Canon EOS 7D: ISO Performance



Northern Mockingbird #1 (2200 x 1385 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 250 | f5/6 | 1/500sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Vibrance+62
Sharpening:+25 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+10

I acquired a Canon EOS 7D in September, and now that I’ve been using it extensively for a few months I thought it would be good to write reviews of its various features. This camera has been on the market for a while and there are many reviews already available, but I thought it would be helpful to review the features of this camera that make it hands down the best Canon APS-C DSLR for wildlife photography. In the past I’ve used the Canon Rebel 2000 and Elan 7 (film) and the 10D, 40D and 50D (digital), and all of these cameras have been wonderful cameras that have served me well. But the 7D easily out shines them all. In this review, I’d like to examine the ISO performance of the camera.

Before I begin, though, it may be useful for me to make a couple points about how I will approach these reviews. First, while I have access to a studio, I don’t plan to do much if any testing of the camera there. Studio tests have real value, but I will never be able to improve on the reviews on dpreview. I’m most concerned with its use in the field, and especially with how this camera performs innature and wildlife photography. Second, pixel-peeping tests of image right out of the camera also have real value, since the “garbage in, garbage out” principle always applies. However, I’m not nearly as interested in this camera’s image quality right out of the camera. I’m most interested in the camera’s ability to give me images that I can turn into a final product. So the images I show will be edited images, and I will let you know what edits I made to each image. And if you click on any of them, you will be able to see the images larger on my smugmug site.

As a wildlife photographer, I often need to get out in the field early in the morning (when light is scarce) to find the wildlife I want to photograph. And while I’m a big believer in tripods, wildlife typically moves, so a tripod is not always practical. But in order to handhold my camera in low-light situations, I need to be able to crank up the ISO to get sharp images. Raising the ISO gives me faster shutter speeds, which allows me to “freeze” the motion of my subject (and my camera). But raising the ISO eventually brings diminishing returns, since the higher you raise your ISO, the more noise will appear in your images. The noisier your images become, the less detail will be retained in your pictures. In practical terms, this means you can’t crop your image as much, and it means that you can’t enlarge your images as much on screen and in prints. As a wildlife photographer, I almost always crop my images, sometimes very significantly, so I like to keep noise levels as low as possible.

Mockingbird Tests

I took these Northern Mockingbird photos all on the same morning of the same bird. I was standing in different places and the bird was in different poses, but I made the changes in exposure in these photos to account for the light coming out from behind the clouds between after around 8 am.

Northern Mockingbird #2 (1760 x 1152 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 800 | f5/6 | 1/400sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Clarity:+24 |Vibrance+62
Sharpening:+25 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+17

Northern Mockingbird #3 (1760 x 1152 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 1600 | f5/6 | 1/320sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Whites:+33 |Clarity:+26 |Vibrance+62
Sharpening:+30 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+17
Adjustment brush: lower sharpness, clarity, contrast of background

You can see from the above photos, after editing, all three images can be presented with little noise. The Mockingbird #3 at 1600 ISO image easily required the most work. I raised the luminance noise reduction in Lightroom to +17 (I rarely go higher than 20), andI used the adjustment brush in Lightroom to lower sharpness, contrast, and clarity in the background to remove visible noise from the out of focus portions of the image. While this vastly improved the background, you can still see that it’s not quite as clean as the Mockingbird #2 image shot at 800 ISO with no adjustment brush work. The Mockingbird #1 image required very little work. Not only was it shot at 250 ISO so that it produced a cleaner image, but I was able to shoot at this ISO because the lighting was just plain better. The natural lighting of the scene allowed me to get a better image right out of the camera.

Thrush/Ovenbird Tests

Now that we’ve seen how the EOS 7D performs at moderatly high ISOs, let’s look at how it performs with photographs between 1600 and 5000 ISO. These photos were taken on different days of different birds, but they were all taken under the cover of trees which allowed little light to fall on the bird. The shutter speeds on these images are pretty slow, and since I was shooting without a tripod, I braced my arms and took many shots in the hope that a few would turn out sharp.

