Looking Back at the Canon EOS 20D, and How Does It Compare to Today’s Modern Cameras?

Looking Back at the Canon EOS 20D, and How Does It Compare to Today’s Modern Cameras?

I started my digital photography with a Sony compact camera, and after a few years I upgraded to the Canon EOS 20D. I loved this camera and used it shoot many great photos. How does it compare to our modern cameras?

Once I made the decision to sell my analog cameras and lenses. I replaced it with the amazing Sony DSC-F505v, my first digital camera. I don’t know if that was a wise decision, but that doesn’t matter now. A few years later I had the opportunity to replace the Sony for a real digital DSLR camera. After many hours of contemplating, I chose the Nikon D70. It seemed to be the best choice until the salesman gave me the Canon EOS 20D. That was the moment I knew this was the right camera for me. It had the perfect user interface, button layout, and a very convenient rotating dial on the back.

The Canon EOS 20D with the EFs15-85mm lens. Even back in 2005 I used an L-bracket.

I used this great camera for many years. I used it for landscapes, weddings, concerts, and lots more. I bought lenses, a flashgun, a tripod, and I loved it all. But when I upgraded to the Canon EOS 1D Mark III, the Canon EOS 20D was left in the closet, only to be taken out when I needed a second camera body. After I got a second hand Canon EOS 5D, I removed the battery from the EOS 20D, and forgot about it.

It got a second life for a short while when my girlfriend started photography. She used it for a year, but after she chose a camera of her own, the Canon EOS 20D was never looked at again. Until now.

The Canon EOS 20D After 15 Years

Recently I have been reviewing the Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R6. These modern cameras are amazing. They are marvels of technology, with lots of options that make photographing so much easier. When I played with these modern digital cameras I remembered the old digital DSLR that I bought so many years ago.

This is the Canon EOS 20D; the camera I bought in 2005, and used for many years with much enthousiasm

Let's do a little recap. The Canon EOS 20D has a APS-C CMOS sensor with 8.5 million pixels. It was capable of shooting reasonable images with ISO 1,600, and had most of the features that we take for granted today. It has no live view and no film function. The viewfinder had a 95% coverage with a 0.9x magnification. The autofocus worked up to -0.5EV, and there were 9 AF points available. It shot up to 5 frames per second with a buffer for 6 raw files, or 23 JPEGs. It takes almost 13 seconds before the buffer is cleared. The TFT-LCD screen measured 1.8” and had 118,000 pixels. It was an amazing camera, for that time and era.

The Canon EOS 20D Next to the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

So I took it out of the closet, found the battery, a small 8 GB CF card, and powered it on. That is when I realized how much has changed over the years. I placed it beside my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and looked at the differences. I know, the comparison is not the most honest one. After all, the Canon EOS 20D has a crop sensor while the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is full frame camera. They’re different cameras in that regard. Nevertheless, let’s look at the two next to each other.

Two completely different cameras. One with a cropsensor, the other with a full frame sensor. And many generations apart.

1. The LCD Screen

The 1.8” screen is really small compared to the 3” we have nowadays. I found it difficult to read the menu on the Canon EOS 20D and wondered why we ever thought it was a very capable screen size. The resolution makes it possible to see the pixels, and the brightness of the screen falls short compared to the modern ones. There is no live view, no articulating screen, no touchscreen. And to be honest, it is nearly impossible to check the focus of your image.

Perhaps the most striking differences between the two cameras are the screens and the menu. Much has improved since 2005

2. The Button Layout

Canon has managed to keep the overall button layout. Modern DSLR cameras of this type have similar buttons on the left, and the large rotation dial has survived over the years. On the Canon EOS 20D I used the asterisk button as the back button focus. Today the back button focus is a dedicated button.

The size of the modern LCD screens had some impact on the position of the buttons, but if you are used to the layout of the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, you will have no problem operating the Canon EOS 20D. The newer Canon mirrorless full frame cameras are the first that have a completely different button layout.

