Enough. Ahead of Time. (December
What goes through a camera company's collective mind
that convinces it that time's a'wasting and a thousand dollar
dSLR must be in our line before Christmas? Whatever it is, they
timed it right and got the product right without a miss step.
To say that I'm impressed with the Digital
Rebel would be to understate the obvious. I was ready for this
camera to be a woofer. Not a bass speaker; a dog. But no puppies
accompanied it out of the box and although the design is basic,
it still gives you a lot more than other thousand dollar digital
camera ideas in the world.
It has good things. You can read Canon's
official marketing message here
and see how they want you to see the product, and you can read
the reviews from DPReview,
Digicams and others to get a sense of how its functions and
controls test out.
Then there's this site. I write about cameras
and enjoy the digital revolution from a different perspective.
Digital cameras are a replacement tool for many things film cameras
have done in my world, and I try to push them to the edges of
their performance envelopes for practical reasons.
My questions are different. How does it
handle? What size prints does it make? How does it work in fast-changing
situations? What do I think are its strong points from a practical,
working point of view? And the corollary, where are its weaknesses?
Where does it fit into workflows, lifestyle, travel, convenience
and ability to get that shot? Would I buy more than one for a
department of image makers?
To start with, the 300D is bigish. It has
a large, thick body presence and surprising light weight. Clad
in silver-flake plastic it is warm to the touch, easy to grip
and fits normal 35mm SLR ergonomics fairly well. Shooting stance
is no different and controls are laid out with an eye to easy
Finger habits may take a while to develop,
but that's par for the course with any digital camera. Let's
face it, features drive control placement and the 300D's controls
are placed in an easy ergonomic placement for the most part,
giving right index finger and thumb something to do for a living.
The left thumb has its own job. Five buttons
on the left side of the camera back monitor drive menu, info,
jump, playback and delete buttons.
Amenities like LCD info panel back light,
one-button AE lock and diopter eyepiece adjustment make the camera
feel more than rock bottom basic, but that feeling evaporated
quickly as the working features are discovered. The feature set
seems to be the central group of functions that one would always
need, but are not embellished with rarely needed features that
can be lived without.
Few are the pro 35mm cameras that need
a complete set of preferences programmed into the camera before
shooting, and while this sort of feature appears on the 1.5X$
Canon EOS 10D,
its direct contribution to making better shots is minor if not
invisible most of the time.
Where SLR style cameras win my favor is
that you are seeing a very good unambiguous view of the scene
the way the lens will capture it. Where they fall from favor
is due to the fact that you must put your camera up to your head
to find the view. Shooting from the lap is not accurate. There's
a definite give and take to this form of viewfinding, but when
you regard the SLR format as an extension of your eye, the good
points outweigh the bad.
So here we stand with a pudgy, plastic
camera in our hand that doesn't have the refinements of a $1,500
camera, and whatda we got? A cut back, software crippled, low-end,
cheaped-out, sorry excuse for a camera? Not in the least. If
the 10D is worth spending $1,700 for with a lens, then the DR
is worth, say $1,300 if parity of value were the determining
influence. Its price makes it something of a bargain.
While the Rebel doesn't have it all, it
has a lot and doesn't skimp on image quality in the least. In
fact, with the same optics on both camera bodies, there is zero
difference between them on your computer.
There are the standard Program AE, Aperture
AE, Shutter AE and Manual Exposure modes, plus an extra that
is surprisingly useful and welcome, Auto DOF focus mode. That
latter will probably not often be used, but it allows the photographer
to quickly find the hyperfocal distance between several different
depth subjects that the seven focus sensors detect. Getting used
to this focus mode takes a bit of practice since it is fully
capable of locking on to a near and far object at the same time
and focus between them, making nothing particularly sharp if
either f-stop or distance between detected subjects isn't working
in your favor.
Menu choices are succinct. Power up is
about 3 seconds. Jab the shutter button with your index finger
as you click the camera On with your thumb, and three seconds
later you're exposing.
Sleep time can be set from 1 to 30 minutes
or turned off entirely. Without a monitor displaying the last
shot or menu item all the time, idle power drain seems small.
Batteries charge up in about two hours and with two you are set
for the day, unless it's one of those days.
Peering through the viewfinder one might
notice that the matte ground glass has a fine pattern to it.
