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There was really no good reason for Canon to replace the EOS 20D. And so, commendably, it didn't.
The new EOS 30D ($1,400 street, body only) might well be considered a "20D II" or a "20DN," given that it uses the same 8MP CMOS sensor, processing engine, viewfinder system, chassis, and control layout of the now-discontinued 20D. But you now get a bigger LCD screen (a 2.5-incher), a spotmeter, more burst capacity, a tougher shutter mechanism, and assorted other new or upgraded features.
Test results for the 30D were virtually the same as for the 20D we reviewed in the January 2005 issue (read it online here). Resolution averaged around 1,720 lines at all tested ISOs for an Excellent rating, and noise was no higher than Moderately Low throughout that range. Color accuracy also ranked Excellent, with an average Delta E of 7.61. Capsule review: The 30D takes really good pictures, as did the 20D.
In size and shape, the 30D is, not surprisingly, very nearly a clone of the 20D. A few curves on the new body are slightly smoother, and the 30D feels a bit bulkier than the older model, due to about 2mm of added depth for the bigger LCD. Handling remains excellent, and the menus are considerably easier to read -- even at arm's length -- owing to the bigger type allowed on the large LCD.
Canon says that the startup time of the camera has been speeded up to 0.15 sec from 0.2 sec -- that is, by 1/20 of a second. If you can tell the difference, bully for you, but we couldn't.
Instead, where the added processing speed really shows up is in burst shooting. The 30D has two high-speed drive modes: low speed runs at about 3 frames per second, high speed at 5 fps. Canon states a maximum high-speed burst of 30 highest-quality JPEGs, which we found to be an understatement. With a SanDisk Extreme CompactFlash card in a 30D, we were able to fire off as many as 46 highest-quality JPEGs at 5 fps, and continued shooting at 1 fps or faster until the card yelled "Uncle!" That's impressive. (With the same card in a 20D, we got 32 JPEGs at 5 fps.) The 30D's burst rate for RAW capture isn't quite as dramatic -- Canon states 11 frames at 5 fps, and we could sometimes shoot 12 with a fast card -- but the speed is still way ahead of other cameras in this class.
Combine this with the fast and accurate AF system carried over from the 20D, and you have a camera that is particularly well-suited for sports, wildlife, and spot news shooting. In view of this, the most significant upgrade on the 30D may be the strengthened shutter mechanism, rated for 100,000 cycles -- tacit recognition that this can be, yes, a pro camera.
Another pro-oriented upgrade on the 30D is a fourth meter pattern -- a 3.5 percent central spotmeter -- added to the evaluative, centerweighted, and 9 percent limited area. The inscribed central circle on the 30D's focusing screen has shrunk to match the dimensions of the narrower spot, which allows more selective metering of individual tones than the 9 percent "fat spot."
Other new capabilities of the 30D aimed at the advanced user include finer adjustment of ISO (now in 1 /3-EV increments -- ISO 100, 125, 160, 200, etc.), and file management that allows as many as 9,999 images in a single folder. (The 20D makes a new file folder every 100 images, whether you want it to or not.)
The 30D also borrows a few tricks from its stablemate, the full-frame-sensor EOS 5D. One is the set of image controls Canon calls Picture Style. Instead of a limited choice of settings (e.g., Normal vs. Vivid color), Picture Style provides a wide choice of presets: Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, and Monochrome. Within each Picture Style, you can tweak individual levels for sharpness, contrast, saturation, color tone, filter effects, and toning effects.
Careful users should note that Picture Style adjustments affect image quality. We found, for example, that the extra saturation and contrast added in Standard reduced color accuracy from that of the Neutral setting. Similarly, higher sharpness settings improve resolution, but add an uptick in noise.
You can also create up to three of your own custom Picture Styles (for a Velvia look, for example). Combine that with the white-balance shift controls (which let you dial in, for example, extra amber for warming), and you have a truly huge range of in-camera image adjustments.
Another feature ported over from the 5D is the RGB histogram, which can display three separate graphs of the exposure levels of red, green, and blue in the picture, in addition to the usual histogram of overall brightness levels.
A couple more additions to the 30D are a direct print button and diagnostic error messages.
EOS 20D owners will be happy to know that their batteries, vertical grips, remote switches, and other gizmos will work on the 30D. (There was some disgruntlement when Canon went from the 10D to the 20D and changed vertical grips.)
Given everything that this camera can do, and do well, it ranks as a near-perfect advanced amateur/semi-pro camera. Notice the "near-perfect." In field use of the 30D, we were reintroduced to the few quirks and inconveniences of the 20D: Setting a custom white balance, for one, is unduly complex -- a five-step procedure, when most other DSLRs in this class can do it in two.
The 1.6X lens factor of the 30D limits wide-angle shooting, although Canon is addressing this with its extra-wide digital-only EF-S lenses, such as the 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 EF-S zoom that we tested in our January 2006 issue.
We also don't think that the little nub of a multicontroller works all that well in switching AF points, as it tends to skip over points.
And, while the 30D works with the full system of Canon E-TTL II Speedlite flash units, the pop-up flash still can't be used as a remote trigger. (Nikon, Pentax, and the late Konica Minolta all figured out this trick some time ago.)
But that's it for the Complaint Department. The rest is brilliant.
How to Read a Camera Test
• A big 2.5-inch screen and a real spotmeter, finally!
• Kick-butt burst mode.
• Tougher shutter.
• Clumsy custom WB setting.
• Eyeglass-wearers may not see full finder.
• Wireless TTL flash controller costs extra.
• "Multicontroller" nub not so handy.
Who's This For?
• Advanced amateurs who want a durable, fast-shooting camera besides great image quality.
• EOS Rebel XT owners looking to trade up.
• Canon pro DSLR shooters looking for a lighter-weight backup.
The Competitive Set
($1,700 street, body only)
Nikon's D200 costs $300 more than the 30D, but you get what you pay for: resolution 300 lines higher than the Canon, better noise suppression, a rough-tough body better sealed against the environment, and AF that works down to a ridiculously dim -2 EV. Other Nikon advantages: wireless TTL flash triggering via the pop-up unit, and a 2 percent movable spotmeter. The cameras are even-up in color accuracy, shutter life, burst rates, and battery options. Canon's advantage: faster AF at EV 0 and above.
Olympus Evolt E-500
($585 street, body only)
Currently the bargain of 8MP DSLRs, the Olympus delivers equal resolution, slightly lower color accuracy, and somewhat higher noise than the 30D at $800 less, and nearly equal image controls. Its well-made body, while not quite as tough as the 30D's, is very compact and lightweight. Other Olympus advantages: self-cleaning CCD, 2 percent spotmeter. But the Canon 30D smokes the Oly in AF speed, burst mode, and, overwhelmingly, lens and flash catalog.