Canon Rebel XTi / EOS 400D
A Rebel Grows Up
On August 24, 2006 Canon announced a new DSLR, the Rebel XTi, ( EOS 400D in some markets), along with two new lenses; a 50mm f/1.2L prime and a 70-200mm f/4L IS zoom. I've now had a few days to work with these three new items, and the following are my first impressions.
(Repeat after me: This is not a review. I repeat – this is not a review! Anyone that gets their knickers in a twist because I haven't listed every feature and function in a three page long comparison table, and provided sample images at 100% magnification, should take their meds, or better yet, visit another site.) Good, I feel better already.
It's remarkable how quickly the DSLR marketplace is evolving. This is seen in the leapfrogging of specs and pixel count by the major camera makers as well as the cross-pollination of features. Some form of Image stabilization is no longer the exclusive preserve of just one or two companies, and as will be seen, vibrating the sensor cover glass to eliminate dust is now SOP for many companies, including Canon with its new Rebel XTI.
What's New and Noteworthy?
So, what are the salient advances and features seen in new XTi? Briefly...
– 10.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor, up from 8MP (pixel pitch is now 5.7 microns vs 6.4 on the Rebel XT)
– 9 point autofocus (the same as used in the more expensive EOS 30D)
– 3 Frames / Second (up to 27 JPGs or 10 raws to fill the buffer, double that of the XT)
– 2.5" rear LCD, up from 1.8"
– Dust reducing vibrating sensor cover glass (a first for Canon)
– No second rear LCD. All display functions now on main LCD
– Much improved user interface
The XTi in Hand
Canon XTi with 50mm f/1.2L
The XTi initially looks and feels very similar to the previous Rebel XT, but once one has shot with it for a while the differences become quite apparent. The first visible change is the new larger LCD screen. The screen size is the new norm – 2.5", but what will also catch your eye (so to speak) is that the second rear mono-LCD has been eliminated. Instead, all of its display information is now shown on the main LCD screen.
I had misgivings when I first heard about it because I have long been critical of the elimination of top panel mono-LCDs and their always available data displays. I have been critical as well of a number of cameras that have taken this approach. But given the shrinking top and rear panel real estate on today's small consumer / prosumer cameras, I suppose that I might as well complain about the weather for the good that it'll do.
The XTi does make this single screen approach work reasonably well though. There is now an eye-sensor located just beneath the eye piece, and when the camera is brought to eye level the rear LCD turns off. Remove the camera from ones eye and it turns back on. Some digicams use this approach to switch between rear LCD and LCD viewfinder, but typically this doesn't work well, usually because the setting is too sensitive, and the damn thing is always switching to the wrong mode inadvertently. This isn't a problem with the XTi because the rear screen can be always "on" when the camera's eye piece isn't covered. In addition the display can be shut down using the Display button, so that it only is on when one wishes it to be. Combine this with full control over screen review duration, and the user does have a high degree of choice as to what is displayed, and when. (Please note that contrary to what has been conjectured on some discussion forums prior to release, this is not an eye-start capability. The sensor only turns the rear LCD on and off.)
Canon have added a small green LED next to the "ON" position of the power switch that indicates that the camera is indeed on. This is useful if the display screen has been set to "Off". Normally the mono-LCD tells you the status of the camera at a glance, but without one there needs to be some way of knowing that the camera is "On". But, curiously, Canon turns the light off when the camera goes into "sleep" mode, defeating the whole point. You still can't tell without looking at or feeling for the power switch to tell if the camera is indeed on and just in sleep mode rather than actually Off.
The rear controls have changed somewhat as well, with intuitive and fast response access to major functions without having to wade though nested menus. ISO, metering mode, autofocus mode, and white balance are all just a single button press away. And for those shooting JPGs so is the Picture Styles selection. I regard this as this is a big improvement over the previous Digital Rebel and Rebel XT.
Otherwise the new Rebel is much like the old one. Small and light weight, yet comfortable to hold and use for long periods of time, especially if ones hands aren't too large. Like the XT before it the XTi's viewfinder is smaller and more distant than cameras such as the 30D, though not as small and distant as some other recent cameras.
The new 2.5" LCD screen is excellent. It is sharp and easily visible in bright daylight. One of the best screen I've yet seen on any camera. It is claimed by Canon to be up to 40% brighter than the screens on the 5D or 30D.
In an otherwise quite nicely designed user interface one small annoyance is that the in-viewfinder display turns off quickly. If you decide to change exposure compensation after turning off the rear LCD display, if still on, but the in-eyepiece display does not. This means that to see any setting change in the viewfinder the shutter release must be pressed. Otherwise, the settings are made, but you just can't see them. Annoying.
Of course readers will want to know about image quality. The answer is that it appears to be excellent, and only at ISO 1600 does it appear that the 30D may have a small advantage. I and other reviewers will have more to say about this in the days ahead as we have an opportunity to do comparative testing with full production cameras.
