Sunset at Walker Ranch Park (IMG_0162)

Canon Digital Rebel / EOS 300D Kit Review

by Kevin Borden

Introduction

The Canon EOS 300D / Digital Rebel is a good digital camera for photographers on a budget who want the flexibility and control offered by 35mm SLR cameras. The camera is an especially good value when purchased in a kit with its special 18-55 zoom lens. Although the 300D is not as convenient to use as the more expensive Canon EOS 10D, the 300D is still capable of producing high-quality images.

I have been using digital cameras for about three years now. Although I love the convenience of digital imaging, I have found the cameras themselves to be rather frustrating. What I wanted was a digital camera that had the same basic capability as my Canon Elan II at a price of $1500 or less. Initially, the Canon 10D looked like it fit the bill perfectly until I thought about the focal length multiplier. Since the 10D’s sensor is smaller than film, lenses mounted on the 10D have a different field of view from 35mm cameras. To get the same wide-angle capability that I enjoyed with my Elan II, I would have to buy $3000 worth of new glass for the 10D! So I decided to compromise and I started looking for a “prosumer” camera to tide me over for a couple years until full-frame sensor cameras become more affordable. Apparently, someone at Canon also recognized the wide-angle dilemma as well, since the day after I started shopping for a new camera, Canon announced the Canon Rebel 300D.

The Body

About a month after Canon’s announcement, I found myself walking out of a local electronics store as the proud owner of a shinny new Canon Rebel 300D. I took the camera home and examined my new purchase. The body seemed solid and well constructed. The controls are logically placed (at least for an experience EOS user), and the camera fits well in my hands. Some people may be disappointed in the body’s plastic construction, but I think this is good since it results in significant weight savings. After sitting down and reading the instructions, I had a pretty good idea about how the 300D worked.

The Canon 300D is an odd mix of high-end and low-end features. It has many professional-level features like a 1/200 second flash sync speed and a 1/4000 second top shutter speed. It has auto-exposure bracketing and exposure can be adjusted in 1/3 EV increments. The viewfinder has a built in diopter adjustment for eyeglass wearers. The 300D’s auto-focus system will shame anything else in its price range. It even has a depth-of-field check button, although how anybody would ever use it with the 300D’s small, soft focus screen is beyond me. (Note that since the 300D’s sensor is half the size of 35mm, the viewfinder image is also half the size of 35mm. The focus screen is designed for brightness, not accurate manual focusing.)

While the 300D shares many features with more expensive cameras, some advanced features can be awkward to use. For example, unlike more expensive Canon SLR’s, the 300D only has a single command dial. This means that to set exposure compensation (or the aperture in full manual mode), you have to press a small button while turning the command dial. In addition to the single command dial limitation, you can not directly set the auto-focus mode or the exposure-meter mode. For example, to use predictive auto-focus, you have to use the camera in “Sports” mode. Since “Sports” is a full-automatic setting, if you want to use predictive auto-focus with some exposure compensation, you are out of luck.

In addition to having some encumbered advanced features, other advanced features are missing all together. In my opinion the biggest omission is flash exposure compensation. Flash-fill is an invaluable tool when you photograph people in direct sunlight. With the 300D, if you don’t like the default fill ratio you have no way to fix the problem. Two other missing features are mirror lockup and second curtain flash sync. Although I must confess that I hardly ever used these features on my Elan II, the annoying part is that Canon could have added these features at little or no cost.

Even though the Canon 300D has some annoying omissions in its feature set, it is very important to note that they are just annoyances. The 300D is a very powerful camera and most people will never even notice its limitations.

The Lens: EF-S 18-55/3.5-5.6 USM

Strangely enough, the main selling point of the Canon Rebel 300D for me was the availability of the camera with a 18-55mm zoom lens. In turns out that my enthusiasm was justified. The EF-S 18-55mm zoom is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The lens has amazing optical performance for the price. Its minimum focus distance is about 4 inches. Stopped down to F8, it is as sharp as my 50mm F1.4 USM lens. Plus the 300D and lens together weighs less than the Canon 10D body alone! The impressive optical performance of the lens is made possible by the fact that it is only designed to cover the 300D’s sensor rather than a 35mm frame. Note that due to the small sensor in the 300D, at 18mm this lens gives a field of view the same as you would get with a 29mm lens on a full frame 35mm camera.

Although the lens has many good qualities, do not expect to much from a $100 lens. The lens is definitely very cheaply constructed and has a small maximum aperture. The focus ring is extremely narrow to discourage users from focusing manually. The lens definitely suffers from barrel distortion at the wide setting, although in the digital world this isn’t a huge problem since it can be corrected post-exposure.

Canon has indicated that the 18-55mm will probably be the only EF-S lens they ever make. I believe this is indicative of Canon’s desire to stick with the 35mm format. Canon already has a full-frame SLR, but is it priced beyond the reach of amateur photographers. However, when you consider that the Canon first consumer digital SLR cost $3500 not long ago, it isn’t hard to image that full frame SLR’s may be affordably priced in just a couple of years. Based on this, the EF-S 18-55mm zoom lens doesn’t need to be perfect. Instead, this lens is an interim solution until full-frame 35mm SLR cameras become affordable.

