Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT / 350D
A Field Report
This is a field report on the new Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT (as it's known in the US and Canada), or the 350D as it's known in Europe. (We won't mention that the same camera is called the Kiss n Digital in Japan). For simplicity sake I'll just call it the 350XT from now on.
Not Your Father's Review
With apologies to General Motors – the isn't going to be your father's camera review. Frankly, over the past year or so I've become bored with both reading and writing traditional camera reviews. The endless listings of features and specs hurts my brain. And, these tell me almost nothing about how suitable a given camera might be as a device for taking photographs. The technical tests and comparisons are also a black hole into which it's all too easy to become captured, and ultimately devoured. Small image quality differences between cameras, or minor foibles, become the peg on which some people hang their prejudices. My experience is that in the real world these differences in image quality are often quite small, yet get blown out of all proportion, especially on some of the discussion boards.
So, beginning with this review, I'm changing my MO. There are several sites for camera reviews that are tailored for those that want spec lists and detailed technical comparisons. There's no point in my competing with them – not that I ever really did, or even wanted to. But instead, what I'm going to do from now on are the subjective evaluations that I enjoy doing, and which I know from countless e-mails many readers appreciate reading. From time to time I'll do comparison's where I think they're warranted, and I'll certainly post images taken, along with my subjective evaluation of the camera as a suitable tool for its intended task.
Which brings us to the Canon 350XT.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
By the time you read this "review" you've probably already read all of the salient specs elsewhere. But to summarize – the 350XT is an 8 Megapixel reduced frame (1.6X) DSLR in Canon EOS lens mount. It will take any full-frame EOS lens ever made, as well as the new reduced frame "EF-S" series lenses.
Other than offering an 8 Megapixel sensor, the other big news is that the camera is Canon's smallest and least expensive DSLR yet, and the lightest camera of its type currently available. It can shoot at 3 FPS, with a decent sized buffer; is capable of shooting in true simultaneous RAW + JPG modes, and produces image quality that to my eyes is the equal of its big brother, the Canon 20D. And, oh yes, it will retail for under $1,000 with zoom lens.
The camera is available as body only, or as a kit with a modest zoom lens. It also is available in silver and black finish.
So who then is this camera for? Given its performance I would say that it will appeal to a broad cross-section of photographers. Working pros will find it attractive as a backup, and as a potential "throw-away" – a camera that can be used in dangerous conditions, where if it becomes lost or damaged, it isn't the end of the world ( or of the shoot). Advanced photographers will appreciate its high image quality combined with small size and light weight, making it a great travel and street shooting camera. Amateurs on a budget will, of course, be attracted to its low price.
Most interestingly, and unlike its predecessor the Rebel 300D, the 350XT hasn't been lobotomized by Canon. The original Digital Rebel had a number of features "disabled" in it's firmware, and there developed an underground in hacked firmware to turn these functions back on.
Canon seems to have learned its lesson (don't mess with tecky photographers and the power of the Internet), and the 350XT is as full featured in most respects as its elder, larger and more expensive cousin, the Canon 20D.
At The Construction Site
Canon Rebel 350 with 17-85mm f/5.6 IS at ISO 200
There's nothing for becoming familiar with a new camera like being parachuted with it into a commercial assignment. The 350XT arrived on my doorstep by courier early on a cold but sunny late-winter day. I was eager to get some fresh air, so after charging the battery for about 30 minutes I put on my 17-85mm f/5.6 IS zoom, grabbed a few other items, and headed out the door to do some casual test shooting. I dropped the camera's manual in the bag, thinking I'd browse it over coffee somewhere later in the morning.
On the drive to one of my favourite places to walk around, in the industrial underbelly of the city, I passed a construction site just bustling with activity. I pulled over, picked the 350XT off the seat beside me, and standing on the public sidewalk, started taking a few shots of the site.
Immediately a large burly guy in a hard hat approached me, asking why I was taking pictures, and was I with one of the government agencies?
I answered – no. That I was simply a photographer who enjoyed watching construction activity. Really? Really!
At this his tough attitude changed 180 degrees, and he told me that he was the site foreman, and would I be interested in photographing the site, since he wanted some pictures for his office and web site. We negotiated an arrangement, he handed me a hard hat (I was wearing steel toed boots, fortunately), and I then spent the next 2 hours shooting the site, inside and out.
The reason I tell this anecdote is because I took frames #1 though about #250 with the Rebel, without having done anything more than partially charged the battery and put in a 2 GB card. Talk about trial by fire.
