Canon EOS Rebel T3i Review

Using the Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Record Mode

Flip the power switch and the Rebel T3i is ready to take photos immediately. The dust reduction system silently runs for about two or three seconds, though you can interrupt it at any time by pressing the shutter release button.

Autofocus speeds depend mainly on two things: whether you're using live view, and what lens is attached. When shooting with the optical viewfinder and 18 - 135 mm kit lens (which is what Canon sent along with my T3i), the camera locked focused quickly. Expect delays of 0.1 - 0.3 seconds at wide-angle, and 0.4 - 0.8 seconds at telephoto. In low light, the camera uses its built-in flash to illuminate your subject (which can be blinding), and focus times are typically around a second.

Focus performance is a much different story when using live view. I hate to say it Mr. Canon, but your cameras probably have the slowest contrast detect autofocus of any digital SLR. If you're using either of the "live" AF modes, you'll wait for one, two, or even three seconds for the camera to lock focus. Low light focusing is nearly impossible, due in large part to the fact that you can't use the AF-assist lamp. For a better live view focusing experience, switch to "Quick AF", which uses the camera's regular AF system (including the AF illuminator). You'll lose the live view while the camera is focusing, but the performance is much closer to what you get when using the viewfinder.

There isn't any shutter lag when shooting with the viewfinder, though there is tiny delay when using any of the live view modes.

Shot-to-shot delays are minimal, as you'd expect. You can just keep firing away, at least until the buffer fills up (which happens fairly quickly in RAW+JPEG mode). Adding the flash into the mix did not noticeable increase the shot-to-shot times.

You can delete a picture as it's being saved to the memory card by pressing the -- get ready -- delete photo button!

Now, here's a look at the image size and quality choices available on the Rebel T3i:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 4GB memory card
5184 x 3456
RAW + Fine JPEG 30.9 MB 110
RAW 24.5 MB 150
Fine 6.4 MB 570
Normal 3.2 MB 1120
3456 x 2304
Fine 3.4 MB 1070
Normal 1.7 MB 2100
Small 1
2592 x 1728
Fine 2.2 MB 1670
Normal 1.1 MB 3180
Small 2
1920 x 1280
Normal 1.3 MB 2780
Small 3
720 x 480
Normal 300 KB 10780

I've kept the above table as brief as possible, highlighting only the default 3:2 aspect ratio. You can also shoot at 4:3, 16:9, or 1:1, if you desire, but only in live view mode. The Rebel T3i can take RAW images alone, or with a Large/Fine JPEG. I explained the benefits of the RAW format earlier in this review.

The menu system is unchanged since the Rebel T2i, which makes it attractive and easy to navigate. Despite the addition of some beginner friendly features in other parts of the T3i's user interface, the menus lack any kind of help screen. The menus are divided up into various tabs, covering shooting, playback, setup/custom, and My Menu options. Keeping in mind that not all of these options are available in every shooting mode, here's the full list of options in the T3i's menu system (in the still shooting modes):

Shooting 1
  • Quality (See above chart)
  • Beep (on/off)
  • Release shutter without card (enable/disable) - whether you can take photos without a memory card installed
  • Image review (Off, 2, 4, 8 sec, hold)
  • Peripheral illumination correction (enable/disable) - reduces vignetting on modern Canon lenses
  • Redeye reduction (on/off)
  • Flash control
    • Flash firing (enable/disable)
    • E-TTL II metering (Evaluative, average)
    • Built-in flash function setting
      • Built-in flash (Normal firing, easy wireless, custom wireless)
      • Flash mode (E-TTL II) - not sure if you can adjust this one or not
      • Shutter sync (1st curtain, 2nd curtain)
      • Flash exposure compensation (-2EV to +2EV, 1/3EV increments)
    • External flash function setting - the next three options let you control your Speedlite right from the camera; options depend on which flash you're using
    • External flash custom settings
    • Clear external flash custom settings
Shooting 2
  • Exposure compensation / AE bracketing - see below
  • Auto Lighting Optimizer (Off, low, standard, strong) - see below
  • Metering mode (Evaluative, partial, spot, center-weighted)
  • Custom white balance - use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting conditions
  • WB shift/bracketing - see below
  • Color space (sRGB, Adobe RGB)
  • Picture Style (Auto, standard, portrait, landscape, neutral, faithful, monochrome, user defined 1/2/3) - described earlier

Shooting 3

  • Dust Delete Data - creates a dust map for use with the DPP software
  • ISO Auto (Max 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400) - set the maximum sensitivity the camera will use in Auto ISO mode

