IRL: Canon EOS 7D, Snapseed for iOS and Panasonic's Lumix DMC-TS4 rugged camera

Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.

And we're back! Most of us Engadgeteers are freshly returned from a staff retreat to the countryside, and for whatever reason, we're in the mood to gab about cameras. This week, Steve explains his love for Canon's 7D, Darren makes a case for Snapseed and Dana takes Panasonic's rugged TS4 shooter into the Puerto Rican rain forest.

Canon EOS 7D

There's no question DSLRs are excellent shooters, but there's just one little snag: let's just say they have some body size issues. Personally, I have a pair of slim, capable non-DSLR options within reach -- a Sony NEX-5N and a Canon S100 -- so it's tempting to leave my much (much) heavier 18-megapixel Canon 7D DSLR in its bag. But when push comes to shove, I use it for assignments or personal stuff more often than not. Though it's a beast, it's a well-trained one: it does what I want, how I want it and with great speed.

For starters, it's never fun to bob and weave through camera menus, but the 7D's are the least bad I've used, as the settings only comprise a single, easily scrollable page. That makes programming it a little less tedious than some of its competitors, and Canon also wisely endowed it with three custom settings directly on the main mode selector dial. All my favorite settings for ISO, picture style, bracketing, etc. can be dumped onto those presets for wholesale shooting changes in one click (think: going from indoor to outdoor snapping, or shooting high speed video). So, while programming the DSLR still isn't high on my list of favorite things to do, at least I can get it over with quickly.

Even after that, using Canon's top APS-C shooter is pure gold. For starters, it's so brawny that I never feel I have to treat it with kid gloves out in the field. The ergonomics are second to none, with manual adjustments as convenient as can be and all the buttons in the right place for one- or two-click setting changes. Once I'm ready to open fire, it responds instantaneously, kicking out eight frames per second in continuous mode -- making it great for action and obviating the need for a tripod during bracketed HDR shooting. And whether you're a fan of DSLR video or not, it's a no-brainer here (focusing aside), and you can snap still photos even as you're capturing video -- an especially handy trick if you're filming kids. In short, the camera feels like a full-bore pro camera that happens to have a non-pro-sized sensor.

-- Steve Dent

Snapseed for iOS
DNP IRL Canon EOS 7D, TK and TK

Look, Instagram -- I get it. It has filters and an absurdly large community behind it. That's fine. I use it, I dig it. And honestly, it's an incredible app for $0.00. But oftentimes, I find myself wanting to squeeze just a bit more out of the photos taken with my iPhone 4S. When I'm home and have plenty of time, I just drag 'em onto my laptop and fire up Adobe Lightroom. But on the go -- when I'm trying to capture the moment -- Snapseed seemed like a safe bet. There are hundreds upon hundreds of positive reviews for this $4.99 iOS app, so I figured I couldn't go wrong.

Turns out, I figured correctly. Snapseed is a really powerful, really quick photo editing app. The navigation takes a few minutes to grok, but afterwards, the gesture-based system becomes second nature. The filters here are (by and large) not gimmicky, and the ability to fine tune 'em to your liking is a major boon. Tilt-shift and center focus modes are super fun to mess around with, and there's a 1:1 crop function that tidies your photo up for direct uploading to Instagram. I've also been duly impressed with how quickly the app implements changes and renders previews.

Yes, it's five bucks, which is more than free. But, it's one of the few paid apps I've come into contact with that I find myself using daily, and I'm actually excited about it. You've got a zillion photo editing options on the App Store, but if you're looking for a solid bet, this is it.

-- Darren Murph

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4
DNP IRL Canon EOS 7D, SnapSeed for iOS and Panasonic's Lumix DMCTS4 rugged camera

Until recently, I couldn't remember the last time I shot with a point-and-shoot. For one thing, I use an NEX-C3 for events and product photography, and my status as a gadget reviewer means I can use a borrowed One S here or a Galaxy Nexus there for more casual shooting. None of that would have sufficed in Puerto Rico, though. I had a holiday planned, and snorkeling was on the itinerary, as were zip lining, late-night kayaking and hiking through El Yunque. Only a compact camera would do, and it had to be a durable one, at that.

I ended up taking the Panasonic TS4, a $400 flagship built to withstand six-and-a-half-foot drops, temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (a useless spec to me) and immersion in water as deep as 40 feet (bingo!). To that end, it works as promised. I dropped the thing at least once, and not because I was trying to be a smartass reviewer, but because I can be clumsy sometimes. In any case, it survived, and doesn't have many scratches to show for it. I also didn't have any issues turning the camera on underwater or using it after I was back on dry land. Still, no amount of R&D can prevent condensation on the lens from spoiling a shot or two.

As for image quality, I've never had any illusions that ruggedized cameras take particularly good photos, so I wasn't surprised that my vacation photos all needed a bit of editing once I returned home. The TS4 particularly struggled in the tropical sun, losing shadow details while washing the background in white. A round of auto-enhancing helped restore that dynamic range but alas, the colors were a little more balanced before I started in with the post-processing. All told, my shots were good enough for Facebook, though I didn't necessarily need a $400 point-and-shoot to achieve that kind of quality.

Unfortunately, most of my underwater shots never made it online. If a human happened to be in the shot, it was easy enough to make out their pasty skin on that small, dim LCD screen. But when it came to capturing things like fish and coral reefs, I didn't have any recourse other than aiming my camera and hoping for the best. Even boosting the brightness didn't help. Still, I at least scored some nice pictures just above the surface, and off the railing of various boats. And, I managed not to ruin any gear in the process, so that's a plus, right?

-- Dana Wollman