Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Canon Rebel XTi is the world's most popular digital single-lens
reflex camera. The Rebel XTi is compact, lightweight, rugged,
inexpensive, responsive, and compatible with dozens of the world's best
lenses. Introduced in the fall of 2006 at a price of $800, the Canon
Rebel XTi has the best image quality of any camera in its class. For
family picture-taking, the best way to start is with the Canon Rebel XTi body only
and a Sigma 30/1.4
lens (all the photos on this page were taken with this lens); if you must have a zoom, the Canon
17-55/2.8 IS USM is a high quality choice.
At any one time, Canon generally produces three consumer-priced digital
single lens reflex bodies:
small sensor, light weight, one control wheel (Rebel XTi)
small sensor, heavier and larger, two control wheels (EOS 30D)
big sensor (same size as 35mm film), superior image quality,
especially in low light (EOS 5D; more than $2000)
For most photographers, the right body will be either the Canon Rebel
XTi or the Canon EOS 5D. The 30D is an older design with more rugged
construction, but very similar imaging capabilities. The Rebel XTi
actually has slightly higher resolution and a new sensor dust removal
system that the 30D lacks.
The Canon Rebel XTi is a great value and, if coupled with a high quality lens,
can produce pictures that will be acceptable for nearly any purpose.
[Outside the United States, this camera may be marketed as the "Canon
EOS 400D" or "Kiss Digital X".]
The Canon Rebel XTi turns on almost instantly and is very responsive for
taking pictures, displaying previews, and waking up once asleep. The
camera is always ready when you are, unless you fill up the in-camera
memory by taking photos continuously, as you might at a sporting event.
The camera can capture 3 pictures per second but it can't write them to
the CompactFlash card that fast. After you've captured about 30 JPEGs
or 10 RAW images, the rear LCD will read "BUSY" for a few seconds until
all of the images have been saved.
The main difference between the Rebel XTi and the larger more expensive
Canon bodies is that there is only one control wheel, on the top of the
camera body. In Metered Manual mode, for example, the single wheel
adjusts the shutter speed and, if you hold a shift button on the back of
the camera, can adjust the lens aperture. In Aperture-priority mode,
the single wheel adjusts the aperture and holding the shift button makes
the wheel control exposure compensation (to darken or lighten the
image). Having to press a shift key is annoying, but if you are mostly
capturing RAW images and using semi- or fully automatic exposure, you
will hardly ever have to do it.
Almost every digital SLR has an LCD display on the top giving out
information on exposure, autofocus, white balance, and other camera
settings. There is another, larger LCD screen on the back offering
image review and menus for controlling camera settings. You might ask
"If you have a huge 2.5" screen on the back of the camera, why not get
rid of the little display on the top of the camera?" That's just what
Canon has done with the Rebel XTi and it is probably an improvement in
user interface. If you want to know how the camera is set up there is
one and only one place to look. The information is much larger and more
readable than on top-deck LCD displays, especially the ISO setting,
which is presented in huge letters at the upper right. A photocell on
the back figures out if you've raised the camera to your eye and shuts
the screen off.
A top-deck control switch lets you choose among the standard four
exposure modes: Metered Manual, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and
Program autoexposure. The same switch has "idiot modes" labeled with
small icons, such as a running guy. The rear LCD screen shows the same
icon and a text explanation, e.g., "sports".
The has the standard focus modes of any Canon SLR: Manual, Single-shot
auto, "AI Servo" (continuous, intended for sports), and "AI focus" where
the camera tries to figure out whether or not your subject is moving.
As with all of the great Canon EOS bodies over the decades, if you drill
down into the custom function menus, you can figure out how to make the
autoexposure lock button on the back of the camera into a "burst of AF"
thumb switch while in Manual Focus mode. Thus you're able to manually
adjust focus but have automatic assistance available when desired.
(Start at the Tools 2 menu then Custom Function 4.) Autofocus
performance is excellent, even in dim light, with 9 AF sensors
distributed around the frame.
Operation is modeless. If you've pressed the playback button and are
reviewing images, a quick touch of the shutter release readies the
camera to take pictures again. Curiously, Canon seems unable to get
this important user interface feature into their point and shoot
cameras, all of which have a playback/record switch on the back and the
camera won't function as a camera if the switch is set to "playback".
Overall, the best user interface of any Canon digital SLR body.
The viewfinder shows a little bit less of the image than the sensor will
capture, i.e., your photo will be about 5 percent wider and taller than
what you saw in the viewfinder. Underneath the optical through-the-lens
view is a one-line in-viewfinder LCD display showing shutter speed,
aperture, an exposure meter, focus confirmation (dot that appears when
something in the image is in focus), a flash symbol that lights up when
the flash is ready, an exposure-lock symbol, and a counter showing how
many more photos may be captured before filling up the in-camera memory
buffer (only relevant when photographing sports in RAW mode). It is
easy to view the entire viewfinder image and the one-line LCD display
underneath, even while wearing eyeglasses. If you don't want to wear
eyeglasses, the Rebel XTi has a built-in diopter adjustment (-3 to +1).
The Rebel XTi takes a single Compact Flash card, either Type I and II.
Microdrives work in the camera, but operate slowly if you are capturing
RAW images. Microdrives are also more prone to failure than the
solid-state CF cards.
A 1 GB card will hold fewer than 100 RAW images, each of which is
typically just over 10 MB in size; remember that the images are
3888x2592 pixels. Start with either a 4
GB CF Card or an 8
The Canon Rebel XTi has a built-in flash powerful enough (guide number
42 in feet at ISO 100) to serve as a primary light at ISO 400 or ISO
800. Maximum flash sync speed is 1/200th. Balancing flash and natural
light requires wading down through a couple of menus to set flash
exposure compensation. Once set, however, the exposure compensation is
clearly displayed on the rear LCD.