Ovenbird #1 (2233 x 1553 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 1600 | f5/6 | 1/80sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Shadows:+45|Whites:+43|Blacks: -29 | Vibrance+36
Sharpening:+25 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:0

Swainton’s Thrush (2278 x 1663 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 2500 | f5/6 | 1/60sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Shadows:+29 |Blacks: -26 |Clarity:+12 |Vibrance+40
Sharpening:+34 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+18
Adjustment brush: lower sharpness, clarity, contrast of background

Ovenbird #2 (2076 x 1299 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 2500 | f5/6 | 1/60sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Vibrance+43
Sharpening:+25 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+0

Veery (2867 x 1857 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 4000 | f5/6 | 1/60sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Shadows:+38|Whites:+26|Blacks: -31 |Clarity:+36 |Vibrance+31
Sharpening:+37 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+18
Adjustment brush: lower sharpness, clarity, contrast of background

Ovenbird #3 (2776 x 1877 crop)

Canon EOS 7D with EF 400mm f/5.6L (ISO 5000 | f5/6 | 1/100sec)
Lightroom Adjustments:
Shadows: +7 |Whites: +71 |Vibrance+26
Sharpening:+37 |LuminanceNoise Reduction:+25
Adjustment brush: lower sharpness, clarity, contrast of background

As you can see, even up to 5000 ISO you can get images that are presentable on-line with significant editing. I doubt very seriously that I would ever print images from 2000-5000 ISO at any significant size, especially when cropped like these. And notice also that I did not crop the Veery and Ovenbird #3 shot as much as the others shot at lower ISOs–the less you crop the less noticeable the noise. I also find it interesting that when I originally worked on these photos I did not add any noise reduction to the Ovenbird #1 and #2 shots. I suspect that they would be improved if I raised it to+10, but you can see in these photos what the noise levels look like with no added noise reduction and the default sharpening (Lightroom automatically adds sharpening at+25).

Conclusion

At this moment in time, if you want better ISO performance from a Canon DSLR, you’ll have to buy a full-frame camera. That said, other current generation cameras, like the 60D and T4i should produce similar results to the 7D, since they use the same sensor.

In practical terms:

  • ISOs up to 400 generally produce nice, clean, and relatively noise-free images. In this range, I don’t mind at cropping down to 1 megapixel image for online viewing.

  • I don’t hesitate to raise my ISO up to 1600 when I need to. Noise becomes more noticeable, especially in the shadows and clean backgrounds, but I can deal with much of that in Lightroom. And noise is not as noticeable in my subject, since it is made less conspicuous by the details in the subject.

  • When absolutely necessary, I’ll take shots as high as 5000 ISO. I don’t crop these as much, and I tend to work much more to make the image look respectable, but I can often come up with an image that I don’t mind showing on screen. A sharp, noisy image at 5000 ISO is much better than no image at all.

While these images don’t show it, if I’m shooting a scene with a lot of blue (like a gull flying low over the water), noise levels will typically be higher. And if I’m shooting high contrast scenes, particularly back-lit scenes, noise levels will usually be higher in the shadowy areas. I may display some images to show this in a future post.

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons, based in Florida, is a lover of nature, landscape, and wildlife photography. Scott became interested in photography in 2001 when he was given his first SLR camera. When he acquired a telephoto lens, he became progressively more interested in birds and other wildlife. Scott enjoys learning about bird habitats and behavior, striving always to take images that are both beautiful and interpretive. Scott believes photography is a great vehicle to help others to appreciate the wonder for the stuff of earth.

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons

Scott Simmons, based in Florida, is a lover of nature, landscape, and wildlife photography. Scott became interested in photography in 2001 when he was given his first SLR camera. When he acquired a telephoto lens, he became progressively more interested in birds and other wildlife. Scott enjoys learning about bird habitats and behavior, striving always to take images that are both beautiful and interpretive. Scott believes photography is a great vehicle to help others to appreciate the wonder for the stuff of earth.

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Micky B

Nice article Scott, I am also an avid user of two 7d bodies with 500mm and 300mm lenses and concur with your findings