Going Back to a DSLR for Sports Photography for a Day

Going Back to a DSLR for Sports Photography for a Day

In 2019, I wrote about how I would never quit full-frame DSLRs. Back then, I complained about mirrorless cameras for wonky bodies and mediocre autofocus. Today, I’m eating crow.

It creeped up on me through a few flirtations with mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, and Fuji. Then Canon’s M system got good, and then finally the R system came into its own with the release of the R5 and R6, two cameras that melded the functionality of Canon’s DSLR controls and menus with the added usability of mirrorless autofocus, which has come a long way in the last five years. I switched to those cameras in 2022, and I haven’t looked back, especially when it comes to my sports photography.

But the other day, I found myself shooting back-to-back lacrosse games with my students, and one of them needed a camera. I loaned them my mirrorless camera and pulled my old 7D off the shelf and popped in an LP-E6N battery in, so I had something to shoot with. It has been a couple of years for me and DSLRs in any sort of serious shooting situation. So, how did the OG 7D do 15 years after it was released? Can a DSLR still be useful for sports photography in 2024, or has mirrorless technology passed it by?

The Differences and Similarities

To anyone fairly new to photography, cameras have always been able to nail focus on an eyeball and track it through a frame. There have always been several hundred autofocus points scattered across the frame, and you can touch the screen at any time to pick one. And there has always been a way to simulate your exposure in the viewfinder, which the optical viewfinders of a DSLR could never do since the view is directly through the lens.

While DSLRs are missing out on these features, the body design remains mostly the same, with big wheels all over the back and front to adjust settings and familiar-looking menus (albeit without a touchscreen on the 7D).

The back of the 7D will look instantly familiar to any Canon shooter of pretty much any recent Canon era.

The 7D had 19 autofocus points spread across a large, centralized swath of the frame. It was a system befitting a flagship APS-C camera at the time. Of course, that doesn’t hold a candle to the R6’s 1,053 autofocus areas and almost 100% coverage across the frame, with eye- and face-tracking autofocus.

So I’ve been pretty spoiled lately. With the solid Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens and the R6, my hit rate has been damn near 100% in most field sports in even semi-decent light. If I missed a shot, it was likely due to pilot error. Focusing on a mirrorless camera is entirely off the sensor, so if it looks like it’s in focus in the viewfinder, it will actually be in focus.

Going back to the 7D was a throwback. The phase detection focus, separate from the imaging sensor, often registered something in focus in the viewfinder with its focus tracking, but things were more often than not just a hair off. In some ways, it wasn’t enough that I would have raised a fuss in 2009, but in 2024, cameras have just gotten so good that the expectations are higher. Here is one that I’d say would just be “OK” by modern standards.

Completely perplexed why this wouldn't be tack sharp with the 7D's autofocus.

Not something that I’d worry about on the web or social media but enough that it would give me pause to use in a large printed format.

That said, it could hit very sharp focus too, occasionally:

Not bad for a 15-year-old camera.
This brought back nightmares of having to microadjust lenses on DSLRs to compensate for front or back focus that body and lens combinations could develop. As a shelf piece for a couple of years and no service probably for some time before that (I bought it used a couple of years ago), it probably badly needed some tweaking in this area. Something I don’t want to do ever again, and so I didn’t.

Were There Any Other Differences?

Using a DSLR again felt surprisingly good. There’s a heft and substantial feeling to the camera body, even in something along the lower end like the 7D. While I have no desire to lug a 1D X into the field ever again, there’s something about that through-the-lens view and the reassuring slap of the mirror as the camera takes pictures.

In some ways, mirrorless cameras are akin to what Apple has often done, in that features are introduced that you didn’t even think you’d need. Back in 2009, I didn’t think I’d ever need more than the 19 points of autofocus the 7D had, let alone face- or eye-tracking. Exposure simulation was completely unnecessary, I thought, as I yelled at the kids to get off my lawn.

But time marches on, and as much fun as going back to the 7D was, the results speak for themselves. We had it good, back then, but now we have it better. Way better.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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In my experience, the 7D Mark II was miles ahead of the original 7D in terms of autofocus accuracy and consistency from frame to frame. The 7D's Achilles heel was AF inconsistency from frame to frame.

I've owned the 7D a couple of times before and I've felt the same way. I'm glad to know I'm not crazy (at least for that reason).

I’m so glad to read this article! Poverty forced me to part with my Nikon D850 and I got an original Canon EOS 7D just for something to shoot with. It does indeed miss focus more than it should but the worst thing is it’s lack of dynamic range. Things have certainly moved on!

I know a press photographer who still complains in small talk occasionally how bad the 7D was in far too many aspects, and he hasn't touched it since. So that's saying something, I guess.

I've had many a similar conversation.

The 7D certainly was a game changer for APSC cameras in 2009, but it was the 7DMK2 that really improved this rather small series...I bought my 7DMK2 in 2014 and have not looked back...along with Canon top notch lenses such as the 17-55 IS 2.8 , and the classic plastic fantastic 50mm 1.8 and other great glass it made me realize that I will never need to go FF as almost every photographer in town did.
To this day this camera is my bread und butter gear and has never broken down though I did drop it 2 times on a hard floor...so hold on to your old gear...you never know what you got until it is gone.

