well built; not a 1-series body to be sure, but a definite step up from the XXD series. The 7D handles challenging weather conditions without a hiccup; I’ve used it in both the freezing cold of the Bosque del Apache and in light rain on the California coast without a single problem. The controls are substantially new, bringing added functionality at the cost of a small learning curve. The new LCD is excellent, with great sharpness and easy readability in all lighting conditions. While in California I photographed with a friend who used a Nikon D300s, and compared to the 7D his screen was very difficult to view in bright sunlight. The viewfinder is big and bright compared to the 50D’s. Other noteworthy features of the 7D include a frame rate of 8 fps, a new 19-point AF system (all cross-type) with its own dedicated processor, wireless flash control, 1080p HD video recording, a new higher capacity battery with ‘intelligence,’ and an electronic level.
So, enough of the preliminaries; let’s delve into how best to set up the 7D for bird photography, and in particular bird flight photography! We’ll start with the first red menu. If I don’t comment on a setting, assume that it’s in its default position. I almost always set ‘Quality’ to ‘RAW,’ unless I’m using ISO 1600 or greater (in which case I tend to shoot JPEG or RAW + JPEG. I always set ‘Release shutter without card’ to ‘Disable;’ there’s no worse feeling than taking a series of images only to find out that you forgot to put in a memory card. I have ‘Review time’ set to ‘Off’ to preserve battery life. On the second red menu I have my ‘Color space’ set to ‘Adobe RGB’, which has a wider color gamut than sRGB. The third red menu is set to the factory defaults. Moving to the fourth red menu I have ‘Silent shooting’ set to disable; the default ‘Mode 1′ position decreases your maximum frame rate to 7 fps.
Moving next to the blue menus, I haven’t changed the settings in the first menu. On the second menu I have ‘Highlight alert’ set to ‘Enable;’ I tend to use blinking highlight alerts rather than the histogram in the field because I find it gives the quickest feedback, allowing me to adjust my settings on the fly without missing the next bird as it flies by. I set ‘AF point disp.’ to ‘Enable;’ during image review, the focus point(s) are displayed in red.
Now for the yellow menus. On the first menu I have ‘Auto rotate’ set to monitor (the middle option); that way when I’m shooting in a vertical orientation the image won’t rotate 90 degrees when I’m trying to review it in the camera. Only when I download the file onto my computer will it auto-rotate. I leave the second yellow menu unchanged. On the third menu I have ‘INFO. button display options’ set to ‘Displays shooting functions.’ You can actually put check marks next to any and every one of the options here and cycle through them with the ‘INFO.’ button if you like. This is where you’ll find the electronic level option. I have entered my copyright information into the camera so that it is included in the EXIF data of all of my images.
Let’s move on to the orange Custom Function menus. I have ‘C.Fn I: Exposure’ set to the camera defaults. Under ‘C.Fn II: Image,’ I have ‘Highlight tone priority’ set to ‘Disable.’ It is designed to expand the dynamic range from 18% gray to the highlights. To get the benefits of highlight tone priority you must either shoot JPEG or process your RAW files in Canon’s DPP software. Programs like Lightroom ignore highlight tone priority. With HTP enabled your ISO choices becoming limited to ISO 200-6400, and you will see ‘D+’ displayed on the back LCD and in the viewfinder. Canon doesn’t reveal exactly how HTP works, but it is likely that among other things it underexposes images by a stop. The result can be more shadow noise, especially when trying to enhance shadow detail.
I’d like to address high ISO speed noise reduction (C.Fn II 2) in a little more detail, since this is a topic that generates a fair amount of confusion among Canon shooters. This camera setting is useful when shooting in the JPEG format only; you’ll notice that the default setting on the 7D is ‘Standard,’ not ‘Off.’ The ‘Standard’ setting significantly reduces chrominance noise primarily (the pastel-colored speckles of noise that you see in the midtones and shadows). Luminance noise (gray and black grain) is also reduced but not to the same extent, because image detail is a component of luminance and the camera is trying to preserve image detail. The ‘Low’ setting reduces chrominance noise exclusively, and the ‘Strong’ setting goes after both chrominance and luminance noise more aggressively (at the expense of image detail). The high ISO speed NR setting does not impact RAW images, and RAW conversion software (including DPP) either ignores or minimizes the impact of the in-camera high ISO speed NR setting. My personal feeling is that 7D JPEGs with standard high ISO speed NR look very good at ISOs 1600 and higher; this is why I prefer JPEG to RAW when I hit ISO 1600 (I will normally dial in RAW + JPEG just to be safe). On many older Canon bodies, enabling high ISO speed NR severely reduced the maximum burst rate (on the 1D Mark III, the maximum burst drops from 114 frames to only 14). With the new DIGIC 4 processor found on the 7D, the maximum burst rate doesn’t decrease until you set NR to ‘Strong.’
