April 04th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
Note: I’ve updated this article to include Canon’s newest models the EOS 650D, EOS 6D and EOS M. You can read the updated post here.
The release of the EOS 5D Mark III has caused a great deal of excitement amongst photographers and photography bloggers alike. As more comments start appearing online from photographers proclaiming that their new 5D Mark III has arrived I thought it worthwhile to take a level-headed look at Canon’s current digital SLR line-up and explore some of the things you should consider if you’re thinking about buying a new camera.
Why do people buy new cameras?
Why do people buy new cameras in the first place? Here are some reasons that I can think of – you may come up with more:
- You have an older model and would like to upgrade to a newer one.
- You have a compact camera or mirrorless camera and would like to upgrade to a digital SLR.
- You need a second camera to act as a back-up to your main one.
- You’ve outgrown your current camera and would like a more advanced one.
- You feel that the new features on the latest model will help you take better photos.
- Your camera was lost/stolen/broken and you’re looking for a replacement.
- You’ve decided that you’d like to try out photography as a hobby and need a good camera.
- A gift for a family member or friend.
The Canon EOS line-up
First, let’s take a look at the current EOS line-up. These are the cameras that you can buy new from the stores. Unless you want to buy a second-hand camera, these are your options (the second part of the article gives some advice on choosing your next EOS camera – just scroll down to read it).
Note: Some cameras have different names in the UK and North America. I’ve mentioned both. I’ve quoted body only (unless otherwise stated) retail prices from Warehouse Express in the UK and BH Photo Video in the US. This is the ‘street price’ – sometimes considerably less than Canon’s recommended retail price.
For the benefit of readers from the UK wondering about the price difference between the UK and US, part of the answer is that UK prices include 20% VAT while US prices don’t include sales tax. Sales tax is added at the till in the US and varies from state to state.
The first three models are described as ‘entry-level’ or enthusiast models. They are the three lightest, smallest and least expensive EOS cameras:
EOS 1100D/EOS Rebel T3 (£305 body only/$549 with 18-55mm IS II kit lens)
Canon’s entry level digital SLR. Comes with a 12.3 megapixel sensor. The least expensive in the range, it’s aimed photographers on a low budget. Possible first digital SLR for someone new to photography or upgrading from a compact camera, or for a son/daughter/nephew/niece/friend that has expressed an interest in photography. It may be at the ‘bottom’ of Canon’s range but it’s still a very capable camera for someone to learn with. Anyone buying this camera is likely to outgrow it fairly soon and want a more advanced model.
EOS 550D/EOS Rebel T2i (£464/$549)
A step up from the 1100D, the 550D is the second newest camera in Canon’s xxxD range. It’s still available even though the EOS 600D has been released and will presumably be phased out at some point (perhaps when the EOS 650D is released).
The key differences between the EOS 550D and the 1100D are that the 550D has a 18 megapixel sensor and a larger, higher resolution LCD screen for Live View and playing back images.
EOS 600D/EOS Rebel T3i (£534/$624.95)
The newest and most advanced entry-level camera. The main improvements over the EOS 550D are a vari-angle LCD screen, and built-in wireless flash control (over compatible Canon Speedlite flash units). The sensor is the same size at 18 megapixels.
The next five models are Canon’s ‘semi-professional’ camera bodies. Semi-professional is bit of a vague term – you don’t need professional aspirations to own one of these cameras, and there are professional photographers that quite happily use one or more of these models.
There’s a big difference between these cameras and the entry-level models in terms of handling and feel. The bodies are larger and heavier. Three have magnesium alloy bodies and are built to withstand a lot of wear and tear. The Quick Control dial on the back makes dialling in exposure compensation a lot easier.
EOS 60D (£778/$999)
The EOS 60D sits part-way between the EOS 600D and EOS 7D in terms of size, design and features. It has an 18 megapixel sensor and the spec is similar to the EOS 600D (it is mostly small things that separate the 60D from the 600D) but the design and build quality makes the 60D a superior model.
