Ask the experts and they’ll tell you that photography is all about light.
They’re right, of course, but focus is pretty damn important too – and that’s why Canon’s new EOS 80D is one of the best cameras we’ve used in ages.
Simply put, the 80D gives you such advanced focusing tools that you’ll be hard-pushed to get an out-of-focus shot with it. Add to that the fact that it takes big, detailed stills, excels with video, has built-in Wi-Fi and NFC and comes packed with an array of other features and you have a compelling all-round package.
The first thing you’ll realise once you start shooting with the 80D is that there are loads of ways to focus it. There are four main modes - you can let the camera choose one of the 45 focus points for you, select any one of them yourself, or let it focus within either large or small zones of your choice.
It might all seem a little bewildering at first, especially if you’re not used to system cameras, but the good news is that whichever mode you select you’ll probably get great shots. That’s because the 80D has an incredibly sophisticated autofocus system: all 45 points are the ultra-sensitive cross-type and you’ll find that it locks on swiftly and accurately even in fairly dim conditions.
The various modes come into their own when shooting moving subjects, with the zone focusing in particular doing a great job of tracking a subject. I spent some time snapping pictures of my kids playing football in the garden and was pleasantly surprised at how great they were - anyone with kids usually accepts a fair few blurry shots among the crisp ones, but here they were few and far between. It's a fairly fast camera for a mid-range DSLR, too, shooting bursts of up to 7fps with a decent buffer of 25 RAW files or 110 JPEGs.
While the average punter will just pick it up, start shooting and break out in a grin when they see the results, there’s plenty here for specialists to get their teeth into too. The AF system can be comprehensively customised, with the ability to adjust the sensitivity and speed in all manner of ways. I wouldn’t advise messing around with it unless you know what you’re doing but it’s good to know you have the option.
If I was delighted with standard AF then I was gobsmacked by the 80D’s Live View performance. Not that long ago Live View on DSLRs was only really useful for stills, but Canon has ushered in massive improvements and the 80D sets new once more.
Again, you get various options for how the camera focus - this time there are three, in the form of face-tracking and a couple of flexi-zone modes. Whichever you plump for you’ll find that the 80D quickly focuses on your chosen subject and tracks it smoothly as it moves. I should add that it's still not quite as quick or accurate as using the standard focus, but compared to any other Live View system I've used it's brilliant.
It’s here that the camera’s touchscreen really comes into its own too - you just tap on the display and it’ll focus accordingly. It makes getting a shot in Live View a cinch and works brilliantly for video as well.
As far as video goes, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There’s no 4K but unlike the 70D it does do full HD at 60fps and there’s now a microphone socket - a welcome addition for anyone wanting to shoot semi-professional YouTube videos. The 80D’s focusing abilities really make it easy to keep subjects in focus and when combined with one of Canon’s STM lenses you’ll find that focusing is both quick and quiet.
A detailed view
So the 80D clearly has all the assets it needs to be a shooting star, and the image quality doesn’t disappoint either.
Canon’s kitted it out with a 24.2MP APS-C sensor, and it’s capable of digging up plenty of detail in shots. The above shot of a spider has been heavily cropped and was taken with one of Canon’s kit zooms - the 18-135mm STM - rather than a macro lens. Despite that, you can make out individual hairs on the arachnid's legs. And I can assure you this wasn’t a tarantula-sized mini-beast.
Noise is very well controlled for most of the ISO range. The 80D rocks Canon’s high-end DIGIC 6 processor and can shoot up to ISO 25,600 in expanded mode. I wouldn’t recommend doing that too often - you’re probably better off using the built-in flash if the conditions are that dark - but at ISO 800 there’s next-to-no noise and it’s excellent at 1600 and 3200. Even 6400 will suffice if you’re not blowing the image up too much.
Colours are true-to-life and can be made much more vibrant if you fiddle with the settings beforehand or shoot in RAW and have a play around afterwards. Better still, the metering appears to be pretty accurate too. I was mostly shooting in glorious sunshine before our British summer ended predictably early this week and the 80D coped well with the conditions, exposing faces nicely but without blowing out the blue skies behind.
