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Canon EOS T3i (600D) Review

by Bob Atkins, April 2011 (updated September 2011)


The Canon EOS Digital Rebel T3i (also known outside the US as the EOS 600D) is Canon’s latest addition to the entry level camera group. As of now it’s an additional camera, not a replacement for the EOS T2i (EOS 550D).

The T3i combines the basic features of the T2i with features imported from the EOS 60D and 7D, plus it adds a few new features of its own. The major “import” features are the 3" vari-angle (tilt and swivel) LCD screen and the ability of the built in flash to wirelessly control external speedlites. The T3i retains the 18MP sensor of the T2i (the same sensor is used in the EOS 60D and EOS 7D), along with the T2i shutter, AF system, metering system, CPU (Digic IV) and basic control layout. Side by side the T2i and T3i look very similar, but there are slight differences in size and shape (mostly due to the new LCD screen).

Canon EOS T3i (600D) and T2i (550D) differences

  • The T3i has a new “tilt and swivel” high resolution LCD (similar to that on the EOS 60D)
  • The built in flash of the T3i can act as a wireless controller for external speedlites which can be configured as slaves (a feature previously found on only the EOS 60D and 7D)
  • The eye sensor for LCD display found on the T2i has been replaced by a display on/off button. This is presumably because the larger LCD and tilt/swivel mechanism doesn’t allow the eye sensor (which turns the LCD display off when the camera is held up to the eye).
  • The T3i has a “feature guide” which provides a brief explanation of various settings (such as Av, Tv etc.) when a new setting is chosen. More experienced users can turn this off via a menu option.
  • The T3i is very slightly larger and heavier than the T2i
  • The fully auto “green square” mode of the T2i has been replaced with a “scene intelligent auto” mode in the T3i. This mode attempts to recognize the scene in front of the camera and them optimizes the camera’s shooting parameters for that type of scene.
  • In the new “video snapshot” mode the camera stitches multiple short (2, 4 or 8 seconds) video clips into a longer movie
  • There’s a new 3x-10x “digital zoom” video mode in which a cropped portion of the sensor is expanded to full HD video.
  • Creative filters can now be applied to images in-camera and a second JPEG is created leaving the original unchanged:

    • The Soft Focus effect filter helps dramatize an image and smooth over shiny reflections.
    • The Grainy Black and White filter can give a different nostalgic perspective to any
      shot.
    • Canon’s "Toy Camera" filter deliberately adds vignetting and color shift for a
      creative option when shooting a colorful scene.
    • Users can also make a scene appear like a small-scale model, simulating the look from a
      tilt-shift lens, with Canon’s Miniature Effect filter, great when shooting any scene from
      a high vantage point.

  • An “Aspect Ratio” feature has been added allowing the Live View screen to display cropping lines for 1:1, 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios in addition to the standard 3:2 ratio.
  • The Auto Lighting Optimizer can now be applied at 4 different levels
  • Image in the camera can be given a rating (from1 to 5 stars)
  • Scene modes now have the “Basic +” feature which allows users to make ambiance adjustments such as “vivid”, “warm”, “soft” to the images along with white balance adjustments via a quick many screen

User Interface

The T3i uses a very similar user interface to the other digital Rebel series DSLRs. The main control dial on the top of the camera selects shooting mode, a 4 way controller on the rear of the camera allows menu navigation and a series of buttons select functions such as ISO. metering mode, drive mode etc. One new button appears on the T3i for display control. On the T2i there is s sensor which detects when the camera is held up to the user’s eye and switches off the rear LCD display (no point in consuming power when you can’t see the LCD). The swing out and swivel LCD of the T3i doesn’t have this feature (lack of space due to the swing out LCD?) and instead the “DISP” button turns the LCD display on and off.

The T3i is consistent with the other Digital Rebel series cameras in that it lacks a top LCD display and it doesn’t have a rear QCD (quick control dial). The rear mounted LCD is used for all information display. In practice this isn’t a big disadvantage and means that the camera can be made smaller. The QCD of the 60D and 7D do enable more rapid changing of some functions, such as exposure compensation, but the same functions are available on the T3i, it’s just that they require an extra button push.and so take a little longer and are less convenient.

The T3i has a new feature which displays “hints” for the novice user. For example if you select aperture priority (Av) mode, a message is displayed on the LCD which says “Adjust aperture to blur background (subjects stand out) or keep foreground and background in focus”. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful for novices since it doesn’t say how to adjust to blur background (make aperture larger by setting lower f-stop numbers), but some of the messages might be useful. For those who don’t want the “training wheels” on their camera, the messages can be turned off via a menu function.

