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Canon EOS 550D Review: Do The Specs Deliver?

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We're taking another in-depth look at a new camera today, the Canon EOS 550D (the EOS Rebel T2i). This is Canon's latest consumer Digital SLR offering, and the specifications certainly pack a punch. Can it live up to all the hype? Read on to find out.


The Best Yet?

The EOS 550D's specifications certainly do appear to put it well ahead of its rivals. Canon's 18-megapixel APS-C sensor has a 4-megapixel advantage over the best of the rest (Pentax, Samsung, Sony), while arch-rival Nikon is still using 12-megapixel sensors in its own APS-C format digital SLRs, giving away no fewer than 6 million pixels to the Canon.

Megapixels are no guarantee of image quality, of course, as is obvious from the compact digital camera market. In fact they're a bit of a worry from the point of high ISO performance. The EOS 550D goes right up to ISO 6400 (expandable to ISO 12800), but how well will it perform? High resolutions and high ISOs don't usually mix.

The EOS 550D's other key selling point is its full HD movie mode. Other SLR makers are restricted to standard HD movies at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, but the Canon can shoot full HD 1920 x 1080 movies, and at different frame rates of 30, 25 or 24fps (and even 50/60fps at 1280 x 720 pixels for shooting fast action). This choice of frame rates is particularly important for movies which are going to be converted into standard definition TV formats like PAL, which runs at 25fps rather than 30fps.

That's not all. The EOS 550D also offers full manual exposure control for movies, which gives it huge creative potential for film-makers. You get a stereo external microphone socket (though the internal mic is mono), and a new Movie Crop function which creates smaller-format 640 x 480 movies using the central part of the sensor, though this is essentially a digital zoom function which gives you extended telephoto capability but at the expense of resolution.

Indeed, on paper the 550D looks very close to the much more expensive EOS 7D for features, but while that might be true for movies, the 7D still has many advantages for serious photographers. The 550D can only shoot at 3.7fps, while the 7D can shoot at 8fps, it has a lightweight plastic body rather than the rugged alloy chassis of the 7D, and it has just one control dial compared to the two on the 7D.


External Features

The EOS 550D's basic shape goes right back to the EOS 350D launched in 2005. The body is small and light, and it can feel quite cramped if you've got big hands, but Canon continues to refine the layout of the controls and the result is an exceptionally well-designed camera.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The exterior controls are now bigger and more intuitive following customer feedback. They're clearly labelled and brilliantly simple to use. You can change the ISO, EV compensation, white balance, autofocus mode, Picture Style or drive mode just by pressing the relevant button and then turning the control dial.

Alternatively, you can activate a new Quick Control screen where the camera settings are displayed on the LCD and you can use the navigation buttons and control dial to select and change the shooting options.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The 3-inch LCD display is very good. It has an unusually high resolution of 1,040,000 pixels, producing very clear menus, information displays and high-quality image playback. The menus are worth a special mention because they work so simply and so well. You use the left/right direction buttons to choose a menu tab and the up/down buttons to choose the menu option you want. The tabs are color-coded, too, for shooting, playback, settings and user-defined options.

The 550D retains an exposure mode seen on earlier EOS models that's so useful it's surprising other makers don't do something similar. In the Canon's A-DEP mode, it checks all 9 focus points for the nearest and farthest object in the scene, then automatically selects a lens aperture which will extend the depth of field to cover both of them.


Kit Lens Choices

Canon's entry-level digital SLRs usually ship with the company's basic 18-55mm IS kit lens, but the 550D is also available with Canon's longer-range 18-135mm IS lens. This might be more suitable for those planning to shoot movies, where longer zoom ranges are more commonplace. It does add to the price, though, and the picture quality isn't necessarily a whole lot better. The 18-135mm lens is quite bulky, too, and while it's not too bad a match for the EOS 550D body, it's at the upper size limit for good everyday balance.

Canon EOS 550D Review

One advantage of the 18-135mm lens over the 18-55mm is that it has a non-rotating front element. This means you can use graduated filters and polarizers without having to reset the angle each time the camera focusses.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The disadvantage is that this is one of Canon's few non-USM lenses, and it's noticeably noisier as a result. It's still quite fast, though, and managed to latch on to this frisky terrier in the instant before it darted off through the undergrowth.


Viewing and Focusing

The 550Ds viewfinder is clear, bright, and, like all modern D-SLRs, it has a live view mode too, so that you can compose shots on the LCD display instead if you prefer.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The live view button is just to the right of the viewfinder eyepiece, and when you press it the camera's mirror flips up and the rear LCD now shows the view through the camera lens captured by the sensor.

To date, digital SLR makers don't seem to be making a whole lot of progress with these modes, and hybrid cameras like Panasonic's G-series Lumix models and Samsung's NX10 focus much, much quicker than the Canon does.

It's not clear why that should be. Live view modes rely on contrast-detection autofocus systems which use the image formed on the sensor to check focus rather than a separate sensor, but if Panasonic and Samsung can make these work fast, why can't Canon? Canon's not alone in this - other D-SLR makers struggle to produce good live view autofocus performance, which is one reason why hybrid cameras are proving such a tempting alternative.

The live view mode is all right for tripod-based shots with relatively static subjects that allow plenty of time for the Canon to find the right focus, but it's not very practical for day-to-day shooting.

There are focusing limitations when shooting movies, too. In fact, the live view AF just isn't fast enough for continuous autofocus and you have to choose a focus point before you start filming and plan your clips with this in mind. You can focus manually while filming, but unless the camera's mounted securely on a tripod, you're going to jiggle the picture. You can also attempt to autofocus during filming, by half-pressing the shutter button, but the focusing is so slow, jerky and noisy it does more harm than good.

