I'm not a professional photographer. But I'm one of those guys who the camera stores like to see: a guy with a spending habit for a "high-end hobby."

Over the past eight years I've taken tens of thousands of pictures with various point-and-shoot digital cameras, from the initial one-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 900, up through the five-megapixel Coolpix 5700. When I discovered the wonderful world of Digital SLRs (DSLR) in the form of my friend's Canon 10D, I quickly had both megapixel and deep ISO envy. However, at nearly twice the money I'd spent for my most recent point-and-shoot (and what do you mean, that's without the lens?), I couldn't convince my heavily dinged credit card to accept the charge.

And then came the Canon Digital Rebel (officially, the EOS 300D), a solid DSLR for under $1,000--although that's like saying you can get a Corvette for $30K until you start adding everything you really want. I had one of those in my hands the first week they were available to the public. Finally, I had a camera that felt like a traditional, mid-range 35mm SLR in nearly every respect except the per-shot cost. I could swap lenses, get some serious flash units, and start snapping like the semi-pro I pretend to be.

After shooting for a year with my Digital Rebel, I was pleased to hear that Canon was replacing its 10D with a unit that was reportedly both better and cheaper. Sorry wallet, time to take another hit. I put my money down for a 20D, proudly picking it up from my local store, where I was one of the first two customers. I then spent the next two weeks finding odd moments to wander around and shoot interesting things in various conditions, and I'm happy to report that I'm very pleased with my choice. Let's start with an example story.

Quick... Get that Shot!

I was walking down the street in Boston's Back Bay when I heard an ambulance siren from just out of my view. Imagining for a moment that I was being paid as a photojournalist, I decided to "get that shot," wanting a picture of the ambulance speeding down the street right in front of me.

I reached down for my 20D hanging from my neck. I flipped the camera on (0.2 seconds startup time), switched to the five-frames-per-second motor drive (a simple button press and quick thumbwheel roll), verified that my ISO was reasonable (one more button press), and rolled the exposure control to standard "P" mode (I'd been shooting in "Tv" mode and didn't want to mess with figuring out exposure just then). This all took about two seconds.

As the ambulance started coming by, I pulled the view finder up to my eye, dialed in the proper focal length, and squeezed the shutter release, holding it down and panning with the ambulance as it went by. The autofocus nailed it instantly and reset on each shot as the ambulance came closer, passed me, and then moved further away. At nearly five frames per second, I was able to take about 25 sequential shots before the ambulance was out of view.

I had guessed that the shutter speed would be slow enough that the background would be blurry, but this was exactly the effect I wanted. I needed the rest of the camera to do the right thing though: quick focus, perfect exposure, and best of all, two dozen shots from which to hopefully find a few that I had panned perfectly in sync with the ambulance.

When I unloaded the pictures from the camera, I was amazed to find that, much as I had predicted, many were motion-blurred, but four or five were definitely printable. Figure 1 is my favorite image from the set.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The ambulance (f/7.1, 1/100s, ISO 100)

The "Work" Continues

Continuing in my "pretend you're a reporter" mind frame, the following evening I attended a conference awards presentation. I got there late, so I ended up sitting in the back row of seats, about 75 feet from the stage. I wondered if I could capture these award presenters and recipients in something good enough for a small print at least. I attached my Canon 75-300mm image-stabilized lens, and dialed the ISO up to 1600, and then 3200.

At ISO 1600, there was almost no noticeable noise, and even at ISO 3200, the noise was in the form of slight color variations (see Figure 2) that tended to average out when the shot was reduced 50 percent or more in PhotoShop (see Figure 3). Again, the five-frames-per-second motor drive helped here.

Figure 2. One hundred percent crop of an image shot at ISO 3200 (f/5.6, 1/30s, ISO 3200)

Figure 3. ISO 3200 image reduced for web (f/5.6, 1/30s, ISO 3200)

I presented the conference coordinator with my shots and got back a compliment on my work. The official photographer had spent his time shooting the event from beside the stage, so my face-on shots were a welcome, complementary angle. Not bad for a high-end hobbyist.

