Canon EOS Rebel T3i Review

Look and Feel

While it's steadily been getting larger over the years, the Rebel T3i is still a fairly compact digital SLR. Its body is matte black plastic on the outside, and there's a stainless steel frame on the inside. That gives it a fairly solid feel, and that goes for all of the camera's ports and doors. One thing I don't like about the finish on the camera is that it tends to scratch very easily, leaving a white residue behind. Thankfully, you can just wipe it away.

The T3i doesn't have a huge right hand grip, though it has a rubberized finish that makes it fairly easy to hold onto. Controls are well-placed and generally perform just one function.

The Rebel T2i (left) versus the T3i
Images courtesy of Canon USA

The only real place you'll notice a difference between the Rebel T2i and T3i is when you look at their back views. The T3i, of course, has a new swiveling LCD display, which adds a little extra bulk to the camera. It also loses the eye sensor that was on the T2i, which turned off the LCD info display when you used the viewfinder (that function is now handled by a button). The button design has also changed slightly on the Rebel T3i.

Now, here's a look at how the Rebel T3i compares to other entry-level digital SLRs and interchangeable lens cameras in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T2i 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.0 in. 58.1 cu in. 475 g
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 in. 62.9 cu in. 515 g
Nikon D5100 5.0 x 3.8 x 3.1 in. 58.9 cu in. 510 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2 4.9 x 3.5 x 3.0 in. 51.5 cu in. 392 g
Pentax K-r 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.7 in. 50.3 cu in. 544 g
Samsung NX11 4.8 x 3.4 x 1.6 in. 26.1 cu in. 353 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A580 5.4 x 4.1 x 3.3 in. 73.1 cu in. 599 g

The first thing to see is that, as I just mentioned, the Rebel T3i is both larger and heavier than its predecessor -- no doubt due to the swiveling LCD. Compared to other D-SLRs, the T3i is on the large side, with only the Sony Alpha DSLR-A580 coming in above it. Naturally, the two mirrorless ILCs are quite a bit smaller and lighter.

Ready to tour the Rebel T3i now? So am I, so let's get started!

Front of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

The first thing to talk about is the Rebel T3i's lens mount, which supports both EF and EF-S lenses. The red dot at the 12 o'clock position is where you line up EF lenses, while the smaller EF-S lenses attach to the white square at around 1 o'clock. Whichever type of lens you use, the 1.6X focal length conversion ratio is the same. Thus, that 18 - 55 mm kit lens has a field of view of 28.8 - 88 mm. Since the camera doesn't have built-in image stabilization like some of its peers, you'll need to buy a lens with that useful feature -- thankfully, Canon makes a lot of them. To release an attached lens, simply press the button located to the right of the lens mount.

The Rebel T3i has the same EOS Integrated Cleaning System as its predecessor. The first line of defense is an anti-static coating on the sensor, which helps to repel dust. Any does that does collect will probably fall off when the camera sends ultrasonic vibrations through the sensor when you turn the camera on or off. If you still have dust after all that, then you can create a "Dust Delete Data" file, which you import into the Digital Photography Professional software. The camera will then automatically remove those dust spots from your images.

Directly above the lens mount is the Rebel's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 13 meters at ISO 100, which is unchanged since the Rebel T1i. This is as powerful of a built-in flash as you'll find on an entry-level digital SLR. Should you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that I'll discuss in a moment. One major addition to the T3i is support for wireless flash control, which allows you to have two sets of off-camera Speedlites.

The flash is also used as the camera's AF-assist lamp, firing quick bursts of light to help the camera lock focus. This system is quite effective, though the light can be distracting to your subject. If you don't actually want to take a flash picture, you can simply close the flash after focusing is complete. Do note that the AF-assist lamp is not available in the contrast detect live view modes.

Over on the grip, you'll find the receiver for the optional wireless remote, with the shutter release button above it. Next to the shutter release button is the redeye reduction / self-timer lamp.

Here's a look at the most significant new feature on the Rebel T3i: it's rotating LCD display. This feature, first found on the EOS-60D, allows you to take pictures with the camera above or below you (or take self-portraits) with ease. The LCD rotates a total of 270 degrees, from facing your subject all the way around to facing the ground. It can also go in the traditional position seen below, or closed entirely.

Back of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

Here's the LCD in the traditional position. As far as I know, the screen itself is unchanged from the one on the Rebel T2i, aside from the ability to rotate. The screen packs an incredible 1.04 million pixels, and sharpness is leaps and bounds above the LCDs on most cameras in this class. The screen also has a 3:2 aspect ratio, compared to the 4:3 displays found on most D-SLRs. Outdoor visibility is good, but not spectacular.