If you're going to photograph a reception in a dark restaurant, slide
flash into the accessory shoe on top of the camera. Both internal
and external flash exposure may be controlled by the camera's computer
using a through-the-lens sensor.
The best way to ruin a photo is by using an on-camera flash as the
primary light source, which is why photos taken indoors with
point-and-shoot digicams are usually so terrible. If you're stepping up
from a point-and-shoot and go into a living room with the Rebel XTi and
a Sigma 30/1.4 lens, you will feel like a superhero. Thanks to the
physically much larger sensor, images at ISO 800 and ISO 1600 are much
better than what you'd get with a point-and-shoot. With an f/1.4 lens,
you will be able to use the lower noise setting of ISO 400 in many
If you're stepping down from the world's highest performance low-light
digital SLR, the full-frame 5D with its substantially larger sensor,
you'll be underwhelmed with the Rebel XTi's low-light capability, though
autofocus performance is surprisingly good.
[Photo at right: ISO 800, 1/100th at f/2.5]
The included Lith-ion battery is adequate for a day of active
photography, somewhere between 300 and 500 photos plus review. The
Canon Rebel XTi will not run on disposable AA batteries. To recharge
the battery you must carry a chunky travel charger that plugs directly
into a wall socket.
If you are a serious photographer, you will want to purchase and carry a
NB-2LH battery. If you add the
BG-E3 vertical grip, the camera will draw its power from
two of these Lith-ion batteries inside the grip, or alternatively, six
AA batteries. The vertical grip adds a vertical shutter release and may
make the camera easier to control for those with large hands.
I never unwrapped or installed any of the software included with the
Rebel XTi. The RAW images produced by the camera work fine with
Photoshop CS2 and its associated photo sorting/organizing tool, "Adobe
Bridge". (See my photoshop directory for some useful
scripts, including those that were used to generate the JPEGs you
see on this page.) The Picasa
program from Google also can understand the Rebel XTi's .CR2 RAW files.
Whatever software you choose to use, you won't have to spend too much
time post-processing due to the Rebel XTi's inclusion of an "auto
rotate" feature (enable from the first tools menu). An image captured
with the camera held vertically will appear on a computer screen in a
Reliability and Durability
The more expensive Canons are metal on the inside and plastic on the
outside. The Rebel XTi is plastic everywhere except the lens mount. It
should be rugged enough to survive a few drops, some rain, and dust.
Very likely you'll want to trade the camera in for a new and improved
model before the mechanicals or electronics fail.
The Rebel XTi is the first Canon body to include a sensor dust removal
system, a feature pioneered some years earlier by Olympus with its Four
Thirds cameras. How well does it work? I didn't notice any dust on the
sensor. However, I haven't had to clean the sensors on other digital
SLRs, not since taking a very early Nikon to the very dusty country of
Compared to the More Expensive Canon Bodies
As noted in the introduction, the 30D doesn't make sense for most
photographers. It is bigger, heavier, and more expensive than the Rebel
XTi and does not offer any improvement in image quality.
Consider the EOS 5D in the following situations:
you have a lot of older Canon EOS lenses that cast a full-frame image
you love wide angle photography and want to have a good choice of
wide angle lenses
you are specializing in low light photography without a flash
you are rich, don't mind a bit of extra weight, and don't want to
wonder what you're missing; the 5D is the best digital camera at any
price and it costs less than one hour of jet charter
Compared to Nikon, Sony, Pentax, et al
All of the other small-sensor 10-megapixel digital SLRs use a CCD
manufactured by Sony. They all produce roughly the same image quality.
According to the magazines and Web sites that exhaust themselves taking
pictures of test targets, the Canon Digital Rebel XTi produces image
quality that is superior to that produced by its 10-megapixel competitors. Canon is
the only company with the money and the engineering depth to make its
own sensor, a CMOS design like that in the professional Canon bodies.
The big thing that the competitors have that the Rebel XTi does not is
sensor-based image stabilization. The Rebel XTi relies on in-lens image
stabilization, which works better than sensor-based systems, especially
for longer lenses, but is expensive and not available in most lens
designs. The sensor-based image stabilizers work with any lens. Image
stabilization is important in perhaps 5 percent of typical photography
situations. If the light is truly low, you need a tripod. If the
subject is moving, you need a fast shutter speed regardless of whether
camera shake has been stabilized.
Is it worth considering, say, a Nikon D80, as an alternative to the
Canon Rebel XTi? No. It might be worth comparing the Nikon system to
the Canon system, but given that you're going to spend a lot more money
over the years on lenses, it doesn't make sense to look at minor
difference among the bodies that the various companies happen to make in
2007. [See "Building a Digital SLR System" for more on this topic.]
The Canon Rebel XTi is the best digital SLR body for most consumers on a
budget and it makes a good backup body for professionals.
Canon does not make a telephoto zoom lens optimized for its small
sensor cameras. High quality telephoto zooms for full-frame cameras are
heavy and expensive. Your best option is
Sigma 50-150/2.8, which offers a classic 70-210mm equivalent focal
length range. The lens is light because it casts an image circle large
enough only for a small-sensor camera such as the Rebel XTi. The Sigma
lens includes an ultrasonic focus motor. The aperture is a fast and
constant f/2.8, allowing photography in only one quarter as much light
as the typical consumer zoom lens.
If you're on a tight budget and yet want at least one decent lens, the
$80 Canon 50/1.8 is a good choice for portraits.
[Look more carefully than usual at lenses from companies such as Sigma,
Tamron, and Tokina. Canon has been quick to make small-sensor bodies
and very slow to design new lenses that match to those small sensors.]