A few months ago I wrote a short article about the Canon EOS D30. The D30 was a groundbreaking camera in its day, being the first 'affordable' DSLR and the first to feature a large-format CMOS sensor. Yes, its autofocus system was woeful, and the LCD display on the back was about as useful as making a sketch from memory, but back in 2000, everybody wanted one.

I was definitely curious about the D30, but given that in 2000 I was a first-year undergraduate student, such an expensive camera was far beyond my reach. It would be another couple of years before I saved up enough money to buy my first DSLR, and the camera I eventually settled on was the successor to the successor of the EOS D30 - the counterintuitively named Canon EOS 10D1.

The break with Canon's previous naming convention was appropriate, though. The 10D was a substantially new camera compared to the models that preceded it, and it replaced the D60 with an almost indecent haste (the D60 had been on the market for little more than a year before the 10D came along). Compared to the plastic-bodied D30/D60 it was better built, featured a far superior rear LCD (with a usable magnification feature) offered a more rounded styling, closer in spirit to the EOS-1D series, and was much quicker in operation.

The 10D was a thoroughly modern camera in 2003, and remained on the market for some time. Canon took the basic form factor of the D60 and modernized every aspect of that model's performance and styling.

The 10D's DIGIC processor drove a blisteringly fast (ahem...) continuous shooting rate of 3 fps, operation was snappier, including reduced shutter-lag, and the 10D's 7-point autofocus system was a huge improvement over the 3-point system in the D30 and D60, which seemed prehistoric even back then. Although the 10D's 6MP CMOS sensor was based on the one previously used in the D60, Canon had refined the manufacturing process in the meantime. Consequently it offered slightly better resolution than its predecessor, superior noise performance and a wider ISO span, topping out at a grainy but usable ISO 3200.

Remarkably, despite all of these improvements, the 10D was also $500 cheaper than the D60.

Although it definitely wasn't in the same ballpark as the EOS-1D in terms of speed or construction, the 10D beat the pants off Canon's then-current pro sports model in terms of image quality. Significantly, the core specification of the 10D was close enough to the EOS 30 / Elan 7 that film holdouts didn't have to feel too badly short-changed by the costly jump into digital.

With the EOS 10D's accessory grip attached, it was almost possible to believe that I was shooting with an EOS-1D.

Almost...

So, to recap - the 10D offered a very usable sensitivity range of ISO 100-3200, 3 fps continuous shooting, 7-point AF system, magnesium-alloy body shell and a substantial price reduction. In 2003, it all added up to a hugely desirable camera.2

Canon EOS 10D Sample images (2004-5)

Because it was so popular, the 10D was pretty scarce for several months after its introduction. After saving up my wages for an entire summer (a story told in more detail here), I ended up purchasing mine from a 'big box' high-street retailer, because it was out of stock everywhere else – something I later came to regret.

I decided to pull the trigger on a 10D for several reasons. In a rare attack of foresight, I determined that this digital thing probably wasn't a fad, and with ambitions to become a photographer of some kind, it seemed sensible to dive in as soon as possible. And while previous DSLRs had felt like too much of a compromise, the 10D seemed to meet my most important criteria.

As a budding theatre and live music photographer, I was hitting the limits of what I could do with film, both technically and practically. Technically speaking, high ISO film exposed in marginal light and processed at your average high-street pharmacy simply doesn't look very good - especially if you're talking about high-speed color emulsions. From a practical standpoint, development and printing turnaround times were a problem if I wanted to get images to people quickly. And forget about serious commercial work – by 2003, the magazines and websites I was interested in working for were increasingly insisting on digital file delivery.

A typical monochrome conversion of a shot taken in the Assembly Rooms Theatre. The 10D's highest ISO settings were grainy, but perfectly usable - especially when converted into black and white.

The first quasi 'commercial' work I ever did was head-shots and performance images for Durham University's student theatre. Student productions rotated every few weeks, and every production wanted some prints to display outside the theatre. I can't remember the first production that I shot digitally (was it Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker'?)3 but compared to film, it was vastly easier. Ironically, I was a sort of caretaker for the theatre at the time, since I lived in a small flat above the lobby. Being able to shoot a dress-rehearsal in the theatre, then head upstairs to make my edit and print the images - sometimes all in the same evening - was a revelation. I can't remember how much I charged for my services, but I made enough over a couple of years to buy a couple of new lenses.

And for a while it seemed like it was lenses that were the problem. Initially I had two lenses for my 10D. A 50mm F1.8 (of course), and a 24-70mm F2.8L. Later I added a 70-200mm F2.8L and a 17-40mm F4L (all purchased used). The 10D worked perfectly with all of them, except the 24-70mm. For whatever reason, camera and lens did not get on at all. Chronic back-focusing was apparent even through the 10D's viewfinder, and this was before the days of AF micro-adjustment. The 24-70mm was simply unusable on my 10D, but it focused perfectly on other DSLRs that I borrowed from friends, or rented in an increasingly desperate attempt to figure out what was going on.

A live shot from one of my first proper commissions - a major awards show tour that came through Newcastle in 2005 - not far from where I lived at the time. It looks like I benefited a bit from someone else's flash, in this shot. Thank you - whoever you were.

The retailer I bought my 10D from wasn't particularly interested in helping, so I sent it back to Canon at least four times during the first year I owned it, shooting on film during the long intervals when it was away for service. Every time it came back as 'up to specification,' but the back-focusing problem remained. Finally, after a lot of back and forth, I send the 10D in with the troublesome 24-70mm, and was rewarded with a 'fixed' camera, complete – funnily enough – with a new serial number. Knowing what I know now, I should have sent the camera and lens back together in the first place.

Even this frustrating experience wasn't enough to dull my excitement at owning and using the 10D. It really was a fantastic camera at the time, and it helped me gain a footing in the not-at-all-lucrative world of performance photography. My first magazine commissions were shot with the 10D. I learned about the benefits of shooting Raw with the 10D (albeit rather belatedly). The first camera I ever had confiscated at a music venue4 was the 10D. It was my main camera for a couple of very formative years, before being relegated as a second body beside to the truly magnificent EOS-1D Mark II (which I'm hoping to write about at a later date).

The 10D couldn't do everything (it choked up when shooting several Raw files in a sequence, and in low light its off-center AF points were little more than decorative), but it opened up a completely new world for me.

One of my favorite bands of the mid-2000s was 'Hope of the States'. I probably photographed them more than any other band, for a while. This shot is from another awards show in London in 2005. Despite the off-center composition, most likely I used the central AF point for this image, since the 10D's off-center points didn't work very well at all in low light.

And it's a world I'm still living in. Without the 10D, there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't have become a music photographer, and if I hadn't become a music photographer, I probably wouldn't have ended up as a photography journalist. Whether or not that's a good thing is something I'm happy to leave to the commenters to decide.

Did you own a 10D? Let us know.

Read Phil Askey's review of the EOS 10D (2003)

Canon EOS 10D Review Samples (2003)


1 A note on Canon's confusing naming convention. The 'D30' because it was a digital camera with 3 million pixels. The D60 because it was basically a D30 with a new 6 million pixel sensor. And the switch to 10D because - I assume - Canon and Nikon's lawyers had a little chat.

2 In fact, just about the only people who weren't singing Canon's praises at the time were recent D60 owners.

3 The Assembly Rooms - it's still there, and this being student theatre, there's every chance that they're currently staging a production of Harold Pinter's 'The Caretaker', too.

4 It was all just one big misunderstanding. Specifically around two people's definitions of the word 'permission'.