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Canon EOS Rebel T3i Review

by Shawn Barnett, , Zig Weidelich, and Mike Tomkins
Hands-on Preview Posted: 02/07/2011
Test shots from production sample (with updated crops): 03/30/2011
Review Posted:

Just as the Canon 60D was aimed squarely at the Nikon D90 and D7000, the new Canon Rebel T3i has the D5000 and D5100 in its sights. We've now spent quite a lot of time with the Canon T3i, which sports a swiveling LCD screen and a slightly heftier build, and both looks and feels a little more serious than past models. Bundled with a new 18-55mm IS II kit lens, or the 18-135mm IS lens that's also available with the 60D, the new T3i looks and feels like its prosumer sibling, except for the grip spacing. It'll be ideal for those with small to medium hands, but those with larger hands might be more comfortable with the 60D.

Indeed, the major differences between the T3i and 60D are few. It's down to frame rate (3.7 vs. 5.3 fps), maximum shutter speed (1/4,000 vs. 1/8,000), AF sophistication (only one cross-type vs. all nine cross-type), viewfinder size (0.85x vs. 0.95x), buffer depth, battery type, and grip size. There are other, more minor differences, but those are the big items. As such, the T3i seems like a pretty good deal.

Compared to the T2i, the T3i adds the swivel screen, the new lens, more reduced-resolution JPEG options, and an Auto Picture Style mode. The Canon T3i (body with battery and card) also weighs a little more than the T2i, coming in at 20.6 ounces (583g) compared to the T2i's 18.5 ounces (525g). As mentioned, it's a few millimeters larger in all dimensions: 133.1 x 99.5 x 79.7, compared to 128.8 x 97.5 x 75.3. Some of those differences will matter, and I think many fans of swivel screens will opt for the T3i, while those who don't like them can settle happily into a T2i without feeling like they're missing a lot.

Walkaround. At a glance, the Canon T3i looks very much like the 60D. That's especially true when I have the 18-135mm lens mounted, which feels quite at home on the T3i. Even picking it up, though the grip is smaller, the texture is very much like the 60D's, which is very grippy with a good leather feel.

With the new 18-55mm lens attached, the T3i is much lighter. On the front we find the usual fare: an aggressively canted shutter button, an IR remote port on the front, and a self-timer lamp all in close proximity. On the right there's the flash release button, a four hole microphone grill, the lens release button, and the depth-of-field preview button. Not too different from the T2i at this point.

The top of the Canon T3i, too, is pretty similar to the T2i, with changes on the Mode dial and a new Display button just left of the ISO button. The purpose for this seems to be to turn off the rear LCD display when you're approaching the optical viewfinder, preventing night blindness, since the infrared switch is now missing from the rear of the camera.

The IR proximity sensor was displaced, of course, by the addition of the Canon T3i's 3-inch Vari-angle screen, whose specs match those of the 60D's LCD: 3:2 aspect ratio, 1,040,000-dot resolution, scratch-resistant fluorine coating, and the ClearView display technology that sandwiches a layer of optical elastic material between the coverglass for a remarkably crisp image both indoors and out. Controls on the back are a little smaller compared to those on the T2i, as they've had to move over a bit to make room for the hinge and frame around the LCD. The Menu button is off to the left for thumb actuation, and the Info. button is where the old Display button used to be. Otherwise, buttons are in the generally same position, a bonus for those upgrading from a T2i. There's also a little less of a thumbpad, but the design still allows for a secure hold.

When in all but Movie mode, the small round button just right of the viewfinder serves as the Live View activation button; when in Movie mode, you use this button to start and stop recording. You cannot start recording a movie when in still capture modes, but you can capture a still image while shooting a movie. You can also autofocus while shooting a movie. More on Movie mode below.

The Canon T3i isn't necessarily a compelling upgrade for T2i owners, but it does offer a lot for those who might have been considering a 60D for its swivel screen and more advanced Movie mode. It feels a little more substantial in the hand than the T2i.

Sensor and processor. There's little new about the Canon T3i's sensor and processor combination. Representatives mentioned that they've again reduced the gap between the microlenses, as they've said many times in the past, but they were declared gapless a few versions back, so it's tough to know how much more gapless they can get. We're guessing that it's the same four-channel readout as is found in the T2i's sensor, as the frame rate is the same 3.7 frames per second rating. (We measured 3.6 fps for L/F JPEG or RAW, 3.3 for RAW+L/F JPEG.) Maximum image size in pixels is 5,184 x 3,456, with a pixel pitch of 4.3µm.