For many the interesting news will be the 10.1 Megapixel sensor, over the 8MP sensor of its predecessor. As I discussed in my recent tutorial, this represents just a "one stop" relative increase in resolution. Noticeable, but not that significant. If the tradeoff was increased noise in XTi images I would regard this as a marketing driven update. But, my initial testing shows the XTi to be as noise free at most ISOs as its predecessor, so the extra resolution will be welcome. This size now allows nearly 16X20 " prints to be made, offering most photographers more than enough data for reasonably large prints, even with a fair amount of cropping.
Of course this increase to 10MP has to be seen in the context of the Canon 30D, a higher spec, higher priced camera that has an 8MP sensor. I'll have some thoughts on this toward the end of this report.
Joining several other brands offering this solution, the XTi features a dust elimination system that shakes dust from the sensor's cover glass using an ultrasonic vibration. The camera can be set to do this automatically when turned on and off, or whenever the user wishes. The feature can also be disabled. This is a greater level of control over this capability than I've yet seen from other camera makers which offer it.
My guess is that this feature is going to appear from now on on all new Canon DSLRs.
There is also a new menu selection titled Dust Delete Data. What one does is to shoot a white surface, such as a blank wall or piece of paper, with a lens of 50mm focal length or greater with the lens manually focused on Infinity while using this special mode. This then records a map of the dust found on the sensor and applies this information automatically to every raw file and JPG shot thereafter. Using the latest version of Canon's DPP software (V13) dust can then be eliminated from every shot on an individual image as well as on a batch basis.
There was only one problem with this in my testing. Short of exposing the sensor to the inside of my vacuum cleaner's dust bag (which I was loath to do with a camera on loan from the manufacturer), I could not get the camera to display any dust that the DDD function could try and remove. Every time you turn the camera on and off, and each time you run DDD, the anti-dust shake mechanism is activated. It really seems to do its job well. I have little doubt that DDD does what it's supposed to. It's just that I couldn't test it because every time I tried there was no dust for it to remove.
Incidentally, though I've never been a big fan of Canon's Digital Photo Pro software, I have to admit that with each successive generation it gets a bit better. It still doesn't have the workflow of Capture One, Camera Raw or Lightroom, but its far better than it used to be. Anyone who wants to or needs to take advantage of the new DDD function should become familiar with DPP software, because it's my guess that it will only be functional from within DPP, with how and where this data is stored remaining proprietary to Canon.
From being at the back of the pack, now, with its auto sensor-cleaning capability and Dust Delete Data function Canon has moved to the head of the pack. Mac owners note – DPP is now a Universal Binary.
It will not have passed notice by many that Canon's DSLR camera line now has the anomaly that the new Rebel XTi has a higher resolution sensor (10.1MP) than its somewhat higher spec bigger brother, the 8.2MP EOS 30D. Indeed, other than a shooting rate of 5 FPS vs 3 FPS, there really aren't that many really meaningful features which the 30D can offer over the XTi. The 30D has a more robust body, but for most users to what extent is this really an issue? It also has a larger and brighter viewfinder, but at the expense of a larger and heavier body. Coming as it does with effective dust removal and a higher resolution sensor the XTi at its price may really be a compelling proposition over the 30D for some photographers.
The only reason why things have evolved this way must be the competitive situation with Nikon. The recently introduced Nikon D80 is a 10MP camera (as is the Sony A100), and a very compelling competitor. The bind that Canon seemingly finds itself in is that the 30D was only introduced earlier this year, and even then it was simply a 20D with a larger rear LCD and a few minor upgrades. The 20D itself was introduced a full two years ago, in mid-2004.
It's therefore interesting that Canon has decided to update the Rebel at this time, rather than the much older 30D (if you regard it, as most do, as a warmed over 20D). Given what a strong competitor the mid-range Nikon D200 is, it seems that the real commercial battlefield must be at the lower end of the market, rather than at the higher end. Combine this with the fact that the 1Ds MKII is now quite long in the tooth (two years since introduction, and a full 4 years since the 1Ds first appeared), and the difficulty of competing in all segments simultaniously, even when you're the 800 pound gorilla of the industry, becomes clear.
With the Rebel XTI Canon's entry level DSLR has gown up, and in some ways even surpassed its older sibling the 30D. Try as I might, given the feature set, implementation and price point, I find it really hard to find fault with the XTi. Within the current Canon paradigm I find that the XTi has an easy to learn and use interface. Few of the camera's controls are problematic, and image quality is about as good as it gets from a non-full frame DSLR. Many pros will likely find themselves buying an XTi or two as their backup camera, and even find themselves using it more than their big guns when light weight and small size are paramount.
By way of an observation – it has always been Canon's MO to put new technology into their lower end cameras first, then migrating the things that work to their pro level cameras on the next generation. I am assuming that this will be the case with both their new dust elimination capabilities and their higher resolution sensor. A bit of quick math shows that with the small photo sites and greater fill factor found in the XTi, a full frame sensor using this technology would yield between 22–24 Megapixels. The issue likely will be, can the Digic II processor support high enough frame rates at this data volume to meet the demand of pro users? Likely not, and so a Digic III is said to be just around the corner. This issue may even be the reason behind our likely not seeing a new 1 Series body for another half year or so, as noted below.
