Like the price of a barrel of oil, the megapixel count of D-SLRs continues to climb.
When Canon and others first unveiled popularly-priced digital single lens reflex cameras, 6MP was the resolution spec, and everyone was thrilled. Today, 6-megapixel cameras of any type are practically ancient history. In fact, most new D-SLRs such as the Nikon D60, Pentax K200D or Sony DSLR-A200 kick off at 10MP with 14s becoming much more prevalent in 2008, such as the recent Editor’s Choice-earning Sony DSLR–A350.
As for the new Canon EOS Rebel XSi, it fits right between them with a resolution of 12.2MP, but proves slightly more expensive if you look at it on a pure pixel-for-pixel comparison. Yet digital cameras are about much more than pure resolution—they’re about speed, picture-taking ability and loads of little things that separate the good from the bad. With that in mind, it was time to see if Canon had a winner on its hands—or, to put it bluntly, a clunker instead.
Features and Design
Don’t expect anything radical here—this is a basic black D-SLR with a matte-black body and some textured finish on the pistol grip and rear thumb rest. Yes, there’s an option for a silver body, but if you’re buying a camera of this type, black is what you want.
The XSi is definitely lighter than the models we’ve recently reviewed (more plastic, less metal). It weighs 16.8 ounces for the body alone, 25.6 with battery and kit lens. To some, this lighter weight could be considered a bonus, since it means less shoulder ache as you walk around with the camera and it’s easier to hold steady (depending on the lens, of course). Others, however, might think they’re being shortchanged and prefer a more robust frame. As for pure dimensions, the XSi measures 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 (WHD, in inches) – fairly standard specs, but a shade taller than competitors.
The front is dominated by the EF lens mount. Canon has loads of options beyond the supplied 3x Image Stabilized lens (over 60) and the company is more than happy selling them to you. You can quickly go broke building a collection, but then again, this holds true for every D-SLR. Thankfully, the supplied lens will do the job for newcomers, although it won’t be long before the 18-55mm glass (28.8-88mm 35mm equivalent) proves a bit limiting. Also note that the Canon has a 1.6x digital factor – worth keeping in mind as you shop.
On the front, you’ll additionally find a red-eye reduction lamp, a remote control sensor and the lens release button. Other controls include a depth-of-field preview button and another for a pop-up flash; the flash also acts as an AF Assist light.
The top of the XSi has the on/off switch and an ISO button (100-1600), while on the pistol grip you’ll find the shutter button and a dial to make menu adjustments. The main mode dial is a critical control and it has the typical options for day-to-day shooting: Auto, Program AE, Av (aperture priority), Tv (shutter priority), M (full manual) and A-DEP (Automatic Depth of Field AE, which brings everything into focus read by the nine AF points). You’ll also find a number of classic scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports, Night Portrait and Flash Off. A hot shoe and the flash round out the rest of top real estate.
Image Courtesy of Canon
The rear is dominated by a 3-inch LCD, rated a solid 230K pixels. With the larger size and simple readouts, it’s a breeze checking out your settings and reviewing shots. This camera also has the traditional Live View, though we won’t bore you any more about how much we dislike this feature. Frankly, if you want to use your D-SLR’s LCD screen to frame images, buy a Sony alpha DSLR-A350 or –A300 – it’s that simple. Canon spends over 10 pages in the manual explaining the ins and outs of Live View, a feature best used with your camera on a tripod. With the Sony, you flick a switch and you’re good to go without a tripod. But we digress: We’ll spare you added rhetoric concerning Live View from Canon, Nikon and Olympus, other than to say it’s not worth talking about anymore.
The EOS Rebel XSi has a large, bright viewfinder which is lot faster and simpler to use anyway. There’s a diopter control to fine tune it to your eyesight and a soft rubber cushion surrounding three sides. Directly underneath is a sensor that turns off the LCD when you bring the camera up to your eye, saving the battery and preventing light from leaking into your field of view.
The rear has the controls found on most D-SLRs, except the larger screen forced Canon’s designers to move them to slightly different locations. Instead of a row of keys to the left of the LCD, they’re located on the right, which forced the camera’s creators to place the Menu and Display keys to the top left. This really isn’t a big deal though, as you’ll get used to the positions pretty quickly.
Image Courtesy of Canon
Along with exposure compensation, there’s a direct key for White Balance and others for Playback and Delete. There’s also a four-way controller with center Set button. The four points let you adjust settings for the flash, type of focus and burst/self-timer mode. One control is rather cryptic—it looks like a ceiling fan but actually it’s for Picture Styles (go figure). Picture Styles let you change the overall tone of the image. There’s Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome (B&W) and User Defined. These are not to be confused with Scene modes. Like Custom Image in the Pentax K200D, you can tweak these at your leisure to see if you like the effects of adjusting sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone. Then again you can just shoot blissfully in Auto and be content—it’s your call, but it’s nice to know you can experiment.
