Review: Canon EOS 40D

Pros: Great image quality; excellent interface; very good Live View implementation; new custom mode feature; larger LCD.

Cons: Auto bracketing still limited; lacks some features of the competition, such as a built-in intervalometer; retains that silly Direct Print button.

Rating: 90

When thinking about product upgrades, most of us focus on the things that we want added to or changed in our favorite hardware or software. With cameras, that’s usually more pixels, more features, and a lower price. One thing we don’t always focus on is what we want to stay the same. In other words, sometimes the smartest choice when engineering an upgrade is knowing what not to change.

The $1,149 Canon EOS 40D is the fifth descendent of the EOS D30, a breakthrough SLR that came out late in 2000. Canon has made the usual improvements that one expects — better performance, larger LCD screen, etc. — and left a lot of things the same. What’s especially interesting for users upgrading from previous cameras is that for the first time in eight years, Canon has changed some basic interface design for the better. However, a few long-term problems are still there.

The good news is that all of these changes, good and bad, add up to a solid product that’s fun to use, reasonably priced, and delivers excellent image quality.

What It Is
The EOS 40D is a mid-range digital SLR aimed at photographers who want image quality and performance that are better than that of lower-end offerings, such as the Canon Rebel XTi or Nikon D40.

Enclosed in a body that’s larger than entry-level SLRs, but smaller than such professional models as Canon’s EOS 5D and 1DS series cameras, the 40D is a comfortable camera that weighs in at a little more than 1.5 pounds. Years of refining the camera’s design have resulted in a body that’s secure to grip, easy to work with, and allows one-handed access to all major shooting controls (Figure 1).

Figure 1. With the EOS 40D, Canon has made a few interesting changes to the traditional interface.

Figure 2. With the 40D, Canon has added a larger LCD screen, which necessitated the re-arranging of a few buttons.

I’ve never liked the position of Canon’s power switch: on the back of the camera at the very bottom. It’s the one essential operation that requires me to use two hands. Unfortunately, on the 40D the switch is now somewhat recessed, making it harder to operate.

On the top of the camera, you’ll find a Mode dial that lets you switch between the camera’s shooting modes: Automatic, Program, Priority, Manual, and various Scene modes (Figure 3). Three new Custom positions let you store your own modes. With custom modes you can define parameters and store them in each mode. When you switch to that mode, the camera automatically selects those parameters. For example, you could create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode that specifies auto-bracketing and drive mode, and store that on C1. Change the mode dial to C1, and auto bracketing and drive mode are set.

Figure 3. The 40D includes extra, fully programmable custom modes you can use to create quick access to any combination of features.

Custom modes finally solve the problem of a lack of dedicated buttons for common features, such as auto bracketing and mirror lock-up. I hope this feature filters through to the rest of Canon’s line.

Canon has made three other major changes to the camera’s interface. First, there is now an AF-On button on the back of the camera, next to the Exposure lock button (Figure 4). Pressing AF-On is the same as half-pressing the shutter button. Because the button is easily reached with the thumb of your grip hand, you can focus with your thumb, and shoot with your forefinger.

Figure 4. The new AF-On button provides an alternate way to trigger auto-focus.

I don’t find this any easier than using the shutter-button half-press, but on previous models, many people programmed the Set button — the button in the middle of the rear control wheel — to act as an AF-On button. If you’re used to shooting this way, you’ll like the AF-On button.

Second, Canon has changed the layout of the 40D’s menu system. Now no single menu is longer than one screen, which means you can see every feature of each menu, without scrolling. The four-way rocker switch Canon introduced several versions ago lets you jump horizontally from one menu to another, and you can select an item from a menu using the rocker switch or the control wheel. This is the best UI Canon has yet developed for its menu system. Because you have a control dedicated to scrolling left and right, and a separate control for up and down, you can quickly jump from menu to menu, or from item to item within a menu. And the large scroll wheel is still the fastest mechanism on any camera for navigating a menu.

