Editor's note: The rating of the Canon EOS 20D has been changed to reflect its position relative to newer competitors.Shooting with the Canon EOS 20D is a pleasure. Its solidly constructed 24-ounce body is nicely compact for an SLR and feels well balanced in the hand. The rubberized grip is comfortable, and all of the controls are easy to reach. I photographed events with the 20D for several hours at a time without feeling any strain. I tried a few different lenses, and with a large 70mm-to-200mm zoom, the body started to feel a little small. Attaching the optional battery grip might be a good way to give it the bulk and weight that will make it a sturdier counterweight to a big lens.
Aside from making the EOS 20D slightly more compact than its predecessor, the 10D, Canon has altered the controls slightly. The power control and the command-dial lock are combined on one switch, making room for a little joystick controller that you use to select autofocus points, pan around images in review mode, and shift white balance. I found the controller to be easy to use and precise, despite its small size. If you have large hands, however, you might want to give it a try before you make your purchase.
Since the EOS 20D is fairly compact, there isn't a lot of room for multiple LCDs and rows of dedicated buttons. To change resolution and compression settings, you have to go into the main LCD menu, and the display of current settings is limited to what will fit in the small, top-mounted status screen. This didn't cause any big problems, but I did wish that there were a constant ISO display along with other exposure information, both on the status LCD and in the viewfinder. The 20D is hardly the only SLR that makes this omission, and I think it's a significant oversight. Digital cameras give you the ability to change your ISO setting as often as your shutter speed, so they should also give you a way to keep an eye on your current selection without having to push buttons.
I appreciated the simplicity of the EOS 20D's control layout. Most buttons control two settings, each of which can be adjusted with one of two dials. So, for example, when you hold down the ISO/Drive Mode button, you can cycle through the Drive options by spinning the dial on top of the camera and through the ISO settings by spinning the dial on the back. Using the LCD menus is equally straightforward: You open them with the Menu button, scroll through the options with the rear-mounted dial, and make selections with the Set button in the middle of the dial. I like this interface much more than the multiple-button system on the Canon EOS-1D Mark II, which requires too much attention. The only thing that I found slightly awkward was holding down any of the three buttons mounted on top of the camera while turning the top-mounted dial.
The Canon EOS 20D offers an excellent feature set for its semipro class, adopting numerous capabilities from the much more expensive EOS-1D Mark II. At the top of its list of new features are an 8.2-megapixel CMOS sensor and Digic II processor for improved performance. The sensor is APS-C-size (22.5mm by 15mm), so you'll need to apply a 1.6X lens-conversion factor. The 20D takes all of Canon's EF and EF-S lenses, and it's compatible with a wide range of EOS flashes and accessories. You can purchase the camera body only or buy it in a kit with the EF-S 18mm-to-55mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 lens. Either way, Canon provides a generous software package, including Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, a panorama-stitching program, a remote-capture program for controlling the camera from a computer, and the excellent Digital Photo Professional 1.2 for processing raw files. The 20D also supports Canon's optional DVK-E2 data verification kit, which allows you--or more likely, your lawyer--to verify image authenticity. To personalize the 20D's controls, there are 18 custom functions available.
Canon has made a host of improvements over the EOS 10D. Among the most notable are its top shutter speed of 1/8,000 second, nine-point autofocus, white-balance fine-tuning and bracketing, and black-and-white mode. You can now select the sRGB or Adobe RGB color space independent of the image parameter set. The two standard parameter sets adjust contrast, sharpness, color tone, and saturation for a more or less punchy look, and you can create three custom parameter sets as well. Light sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to ISO 3,200, and noise reduction is selectable.
Metering options include evaluative, center-weighted, and partial. Flash metering is improved, with Canon's E-TTL II system, and there's a flash-exposure lock as well. Unfortunately, Canon decided against adding spot metering to the 20D, but for most purposes, the partial metering will suffice. It covers 9 percent of the viewfinder image, the approximate area of which is marked with a circle on the focusing screen. The screen itself is new, and although it's quite good, I think it would have been a nice touch for Canon to implement interchangeable screens. You can select three types of autofocus: One Shot; Predictive AI Servo for tracking moving subjects; and AI Focus, which automatically switches between the two other modes, depending on whether anything in your scene is moving.
For those times when you'd rather let the camera do the thinking, there are five scene modes available via the mode dial (the no-flash mode doesn't quite qualify as a scene mode in my book), along with a fully automatic mode. There's also an automatic depth-of-field mode, which ensures that everything in the area of your image covered by the autofocus points is sharp. The 20D also supports the PictBridge and Canon Direct Print standards.
A voice-annotation feature and automatic sensor cleaning would have been useful additions to this camera--next time, Canon?
The main thing I want from camera performance is to not notice it, and the Canon EOS 20D passed that test. It shot when I wanted to shoot, focused when I wanted something sharp, and let me look through images quickly when it was time for a break. With the 20D, I never had to waste time and miss shots waiting for the camera. If you're a sports photographer and need market-leading shooting speed, you should step up to the Canon EOS-1D Mark II, but for everyone else, the 20D will provide excellent speed and responsiveness. I was impressed with the 20D's autofocus performance in low light. The camera uses a new nine-point system, and you can select Canon's Predictive Servo AI subject-tracking method or plain single-shot autofocus. Shutter lag is negligible at 0.3 second with autofocus and a mere 0.1 second when focus is already set.
With an EF 24mm-to-70mm f/2.8L USM lens and 256MB SanDisk Extreme CompactFlash card, the EOS 20D took just 0.6 second to start up and capture a photo. Its shot-to-shot time for high-quality JPEGs came in at 0.5 second, and you can capture 9 raw or 6 raw+JPEG shots with a shot-to-shot time of about 0.6 second before the camera starts slowing down. In the continuous-shooting drive mode, you can capture 6 raw or raw+JPEG shots in a burst, and in our continuous-shooting test with highest-quality JPEGs, we actually captured as many as 30 shots in a burst rather than Canon's official maximum of 23. Canon rates its continuous-shooting speed at 5fps; we clocked it at about 4.8fps, which is pretty close.