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Canon EOS D30 Review

NewThis subject is featured in Issue #1 of  The Luminous Landscape Video Journal

This review originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2001 issue of the American magazine Photo Techniques. It summarizes the conclusion reached during my initial testing and use of the D30 in late 2000. You can read all of my original writings that appeared prior to this, and view portfolios taken with the D30 on my original D30 pages

Inflection Point

The Canon EOS D30 digital SLR is one of those products that are labeled by technology pundits as an “inflection point”. I believe with the hindsight of history it will likely be seen as having pointed the camera industry in a new direction. Last year’s Nikon D1 and earlier Kodak DCS cameras were first to market, but the D30 brings to digital SLRs a combination of price-point and image quality that changes the playing field forever.

The D30 is an SLR straight out of the current idiom. If you didn’t notice the LCD screen on the rear you wouldn’t think it any different than several currently available Canons, such as the Elan 7. But it is. It’s very different.

Before looking at what the camera is like and how it works in the field I’ll make what I know will be a controversial statement. It’s been my experience after about 6 weeks and some three thousand frames shot with the D30 that this camera is capable of producing prints that in sizes up to about 11” X 14” are the equal of those than can be produced by a 35mm camera on Provia 100F scanned with a high-end scanner. We’ll revisit this claim later in the article.

Now that your natural skepticism has been aroused let’s look at what the D30 is all about. There are so many features and capabilities that a comprehensive list would fill a complete page of this magazine. The basics are that it is a 3.3 Megapixel digital SLR but with a number of similarities to current Canon mid-range cameras, such as built-in flash and eyepiece diopter correction. It comes complete with Photoshop 5 LE and all other necessary software and accessories. Just add any EOS compatible lens.

This is truly a state-of the-art digital SLR, but at an amazingly low price — if a street price of just under $3,000 can be considered “low”.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/180th sec @ f/4 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS and 1.4X Extender.  RAW Mode.

The Cost of Digital

Even accepting my assertions about the image quality available from the D30, a question that needs to be asked so that this review can be of more than academic interest is, is a digital SLR a reasonable investment?

Of course each of us has to make that decision for ourselves, based on personal needs and circumstances. If you assume that the D30, or a similar camera like the Fuji S1 Pro, can essentially eliminate ones need to purchase film and processing, how long does the payback take?

At about 40 cents for color transparency film and processing each time the shutter is released, the money adds up quickly. For a photojournalist shooting hundreds of rolls a month there’s simply no question. For the casual amateur shooting 10 rolls a year the equation is obviously quite different. In-between is in-between. For me, at my typical shooting pace payback happens in about 12 months, and from then on I’m saving money (until the next must-have model comes along). This all, of course, presupposes the ownership of a suitable PC. So, as with all things related to new technology, comparisons are fraught with complications and exceptions.

In addition to a lower price, what appears to set the D30 apart from previous and other digital SLRs (the Nikon D1 and Fuji S1 Pro come to mind) is that its imaging chip is a proprietary CMOS design rather than a CCD. Without descending into too much techno-babble, this technology produces images with a color accuracy and freedom from noise that I’ve never seen from film or any other digital SLR. While the 3.3 megapixel count is the same as a number of current-generation digital point-and-shoots, in the D30 each of these pixels is more than 8 times larger than those in such smaller cameras. It’s my understanding that Canon’s unique CMOS design also allows for noise reduction circuitry to be incorporated on-chip, and this contributes to the color purity seen. As well, the larger pixels don’t suffer from diffraction effects common to the tiny CCD imaging chips of lesser cameras.

Lower Antelope 3

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 14mm f/2.8 Sigma lens at ISO 100.

In The Field

When testing a new camera I am sensitive to issues of handling, particularly as this relates to a camera’s intended application. It would at first seem that a digital SLR is just a variation on the classic 35mm theme. It looks and handles similarly, takes the same lenses and other accessories. But in terms of the photographer’s relationship with the camera and the changes to ones shooting style that these engender, there’s a monumental difference.

For example, I am thrilled with the ability to instantly change ISO speed (I almost wrote film speed). Not enough light for a hand-held shot? The spin of a dial takes you from ISO 100 to 400. In fact the D30 can shoot at ISO 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1600. In terms of overall image quality ISO 200 is almost identical to 100.  ISO 400 is remarkably free from noise (the digital equivalent of grain) ­ better than any ISO 400 transparency film that I’ve ever used. 800 is noisy and 1600 is noisier still, though no worse than their equivalent film counterparts.

