How I Chose my New DSLR: Pitting Function vs Aspiration

Back of 7D Mk II I finally chosen a successor to my old Canon EOS 40D. While the 40D has served me quite well, it does not shoot video, and this is an area I’ve been wanting to dabble in for quite a while.

Since my 40D is over seven years old, its technology has been eclipsed by even the cheapest DSLRs on the market today, all of them several times more capable in every photographic specification that matters. However, no camera in the Canon family have grabbed my interest until very recently: the Canon 70D and the Canon 7D MkII.

I’ve been agonizing over the decision for months and months, and I finally pulled the trigger and picked up the 7D MkII despite the 70D being the better value on paper. Was this a dumb move? I don’t think so, but you can be the judge of that if you click that “MORE” button…

Making the Decision on Paper

Since I’m already in the Canon family by virtue of owning several lenses, the other main decision was to stay with “crop sensor” cameras. These are cameras that use a smaller (“cropped”) imaging sensor than the “full frame” cameras modeled on the 35mm film cameras of yore. I happen to have a nice 17-55mm EF-S lens that only works on the crop-sensor cameras, and I’d like to keep using it. The crop-sensor camera bodies are also very slightly smaller, and are considerably cheaper compared to their full-frame counterparts.

In head-to-head feature comparisons, the 70D generally seems to have a edge over the 7D MkII because of its significantly lower cost for nearly the same level of performance. Furthermore, the 70D has added versatility with built-in WiFi connectivity (download your pictures as you shoot!) and a swivel-out touchscreen LCD viewfinder (opens up more shooting angles in the field, when you can’t see through the optical viewfinder). The 7D MkII lacks both these features.

On the plus side, the 7D MkII has increased capability in nearly every respect, but it’s not by a tremendous amount. For example, the 7D MkII has a higher maximum ISO (light sensitivity), 16000 versus the 70D’s maximum 12800. Simple math will tell you that’s a 25% increase, but in practical photography terms it’s not that impressive. Photographers like to think in terms of “stops”, which is a relative measure of the amount of light one is capturing in the camera to make an exposure. It’s hard to relate to real-world phenomena, especially because our eyes adapt automatically to light levels in far more adaptable a fashion than a camera can, but in general all the exposure-related (that is, light capturing) controls on a camera—shutter speed, sensitivity, and exposure time—double for every stop. And boy, do photographers like thinking in terms of whole stops. So a jump between 12800 to 16000 is nowhere near a whole stop of “more sensitivity”. It would have to be a jump from 12800 to 25600 to capture anyone’s attention, which the full-frame cameras (which themselves are twice as expensive) can do.

This pattern of marginal improvement continues. The 7D MkII shoots full high-definition video, as does the 70D, but can do it at 60 frames per second (fps), which is twice as fast as the 70D’s maximum of 30fps. However, 30fps is plenty fine for most purposes. Projected movies are presented at 24 frames per second, after all. Most web video is around 30fps. The realm of 60fps is occupied by live television sports and multi-camera sitcoms filmed before studio audience, generally lacking the aesthetic of movies. One capability that 60fps unlocks is slow motion, but it’s not a tremendous amount of slowdown. These days video software can do slow motion through something called pixel motion interpolation, and while it doesn’t necessarily look great, slow motion isn’t an everyday video need for most people. Certainly not me!

There are other areas that the 7D MkII has improved rather than additional features, such as 100% optical viewfinder coverage versus the 70D’s 98%. There is one super-trick that the 7D MkII has, which is its insanely fast and deep 10fps shooting mode. This is considered a great feature for sports photographers who can make use that rapid-fire shooting mode to capture the right moment by gobbling dozens of images in a burst. The 7D Mk II also has expanded autofocus features over the 70D that help it adapt to rapidly-moving subjects, but again this is not a feature that the cheaper 70D lacks; it just doesn’t have as many options. As I am not a sports photographer, it’s not clear that these are useful features. The 70D also has that neat swivel-out LCD viewfinder with tap-to-focus, which gives it a level of focusing and framing adaptability that is arguably more useful.

Comparisons on the Internet such as this one by Dan Carr go into greater technical detail about the differences backed by real-world experience, but the general takeaway is that the 70D is the more versatile, better-priced choice for the enthusiast photographer, UNLESS you are shooting at lot of sports. I was all set to get one, happy to save $700. I was upgrading from such an old camera that even though the 7D Mk II had better specs on paper than the 70D, it would be such a leap in every aspect of camera operation that I would be hard-pressed to notice the difference. It would be like graduating from my first car, a used 70HP-powered automatic transmission econobox, to a brand new 174HP 5-speed manual sports hatchback with heated leather seats. It would feel GREAT, in ways I can’t even imagine.

