Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi SLR Review

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Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi

Steve's Conclusion

Representing the third generation of Digital Rebel product series, the XTi is a refinement of Canon's entry-level dSLR concept. Consumers have come to expect greater resolution from new cameras, and the XTi does not disappoint, producing 10.1-megapixel images that are 35% larger than its immediate predecessor, the Digital Rebel XT, and 62% larger than the original Digital Rebel. The XTi was further enhanced with features from the prosumer 30D, including the large 2.5-inch LCD, 9-point AF system and Picture Styles, offering improved control of in-camera image processing. The XTi's refinements also include a solution for the "gotcha" that has deterred many amateurs from owning a dSLR, dust on the image sensor.

An area that needed no refinement was the camera's size. The XTi retains the XT's small size and light weight, a good fit for your hand and well-matched to Canon's consumer lenses. The XTi retains essentially the same control layout of the XT, all falling easily under your fingers yet not getting in the way during shooting. The large 2.5-inch LCD replaces the XT's monochrome and color LCD's, offering an easier read of the menu system and a larger, more resolute playback screen. The bright LCD is also used to display the camera settings formerly found on the XT's monochrome display. The display can be automatically turned off by the Display-off sensor (located directly under the viewfinder), or manually via the XTi's DISP button, eliminating the distraction that a bright LCD could be with the camera at eye level. And speaking of brightness, Canon addressed a complaint I had about the XT's relatively dim LCD; the XTi's is bright enough for outdoor use at the midpoint of its 7-step range of adjustment.

Because of the XTi's brighter LCD and self-cleaning image sensor, I was expecting its battery life to suffer in comparison to the XT. But I was pleasantly surprised; the camera was able to capture just under 600 images before a low battery was indicated, well in excess of Canon's claimed 500 images.

Image playback functions were very effective, and improved over the XT courtesy of the large, bright and resolute LCD. Images can be reviewed immediately after capture for a period of 2, 4, or 8 seconds, or held until the shutter button is depressed; this is useful for on the fly confirmation of image composition. Image playback offers options for up to 10x magnification for critical examination, and a histogram that allows you determine if the image was properly exposed. With a 2-gigabyte CF memory card, the XTi is capable of storing over 500 images even in Large/Fine quality; navigating through an enormous number of shots is simplified by the XTi's Jump function, allowing you to go forward or backward by 10 images, 100 images, or by date of image capture. Playback speed is good, taking about 1 second to display each JPEG image while displaying thumbnails of RAW images instantaneously.

Viewfinder quality is one of the distinct advantages a dSLR has over high-end point-n-shoot cameras. The XTi's viewfinder presents 95% of the field of view of the image sensor regardless of the focal length of the attached interchangeable lens, and is not subject to the blanking and freezing effects of the Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) of consumer digicams. If you use continuous drive mode to capture images of moving subjects, you'll love the XTi's viewfinder.

Like the original Digital Rebel, the XTi has a pentamirror viewfinder, incorporating several mirrors to angle the light to the viewfinder rather than a pentaprism. It's not quite as bright as the 30D's viewfinder, but few will notice the difference in actual operation. Inside the viewfinder you will find nine AF-point box outlines for the focusing points. When these points are selected a small red dot lights up inside of it to let you know exactly what part of the frame the camera focused on. Along the bottom of the viewfinder is a digital display that indicates the most important camera settings (shutter speed, aperture, flash, flash exposure compensation, focus confirmation, exposure compensation, white balance correction, number of burst images available and more). The fixed focusing screen has a matte texture that helps with your manual focus efforts. The viewfinder itself is covered by a soft rubberized eyecup and offers a high eye point with a -3 to +1 dioptric adjustment for those with less than perfect eyesight.

