The Canon EOS 400D is the latest in the long line of affordable DSLRs from Canon, and as always I was interested to test how it worked in the field. Any test like this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as you basically get what you pay for, but I wanted to see if it could stand up to the kind of usage that I would typically put it to – so the 400D came to Zambia with me on a recent shoot. I did not use it as my primary camera, as I need the file size that the 1DS Mk2 gives, but I did use it when the opportunity arose. Here are my findings, which are all biased towards how it performs in the field.
Out of the box my first impression of the 400D was that it was a little small in the hand for my liking, but actually I have to admit that I quite enjoyed using it. Serious shooters though should consider purchasing the BG-E3 grip which makes it a lot nicer to hold in the hand. As far I could see it, the camera was an upgrade to the phenomenally successful 350D apart from a few new features, the major ones being:
- A new 10.1 MP sensor (a 20% increase from the 350D)
- Automatic sensor cleaning using anti-static materials and a vibration method of cleaning
- Improved 9 point AF sensor for better accuracy and speed
- Shoot Settings 2.5” LCD
Of course the actual list of improvements is much longer than this but these are the ones that I suspect most readers will be interested in and which will be covered here.
In the Field
I found the 400D quite fun to use, very responsive and with a nice, bright viewfinder that made a good change from my usual 1DS Mk2. It was quick to setup thanks to the picture styles function, to get the “straightest” results I chose the “faithful” option which basically set saturation, contrast and sharpening to “0”. Perhaps it should be renamed “bland” instead. I shot RAW for the whole of the test, figuring that the response for shooting JPEG would always be better.
I found that the 400D shot a respectable 3fps (more than my 1Ds MK2) for a burst of 10 RAWs (the manual states that this increases to 27 for JPEGs). Sounds great but an interesting thing happened when I was shooting the lion yawn sequence that you see here - I locked the buffer out, i.e. I took 10 consecutive shots. Nothing strange in that, except that I did not quite expect what happened next…..the 400D locked me out completely and refused to take any more shots! This carried on for several seconds, when it finally let me take a few more before locking out again. Usually a Canon DSLR uses double buffering, i.e. it lets you take pictures as it frees space from the buffer but for some reason the 400D does not quite behave in the same way Is it a problem? Well not if you shoot JPEG, or if you aren’t a trigger happy RAW photographer, but it is something to be aware of.
The improved AF was noticeable and it locked on to just about everything that I tried it on, even with the outermost points selected. I did not get to try it on anything running fast unfortunately, but since few users will ever do this I don’t think that it is much of an oversight.
One feature I really liked was the new 2.5” LCD at the back, which has been modified to display the current camera settings. Displayed as black text on a white background (great at night or in low light), the display shows everything that you need to know about the camera settings at a glance, including shutter speed, aperture, ISO, AF point selection, white balance and remaining shots. This is a really really useful feature as I did not have to waste time hunting for these settings, roll on the day when I get this on my pro DSLRs. The display switches off when you move your eye up to the viewfinder thanks to a strategically placed sensor, which shows some good thought from Canon. The display can be replaced at any time by the RGB / Brightness Histograms and when shooting you can set the 400D up to display the histograms for a set time after you have taken the shot as usual.
A small negative comment though, if you accidentally open the CF card door before the 400D has written the images to the card, then you will lose all those currently in memory. For anyone inexperienced with a DSLR I do not mean all the images on the card, just those that you have just shot and are still being written to the card. Ok, so it does not take a brain surgeon to know that you do NOT open the door or fiddle with the camera whilst it is writing to the card, but accidents happen and this is an issue to be aware of.
As far as I can tell the sensor cleaning worked very well, my images are free from dust, which is an achievement after returning from a trip to Africa. I did deliberately leave the mirror up sometimes as well to attract a bit more dust but so far so good it seems to work. Only time will tell but the trend has now been set as several manufacturers offer this feature; personally I will stick to using my Visible Dust Arctic Butterfly as that way at least I am in control of the cleaning - but having automtic cleaning will keep the worst away.
The quality is what you would expect from an entry level DSLR; it is pretty good but of course will not compare with its more expensive brothers. Still the 10MP sensor performed well, with all images upto ISO 400 looking nice and sharp with a good spread of colours and acceptable detail in the shadows. I did get a feeling that the camera tended to underexpose slightly but that has always been a Canon metering trait from the oldest days of film cameras so there is little point in me banging on about it here. All we want is a camera that exposes consistently, whether it be over or under exposed, so that with experience simple corrections can be made; the 400D certainly does that. I am not sure in truth how much better the 400D is than the 350D in terms of image quality, yes it has a 25% bigger default image size out of the camera but the actual detail in the image did not look appreciably different from the 350D. Comparisons will also be made with the more expensive 30D, which has a smaller 8MP sensor; don’t be fooled by this though as the 30D has smaller pixels so will deliver a better quality image, IMHO.
As you can see the 400D is a nice progression on the 350D, and will be the natural choice for entry level Canon photographers wanting to get their first DSLR. It is also a good upgrade choice for 350D users although personally I would opt for the 30D or the 5D, even though they are more expensive they do offer better performance. For the majority of hobby photographers out there the 400D will be fun to use, quick, responsive and produces a nice image that will give you lovely prints. Now Canon, what about giving me a few of the 400D features on my 1Ds MK2……