According to Canon, the Rebel T3i's DIGIC 4 processor and buffer enables capture of about 34 large/fine JPEG images, six RAW frames, and four RAW+JPEG frames. With our tough compression target, we measured only nine, five, and three frames respectively. DIGIC 4 also allows capture of 14-bit RAW images, and the 8-bit JPEGs are created from 14-bit data.

Peripheral illumination correction. Vignetting, a darkening of the corners produced by some lens designs, is reduced via Peripheral Illumination Correction in the Canon T3i. Using a database of lenses, the amount of correction is customized for each lens mounted. Selecting the item from the menu brings up a screen where you can see which lens the camera detected, and whether correction data is available. You can then choose to disable the correction if the wrong lens is showing (as sometimes happens with non-Canon lenses), or else re-enable it.

Autofocus. The Canon T3i offers nine-point focusing with a central cross-type f/2.8 focus point and eight single-axis points. Though the number of AF points is the same as the 60D, the later has a significant advantage in that all of its AF points are cross-type, which are sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail. The focusing screen is of the etched variety, with boxes surrounding dots, which light up red to confirm focus.

Metering. The Canon T3i inherits Canon's latest metering system, previously seen in the EOS 7D, T2i, and 60D. It's a 63-zone iFCL sensor, which stands for Intelligent Focus, Color, and Luminance metering. The name hints at how the sensor works: the iFCL chip has a dual-layer design with each layer sensitive to different wavelengths of light, allowing subject color to be taken into account when determining exposure. Information on focusing points is also taken into account in metering calculations. In this area, the Canon T3i, T2i, and 60D's iFCL chip differs from that of the EOS 7D.

ISO Expansion. The Canon T3i has an expanded sensitivity range, from a minimum of ISO 100 to a maximum of ISO 12,800. You have to enable ISO Expansion via a Custom Function setting. Instead of offering EV compensation from -2.0 to +2.0 as do some cameras, the T3i offers a much wider +/-5.0EV exposure compensation range.

CA and A+. CA mode is relatively familiar, giving the more novice user an easy way to adjust the exposure, flash, resolution, drive mode, and Picture Style. Setting aperture and shutter speed are converted to simpler concepts of background blur (blurred or sharp), and exposure level (darker or brighter) with a slider that's adjusted with the Main dial. The more complex exposure decisions remain under the Canon T3i's control in CA mode. The exposure slider is the more useful, standing in as a more comprehensible EV adjustment.

What's new is the Auto+ mode (A+ on the Mode dial), which is similar to Smart Auto on Canon PowerShot cameras. Employing what Canon calls EOS Scene Detection Technology, the new setting replaces the old "Green Zone" Auto icon. Auto+ combines information from five of the Canon T3i's systems, including Auto Exposure, Autofocus, Auto White Balance, Auto Lighting Optimizer, and Picture Style Auto into one smart exposure mode, according to Canon.

Picture Style Auto is a separate setting of its own, naturally selected as one of the Picture Styles, which you can bring up either via the down arrow on the back of the camera or through the Quick menu, or even the main menu. With this new setting, the camera will consider the scene and change the Picture Style accordingly.

Live View. Of course, the Canon T3i offers Live View mode, a fairly mature mode at this point, with contrast-detect focus as well as Quick AF focus, which uses the camera's phase-detect autofocus system. It seems pretty full-featured as Live View modes go. You can move the AF point around, you can switch between Contrast-detect and Phase-detect (Quick AF) modes, and you can even zoom in to 10x. Activating it is as easy as pressing the Live View/Record button on the back.

The Canon T3i has the best excuse for using Live View mode: its swiveling LCD screen, which allows you to compose images from odd angles. You won't want to use it all the time, because both autofocus methods are slower than autofocusing through the optical viewfinder, but when you need it, both the swiveling LCD and Live View mode are ready for action. Be aware that Live View mode also burns through battery life, typically cutting the number of shots per charge by more than half.

Movie mode. While the T2i included significant upgrades to Movie mode, the Canon T3i receives only a few, as the former's offering was pretty complete. We're talking Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 pixels at 24, 25, and 30 frames per second. 720p is available at 50 and 60 fps and VGA video is recorded at 30 and 25 fps.

1080p at 30 fps. (68.5MB download.) 720p at 60 fps. (81.5MB download.)

Movie Crop mode has been enhanced from the T2i's offering, now called Video Digital Zoom, which allows a cropped zoom from between three and 10x magnification in 1080p resolution at all frame rates. You have to enable it from the Movie Record Size menu option, and when you do, it starts out zoomed to 3x. From there, you can zoom in to 10x and back out smoothly, with no steps in-between. (Note that camera shake can be quite an issue when in Video Digital Zoom mode, particularly as you get out to 10x. A tripod definitely makes sense.)