Usability and Performance

Being somewhat of a propeller-head, the technical aspects of photography fascinate me. At the same time, I recognize that all the features and specifications boil down to a simple question: did the camera capture an image or not? The good camera will make shots even in adverse conditions. A poor camera will miss them. To test out my new 300D, I used it in a variety of situations: night-time time exposures, indoor available light, action photography, flash photography, and even some good old-fashion landscape photography. By using the 300D in many situations, I learned a lot about its capabilities.

Landscape Photography

Photographing non-moving objects on a bright sunny day is one of the easiest tasks you can ask of a camera. Unfortunately, many cameras lack the wide-angle lens needed to take pictures of wide-open spaces. With its 18-55mm zoom, the 300D doesn't share this flaw. The downside to the 300D is that because of its SLR design, the LCD screen can not be used as a viewfinder. This makes the camera inconvenient to use in low-angle shots like this one. The camera is also missing mirror lock-up, although with the small mirror on this camera, I don't know if that is a significant omission.

Misson San Jose, San Antonio Texas

Wildlife Photography

The 300D is well-suited for wildlife photography. As one would expect from a Canon SLR, the 300D has a high-quality auto-focus system. The camera had no problems focusing a 300mm F4 lens on rowdy leopard cubs playing in deep shade. A huge advantage of the 300D over film cameras is the ability to switch ISO settings on the fly. If I had gone the zoo with slide film in my camera, I would have never gotten this shot of a leopard cub.

Snow Leopard Cub at San Antonio Zoo (IMG_0253)

Indoor Available Light

Using an on-camera flash is a recipe for bad to mediocre pictures. A better solution is combining a fast camera with a fast lens. If you mount a 50mm lens on the 300D you can take photographs with amazingly little light. Hand-held candle-lit images are a real possibility.

Enter Hamlet

Close-up Photography

The close focus capabilities of the EF-S 18-55mm combined with the Digital Rebel's high ISO settings form an effective tool for close-up photography. While the camera with the standard lens isn't suited to photographing tiny objects like insects, objects a few inches wide are.

Feline Close-up
        
         (IMG_0178)

Time-Exposure

Although the instant review capability of digital cameras makes them idea for long time exposure photography, clunky auto-focus and high image noise frequently limits their capabilities. I had no such problems with the 300D. Auto-focus, white balance, and auto-exposure performed as expected on an evening downtown. I was particularly pleased by the low amount of noise in the images.

Arneson River Theatre (IMG_0121)

Of course the default exposure made pictures look like they were shot in daylight, so I switched to manual mode and reduced the exposure time considerably. I had expected manual mode to be a pain to operate with the camera’s single command dial, but it wasn’t too bad since I only had to set the aperture once. An unexpected bonus discovery was that my remote release for my Elan II (RC-1) worked on the 300D as well!

Riverwalk Resturant at Night

Flash Photography

Although I did not upload any test images, I did test the 300D with a manual flash attached through a hot-shoe to PC cord adapter. Although the flash worked, the camera was a pain to use in this fashion on account of the single command dial. Unlike time-exposure photography, you have to frequently change the aperture setting during flash photography. I found it particularly awkward to set the aperture while the camera was mounted on a tripod. Because of this, I do not recommend this camera for someone doing studio flash photography.

Miscellaneous

The camera has a few general quirks that I would like to mention. One thing that took some getting use to with the 300D is how quickly the camera goes into “sleep” mode by default. The camera turns back on when you touch any button on the camera, but the operation is definitely different from operating a film camera. Another word of caution is to be careful about judging correct exposure from the image playback screen alone. The LCD can't display as many colors as a computer monitor, so use the histogram option instead. A particularly nice feature is that the 300D is always ready to take a picture when the power is on. Even when you are reviewing pictures on the LCD screen, you can pressing the shutter release and take a picture. In contrast, most consumer digital camera can not take pictures when they are in “Review” mode. The camera also can automatically rotate images right-side up.

Included Software

Competition

When you factor in the capabilities of the EF-S zoom lens, the Canon Digital Rebel is so much cheaper than cameras like the Canon EOS-10D or the Nikon D100 that I don't view these cameras as direct competition. Instead, its competitors are prosumer cameras like the Sony F828 and the Minolta Dimage A1. Both of these cameras have fast 28-200mm equivalent zoom lenses as well as 14-bit A/D conversion for only a little bit more than a Digital Rebel.

Where to Buy

Ritz camera is one of the stores which supports photo.net and they currently have a pretty good deal on the 300D. They offer free shipping and a free "bonus" package of software and coupons. They also offer an extended service plan which covers you against accidental damage to the camera, so if you drop it or drive over it, they'll replace it! Here are direct links to their website:

Canon EOS 300D with EF-S 18-55mm lens, for $999.99 from Ritz Camera, with free shipping and software bundle.
Canon EOS 300D (body only) for $899.99 from Ritz Camera, with free shipping and software bundle.

Other stores which support photo.net can be accessed from the following links:

ęCopyright 2003  Kevin Borden