Shoot-Out In The Old West

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It was a hot and thirsty afternoon. A light thundershower had left the parched earth thirsting for more. Four of the roughest, toughest photographers in the Wild West met on the empty street in front of 21st Amendment liquor store. A challenge had been made and they were here to accept. Rough and ready "Wild Bill" Ellzey, sporting a Nikon D70, was leaning against the rail. His images have graced the cover of National Geographic and other publications throughout the world. A few feet away, watching the gathering storm and packing a new Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D, was the scourge of Sunset magazine covers and editorial assignments, JD "Don't Ask What JD Stands For" Marston. Just back from Patagonia, Chile, was the notorious Linde "Lightfoot" Waidhofer, accompanied by her trusty sidekick, Lito the Kid. She was sporting a Canon EOS 20D. Finally, "Pancho," a.k.a. Steve Anchell, watched warily from the shadows. He was seen handling an Olympus E-1.

The quartet of internationally published photographers was here for one purpose: a digital SLR shoot-out. We did not ask them for a list of specifications or to make a direct comparison--we decided to leave that for more technical reviewers. Instead, we asked each of them to photograph with their assigned camera and report on what they liked, and what they did not like, based on their years of experience.

Read what each has to say and then decide which piece of hardware is best suited for the kind of shootin' you do.

Canon EOS 20D
Linde "Lightfoot" Waidhofer (Linde Waidhofer is a nationally recognized landscape photographer with three books of Western landscape images to her credit, the most recent being the award-winning "Stone & Silence." She is also a passionate teacher, leading workshops in the Southwest, Alaska, Mexico, and Patagonia. To see more of Waidhofer's work, and for information on her workshops in Patagonia and elsewhere, visit her website at: www.westerneye.com.)

"Canon's 20D sounded like a dream come true for a wilderness photographer with its high-res 8-megapixel files, in a smaller, lighter package. But I wanted to find out for myself, for a couple of reasons. My landscape work has been all digital for the last three years, and I've been a Canon shooter for half that time. The 10D was my first Canon digital SLR, and my current working camera is the Canon 1D Mark II, a formidable professional tool, but devlishly heavy for long backcountry hikes. The 20D might just be the answer. Canon claimed to have put more pixels (eight million of them) onto the same 2/3 film-size chip as the one used on its 10D, without increasing the noise, a nice trick if true.

(Left to right) Linde "Lightfoot" Waidhofer with sidekick Lito, "Pancho" Steve Anchell, JD Marston, and "Wild Bill" Ellzey. Crestone, Colorado. Population: 97. Elevation: 8000 ft. One bar, the Silver Crest Palace, and one liquor store, the 21st Amendment. This is the Old West.
© 2005 Josh Wilfong, All Rights Reserved

It was high autumn in the Rockies, I grabbed my favorite Image-Stabilized Canon `walkabout' zoom lens and started shooting. First in my hometown of Crestone. Then on longer hikes up local creek beds into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It didn't take long to get my answer, the 20D is a giant leap forward in what are often called `prosumer' cameras.

The user interface was friendly and familiar, in some ways more intuitive than Canon's 1D professional models. The camera comes to life instantly from its Sleep mode when you partially depress the shutter. The eight-way control dial for moving around on a zoomed-in image preview is great. And the improved autofocus is fast, silent, and deadly accurate.

Forest Floor in Autumn.
© 2005, Linde Waidhofer, All Rights Reserved

But how about image quality? How good were those eight million pixels? One thing I learned early in the digital game is that all pixels are not created equal. Marketing types like to focus on the megapixel sweepstakes, but really the number of pixels doesn't tell you much. Smaller pixel-sensor sites, like those found on consumer digicams, yield image data with a poor signal-to-noise ratio (tech speak for a lot of random and ultimately meaningless tonal variations at the pixel level). Or to put it another way, you can wind up with lots of pixels that don't contribute much to the final image.