Video Snapshot. A new video mode imported from the PowerShot line is designed to help you shoot and create very simple videos in short segments. Set the mode to shoot 2, 4, or 8-second snapshots during the day, and the Canon T3i will splice the snippets into a movie. You can also add a soundtrack. Just set the mode in the Quick menu screen, or on the Movie Record Menu 2. Select among Disable, or 2, 4, or 8 seconds. When enabled, pressing the Movie Record button records a fixed-length segment, rather than the normal toggle on/off behavior. Clips of the same length will be combined by the camera into albums. After shooting each clip, you have the option to add to the existing album, save to a different album, playback the latest snapshot, or delete without saving to an album. You can also edit the Video Snapshot albums on the included Video Snapshot Task software included on the software disk.

Choose among five standard background music tracks, or you can import your own music to the SD card via the EOS utility.

Audio level control. Omitted from Canon's early video-capable SLRs, an audio level control is included on the Canon T3i. Users can adjust levels with very fine-grained control (the scale has 5 tic marks on it for reference, but the record level varies smoothly), and apply a wind filter, or they can opt for letting the camera adjust the levels automatically. The level-indicator bar graph shows levels for both stereo channels, and operates like a standard VU meter, with an indicator for the peak level that persists for a few seconds. You can see the peak level indicated in the screenshot at right by the pair isolated dots towards the right of the bar. The two frames show the result of dialing down the sensitivity with roughly the same sound level presented.

Creative filters. First introduced on the 60D are a series of Creative Filter functions, similar to those seen previously in the company's PowerShot compact camera models, and fairly common in digital SLRs from rival manufacturers. The Canon T3i's creative filters include Soft Focus, Grainy Black & White, Toy Camera effect (which has strong vignetting and some color shift), Miniature Effect (which simulates shallow depth of field by applying a graduated blur near opposite edges of the image), and a new Fisheye mode for simulating the distortion seen through a fisheye lens. The strength of each effect is adjustable, as is the angle of the Miniature effect. Unlike filters available from other companies, Canon's creative filters are only applied after capture, and are not available for videos.

Multi Aspect. The Canon T3i also offers a selection of aspect ratio settings in-camera, allowing photographers to shoot their images with a specific print format in mind, avoiding the need to manually crop images in post-processing. Called Multi Aspect mode, the Canon T3i can shoot in the native 3:2, or 4:3, 16:9, and 1:1.

Flash. Like all Canon consumer SLRs, the T3i has a pop-up flash, with an X-sync of 1/200 second and a guide number of 43 feet (13m) at ISO 100. It lacks a PC Sync terminal, a feature that mostly studio photographers use for their lighting setups, something we really don't expect from a Rebel, but did miss on the new 60D. What the Canon T3i's pop-up flash does have for those interested in experimenting with lighting is the ability to function as a wireless flash controller, or as Canon calls it, an Integrated Speedlite Transmitter.

The mode is new to the Rebel line, and includes the ability to control up to two groups of flashes, selecting from among four channels, using a ratio spread from 8:1 and 1:8. It's not quite as thorough as the mode found on the Canon 7D, which can control up to three groups with considerably more nuance, but it's nice that it's there all the same. There's also an Easy Wireless mode that gives you just one channel and one group and the ability to adjust flash power via exposure compensation. Attach a 580EX II and you can set up wireless control for up to three groups right from the back of the camera, which works a whole lot better than using the confounding interface on most Canon flashes.

New flashes. Canon also announced two new flashes designed to appeal to the Rebel T3i user, with size and functions to match. The 270EX II is an upgrade to the 270EX introduced with the T1i. The new design still zooms and tilts vertically for bounce flash, and includes a more prominent LED ready lamp on the back, as well as a Slave setting, so it can serve as a small slave flash, activated by the Canon T3i's built-in flash, or by any other compatible flash in the Canon wireless flash system. When used in wireless mode, the Canon 270EX II can only serve in A group, and responds to all channels. It comes with a small foot to hold the flash, as well as attach it to a tripod. But wait, there's more: the Canon 270EX II can also serve as a remote control for the camera. Just put the T3i into remote mode, press the button on the right side of the flash, and the camera fires in two seconds. With the Canon T3i in wireless flash mode, we were able to get the 270EX to both trigger the shutter and fire as a flash under command of the Integrated Speedlite Transmitter, a potentially handy trick. It's a nice touch for a small pocketable flash, making it twice as useful, and twice as important to bring along. It runs on two AA batteries and retails for US$169.99.