Next to a textured finish where your thumb rests (a nice addition) are AE-Lock and AF point selection keys that also do double duty during playback (enlarging shots and so on).
On the right side is a compartment for the SD/SDHC card slot, while a flimsy door covers the video out, remote control and USB ports. On the bottom of this Made in Japan D-SLR is the battery compartment and metal tripod mount. The proprietary lithium-ion battery is rated 600 shots without the flash and 500 when using the flash 50 percent of the time, decent but not great numbers.
As always, Canon supplies everything you need other than an SD card (2GB will be fine to start). If you purchase the kit, you’ll get a 3x 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS zoom, a good starter lens. Canon claims four full-stops of correction with its OIS system. The inclusion of this lens is a direct response to the many D-SLRs with built-in sensor shift systems that stabilize any attached lens. As we always say, competition is a wonderful thing—especially when consumers win.
Along with the various straps, caps, battery and recharger, you also get a 196-page owner’s manual, a pocket guide, booklets about IS and macro shooting as well as a CD-ROM with the EOS Digital Solution Disk (ver. 17.1) and another with the software instruction manual. The software helps you download, archive and edit images and develops RAW files.
After charging the battery, loading a 2GB card, setting the date and time, it was time see what the XSi could do.
Performance and Use
We kicked off our session in Auto, with maximum JPEG size (4272 x 2848 pixels) and in burst mode. Here the camera handles all the settings—focus, white balance and ISO; you just adjust the zoom and fire away. And blast away the XSi certainly does. This D-SLR is far more responsive than recent Sony and Pentax models reviewed. Canon added its latest processor (DIGIC III) previously found only on much more expensive editions as well as a new AF sensor. The nine-point system also has one cross type in the center. All of this adds up to a camera that feels like it’s ready to explode when you put it into burst mode. Press the shutter and you’ll know what we mean.
Canon gives the XSi a rating of 3.5 frames per second, and this was pretty close to the conclusion reached by our test results. More importantly, you can zip off 45 top-quality JPEGs or six RAW files before it takes a breather (with the flash off, of course). Again, these are stats that are much better than our recently reviewed D-SLRs. If you’re looking for speed, the XSi has it; as such, Little League moms and dads should seriously consider the unit for capturing their slugging superstars.
Granted, high-speed shooting and fast focusing are important, but how were the pictures? Glad you asked… we did a lot of shooting in Auto then moved to the various manual options and scene modes. We also worked with the camera’s Custom Functions (different than the Picture Styles). Here you have long-exposure and High-ISO noise reduction, Highlight Tone Priority and other adjustments. As mentioned, you can experiment to your heart’s content or simply let the camera do the work for you. Still, it’s good to have these tools at the ready once you’ve become comfortable with the camera’s basic modes.
Once shooting was done it was time to make some 8.5×11 full-bleed prints with no adjustments such as Auto Enhance. Spring is busting out all over, as the hoary song says, and there was no shortage of color to test out including weeping cherries, forsythia bushes, dogwoods as well as tulips and daffodils of various shades and stripes.
In classic Canon style, the prints were terrific. We’re not sure how the company does it, but the photos taken with its D-SLRs (and better point-and-shoots) look flat-out spectacular. Images actually give off a certain sense of reality that’s very appealing to us (and lots of others since Canon is the top camera company in the world). What’s more, this camera has a new 14-bit A/D (analog-to-digital) converter that Canon states improves outdoor shots. We don’t know if it’s the DAC, processor, lens or what, but we don’t care: Outdoor colors are absolutely spot-on.
We also received a pleasant surprise after printing a series of indoor still lifes. Digital noise was barely noticeable at 800 ISO and the prints were the best we’ve seen at 1600 ISO. Admittedly, we were surprised there wasn’t a custom setting for 3200, but apparently Canon leaves that for its more expensive models. Obviously, the High-ISO Noise Reduction works quite well. And, of course, the image stabilized lens clearly helped capturing sharp shots at slower shutter speeds.
We hate to sound like a skipping Internet audio stream, but it’s very easy to recommend the Canon Rebel XSi. It’s a fast-focusing, speedy D-SLR that delivers excellent photos both indoors and outside. At 12.2-megapixels, the camera also has more than enough resolution for huge prints, and you can just shoot in auto or tweak images as much as you’d like. Units further have an integrated cleaning system that shakes the dust off the sensor every time you power on and off. In short, the camera handles well, is simple to use and the supplied stabilized lens is icing on a yummy cake. If Canon’s engineers would just toss Live View in the trash can—or copy Sony’s version—they’d have close to the perfect sub-$1,000 D-SLR.
Very fast 12MP D-SLR
Fine picture quality
Supplied IS lens
Don’t bother with Live View
Flimsy door covering connections