EOS 60Da (£1174/$1499)
A modified version of the EOS 60D designed for astrophotography. Available to order from selected retailers only, this camera is a 60D with a more powerful infra-red filter that increases hydrogen-alpha light sensitivity by 300%. Note that this camera is for astrophotography only, it’s not designed for regular use.
EOS 7D (£1098/$1699)
Just as the EOS 60D is a big step up from the 600D, the EOS 7D is another big step. It’s larger and heavier and feels a lot more professional than the 60D. The EOS 7D has an 18 megapixel sensor, 19 autofocus points, and a continuous shooting speed of eight frames per second. This camera has the most advanced autofocus system of all the models mentioned so far. It will appeal to anyone with a serious interest in sports or wildlife photography, where autofocus performance is key to obtaining sharp images. If you’re seriously interested in either of these disciplines, and you don’t want to step up to a One series camera, then this is the model for you.
EOS 5D Mark II (£1659/$2199)
The 21.1 megapixel EOS 5D Mark II is Canon’s least expensive full-frame camera (all the others listed so far have APS-C size sensors). Full-frame sensors provide images with more dynamic range and less noise at high ISOs. The 5D Mark II is used by many professional photographers thanks to its high image quality (it is also much cheaper than a One series camera). The EOS 5D Mark III has just been released, and the 5D Mark II will stay on sale for the time being alongside the new model at a lower price point.
The 5D Mark II lacks the more advanced autofocus of the EOS 7D, 5D Mark III, 1D Mark IV or 1Dx, therefore if high autofocus performance is important to you you should look at one of these other models. The 5D Mark II is ideal for landscape, portrait or studio photography.
EOS 5D Mark III (£2999/$3499)
Launched at the beginning of March, the 22.3 megapixel EOS 5D Mark III has several improvements over it’s predecessor, including a new 61 point autofocus system (the most advanced in the Canon line-up barring the EOS 1Dx), improved high ISO performance, a maximum ISO of 102,400 and dual card slots. It’s also much more expensive – although the price should come down over the next few months. If you really want this camera, but don’t need it right away, you should save money if you wait.
There’s been some complaint that the EOS 5D Mark III is more expensive than the 5D Mark II was upon release, although that is partly down to the shift in exchange rates since then – sterling is worth much less now than it was against the Japanese yen.
The next two models are Canon’s One series cameras. These are aimed at professional photographers and have price tags to match. One series camera bodies are completely different from the other models in the EOS range. They are much bigger and heavier and come with a built-in portrait grip. The weather sealing is much better and the batteries are bigger and more powerful. These cameras are designed to withstand anything that a working pro will throw at them.
EOS 1D Mark IV (£3492/$4999)
The 16.1 megapixel EOS 1D Mark IV is aimed at sports and wildlife photographers. It’s the only camera in Canon’s current range with an APS-H sized sensor (bigger than an APS-C sensor, but not as big as full frame, with a crop factor of 1.3). The APS-H size sensor means that telephoto lenses have a little more ‘reach’ than on a full-frame camera. This is a very impressive camera, and up until the release of the EOS 1Dx and 5D Mark III was the most advanced in the EOS range. This camera will continue to sell alongside the EOS 1Dx.
EOS 1Dx (£5299/$6799)
Canon took the unusual step of announcing the 18 megapixel EOS 1Dx several months before it was available in the shops. Shipping is expected to start around the end of April, so expect to start reading reviews of this camera from photographers that have ordered one soon. If you simply want the best camera in the EOS range, this is it. It has the most advanced autofocus (61 AF points), 12 frames per second continous shooting speed, two DIGIC 5+ processors, a maximum ISO of 204,800 and a full-frame sensor.
How to choose a new EOS camera
Here are some of the factors to consider when buying a new EOS camera:
Budget is an important consideration, but let’s say that you could afford any camera in the range. Does that mean you should buy it? No, it doesn’t – the EOS 1Dx (the most expensive EOS ) is too big and heavy for many people and you don’t need all the features that it has to take good photos. The same goes for the EOS 1D Mark IV and EOS 5D Mark III – if you intend to mainly take landscape photos at low ISO settings, then the two main selling points of the EOS 5D Mark III (fast autofocus and good high ISO performance) are redundant and you may be paying extra for features you won’t use. Features, and the way that you intend to use the camera, are just as important as price.