Shooting 4

  • Live view shooting (Enable/disable)
  • AF mode (Live mode, face detect live mode, quick mode) - I recommend the last option for best AF performance
  • Grid display (Off, 3 x 3, complex)
  • Aspect ratio (3:2, 4:3, 16:9, 1:1) - these are for live view only; RAW images are saved at 3:2 with the selected aspect ratio outlined
  • Metering timer (4, 16, 30 secs, 1, 10, 30 mins)
Playback 1
  • Protect images (Select images, all in folder, unprotect all in folder, all on card, unprotect all on card)
  • Rotate
  • Erase images (Select images, all in folder, all on card)
  • Print order - tag photos for printing
  • Creative filters (Grainy B&W, soft focus, fisheye effect, toy camera effect, miniature effect) - discussed later
  • Resize
Playback 2
  • Histogram (Brightness, RGB)
  • Image jump with control dial (1, 10, 100 images, date, folder, movies, stills, rating)
  • Slideshow
    • Display (All images, date, folder, movies, stills, rating)
    • Setup
      • Display time (1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20 secs)
      • Repeat (Enable/disable)
      • Transition effect (Off, slide-in 1/2, fade 1/2/3)
      • Background music (on/off) - you can load your own music using EOS Utility
  • Rating (Off, 1 - 5 stars) - new to the T3i
  • Bass boost (Enable/disable) - improves low frequency sound on the built-in speaker
  • Control over HDMI (Enable/disable) - whether you can control the camera with a compatible HDTVs remote control when connected over HDMI

Setup 1

  • Auto power off (Off, 30 secs, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15 mins)
  • Auto rotate (Camera+PC, PC only, off)
  • Format memory card
  • File numbering (Continuous, auto reset, manual reset)
  • Select folder
  • Screen color (1 - 4) - choose the colors of the info screen shown in record mode
  • Eye-Fi settings
    • Transmission (Enable/disable)
    • Connection information
Setup 2
  • LCD brightness (1-7)
  • LCD off/on button (Shutter release button, shutter/display buttons, remains on) - what turns the LCD info display off when shooting
  • Date/time
  • Language
  • Video system (NTSC, PAL)
  • Sensor cleaning
    • Auto cleaning (Enable/disable)
    • Clean now
    • Clean manually - flips the mirror up so you can use a blower
  • Feature guide (Enable/disable) - whether help screens are shown when you turn the mode dial or use the Quick Control menu

Setup 3

  • Custom functions
    1. Exposure level increments (1/3, 1/2 stop)
    2. ISO expansion (on/off) - opens up ISO 12,800
    3. Flash sync speed in Av mode (Auto, 1/200 - 1/60 sec auto, 1/200 sec fixed)
    4. Long exposure noise reduction (Off, auto, on)
    5. High ISO speed noise reduction (Standard, low, strong, disable)
    6. Highlight tone priority (on/off) - see below
    7. AF-assist beam firing (Enable, disable, only external flash emits, IR AF-assist beam only)
    8. Mirror lockup (enable/disable)
    9. Shutter/AE lock button (AF/AE lock, AE lock/AF, AF/AF lock + no AE lock, AE/AF + no AE lock) - define what these buttons do
    10. Assign Set button (Disabled, image quality, flash exposure comp, LCD on/off, menu, ISO speed)
    11. LCD display when power on (Display on, previous display status)
  • Copyright information - embed author name and copyright info into EXIF data
    • Display copyright info (Enable/disable)
    • Enter author's name
    • Enter copyright details
    • Delete copyright information
  • Clear settings
  • Firmware version

My Menu settings

  • Up to six of your favorite menu items can go here

Hopefully I've explained most of the menu options in the table above. Here are a few items that deserve some further explanation.

The AE bracketing feature takes three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. The exposure interval can be ±1/3EV, ±2/3EV, or ±1EV. If you've got a large memory card, this is a good way to ensure properly exposed photos every time. You'll see in a moment that the Rebel T3i can also bracket for white balance.

The Auto Lighting Optimizer feature brightens the dark areas of your photos. It's set to "standard" by default, and other options include low, strong, and off. Since Rebel T3i's sensor and image processor haven't changed since the T2i, I'm going to use the examples from that camera to illustrate this feature:

View Full Size Image
View Full Size Image
ALO Standard
View Full Size Image
ALO High
View Full Size Image

The first thing you might want to do is to compare the "Off" and the default "Standard" settings -- you can see that the Rebel is brightening things up straight out of the box. The high setting brightens things a bit more, though it's not over the top.