The live view can be pretty crowded, if you want The Quick Menu can be used to adjust certain settings in live view

As you'd expect, the LCD isn't just for reviewing photos you've taken and navigating menus -- you can also use it for composing your photos. This "live view" feature -- unchanged since the Rebel T2i -- lets you preview exposure (complete with histogram), white balance, color, and focus . Things can get a little crowded, especially if you have the histogram turned on, but you can hit the Display button to reduce how much is shown. An overlay-style menu is needed to adjust certain settings, as the four-way controller is now used for setting the focus point. Press the Quick Menu button and you can adjust the AF and drive mode, white balance, Picture Style, Auto Lighting Optimizer, image size/quality, and flash setting.

Zoomed-in 10X in live view

As you'd expect, the view on the LCD is very sharp, which comes in especially handy when you're zoomed in for manual focus. You can enlarge the frame by 5X or 10X and then move around it, to make sure your subject is precisely focused. As I just mentioned, outdoor visibility is just okay. Low light visibility is better, with the screen "gaining up" nicely in those situations.

There are three focus modes to choose from when using live view: live, live w/face detection, and quick. The first two use the camera's CMOS sensor for contrast detect autofocus, which is very slow -- you'll usually wait for two or three seconds before the camera locks focus. If you've chosen the face detection option, the camera will highlight a face that it finds, and if there is more than one, there will be little arrows on the side of the box. You can then use the four-way controller to move between each of the selected faces.

The other live view AF mode -- and my personal favorite -- is called Quick AF. This flips the mirror down (which turns off live view for a moment), uses the camera's AF sensor to focus, flips the mirror back up, and returns to the live view. Focusing is much faster, if you don't mind the brief live view blackout. This mode is the only one that allows you to use the Rebel T3i's AF-assist lamp in live view.

Whichever AF mode you choose, focusing is as simple as halfway-pressing the shutter release button -- just like on your point-and-shoot camera.

The shooting info screen -- and how you can change settings by using the Quick Control button

When you're using the viewfinder to compose your photos, the LCD turns into an information display. Not only does it display all relevant shooting information -- you can also adjust whatever you see here by pressing the Quick Control button and using the four-way controller.

Now let's get back to the tour. The Rebel T3i's optical viewfinder is slightly smaller than the one on its predecessor, with a magnification of 0.85x (versus 0.87x). Frame coverage remains at 95%. The nine focus points on the screen are illuminated with red dots, which are easy to see outdoors. Below the field-of-view is a line of green data that shows AE/AF lock, shutter speed and aperture, shots remaining, ISO speed, and more. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction dial that's on the top-right of the viewfinder.

To the left of the viewfinder are buttons for entering the Menu and toggling the information displayed on the LCD. Jumping to the opposite side, we find the dedicated live view / movie recording button. In all of the shooting modes except for movie mode, pressing this button will activate live view. In movie mode, you'll press this button once to start recording, and again to stop.

Continuing to the right, we find buttons for AE/AF lock and focus point selection. The focus point selection button lets you choose which of the nine focus points in the frame on which to focus. These two buttons are also used for zooming in and out in both live view and playback mode. Just under those buttons is the Rebel T3i's speaker.

Moving closer to the LCD now, the first button of note is for adjusting the aperture (Av) or exposure compensation. Since the T3i has just one control dial (on the top), you'll have to hold down this button to adjust the aperture when you're in manual mode. Underneath that is the Quick Control button, which opens that shortcut menu that I showed you earlier. When you're connected to a printer, this button will handle Direct Printing duties.

Next up is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation, reviewing photos you've taken, and also:

  • Up - White balance (Auto, daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, flash, custom)
  • Down - Picture Style (Auto, standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful, monochrome, user defined 1/2/3)
  • Left - Drive (Single, continuous, 10 sec self-timer/remote, 2 sec self-timer, continuous self-timer)
  • Right - AF (One shot, AI focus, AI servo)
  • Center - Set

Before I tell you about those features, I should point out that those things I Just listed only work when shooting with the viewfinder. To access those settings in live view, you need to use the Quick Menu. At first glance, the Rebel T3i has some pretty standard-looking white balance controls, but there's more to see later when we get to the menus. The usual presets are here, plus a custom spot that lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting. There's no way to set the color temperature, though.

The T3's Picture Styles Adjusting the sharpness of the portrait Picture Style

The Picture Style feature is more-or-less unchanged compared to the Rebel T2i. A Picture Style is a set of image parameters such as sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone. In monochrome mode, you can also select filter (yellow, orange, red, green) and toning (sepia, blue, purple, green) effects. There are several preset Picture Styles -- including a new auto (scene-based) style -- and you can adjust each of them to your heart's content. There are also three custom Picture Styles that you can use. If that's still not enough, you can create a Style on your Mac or PC and copy it over to the camera.

That brings us to the Rebel T3i's continuous shooting mode, which should be the same as its predecessor. Let's take a look:

Quality setting Performance
RAW+ Large/Fine JPEG 4 shots @ 3.6 frames/sec
RAW 6 shots @ 3.7 frames/sec
JPEG (Large/Fine) 18 shots @ 3.7 frames/sec
Tested with a SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-I SDHC card

The Rebel T3i won't win any awards for its burst rate or the amount of photos you can take sequentially, but then again, this is an entry-level camera. I was able to get the advertised speeds this time, compared to the T2i where things were a bit slower. Of course, this time I was using the fastest memory card known to man, which writes at 45MB/sec. When the camera does fill up its buffer, it doesn't stop shooting -- it just slows down considerably. If you're using the burst mode with live view, the screen will go black after the first photo.