Next we’ll cover ‘C.Fn III: Autofocus/Drive.’ Some of these settings are among the most important of all 7D settings when it comes to getting the best possible images. I have ‘C.Fn III 1 AI Servo tracking sensitivity’ set to ‘Slow.’ If I’m tracking a flying bird and it flies behind a tree, slow tracking sensitivity means the camera will not give up focus on the bird and grab focus on the tree. This setting makes the AF much less twitchy. I have ‘C.Fn III 6 Select AF area selec. mode’ enabled. If you then select ‘Register’ you can place check marks next to the types of AF you use. Once you have your check marks finished you select ‘Apply’ to finalize your selections. To me this is probably the most critical setting of all. I have both of the automatic focus point selection options unchecked (these are the first 2 choices on the menu). If you want your images to be critically sharp where you want them to be sharp, don’t rely on the camera to choose your focus point for you. Using these 2 focus options is akin to shooting in full auto mode in my opinion, and is the cause of many out of focus images being posted on the internet forums. I have the last 3 AF options enabled (’AF point expansion,’ ‘Single point AF,’ and ‘Spot AF.’ You can cycle through the active focus modes by pressing the top right button on the back of the camera and then repeatedly pressing the M-Fn button just behind the shutter release button. I use ‘AF point expansion’ and ‘Single point AF’ for birds in flight. ’Spot AF’ is a more precise version of ‘Single point AF;’ it’s like an AF point within an AF point. I use it for perched subjects when I want to get the eye sharp. When using Single point and Spot AF, I often move the focus point around the frame in an attempt to compose correctly through the viewfinder (if a duck is moving across the water from my right to my left, I will move my focus point above and to the left of center and try to place the focus point on the bird’s eye). The next setting I alter is ‘C.Fn III 12 Orientation linked AF point.’ I have it set to ‘Select different AF points.’ With this setting, I can select both an AF mode and an AF point for the camera to use depending on whether the camera is in a horizontal or vertical orientation; the camera senses its own position and makes the adjustments automatically.
The last menu item is ‘C.Fn IV: Operation/Others.’ I have altered the default settings for ‘C.Fn IV 1′ only. ‘C.Fn IV 1′ is a slick way to customize the functions of many of the buttons on the camera. I’m going to provide my settings, but keep in mind that this is an area where personal preference is important. I changed the first button (‘Shutter butt. half-press’) to ‘Metering start.’ I changed the third button (‘* AE Lock button’) to ‘Metering and AF start.’ This combination of changes turns the asterisk button on the back of the camera into my AF start button. The shutter button no longer initiates AF; it only takes the picture. I have my AF mode set to AI Servo at all times and thus I am always ready for action. If I want to use One-Shot AF I simply press and release the asterisk button with my focus point on the subject. Once focus is locked and I release the asterisk button, the camera will stop trying to focus. The shutter button will simply take the picture. If the perched bird that I was focusing on suddenly flies, I can initiate AI Servo AF by pressing and holding the asterisk button again. This button configuration also allows me to focus and recompose. I put my AF point on the subject and then press and release the asterisk button. I can now recompose. Pressing the shutter button will not cause the camera to refocus; it will just take the picture.
The green ‘My Menu’ allows you to place your commonly used menu items in one convenient menu. I’ve selected ‘Format,’ ‘Battery info.,’ ‘Flash control,’ ‘Quality,’ ‘Live View shoot., and ‘VF grid display’ for my menu items.
The ‘Q’ button is new to the 7D; it is located on the back of the camera in the upper left corner. Think of it as a souped up ‘INFO.’ button. It allows you to both view your camera settings and change them from a single screen. Changeable settings include shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation (+/- 5 stops) / exposure bracketing, flash exposure compensation, AF area selection mode, picture style, white balance, metering mode, auto lighting optimizer, image quality, AF mode, drive mode, and custom controls (C.Fn IV 1).
Enough with the settings! I’m sure you all want to know how this camera performs in the field. After 15,000 frames, I’m very impressed with the 7D. Image detail is excellent, metering is accurate, and AF is probably the best that I’ve seen in a Canon body (for reference I’ve shot the 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D, and 1D Mark III). While it’s no Mark III in the noise department, it is significantly better than the 50D; noise has a much finer grain and is easily managed in post-processing until you get above ISO 800. I’ve gotten good quality images up to ISO 1600, but they require more intensive processing to look their best. The feature set is impressive, and I say that even though I have yet to use the video mode or the wireless flash control feature. The 7D is highly customizable; a positive if you’re comfortable making changes to the various settings, but a negative if you’re intimidated by all the options available to you. Hopefully the above information will help you fine-tune your new body; with the proper settings the 7D is capable of capturing incredible images!
Text and images by Doug Brown. Visit Doug’s site here to see more of his beautiful bird images.
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