Do you really need to upgrade?
It’s easy to believe that you need to upgrade your camera when you really don’t. For example, I own an EOS 5D Mark II and it’s tempting to buy a 5D Mark III, but the reality is I don’t need one. It won’t earn me any more money, and I don’t require the more advanced autofocus or better high ISO performance (they may be useful, but I don’t need them).
I’m a freelance writer, and I look at it from a business point of view. Someone told me once that he never buys a piece of equipment for his business unless he knows that it will pay for itself within a year. It was a different type of business (a photography shop/printing service) but I think it’s excellent advice. If you’re buying something for a business the relevant questions are do you really need it (will it make your job easier or mean that you are less likely to miss a crucial shot) and how quickly will it pay for itself?
Also bear in mind that if photography is a business, even a part-time one, a new camera is a business expense and it will save you some money on your tax bill. That happened when I bought my EOS 5D Mark II – the money I saved on income tax was like getting an extra discount on the camera. When a photographer you follow online raves about the latest camera they bought, remember that:
a. They get a tax break when they buy it which is like buying it at a discount
b. That the camera is a tool that helps them make a living, so they need a good quality camera body, and that they probably expect it to pay for itself reasonably quickly.
c. Some photographers get pre-production models from Canon to use in return for writing about them on their websites.
Which new features do you need?
So, what are good reasons to upgrade? If you own an older EOS camera, such as a 300D or 10D, then you can probably think of plenty. Newer models have better sensors with more megapixels, better image quality, less noise (especially at high ISOs), a greater ISO range, better autofocus, bigger and better LCD screens, Live View, better menu layouts plus a host of smaller features that you don’t appreciate until you get to use them. If you own any EOS camera that predates the models in the list above you may want to upgrade to take advantage of the newest features.
But what if you don’t feel you need any of the features that a newer camera has, but you really want to do something that improves your photography? Or you may have a relatively new camera, such as the EOS 450D or 500D, and be wondering if upgrading will help you take better photos. The key is to understand that a newer camera doesn’t necessarily make you a better photographer – it’s a tool to help. Maybe the newer cameras have some tools that will help you, and maybe they don’t. It depends on what type of photos you take.
Here are some examples of how relatively new features can help you take better photos:
I use Live View for accurate focusing with macro and close-up photography, and for long exposure photography as it gives me a clear view of the scene even with a neutral density filter on the lens. If you have a camera that predates Live View, then upgrading to one that has it may help you take better photos in similar circumstances.
If you have a camera with nine-point autofocus, and you like to take action, sports or wildlife photos and your camera’s autofocus is letting you down, then upgrading to a camera with a better autofocus system will help you take better photos.
There’s a lot of talk on the internet about switching to Nikon for better autofocus performance. But from all accounts (I’m not a sports or wildlife photographer so I’m not an expert on high performance autofocus) the autofocus systems on the EOS 7D and 1D Mark IV work really well, and the new autofocus system on the EOS 5D Mark III and 1Dx looks like it will perform even better. I don’t see any reason to switch brands with these cameras available, especially if you are heavily invested in lenses and other accessories.
Do you really need autofocus? It may seem like a silly question but if you take a lot of landscape photos then you may not even use autofocus much. It’s much easier to focus manually, especially if you are focusing on the hyperfocal distance.
Newer EOS cameras have a 10 stop exposure compensation range (+/- 5 stops). If you’re into HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, this can help you take photos with a wide exposure range.
If you like to experiment with different aspect ratios (ie 4:3, square or panoramic formats) some of the newer models can display a cropped image feed in Live View so that you don’t have to guess with the framing.
Does size matter?
I’m talking camera body size (and weight) here – the lighter bodies of the 1100D, 550D and 600D are great if you want to travel as lightly as possible. Some people may find these bodies a bit too small to handle comfortably and that a larger body may suits them better. If you’re going to do a lot of outdoor photography, you may also need the extra weatherproofing and more solid construction of the heavier camera bodies.
Full-frame or APS-C?