Out of focus points of light break up into a gridded dot pattern,
not a smooth circle, but that appearance is never part of the
Included with the kit is an EFS 18-55 mm,
f/3.5 to 5.6 zoom, equivalent to a 28.8 to 88 mm zoom range on
a full frame SLR. Although it is plastic construction and inexpensively
built, optical quality is quite good. Canon's own MTF (modulation
transfer function) graphs predict sharp images and experience
supports that conclusion.
This lens is special for the Rebel only.
It won't fit the inner clearances of other cameras' mirrors,
due to the deeper back-of-mount depth the optics need to provide
the coverage to the 62.5% scale sensor.
Seven focus zone boxes are arrayed across
the center line of the image, five horizontal and two more on
the vertical center. Several modes control how they work but
the most popular is to let them observe and indicate which area
is being identified and acted on for auto focus. A tiny red light
blinks in the center of the active one(s) when that area is focused
on. It's more accurate than your fingers would be.
One nice feature to manual focus is that
if it is performed while the shutter release is half-pressed,
the focus zones will light and chirp as subject material under
them hits sharp focus. Rather a semi-automatic focus technique.
While the lens has motorized autofocus,
it isn't the linear motor high speed wonder found in their upper
EF lenses, but it works quickly and positively. The front element
can be used in a manual focus mode, the switch for that being
on the upper left of the lens barrel. Manual focus feels... inexpensive.
The front element is a bit wiggly and auto
focus has the habit of twitching the image a little with every
seek/find operation. People worry when their front element moves
in its mount, but the slight side to side motion of those elements
is not harmful to the image--it just doesn't feel confidence
kit lens appears to be a variant on the optical design seen in
the 28-90 mm f/3.5-5.6 lens (left) often bundled with film Rebel
designs. In optical design terms, the lens group closest to the
film carries the job of focusing the image at the film plane.
For a smaller image patch, that implies an optic that sits closer
to the focused image, which limits the size of things in the
mirror chamber, notably
the mirror itself, which swings aside to let the light through.
When all the factors are added up, the smaller, closer rear elements
of the 18-55 (right) make sense. And the rear protruding back
elements, smaller mirror and inner chamber all fall in line.
Being a camera with a large image chip
doesn't guarantee a full frame chip and this one, as with most
dSLRs comes with a "magnification factor" built in.
Any lens that is attached will function as if it were 160% of
the millimeters engraved on its barrel. A 400 mm lens, for instance,
becomes a 640 mm lens in practical terms. Simply multiply
the posted number by 1.6 to estimate the coverage if you are
used to 35mm camera lenses.
Some common equivalents:
| Lens mm \ camera
||35 mm full frame
EOS Rebel 1.6X
28.8 mm / 73°
56 mm / 42°
Canon's own 11-megapixel dSLR, the 1Ds has been out
for a year with a sensor that is about twice the pixel count,
so what value might it command? Nine grand, plus lens. A great
machine at a great price. In the sense of "large."
In a practical sense, the 6.3-megapixel
image produced by the Rebel competes favorably with 35mm film.
Not all emulsions, but in general. Sensors have their own "look"
and don't have some of the inherent qualities of film, but with
Canon's excellent RAW image format, the line of distinction is
not so distinct in a metaphorical sense. But the image looks
great and has a palpably longer tonal scale than shots made in
JPEG form. The world has settled on the "Digital Negative"
description of RAW images and it's a good way to think about
RAW seems to recover an extra stop above
and below the tones that show up in a JPEG, especially in the
highlights. RAW images need to be interpreted in your computer
the same way that the camera processes them in order to become
a final result and Canon will be glad to sell you that software.
Photoshop CS comes with a RAW interpreter built-in. Get Photoshop
CS. The upgrade from your previously owned PS is worth the jump,
and not just for the RAW interpreter.
RAW images are a "clean scan"
of the image sensor. Each pixel's value on a 4096-division scale
of tonality is represented as a 12-bit number. Since the range
of response is greatly extended per each RGB color channel, the
RAW image doesn't even have an exact white balance, the way a
JPEG does. You can change the WB to suit yourself in the computer
with no loss whatsoever. The only down side to RAW is that it
consumes over 6 megabytes of storage space and moves slower through
the computers of the camera and digital darkroom.