A somewhat related feature is highlight tone priority, which is buried in the custom settings menu. As its name implies, this feature (which is off by default) improves highlight detail. The catch is that the ISO is set to 200, which isn't a big deal on a digital SLR. Let's see how this feature performed in the real world, again using the Rebel T2i's examples:

Highlight tone priority off Highlight tone priority on

It's pretty clear that you get back some detail in the brighter parts of the Campanile with the highlight tone priority feature turned on. The image as a whole got darker, though, so you may end up needing to use the ALO feature that I just described to get some of it back.

WB shift and bracketing (at the same time, no less)

I already told you that the Rebel T3i has a custom white balance option that lets you use a white or gray card for accurate color in unusual lighting. You can fine-tune that (or any of the white balance presets), as you can see in the screenshot above. You can also bracket for white balance in the same way that you do for exposure. And, if you want, you can do both at the same time!

I'm going to take a break from menus for a while, getting back to movie and playback options a bit later. For now, let's do our photos tests. All of these were taken with the F3.5-5.6, 18 - 135 mm kit lens.

I've got no complaints about how the Rebel T3i handled our macro test subject. The figurine is sharp, yet still has the smooth appearance that one comes to expect from a Canon D-SLR. Colors look good, and I don't see any signs of noise.

The minimum focusing distance on any D-SLR depends on what lens your using. For both of the available kit lenses (18-55 and 18-135), that distance is 25 cm. If you want to get closer, you may want to consider buying a dedicated macro lens.

Usually I get out my 70-200 F4L IS lens whenever I test a Canon D-SLR, but this time I decided to see how the kit lens would fare, seeing how most Rebel owners aren't going to drop $1350 on a telephoto lens. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. The photo taken with the 18 - 135 mm kit lens is soft (especially toward the edges of the frame), and loaded with purple fringing (click here to see how the Rebel T2i and the aforementioned 70-200 did with the same scene). Aside from those lens-related issues, the camera did take in plenty of light, as you'd expect given its full manual controls. The scene is a bit brown (something I also saw in my indoor church shot), and you'll find some highlight clipping in places, too.

Now, let's use that same scene to see how the Rebel T3i performs at higher sensitivities:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12800 (H)

Everything is very clean through ISO 400. At ISO 800 you can start to see just a bit of detail loss, but that shouldn't prevent you from making a midsize or large print at that sensitivity. Noise becomes more obvious at ISO 1600, reducing your print sizes a bit. The edges of the buildings start to fade in the background at ISO 3200, so this is probably a good place to stop, or switch to RAW (see below). The two highest sensitivities are too noisy to be usable, at least as JPEGs.

Alright, let's see if we can't clean up the ISO 3200 and 6400 images by shooting RAW and doing some easy post-processing in Photoshop:

ISO 3200

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

The first thing you'll probably notice about the RAW conversions is how much highlight detail you get back. The blown out US Bank sign is a lot more readable now, though the purple fringing caused by the lens is still visible. The RAW conversions do have a lot more noise, but after a trip through NeatImage and some sharpening, the results are much better than the original JPEGs.

We'll check the T3i's noise performance in normal lighting in a moment.

I've always had trouble with redeye on the Rebel-series cameras, and the T3i continues that tradition. If you ask me, I think it's because Canon relies on a pretty weak redeye reduction lamp on the front of the camera (rather than the flash) to shrink your subject's pupils. Unfortunately, there's no tool to remove redeye in playback mode, so you'll have to fix this annoyance on your computer.

There's pretty strong barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 135 mm kit lens. You can see the effects of this distortion by looking at the building on the right side of this photo. While this lens doesn't have an issue with vignetting (and I'm sure the peripheral illumination correction feature has something to do with that), you will encounter some corner blurring. You'll experience many of the same issues on the 18 - 55 mm kit lens (see the Rebel T2i review for more).

And now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare the results of this test with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Since this is such a high resolution camera, only a small part of the image is shown in the crops below, so be sure to view the full size images as well! And with that, let's take a look at the T3i's high ISO performance in normal lighting:

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

You won't find a hint of noise until you reach ISO 1600. Even then, there's very little to talk about. Noise becomes more apparent at ISO 3200 and there's a drop in color saturation, but still, very usable. Even ISO 6400 can be used for small prints. As for the ISO 12800 photo, I'd probably pass on that. Unless... you shoot RAW.

