Less than 10 years ago, before digital's rise to dominance, any camera of the same format with interchangeable lenses would take pictures no different than any other. Film was the great equalizer. The camera was simply a light-tight box. Yes, some had more and better features than others, but the camera itself had little to no affect on image quality. The least expensive camera in a manufacturer's line up had the same IQ as the top-of-the-line model.
Film though had character. Kodak, Fuji, Ilford, Ansco, Agfa – each company's products had a certain visual signature, and within each company's product line there were film types with different characteristics; speed, colour rendition, contrast, and so forth.
Today, for most photographers, film is just a memory. The sensors in our digital cameras have taken the place of film as the primary determiner of image quality. Top-of-the-line camera bodies typically have better (and usually higher resolution) sensors than less expensive beginner's models.
But that equation is changing. The new Canon EOS XSi is a harbinger of this change. Let's see why.
During the past five years Canon has released a succession of Rebel models (under other names outside North America). This site has reviewed most of them, including the original Rebel 300D, (and a 300D report by Alain Briot), the Rebel XT 350D, and Rebel 400D. As this is being written yet another Rebel, the XS 1000D, has just been announced, slotting in beneath the XT, which also remains current for the time being.
I know, I'm confused as well. But let it be enough to report here that the new XSi, announced in January 2008, and first shipping in Q2, is the new top-of-the-Rebel-line. Indeed in terms of features it puts pressure on the company's 30D and 40D models. What are these features?
Which of these items catches your fancy will of course depend on your interests and needs, but for many (myself included) the real points of interest are size and weight. The XSi weighs just one pound (16oz, or if you will, 475 grams, without battery). Its dimensions are 129 x 98 x 62 mm (5.1 x 3.9 x 2.4 in). This is about as small as a DSLR can get while still accepting interchangeable lenses and offering a good sized viewfinder and LCD screen. In fact, some people might complain that the Rebel series is a bit too small, with the grip not providing quite enough surface area for comfortable hand-holding. More on this in a while.
A reasonable question to ask is – why bother with the XSi when there are so many "better" cameras in the Canon line up? For some it might be cost, though the XSi isn't the least expensive DSLR in Canon's line-up. As for me, I already have a 5D and a 1Ds MKIII, so why bother with a Rebel? Size and weight are the answer, or at least the lack of them.
I use everything from shirt-pocket sized digicams to medium and large format. I choose the appropriate camera for the job, as do most pros and many serious amateurs. But there's a gap between pocket-sized cameras and pro DSLRs, that zone where one wants high image quality combined with good glass, yet, something manageable in terms of bulk and weight. This is where the Rebel series fits in for many pros who own Canon glass.
After a few days of local testing and familiarization my first real opportunity to shoot with the XSi was on a week-long shooting trip in Newfoundland in mid-June. My primary camera for this shoot was the new Phase One 645 medium format camera, which I was field testing, and I also had along my Canon 1Ds MKIII.
Why bring the XSI as well? Simple – hiking. The Phase camera was not something I cared to take on a 5km hike along sea cliffs, nor for that matter was the Canon flagship. Simply too much weight and bulk for a hike like this to be any fun. The XSi turned out to be ideal. At just a pound its weight is almost inconsequential, and it plus a couple of lenses in a slingbag were comfortable companions on a long hike.
The photographs on this page are not intended to demonstrate any particular aspect of image quality, but are simply some of the images generated with the XSi during my Newfoundland shoot.
The list at the top of this page gives the basics. The XSi is a major step up from Rebel models that have come before, both in terms of features as well as resolution and image quality. Not that previous models were poor in the IQ department. They weren't. But with the XSi Canon has take another incremental step in terms of improving its image quality across the board, and there's hardly a camera on the market in mid-2008 that can best it in any area except for absolute resolution and very high ISO capability.
In the past I have been critical of earlier Rebels on two counts – tunnel vision viewfinders and awkward user interface. With the XSi Canon appears to have responded to these criticisms (not just mine, I'm sure). The viewfinder is noticeably larger and brighter than in the past. Not 5D level, but quite usable.