Rebels only shoot strings of motor-drive
shots at 2.5 per second for a maximum of four pictures. This
may actually be a firmware or hardware limitation imposed (crippled)
to distinguish the EOS 10D which can blast 9 shots into its buffer
before pausing to take a breath.
Since you can shoot 4 RAW (6.5 megabyte)
images just as quickly into the buffer as any other image size/compression
combination, the size of the buffer needed to absorb these images
can't be the deciding factor, so the argument is strong for an
imposed limit rather than a natural barrier. Could Canon sell
you a Firmware Patch that lifts the string of shots limit at
some future date? Dunno. And would it allow even more medium
and small motor drive shots? Can't say.
This four shot limit is something to work
around, and the camera is very kind about showing you when images
in the string have politely stepped aside, thus giving you the
ability to make follow-up shots. A number in the viewfinder display
gives you an update on how many shots you could shoot in the
Something that has not seen wide dissemination
is that once the four fast shots are in the buffer, the next
shots will follow at about 0.6 per second until the camera can't
handle any more and pauses for several seconds. Different frame
sizes and compression combinations change the actual number of
follow ups that can happen before the Big Pause, but all this,
including the follow up 4 to 20 shots, is achieved with a single
shutter release press and hold.
Once you understand the Scene Modes, you
will play with them more often. Although camera manufacturers
think of these as EZ-Selects for the rank beginner, pros that
bother to learn them realize that they're just setup macros that
have use, especially when other things compete for a photographer's
Sports Scene Mode is a favorite, though
I rarely shoot sports. It's really a "Continuous Predictive
Auto Focus / High Shutter Speed / No Flash / Motor Drive"
macro that has tremendous use in any fast moving situation.
By the way, motor drive mode doesn't require
shooting strings of shots. you can let off the button
and just get one or two.
Another fave is Portrait Scene Mode. It
also turns on the motor drive but this time it pops the flash
(only if it's dark enough) and keeps the aperture wide open as
much as possible to make a nice bokeh of out of focus -ness behind
your subject. That's the amateur rationale. For me its a "Flash
/ Wide Open / Motor Drive" macro to be used in all sorts
BTW, if you want flash fill outdoors, use
the Program mode and pop the flash up manually. Now it participates
in the sunlight.
If paparazzi is your style, then you deserve
all the flash and dazzle you can get. Canon's own external flash
units intimately connect to the TTL sensors through extra contacts
in the hot shoe. Other manufacturer's flash units won't, unless
they're specifically made to work with Canons. Once that connection
has been made, the camera and external flash are one.
Like the bill of a cap, the internal flash
unit overhangs the top of the lens. One can release it into working
position with a dedicated button, or let it deploy automatically
when available darkness calls for it.
Two flashes fire from the on-board unit
with every exposure. %$#@!! That simply kills off-camera slave
In available darkness, it can become a
rapid-fire focus assist light, and that will freak out your subjects!
The manual says to warn your subjects not to break pose when
they see flashing.
External simple units only fire once, so
if you need to shoot with slave flash units, buy a cheap hot
shoe triggered unit and cover its tube with a chunk of 35mm black
slide film (not negative) to turn it into a slave trigger -er.
Update, July, 2004.
After months of continuous use, the DR
is a winner. Smaller and considerably lighter than pro dSLRs,
it travels well, works well and brings back the pictures over
and over. Our recent China
Travel Shootout includes a wealth of satisfying images acquired
through the DR's lenses. See for yourself.
Recent price drops have put the DR within
reach of nearly every digital photographer. Under $750 --with
the Kit Lens-- from some Internet stores. Happy Googling.
Update March, 2005
The DSLR: Canon Digital Rebel eBook is
out. It took way longer than anticipated, but for all 3,000,000
Digital Rebel owners, it may well be worth the wait.
It's a major improvement on prior eBooks,
if I do say so myself. Loads of new and hidden techniques including
- single pulse slave flash triggering,
- IR flash triggering,
- flash brightness adjustment,
- memory saving techniques,
- optical accessories you missed,
- fast moving shooting techniques,
- new demo software,
- over 150 DR-tweaked iNovaFX Photoshop
Actions (out of 480+ total),
- a whole new iNovaFX chapter for Photoshop
and a lot more.
As experience grows with this most welcome
camera, I'll revisit this report and update it. If you are looking
for your first dSLR experience, this is the one to get until
some future camera displaces it from its current throne.
--Peter iNova (email@example.com)