Although the Canon EOS 20D is 15 year old, the button layout isn't that much different compared to modern cameras

3. Using the Canon EOS 20D

I looked at the menu of the Canon 20D and remembered how it all started. It is a long list of settings, divided into three colors. It featured a rudimentary custom settings menu to change the behavior of the camera. There was no possibility of changing the function of buttons, except the back button focus setting. The text is small because of the screen size. Canon had a dedicated button to jump between the three groups of settings.

Looking through the viewfinder was surprising too. I felt like looking through a small hole. It is nothing like the large bright viewfinder of the full frame Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. The information inside the viewfinder is limited to the exposure settings, AE lock, and focus confirmation. And I missed the ISO setting, one of the shortcomings of that camera.

The menu of the Canon EOS 20D has all the necessary settings available, but nothing more. It can be consideren very rudimentary. Perhaps even prehistoric, if you like

Pushing the shutter release button is not as smooth as modern cameras. You have to push the button relatively hard in order to take the picture. To be honest, because of this I ended up with lots of camera shake when pressing the shutter release button. You can almost feel the mirror moving, and I remembered how great the mirror lockup function was. You had to dive into the custom function menu to activate it.

Photographing With the Canon EOS 20D and the Results

When I took the camera for some autumn shots, I realized how great this camera still is. It has a good size and weight, even with the battery grip, and photographing with it is fun. I had to use the viewfinder as the only option to see what I was photographing. No live view, no touch screen, just a small viewfinder.

Although there was no dedicated back focus button, it was possible to address the asteriks button for autofocus. This possibility was not commonly known, back in 2005.

The dark forest environment forced me to use ISO 400 and ISO 800 a lot. I had to check the ISO level on the top LCD screen on a regular basis because I missed the ISO information in the viewfinder. I realized how much easier it has become to use a camera nowadays. The large LCD screens have become an important tool in my photography, something I also missed while photographing landscapes with the Canon EOS 20D.

When post-processing the images in Lightroom Classic I was struck by the differences in quality compared with the results from modern sensors. Especially the dynamic range of modern cameras has gained an enormous boost. Even the images that were shot with ISO 100 or ISO 200 showed a lot of noise when shadows were raised. When shooting landscapes with the Canon EOS 20D I was forced to use exposure bracketing more often.

With ISO200 the possibilities for correcting shadows was very limited. I bumped up the shadows nearly 2 stops, but the noise is already very prominent. Quite a difference with modern sensors.

Besides these things, the results were pretty good. You have to take the low resolution into account, but these images are still very useful. I just cannot rely on the dynamic range to rescue dark parts in the image. 

What I Have Learned From Photographing With the Canon EOS 20D

I found shooting with a 15-year-old Canon EOS 20D very enlightened. It is amazing how this camera was considered a  good one, especially if you compare the options with that of modern cameras. To be honest, it made me realize how wonderful cameras are today. It made me appreciate all the things we take for granted much more.

The screen is really small, and the resolution isn't that great. Back in 2005 this was state of the art. Now it feels very... old.

Not only the modern 3" high-resolution LCD screens are amazing, but also the possibilities that are built into the cameras. Another thing that struck me is the improvements that are made on ergonomics, and the materials that are being used for the camera body. There are many other improvements that make the use of a camera more enjoyable, like a hinged memory card door, and customizable buttons. Also the speed and buffer of the camera are much improved. But most of all, the dynamic range of modern sensors is something we could only dream of back in 2005. Recovering shadows was something to avoid back then. Now it is part of a normal post-processing workflow.

