Canon's Autofocus: My 7D -- Should've Bought A Nikon!

When the Canon EOS 7D was released in September last year, I was excited. I rushed out to buy one and quickly sold my 50D. I managed to get my hands on one almost immediately upon retail availability.

After a few weeks of shooting and testing, I began to wonder whether or not there was a problem with the body, since a large percentage of images captured with the camera and various L-series lenses were "soft". Initial reports from a handful of other users on various online forums suggested that at least some 7D bodies were experiencing erratic autofocus. Almost immediately, most of these reports were chalked up to "user error" or "ignorance" in the face of a new and revamped camera which required a higher level of user education and skill to operate effectively.

I attributed my own experiences to user error as well, and continued to work with the camera. As months went by, I found I wasn't using the camera much, since I couldn't depend on the results, and when I needed to shoot, I was reaching for my 5D Mark II instead. When I checked back for updates on the situation, I found many examples of sharp, critically in-focus shots from other 7D bodies and users. And a few reports of others still having problems with theirs.

I took the 7D to the Zoo a few weeks back and shot over 300 frames. Of those, less than 10 were what I considered critically in-focus and sharp. This is shooting relatively stationary high-contrast subjects from various distances. Even looking through the viewfinder, it seemed as though the AF system was locking on to random points as opposed to the single, center AF point that it was confirming it had focused on.

Enough being enough, I decided to call Canon Canada Service. Not surprisingly, they'd never heard of anyone reporting any AF problems with a 7D. Unsurprisingly, given the situation with the 1D Mark III and its AF problems. Even so, they suggested I bring the camera in for service.

I dropped off the 7D, along with some sample images, but not being properly prepared, had not selected a sample of images that clearly demonstrated the problem along with full EXIF information and AF points. Canon accepted the camera and called me two weeks later to say that it was ready for pickup, and had been fixed. The technician's notes indicated that an electronic adjustment of the autofocus system had been carried out and had returned the camera to factory specifications.

I'd read a number of posts where similar 7D AF problems had been resolved by a trip to Canon Service and an "electronic adjustment to the autofocus system". So I was hopeful, but extremely disappointed when I quickly found through testing that the camera performed equally as bad or even worse than before it had gone in for service!

After several calls to Canon Service again, they told me I needed to bring the camera and all of the lenses I was having problems with in. I requested an exchange, citing that newer production batches don't seem to exhibit the problem, however policy is apparently that the body has to be brought in for service three times prior to an exchange being evaluated.

My experiences so far with Canon Service have left much to be desired. About a year ago, I took my 50D to the Canon Service center in Mississauga for evaluation because I noticed that when the upper AF point was selected and lit red during operation, a faint ghosted image of that point would be visible on other parts of the focus screen. Canon Service had no idea whether or not that was normal, suggested that my focus screen was scratched, and that they'd never seen that before. A quick google search found a small number of reports of the same issue and that this was considered normal. It didn't happen with every 50D, but a sufficient number of users noticed the same ghosting issue, and since it didn't affect operation, was deemed only cosmetic.

This time around, my 7D has come back "fixed" and yet is either the same or worse than it was before service.

Determined to clearly demonstrate my problems, I put together about 40 images taken with 4 different lenses which work without problem on my 5D Mark II. I have documented and published all of the original files, EXIF data intact with AF points here. Also included in that gallery is my description of the problems as sent to Canon with the camera on its second trip to service. If any of the images are downloaded and then opened within Canon's Digital Photo Professional software, the AF points can be overlaid.

I brought a CD with the images, plus a printout of the documentation to Canon Service, along with 3 lenses and explained that the camera was still no better than before, and especially poor when coupled with the included prime lenses. The same representative I'd had the previous two trips wrote up the request for service and said she didn't need the lenses I'd brought, because if the problem was happening with all of my lenses, it was clearly a problem with the body. After some pushing, she finally agreed to take a single lens along with the body. Extremely aggravated, I wondered why the problem wasn't fixed the first time around if it was a body only problem.

Ironically, after I left Canon Service, I was alerted to a link at Rob Galbraith's site talking about the AF on the new flagship 1D Mark IV. Quoting from the article:

...Add it all up and the conclusion is inescapable: the EOS-1D Mark IV has an AF system that is capable of greatness but is also so bewilderingly variable that there's no way to trust it, especially for outdoor sports. Indoors, EOS-1D Mark IV autofocus performance has been less variable, but our results from speedskating and basketball are simply not up to par. If this is the best the company could muster, after the autofocus debacle of the EOS-1D Mark III, then it's official: Canon has lost their autofocus mojo.

If you can't trust the autofocus on your camera, it might as well not be there. I'm really hoping that the second trip to Canon Service for my 7D fixes it, as it is a great camera that is capable of yielding impressive results -- when it works. It would also go a long way in helping to restore my faith in a company who seems to be quickly losing its reputation as a leader in the marketplace, one who wants to deliver high quality control in products, and one who cares about its customer's satisfaction and experience.

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  • Matthew Cuda

    It's totally a crap shoot when using this camera. One day I can go out and I get a fair percentage of keepers and the next shoot I get 10% right. This is both with stationary subjects and moving subjects. Then one day I took out my old 1D Mark II. The difference was astounding! About 90 percent keeper rate on bifs and stationary subjects. I have come to the conclusion the AF is total crap on this camera and Canon should have done a full recall and gave us the option to get a refurb 1D Mark IV or gave us our money back. Very very bad customer service from Canon.

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