Art for Art's Sake

Keeping in mind that not all of life consists in motion, I spent as much time as I could afford wandering around looking for artful shots. Because people have lawyers, and I don't carry release forms with me, I tend to shoot buildings and scenery. I struck gold when I found a very nice fountain in Boston's Back Bay.

Water is one of my favorite subjects because it is constantly changing and just looks good catching lights and creating shadows. In particular, I like shooting water both at really fast and really slow shutter speeds. The slow shutter speeds add a nice dreamy effect to the moving water, while the fast shutter speeds turn the water into ice, often revealing shapes and patterns that I cannot see with my eyes.

One of the things I was keen to try was the new 1/8000 of a second shutter speed. I knew that in combining a fast shutter and a high ISO (to enable a decent depth-of-field), I'd get some reasonable shots. But I had never imagined the totally frozen-in-time images that I was about to see. Picture after picture came out completely clean, properly exposed, in sharp focus, and frozen as if an instant cold snap had somehow come over the area (see Figure 4). Of course, I was previewing them on site but was even more amazed when I viewed them on the laptop back in the hotel room.

Figure 4. One of my first 1/8000-second exposures (f/7.1, 1/8000s, ISO 1600)

After playing with a lot of jaw-dropping, fast pictures, I wanted to try the slow imaging as well, so I pushed over to Av mode and dialed in the tightest aperture (f/22). After reducing the ISO down to 100, this resulted in a 1/30 or 1/50 shutter speed, so I held steady and snapped a dozen more like that (see Figure 5). The result had a pleasing calmness to it, in stark contrast to the high-speed pictures taken earlier.

Figure 5. Slow water, 1/30th of a second (f/22, 1/30s, ISO 100)

Finally, in an artful stroke of madness, I wanted an interesting background to be interrupted by the paintbrush of water as I had captured it earlier and walked carefully around the fountain looking for "that shot." Luckily, a nice blue sky framed a beautiful domed building with just the right lighting nearby, so I quickly rolled the knobs back and forth to get my high-speed shot (Figure 6) and my slow-speed shot (Figure 7) as variations on the theme. For me, those two shots are worth the price of the camera: I'm having them framed for my home office very soon (probably 11x17). The exposure and white balance are untouched in these shots; the result straight out of the camera was very usable indeed.

Figure 6. High-speed shot in the pair of themed images (f/6.3, 1/8000s, ISO 1600)

Figure 7. Low-speed shot in the pair of themed images; the focus point was the dome in the back (f/22, 1/40s, ISO 100)


I thought I should include a section here about left-brained technical specs of the 20D. But rather than blather on about things you can find on any web site, let me just say that the things that were important to me in choosing the camera are:
  • Eight megapixels (3504x2336, to be precise)
  • Compact flash (type I or II)
  • CMOS chip (for low noise in low light)
  • Canon EF and EF-S mount (so I can buy lenses off Ebay)
  • Fairly light (24 ounces, according to the manual)
  • Good selection of automatic, semi-automatic, and manual exposure settings (P, Tv, Av, and M), as well as a nice selection of no-brainer "scene" settings (portrait, landscape, sports, and so on)
  • Nine-way diamond auto-focus pattern with manual point selection (with a nice joystick interface)

The Good

One of the most frequent things I find myself doing with a camera is capturing candid shots indoors. For these shots, having the ability to drop into ISO 1600 (or even ISO 3200) is definitely an advantage because I don't have to flip on the flash to interrupt the experience. The 20D is amazing in this respect. I was constantly blown away at the cleanliness of the shots at high ISO figures, and also that the little noise that I saw almost never manifested itself as variations in brightness, just in color. For example, Figure 8 shows a dark interior of a pub lit only by a streetlight outside. I could not even see the wood grain of the floor with my eyes, and yet it's plainly visible in the image.