Viewfinder

The T3i uses a pentamirror rather than a pentaprism. The difference to the user is minimal, though it’s probably the reason for the smaller viewfinder image than is found on pentaprism bodies like the EOS 60D and 7D. The smaller image isn’t really noticeable unless you compare the T3i side by side with a 60D or 7D and you quickly get used to it.

The viewfinder displays all the usual shooting information including ISO setting, aperture and shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus zones, spot metering zone, HTP, FEC and so on (see image on right for full details).

Viewfinder coverage is 95% (horizontal and vertical) of the actual recorded frame size.

Image Quality

The image quality of the T3i is easy to describe. For all intents and purposes it’s exactly the same as that of the T2i, EOS 60D and EOS 7D, which is to say very good. All four cameras use the same 18MP sensor, all show the same level of noise, all show the same dynamic range and all have the same resolution. In a sense we’re almost back to the situation we had before the digital era. All 35mm cameras had the same intrinsic image quality since that was determined by the film and all 35mm cameras used the same film. With the T2i, T3i, 60d and 7D series, all the cameras have what amounts to the same “film”.

Technical image quality then depends on only two factors, the quality of the lens and the skill of the photographer in selecting the optimum settings for such factors as ISO, white balance, exposure etc.

Autofocus

The AF system of the T3i is the same as that of the T2i. There are 9 AF zones with the center zone having cross sensitivity and extra accuracy for lenses f2.8 or faster. The outer zones are linear sensors.

AF is fine for most subjects. It’s fast and accurate but for moving subjects the 60D offers better performance with 9 cross type sensors and the 7D even better performance with 19 cross type sensors and variable sensor configurations. The EOS 7D would be the crop sensor EOS body of choice if you want to capture fast action sports or birds in flight.

In live view there is a choice between contrast detection and phase detection AF. Phase detection is fast and accurate and is the system used in normal reflex mode. However it requires that the mirror drop down while AF is operating and that interrupts the live view. Contrast detection does not interrupt the live view but is slow. It would not be unusual for focusing to take several seconds in contrast detection mode. Both modes make it difficult to focus on a moving subject.

Continuous shooting

The T3i can shoot at up to 3.7 frames/sec. The use of a fast SD card is recommended for maximum performance. If you’re shooting JPEGs, with an average subject the buffer fills after about 35 frames, at which point the frame rate drops to somewhere around 2.5fps. If you’re shooting RAW images you only get around 6 frames before the shooting rate drops to less than 1 frame/second. If you want to simultaneously store images in both JPEG and RAW formats it only takes about three frames to fill the buffer at which point the rate drops to around a frame every two seconds.

In JPEG mode most users are not likely to have problems as it’s pretty rare than you’d want to shoot more than 35 frames (continuous shooting for about 10 seconds). However in RAW mode – and even more so in RAW+JPEG mode – the small buffer could become an issue for action shooters since you only get 1 or 2 seconds before the buffer fills and the shooting rate drops dramatically.

Video

The T3i has two features which make it perhaps the best Canon DLSR for shooting video. The first it the tilt and swivel LCD screen which can be positioned for optimal viewing while shooting at eye level, waist level, overhead or around corners. If you shoot a lot of video you’ll soon find that this is much more convenient than using a fixed LCD screen on the back of the camera.

The second feature is that the audio level can be manually set (there is also an auto setting). This means that the microphone gain isn’t turned all the way up when there is no sound to record, which lowers background noise.

Exposure can be controlled manually or automatically. Like all the other EOS cameras, there is no focus tracking in video mode. Refocusing is possible using either contrast detection (which doesn’t interrupt the video) or phase detection (which requires a break in the video while the reflex mirror drops and focus is reset). Phase detection is fast and accurate, contrast detection is slow and may “hunt” for focus. Manual focus is still the best way to change focus in video mode with any EOS DSLR shooting video.

While the 5D MkII has manual audio settings and the EOS 60D has the tilt and swivel screen, the EOS T3i is the first (but probably not last) Canon DSLR to incorporate both features.

The T3i can record 1080p HD video (1920×1080) at 30, 25 or 24fps, 720p (1280×720) HD video at 50 or 60 fps and VGA (640×480) video at 50 or 60 fps. Movies are saved in quicktime (.mov) format with linear PCM audio and video clips are limited to 30m or a maximum file of 4GB (whichever comes first). The use of a fast SD card (at least class 6) is recommended, and in fact is required for shooting continuous 1080p HD video.