The user interface has been nicely cleaned up as well. The larger LCD and bigger, cleaner fonts helps, and the addition of a My Menu found in higher-end Canon models means that ones frequently needed menu items are readily available. Though there's no rear scroll wheel the rear buttons around the center Set control almost function as one.
In keeping with the camera's small size there is no top LCD for setting and confirming settings, but the rear colour LCD and viewfinder are equipped with a proximity sensor so that when the camera is taken away from eye level the display turns on, and when put back to the eye it automatically turns off. The LCD can also be manually set to OFF, for those that don't want the distraction or who are working discretely in low light environments.
Under the hood the 12.2 MP sensor is coupled with Canon's high speed DIGIC III processor (for the first time in a Rebel body) and a 14 bit analog to digital converter, which in theory at least produces files with smoother tonal gradations, though in my experience with cameras offering the choice of both 12 bit and 14 bit modes this is very hard to see in the real world, except in extremis.
Spot metering has been added, though with only 4 degrees coverage, not the 1 degree coverage that is usually implied by the term. This will be appreciated by anyone doing stage shooting or in any circumstance where the lighting conditions make matrix-style metering difficult.
For the first time to my knowledge in this level of camera Canon provides the ability through included software to shoot tethered, and even includes remote Live View capability.
The digital era has, regrettably, spawned a select breed of photographers who spend more time on-line nattering on forums than they do practicing their art and their craft. The subject of their passion is almost exclusively image quality. This is fine, as far as it goes. Everyone needs a hobby. And indeed during the early years of digital when there were sometimes dramatic differences between sensors in various cameras, this could be a worthy subject of debate.
But these days the differences (at least at low ISOs), is relatively small and usually attributable to differences in in-camera JPG processing or raw converters and camera profiles.
What is rarely discussed though are camera's ergonomics, though to my mind this is one of the areas of greatest difference between brands and models. This, in their pro models at least, is where the camera makers concentrate their most attention, because pros do care mightily about how well a camera handles. Which brings us to Canon's Rebels, and specifically the XSi.
For its first few incarnations the Rebel's ergonomics, from viewfinder size, brightness, coverage, to user interface, screen and control placement were, shall we say, sub-optimal. If I weren't such a polite fellow I'd say that they mostly sucked.
The good news is that the XSi / 450D largely reverses this, and for the most part it is now a highly usable camera. The viewfinder is considerably larger and brighter, no longer reminding one of looking through a long dim tunnel at a small opening in the distance. The camera still uses a mirror-based prism rather than a real glass prism, presumably to save weight as well as cost, but this time round, likely though the use of better coatings, the view is acceptably bright.
The eye relief is also good, allowing the in-viewfinder display as well as the reflex image to be comfortably viewed even when wearing glasses.
Finally, ISO is visible in the viewfinder and ISO setting has been moved to a separate control on the camera's top panel just behind the control wheel. Hallelujah. Regrettably though, Canon still has not discovered the merits of proper auto-ISO capability, something that puts Nikon DSLRs head and shoulders ahead of Canon in the usability department.
I don't know if it's a patent issue, or simply stubbornness on Canon's part, but the lack of a competitive auto-ISO capability on Canon cameras continues to be one of the marques serious shortcomings.
The way it works on Nikons is this –
One sets the lowest shutter speed that you wish to allow the camera to use, say 1/60 sec, and also the highest ISO that you will permit. One then sets the base ISO that one wishes to use in the usual way.
That's it. The camera will then vary the shutter speed and aperture until the point that 1/60 sec (for example) is reached, and from then on as the light diminishes will increase the ISO sensitivity for each shot based on the maximum setting that it needs to obtain optimum exposure.
This is especially useful in Aperture Priority and Auto mode where you decide on the maximum aperture and the camera takes it from there, varying shutter speed and aprture when needed and adding an increase in ISO when both other settings have reached their established minimums.
So Mr. Canon – could we please have auto-ISO in the next generation of DSLRs? It costs nothing to provide since it's simply firmware, and your product's users will be thankful.