Figure 8. Seeing what my eye couldn't see (f/3.5, 1/6s, ISO 3200)

Getting the shot when I want it is also important, so having a good autofocus is also essential. And again, the 20D seems to consistently pick out the right focus point and quickly find the sharp picture, almost as fast as I pull the trigger through. For example, capturing the departing helicopter in Figure 9 required a very quick focus as the craft was moving rapidly upward and away.

Figure 9. Helicopter departure (f/16, 1/400s, ISO 400)

Another aspect of getting the shot when I want it is power-up time, because life never works on schedule. Again, the 20D with its "got to be seen" 0.2 seconds of start time wins here. In fact, I no longer flip the camera off; I simply let the one-minute inactivity timer shut the camera down for me, so that when I'm ready to take the next shot, pressing the shutter release halfway is enough to boot the camera and get the focus and exposure as I need it.

Speaking of exposure, my previous experience with automatic exposure on digital cameras led me to the bad habit of always running at one stop under on the compensation, simply because I was tired of the whiter-than-white blowouts that would regularly occur at 0 EV. However, with the 20D, I'm just not seeing that kind of blowout, so I'm back to using 0 EV, finally able to trust that the camera will protect me from those mistakes.

The five-frames-per-second drive speed is also very useful, as I described earlier in my "get the shot" example. I've already seen some amazing pictures shot with the 20D of rodeos and soccer games, where being able to peel off a dozen pictures in a short burst can come in quite handy.

While I probably can't think of a practical use for 1/8000-of-a-second exposure, the pretty frozen pictures of water are artful enough for me to justify that speed.

The user interface is also very straightforward, with a row of buttons with double duty as well as two different wheels to move for each of the settings for that button--although occasionally I would move the wrong wheel. The menu system is color coded to provide fast access to major sections of settings and can be scrolled quickly with the wheels to get to the right section. The view finder display also seems nicely functional, although there's no readout of ISO except when you ask for it and only then on the LCD display on the camera top.

The Bad

Apparently, to get a five-frames-per-second motor drive, Canon had to sacrifice a bit on the noise reduction for the shutter. So, when you take a picture with the 20D, you can hear it. It's a nice solid camera sound though, so it's not like anyone will mistake it for something else more annoying. But don't expect to take a wedding picture in a quiet moment without turning at least a few heads.

As cool as the instant-on feature might be, it's been suggested in a couple of online forums that this might come as some sacrifice to the battery, because the camera appears to be just "sleeping" rather than completely powered off. The time to turn on the camera when you've removed and replaced the battery seems to be a more traditional boot-up time of two to three seconds, which does suggest some sort of sleeping mode. Because I was using the camera too often, however, I did not test the "sleeping" drain of my battery.

The Ugly

During my two-week play period, I watched the various online communities repeatedly speak of "freeze-ups" in their new 20Ds. I had never experienced this event, but apparently the camera completely locks up, and usually at a critical time. The only fix is to pop the battery door open, slide the battery out a bit, reinsert the battery, and then let the camera boot up again (which takes about five to ten seconds, depending on how fast you can get around to the battery door).

I considered myself lucky, because I had not yet experienced this defect. However, on my very last shoot last night, my camera decided to join the pack and freeze up on me. By the time you read this, Canon will likely have figured out the problem and released a new bit of field-flashable upgrade firmware to fix the problem, but beware for now.


If you're a traditional film camera buff and haven't yet entered the world of digital cameras because the point-and-shoot cameras weren't your style, the Canon EOS 20D is a solid workhorse that might just make you retire your 35mm SLR for good.

If you're a digital point-and-shoot camera user and are ready to move on to interchangeable lenses, better low-light sensitivity, and a more professional look, you might be tempted to jump to the Digital Rebel. But for only 50 percent more money, the 20D will give you faster shooting speeds, better low-light sensitivity, easier-to-use controls, eight megapixels (versus six in the Rebel), and a good base of compatibility for future Canon products.

Either way, the Canon 20D is a definite good buy for the money. It's now a permanent addition to my car's back seat or my carry-on luggage for trips. After all, you never know when something might happen that needs a picture, do you?

To see the rest of the pictures from my first two weeks with the 20D, feel free to stop by my website.