The only issue I have with the 7D Mark II is that it's been over a decade with no real replacement in sight. Mine has well over 200K clicks on it and I'm starting to wonder if I should send it in for a shutter replacement before Canon runs out of parts or not. (And no, the 90D was a step beck in terms of durability/shutter rating as well as AF performance, & the R7 is more the mirrorless continuation of the 90D than the 7D series.)

Have you tried the R7? I had the 7D Mark II and while it was great, the R7 can run circles around it in every way. The R10 is probably more along the 70/80/90D path, at least when I've used both.

I've tried EVFs. Can't stand them. Even the "good" one in the R5. I've decided to stick with optical VFs. At my age, switching to ML this late in the game would never pay for itself before I'm totally retired in a couple of years.

I can't say I've ever loved an EVF. I just tolerate them for the other benefits they bring to the rest of the camera.

The best ones I've seen have been on Fuji cameras. At least to my eye, the X-T series have always seemed to have EVFs closest to optical.

My only beef with mirrorless cameras these days is still battery life. It's still garbage. It's not near as bad as it used to be but it still sucks ass. With My DLSR's I could go 12 hours shooting constantly on one battery Now you need 4 or 5 to do the same amount of work. Everything else about mirrorless is amazeballs.

Sony Z batteries last pretty long. Though, I reckon probably not as long as a DSLR battery. When mine were new, I could shoot a weekend with one battery and still have about 20% left. 4.5 years later, they are still in use. Granted, now it's a 2 to 3 battery weekend. :D

Dang! That's pretty good! Which Sony camera are you using? Did you do mixed video and stills or stills only? I've only been able to shoot with A7s iii in video as it's the company camera. Those Z batteries actually last a lot longer than I expected they would. Good to see they hold up even after 4.5 years. They last a lot longer than my Nikon Zf haha. Shooting stills only with realestate I can get through one 4 bedroom house on 2 batteries with strict power management which ain't too shabby. My D800e would be at the tail end of one battery for the same house. so not too bad. Video on the Zf guzzles batteries though :(

I'm using an a9 (I just bought it last month) and a7iii (2019). This past weekend, I shot a little over 2600 images on my a9 the and battery was down to 43% remaining. The battery was 3rd party, PowerExtra.

You can't even afford first party batteries... sad. How do you even feed your self?

Yes, very true about the batteries. The pro D850 battery lasts multiples of EVF batteries. In most cases it doesn't matter, but if you are in the field, far away from charging options, it can make the difference. At least with an OVF you can compose without needing to turn on the camera.

Yup. With My D800E I never had to worry about power as two batteries would be plenty for an entire day. With my Zf I carry 6 batteries and PD Power bank just in case lol. Especially when I shoot events. I can blow through 4-5 batteries just shooting stills for a 5-6 hour event. Video drains them even faster. I make sure I keep dead batteries on a charger when shooting events. Never had to worry about that with my DSLR though the improved capabilities of my Zf make up for the power drainage. It's crazy the power Mirrorless cameras have now. I used dog on them all the time for having really poor AF and even worse battery life. Now they can shoot in near total darkness and focus reliably at the same time. I still use My D800E for landscapes though. I don't need all the bells and whistles for landscape photography but they really do come in handy for most everything else. Especially portraits with Eye AF. Changed the game for my portrait work. I can finally focus my attention more on my model than on my AF system lol.

I'm beginning to wonder where credit should go for capturing an amazing sports/action/wildlife image? So you've found a camera that shoots say 30fps. Has magnetic like eye-tracking. Pre-buffers shots Has ISO capabilities up to 500k, etc. If you have a large enough sensor with enough resolution, you'll be able to crop to a variety of compositions. Sorry tech lovers, but I'm losing interest in "photography" as CAMERAS getting better at taking pictures. Unfortunately, the visual vocabulary of photographers hasn't progressed despite the tech opportunities.

--- "So you've found a camera that shoots say 30fps."

That's so old news. We're at 120fps now. RAW even.

--- "Has ISO capabilities up to 500k, etc"

Child's play. Some are at 1 million ISO.

--- "Sorry tech lovers, but I'm losing interest in "photography" as CAMERAS getting better at taking pictures."

Why lose interest? Why not just stay at whatever archaic system you have? No one is forcing you to upgrade. Since your photography aren't useful for anyone else, keep at your hobby and be happy.

I will say, my students' first sports galleries are way better than what I was producing at the start. A large part of that is the gear, yes, but I'd rather them get over that hurdle and get to the content rather than fighting with focus or ISO from the get.

Understanding the visual vocab is key. Otherwise, it's just going through the motions.

Modern gear definitely does remove a lot of previously required skill to take good photos. Though, taking great photos still requires a developed eye as well as an understanding and practice of technique and direction (direction if you photograph people). The old adage still holds true "You can put a great camera in the hands of an unskilled photographer and they can produce decent results or you can put a less good camera in the hands of skilled photographer can produce amazing results".

What are "good photos"? Does anyone remember? Between the cellphone and 30fps shooting, auto everything and 60mp+ capability, what is a good photo? There are only a few genres where it is difficult to manufacture an eye-catching photo. For example, don't like the sky? Paste in a different one. Think the colour is bland because of weather? Boost the saturation. Modern photography, imho, has become more about understanding the effects of software/menu choices than working directly with optics and exposure. Looking through historic images that have become timeless examples of photographic mastery, would all the modern features of a camera have made any difference? I suggest that in fact, current technology has become an hinderance, rather than an aid.