Mr Mars' Canon 400D Review

Canon 400D

All shots are 100% crop with some jpg compression to keep the size down.


I had been planning to buy an SLR for some time and I bought this camera based on the generally excellent sample images I saw on the net, the uniformly positive reviews, the ready availability of items for the Canon platform and most importantly the good price. Only the Pentax K100 and the Nikon 40DX were cheaper in Feb 2008 and since they were somewhat emasculated models, the 400D was the clear leader in apparent value for money. I was aware that the 450D was coming, and I was tempted to wait for it, but I reasoned that the 400D was a proven performer and, I imagine, the biggest selling SLR of all time. I couldn't go wrong, and the run-out price would considerably cheaper than the new model. Bear in mind, price was a critical consideration for me.

After reading various reviews and closely considering Fred Miranda's excellent lens site I decided not to get a kit lens, and instead to buy the Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 and the Canon 50mm f/1.8, both of which were regarded as absolute bargains.

It is fair to say that I had 4 months of nightmare after I bought this camera. The problems began immediately. To begin with Canon Australia couldn't supply the 50mm prime to my retailer, even though every major camera store in the country had them in stock. I thus began with just the Tamron telephoto zoom.

Autofocus Problems

From the start the experience was bitterly disappointing. The system front focused badly. From 100 photos only 5 would be acceptable and there were none that I wanted to keep. Shots of birds showed the grass in front of them in focus and the birds completely OoF. Things were better at the wide end but still unusable. I questioned my technique and tried every experiment and setting I could think of, but the pictures remained hopeless.


Canon 400D Tamron 70-300mm f/8 300mm 1/350 sec ISO 400

Knowing that the problem was front focus and not having another lens to compare I sent back the lens and waited 2 weeks for Tamron to send a replacement. The replacement was no better, so I sent the body into Canon to be calibrated. It came back unchanged. I obtained the "nifty fifty" from an internet house and finally got some decent shots, but even with this there were still too many misses. I managed to borrow another 400D body and a 17-55 kit lens to make some comparisons. The borrowed body performed even worse than mine so I became fairly certain that my problems were common to all 400Ds.

White Rose

Canon 400D EF50mmf/1.8 f/4 1/2000 sec ISO200

The next week I borrowed another body yet and a twin lens kit and continued the comparisons. To be fair, it was only the Tamron lens that showed consistently severe front focus but I was still unhappy with the shots from the other systems. The second borrowed body performed identically to mine. I tried a friend's Sony Alpha and it performed flawlessly. It focused accurately on anything I pointed it at. I was about to send the lot back and jump ship but I had one more thing to try.

I went down the street and bought an Allen key set with a little 1/20" wrench and followed the instructions on the net for adjusting the mirror offset screw in the mirror box. It took nerve to do this with a brand new camera but I was desperate. It took me 1/2 hour to get the feel for the screw and another hour or so to get it adjusted right, but I finally had the Tamron lens performing roughly as I wanted. I took photos of birds that were good and sharp and buildings and houses that were much better than before. I analyzed the shots using before and after comparisons everyone agreed that there had been a great improvement. On the strength of this I decided not to return the camera but to persevere with it.

Notwithstanding the above I could see that the Tamron lens was still front focusing a little. Unfortunately I could see that the 50mm had begun to back focus. Pushing the focal field back further would help the telephoto but ruin the prime. What the hell, I gave the screw another couple of tweaks and took the Tamron out for a stroll around the lake under blue skies. Everything worked, the camera was finally a joy to use. Finally I was getting what I had expected. I took birds in flight, flowers, trucks, railway yards and a few portraits. Excellent!


Canon 400D Tamron 70-300 f/5.6 70mm 1/1500 ISO400

I got the new Canon 18-55 F3.5-5.6 IS, which was well regarded, for a bargain price and tried it out. Of course it and the prime were now back focusing badly. There was no alternative, I turned the mirror offset screw back to roughly where it had been at the start. I think I may have improved the focusing slightly from its initial setting but not to any great extent. In any event I set it up to suit the two Canon lenses as perfectly as could be organised. I packed up the Tamron lens and sent it back to Tamron with a letter detailing my experience and some photos showing the situation before and after. Clear proof that their lens front focused on 400Ds. Tamron could find no problem with the lens and I took a refund.

Note please that the problems with this camera can't be all blamed on the Tamron lens since I used 8 different lenses (most of which were Canon's own) and they all exhibited unreliable auto focus. I also tried 2 other 400Ds and one 40D and they exhibited the same trouble. I thus formed the belief that most Canons (perhaps all) have a second rate SIR auto focus system.


Canon 400D EFS18-55mmIS f/8 44mm 1/200 sec ISO200

The Standards That I Expect

I took over 2000 shots with this camera and although I did get some good shots the failure rate was unacceptably high. I wish that the damn professional reviewers had told me what I needed to know. Namely that this camera in many respects performs worse than a decent compact and even image quality won't necessarily be better. Yes, you can get a better picture with this camera than you can with any compact but IF AND ONLY IF you get everything right! And some of those things, such as focus, are outside your control.

I came from the marvelous Canon A610, truly one of the best cameras ever made! Ask anyone who has one. Look at my A610 photo gallery for proof. With the A610, 90% of my shots were keepers and probably 50% were absolute winners. I could take a classic shot anytime I had the inspiration. It never let me down until it broke. With the 400D I never knew what I was going to get. Due to all the failures I had no confidence when I pressed the shutter that the result would be a keeper. I have comparisons between the 2 cameras using the same shot and excluding any shot where the 400D performed badly and it's 50/50 as to which are the better photos. This is certainly not what I expected. Mind you, the A610 was a gem and a comparison with today's rubbish compacts would be less even.

The Review Proper

Anyway, enough of the background, here is my review about this camera. First the bad:

Now for the good!

And that's about it. The 450D has arrived on the scene and I have seen some excellent photos taken with it, however I have also read plenty of complaints about front focusing. The contrast detect auto focusing in Live View is the thing that I most fancy but from what I have read it doesn't seem that it is the real world answer to focusing issues just yet.

For me the AF was unacceptably bad and I eventually tried out a Sony A100, a Nikon D70 and a D60 which I liked so much that I bought it and sold all my Canon stuff. The Nikon gives me the results that I expected when I decided to get into the SLR world. this doesn't mean that the D60 or the Nikon system are perfect, not at all, Canon is better at most things, but I can live with Nikon's little irritations. What I can't live with is Out Of Focus shots! At the end of the day, there is NOTHING more important than focus.

Now once more in case you missed it:

The 400D doesn't focus properly.