Moving to the Mid-Range: The Canon 40D

Posted on May 20, 2008. Filed under: Photography |

A bunch of stuff you’re probably not interested in reading …

This post is about a new camera. But, cameras form memories as solidly as they record them, and so I can’t help but get a little nostalgic over loves past, and amazed at how far we’ve come along the way. So please, allow me a stroll down memory lane. It’ll only take a page or two, but if you’re in a hurry, just click that scroll bar over there to the right a few times until you see the First Impressions heading.

I have enjoyed photography since I was a child. Starting with an old Vivitar, I eventually moved up to the heaven of SLR photography with a second-hand Pentax K1000 during high school (which had “Asahi” branded across its nose, betraying a better age, and a semi-broken light meter which had to be checked with common sense to avoid spoiling film; I believe my dad had bought it from one of his Air Force buddies to keep my grubby mitts off his well-maintained world-traveling-yet-mint-condition K1000). I loved that camera, as did legions of other photography buffs around the world. Even then, the K1000 brand had been relegated to all-plastic shadows of its former self, a product of an age needing a new take on an old camera every year or two instead of every decade, where “manual” was a cost-cutting measure all its own. I had just one lens to mount on the body – a standard 50mm lens which I believe had shipped in a kit when the original owner had bought it. I enjoyed the science of it, the ability to twiddle with the various parameters to get the right amount of light on the film with drastically different effects. On the downside, though, I never wanted to develop my own film. I had no desire to deal with the chemicals, the smells, the dark room. And so, my prints went out to the dime-store developer, which was both a time consuming (one week turn-around) and expensive proposition.

In college, in one seven-week period, my K1000 was stolen (from my luggage while traveling down to Washington DC), and then the Ricoh I’d bought there to replace it was also stolen (from my hotel dresser, damn you State Hotel of Washington DC!) A few years later, my wife (who had been my brand new girlfriend throughout that ordeal) bought me a Pentax P30t with a 35-80 zoom lens (my first zoom lens, ever!). This was her first act of enabling my addiction. Over the next several years, we kept the point-and-shoots close at hand (even traveling fairly far down the Advantix APS dead-end road before coming to our senses), but recorded the major milestones of our lives on that Pentax. It was a great film camera, as beloved to me as my K1000 had been. It’s congenital defect: being a film camera, it tended to shoot pictures on film.

Enter the digital age. Our first digital camera was a Kodak high-end point-and-shoot, the Kodak DC4800. The 3.1 megapixels of the camera seem quaint by today’s standards, but at the time it was a vast sea of information. Yet, for all that, it seemed the quality of pixels would never come close to the quality of decent film in my old Pentax. We’d print out the pictures, mostly at home on our printer, and were never completely satisfied with the results. Still, the convenience was a watershed. From then on, the Pentax saw less and less use, until finally it was set aside in its hip pouch carrying bag and not brought out again.

During the Kodak years, the final straw for my Pentax (and, coincidentally, my Windows PC) was the discovery of iPhoto. All my digital photos were available for instant review at my fingertips. I started taking the old film prints (the negatives unfortunately too far gone) and scanning them in. While the sheer pixel count wasn’t quite there yet, the permanence of digital images over that of my poorly-kept film images took me to the point of never looking back.

The Kodak saw use right up until late 2004 when, while I was away on a business trip, my wife went crazy and splurged on one of those digital SLRs I’d been drooling over for years. Canon’s EOS Digital Rebel (300D) had been out for about a year, and Nikon’s D70 had just been released. Turns out that at the same time my wife went and bought the Canon with a couple of Sigma lenses for me, my brother-in-law had gone and bought the Nikon (for about $500 more). Seemed like a big deal at the time, although I don’t think either of us has regretted our choice in sides of that particular debate.

That Rebel saw battlefield use for the past three and a half years. Several seasons of soccer and softball, school events, work events, camping trips and hikes and road trips: it gave us better-than-acceptable quality, astounding convenience, and best of all let me practice those aperture-shutter-speed-ISO muscles I’d long forgotten.

Alas, it also had its faults. The Sigma lenses were never as crystal-clear as they should have been. ISO above 800 was unusable. The 3-second startup time seemed like hours at times, and the 4-shot-max buffer led to frustrating missed shots. Reviewing RAW images on its little screen was so slow it was almost not worth the trouble.

Each of those faults, though, was still a vast improvement over the non-DSLR market. ISO 800? Try ISO 200 max. 3 second startup? The Kodak took 5. The 4-shot buffer was only 4 shots because I was shooting in RAW, allowing me unprecedented post-processing possibilities (which I sometimes used!) All said, I wouldn’t forgo the low-end DSLRs from Canon or Nikon because of any of these complaints.

