My New Workhorse: The Canon 60D

Here’s a post I saved as a draft a couple of weeks back and never published. I should have done it at the time, but here it is now. I don’t think too much of it is “dated,” really…

canon60D

Three years ago, I decided to buy a digital SLR. After a few months of selling off a chunk of my DVD collection, I was able to buy the entry-level Canon Rebel XTi. (And I haven’t missed a single one of those DVDs. The big ticket item — an out of print “Reboot” DVD or three — is even coming back to shelves in the next few months.) The XTi was the first sub-$1000 DSLR to the market, was insanely popular, and Canon was just announcing its successor, the XSi. The latter didn’t provide much of an upgrade, I thought, so I snapped up a lower-priced XTi at the beginning of 2008 with a couple of lenses.

Now, all these years later, I sold off a tiny chunk of my comics collection to pay for a new camera. Special thanks, first of all, to Robert Kirkman, for “The Walking Dead” and “Invincible.” Selling off my original copies of those comics paid for three-quarters of the new camera. As a bonus, I’m not missing anything, since I have all those issues in hardcover reprint form. The only thing I really “lost” in it was a comic that had a letter of mine printed in it. If “Walking Dead Weekly” includes the original letters columns (doubtful), I’ll pick it back up and be happy.

That’s the origin story for my new Canon 60D, a camera that “serious” camera “enthusiasts” have been busy badmouthing since its announcement (they don’t want to jump from the 50D all the way to the 7D, I guess), but which fits me perfectly. It’s a dramatic step up from the XTi. From an image gathering point of view, the biggest thing is the improved low light/lower noise performance. I’m stuck with 18 megapixel pictures, but there’s no choice there in the current Canon line-up. From a construction point of view, I have the neat scroll wheel on the back in addition to the crosspad. There’s also the display on top of the camera to tell me the ISO/Aperture/Shutter speed settings. (I assume they’re useful because they use so much less power than the display screen on the back?) And, as a huge bonus, there’s built-in flash control. I don’t need to use those Cactus triggers anymore, or the Zebra cable, to control my off-camera 430 EX II flash, either manually or in E-TTL. This may be the one detail that made me spend the extra money instead of buying the cheaper Rebel T2i camera, whose specs are remarkably similar, otherwise.

It’s a big upgrade to my photography, and I’m having a lot of fun. There are a couple of drawbacks, but we’ll cover those as I go along here. Let’s take it step-by-step, after the break:

High Speed Continuous Shooting Mode: Also known as “Burst Mode.” Hold down the shutter button and the camera goes nuts. Coming from a camera that did about three frames a second, five frames a second is lightning fast. It’s addicting. On the other hand, it’s also on a hair trigger. I think I wind up taking two shots by accident most times. I’m learning to have a lighter touch, but it’s a learning curve.

Low Light, Low Noise: I haven’t done any serious A/B comparisons of this yet with my old XTi, but things certainly look better. 1600 was useless with the XTi, and could only be used with some heavy post-processing and a conversion to black and white. 1600 on the 60D takes a small dose of noise reduction processing, and everything’s good. Not perfect, but definitely beyond usable.

This is good news for taking pictures of kids indoors, running around in anything less than full sunlight. Did I mention I have a two year old daughter? Exactly.

It’ll also come in handy in other places, but being able to use “available light” sometimes and not having to lug around the big flash is convenient. I hope to do some concert/bar band photography someday, and this will be a big help.

Mode Lock: The weird new thing this camera has is a locking mechanism to keep you from accidentally switching which mode you’re shooting in. In other words, you need to make a conscious effort to go from Manual to Aperture Priority Mode. You need to push down on the button on top of the wheel and then turn it. I don’t see a need for this at all, as I can’t recall accidentally turning that knob too many times. It’s a minor annoyance, but I don’t think about it. Maybe my big hands work to my advantage here.

Battery Grip: I had to order the new battery grip (BGE9) for the camera. I didn’t have one for the XTi until a few months ago. Amazon had a Friday Sale on an off-brand battery grip for the XTi, so I picked one up for $20. Now, I can’t live without one. For my meaty paws, the extra heft to the camera is necessary. My hands feel cramped on a camera without a grip on it. I haven’t bought a spare batter for the camera yet, so I’m not getting many advantages in that way with the grip, but that’s OK. It’s not what I bought it for. Someday, I’ll add that, too.

File Size: OK, this is the annoying part. I don’t need 18 megapixel pictures. 10 megapixels were good. I could have used 12 or 13 at times, when I needed to crop into pictures, but 18? Complete overkill. Not to sound like a stereotypical photographer, but more work on low noise would have been preferable to MORE PIXELS. Ugh.