Interestingly, you can shoot a full-resolution still image in the middle of shooting, though it does produce a 1-second pause in the clip, so the Canon can't really do both at the same time.

You can't argue with the movie quality, though, which is excellent. It's not really a point-and-shoot camera, and you really need a tripod and a certain amount of planning to get the best from it, but this applies to professional movie-making in general.


Picture Quality

From the specifications, you might be tempted to expect the same level of quality from the EOS 550D's still images, but this isn't so straightforward. Yes, it does have a much higher megapixel count than its rivals, but it doesn't necessarily translate into better definition. When you look at the pictures at 100 percent magnification on-screen, the fine detail just doesn't seem to have a lot of 'bite', especially subtle, textural detail.

Canon EOS 550D Review

This picture, taken with Canon's 18-55mm IS kit lens, looks great from normal viewing distances, and in the centre of the frame the detail is pretty crisp, helped by the strong, high-contrast lighting and clear outlines. There's not a lot of textural detail in the stonework, though, and away from the centre of the frame the definition falls away quite noticeably.

True, examining images this closely is the kind of pixel peeping that's given digital photography a bad name, but then if you do choose a camera because of its resolution, you're going to want to be sure that it does actually offer a clear improvement. It's difficult to make properly scientific comparisons with this kind of thing, but the detail the 550D resolves seems, in reality to be quite similar to any other APS-C format camera. The pictures are bigger, but they seem a bit softer too, which leaves you back where you started.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The choice of lenses doesn't help. Canon's 18-55mm kit lens has never enjoyed a particularly good reputation, but the 18-135mm doesn't seem any better. It's hard to understand why the detail in the picture shown here should have come out so soft, and a whole bunch of others taken on the same day were much the same. Maybe this particular lens was a bad example, but that in itself doesn't inspire much confidence.

From the point of view of resolution, then, the EOS 550D's advantage may be more theoretical than actual. Shooting RAW files helps (the RAW files do seem to hold more detail than the camera's internal processing brings out), and Canon's Digital Photo Professional RAW converter, bundled free with the camera, also offers automatic distortion and chromatic aberration correction, if you know where to look.

The 550D does repay a little effort. You can have some fun creating your own Picture Styles and using them in the Digital Photo Professional software or even transferring them to the camera. There's an Auto Lighting Optimizer which lightens dark shadows (other cameras have similar systems) and, for photographers who perhaps don't like their images messed around with quite so much, a Highlight Tone Priority option which compresses the brightest highlights in the image so that you get reduced blow-out in the highlights. It's definitely worth using and you notice it especially in things like bright skies.


Exposure and ISO

Canon's used its new and sophisticated iFCL exposure system in the 550D. It has a 63-zone dual-layer light sensor with a red-green sensitive layer on top and a blue-green sensitive layer below. According to Canon, meters are traditionally over-sensitive to red, and this new system is the solution. It also combines focus, color and luminance data (hence 'FCL') to work out the correct exposure.

The advantages aren't that obvious, to be honest. Occasionally, the 550D produced some unexpected and quite excessive overexposure with heavily backlit subjects, but the rest of the time its performance seemed little different to any other camera's.

Keen photographers are likely to want to override the camera's exposure quite often, regardless of how sophisticated it might be, and Canon's extended the 550D's exposure compensation range to plus/minus 5EV and the auto-exposure bracketing range goes up to plus/minus 2EV.

Canon EOS 550D Review

The high ISO performance is impressive, though. This is one area where both Nikon and Canon seem to have taken a big step forward compared to the rest, and the 550D's higher resolution isn't a problem. At ISO 6400, heavy noise reduction produces a wishy-washy 'watercolour' effect, but at ISO 3200 the quality really is very good indeed. In this picture there's surprisingly little noise and yet the fine detail is still very crisp.


So Just How Good is it?

Overall, the 550D is a very good camera, but its strengths aren't necessarily those you might expect. The 18-megapixel sensor sounds like its strongest asset, yet it really doesn't deliver the boost in definition the figures suggest. If you buy the 550D for this reason alone, you might well be disappointed.

The full HD movie mode, though, is every bit as good as it looks on paper. You need to take a fairly considered approach to filming and focusing, but that's how professional films are shot anyway.

The 550D really does score, however, in areas which you can't put in a list of bullet points. Its control layout is quite exceptional, and the only criticism you could make is that the body's a bit small. But then this is a designed as a portable, easy-to-use, entry-level camera, and complaining that the body is small is like complaining that your bicycle only has two wheels.

But there's still a lingering sense that this camera doesn't achieve its proper potential, the feeling that 18 megapixels ought to deliver more than this, and that while Canon keeps pushing the numbers up, the picture quality itself really hasn't moved on. Yes, the high ISO performance has taken a step forward, but the definition hasn't.


Verdict

The EOS 550D is very nearly a great camera. The design, the control layout, the LCD display and the full HD movie mode are all excellent, and yet the quality of the stills - the one thing you might take for granted with that class-leading 18-megapixel resolution - is disappointing. It's no worse than its rivals, perhaps, but no better either.

Pros

  1. Design and control layout
  2. Movie quality and controls
  3. Big, high resolution LCD
  4. Excellent high ISO performance

Cons

  1. Fine detail not that sharp
  2. Slow autofocus in live view
  3. Unimpressive kit lenses
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