The ability to instantly review a shot is another revelation. How often have we fretted about whether or not we got a particular shot? Should I reshoot? Should I have bracketed? Would a filter have helped? On the D30 and its brethren the built-in LCD screen removes these doubts and anxieties.

We’ve already discussed the cost equation but shooting style also comes into play. I’m not a profligate shooter, though a great location or subject can easily produce some 10-roll days. With the D30 I find that I shoot more, but actually go home with less. What I mean by this is that when shooting digital I’m willing to take risks and experiment more because there’s no associated cost, or danger of running out of film before the day is done. Reviewing frames in-camera during quiet moments, such as when driving between locations, leads to discarding useless shots in the field rather than in the wastebasket, days, weeks and processing dollars later.

By the way, an extension of this is the D30’s ability to connect directly to a TV monitor. This means that when shooting on location a day’s work can be reviewed in the motel room at night, deleting duds and evaluating results on a large screen. This is really a pleasurable and productive way to work.

Mittens Dawn

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 14mm f/2.8 Sigma lens at ISO 100.

 Image Quality & Genuine Fractals

Digital images have no grain per-se. They do have pixels and they do have noise. But so long as a digital image file is printed below its pixilation size, these pixels are invisible and the image smooth and continuous-toned. The D30 when shot at ISO 100 or 200 is essentially free from any noise ­ in other words, grainless. As a consequence prints, for example hose made with an Epson 870 / 1270 printer at 240dpi (the minimum resolution needed for true photographic quality), will be 6” X 9” in size. But, at sizes up to at least 13” X 19” such prints can still be of excellent photographic quality. How can this be?

To accomplish this one needs a program called Genuine Fractals Pro, which should be in the arsenal of every digital-image maker. Through some software magic it allows digital files to be ressed-up, seemingly without any degradation and no pixilation. The program does its best though when working with noise-free high quality files to begin with, and the D30 certainly provides these.

Howler Monkey — Costa Rica, 2001

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 100~400mm f/5.6L lens @ 400mm
1/125 sec @ f/9.5 — ISO 400

Build Quality

Rumour has it that Canon has an agreement with Kodak not to produce a “pro” level digital SLR until some time in 2001. (For the past few years Kodak has marketed such cameras based on both Nikon and Canon bodies). When the D30 was announced in mid-2000 it was feared that for this reason it would somehow be of inferior quality. Fortunately these fears turned out to be groundless.

The D30 is a solidly built camera, comparable to any of the company’s current mid-level models. No, it doesn’t have the 35-point autofocus capabilities of the EOS 3, and doesn’t have the absolute ruggedness and waterproof construction of the EOS-1V. But in the relatively short time that I’ve been using it it’s been in rain and even sub-zero sleet and snow in Northern Ontario as well as the dust and sand of central Arizona. It’s worked without problem. I believe that I can anticipate several years of confident and reliable use.

Shooting Modes

Just as one has the ability to select ISO speed at will digital SLRs also provide several different file sizes. This translates directly into both image quality and number of images per storage card. In the most compressed and lowest quality mode the D30 needs about 400K per images and in its losslessly compressed and highest quality mode some 3.4 Megabytes per image, about an 8:1 difference. 

This highest quality mode (with the largest file size) is called RAW, while the others all use JPG compression. RAW is what most serious photographers will use. In RAW mode no in-camera sharpening, compression or white balance is applied. Also, the files must be run through a special (provided) import filter. Once in Photoshop (Photoshop 5 LE ships with the camera) one is free to apply whatever sharpening or color adjustments one needs. Again, this is preferred because in digital imaging every time an image is modified it is also degraded somewhat. Restricting this to a one-time application in Photoshop (preferably using Adjustment Layers so that any revisions are nondistructive) is the preferred way to go.

Agathla Peak

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 70~200 f/2.8L lens at ISO 100.

Memory Cards

A camera like the D30 has a memory buffer, but no long-term storage. Every photograph that you take needs to be stored on a CompactFlash card. These come in various sizes and in two main types. The smaller capacity cards are called Flash Memory. These are non-volatile RAM and can be had in sizes from 8MB up into hundreds of megabytes.