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 15mm - handheld vertical panorama made from four images - ISO200 - f/8 - 1/25 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 50mm - ISO200 - f/8 - 1/40 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 46mm - ISO800 - f/8 - 1/100 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 21mm - ISO200 - f/4.5 - 1/15 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 31mm - ISO100 - f/8 - 1/15 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 50mm - ISO400 - f/5.6 - 1/30 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 70mm - ISO200 - f/5,6 - 1/50 sec

Canon EOS 20D with EFs15-85mm @ 22mm - ISO800 - f/8 - 1/25 sec

If you have the possibility to use one of the first generations DSLR camera yourself, I definitely can advise you to do so. Unless you are forced to push the boundaries of dynamic range, these cameras will produce great images. At the same time, it will make you appreciate your modern camera even more. I know I did. If you are curious about the Canon EOS 20D, I can advise you to read the review that is still available on dpreview.

What do you think about using such an old camera, and compare it with a similar modern camera? Please leave your opinion in the comment below.

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Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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I wonder if any current camera has a film option. That would be awesome! ;-) I guess you meant video, right? hehe.

He probably is referring to Picture Styles, essentially Canon’s film emulations for jpeg shooting.

Yes indeed. A video function. It also has picture styles, Deleted User

I have a 20D sitting on the shelf, and I occasionally still use it. Yes, its sensor was very noisy, and in a really bad way, with banding and other horrid artifacts if you were trying to raise exposure by more than three stops. And yes, its LCD screen was almost unusable, and lied to you badly about the actual brightness of your shots. But, I liked it using CF cards rather than SD, its remote release connection was the same as for the big guys, and it had a PC flash connector. It didn't bother me that it had no video capability. If you put a good lens on it, the resulting photos were very good indeed. Plus, back then Canon really updated the firmware - it got up to 2.01, I think, and fixed a number of problems before Canon started to ignore it.

For that time the sensor wasn't that noisy at all. It was among the best performing cameras of that time.

BTW, out of curiosity I went to both the US and Europe Canon sites and could not find any firmware listed for it at all. It looks like Canon has really and truly abandoned it. Those firmware updates improved the noise issue; I remember shooting at >800 ISO and being very dissatisfied with the result, but after new firmware the problem was gone. Edit to add: My fw file is numbered 2.0.3, date 9/16/2005. If anyone wants the last fw I can zip it and send it.

I have also version 2.0.3, but I have no problems, even with ISO 1600. Yes, it not as clean as modern camera's, but that is not that strange

Please If you want, you can send me the update. muhabi@gmail.com Thanks.

I have used the 20D since it came out in 2005 in my oral surgery practice. I have the 65mm macro lens and 14x ring flash for macro photography purposes. Works wonderfully and image size is small to keep with patient’s EMR without wasting huge amount of space. I have 5D mark III for hobby photography, which is quite the improvement, but for the specific purpose of intraoral macro photography, the 20D works very well. The focusing is circa 2005 and misses occasionally, but it otherwise works well for this application. The image file size with high enough quality is the main reason that I still use it to save storage space. I’m glad you brought it out of your storage and gave it another whirl and a nice review. I’ve always liked the 20D very much.

It went back into storage for now. ;)

No joke, the 20D was my first DSLR and was paid for by a few weddings that I booked my junior year in college. It was paired with a 24-70 2.8 that cost more than my car! I loved that camera and shot with it and its lens for years. For me it was every part of minimalist. Thanks to GAD I have since upgraded multiple times and purchased too many lenses. I am back to a very simple set up again and much happier. Looking back I wish I still had it on the shelf to go out and shoot with it. Thanks for sharing and taking me down memory lane!

Great camera...my first "professional" DSLR. Shot quite a few weddings on a pair of those. Only began upgrading because I wanted a better rear LCD for brides to see previews.

I had to replace a couple older bodies, but didn't want to buy them again at used prices. A friend sold me his 20D and I use it along side some newer Sony mirrorless bodies.

Still using it? As long as you keep the DR in mind, that should work very well.