Memory cards: Canon doesn’t like Compact Flash cards anymore, which the XTi used. I love those cards. They’re bigger, they’re solid as a rock, they can run through the washer without a problem. (I’ve done it.) They’re easy to handle and less likely to be fumbled to the ground. Nope, they take up too much space, so everything is SD cards now. It’s a minor annoyance to have to buy new cards, but DealRAM.com was a big help in keeping that cost down.

Still, I’m getting almost half as many pics per Gig, thanks to the larger file size. (This camera also has a wider color palette, I think, so there’s more data that way.) 500 pictures seems like a lot until you’re in burst mode all day shooting a kid’s birthday party.

Don’t get me started on how fast disk space is disappearing on my hard drive. . .

Battery: On the bright side, the battery is so damned huge that I don’t have to worry about swapping it out. It’s good for 1000 pictures or more at a time. On the downside, it costs better than twice as much as the old batteries.

Articulating Screen: I scoffed at it, but I’ve used it and like it. I used it to take a picture from my outstretched arm high in the air. I used it to take a picture while the camera sat on the ground, and I didn’t have to lay down in the dirt with it. I know it’s there mostly for the video, but I can see uses for it with still images.

Video: Haven’t much played with it. The couple of sample videos I’ve taken are awesome, but don’t amount to much. Yes, the sound is awful. I’m keeping that in mind and only shooting things that might be used in a slideshow with music over it or something like that. (But I bet the audio is good enough on that video I shot the other morning of my daughter singing her ABCs. The room was otherwise quiet.)

Mirror Noise: It’s much quieter. It sounds contained, more like a clicking than a loud slapping and flapping. It’s one of those things you need to hear to understand, but I like it. Granted, camera noise isn’t a problem I’ve had in the past, but it’s nice to have it, just in case.

File Handling: Here’s the tricky part. Because my computer is too old to handle Lightroom 3, I have a new three step process to import pictures into Lightroom 2, via the free Adobe DNG Converter application. I copy my pics to the hard drive, convert them through that program, and then import the DNGs into Lightroom. The conversion program is painfully slow. I never had a big problem in the past with importing files. Maybe it’s the size of the files now, but it’s slow. I let it run in the background and do lots of other stuff, because a full card will take a couple of hours just to convert, before even importing it into Lightroom.

Viewfinder: It’s nice. Very bright. Completely different feel from the XTi, especially with the way the focus points float in front of the image now.

LCD Screen: It’s awesome. Huge. Bright. Lots of pixels. Easy to read.

Camera Strap: Oldest story in the book, but it’s painful. I’ve been using a Neoprene one with a little bounce with my old camera for a couple of years. I need to get one for this camera, too. They’re not much.

Menus: It’s nice to control it with two wheels. Not having to scroll back up to the tabs before switching to a new tab is a big time saver. I’m still getting used to finding where everything is, but finding a six exposure latitude (-3 to +3) for bracketing HDR shots is pretty cool. You’re still limited to only three shots, though.

I’ve shot more HDR in the last week with the fall foliage than I ever have before. Now I just need to find the time to process some of it. Photomatix Lite on my laptop isn’t terribly speedy.

The Wheels: One of the things some have dinged Canon on is removing the joystick that the 50D had in favor of having a cross pad type control nested inside the scroll wheel on the back of the camera. I hate joysticks, ever since I had a particularly awful experience with a Sony Ericsson cell phone with one a few years back. So the directional pad is fine by me.

But this new design isn’t without its weak points. For starters, the tactile feedback isn’t great. The pad’s buttons take a very lightweight touch to activate, and it’s tough to know when you are pressing a button. Plus, with my bigger fingertips, it’s not effortless to hit the crosspad and not accidentally scroll the wheel around it. It’s just something I have to pay attention to while I do it, and something that more experience with the camera will hopefully help me overcome.

But I love the scroll wheel. Love it.

Even nicer: when playing back images, the wheel by the shutter release skips you ten images ahead or back at a time, while the scrollwheel goes pic-by-pic. The XTi had a “Jump” button that I never figured out which you used to move through vast numbers of images. (Did it skip to the next date’s worth of pictures? Did it skip a quarter of the way through your memory card with each click? I still don’t know.)

Metadata: Nice, though not something that sold me on the camera, is the ability to embed copyright information into the metadata from the camera, itself. This is something I generally do already through Lightroom, but it’s nice to have it in the camera, itself.

More to come as I think of it, I’m sure, but right now I’m very happy. I haven’t harnessed half the power of this camera yet, and I’m thrilled with how it feels, how it handles, and how the pictures look. The most annoying part — the software/computer issue — is my problem, and one that hopefully will be fixed sometime in the months ahead. And, as a bonus, my XTi is still perfectly functional, and will be a great backup camera.