Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Canon has spent years making incremental improvements to its DSLR line's video features, yet it's been ages since we've seen a major step forward in functionality. While the 60D added some nice touches, its successor, the EOS 70D, makes one very specific leap towards excellence.

What Is It?

A $1200 (body only) DSLR with a 20.2 megapixel APS-C sensor and some serious video auto-focus chops.

Who’s It For?

Enthusiast or budding photographers who also shoot a lot of documentary, run and gun, or home video.

Why It Matters

Despite the extent to which DSLR video has been embraced in the past 5 years or so, one of the greatest challenges has been the lack of good auto-focus. With what Canon calls Dual-Pixel AF, the 70D is the first DSLR camera we have seen that performs natural and consistent focusing while shooting video. That means people without much experience can shoot casual video with better results, and even certain professional users can benefit.

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Design

The classic Canon DSLR profile remains intact with the 70D—comfortable and solid. Canon loves experimenting with button layouts, and every model is slightly different. The 70D is no exception. A couple of buttons, like trash, have been moved to the right side of the camera, while the menu and info buttons have moved to the left. There's also the addition of the useful live-view/video mode toggle, inherited from the 7D. While the changes aren’t bad necessarily, you kind of just want Canon to pick a layout and stick with it.

There is one major blemish, and that is the directional pad within the rear control wheel. Not only is it smaller than the one on the 60D, it also has a squishy feel, is hard to differentiate with your thumb, and is easy to accidentally press when rotating the outer wheel. Just really bad ergonomics there.

Using It

Let’s start with stills, because as much attention as the video features deserve, this is still a camera built for photos. The truth is, there are no improvements to get excited about here. The images from the 70D are largely the same as Canon’s past 5,383 APS-C DSLRs, without much of an image quality improvement over models that came out 5 years ago. That’s disappointing. It doesn’t mean the image quality is bad; in truth, image quality across all brands has only seen mild gains in the past few years. But even accepting that reality, Canon's products in particular have only shown modest evolution.

That said, the shooting experience is still wonderful, aided by the responsive and intuitive touch-screen. Canon has mastered this technology better than any other camera-maker, and it shows. Auto-focus is snappy, inheriting the 7D’s 19 cross-type points, though the single-shot AF speed is still behind some mirrorless cameras like the OM-D E-M1. Servo tracking is another story, and is one of the few areas where traditional DSLRs are superior over mirrorless up-and-comers.

f/8, 1/125, ISO 100:

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

f/5.0, 1/125, ISO 100:

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

The camera’s ups and downs aside, where the magic of the 70D lies is in video mode. With the new Dual Pixel AF, which essentially splits the pixels on the camera’s sensor, using half of each as phase-detection sites, Canon has promised smooth and accurate auto-focus during video recording. It works extremely well. When moving from one subject to another, the camera automatically refocuses smoothly, without back-and-forth hunting or jittering steps. Sure, there is the occasional miss, but overall it's wonderful, and makes “point and shoot” video possible for many beginners who would otherwise be frustrated by the difficulty of constantly racking focus in video mode.

Furthermore, as a professional user, I would not dismiss this feature as only for beginners. When shooting run and gun documentary footage, I would not hesitate to use the 70D’s auto-focus when not in a position to effectively monitor and adjust the lens manually.

Unfortunately, for Canon and its many excited customers, the 70D stops there when it comes to offering video shooters anything new. The video quality is not improved one bit over previous models. It still exhibits significant moire distortion in certain subjects, and just looks a bit muddy in finely detailed shots. True, it's no worse than every other DSLR out there except the very top end—the 5D Mark III and Nikon D800. But still, we should expect some kind of quality improvement over 5 years.

Perhaps more inexplicable is the lack of headphone jack. How does Canon expect a video shooter to choose the 70D when they are unable to monitor audio? It doesn’t make sense.

f/2.8, 1/200, ISO 640:

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

f/2.0, 1/250, ISO 3200:

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

100% crop, f/2.0, 1/250, ISO 3200:

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Like

That solid Canon feel—in both hardware and software—makes for a great user experience.
The well implemented rotating touch-screen is a boon to the camera's usability, especially for video recording. The flagship feature, auto-focus during video recording is terrific and unrivaled, and compliments the 70D's solid still AF performance.

No Like

Image quality is nothing to get excited about. It's good, but overdue for a boost, especially in low light. Video quality is also the same as what we saw in 2009. The rear directional pad is a tactile and ergonomic nightmare—squishy and imprecise. Despite Canon marketing the 70D toward video shooters, it still lacks key video features like a headphone jack. And why you must disable Wi-Fi before shooting in video mode is beyond me.

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus

Test Notes

  • Oddly, Wi-Fi must be disabled before you record video. It’s annoying and beguiling to have to jump into the menus for this.
  • All of our image samples were shot RAW and converted in Adobe Lightroom.
  • Video AF performance will vary based on which lens you use. Most lenses that aren't super old should work fine, but the sound of the motor will definitely be apparent if you are using the on-board mic. But really, you should never be using the on-board mic anyways. And if you have the newer STM (silent stepping motor) lenses, AF will be very quiet.
  • In our test video, the focus test was done using a 35mm f/2 IS, and the touch-focus test was done using the 24-105mm f/4 IS.
  • View our full-size image samples here.

Should I Buy It?

If you want a catch-all DSLR that is good in most areas but not incredible in any (besides video auto-focus), the 70D is a solid buy at $1200 for the body. The Nikon D7100 ($1200 body-only), is a bit more robust with better image quality and low-light performance, but not good at all for video. The Canon T4i, at a much cheaper $650 (body only), will give you about the same image quality as the 70D, but without the useability and video conveniences.

Unfortunately, the current camera landscape is such that DLSRs really don’t have much new to offer. There is more innovation in the mirrorless world. Canon insists on making products that offer one or two great new features—Dual-Pixel AF is a great feature—but refuses to coalesce the best of them into one great camera.

Canon 70D Review: DSLR Video Nirvana Comes More Into Focus