This week, the EOS Digital Rebel has finally met retirement. Joyfully, “retirement” is really “repurposement” in the hands of our eldest children. May they enjoy it as much as I’d enjoyed my hand-me-down K1000!

In it’s place around my neck on every hike, you will find the Canon 40D, equipped with the kit lens (28-135 IS) or a new zoom (70-300 IS), both from Canon, both of which I’d been eyeing for quite some time.

Canon 40D First Impressions

It’s probably premature to pass much judgement here, but my first impressions are:

  1. The 40D is fast. Blazing fast. Flip the on switch and take a picture in less time than it takes to get it up to my eye. Writing images to disk is super-fast, even with the larger files it is writing. Reviewing images is sub-second fast, where the Rebel took 3-4 seconds to load each RAW image into memory from the card before displaying it. It becomes a tool rather than an occasional hindrance, which is an astonishing change.
  2. I swear I can pull a lot more detail out of its shadows. Perhaps this is the 14-bit circuitry at work, or perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it’s even all in my head. Who knows?
  3. Awesome detail on the high-ISO (1600) images. I haven’t yet tried 3200, but 400 is a good all-around sensitivity now.
  4. Auto ISO. I have had more spoiled outings because I forgot which ISO I was shooting in and ended up bringing back all blurred picks or battling with over-exposure. Three years later, it’s rare, but it’s nice to let a computer remember the ISO for me instead (except when I want a specific ISO for a specific effect).
  5. The fit and finish on this camera is astonishing, coming up from the low-end range. Gone is the slick silver (in my case) plastic and barely-rubberized grip. This camera feels great in my hand.
  6. All that stuff I said about CRW format not holding geocoding data so I needed to introduce DNG into my workflow? The 40D uses CR2, which does geocoding just fine. Did a test round-trip of our hike around Eagle Falls next to Tahoe and all worked swimingly well without the DNG kludgy step.
  7. The eyepiece is large and bright, astoundingly so. When lining up to time a batter in a softball game, I’d get it all lined up in the viewfinder, tense my arms against the monopod to make sure it didn’t move, then pull back my face and watch the pitcher send the ball flying so I could hit the trigger at just the right moment (give or take). With the 40D, when I pull my face away and watch the pitcher, I can still see the view through the eyepiece, and so I don’t have to hope I didn’t jar the camera any more. In practice, this means I can zoom in even closer on the batter, because there is less variance between the lined-up shot and the captured frame; there is an astounding difference in detail and impact of a head-to-toe shot of a batter and a eyes-to-waist shot of the same at the moment of impact!
  8. Frickin’ high-speed continuous “motor”, with lasers!
  9. I can leave the “time out” setting on it really low, knowing that a tap on the shutter button will bring it back to life with no delay whatsoever. In practice, I see this increasing my battery life far more than any circuitry-based savings ever could: it’s a workflow-level performance improvement, orders of magnitude more significant than fine-tuning operational improvements could ever hope to be.
  10. The kit lens is fantastic as a general-purpose walkabout lens. The zoom range is large enough to handle most hiking situations, from medium angles along the trail to wide angle family portraits trailside to mid-level zooms of distant features (although I’ll still carry the 300mm for bird-sniping). So far, it seems crystal-clear in all zoom ranges, which is far more than could be said of the Sigma zooms.
  11. IS is nice, but the verdict is still out on if the aperture trade-off is worth it indoors. See, my 50mm 1.8 prime lens is about two stops faster, just in aperture, than the 28-135 zoom at its widest (f3.5). The IS purportedly gives two full stops “extra” without blurring (meaning, you can have a quarter of the shutter speed with just as much noticeable blur), which combined with its wider available view should make it a better lens for capturing dimly-lit indoors scenes with “natural” lighting. The problem is that stylistically taking that extra stops in aperture leads to a popped-in-focus effect for your subject, which is often necessary for indoor shots (the backgrounds are almost always too busy indoors), and the extra two stops in shutter speed arrest the movements of your hand but not those of your subjects. Given a straight choice, I’d choose one stop aperture over two stops of IS steadying. That having been said, the 28-135 IS is a great stand-in here for the 28mm f2 I don’t own.
  12. Reviewing pictures on the 40D is finally something I can do. I ran out of space (on a 4GB card!) at a game, and had to quickly get some space for the last few plays. Zooming out to the four-picture view I was able to quickly scan through the stacks to weed out the obvious losers for in-camera deletion. Generally, I’d strongly advise just keeping every picture shot and sorting it all out back at home when we have our senses about us again, but I didn’t have a spare card and needed to get more shots. In an emergency situation, I was more confident that the filtering I did in the field was a lot closer to what I’d have done at home than what would have been necessary on the Rebel’s tiny screen.
  13. Oh yeah. This sucker eats through memory cards. Combine the near-limitless high-speed machine-gun trigger with the larger file sizes (12MB for the RAW, plus 3-5MB for the JPEG preview if you want both) and just plain increased shooting bliss, and the “CF Card Full” message comes quite unexpectedly. You will want a couple extra cards stashed away in your cargo pants for his occasion. Fortunately, the card-change time can be about two seconds with a little practice, as shutting the camera down and powering it back up are so freaking fast.
  14. Back on the down-side: there is no cheap and easy Canon IR remote control for the 40D? Apparently mid-range camera buyers don’t want to fiddle with remote triggers. It’s not a great loss, as the EOS’s built-in IR was limited-range and fussy, but it’d be nice to at elast have a Canon-supplied alternative for wireless triggering of the shutter in family portraits. That having been said, I went searching at Amazon and found an alternative for $85 (via Adorama), then went searching a little more deeply and found the same alternative devices abounding at eBay for $25 each. I took a chance on the eBay’d version (apparently one company makes this device which a half dozen other companies rebrand), and will know if it is a satisfactory replacement sometime next week. Should have significantly better range and no line-of-sight annoyances (the EOS IR sensor would often be blocked by a lens hood, requiring contortions to trigger it). I’d link to eBay for the specific model, but eBay auction links time out too quickly. Just search for “canon wireless remote 40d”; I bought one of the “Aputure” RF-based remotes if you feel the need to walk in my purchasing footsteps.
  15. Final downside: Canon lenses don’t come with hoods. I’ve never wanted to use a lens without a hood since the first hood I’d gotten. It’s, what, about 50 cents of plastic? Why not just include it with the lens? Oh yeah: so you can sell it separately for-40 bucks each. Highway robbery. There are third-party alternatives out there, but will they fit as well as Canon’s? In any case, this also found its way onto my shopping list with all due haste.
  16. Odd feature: two “On” positions on the power button. The far “on” setting enables everything; the middle “on” setting disables the rear control wheel. I can not for the life of me imagine why you’d want that middle ‘on’ setting, or, if you really wanted to work that way, why you wouldn’t rather it a separate setting or button.
  17. Silly fad features: Print from the camera, picture styles. At least I can repurpose the Picture Styles button (which is useless to a RAW shooter!) Unfortunately I’ll be tripping over that silly print button well beyond when anyone knows why it was put there in the first place.