Overall performance of the Digital Rebel XTi is very robust, its continuous shooting capacity improved from its predecessor. Startup time is almost instantaneous, able to capture an image in under 1/2 second, as is waking he camera from its power-saving sleep mode. This is a capture-priority camera meaning that when you are in review mode all you need do is tap the shutter release to return to capture mode. Going from review to capture in this manner requires less than 1/2 second. Shutter lag from a pre-focused condition was less than 1/10 second, while lag including the time to autofocus on a high contrast subject measured a minimum of 2/10 second, more depending on the degree of focus change required of the lens. In Single shooting mode, the XTi was able to capture images at 4/10 second intervals. Flash recycle time was good, ranging between 7/10 and 3.5 seconds depending on subject distance.

Continuous capture revealed the XTi's improved buffer performance. Shooting Large/Fine images, the XTi captured images at a rate of 3 frames per second (fps) for a depth of 27 shots (sometimes more depending on the size of the compressed JPEG file). The XTi's performance was inconsistent with a full buffer. Most cameras full-buffer capture rate slows to a consistent interval, but the XTi paused between 2 and 7 seconds before capturing another 6-frame burst at 3fps. It took about 16 seconds to clear a buffer full of Large/Fine images. This performance was observed using a fast Kingston Ultimate 100x 2GB CF memory card.

Performance slowed when shooting RAW; the XTi captured images at 3 fps but only to a depth of 10 shots, with subsequent shots coming in bursts of two after a 4 second delay; it took 22 seconds to flush a buffer full of RAW images. The XTi slowed further capturing RAW + Large/Fine images, shooting at 3fps to a depth of only 9 shots, subsequent shots coming in bursts of two or three after delays of between 3 and 15 seconds, and taking nearly 30 seconds to flush a full buffer. These test results were observed shooting Program Auto and AWB using a Kingston 2-GB 100x CF card. Buffer clearing performance improved when a Lexar Professional 80X 2GB CF card was substituted: JPEG took 12 seconds, RAW 12 seconds and RAW + JPEG 16 seconds to write the buffer full of images to the CF card.

The XTi provides a useful set of Custom Functions that can tailor its operation to meet your needs; the original Digital Rebel provided none. The XTi allows you to customize the functions of the Set and Cross keys, activate Long Exposure noise reduction, set the flash sync speed to 1/200 second in aperture-priority mode, control AE and AF separately, enable the flash-based AF-assist beam, set exposure level increment to 1/2 or 1/3 EV, enable mirror lockup to reduce camera shake, use Evaluative or E-TTL II flash exposure metering, and use 1st or 2nd curtain flash sync. The XTi provides an Automatic setting for the Long Exposure Noise Reduction C.Fn, and adds two new custom functions:

    C.Fn-10 Magnified View, which allows you to specify magnification during image review, and

    C.Fn-11 LCD display when Power On, which allows you to choose between always turning the LCD on when the camera is turned on, or retaining the On/Off status of the LCD when the camera was powered off.

If you are a sports shooter, you will appreciate the XTi's direct control over its focus mode. The original Digital Rebel chose the camera's focus mode based on the shooting mode you selected; the XTi (like the XT) allows you to select from One-Shot AF, AI Servo, a form of predictive continuous autofocus, and AI AF, which automatically switches between One-Shot and Servo when it detects subject motion. I found AI Servo effective at tracking most moving subjects, but it had some difficulty with fast-moving bicycles at close range; for that, pre-focusing manually was most effective for capturing sharp images. The speed of the XTi's AF system is quite dependent on the focusing speed, aperture and quality of the attached lens; your results will vary based on your lens inventory.

Overall, the XTi's AF system was very effective, producing consistently sharp results. It was also quite flexible, allowing not only a choice of AF modes, but the selection of AF points (9) as well. The XTi's AF system performed well in dim lighting conditions, and effectively uses its pop-up flash as an AF illuminator when necessary. The XTi's AF system is more responsive and provides two more AF points than the XT. Its responsiveness, flexibility and accuracy also distinguish the XTi from high-end prosumer digicams.