This generation of camera wasn't so out of date when I first got into photography, so I am likely biased by my nostalgia when I say I love this era of camera. I also currently shoot with an original 5D and have been regularly using this camera for professional jobs since 2012 when I bought it used (this isn't to say I don't rent better cameras when a job calls for images with higher resolution than my camera can make). I just think it's an amazing camera and it has given me no reasons to replace it since buying it eight years ago. I understand that these cameras have a shutter lifespan and my camera is likely getting to the end of it's own (unfortunately there's no way of calculating the actuation count of the original 5D unless you've kept records of it, and also assuming it's original owner did as well if you buy one used), but I'm not someone who cares to have the newest tech so I will likely upgrade to a 5D MKII when I move on from the original, and fortunately with that camera you can get an accurate read of the actuation count to get an idea of how long it will work for you. New cameras are truly amazing though, I just think my interests don't line up with the tech side of things when it comes to photography.

I don't care about shuttercounts so much. Even the rated amount of actuations are just sort of a warrenty. It wouldn't surprise me if many camera go way beyond the rated amount.
On the other hand, you can also be unlucky :)

I've already taken mine well beyond the 150k actuation lifespan, so I would definitely consider myself one of the lucky ones. If I were to make a guess, I have put at least 200k on it since buying it when it was already 6 years old and it's still functioning like new.

I still use my old Canon 1D MKii n on occasion. It’s only an 8mp but it works fine for web images. The noise of the shutter is quite loud by today’s standards. This camera was impressive in its day. Brings back memories every time I use it.

Yes, the mirror makes a lot of noise indeed.

There's nothing more cool and pleasing than the shutter sound of the original Canon 1D series cameras! I own two of these beasts, a 1D MKIIn and a MKiv. I used the 1DmkiiN on a shoot over Xmas break with a 550 speedlight on some indoor holiday displays. Also processed the photos on Lightroom V1 on an old computer running Windows XP.. full on nostalgia mode!!

Oldest DSLR I've used is a Nikon D3200 from 2012, still provides solid image quality as long as you accept the ISO and DR limitations. Fixed LCD, horrendous live view focusing, and poor autofocus are the reasons I rarely touch it now. What's the point when I've also got the D5600 and D750.

I still occasionally use my 10D. Mostly at the beach or other such environments. Still takes great shots that are useable.

Crazy, I sold a bunch of these and can't believe the screen size looking back at it😂

I used my 20D's as if I were shooting slide film, never ISO 200 and only ISO 400 (which was better) if pushed for shutter speed. Never had an issue with focus, banding, grain or any other digital nasty like fringing. At one time I had five 20D's and as the shutters were shot out of them they were updated. I bought two Canon 20D's for my personal use and now have had them converted one to Infrared the other full spectrum. A lot of my landscapes are made with 35mm film and print to 20 x 30's medium format print to 30x40 and my unmodified 20's would print out to 20x30. My modified Infrared 20D seams "almost" limitless. What Im saying is know your equipment, you don't need all the gagets to make great photos, the 20D gets out of the way and lets the photographer create an image not just take a picture.

Once I had one image from the 20D printed on 2.5 x 1.5 meter and it looked amazing, even for a 8.5 mp image. Of coure, looking up close it is not that sharp, but such images need to be looked at from a good distance.
I was thinking about converting the camera for astro photography, some years ago, but I never came to it.

I didn't have a problem with focus but, others have had issues. The 20D is not easy for a tech to adjust. I had Max Max do my infrared conversion in I think 1998, its focus is sharper now then when it was "stock" . The size of print you made is awesome I'll have to give it a go. On the topic of full spectrum it took a while before I could get my converted full spectrum camera to work/focus. After a year of frustration it now works. If you deside to convert a camera research the service facility who will do the work for you. Love my 20D's they have just what is needed for great images and no "fluff" to get in the way.

I had a tutorial to convert the camera myself.. The company I found that could do it, would cost me about 500 dollar. |
But, now I am glad I never tried. The location where I live is among the worst in the world, when it comes down to astro photography. But perhaps an infra red convertion would be interesting.
I am going to think about it.