The last change will only be apparent to users of the 40D’s predecessors. With the new model, Canon has finally placed an ISO readout on both the top-mounted LCD status screen and on the in-viewfinder status display. These are great additions that keep you from having to press the ISO button to see your current ISO setting. To fit the readout onto the status screen, Canon had to re-arrange a few items, but this change is easy to get used to (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Because the 40D now has an ISO readout on its top-mounted LCD screen, owners of older Canon models will notice slight differences in the screen’s layout.

You can activate Live View by pushing the set button on the back of the camera. You’ll hear the camera’s mirror flip up, and then the viewfinder will show a live view of your current scene. The mirror must flip up to expose the sensor so that it can generate the image that’s shown on the LCD screen.

When using Live View, you can enable an exposure simulation that can come in handy, though you’ll probably want to disable it in low light so you can see darker details in your scene. You can also zoom into the image to check focus and fine detail, and activate a live histogram, grid line display, and exposure settings display.

Focusing while in Live View is a little complicated. Because the 40D’s autofocus sensor is in the camera’s pentaprism (the contraption on top of the camera, where the viewfinder is), and because the mirror that reflects light into the pentaprism must be flipped out of the way for Live View to work, autofocus during Live View is impossible. You have two focusing choices: You can manually focus by turning the focus ring on your camera’s lens; or you can tell the camera to auto-focus, which requires it to drop the mirror, thus temporarily stopping the Live View.

Manual focus is easy thanks to the fact that you can zoom the Live View in and get a very close view of the fine details in your image. But even the autofocus, with its mirror movement, is not too much of a hassle, especially when you consider the ways you’ll typically use Live View. For product or landscape photography, when you usually take some time to line up your shot, it’s not terribly inconvenient to let the camera autofocus and then leave the focus at that point while you frame and adjust your shot.

Live View is not an everyday feature, but for times when you need it, it’s a great luxury that’s well-implemented.

However, the 40D’s feature set still feels skimpy. Canon only allows you a three-step auto bracket, something that drives me nuts. With more photographers exploring HDR shooting, and with the camera’s very speedy drive mode, a three-step bracket is simply too limited. The Nikon D300 allows up to five steps, including a 2-step bracket, which is great for raw shooters who often like to shoot an as-metered shot and a slightly overexposed shot.

The D300 has other features, such as an intervalometer, that the 40D lacks. Since all of these additional features are simply software changes, I’m surprised that Canon hasn’t added them.

Image Quality
The 40D comes from a camera lineage with exceptional image quality, especially at low light. As with its predecessors, the 40D uses a cropped, APS-sized sensor. Consequently, in increasing the resolution of the 40D to ten megapixels, Canon introduced the risk that high-ISO noise would increase.

Fortunately, a breakthrough allowed Canon to use a larger area on the sensor for each photosite, and the 40D employs the company’s excellent DIGIC III image processor, which does a much better job of handling noise. The practical upshot is that the 40D does achieve higher resolution without a noise penalty.

Noise is not the only arbiter of image quality, of course, and the 40D delivers excellent results on all fronts. It uses a 14-bit capture and image-processing pipeline (the previous models had 12-bit pipelines). The result is images with slightly better detail in their shadow tones, and a dynamic range that can reach almost 11 stops.

Bottom Line: It’s a Great Camera
Though I have some quibbles about the 40D, in the final analysis, it’s a great camera.

For people shooting with an earlier model, the buying decision is a little tricky. If you’re upgrading from a 20D or 30D, you’ll get a slightly higher pixel count (from 8 to 10 megapixels), some nice interface features (such as custom modes), Live View, and sensor cleaning. Only you can decide whether that’s worth $1,149.

But if you’re starting from scratch and are in the market for a digital SLR, the 40D should definitely be one of your final contenders because of its great design, excellent interface, very competitive price/performance ratio, and support for Canon’s excellent, comprehensive line of lenses.

Posted on: February 27, 2008

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