The only other option I want to mention in the Drive menu is continuous self-timer. This unique feature lets you select how many photos the camera takes after an initial 10 second delay.

What are those three AF modes all about? One shot AF is what most of you are used to: press the shutter release halfway, and the camera locks the focus. AI servo will track a moving subject, even with the shutter release halfway-pressed. The AI focus option will select from either of those, depending on what's happening in the scene.

Completing our look at the back of the Rebel T3i, the last two buttons of note are for entering playback mode or deleting a photo.

Top of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

The first thing to see on the top of the Rebel T3i is its hot shoe. As you'd expect, the camera works best with Canon's EX-series Speedlites, which take advantage of its E-TTL II metering system. These flashes also allow you to control their settings right from the camera, and you can use any shutter speed that you'd like. If you're not using a Canon flash, you'll probably have to set its exposure manually. You're also limited to a maximum sync speed of 1/200 sec, and you cannot use it with live view. As I mentioned earlier, the Rebel T3i now has the ability to control wireless flashes -- up to two sets worth.

The Rebel T3i describes each item on the mode dial as you rotate it

To the right of the hot shoe is the camera's hot shoe, which has the power switch underneath it. The mode dial is packed full of options, which include:

Option Function
Movie mode I'll tell you all about this later
Night portrait Believe it or not, these are all of the scene modes on the Rebel T3i
Creative auto mode Another point-and-shoot mode, with some pseudo-manual controls (see below)
Flash off Disables the flash, including AF-assist functionality
Scene Intelligent Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with auto scene selection. Most menu options locked up.
Program mode Still point-and-shoot (minus scene selection), but with full menu access. A Program Shift feature lets you use the command dial to move through various shutter speed/aperture combinations.
Shutter priority (Tv) mode You set the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture. The shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority (Av) mode You set the aperture, and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed. The aperture range will vary depending on your choice of lens.
Full manual (M) mode You select both the shutter speed and aperture, with the same ranges as above. A bulb mode is also available, allowing you to take exposures for as long as the shutter release button is held down (remote release strongly recommended).
Auto depth-of-field (A-Dep) mode The camera will attempt to make sure all detected subjects are properly focused.

There are two auto modes on the Rebel T3i. The first is the new Scene Intelligent Auto (A+) mode. In this mode, the camera will analyze the scene, and select the appropriate settings. The camera doesn't actually tell you what scene was chosen, as far as I can tell. If you want to manually select a scene mode, there are just five to choose from, though thankfully they're the most common ones.

The simplified info screen on the LCD while in Creative Auto mode Adjusting the aperture... I mean background blur

If you want something sort of in-between automatic and manual, then give the Creative Auto mode a try. This mode lets you adjust both color and depth-of-field without having to know what Picture Styles or aperture are. Instead, the camera calls these things "ambiance" and "background", which should make a lot more sense to beginners.

As for manual exposure controls, the Rebel T3i offers the usual options. You can set the aperture, shutter speed, or both. There's also a bulb mode for long exposures, though do yourself a favor and get the shutter release cable, unless you have incredible finger endurance.

Above the mode dial are the Display and ISO buttons. The Display button used to be where the Info button is now, and its function has changed from toggling the information shown on the LCD to simply turning the display on and off. In other words, it replaces the now-gone eye sensor. The ISO button will let you select from Auto, or a range of 100 - 12,800 (high). The Auto range will vary, depending on what shooting mode you're using.

Just north of the Display and ISO buttons is the T3i's sole control dial, which you'll use for adjusting exposure settings, selecting a focus point, navigating through menus, or jumping through photos you've taken. Above that is the camera's shutter release button.

Side of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

The first thing to point out in this side view of the Rebel T3i are the AF/MF and image stabilizer switches on the 18 - 135 mm kit lens (the other kit lens has the same things).

Moving to the right, you'll find the flash release and depth-of-field preview buttons.

At the far right, under a pair of rubber covers, are the Rebel T3i's I/O ports. They include:

  • Remote control
  • External mic input
  • A/V + USB output
  • Mini-HDMI

The 18 - 135 mm kit lens is at the wide-angle position here.

Side of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

On the opposite side you'll find the SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot, which is protected by a plastic door of average quality.

The 18-135 lens is looking pretty huge at its full telephoto position.

Bottom of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i

Our tour ends with a look at the bottom of the Rebel T3i. Here you'll find a metal tripod mount -- in line with the lens, of course -- and the battery compartment. The door over the battery compartment is also of average quality, and pops off fairly easily, which is something you need to do in order to attach the optional battery grip.

The included LP-E8 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.