On the subject of digital infrared as mentioned I had Max Max do my 20D and yes it cost me $500.00 US dollars plus the hassle of shipping from Canada and back.
Infrared is by far the most creative of lights as the scene/image will never be the same. I found quickly the IR portriture is not at all flattering. Also IR can be shot during our Canadian winters with down right breath taking results. To me the IR coversion was worth every dollar.

Canon has been with me for last 40 years..my first SLR Canon AV1..till now I got line of canon bodies and lenses. I love my equipment yet I got disappointment with canon. Since I got my first AV1 till now canon has releases 5 mount types, the greatest disappointment is the recent R mount... Having the same brand of equipment, yet I need to adopt a converter to mount my lens if I buy one of R?? I drop the idea to get one, though I have been waiting and be feeling excited if have one. ..
I am surprise why others seems no concern about canon's move ... To me, this is rather an iresponsible act to all existing canon users, or we should just discard all existing lens and invest in a total new series of lenses ??

Why is a mount change a dissapointment? EF has been around since the EOS 10D (I think) Well over 15 years.
With a different camera type (mirrorless) a new mount is logical. After all, the flange distance is changed. Using the adapter on the EOS R cameras works great,
You don't need to buy a EOS R camera. Just keep working with the DSLR cameras and you'll be fine. If a 15 year old 20D produces usable images, I am sure your 5D3 or 5D4 will produce great images for the next 10 years.

The EF mount was introduced in 1987, 33 years ago. At the time it was very forward thinking. The all electronic communication between camera and body is what enabled Canon to leverage their new USM AF motor technology to push Nikon out of the #1 slot (In 1987 around 75% of imaging professionals shooting in the 135/35mm format used Nikon). A mere five years later Canon was King of the Hill, both in terms of total ILCs sold as well as among the pros shooting 135 film, and has maintained that position ever since.

My first serious camera. Oh the memories!!!

With the pace of technology, the 5DIV and D850 will be the 20D's of their time in short order.
I do wonder if Nikon & Canon will be the top brands at that time. Hopefully.

No matter how wonderful the machinery, if it isn't backed by technical and composition skills, it's just an expensive box of potential. If Ansel Adams were still around and was handed a 20D, I expect we'd all be pleasantly surprised with his eventual results.

Technical skills are becoming less and less difficult to learn as the cameras do more and more for the photographer. More than a few well established pros have indicated that using the AF systems in the new R5/R6 and even the mirror-slapping 1D X Mark III feels like "cheating". Some seem to worry, and probably rightly so, that it will open the floodgates even further to allow the "uneducated masses" willing to shoot for nothing to get results that, to the non-discriminating eye, look "professional".

At the core, photography will always be about seeing light and how it interacts with subjects as well as composition. One wonders, though, at what point the cameras will begin to assist there as well?

Thank you for the pleasant trip down memory lane....and very nice photographs, by the way.

While using my first DSLR, (the 10D) a friend got this one and I coveted the feature upgrades. There weren't many, but they were significant, especially with the introduction of ETTL-II flash. On camera flash became a lot more dependable from the 20D on. Anyway, I ended up skipping this one and went straight to the 30D which was very similar in image quality.

I like how we can all recall the clunky, archaic functioning of these early cameras with some fondness. Yes, that tiny low resolution screen seems ridiculous now, but most of us had moved to DSLRs from film cameras, so those screens were magical. At least to me.

The very first thing I noticed when shooting the 20D vs 10D was the SPEED!!! Man, what an improvement in shooting and reviewing photos.. Also even the built in pop-up flash was improved as well. It's amazing how much satisfaction I can get out of shooting with one of these cameras and only ever looking at the photos on that tiny built-in screen. :)

I still have a 30D, which is not much different to the 20D, and I agree with everything you say. We forget how small the LCD screens were on those earlier models and the high ISO performance is laughable. However, when I look at the raw files taken in good light, I'm always amazed at just how good they are and can easily stand comparison with the images from my 5D IV, although they don't have the resolution of newer cameras.
I don't shoot video, so that's not a loss, but I find "live view" to be very useful on the newer models.