One other change in the XSi is the move from CF to SD cards. I'm not a big fan of SD cards. Never have been. They're simply too small and easy to lose. I understand why the move has been made (they take up less room in the camera), which when your goal is to design a small camera is a worthy consideration. So, I'll accept their necessity, but only grudgingly since it now means having to carry two types of cards.
The new larger 3" LCD screen has been mentioned elsewhere in this report, and along with its eye proximity sensor goes a long way toward making up for the lack of a top panel LCD, which obviously takes up too much room on a camera designed with small size as a primary criteria.
What hasn't changed meaningfully from previous Rebels is the camera's too small grip. Through a combination of narrow finger room and shallow depth the XSI and its predecessors manage somehow to not give quite enough purchase to the right hand. I appreciate that the design goal was to produce a DSLR that's as small as possible, but there comes a time when making it too small for normal hands becomes counterproductive. I've handled the XSi's primary competitors, all of which are comparable in size, and find that the Canon has the least comfortable grip. Since I bitched about this in my first Rebel review several years ago, and I've seen numerous other reviewers mention it previously as well, it's surprising that this hasn't been addressed by Canon.
The overall performance of the XSI is good; very good in fact for its price. 3.5 FPS is also very good, especially since the camera has a big enough buffer to shoot more than 50 JPGs continuously at this speed, or 6 raws. Considering that this isn't a pro level camera by any means, few will find this level of shooting speed to be a hindrance.
Autofocus is fast, using a 9 point AF system that has at the center a high precision cross sensor for f/2.8 and faster lenses, aiding focus with such lenses due to their possibly shallower depth of field.
The XSi has a new Li-ion battery rated at 1080 maH, apparently with greater shooting duration that previous battery systems for this series. The XSi comes with a small stand-alone wall plug style battery charger, the kind that is easy to travel with.
As regular readers know I no longer do objective testing, preferring instead to simply use cameras in the real world and report on my subjective observations. (There are a great many commercial magazines and web sites doing rigorous testing with graphs, charts and tables of ratings, so there's little point in my repeating doing them here).
My observation is that this camera's resolution is very high, requiring Canon's best lenses if one really wants to make the most of it. Noise is also very well controlled up to and including ISO 1600, the camera's top setting. Expect during extreme pixel peeping the difference between ISO 100, 200 and 400 is minimal in terms of noise. ISO 800 starts to show a bit of noise in the shadows and at ISO 1600 it's noticeable, but in no way objectionable. The good news is that resolution seems to be little affected as ISO is increased.
Up until mid-2007 Canon was the king of high ISO. Then, with the introduction of the Nikon D300 and particularly the D3 the game shifted, and Nikon now wears that crown (at last for the moment). Though the D300 is at least two market niches above the XSi, it's still reasonable to compare noise performance, since at the time of this writing Nikon hasn't yet put its low noise technology into any lower end camera.
I would judge the D300 to have approximately a full one stop noise advantage over the Canon XSi, which is no bad thing at all, since the D300 is the lowest noise consumer camera I've yet seen, and the XSi is considerably less expensive.
I did all of my testing in raw mode (I rarely shoot JPG), and so can't comment about the XSi's in camera processing. I worked with the camera's raw files in Lightroom 2.0, and therefore also can't comment on the latest version of Canon's DPP software either. We do what we do.
Having said that, I find little to fault and much to like in the XSi's files. When working on them in LR while on the road in Newfoundland, alongside files from the 1Ds MKIII, the only way that I could tell them apart was by looking at the EXIF data and file size. Subsequently, in prints up to 13X19" there was little to choose between them other than the ability to crop and not lose too much resolution when working with the 1Ds MKIIIs' larger files.
During my initial testing I also found that combined with a good quality mid-range zoom like the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS it can be a formidable street shooting camera for travel and urban wandering, as well as an appropriate tool for countryside hiking. In addition to its small size and weight the XSi is quite unobtrusive when compared to a pro-level camera body, making one look more like a tourist than a photojournalist.
Why not the 18-55mm kit lens, which only adds $100 to the purchase price? Basically because it's not a particularly good lens. Fine for the amateur who wants a complete ready-to-shoot up-scale starter camera at a good price, but for the pro or serious amateur who is looking for a lightweight yet high quality camera, and who already owns some good Canon glass, the kit lens is best left on the dealer's shelf.