I will conclude here with my requisite bitch about Canon's continuing refusal to give photographers a truly convenient mirror lock up function. It's still buried within the Custom Function menu. Memo to Canon: Please make the Direct Print button (which does nothing in shooting mode) an MLU activation control. It's just a few lines of code. Please!? Just for me, (and about a million other photographers).
Pricing and Availability
The Rebel XTi / 400D will ship in mid-September at a MSLP of US$799, or US$899 in a kit with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens. The body will be available in both silver and black finish. The previous Rebel XT will apparently remain available in most markets until inventories are depeleted. In the U.S. the Rebel XT's MSLP will drop to $699 for the body alone and $799 including the kit lens, a saving of $100 over the newer model.
You can also read a Canon White Paper on the new camera.
Along with a new Rebel, many people – this reporter included, have been expecting a new 1 Series camera from Canon this season. It seems that this is not to be, at least not this calendar year. I have now heard from more than one reliable source that a new 1 Series will be seen no earlier than the first quarter of 2007, likely about a month prior to PMA. Definitely not a Photokina 2006 announcement. One would have to assume that since Canon tends to stick to the Spring and Fall trade show schedule for its new camera introductions, a 30D replacement is still at least a half year off as well. My sources may be wrong though, or Canon may accelerate things due to competitive pressures. Time will tell. (Or, you can keep your eye on the Canon China web site. They seem to be this year's best rumour validation source).
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L
The new 50mm f/1.2 is the answer. The problem is – what was the question?
This is Canon's fastest "normal" lens in some time. Given Canon's recent introduction of a revised 85mm f/1.2L II, Canon now has bragging rights to having a line-up of among the fastest prime lenses on the market. It should also be noted that several experts have called the original FD f/1.2 the finest "normal" lens ever made. Whether this appellation can be applied to the new EF version remains to be seen.
After a few hundred frames with this lens (not testing, just shooting) my impression is that it is everything that a Canon owner could wish for in an ultra-fast normal to short tele lens. (On a 1.6X reduced frame sensor camera like the new XTi it becomes an almost ideal portrait lens in terms of focal length). Its ultra wide aperture along with an 8 bladed diaphragm produces beautiful out-of-focus areas. In other words, very smooth bokeh, something much more appreciated as a selling point in Japan than in the West.
Canon XTi with 50mm f/1.2L @ f/4. ISO 100. In Camera JPG, normal settings.
Autofocus is moderately quick and silent, though not quite as quick as the 50mm f/1.4. Flare appears to be very well controlled for such a fast lens.
Which all then begs the question – in this era of DSLRs which can produce essentially noise free images at ISO 400, and ISO 1600 images that are quite usable (more so than ISO 400 colour film produces) who is this lens for? It is only a half stop faster than the much less expensive, smaller and lighter 50mm f/1.4. Is it "better"? We'll have to wait for one of the lens testing sites to produce the LP/mm and MTF charts to reveal the full story. But, my guess is that at f/2 and smaller there will be little to choose between these two fine lenses.
Given that the vast majority of lenses sold these days are zooms, where does an ultra-fast normal prime fit into the marketing landscape? Certainly there will be aficionados that will lust after this lens simply because its there. If I didn't already have the EF 50mm f/1.4 and first generation 85mm f/1.2 I would as well. In the grand scheme of things though it seems to me that this lens is more about filling all the ecological niches, as well as being able to claim bragging rights, than it is a lens destined to appeal to the needs of a broader market.
Canon is to be congratulated for meeting the needs of specialist users. Portraitists and photojournalists will rejoice. But there are many empty niches in the Canon lens line up that I would have liked to see filled first.
The EF 50mm f/1.2L will ship in November at a MSLP of US $1,599 including lens hood.
Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS
The 70-200mm f/2.8L IS is one of the finest zoom lenses in Canon's line up. It is a favourite of pros and advanced amateurs alike, and almost universally praised by owners. Now, Canon has introduced a 70-200mm f/4L IS version. A lens one stop slower than its larger, heavier, and more expensive sibling, but otherwise quite similar.
River Plants. Muskoka, Ontario. August 2006
"Beta Test Camera and lens Image"
Canon XTi with 70-200mm f/4L IS. ISO 400. In Camera JPG,
Click image for 100% crop
With only a few days to work with this new lens I can't directly compare it to its f/2.8 predecessor. Certainly it is lighter and thinner, and less expensive. When walking around all day, or hiking in the woods, the lower bulk is most welcome. Again, I have not been in a position to compare or rigorously test optical quality, but as an L lens it is likely to be extremely high, and certainly my casual testing over a few days shows this to be the case.
More on both of these new lenses in the days ahead.
The EF 70-200mm f/4L IS will also ship in November at a MSLP of US $1,249, including lens hood. A tripod collar will be an optional accessory.
NB: Both lenses tested were pre-production beta samples and therefore no conclusions about image quality are possible at this time. Nevertheless, I was impressed with test results from both lenses.