The DSLR is on its last legs. Its entry-level models have been battered by relentless hordes of compact system cameras while its pro bodies now face an assault from Olympus’ superb OMD-EM1 and Sony’s new full-frame A7 and A7r.
So where does that leave its mid-range cameras? Fighting for survival in the face of certain defeat, presumably. In fact, it looked as if Canon had already waved the white flag on this front – its two mid-range models, the 60D and 7D, are now three and four years old respectively. But no, here, finally, is the 70D – and it boasts a not-so-secret weapon in the form of a new autofocus system that promises to massively improve performance for both video and stills.
Add to that a new 20.2MP APS-C sensor, Wi-Fi and twisty-turny touchscreen and you have a camera that might just be the hero product DLSR fans have been hoping for. Let’s find out if it has what it takes to begin the fightback.
A SIZEABLE SUCCESS
There’s no getting round it, the 70D is big. The step up in size from the entry-level 700D is notable enough – it’s taller, fatter and has a far bigger grip – but put it next to a CSC such as the Olympus OMD-EM1 and it feels needlessly hefty. Alright, so much of the extra bulk comes from the mirror inside it, which CSCs don’t have, but given Canon released the diminutive 100D DSLR only a few months ago, we’d have thought it could have turned its shrinking beam on the 70D too.
On the other hand, it might be a deliberate move: pick it up and you instantly feel as if you’re holding a serious camera, one made for big, expensive lenses and weighty photography projects. (Not that the 70D is itself weighty: at 755g it's remarkably light.) It also allows for an abundance of manual controls. You get the lot here – everything from autofocus mode to metering to drive type gets a dedicated button, and all are easily accessible with your shooting hand.
And then there’s the touchscreen. It’s the most obvious physical change from the 60D, and enables swift amendments to virtually any setting via the ‘Q’ menu. You can also use it to swipe through or pinch-zoom into pics – very handy, this – or even set focus points and shoot when in Live View mode. More on that later. It’s responsive in use, razor-sharp to look at and doesn’t really have any drawbacks, but we still found ourselves using physical controls for most standard shooting options. The screen’s flip-outability, on the other hand, soon becomes essential – particularly so for video, when lying down mid-shot to get just the right angle isn’t that practical. Well, not in the kind of videos we make anyway.
HOCUS POCUS AUTOFOCUS
The 70D’s killer feature is its new autofocus system. Why? We could get all technical and start talking about the difference between contrast-detection and phase-detection sensors, but that’s not really what you want to know. The important thing is that while DSLRs have generally had the edge over CSCs when shooting fast-moving subjects through the viewfinder, it’s been a different story once you switch to Live View. And video on a DSLR? You’re on your own. But that’s all changed on the 70D, which uses a fancy new setup called Dual Pixel AF to improve matters. Don’t worry, that’s as technical as we’ll get. Live View mode is massively improved. For starters, it’s quick to focus, especially so with a more advanced USM or STM lens such as the EF-S 18-135mm STM lens our test camera shipped with. This is a major change over previous Canon DSLRs, which would usually hunt for a while before settling down, especially in low light.
It’s also extremely accurate – often more so than shooting through the viewfinder, in fact. Coupled with the vari-angle and touch-sensitive screen, it’s a powerful tool: we found ourselves taking shots that would’ve been impossible through a viewfinder, using the screen to both select the subject and trigger the shutter from awkward angles. It’s not quite perfect though. There’s no subject-tracking when shooting continuously in Live View, so for fast action you’ll still be better off with the viewfinder. But for portraits, landscapes and macro, it’s superb.
Switch to the viewfinder instead and you’ll be using a fast, accurate conventional DSLR autofocus system with 19 focus points. You can let the camera choose the focus point for you – something it generally does very well – or specify an autofocus zone to narrow things down a bit. The speediest choice of all is to set a single point and use the focus-and-recompose technique to aim at your subject. None of this is revolutionary, but it is an improvement on its predecessor, the 60D, and the entry-level 700D, both of which have to make do with 9 autofocus points. In practice, it works excellently, nailing focus almost every time and tracking fast-moving subjects accurately when you want it to.