Because of my long familiarity with Canon cameras I really didn't have much trouble. Though some of the controls are in different places than I'm used to, and I was shooting as well with a 1Ds MKII (it always makes things confusing, to use two very different bodies at the same time), I only had to sneak back to the car once to look something up in the manual :-)
The one thing that I was immediately aware of though was the dim menu screens, which I'll have more to say about in a moment. They really were problematic in the bright sunlight.
Other than that, and that I found the camera to be a bit too small for my hands when wearing gloves (it was -10C that morning), I found that the 350XT performed very nicely as a professional tool, and frankly, if I had owned it, rather than it being a review loaner from Canon, it's so inexpensive that it would have paid for itself just that first morning.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Let me put this as delicately as possible. The viewfinder of the 350XT is small.
How small? Very small.
It is one of the smallest viewfinders that I've ever seen. As Mike Johnston put it in a recent column, when talking about the small viewfinders that we are seeing in the latest generation of reduced frame and reduced cost DSLRs, it's like looking at a postage stamp at the end of a tunnel.
Having said that, it's still better than any electronic viewfinder that I've ever seen. These are like looking at a fuzzy TV at the end of a long tunnel.
Of course there are reasons for such a small viewfinder – cost and weight. You want a very small, very light camera? Well then, you'll have to put up with a smaller pentaprism and smaller mirror. Simple physics.
But, when the inevitable comparisons with cameras like the Canon 20D are done, this is one area where the Rebel XT will be found wanting. Of course the 20D and its kin will in turn be found wanting compared to a full-frame camera like the 1Ds MKII, but that's to be expected, isn't it?
Rear LCD Menus – Faulty Design?
When I was out the first morning with the 350XT I was shooting in bright sunlight. I was immediately very concerned to note that sometimes the settings screens on the rear LCD were almost unreadable. I later found this to even be a problem indoors.
Once my shoot was over, and I sat down with the camera, and with a 20D and 1Ds MKII also in hand, I discovered why this is the case. The 350XT's screen itself is just as bright as that on the 20D when reviewing images, and that's very good indeed. But the 350XT, for some reason known only to the engineers in Tokyo, has changed the look of the menu screens in a way that dramatically reduces legibility.
When one is moving the selection highlight along the top of the menu screen between major headings, only the heading item selected is bright, the rest of the screen items are dimmed. This makes it very difficult to know what's on that heading's list, even in moderate light conditions, let alone in bright daylight.
This requires further explanation.
The Multiple Menus: You Can't Get There From Here
The 350XT has adopted the Canon 1 Series approach of segmenting menus into separate functional screens. Unlike the 20D, where all functions are found in one large scrolling list, there are five separate headings under which grouped functions are found.
On the 1 Series cameras this works, because selecting a group heading and then an item from one of the group's lists, are performed with separate buttons. Press Menu and rotate a wheel to select a heading, and then press Select and turn the wheel to choose the menu item you want. The whole screen is also of equal brightness all of the time.
But the way that it's been implemented on the 350XT is that you have to use the four direction buttons on the rear panel to move up the current function list to a heading, across to the next heading that you want, and then down that particular list . But, because the menu list for that heading is dimmed until you drop down into it, it's very difficult to see what the choices are.
This becomes like a hand-held video game performed on a device with failing batteries.
Frankly, this is not a nit pick. This is a major design flaw in my opinion, and seriously reduces the camera's usefulness when used outdoors in bright sunlight.
Update: It's been brought to my attention that by pressing the JUMP button one can skip from one menu heading to another. Sorry that I missed that, and I regret any confusion caused. But, this does nothing to elevate the dim menu item listings.
No Visible ISO
What is wrong with camera makers? (He asked rhetorically– once again). Film cameras have two controls for exposure: aperture and shutter speed. Digital cameras have a third – the ISO setting. Changing sensitivity when shooting film means changing the roll. With digital ISO can be changed from shot to shot.
But while camera makers, like Canon, put the shutter speed and F Stop on the monochrome LCD screen and in the viewfinder, so that the photographer can see what they are at any moment, the ISO setting is buried away, requiring a button press to see, and several to change. (Update: This paragraph has been reworded from the original for clarity. The point still being though, that this is bad design).
As I've written before – isn't there anyone in Japan working at the camera makers who's a photographer? Come on guys. Get with the program! You're giving us 21st Century cameras with 19th Century controls.