I have 2 Canon 20 D
The resolution of the photos taken with that camera in proportion to the 5d Mark III, never beat the 20 D. But the best canon camera for me: Canon T 90. Fantastic, only 4 AA batteries, very fast, accurate measurement of the light . I had 2 working very hard for 10 years. Perfect !!

This was my first real serious digital. I learned more about about photography from using this little beauty. I remember having just enough money to buy a body and one lens. I chose the 20D because it had all the features I wanted. The one lens was a Sigma 24-70 2.8..... That combo served me very well for several years before it was stolen. I was pissed for a month or two easy. Still waiting for funds to save up so i can replace it.

lol... that's a loooong wait. Might wanna set up a gofundme page...

I upgraded to a pair of 20D's from a D30. Spent the savings on L series glass. Used them for several years. Shot magazine covers and even 2 page spreads. Pretty much never went above 200 ISO. Hated 1.6 crop as I lost wide angle, 16-35 became my normal lens. Shutter in one eventually crapped out so I sold it for parts. The other I kept to shoot time-lapse to save shutter on newer Canons. When I was teaching I loaned it to a student that couldn't afford a camera. I still use it to shoot equipment for sale on line, again to save shutter actuations on my newer cameras. Not worth selling but still a user.

Why would you save shutter actuations? Cameras are made to be used, unless you think it will be a collectable eventually: "vintage camera for sale, only 1000 shutter actuations."
The 1.6 crop is something that is limiting on wide angle. But the EFs 10-22 lens was a L-lens in disguise. Amazing quality and with the crop a nice ultra-wide angle that could beat the 16-35L back then.

I am a professional photographer, I shoot a lot,
much more than when I was shooting film because with digital I can. Shutters will fail. I rented the 10-22 a few times and I was not disappointed. I did not want to buy one as for me the answer was a full frame 5D.

If full frame was the goal, it was a wise decission to skip the 10-22. :)
Shutters will fail indeed, but it also can be replaced easily. Don't forget. A camera is a tool for the professional. And tools wear out after time.

In this economy where the market value of images continues to deteriorate as the cost of top end equipment continues to go up and up, it makes perfect sense for professionals to do all they can to extend the life of their most capable equipment and save it for jobs when those higher capabilities are actually needed by using older, less capable equipment when it is good enough to meet the need.

Yes, shutters can be replaced. But the higher the price of the camera is to begin with, the more a shutter replacement costs, at least in Canonland. Canon also insists on replacing the entire mirror box assembly when doing an even-numbered shutter replacement (the second replacement, the fourth replacement, etc.). For those shooting reportage and/or sports, shutter counts add up quickly. It's not all that uncommon for a 1-series body to need a second shutter replacement before the end of its planned service life. The actual replacement cost is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Loss of use and rental costs to cover jobs that one is committed to do also affect the balance sheet.

I've always thought this about the 10-22mm (L series in disguise) but I did find there to be some variation between copies. I've also played around with the "more modern" 10-18mm with IS and find it very capable as well (with the metal mount mod applied).

I'd say the 10 megapixel 40D was a huge step into the future. The 20D and 30D I just didn't really warm up to. With almost 7 fps and a big enough screen to be useful I use the 40D as my truck camera to this day. Auto ISO to 800 makes it almost to sunset. I don't exactly remember but I don't believe the 20D even has auto ISO. Here's a shot from about 6 feet (2 meters) away with an old 55-250 that shows it can still deliver the goods. It's cropped to about 1.5 megapixels (a guess). Its the eye of a butterfly.

Indeed. Auto-ISO was not possible on the 20D

I bought one of these about two years ago for the lens that was on it, was a great camera! i should have held onto it!

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