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Canon PowerShot Pro70 added to the studio scene

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With the announcement of the site’s closure, in amongst the understandable messages of disappointment, there’s been a tremendous outpouring of kind words about the site and its reviews, particularly those from the early days.

The whole process has seen me looking back at the the early days of the site, long before I joined, and one thing I thought it would be nice to do is shoot our current studio scene with the first camera ever reviewed for the site.

As luck would have it, we still had a Canon PowerShot Pro70 sitting in a box: possibly from the PIX2015 trade show, possibly from when we borrowed one with the intention of doing something like this for the site’s tenth anniversary, back in London.

I thought it would be interesting to see what it was like to shoot with a 25-year-old digital camera, to find out how far we’ve really come.

Or perhaps the real piece of luck is that the Pro70 has two features that make this notion possible: the use of Compact Flash media, which is still available and backwards compatible, and its ability to accept standard, off-the-shelf 2CR5 batteries (its proprietary NiHM unit being long out of production).

I remember the challenge of finding a 3.5″ floppy drive in 2008 to download Sony Mavica FD91 images for the tenth anniversary, as well as more recent memories of Jeff Keller and Carey Rose having no way of getting images off the Casio QV-10A and Minolta DiMAGE V. So the ability to use memory cards and readers that can still be found in the office suggests considerable foresight (or luck) on the part of the Pro70’s product planners.

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The use of off-the-shelf batteries and Compact Flash cards meant I was able to shoot the test scene with a 25-year-old camera. The downside being that I then had to shoot the test scene with a 25-year-old camera.

As much as anything else, I thought it would be interesting to see what it was like to shoot with a 25-year-old digital camera, to find out how far we’ve really come. The answer tempted me to write an article poking fun at 1998 Phil and questioning his judgement: how could he bestow the ‘Highly Recommended’ tag on a camera that’s so bad?

For instance, he was right to say that the ‘flip-out, tilt and swivel LCD is very useful in all sorts of circumstances’ (note, the use of fully-articulated screens isn’t just a mirrorless-camera or video-driven trend). But the Pro70’s screen is also hilariously small by modern standards. It’s nominally a 2″ LCD but in practice is not much larger than a postage stamp. I haven’t been able to find the resolution specs but, given a little time, I could probably count the dots.

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Equally, statements such as ‘Very fast software / menu / startup and cycle times’ make me wonder how bad the competition must have been. There’s an appreciable lag to everything you try to do, despite the menus only containing about six settings. That last part might explain why it seemed a good idea to detail every menu option in reviews, back in those early days. Likewise, I can see why websites used to measure focus and shutter lag: the Pro 70 has delays you could measure with a sundial.

In many respects, the Pro70 – Canon’s enthusiast-level camera of its day – is stupendously primitive. There’s no way to control shutter speed, no way to manually select the second of its ISO settings (100/200 in full res, 200/400 in low-res mode) and no way to influence white balance at all. Or, as Phil put it: ‘Good manual control features (aperture priority mode).’

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And yet, for all that it would be easy to ridicule the Pro70 and 1998 Phil’s lack of clairvoyance, I still had moments that made me realize just how exciting the camera must have been. Just look at that design: it’s probably not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s different. It’s a product of an era when companies were trying to work out what a camera a without a roll of film should look like, before it became apparent that a lot of us wanted cameras that looked like those of 1960s.

And, while it’s easy to joke about what the Pro70 is missing, it’s also worth looking at what it had. For a start there’s a Type 1/2 (~6.7×4.5mm) sensor, which was pretty big compared to what would come later, and, as Phil pointed out, it was in the 3:2 aspect ratio: ‘same as 35mm film.’ There was also a 28-70mm equivalent lens with F2.0-2.4 maximum aperture, which is a good way to make the most of the sensor. It had a pretty decent zooming optical viewfinder, which no doubt added to the cost. But, most of all, it shot Raw, which is not a feature I’d take for granted in a camera from 1998.

Canon PowerShot Pro70 studio scene

OK, so it’s not the most detailed result, but it has to be said, the results aren’t terrible (even if the shooting experience was more like trying to wrestle an image out of a digital watch: pressing a series of unmarked buttons in sequence and hoping for the intended outcome).

In fact, I’d go further. Compare the Raw results and it becomes apparent just how good the JPEG engine is. Even without any control over white balance, it’s done a pretty good job, and the amount of detail it’s pulled out of the scene goes way beyond what ACR has managed.

The difference is even more stark in the dark, where the color in the Raws gets very strange (I have to assume ACR isn’t well profiled for the Pro70’s Cyan, Yellow, Green, Magenta color filter array). The camera’s JPEG engine does well, though, even by modern standards.

That aspect really jumped out at me. For all that the Pro70 feels like a museum piece in some regards, it’s also apparent that Canon’s JPEG color processing has been very good for more than two decades. Color response (now marketed as ‘color science’ all too often) is something some major brands have only really resolved quite recently, and yet the Pro70 shows that Canon got there a quarter of a century ago.

Image quality has made tremendous strides since the Pro70 was launched. We take for granted dynamic range capture that’s beyond what our monitors can easily convey and have seen both pixel counts and detail capture race ever forward. The highest resolution camera in our test scene is the 150MP version of the Phase One IQ4: a camera with essentially 100 times the pixel count of the Pro70. has watched, tested and reported on every step of that journey.

Phil concluded his Pro70 review by saying: ‘At the end of the day it comes down to the quality of the pictures a camera takes, and this camera takes VERY good pictures.’ Calling these images ‘VERY good’ now seems funny, but once upon a time, it was true. And looking back at this first review, the idea of his words being true feels important, too.

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