The second type, and the one that I use and recommend, is the Microdrive from IBM. These are ultra-miniature hard disks. They currently come in three sizes; 340MB, 512MB and 1Gigabyte (1,000 megabytes). To hold in ones hand a 1GB hard disk that’s not much bigger than a matchbook is remarkable. That these are just about as fast in operation as flash memory (and in some instances faster) is even more astounding.

A 1GB Microdrive costs $500. Since a D30 RAW file is just over 3MB in size this means that a card can hold almost 300 frames. This is equivalent to about 9 rolls of 135-36. (Shooting smaller compressed .JPG files can, of course, allow even greater storage.)

Since 9 rolls of 36 exposures is near the maximum that I shoot on a good day it would seem that a single 1GB card is all that’s needed. Possibly. But since I believe that Murphy was an optimist I also have a 340MB Microdrive, both as a backup in case the 1GM drive should fail and also just in case the 1GB card isn’t enough when out shooting on a long day.

Storage in the Field

This raises the issue of how to handle large quantities of image data when traveling. Shooting at the equivalent rate of 8-10 rolls a day -- not uncommon for many nature and wildlife photographers -- will fill a 1GB card by dinnertime. This means that the card needs to be emptied for the next day’s shooting, and today’s images safely stored until they can be reviewed, processed and archived.

The best solution is to bring along a laptop computer. The large screen can be used to review the day’s shoot and the computer can also be used for email, navigation and other needed applications on the road. Several gigabytes of free disc space is needed of course. One of the newer versions with a built-in CD-RW drive is ideal since it allows burning each day’s shots onto an inexpensive and secure CD with essentially unlimited storage available.

Another somewhat less expensive alternative, The Digital Wallet from Minds@Work, is an elegant solution if such a laptop isn’t available. It is a box about the size of a thick paperback book. It contains a 6-gigabyte hard disk, a battery, and a small LCD screen. It comes complete with an AC adapter and it connects to your computer (PC or Mac) via the USB port. It also takes a PC Card, which in turn means that you can plug in an IBM Microdrive using its supplied adaptor directly into it. In the field this means that you can download a 1GB card six times to the Digital Wallet before it in turn needs to be downloaded to a PC. Six gigabytes is about 2,000 frames from a Canon D30 in RAW mode, or the equivalent of some 55 rolls of 36-exposure film.

Unfortunately I found the unit’s firmware to be unreliable and prone to frequent updates, and the one that I purchased absolutely wouldn’t install properly on my standard Dell desktop machines even after many calls to customer support. Finally, transferring as much as 6 gigabytes of data over a USB port isn’t my idea of fun, or productivity. Therefore, for the serious worker producing large volumes of work in the field a notebook computer with a large available hard disk or with a CDR drive appears to be the best solution.

Russian Olive

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and 70~200 f/2.8L lens at ISO 100. RAW Mode.

Some Problems and Plusses

As good as the D30 is, there are some problems. One should always use high-speed mode rather than single frame because in the latter mode each frame is written to the memory card each time the shutter is pressed. This takes a couple of seconds during which the camera is inoperative. Even then, when shooting in RAW mode the camera only has a buffer big enough for 3 frames. This means that if you shoot rapidly and try and take a fourth frame the shutter release is locked-out until the buffer has written to the card, which can take several seconds. I’ve missed some good wildlife shots on several occasions because of this.

While the metering is generally good, I sorely miss spot metering. Also, autofocus is at the low end of Canon’s current practice. I find three focus points to simply be inadequate. This is a camera that will therefore likely not be suitable for some wildlife and sports photographers as well as photojournalists.

On a positive note, battery life ­ the bugaboo of all digital and video cameras ­ is excellent. The use of a low voltage CMOS imaging chip may well be responsible for this. The rechargeable Lithium Ion battery is good for several hundred frames, including occasional built-in flash use and frequent image review on the LCD screen. Since the optional vertical grip can hold two such batteries, a very full day of heavy shooting is possible without any battery worries.

Finally, and also on the plus side, the camera is always ready to take a photograph regardless of what else one might be doing, such as altering one of the numerous modes or Custom Functions, or reviewing already shot images on the rear LCD screen. Simply touch the shutter release and the camera is ready to fulfill its primary purpose ­ taking a photograph, regardless of what else one might have been doing.