Moving On …

That’s it. I’ve moved firmly up in the world, taking advantage of both general state-of-the-art improvements (many of the features of the 40D above are also in the “low-end” Canon Digital Rebel XTi 400D) and prosumer quality bits in one purchase (well, two, including the 70-300 IS lens). To say I’m excited about digital photography implies that at one time I was not. Still, I’m looking for places to bring my new toy, and expecting that my photo library will grow significantly in the next couple of months.

Perspective. Remember: cameras are tools we use to record our memories. Not even that: they are tools we use to record images which can in turn jog our memories. Geeklust won’t accomplish this task better. There’s a good chance that experience with a camera will yield better pictures than the latest greatest toy. More important than the camera are the pictures it takes; more important than the pictures are the memories they trigger; more important than the memories are the events which yield them. Get out and take some pictures with your camera, be that a Pentax K1000 or a Kodak Advantix.

Live life, make memories, then record them with the tool you have. In that order.

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2 Responses to “Moving to the Mid-Range: The Canon 40D”

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My Canon PowerShot S5 IS died recently. Well it’s lens stopped working. Canon couldn’t fix it but I love that camera and will probably buy the same again. Over the years I’ve become a true Canon fan, I haven’t found another brand that I like as well. My collection is growing. I have a Canon Rebel SLR camera and bought the Canon Digital Rebel as soon as the price lowered a tad and I love them both. I also have a smaller Canon PowerShot A80 which is still used often. When the Canon PowerShot S5 IS died on me in Hawaii I bought a Canon PowerShot SD1100 IS to get me through. I still plan to purchase a new Canon PowerShot S5 IS.
One of these days I’ll become a photographer that understands all the bells and whistles of the cameras, for now I’m extremely happy with the quality of Canon cameras and the photos they produce.

Wow. Thanks for this great review – you’ve helped me make the decision to upgrade from my 300d Rebel to the 40d. And great advice in your last paragraph and sentence.


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