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Canon EOS Rebel T1i Review

How Does it Compare?

Ever since the release of the original Digital Rebel in 2003, you couldn't really go wrong buying any iter of Canon's entry-level digital SLR. Not surprisingly, things haven't changed in 2009: the new EOS Rebel T1i is a very capable digital SLR that not only takes great pictures -- it can record HD videos, as well (with limitations). Other nice features on the T1i include a 3-inch, high resolution LCD, a nice mix of automatic and manual controls, and the expandability that one would expect from a digital SLR. With tough competition, the Rebel T1i isn't leaps and bounds ahead of the competition like previous models once were. However, it remains a solid choice for those looking for a compact, fairly inexpensive digital SLR.

The EOS Rebel T1i doesn't look a whole lot different than the Rebel XSi that came before it. The most noticeable changes are the addition of a microphone and speaker, though the LCD has been improvement significantly, as well. The T1i is compact by D-SLR standards, and those of you with large hands will want to try one out in person before you buy, as the grip is on the small side. The body is on the "plasticky" side, giving the camera a bit of a "cheap" feel, though I don't think it's going to fall apart on you. Like the other Rebel cameras, the T1i supports all EF and EF-S lenses, with a 1.6X focal length conversion ratio. On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch LCD display with a whopping 920,000 pixels. As you'd expect, the screen is very sharp, with the menus looking especially nice. As you'd expect in 2009, you can use the LCD to compose your photos using a feature known as live view. In live view mode you can preview exposure and white balance, superimpose a composition grid, or display a histogram. There are three focus modes to choose from, though two of them use contrast detection, which is very slow (use quick mode for a better experience). You can also enlarge the frame on the LCD, allowing for precise manual focusing. If you want to shoot the more traditional way, you'll find a good-sized optical viewfinder with 95% coverage and a 0.92X magnification. In terms of accessories, the T1i supports an external flash (via hot shoe only), a wired or wireless remote, and a battery grip. Like many D-SLRs, the camera has an HDMI port for connecting to an HDTV.

With the exception of the new movie recording option, the feature set on the Rebel T1i isn't a whole lot different than the Rebel XSi. Point-and-shoot features include a regular auto mode, a Creative Auto mode that has some cleverly disguised manual controls, and a couple of scene modes thrown in for good measure. If you want manual controls, you'll find a good set of them. You've got control over shutter speed and aperture, white balance (including fine-tuning and bracketing), and focus (of course). About the only thing you cannot do is set the white balance by color temperature. The T1i supports the RAW image format, and Canon includes good editing software (Digital Photo Professional) to work with those files. They also include software which lets you control the camera from your computer -- other manufacturers charge $100 or more for this functionality. Some other handy photo-related features include highlight tone priority mode (which reduces highlight clipping) and Auto Lighting Optimizer (which boosts shadow detail).

As you probably know by now, the Rebel T1i can record movies. While the resolution is Full HD (1920 x 1080), the frame rate is not: the camera records at a choppy 20 frames/second. This frame rate also makes editing videos on your computer difficult, at least on the Mac side. The camera doesn't have any onboard video editing tools, either. Anyhow, the camera keeps recording until the file size reaches 4GB, which takes about 12 minutes. For longer movies, you'll have to drop the resolution to either 1280 x 720 or 640 x 480, both of which have 30 fps frame rates. Monaural sound is recorded along with the video, though a wind screen feature would've been nice. Obviously, you can zoom the lens in and out to your heart's content, but since the camera doesn't focus continuously, you'll have to do it yourself, or let the AF system run briefly (which makes your videos look a little funny for a few seconds). Video quality is decent, though I don't think you'll be throwing away your HD camcorder anytime soon.

Camera performance was solid in most respects. The T1i is ready to start shooting as soon as you flip the power switch, though you'll be interrupting the dust reduction system if you don't wait for about a second. Focusing with the viewfinder was quick -- you'll wait for between 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle, and 0.5 - 0.8 seconds at telephoto (with the kit lens). In low light, focus times stay under 1 second if you're using the flash-based AF-assist lamp, though they can be longer if you don't. Live view AF isn't nearly as impressive. For best results, you'll want to use the quick AF mode, which is just a bit slower than the viewfinder. The two live modes (one of which has face detection) are very slow, with focus times in the seconds -- and that's in good light. Shutter lag isn't a problem in most situations, except if you're using the aforementioned live AF mode, which adds a delay of about a second before the photo is taken. Shot-to-shot delays were minimal, regardless of whether you're using the flash. The T1i's continuous shooting mode is good, though there are better cameras out there. The buffer fills a bit quicker than I would've expected, especially when taking JPEGs. The Rebel T1i's battery life is 20% lower than on the Rebel XSi, and below average for its class.

Photo quality has always been a strong point of Canon D-SLRs, and that's generally true with the T1i. The Rebel T1i takes well-exposed photos, though it does clip highlights a bit more than I'd like. Colors were pleasing the majority of the time, except with the night and indoor church shots, which had noticeable brown color casts. As with other Canon D-SLRs, images straight out of the camera are on the soft side. You can bump up the in-camera sharpening by using the Picture Styles feature if you think so too. The camera keeps noise levels very low -- you won't have an issue with it until ISO 1600 in low light and ISO 3200 in normal lighting. Higher sensitivities are quite usable if you don't mind shooting RAW and post-processing a bit. Like with its predecessors, the Rebel T1i has a bit of redeye problem, and there's no way to remove it on the camera. Purple fringing levels were fairly low.

While it's not perfect, the Canon EOS Rebel T1i (also known as the EOS-500D) is a well-designed, compact digital SLR that takes good quality photos and videos. Whether you're just starting out or upgrading from an older Canon D-SLR, it's well worth a look. However, do check out the competition closely, as there are many great cameras in the entry-level category.

What I liked:

  • Very good photo quality (though see issues below)
  • Excellent high ISO performance
  • Compact body by D-SLR standards
  • Large, super high resolution 3-inch LCD display
  • Live view with contrast detect AF, face detection, composition grids, live histogram, and frame enlargement
  • Dust reduction system
  • Generally snappy performance
  • Plenty of manual controls; customizable "My Menu"
  • RAW format supported; good editing software included
  • Useful highlight tone priority and Auto Lighting Optimizer features
  • Can record movies at 1920 x 1080, with sound for up to 12 minutes (continuously)
  • Remote capture software included; supports live view and movie recording
  • Optional battery grip (that supports AA batteries, too)
  • HDMI port

What I didn't care for:

  • Soft JPEGs at default settings; clips highlights more than I'd like
  • Plastic, cheap-feeling body; small grip not for everyone
  • Redeye a problem
  • Live view issues: slow contrast detect AF; AF-assist not always available; can only use in P/A/S/M/A-Dep modes
  • Movie mode issues: sluggish frame rate at Full HD setting; not easy to edit; no continuous AF
  • Continuous shooting mode could be better
  • Below average battery life

Some other entry-level digital SLRs to consider include the Nikon D5000, Olympus E-620, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 (I suppose), Pentax K20D, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics stores to try out the Rebel T1i and its competitors before you buy!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.