Monday, January 28, 2013

Test of Time Review: Canon EOS 20D

Originally released in 2004, the EOS 20D was a major step up from its predecessor the 10D. With increases in framerate, the introduction of the now commonplace 9-point AF system, an EF-S mount, and the first non-pro Canon body to feature instant startup, the 20D moved the XXD into semi-pro territory after the 300D rendered the 10D slightly redundant.But in the nearly 9 years since, its four direct descendants, the 7D, and even the T4i have matched or surpassed just about all of its features.

So what does the 20D still have going for it after all this time? Mainly price - it can be had for $150-$200 used, a pricepoint that no comparable body can approach presently. Anyone looking for a cheap backup or secondary can easily justify the cost, or someone with only a full-frame body might want to pick one up in order to have a dual-format setup without breaking the bank. With that said, read on to find out just how well it stands up against modern bodies, and whether or not the low pricepoint involves too many compromises for your needs.

Featuring a magnesium allow body, the 20D follows roughly the same form as all non-rebel/1 series DSLR's made by Canon, with a nice large grip that will please anyone who finds the rebel series a bit cramped. It does lack the deep thumbgrip of later models, but I personally don't find that to be an issue. Although I never had reservations about the durability of the rebel line's plastic shells, the magnesium does feel much more reassuring, and the texturing on it adds a nice touch. The 20D also benefits from using the same BG-E2(n) battery grip that was used with 3 other bodies, and the BP-511 batteries, which were used in all mid-range canon DSLRs until the 5D Mark II came along in 2009. I never found battery life to be an issue with the 20D - in optimal conditions (warm, no flash, short exposures, little LCD use) I've gotten 2000+ shots out of a single BP-511 on more than one occasion, This makes the 20D a pretty nice companion to a lot of other bodies down there. Though be aware that the 20D uses CF memory cards, so if you don't already have a collection of them, starting a new one will be a bit expensive comapred to SD cards of similar speed/capacity.

One of the major benefits of the XXD series over the rebel line has been the inclusion of larger and brighter pentaprism viewfinders, and the 20D is no exception to that. At 0.90x magnification and showing 95% of the frame, it's a significant step up from what's in the rebel bodies, and really makes manually focusing and composition easier. It isn't a transmissive screen, however, so don't expect on-demand gridlines like Nikon bodies of the era were offering. Other features aside from build that most users will appreciate over a rebel body of similar vintage are the inclusion of the rear scroll wheel, which makes changing exposures much faster, and the 8-way controller aka joystick. There's also a monochrome status LCD on top of the body, but it isn't angled toward the user like on the 40D and 50D, so you have to tilt or lower the body a fair bit before you can read it - a minor annoyance. There's also no permanent display of ISO anywhere, so you're going to have to hit the ISO button to remind yourself about those settings every now and then.

Also found on the back is the 20D's 1.8" TFT LCD monitor, probably the one part of it that most indicates its age. It's small and near impossible to see in direct sunlight, and if you've been spoiled by the 920K+ dot screens of newer bodies, this will seem like a huge step back. Nonetheless it still serves its function under most conditions, and colour rendition is at least accurate...unlike the infamous batch of 30D/5D screens that came tinted.The menu system is the same single-page menu that has been around since the dawn of EOS digital bodies, which becomes tedious when you have to have to scroll through every option to find what you want. The inclusive of the 'jump' button alleviates some of this issue, but it's still a shame the paged menu system introduced with the 300D wasn't carried over into this body.
The LCD is the 20D's equivalent of a cane or walker
The EOS 20D was the first to feature the now common 9-point AF system, which was a noticeable improvement over the 7-point one used in the 10D/300D/350D. Being the first implementation of the new system, it was surpassed when the 40D was announced with a tweaked 9-point AF system (with 9 cross-type AF points, and a claimed 30% speed increase), but the one in the 20D continued to be used right up to the Rebel T3i. AF speed and accuracy are pretty good, and in use gave me a much higher hit rate in AI servo mode than the 7-point system. Overall the focus system has a pretty quick initial acquisition time, and good AI servo tracking performance. In use, I haven't noticed much of a difference in focusing speed between the 20D and the 50D (which uses the updated 9-point AF) when it comes to centre point usage. Peripheral points on the 20D will hunt in low light and low contrast scenarios since they aren't cross type, but overall the AF still holds a candle to today's enthusiast bodies. The AF combined with a respectable 5fps burst rate (same league as the 60D and T4i) makes it a pretty good sports shooting body on the cheap.
The outer AF points don't have any trouble keeping up in good light
Sitting at 8 mexapixels, the EOS 20D's image quality still hold up pretty well. That's the resolution that I personally consider 'enough' though there are times when more definitely would have been nice, like when shooting the moon or anything else that needs cropping. High ISO noise levels fit with the standard of the era, where ISO 100-400 look very clean, and ISO 800 and 1600 show increasingly higher amounts of noise. It holds up pretty well, but jpeg output is slightly behind what current APS-C bodies can provide (by about one stop).
100% crop of 30 second exposure @ ISO 1600
There's also an ISO 3200 option, but I consider that for emergency use only. Noteworthy is the 20D's lack of 1/3 stop ISO sensitivity selections (i.e. 125, 160 etc), which is a bit of a downer, especially if you shoot in manual often and want to maintain a certain shutter speed and aperture combination. There's no auto ISO option in the PASM modes, either. That wasn't introduced until the 40D came along.

What's still worth it

  • Fast 5fps burst rate
  • Fairly good autofocus system 
  • Great build quality
  • Viewfinder still larger than those of modern rebel series
  • Excellent battery life
  • Snappy performance (shutter lag, VF blackout etc)
  • Image quality still stands up
  • Instant start-up
  • Rear scroll wheel & joystick
  • Full accessory compatibility with 30D,40D,50D

What you'll hate compared to today's bodies

  • Small, low-res 1.8" LCD
  • Outdated single-page menu
  • No liveview
  • No spot metering
  • ISO isn't displayed permanently 
  • Limited ISO range (100-1600 + H)

If you're looking for something to act as a cheap backup or expendable body without the rebel form factor and control layout, you're not going to find anything better south of $300. The only real competition in the price range of the 20D is the 400D/Rebel XTi, which may be a good option for those who want some of the more modern bells and whistles (larger screen, more software options, self-cleaning etc.) or higher resolution. If you don't think the 20D will meet your needs, your next best bet is the EOS 40D, which is a significant improvement over the 20D in every way, but it averages around $350 on the used market.

However if you're entirely new to the DSLR market, you may want to skip this one. You'll get better value from more recent entry-level bodies such as the Rebel T2i/T3i or Nikon D3100 or D5100, all of which can be had with kit lenses for under $500, and use less expensive SD memory cards. They have video mode as well, if that's important to you.

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