The 20D's pixels were remarkably good. I'm an image-quality fanatic. I only shoot raw files, which I process as high-bit Photoshop images. An autumnal forest floor close-up shot contained enough detail to make a splendid 20x30" print. So far so good. But the acid test for any digital camera is low-light, high-ISO shooting. You expect great files at ISO 100, but how about ISO 400, 800, or 1600? The results were better than I expected: Virtually no noise at ISO 400 and very little at higher ISO settings.

Inside a marble cave on Lago Carrera, Patagonia. A perfect example I think of how noise free this camera's sensor really is. (Handheld, shot at ISO 800, with no additional noise reduction techniques used. An 8x12" at 300 ppi.)
© 2005, Linde Waidhofer, All Rights Reserved

Shortly after our Crestone `shoot-out,' I took this camera to Chilean Patagonia and used it to photograph some lakeshore caves of gray-white marble on Lago Carrera. Getting into these caves required rock climbing, plus wading thigh-deep in turquoise glacial melt water. There I was in the back of a beautiful but shadowy cavern, no tripod of course, and hand holding my 20D at ISO 800. The results? Virtually noise free--judge for yourself.

So much for pluses, does the 20D have any downsides? Yes, sort of. It takes too many steps to activate and deactivate mirror lockup. And the fact that the 20D autofocus system needs at least an f/stop of 5.6 to function rules out, for example, using a 300mm f/4 lens with a 2x doubler, which is a wonderfully lightweight combo for remote shooting trips.

The Canon 20D is one helluva camera body. It's now become an essential part of my kit."

Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D
JD "Don't Ask What JD Stands For" Marston (A renowned black and white and color landscape photographer whose enthralling images earned him the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, and many others, including "Who's Who In American Art," JD Marston's images captivate and fascinate with the vibrancy and emotional tones of nature's paintbrush. His limited edition black and white or color fine prints may be purchased through his gallery in Crestone, Colorado, or online at www.jdmarston.com. Marston loves to personally receive calls from collectors at 800-253-4701.)

"I mainly use a tripod when I practice image capture...handheld images are not a very large part of my collection. When I was asked to review the Maxxum 7D, I knew that the Anti-Shake mechanism of the unit would get a real workout with my `soft' hands. So, I decided to use the camera entirely handheld using the supplied AF 17-35mm lens--everything on automatic--and no instruction manual. Simply walking through this world making `grab' shots and discovering how easily the camera revealed its operating secrets to me, via the screen menu layouts and the labeling of function buttons and dials and levers on the camera body.

Crestone Peaks, Colorado.
2005 © JD Marston, All Rights Reserved

The first time I picked up the camera, it fit immediately into my hand, though I had a little confusion about the depth of field button and not being able to reach it with the finger on my right hand. Then I realized that it was meant to be operated with the left hand under the lens...puts it in the perfect position for a curled touch with the ring finger.

I was pleased with how easy it is to navigate the controls on the back of the Maxxum 7D with either or both thumbs. Sometimes, I felt as if I was playing Pac-Man or something. It really appears as if someone spent quite some time figuring out how human fingers move when held in certain positions.

All this is to get to the point of the Anti-Shake: Because the camera fits my hand so nicely and the controls are so accessible, my hands are able to be in a position that allows the natural shake to subside somewhat, thus enhancing and aiding the Anti-Shake mechanism--to the extent that it gains me about three f/stops in speed--utterly amazing for someone who only uses tripods. The images of the silk and tomatoes were both photographed handheld with available light at shutter speeds of 1/8 and 1/25 of a second, respectively. I would never have thought this would have been possible without a tripod.

Dust on Tomatoes.
2005 © JD Marston, All Rights Reserved

The Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D has specs similar to those of other manufacturers and certainly produces images worthy of a photographer's collection. I feel that part of this is due not only to the superior technology and design of this camera, but to the excellent optics which were designed for digital. The sharpness, resolution, and color rendering are better than anything I have yet seen on a digital SLR. The accuracy of the color of the silk and the blue bowl, which held the tomatoes, was spot on.

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