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Canon t3i vs 60d vs 7d – Which Tier is Right For You?

Canon offers a lot digital SLR cameras, and if you’re just getting into the market you might find your head reeling. At the entry level, there are a number of very similar cameras (see this post about the differences in the Canon t1i vs t2i vs t3i). You might also find yourself looking up and down the entry level to mid level tiers, wondering which camera is right for you – the Canon t3i, the Canon 60D, or the Canon 7D?

Unlike the three entry level cameras, there are some real differences between the Canon EOS t3i, 60D, and 7D. There are also some very real price differences. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to spend the extra cash on the more expensive camera. Let’s take a look at a few comparison points to help you decide.

Fold Out Articulating Screen for Video

A picture of the Canon EOS 60D camera with its articulating screen open.I have never been a big fan of the articulating screen. As someone focused very much on photography, this smacked of something designed to pander to amateurs who can’t bother to look through a viewfinder. To this day, I still chuckle when one of my students picks up a dSLR for the first time… confused about why they don’t see anything on the back screen.

But, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a use for the articulating screen. If you do video, then you’re going to be looking at the live preview on the LCD screen. And it just might come in handy to be able to fold out that screen and position it just so. This is a nice feature for people that will use their camera for video. To me, it’s a complete and utter waste if your almost entirely focused on photography like I am.

Autofocus System

If you’re talking about an step up from the t3i and 60D to the 7D, then one of the key characteristics is the autofocus system. Both the Canon EOS t3i and Canon EOS 60D sport the same 9 point autofocus. There are some slight differences in the way it works, but nothing fancy.

The Canon EOS 7D is a hueg step up in terms of autofocus. Instead of the 9 points, it uses a 19 point system. You have a lot more options in terms of customizing autofocus points, and the system is in general more accurate and quicker to focus.

Does this matter to everyone? Not necessarily. The autofocus system used by the t3i and the 60D works great for portraits, indoor/sit-down events, and stuff like that. When you can take a second and compose your shot, you don’t have to worry so much. It does sometimes get off a little bit when you have a wide open aperture (i.e. a 50mm f/1.8 or something similar), but I did plenty of portraits with my Canon t1i and the autofocus was never an issue.

Sports, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother issue. In fast moving sports, like track and basketball, you need a quick and accurate autofocus. It needs to be able to pick the right points, and re-focus as the subject moves. If you take a lot of pictures at sporting events or of other fast paced action, you’d be well served by the improved autofocus. I’ll be happy to never take another picture at a basketball game with my old Canon t1i…

Framerate and Shutter Lag

Another key improvement with the Canon 7D is that the framerate is higher and there is significantly less shutter lag.

The Canon 7D is capable of sustained shooting at 8 FPS. The t3i can capture 3.7 FPS and the Canon 60D is slightly faster at 5.3 FPS. This really matters to one group of people: sports shooters. Who else shoots in continuous mode? The more I used my old Canon t1i, the more I realized that the 3.* FPS was a problem for really quick moving sports – the high jump, 55m hurdles, basketball. In a blink of an eye, the moment of peak action is gone… and you could easily be stuck with a shot before and after the moment you wanted to capture. For this type of shooting, I’d take the Canon 7D any day of the week.

The 7D also sports a quicker mirror assembly, which leads to less shutter lag. Shutter lag on any dSLR is significantly less than a point and shoot camera, but the Canon 7D has about half the shutter lag of either the 60D or the t3i (~125ms vs ~250ms). A quarter of a second is not a lot of time… but again, this will be important for a sports shooter.

Camera Build – Durability and Weatherization

A final key strength of the 7D is that it is much more durable than the 60D and the t3i.

Each of the three cameras is built from different materials, with the 7D being the heaviest and most durable and the t3i being the lightest and most fragile. The Canon 7D is built out of a magnesium alloy – real, durable stuff. The Canon t3i and 60D on the other hand are made out of mixtures of metal and polycarbonate resin. The stronger materials make the 7D heavier, but it will live longer under heavy use.

The 7D is also weatherized, whereas the Canon t3i and 60D are not. In theory, the 7D should thus stand up better in harsh weather conditions (rain, snow, etc), while the Canon t3i and 60D are more likely to die a grisly, short-circuited death. Your mileage may vary, but that’s some increased peace of mind for someone that has to walk up and down a football sideline rain or shine, or someone that does a lot of wildlife photography.