The only Canon DSLRs that provide ISO information without having to press buttons are the 1 Series. Does this mean that Canon doesn't believe that photographers with lesser budgets need to be able to judge and change ISO conveniently? Or is this market segmentation by firmware, once again?
Oh yes, and while you're at it Canon, give is a third control wheel so that ISO can be accessed without having to use three fingers and both eyes to make a change. Do it soon, please.
Badly Designed Shooting Mode Button
It seems that Canon's normally very cautious designers were out too late at the Karaoke bar the night before when they designed the shooting mode button. When pressed it cycles shooting mode between singe frame, continuous frame, and self timer. But, there's no interlock with another control. I found myself frequently pressing the button accidentally, and unknowingly finding the camera in self-timer mode.
Press the shutter release, and nothing – except for the beep beep of the self timer. Lost shot! More than once. Bad design!!
Note to Canon – please put an interlock on this camera's next version, just as you have on every other camera you've ever built before. Serious brain fade.
The Anti-Control Wheel
Canon's bigger and more expensive models have a rear control wheel. This is very handy for exposure compensation, and for controlling aperture settings during Manual exposure.
On the 350XT this is replaced (presumably for reasons of cost) with four buttons in a circular pattern. There are some clever aspects to this design. For example, each of the buttons is allocated a separate function; ISO, AutoFocus Mode, White Balance, and Metering Mode. Press one of them and the rear colour LCD lights up and you have direct control of the needed function. This is a convenient shortcut to the appropriate menu item.
But this is a bad-news as well as good news situation. These are functions which normally (on the 20D for example) are performed on the top panel mono LCD. No issues there with screen brightness or visibility. But why not put these on the Rebel's mono LCD? Less battery drain, and they would be easier to see and set.
Repeat after me: Controls which alter shooting parameters should not be on the colour LCD menus. They should have direct access buttons with a mono LCD display of the current setting. Colour LCD's and menus are only for non-shooting function settings. That's the way I'd do it if I were king.
Snick vs. Clunk
I've never liked the sound of the 20D. It's a rather nasty clunk, and I commented on this in my 20D review last year. The 350XT has a totally different sound. It's a snick rather than a clunk. Subjectively quieter and less obtrusive in situations where camera acoustic noise may be an issue. One of the camera's more enjoyable features.
Did I tell you that the 350XT was small and light? Well, it is. Possibly even too much so.
I have small hands, but find the 20D to be just about as small a DSLR as I care to handle. The 350XT verges on being uncomfortably small. For example, on the 20D all four fingers of my right hand are used to grasp the camera. On the 350XT the body is so short that my pinky finger has nowhere to rest, and therefore has to be curled up underneath the camera. Those with large hands will find themselves holding the camera with just their thumb and first two fingers. Not terrible, but a bit uncomfortable when the camera is used continuously for several hours.
When wearing gloves (which I do outdoors for 6 months of the year, so this is no small issue) the camera becomes very awkward to hold. But, this applies to all of the very small DSLRs and digicams that one finds these days.
Rear Mono LCD
As camera makers reduce the size of DSLRs, especially the width, they find themselves either eliminating the top panel LCD, or moving it to the rear panel. The Rebel line has it just above the rear colour LCD, and I can't say that I'm a fan of this positioning. I simply find the information conveyed by a top panel LCD to be more readily accessible when shooting quickly if its visible with the camera body close to my chest, rather than having to move it outward to view.
Canon Rebel XT with Canon 10-22mm EFS lens at 14mmmm. ISO 200
Auto fill flash
The XT350 has the ubiquitous pop-up flash, and like the 20D, it uses Canon ETTL-II technology. As seen in this photograph of photographer Craig Samuals, above, shot when he was visiting my print exhibition at the Pikto Gallery in Toronto in March of 2005, the flash is able to do a very decent job of balanced auto-fill flash. A larger external flash unit would be needed for more demanding tasks, but the one built in will be found adequate for most amateur's needs.
Just be aware that even though the flash has Canon's new higher level positioning, so that the lens' shadow doesn't get into the shot as often, with a very wide lens like the 10-22mm EFS used above, the lens is physically long enough that a shadow will be seen, even without the lens shade attached. I had to crop the bottom 25% of the frame to remove it in this instance.
The 350XT comes with Canon's usual assortment of basic software for both Macs and PCs. One noticeable change though is that instead of Photoshop Elements Canon is now bundling ArcSoft's Photo Studio. I have no familiarity with this package, so I can't comment on its merits one way or the other. It'll probably be just fine for the beginner market at which this camera is primarily aimed. Elements would have been preferable though, because it provides a clear migration path to the industry standard, Photoshop CS. Clearly it costs Canon less to license one over the other, and the name of the game with this camera is clearly cost containment.
