Time for your head to start spinning: In September 2008, Nikon introduced the $999 12.3MP D90, the first DSLR with HD video recording. Canon quickly followed with the $2,699 21.1MP EOS 5D Mark II, which captured 1080p video instead of the 720p of arch rival Nikon. But close to $3,000 is pretty steep for a camera in the midst of a recession, so the 5D didn’t dampen the appeal of the D90. With the new EOS Rebel T1i, Canon is aiming straight for cash-strapped photographers and Nikon’s jugular with a 15.1-megapixel DSLR that records 1080p movies for hundreds less than a D90 kit with lens – all in the space of six months. Who says Moore’s Law doesn’t affect everything with a chip inside? Now, is the new T1i the killer DSLR it appears to be? We put it through its paces to find out.
Features and Design
Anyone familiar with digital single lens reflex cameras, and Canons in particular, should feel very comfortable looking at the T1i, even a little bored. It has the typical all-black body and bulky SLR shape. Granted, there are a few variations in the control layout, but this is a pretty standard issue. It measures 5.1 inches wide, 3.8 inches tall, 2.4 inches deep and weighs close to 26 ounces with the kit lens. These measurements – and looks – are practically identical to the older-but-still-available Rebel XSi, a 12.2MP model that costs $749 for the kit, but does not have HD video.
The front of the T1i is dominated by the Canon lens mount, which accepts all EF and EF-S glass, offering over 60 lenses to choose from. The camera is available with a 3x 18-55mm image-stabilized lens just like affordable Nikon DSLRs. If you’re a first-timer, definitely buy the kit. Also, there are lens-release and depth-of-field preview buttons, an autofocus assist lamp, as well as Canon EOS Rebel T1i logos which are pretty sedate (thank goodness). You’ll also find the flash open button and a tiny 4-pinhole mic that records mono sound for HD movies.
On the top, you’ll find the auto pop-up flash, hot shoe for optional flashes, the main mode dial with a silver finish and power switch. There’s a dedicated button for changing ISO, which has a basic range of 100 to 3200, but has special settings for 6400 and 12,800. We’ll see how “noise-free” these options are in the performance section. The comfortable pistol grip has a dial to move through onscreen menus and the shutter button.
The mode dial is fairly standard, with all the basic settings you’ll typically use, ranging from auto, scene modes, aperture- and shutter-priority, full manual, and so on. The standout is the movie icon, a familiar option found on point-and-shoot digicams now making its way into DSLRs. We set it to 1920 x 1080 Full HD.
The rear has a very good 3-inch LCD rated 920K pixels, which is a real plus when focusing during Live View, since you’re framing your subjects on the bigger screen rather than the viewfinder. To accommodate the screen, all of the buttons are either above it, or to the right. Again, no surprises here, other than a button that starts video recording when you’re in movie mode. This button gets you into Live View in still mode. Like every DSLR, the T1i has a viewfinder with diopter control. The viewfinder has 95% coverage with .87x magnification, very typical specs for mid-range models.
On the right side is a compartment for SD and SDHC cards, while on the left are the mini HDMI and USB outputs, and a remote control terminal. The bottom of this Made-In-Japan camera has a metal tripod mount and battery compartment.
What’s in the Box
If you purchase the kit, you’ll get the camera body, lens, strap, battery, charger, USB and A/V cables. There’s no mini-HDMI cable, so make sure you put that on your list. It comes with a 228-page owner’s manual, a more reasonably-sized pocket guide that’s much easier to tote around, and an EOS Digital Solution Disk. This contains Digital Photo Professional for developing RAW files, Canon’s ZoomBrowser EX for handling images, EOS Utility, PhotoStitch and Picture Style Editor for PC, with similar software for Mac. There are also CD-ROMs with software instruction manuals, and two printed how-to brochures for enhancing your shooting skills.
Once we popped in the battery and a 2GB Class 6 SD card, it was time to start capturing stills and HD videos.