Finally, the shutter on the Canon 7D is rated for 150,000 actuations. That’s about 50% higher than the 100,000 actuation rating given to both the Canon t3i and Canon 60D. Of course, that rating is an “estimate,” and it’s hard to say just when a particular camera will die (just like a car). But, on a macro scale, that means a Canon 7D will last 50% longer than either a t3i or a 60D. Another way of thinking about this is that, in the long term, it makes the Canon 7D much more affordable.

Of course, the shutter life isn’t going to matter to some people. As a yearbook photographer who juggles sporting events, portraits, school performances, and such… I take 15,000 to 20,000 pictures a year. Maybe more, I’m not sure how many I delete. The average person may not ever reach that 100,000 / 150,000 mark, and they might end up re-selling/junking the camera in order to upgrade first.

If you shoot sports or for whatever reason shoot high quantities of pictures, then the extended shutter is a great boon. For the average person, it may never matter.

Similarities – Why You Don’t Need to Upgrade

Despite some real improvements from the Canon t3i/60D to the 7D, there are also some areas where you’ll see pretty much no improvement at all.

Resolution. All three cameras use the same base image processor. Same resolution, same image quality. More or less.

ISO / Noise . All three cameras have the same ISO options, and they have similar amounts of noise at each level. This is related to the fact that they use the same underlying chip.

Lenses. All three cameras use the same EF-S lens mount, because they’re all crop-sized cameras. This is one key difference between all of these lower end cameras, and the higher end, full frame Canon 5D / Canon 1Ds. For people who aren’t going to make use of any of the real improvements in the 7D, you would probably be better off spending that extra few hundred bucks on a nicer piece of glass. Lenses are important.

Flash Control. All three cameras sport an on-camera commander flash. You can trigger other Canon flashes wirelessly using the built in flash, rather than buying a set of radio transmitters to do the job. This is key benefit that all of these cameras have over the older entry-level models, the Canon t1i and Canon t2i.

So… What’s Right for Who?

For people who specialize in sports and/or action photography, the Canon 7D is a huge improvement over the 60D and the t3i. It’s more durable. It’s got a longer life expectancy. The autofocus is vastly improved. The shutter lag is lower, and the frame rate is higher, for those important action shots. Not to mention weatherization. If you can afford the upgrade, definitely go for it.

For everyone else? Well, it’s kind of up to you. The 7D is nicer… it feels more “real,” with its hefty magnesium body. It sounds nicer, with the quicker mirror/shutter movement. But, there aren’t a whole lot of tangible benefits to justify a huge increase in price.

Consider for a moment that the Canon t3i is $670 on Amazon and the Canon 7D is $1345. In recent months, the Canon t3i has gotten somewhat cheaper (why, by the way, is the 60D still $1200?). The current price difference – ~$675 – is enough to invest in some nice glass (like the Canon 85mm f/1.8 that I love for portraiture, or a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 for indoor events). If you don’t shoot sporting events and you’re not flush with extra cash, I really don’t know if it makes sense to spend twice the money to buy the 7D. Even for a professional portrait photographer… I’m wondering what the appeal is.

And, back to our original thought, if you’re doing video, you may want the Canon t3i anyway. The articulating screen is useful for videographers if it isn’t useful for photographers.

Something I’ve found increasingly puzzling while writing this review, though, is… why would anyone buy a Canon 60D? It has very few real improvements over the Canon t3i (slightly higher FPS, slightly more durable body), and it has some real detractors compared to the 7D. Yet the Canon 60D is closer in price point ($1200) to the 7D ($1345) than it is to the Canon t3i ($670). I’m confused. I really am…

Anyhow, hopefully this review has helped you make a choice as to which of these three dSLRs is the best suited for you. For me, I can’t wait to get my hands on a Canon EOS 7D full-time. My Canon t1i served me well, but it’s nearing time for it to retire to the backup position. For others, though, the Canon EOS t3i will be just fine. Don’t assume that a more expensive camera is necessary. It may be “better,” but that doesn’t mean you need it. There are other things to spend your money on (*hint* GLASS *hint*).

Filed Under: How to Choose a Good Camera

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. tom says: February 21, 2012

    Great article. I have to agree with you. I waited eagerly for 50D replacement and was disappointed with what the 60D had to offer. In the end, I chose to go with the 7D primarily for the construction materials.

  2. Martin says: March 23, 2012

    As a Canon 7d user (for more than year) I would like to write few words about this body, issues that you didn’t mention in this article.