Below you can see the ISO 6400 and 12800 photos as both original JPEGs and as RAW conversions (with and without post-processing). You already saw how spending a few minutes in Photoshop can improve the Rebel's image quality in low light -- now here's what you can do in better lighting:

ISO 6400

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
ISO 12800

JPEG, straight out of the camera

RAW -> JPEG conversion (Adobe Camera Raw 6.4 RC)

RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask

There's not much to say -- there's a big improvement to be had by shooting RAW at high ISOs and doing some easy post-processing on your computer. You still won't be printing posters of that ISO 12800 photo, but its still noticeably better than the original JPEG!

Overall, I was very pleased with the image quality on the Rebel T3i, just as I was with the T2i that came before it. As with any digital SLR, photo quality is only as good as the lens you're using, and neither of the kit lenses will win any awards for sharpness. Exposure was accurate most of the time, though you will encounter some highlight clipping from time-to-time. Colors look nice and saturated -- no complaints there. The Rebel produces very "smooth" looking photos, and kit lenses make things look a little soft. You can try using an aperture around F8, or just increase the in-camera sharpening to improve things a bit. As the previous test illustrated, the T3i keeps noise away for a very long time, so there's no need to avoid high sensitivities (and again, you'll get the best results by using the RAW format at high ISOs). Purple fringing was an issue at times with the 18 - 135 mm kit lens, and not so much with the 18-55.

Now it's time for you to take a look at our Rebel T3i photo gallery. View the photos, perhaps print a few, and then decide if the quality meets your needs!

Movie Mode

The movie mode on the Rebel T3i is mostly the same as it was on the T2i. You can record Full HD video at 1920 x 1080 (at 24 or 30 frames/sec) with monaural sound. If you want stereo sound, you can attach a microphone to the port on the side of the camera. You can keep recording for up to 30 minutes or 4GB, whichever comes first. As you might imagine, at the 1080p30 setting you'll hit the file size limit in a lot less time than 30 minutes -- 11 minutes, to be exact.

If you don't need to shoot at 1080p, there are a few other resolutions available, including 1280 x 720 and 640 x 480, both of which have a frame rate of 60 fps.

The Rebel can shoot movies automatically, or with manual controls. If you turn on manual controls you can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or ISO. You can also manually adjust the microphone level, or turn on a wind filter. One thing the Rebel can't do is focus continuously while recording a movie. You can use the shutter release button to get the camera to focus (though you'll see and hear it "hunting" on your video) or you can just do it manually.

As with most cameras, you can take a still image while the camera is recording video. Two other features of note are movie digital zoom, which gives you use 3X to 10X of extra zoom power, though video quality may be degraded if you use too much of it. Another feature is called Video Snapshot, which lets you take short (2, 4, or 8 second) videos which you can later compile into an album.

Canon uses the H.264 codec for the Rebel T3i's videos. While that's better than Motion JPEG, it still eats up 330MB worth of your memory card for every minute of HD video. Thus, you'll want a large and fast (Class 6 or higher) memory card if you'll be taking a lot of Full HD videos.

I have a pair of action-packed sample movies, both of which were taken at the 1080p30 setting. For each you can view the original movie, or a downsized 720p version that'll download a lot quicker. Enjoy!

Click to view original movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 70.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to view recompressed movie (1280 x 720, 30 fps, 14.4 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Click to view original movie (1920 x 1080, 30 fps, 73.1 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)
Click to view recompressed movie (1280 x 720, 30 fps, 15.8 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Playback Mode

The Rebel T3i's playback mode has a more elaborate playback mode than that of its predecessor. Basic features include slideshows, image protection, DPOF print marking, thumbnail view, and playback zoom. The slideshow feature now supports filtering, transitions, and background music (which you can copy over from your Mac or PC).

In addition to moving through photos one at a time, you can use the command dial to "jump" through photos in groups of 10 or 100, by date, rating, or file format (movie or still).

Photos can be rotated and resized, but not cropped (unless you're connected to a printer, which is also when a redeye correction tool becomes available). As I hinted at in the previous paragraph, you can rate photos on a scale of one to five stars, which helps you find your favorite pictures with ease. Movie editing consists of a function to remove unwanted footage from the beginning or end of a clip.

Creative Filters

A new feature on the Rebel T3i is called Creative Filters, which should look pretty familiar, as most other D-SLR and interchangeable lens cameras have something like this these days. There are five filters to choose from, including grainy black & white, soft focus, fisheye, toy camera effect, and miniature effect. For many of these you can adjust how strong the filter effect is.

By default, the Rebel T3i doesn't tell you much about your photos, but if you press the Display button, you'll see a lot more, including your choice of histograms.

The camera moves through photos instantly, as you'd expect on a D-SLR.