How important is image quality to you? Full frame sensors give better image quality, but they are more expensive – a full-frame sensor costs more to manufacture than a smaller one. I also like full frame because it means that wide-angle lenses retain their ‘true’ focal length.
However, some people will appreciate the crop factor of APS-C cameras as it gives their telephoto lenses extra ‘reach’. Budget also plays a part here – the EOS 5D Mark II is the least expensive full-frame camera in the range at the moment.
If you are thinking of upgrading to a full-frame camera, do you own any EF-S lenses? These are designed for APS-C cameras and don’t work with full-frame cameras.
Do you want to make large prints?
If you want to make large prints (or take photos with a view to selling them on stock photography websites like Alamy) then you need a camera with more megapixels. This is less of a consideration than it was in the past as most of the current range have an 18 megapixel or greater sensor – but it may be a consideration if you have an older body with a 12 megapixel or smaller sensor.
Do you need movie mode?
If movie mode is important to you then you examine the options on each camera carefully as each is different. Movie mode is evolving with each new camera and the EOS 5D Mark III has the most advanced version. Expect to see further improvements on future models.
What are your future plans?
It may be tempting to buy a cheaper digital SLR model now, only to regret it in a couple of years time and want to buy a more advanced model. But also you need to think about accessories and lenses you may need to buy. You’ll probably do your photography more good by buying a cheaper body for the moment and buying some decent lenses for it over the next few years, rather than spending so much on the body you have no cash left over for new lenses. Some of these questions are difficult to answer now, especially if you’re starting out, but you should at least consider them.
Alternatives to buying a new camera
If the question is how can I improve my photography, then what can you spend money on that will help you do that other than a new camera body?
One answer is a good lens or two. The question of what lens to buy is worthy of a separate article, and one that I’ll address soon.
Another is to go on a workshop with a photographer that you admire. Many photographers run workshops.
For example, take a look at the Bruce Percy’s workshops. I don’t know him, I just admire his photos – but I’m sure that I’d learn a lot more from going on one his workshops than I would from buying a new camera body.
Cheaper than workshops, and probably the best bang for your buck when it comes to education, are books, eBooks and magazines. You’ll really learn a lot from allocating a few hundred pounds (or dollars) to spend on written material dealing with the areas of photography that you’re interested.
If you’re interested in eBooks, then take a look at my photography eBooks. I sell several on this website (and I have three more EOS specific eBooks planned this year) and I’ve written six for Craft & Vision.
Then there’s EOS magazine, the most in-depth publication for EOS users around. It’s dedicated to helping you get the most out of your EOS camera and I think it’s brilliant – but then I’m biased as I’m the Technical Editor. Take a look, there are both print and digital subscriptions options.
Another option is to go away somewhere and dedicate the trip completely to photography. A week away doesn’t have to be incredibly expensive, and for the price of an EOS 5D Mark III body you can do some serious travelling, especially if you go somewhere relatively inexpensive (like South America or south-east Asia).
You may well need more information than I can include in this article to make your decision. There isn’t enough space here to go into all the differences between models – I can only touch on a few that I think matter to most people. So where can you find out more?
DPReview has the most in-depth reviews that I’ve seen. Each review lists the spec of the camera, making it easy to compare models. You will learn a lot about any potential purchase by reading about it on DPReview first.
You can also search online for reviews written by photographers who have bought the cameras. My article about the EOS 5D Mark III lists the best reviews that I’ve found at the bottom.
Oh, and did I mention EOS magazine? We write about each new camera as it comes out.
Do you have a friend who owns one a camera that you’re considering? Ask them what they think. Another good option is to join the EOS magazine forum and ask the opinion of other EOS owners. With over 5,000 members there is bound to be someone who can help.
Go to your local camera shop and try out the models. The difference between the EOS 600D and 60D, for example, is hard to pin down from the specs if you’re not familiar with either one – but is immediately obvious when you try them out.
Hire a camera for a few days before committing to a purchase. If this facility is available in your area, it’s a great way to test a camera before buying it.
Whichever model you decide to buy, or whether you stay with the camera you already own, it’s good to remember that photography is a wonderful and enjoyable hobby, no matter which camera you own. The most important thing is to have fun and make some beautiful images.