    I would like to start with that I came to your site redirected from Google (Lightroom key shortcuts customisation keywords) and I have read few of your posts before writing what I am writing right now.

    As a Canon user with experience of few cameras (point and shoot, 450d, 40d and now 7d) I would like to argue if 7d is “studio” camera. In my opinion – unfortunately not. Body is well designed (it is sealed, but Canon do not guarantee its water proof, Pentax does with its cheaper bodies, Canon does it with 1’s bodies afaik), its perfect for handling. But… There is one “but”. Banding issue. I was thinking about my new body (after shutter crash in previous), and I have chosen 7d because of its versatility. I needed fast camera for sreet photo and its marvelous for that. I wanted to have studio camera as well, and problems appeared. Consider this: if you want to recover some details from shadows – you will get banding. It appears even with something about + 1EV. In low ISO, with higher ISO problem is smaller, but regular noise is increasing. This can ruin perfect studio shots, remember this. Those ugly “noise-like” stripes are impossible to remove. Lightroom (3 as well as 4) is not handling well with them. Only solution is Canon’s DPP software (it can remove some, just some, not all of their appearance), but this is of course very uncomfortable. Even my ol’ 450d was better with recovering details from shadows!

    Have you consider this issue? What is the solution? Different camera maybe. Honestly, since bought of 7d I am thinking about better camera, and… Well… It’s “banding issue” vs quality of gear and quality is keeping me with this body.

    • Brian says: March 24, 2012

      Hey Martin. Thanks for the info. I haven’t had a chance to use a 7D in studio – just out at events (where my ISO was up in the normal range of 400+).

      As for a solution, I read on this flickr thread that the banding issue seems to disappear at ISO 200. So, simple solution… use ISO 200 in the studio. That’s still a low enough ISO that you shouldn’t see any appreciable noise in a photo, I would think.

      This wouldn’t make much difference to me, anyway. When I do “studio” work, I tend to use speedlites in a strobist style. So I usually use ISO 200 as a base anyway, to amp the power of the speedlites a bit.

      • Martin says: March 27, 2012

        If this is not a problem for you, then… its not a problem. Like i said – 7d is good body (but remember about water sealing – there is no Canon’s warranty for sealing), this camera is good for street photo and for high speed events shooting thanks to its redesigned autofocus. And about banding… This topic from flickr is partially explaining the problem. If you use higher ISO, then banding problem will be less appearing. It will not vanish – it will still be. I know that in ISOs higher than 100 pattern of those ugly lines are not so visible – in my opinion its due to coverage of them by “regular” high iso noise pattern. Stripes of this unremovable noise still are “in-image”, trust me. My point is that: I have bought camera that suppose to have better image quality than entry level cameras. And it doesn’t have it. Low ISO banding is much worse than in 450d. Solutions that almost everyone suggest (shoot in higher ISO) are like… Well – you buy a fast car, not the most expensive, but expensive enough to consider it as a well-done-car. And when you reach some speed, this car is emitting some noise. You drive and its uncomfortable for you. And (compared to solution of 7d’s problem) all advisors tell you “it’s easy – you just have to drive slower”.

        This is not solution (sensor replacement should be, but it isn’t), this is “adapting” to difficult conditions.

        But enough with that. If you know the pros and cons – you should know better your demands and you will get the camera right for you.

        If I may add something out of this topic – I recommend to everyone who do “strobist-style-lightning” speedlites of YongNuo manufacturer. Esp. YN-565EX – it’s cheap and really well done clone of C 580’s. If you didn’t hear about this – you can read test of it on speedlights.net. It can be wireless controlled (with TTL working) by 7d internal flash.

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  • Sizing Up the Canon 600D, Canon EOS 60D, and Canon 7D « articleanimal.info
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    About Digital Photography How To

    Digital Photography How To is intended to be a guide to people learning how to use their digital SLR cameras. Three years ago, I had never picked up a camera; now, I produce a yearbook every year and I moonlight as a professional photographer.

    I write this website to share what I've learned in that time. The topics will range from truly beginners topics, to tutorials for post processing, to resources for yearbook and graphic design, to thoughts on transitioning from a hobbyist to a professional. Keep up to date by subscribing to the RSS feed.

    About the Author

    Digital Photography How To is written by Brian Rock. In addition to being a photographer, he's an educator. He teaches high school history, he's the advisor of the school yearbook, and he trains his kids to do all of the photography for the yearbook.

    You can connect with him directly on Google Plus.