Performance and Use
Full HD video is the highlight of this DSLR, but it is first and foremost a camera, so we initially checked out its still image chops. The Rebel T1i has a 15.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, so it captures 4752 by 3168 pixel files. Since it cranks out 3.4 frames per second in burst mode, a hefty high-speed Class 6 card is a must,especially if you’re shooting full HD clips. An aside: The 12.2MP XSi shoots at 3.5 fps, so even with the increased resolution, Canon maintained the speed. The new DIGIC 4 processor keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The 15.1MP $1,199 EOS 50D also uses this chip, but this larger, sturdier camera grabs 6.3 fps. It doesn’t take videos, however.
We started off in full auto, with major parameters (ISO, white balance) also set to auto and used the standard picture style, which is the default. Burst mode was engaged, and image quality was set initially to JPEG, then RAW+JPEG. From auto we literally spun the mode dial and used the myriad manual options.
Beginners and experienced shutterbugs will have no problems using the T1i. It has a nice feel, and controls are logically positioned. It does feel a bit light to our experienced hands, but most people won’t care, and will probably appreciate it. By comparison, a 50D weighs 26 ounces without a lens, while the T1i is the same weight with it. Focusing in still mode is very quick and accurate, thanks to a nine-point autofocus system (one-cross type). The burst mode was as speedy as advertised, and you should have no problems capturing your favorite little athlete in action; a longer zoom will help in those instances.
The T1i hits 6400 and 12,800 ISO, but it’s not worth the trouble. We took a number of test shots ranging from minimum ISO to max, then made prints and examined them closely on the monitor. Images were practically noise-free up to 400, then artifacts appeared at 800, but images were still very usable. Even images at 1600 weren’t the pixilated mess we expected – that arrived at 3200, so you can imagine what 6400 and 12,800 looked like. Such is life, but there are greater tragedies in this world. As for prints of more normal subjects, such as blooming spring foliage and people in daylight, the T1i did a fine job with accurate colors, keeping the overall tone we appreciate with Canon cameras.
Then it was time to go Hollywood. Using the movie mode is simple: Just turn the mode dial to movie, press the Live View button next to the LCD, and you’re in business. The T1i records 1920 x 1080 at 20 frames per second. At best levels, a 4GB card holds 12 minutes of footage, not quite the 14 hours of the Sony XR500V camcorder. In other words, if you want to shoot a lot of high-quality HD video, a camcorder is still the way to go. And let’s not forget, camcorders have a thing called autofocus for moving subjects, something DSLRs like the T1i do not. Yes, focusing a stationary object with the T1i is easy (just hit the AE/AF button), but once your target moves, you have to constantly keep focusing manually with the lens ring. Keeping this all together is a trick that takes practice to master. Another issue: 20 fps is not a winning number, as the QuickTime videos are quite jerky when we reviewed them on a 50-inch plasma via HDMI. To get the more fluid 30 fps, you have to drop to 720p, which is decent, but not great footage.
The Canon EOS Rebel T1i is a solid mid-range DSLR with the added spice of HD video recording. We have no squawks on the camera section, other than noise becoming readily apparent beyond ISO 800. It’s responsive, and you’ll be more than happy with the prints, whether you making 4x6s or 13x19s. The HD videos are a mixed bag, with decent full HD results, but nothing you’d compare with a top-flight camcorder such as the Canon HF S10 or Sony XR500V. Having this capability is good, but look at it as a bonus, rather than the raison d’être for a purchase. As for those weighing the pros and cons of the T1i versus the Nikon D90, we lean heavily to the Canon, especially for the price.
- High-quality 15.1MP stills
- Takes full HD videos
- Excellent 3-inch LCD
- Noise under control up to ISO 800
- Live View mode works well
- Shooting in-focus videos takes work
- Boring design
- Only shoots 20 fps at full HD, not 30
- Not as rugged as more expensive DSLRs