A significant change in the XTi is its image processing function called Picture Styles, replacing the Parameters and Color Matrix settings of the XT. Picture Styles are included for a wide variety of requirements, and each can be adjusted in terms of sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone. Please see our sample photos for examples of the results obtained from some of the XTi's Picture Styles. I found that a combination of Standard, Landscape and Portrait styles met the needs of the vast majority of scenes I captured. In addition to the pre-defined Styles, the XTi provides 3 user-defined Picture Styles that can be configured in the camera or downloaded from Canon's website and transferred to the camera using the EOS Utility. The Picture Style function is an effective way to control the XTi's image processing; this is the fourth recent EOS dSLR with Picture Styles, the others being the 30D, 5D and 1D Mark II N.

The XTi's image quality is excellent, indistinguishable (except for size) from that of the XT and 30D, and quite improved at high ISO settings over the original Digital rebel. Images were consistently well exposed, with accurate white balance and pleasing skin tones. Noise is absent from images shot at ISO 100 and ISO 200, barely detectable in shadow areas at ISO 400 and 800, and noticeable in shadow areas at ISO 1600, but still usable. I especially liked the ISO 800 samples taken under theatrical lighting; the XTi's high ISO image quality distinguishes it from both competing consumer dSLRs and high-end prosumer digicams. Long exposures are essentially noise-free, even without the use of the Long Exposure Noise Reduction Custom Function.

Image quality, of course, is highly dependent on the optical qualities of the attached lens. Our testing used a Canon 28-70 f/2.8L lens for most samples, and the 70-200mm f/2.8 L lens for sports samples. We also included images taken with the Tokina 12-24mm f/4 (IF) DX and Tamron SP Di 200-500mm f/5.6-6.3.

The XTi's self-cleaning image sensor is a first for Canon in any of its dSLRs. It eliminates or reduces the occurrence of dust on the image sensor. With other dSLRs (Olympus E-series and the Sony A100 notable exceptions), the risk of dust on the sensor occurs at every lens change; it's not a matter of if, but when your images will have noticeable dark spots - especially noticeable at small apertures. The XTi's self-cleaning process is invoked each time you power the camera off and on, causing an ultrasonic vibration to shake dust loose from the image sensor. I did not purposefully deposit any dust on the sensor during our testing, but did change lenses frequently in dusty conditions and found no evidence of dust in our samples.

Complementing the self-cleaning sensor, the XTi's Dust Delete Data function singles out any dust particles remaining on the sensor's surface, then plots out their location coordinates within the image and appends that information to subsequent JPEG or RAW images. Digital Photo Professional (starting at Version 2.2) can then manually or automatically erase the dust spots from your images. I compliment Canon on their comprehensive solution to one of the most difficult issues that dSLR users have been faced with.

Just as the original Digital Rebel set a new price/performance standard for consumer dSLRs, the Digital Rebel XTi has set a new value benchmark for this class of camera, and competes well with many prosumer dSLRs offered by its competitors. Offering 10.1-megapixels of resolution, responsive performance, flexible autofocus, accurate metering and excellent image quality at a $700 body-only price, Canon is sure to sell a lot of them.

At the time of this review (November 2006), the Digital rebel XTi finds itself in the unusual position of having several advantages over Canon's current prosumer model, the 30D. The XTi offers greater resolution (10.1 versus 8-megapixels), greater burst shooting capacity (27 versus 23 frames) and a self-cleaning image sensor. But the 30D retains an edge with its faster continuous shooting (5 frames-per-second (fps) vs. 3 fps), more custom settings (18 vs. 11), a 3200 ISO sensitivity setting, a rugged magnesium body and a pentaprism viewfinder vs the XTi's pentamirror. While we wait for Canon's other shoe to drop in the form of a 30D successor, the XTi can capture larger images with a quality equal to the 30D, while lagging in capture rate and maximum ISO. Choosing between the two should focus on price and features, not the least of which is the XTi's self-cleaning image sensor.

The sub-$1,000 price category also includes two other 10-megapixel dSLRs that are worthy of consideration, the Sony Alpha 100 and the Nikon D80. For many, the decision to buy a Canon, Nikon or Sony is based largely on compatibility with their current lens inventory (Minolta for the Sony A100). Those considering an upgrade from a consumer camera have a tougher decision to make, but among these three there's no wrong answer. Read our reviews and examine our sample images to help you decide.

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