A good autofocus system obviously helps you take sharp pictures, but it’s far from the only factor. Fortunately, the new 20.2MP sensor inside the 70D doesn’t let the side down either. It’s Canon’s first 20MP-plus crop sensor – a nice change after the 18MP effort that featured in no fewer than 8 Canon DSLRs – although it’s still smaller than those found in some rivals. Nikon’s entry-level D3200, for instance, has 24.2MP. But megapixels don’t make much difference once you get past 10-15MP, and of more importance is the fact it takes very nice pictures with good contrast, nice colours and well-controlled noise.
In fact low noise is one of the key image improvements over the 60D and 700D. Like the full-frame 5D Mk III and 6D, the 70D uses Canon's Digic 5+ processor, and this helps it shoot at high ISOs without images ever getting too muddy. Realistically, you can trust it at ISO 3200 – we’d never shoot our aging 550D above 800 – but shots taken at ISO 6400 are fine if you’re not blowing them up too big. Let’s be honest: you won’t do anything with them except leave them on your hard drive for eternity anyway. And even ISO 25600 is fine for that.
The Digic 5+ processor also speeds up burst shooting on the 70D. It can rattle off 7fps, which is fast enough that it can probably capture each beat of a hummingbird’s wings, if you have a hummingbird to hand and nothing better to do. Sensibly, there’s a low-speed continuous shooting option available for those of us who don’t have the patience to wade through hundreds of shots which are almost, but not quite, identical. Still, nice option to have.
The other area where the 70D’s new Dual Pixel AF excels is when shooting video. Until now, any video shot on a DSLR would likely include whole sections where you lost focus as your subjects moved around. Unless you were particularly skilled at manually focusing, that is, but we’re not. The 700D and 100D improved matters a little, but neither nailed it in the way the 70D does, autofocusing swiftly as you move from subject to subject and even tracking people’s faces as they walk around. As with Live View shooting, it’s not quite flawless – track someone as they move across a room and there’ll likely be a frame or two that misses focus. But it’s massively improved over any previous DSLR.
Footage itself is sharp, although with full HD only available in 24, 25 or 30fps flavours, it’s not the best out there. The lack of a headphone port is a major omission too, meaning there’s no way to monitor sound output. So it’s not one for professionals, but for the average person making holiday movies and films of their kids’ school plays, it’ll do fine.
Like fingerprint sensors on phones and stupid haircuts on hipsters, Wi-Fi is de rigeur for new cameras. The 70D is far from the first DSLR to feature it – Canon’s own 6D has it, for starters – but it’s welcome all the same. You can use it to connect to your smartphone, tablet or computer, then view and download pictures directly to them, shoot via the EOS Utility program or EOS Remote app, upload to social media or Canon’s own Image Gateway, view images on a DLNA-equipped TV or print to a wireless printer.
For the most part, it works slickly and being able to view and download shots on the fly is massively helpful. Shooting via the Remote app is also a boon when you’re using a tripod; macro addicts will get a lot of use from it. And more importantly, using it makes you feel like Ansel Adams’ great-great-great-great-grandson in the year 2100. Setting up remote shooting on a PC or Mac is a bit more fiddly, but hardly rocket science – though admittedly, connecting via a USB cable is easier and usually just as practical. Strangely, using Wi-Fi disables movie mode, and all-too-commonly it also runs down battery life, so you won’t want to leave it on continuously – but it’s a feature you’ll use lots all the same.
The 70D is Canon’s best DSLR for ages. While its recent entry-level models have been near flawless in their own right, they’ve not really offered anything that might make compact system camera users sit up and take notice. But the 70D does exactly that. Dual Pixel AF improves Live View and Video modes to the extent that there’s really little difference between the 70D and most top CSCs on autofocus, and with a bigger sensor inside the Canon it’ll arguably take better pictures. Plus, with Wi-Fi and a flippable touchscreen on board, there’s not much between them on features either.
Prices are comparable too and while the 70D is expensive, we’d expect to see real-world prices come down quite quickly. So the choice basically boils down to whether you’re more bothered about the small size of the latest mirrorless cams, or the better lens range and bigger sensor of a DSLR. We can’t make that decision for you, but we can promise that if you buy a 70D you won’t regret it.