For pros shooting in raw mode, there is basic raw software provided, but just hang in until the next version of Camera Raw, which will support this camera.
I haven't the interest in listing the multitude of additional features that cameras like this inevitably have, such as custom white balance bracketing in 1 Mirad increments. (Who uses this stuff, anyhow?)
There are some cool features though, which will appeal to photographers who still haven't learned the RAW gospel. I'm thinking of JPG B&W mode, which includes the ability to "filter" the image with the equivalent of Red, Yellow, Orange and Green "filters". Nicely done, and will prove of interest and value to many photographers discovering the joys of working in B&W, though of course one can produce superior results by doing the monochrome conversion in Photoshop.
If you want to learn more about these and the dozens of other secondary functions that the camera provides I recommend you to some of the more traditional camera review sites, which cover these in detail.
Any Colour You Like – As Long as it's Black, or Silver
The 350XT is available in both black and silver finishes. The one I tested was silver, and frankly it looks nasty. While the black looks like any polycarbonate camera, the silver finish simply looks like painted plastic, which it is. I realize that this is a matter if taste, but to my eyes the silver finish on the 350XT is sub-par. Go for the black.
The image quality from the 350XT is really good. How good? Within the constraints of ISO and image size, as good as anything on the market.
For my recent thoughts on the whole issue of DSLR image quality, please read the essay titled Digital Quality Thoughts. Otherwise, just carry on.
All Canon CMOS-based DSLRs have shown exemplary low noise at high ISO settings. This applies to the 350XT as well.
From ISO 100 through 400 noise is simply a non-issue. At 800 it starts to become noticable, but is still relatively low. ISO 1600 is the camera's top speed, and my informal test of noise at this speed follows.
Below is a shot taken at my local pub. Contrary to the way it looks, light level in that part of the bar were very low; almost too low to read comfortably by.
Canon Rebel 350 with 17-85mm f/5.6 IS at ISO 1600
0.3 sec @ f/8
If you want to indulge in a bit of pixel peeping, then the above 100% crop tells the tale. At this magnification some noise is clearly visible, but in an A3 sized print it's virtually invisible. To my eye it looks like the kind of grain one would see from ISO 200 speed colour negative film a few years ago.
Of course the shadows start to block up fairly quickly at this speed, but mid-tones and highlights are relatively clean. I wouldn't hesitate to use the 350XT at any speed setting, and likely would not need to use a third-party noise reduction plug-in, like Noise Ninja, very often.
The Macbeth colour chart seen below was photographed under overcast daylight conditions. The gray point was set in Photoshop. Otherwise no changes have been made to the file. Comparisons are based on viewing the chart under a controlled light source. Please go by what I write, not by what you see, since web conversion, your monitor set-up and a dozen other variable make it impossible to know whether what you're seeing is the same as what I see. Evaluation of the computer file was done on my Sony Artisan reference monitor.
Canon Digital Rebel XT / 350 D
Colour reproduction is among the best that I've yet seen from a DSLR. Try as I might, I can't find any aspect of the camera's ability to handle colour to be problematic. It's actually somewhat more accurate than that of the 20D, though the differences are a quibble. Excellent colour performance.
350XT vs 20D
Of course the big topic of debate on the web discussion forums and at camera store sales counters is going to be – is the $$ difference between the 20D and the 350XT worth it? Well, duhh! What do you think?
No, let me rephrase that – what do you expect? Do you really believe that you can buy a camera offering the same or better value at just 60% of the price? Of course not.
There's no question that the 20D is the superior camera in almost every respect, except image quality – which is comparable between the two. But, the 350XT attracts with its small size and low weight. If I was hiking the Himalayas for two weeks I know which one I'd bring.
But when you factor in some of the design faux pas of the 350XT, the choice becomes easier to make, especially for those with larger hands and fatter wallets.
The Bottom Line
This is a sweet little camera that could well be the best DSLR camera value on the market today (March, 2005). Newcomers will find the price to be right and the camera to be feature rich. Experienced photographers will be frustrated by some of the interface problems, but none of these are really show-stoppers.
Now, if Canon would just hire a few photographers to take prototype cameras for a walk around the block before committing to some of the more egregious design bloopers that it insists on foisting on us, then they really might become the 800 pound gorilla in the digital camera market that they clearly aspire to be.