One size does not fit all. No one camera can be all things to all people. Not one brand, not one model within that brand. At this time there at least a half dozen cameras from the majors, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax that will meet the needs of the DSLR newcomer or someone working on a tight budget. Frankly, there are likely no significant image quality or feature advantages to the Canon XSi that make it a must-have over comparably priced models from the other leading camera companies.
Indeed, one area where Canon (as well as Nikon) have a challenge is with their lack of in-body image stabilization. Canon has lenses in all price ranges with IS built in, but it's not in their bodies, as it is with Pentax, Olympus and some others. Time will tell if this will become a marketing issue for these two companies.
But, if you're someone that is either partial to Canon cameras, or already have a higher end model, a set of lenses, and are seeking another camera body that's small and light weight, yet without serious feature limitations, then the Canon XSi may well be the camera that you've been looking for. As we have seen, image quality (at least within its ISO range) is on a par with anything else on the market, and better than most in this price range. Features are as comprehensive as anything from the competition, and the days of Canon's low-end cameras being deliberately throttled in terms of features thankfully seem to be finally over. (ISO settings above 1600 still seem to be an exception).
And finally, if you're a Rebel owner who is looking to upgrade from a previous model, and who is looking for the answer to the question – Is the XSi worth the cost on an upgrade? – I'd say that in terms of resolution, image quality, and features, moving up to an XSi is likely a worthwhile step.
I first visited the Luminous Landscape site quite a few years ago when,
after buying a Pentax 67II, I was looking for someone else for whom the
strength to carry that beast and the manual dexterity to load it were not
too off-putting. From that time on I have always appreciated your thoughtful
comments on photography and equipment.
Of course, despite being very well made and capable of delivering
fantastically detailed transparencies, my 67II, like yours, went when I
finally realised the convenience of digital. That brings me to my reason for
writing: your article on the Canon 450D (XSi). I've owned various Canon
digitals and before them I used Minolta, Leica, Nikon, Mamiya and Pentax
film cameras. All the while I endeavoured to use the best that each of those
As you mentioned, before digital, cameras were really just light-tight boxes
for film, but even then that didn't stop many of us wanting the latest
technical refinements. The arrival of digital sped up those developments
considerably, to the point where a camera's life cycle might be measured in
months rather than years.
We've often wondered where this will stop - how good is good enough? I think
that for a great many photographers that is the key point of the 450D and
why it is, as you wrote, a "harbinger of change."
Price is important to all of us, but with the ever changing digital scene
is keeping up to date. That's why for the first time in my photographic
career I've chosen to downgrade, to of all things a 450D. To me it is the
current best definition of good enough. It can produce images that when
printed looks nearly as good as my best medium format images. Yes, I could
have stayed with a Canon professional body and got the same results today,
but could I have afforded to keep up with tomorrow's technology?
I don't know how the prices equate in Canada, but here in New Zealand I
could buy 10 "good enough" 450Ds for the price of one 1DsIII. What that
means is that considering the price relationship will probably remain much
the same, I can buy the next 10 incarnations of the 450D and still have
spent the same as buying a 1DsIII today, and all the while I will have kept
up-to-date with the technology.
In a field like mine (horticultural photography) cameras aren't subjected
enormous wear and tear or required to be out in all weathers. However,
portability combined with high quality images are paramount. The 450D seems
to offer the ideal combination of high quality images, light weight and a
price that allows for ease of up-dating.
Maybe we won't see it with the 450D but as further generations of this level
of camera come out I expect more and more pros doing my kind of photography
will gravitate towards those sorts of cameras, just as back in the film days
we tended to use compact lightweight models like the Olympus OM4, Pentax LX
and Minolta 9000. Which reminds me, I have downgraded before: I sold a Nikon
F5 to get a pair of FM2s. I didn't regret that and so far I haven't
regretted the 450D. It may be my way of doing things but it could also be
that the lower end of DSLRs has now reached the point where opting for "good
enough" becomes a trend.
– anonymous, till approval received