A Comparison with Film

At the beginning of this review I had made the controversial statement that “this camera is capable of producing prints that in sizes up to about 11” X 14” are the equal of those than can be produced by a 35mm camera on fine grained transparency film scanned with a high-end scanner.”

When the D30 first arrived I was very eager to do such a comparison. After countless tests over several weeks, (some detailed on my web site, others not) I have concluded that the D30 when shooting at IS0 100 actually exceeds Provia 100F scanned on an Imacon FlexTight (a $10,000 desktop scanner) on 8”X10” prints from an Epson 870/1270 or 2000P. When Genuine Fractals is used prints up to 13”X19” can be made that are arguably the equal of those from film made to that size.

When I first made this statement on my web site in late October 2000, it raised a storm of controversy. Almost 20,000 people visited that page within the first week and I was inundated with emails, both pro and con. Since then though, as more and more people have purchased D30’s and done their own tests, this evaluation has been echoed by an increasing number of professional photographers. Even skeptics who have requested prints have almost all agreed, sometimes reluctantly, that the quality difference is awfully close.

Of course a strict interpretation of the numbers would cause one to doubt these results and many have contested them. How can a 9MB original digital file compete with a 35MB file from a good scanner? What about comparing to a traditional, totally analog print such as an Ilfochrome? What about a drum scan? The issue rages on and the message boards on the Net still hold the echoes of some of these early debates. The only way to resolve it is to see a well made sample print for yourself.

Photographed with a Canon EOS D30 and Canon 17~35mm f/2.8l lens at ISO 100. RAW Mode.

What’s Next?

As good as the D30 is, obviously there will be a next-generation digital EOS camera fairly soon. When can we expect it and what will it be like? Though I have no inside information I will make some educated guesses. Clearly the next EOS digital will have a 6 megapixel image sensor. Both Pentax and Contax announced and showed prototypes of such cameras at Photokina in September 2000, with 2001 availability indicated.

A 6 megapixel chip has several advantages. Unlike today’s cameras with their 1.6X focal length reduction a 6MP imager will have the same physical size as a 35mm frame, allowing all existing lenses to provide their familiar coverage.

The body of the new camera will likely be very similar in features, construction and robustness to the EOS-1V. As for price, my guess is that it will have a MSLP of about USD $7,000. We can likely expect the camera to be announced some time in the summer of 2001, with first deliveries before the end of the year. If you think you’re going to want one, get on a dealer’s waiting list early. The demand for this camera from pros is going to be huge. Nikon is undoubtedly not going to rest on its D1 and D1X laurels and the offerings from Contax and Pentax will be contenders as well. So, the race will be on, again.

But if you’re a Canon lens owner and have been waiting for a digital SLR able to replace your film-based 35mm body then the D30 may well be it. 2002's 6MP pro model will likely be significantly more expensive. If you are a Nikon lens owner then the D1 or Fuji S1 Pro may appeal. Contax and Pentax devotes will soon have their own high-end digital SLRs to crow about.

This review originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2001 issue of the American magazine Photo Techniques. It summarizes the conclusion reached during my initial testing and use of the D30 in late 2000. You can read all of these original writings and view portfolios taken with the D30 on my original D30 pages

NewThis subject is now featured in Volume 1,  Number 1 of  The Luminous Landscape Video Journal

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Cameras       Product Reviews   

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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Nikon, Camera, Digital camera, Film speed, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital photography, Canon EOS

Entities: Canon, Nikon, Kodak, IBM, D30, Costa Rica, Dell, Contax, Pentax, ISO, LCD screen, Digital Wallet, Microdrive, laptop computer, PC Card, Flash Memory, sec, Michael Reichmann, Epson, Murphy, D1, Arizona, Ontario, SLRs, SLR, EOS D30, RAM, PC

Tags: camera, digital, Canon EOS D30, digital slrs, image, raw mode, LCD screen, card, Fuji S1 Pro, image quality, hard disk, transparency film, magazine photo techniques, american magazine photo, Canon D30, prints, highest quality mode, review, original d30 pages, new camera, Nikon D1, Sigma lens, ISO speed, 35mm, inflection point, megapixel digital slr, initial testing, CMOS design, Digital Wallet, high-end scanner, Genuine Fractals, the-art digital slr, controversial statement, imaging chips, EOS compatible lens, digital image, original writings, next-generation digital eos, Canon mid-range cameras, built-in flash