As I previously mentioned, the 80D is equipped with a touchscreen, and it’s a cracker: big, bright, colourful and detailed, with a 1040k-dot resolution across its 3in span.
It's as responsive as any smartphone screen and that's important because as well as using the screen to focus you can actually shoot with it - just tap to take a picture and it'll do its thing. As you'd expect, you can also use it to change settings in any of the menus and swipe through images you’ve already taken. The screen is also quite the gymnast, swivelling fully through 360-degrees so you can ogle yourself in selfies and check your hair when YouTubing. You can even twist it so that the display itself faces into the camera body and thus stays nice and safe when the camera’s in the hands of the Heathrow luggage jugglers.
The viewfinder is also excellent, being of the superior pentaprism kind and offering a full 100% coverage of the scene in front of you; there’ll be no nasty surprises on the edges of the frame with the 80D.
As you’d expect to be the case with a mid-range, enthusiast DSLR, the 80D is on the large size - you won’t be fitting it in your jacket pocket, let alone your skimpiest pair of short-shorts - but it’s no bigger than most rivals. It’s actually slightly smaller than the 70D it replaces and not that much bigger than the next-model-down, the 750D.
Big or not, it’s a lovely camera to hold - the kind you can safely pick up and hold with one hand thanks to the deep grip. It’s water- and dust-proof, and you get the feeling that it’ll survive most conditions save a full-on dunking; if you drop it, the floor will probably come off worst.
Control-wise you get everything you need - and more. While the touchscreen is undoubtedly handy at times the controls are so well placed that for the most part you won’t need it to change settings.
There’s a lockable mode dial on the left, while on the right you get the main control dial plus the autofocus mode selector and dedicated buttons for AF, drive, ISO and metering. There’s more on the back, too, including the Live View/Video toggle, focus-point selector and a second wheel which can be customised to change various other options and control aperture in manual mode. If you’ve used a Canon DSLR before it’ll be instantly familiar - and indeed it’s barely changed from the 70D - but even if you haven't you'll work it all out in no time.
Finally, there’s a top LCD, which is useful for at-a-glance checks that you have things set up correctly, and which also instantly marks you out as someone with a Proper Camera.
As with another recent Canon camera, the entry-level 1300D, the 80D is equipped with both Wi-Fi and NFC. The idea is to make it easier for you to get your photos from the camera on to your phone, where you can wow the world with your latest shots of your dog/child/gurning visage. Unusually, it works really well.
While typically frustrating to set up initially, the process is made a lot easier if you have an NFC-equipped Android phone and once you’ve connected for that first time subsequent hook-ups are a piece of battenburg.
All of which would be pointless if Canon’s Camera Connect app was rubbish, but fortunately it’s very good. You can swipe through and download images to your phone with ease, or use the app to control the 80D from afar - useful for selfies, group shots with you in them and candid photos of hungry bears in the mountains, while you hide up a nearby tree. Well presumably; we didn’t try the last one.
You can control almost every aspect of the shot, from aperture to focus mode and ISO, and the only real minus point is that there’s no time-lapse option. The 80D also offers a couple of other options over the 1300D, of which the most useful are the ability to transfer images to/from another Wi-Fi-equipped camera and upload photos to your home network if you have a NAS drive or similar.
Canon EOS 80D verdict
The 80D is a really lovely camera to use. Everything is just so effortless - you pick it up, point it at something, click away and get a load of great, in-focus pictures back. Then, if you want, you can connect via Wi-Fi and download them to your phone.
It's the photographic equivalent of playing FIFA 16 as Barcelona, on full auto mode, against Aston Villa: by the time you're finished you'll be convinced that you're a genius, but really you've not got much to do with the results. Put the 80D in the hands of a child and they'd get some great shots.
That doesn't mean it's for everyone, though. It's much bigger and uglier than the cream of the compact system camera crop, and it's a lot more expensive than a whole host of perfectly good DSLRs including Canon's own 750D. But if you want a camera that takes the hard work out of getting great photos - and who wouldn't? - you won't find many better ways to spend a grand.