Making the Decision In Person

I decided that I would go to Best Buy and buy the 70D there, since online prices at the moment are exactly the same. An option was to buy the 70D used from the Fred Miranda photography forum, which has a well-regarded marketplace used by the professional photographers I know. However, the prices offered were only about $150 bucks less than buying new. For the additional $150, I would get a new camera with a clean history and full buyer’s warranty, double-backed by my credit card company. That seemed worth it.

I also decided that I should try both the 7D MkII and 70D side-by-side, otherwise I would forever wonder if I had made the right decision. I know from experience that what sounds good on paper sometimes doesn’t work out; for example, my current car is a VW MarkIV GTI that I had not planned to buy, having thought that the Jetta sedan. After sitting in it, though, I was rather unimpressed by the cramped-feeling interior, and took the opportunity to sit in every other car in the dealership. To my great surprise, I really loved the GTI for its interior and the large-for-its-size V6 engine. I still love this car, 15 years old as of this year, though it is starting to show its age and I have to consider its successor. Danged if I know what car that will be…

But I digress. I went to the camera section of Best Buy and picked up the 70D in my hand, chatting with the surprisingly-knowledgeable sales person over the pros and cons. I tried out the flip-out LCD viewfinder screen, and it was as functional and awesome as I had imagined it would be. The touch-to-focus feature was great, working both in still and video modes. The 7D MkII, by comparison…well, it felt better in my hand instantly. The optical viewfinder was big and bright. It could hold TWO memory cards, one Compact Flash and the other SD; the 70D only has an SD card slot. Plus, that ridiculous high-speed 10fps shooting mode was GLEE INDUCING. The salesperson, sensing I was torn between my choices, suggested that I take a walk around the store to think about it while he helped another customer.

I walked for about ten minutes, scowling intently at the floor as I paced around the store. I knew that the pragmatic decision was the 70D. At $999 (discounted by $200 that week), it was cheaper and NEARLY as capable in all features. The 7D MkII, at $1699 (discounted by $100), was close to twice as much for what seems like just 20% more technical capability. It had a little more maximum ISO, a bit more shooting speed. It possessed better weatherproofing (like I would ever shoot outside in the rain, I thought). It was bit more capable in autofocusing, at the cost of a slightly slower shutter. It seemed like a no-brainer to go with the 70D, not the 7D MkII, for sheer bang-for-the buck and guaranteed orders-of-magnitude improvement over my old 40D.

As a final mental gut check, I imagined myself in a field of golden wheat shooting video with the 70D. In my mind’s eye, I swiveled out the LCD touchscreen and focused on an imaginary subject walking toward a person in the foreground of the scene. I imagined waiting for just the right time to tap the touchscreen to bring the foreground into sharp focus…and immediately felt something was wrong. WHAT? TAPPING THE SCREEN TO PULL FOCUS? It seemed disconnected and kind of amateurish. I wanted to LEARN HOW TO DO IT MANUALLY so I could control the speed and timing of the focal shift. Sure, it would be HARDER, but if I was going to shoot video I aspired to master it with full manual control.

And thus, my decision matrix rapidly inverted. Although I had started by considering “likely” shooting requirements and “better-than-good enough” value for the money, it turns out that I wasn’t interested in bang-for-the-buck. Instead, I was shopping to meet future aspirations at the highest level I could afford While the 70D was just fine, it fell just short of my aspirational needs. WiFi and the swivel screen are nice features, but they add only convenience, not capability. Those “little” enhancements that the 7D MkII has over the 70D were all about squeezing just a bit more quality and control out of the gear, with increased durability and expanded options. Not only that, I reasoned, but I believed I had a pretty good idea about how to use each enhanced feature; it’s not like I am a beginning photographer anymore. I’d learned a lot since getting my 40D, and I was ready to handle something a little more powerful. Not only that, the 7D MkII is arguably a better platform for building a fancy DSLR movie rig.

So I purchased the 7D Mk II. I’ve had is for about a week now, and every time I use it I am convinced I made the right decision. Even features I didn’t think I’d use, such as the 10fps shooting mode, have come in handy shooting a local event out-of-the-blue. And it has this nice strain-relieved cable output bracket that makes it convenient to use as a studio camera without fear of breaking delicate connectors (or snapping off a flip-out LCD viewfinder, for that matter)

New Camera Canon 7D Mk II I love it.