In addition to these “full sensor modes”, there’s also a zoom feature which (presumably) operates by using only the center portion of the sensor. Canon claim that “Full HD quality” is maintained over a range from 3x to 10×. Well, maybe. Canon don’t specify exactly how they are getting the 10x magnification. You can get a true 3x “zoom” (actually 2.7x) by simply using only the center 1920 × 1080 pixels from the full 5184 × 3456 frame. In that case there would be no quality loss when compared to 1080P video shot without zoom since that uses the full frame and downsizes it (or only reads out a subset of pixels). More magnification than 2.7x would seem to require “digital zoom”, which is basically upsizing the image and interpolating pixels. There will inevitably be some quality loss, so whether “Full HD quality” is maintained is a judgement call and may depend on how the resulting video is viewed. 10x is probably something like 2.7x true (cropping) zoom plus 3.7x digital zoom (resampling). If the 10x were done via digital cropping rather than interpolation, the maximum image size at full resolution would only be 518 × 346 pixels.

At 10x zoom with a long lens there may be image stability problems unless the camera is mounted on a solid tripod. Even with IS you’re not going to be able to hold the camera steady at an effective 3000mm focal length (300mm lens plus 10x zoom).

The T3i also has a Video Snapshot feature which allows the user to record a series of two-, four- or eight-second video clips. The clips are then assembled by the camera into a continuous video and can be further edited in camera or through Canon’s Video Snapshot Task software on a PC.

Lenses

The T3i is available as a kit with the Canon EF-S 18-55 IS (see Canon Rebel T3i with 18-55mm kit, (compare prices) (review)) and it’s a pretty good deal since the price is only about $100 more than the body alone. It’s not a great lens, but it’s quite usable and very small and light with effective image stabilization. The 55mm maximum focal length limits its use for sports and wildlife, but it’s a good general purpose lens for travel and portraits

A slightly better lens might be the Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, (compare prices). It cover a significatly larger range then the 18-55 and the 135mm focal length (equivalent in coverage to a 216mm lens on a full frame camera) makes it more useful for things like sports and wildlife. Again the IS system is very effective. A kit is available Canon T3i with EF-S 18-135/3.6-5.6 IS, (compare prices) and it’s around $100 cheaper that way than buying the body and lens seperately.

If you want one lens to do everything, the Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD LD for Canon, (compare prices) might be the lens of choice. It has a very wide zoom range, effective image stabilization and it’s very small for a lens with such a long zoom range.

Conclusion

The T3i is the logical development of Canon’s current DSLR philosophy which differentiates cameras by features rather than by image quality. In the current lineup the T2i, T3i, 60D and 7D all use the same sensor and they all have essentially identical image quality. The T3i is the top-of-the-line entry level camera. It actually has better video capability than any of the other cameras since it incorporates the tilt and swivel LCD of the 60D and adds full manual control over audio levels. Costs are kept down below that of the EOS 60D by the use of a more basic AF system, a pentamirror rather than a pentaprism, extensive use of plastics in construction and a reduced feature set. However none of these affect image quality. The T3i is clearly aimed at the novice user, with “helper” screens available for most functions, but it’s also a very capable camera in the hands of more experienced users since the "helper’ messages can be turned off and almost all the camera defaults can be manually overridden.

So if you ‘re looking for a basic camera that will deliver the highest image quality at the lowest cost, the Canon Rebel T3i, (compare prices) (review) delivers the best bang for the buck in the Canon EOS lineup. It’s an excellent camera, user friendly and capable of yielding very high quality still images and very good 1080p HD video.

The T3i would be a good buy for the novice user who wants a camera that they can “grow into” with time and which can compete with more expensive cameras in terms of image quality. It would also make an excellent backup camera for Canon photographers with more advanced DSLRS since its small size and light weight make it easy to carry. Those features also make it an ideal camera for travel when combined with a small wide-to-tele zoom.

Where to buy

Canon Rebel T3i
Price as low as $499.00 from 2 retailers
$499.00
$499.00

Canon Rebel T3i, (compare prices) (review). The Rebel series historically represented an entry point into Canon’s SLRs, but that’s changed. The T3i can please a first-time dSLR user or an enthusiast with features and image quality. Most notable is the new articulated screen, relieving the user of the eye-level constraints of most dSLRs. In addition, features new to the Rebel line including the ability to shoot in different aspect ratios and wireless control of flash make this far more capable than prior Rebel models. Even more new features bring highly intelligent ‘beginner’ mode exposure control and advanced video features. In the specs department, you get Canon’s tried and true 18MP sensor along with ISO 12800 capability, which will meet the requirements of just about anything in front of the camera. Video gives HD quality, full manual control, and a ‘video snapshot’ mode that has to be used to see how much it simplifies post-editing. All in all, this is probably the best deal around in a crop sensor camera. From the Photo.net Editors’ Choice: Bodies equipment list 2011.


Text and photos © 2012 Bob Atkins.

Article revised September 2011.

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