The second new flash, the Canon 320EX, takes a retro approach to flash design, while simultaneously acknowledging a new need among the latest digital SLRs: It includes a very bright LED for shooting video. The LED covers the area of a 50mm lens on a full frame sensor, or 32mm on an APS-C sensor camera like the T3i. The color temperature range of the LED varies from 4,500 to 6,500 Kelvin, at 75 lux. It offers up to 3.5 hours of continuous shooting and has a range of 1 meter at ISO 3,200 with the lens at f/5.6.

The 320EX bridges the gap between the 270EX II and the 430EX II above it by also offering a manually zooming flash head that swivels and tilts for bounce flash. On the back, instead of a convoluted digital interface, you'll find analog switches for setting up the 320EX as a wireless slave flash. Just like the 270EX II, the 320EX can also serve as a wireless infrared remote trigger. The Canon 320EX runs on four AA batteries and retails for US$249.99.

  

HDMI output. The Canon T3i has a the same HDMI-CEC compatibility as the T2i, which not only allows you to play back your images on your HDTV, it also allows you to control the camera's Playback functions via the Consumer Electronics Protocol (CEC). Be aware, though, that you'll need to purchase a separate HDMI to mini-HDMI (Type C) adapter or cable. The cables are about $50 at retail stores, though much cheaper online; the adapters are cheaper too, but harder to find.

The Canon T3i also includes a 3.5mm stereo mic jack, a wired remote port, and a combined AV Out / USB port.

Lenses. Canon's EF-S 18-55mm lens included in the less expensive T3i kit is a revision of the last image-stabilized version. Now called the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II, the new lens claims up to four stops of stabilization effectiveness, and has a "leathertone" texture. The new lens will be available for sale separately, and has a suggested retail price of US$200.

Opting for the more expensive kit gets you the more versatile EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, equivalent to a 29-216mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera. Note that the lens is not USM (ultrasonic motor) drive, so it makes a little noise while focusing, but it's really not bad. We tested the lens on SLRgear.com, so check out our EF-S 18-135mm review if you'd like to know more, as well as read reviews from other users.

Storage and battery. The Canon T3i can accept SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards, as well as Eye-Fi wireless cards.

The camera uses the same LP-E8 battery pack used by the T2i which is CIPA rated for 440 shots in the T3i. And though the Canon T3i is slightly larger than the T2i, it uses the same battery grip, model BG-E8.

Availability. The Canon Rebel T3i started shipping in early March 2011, priced at US$799.99 body-only, US$899.99 with the 18-55mm IS II kit lens, and US$1,099.99 with the 18-135mm IS kit lens.


Shooting with the Canon T3i

by Shawn Barnett

I'm one of the potential customers who would struggle deciding between a Canon T3i and 60D. Having just wrapped up the Canon 60D review a week before, I had more than a few deja vu moments while working with the T3i on our first encounter. Though the grip size is quite a bit smaller, it's so grippy it felt similar. The appearance of the two cameras is also similar thanks to the T3i's larger profile.

Where I noticed a bigger difference was in the tell-tale sound of the shutter when it fired: The Rebel T3i still makes a loud winding sound, while the 60D just clicks. Mirror blackout time is also shorter on the 60D. Since I shot the Canon T3 at the same time, its longer blackout time of 150ms and comparatively sluggish winding sound was also a stark contrast to the quicker T3i at 130ms. I was happy with the T3i, but still prefer the 60D with its even faster 100ms blackout time.


Wide and Tele. The 18-135mm image-stabilized lens is equal to a 29-216mm lens on a 35mm camera.

The viewfinder of the Canon T3i is also quite a bit tighter than the 60D, and technically should appear dimmer than the 60D, as it uses a pentamirror rather than a pentaprism to bring the light to your eye, but I'm so used to shooting with small viewfinders I really didn't even notice.

I liked the Canon T3i's swivel screen, though I confess that I forgot to use it more often than not; indeed, shooting in Live View mode still doesn't often occur to me, even though I use mirrorless cameras about half the time these days. When I feel an SLR in my hand, I naturally want to bring it to my eye to compose images. I came to find the LCD essential for videos, though.

Autofocus is good and fast on the T3i when shooting through the viewfinder in its normal phase-detect mode, 0.16 second according to our test of a production model, which is smokin' fast, especially for auto-select autofocus. Choose an AF point, and you're actually penalized somewhat, with a reduction to 0.28 second. Shooting in Live View is a little slower. Contrast-detect is about 0.83 second, and "Quick" AF, ironically, is the slowest at 1.18 seconds. Not great, if not uncommon, so bear that in mind when choosing which to use.

I shot with both the 18-55mm and the 18-135mm kit lenses and liked them both. The 18-135 really makes the camera quite heavy, but it's more versatile, equivalent to an 29-216mm lens, which is excellent for most photographic situations. The 18-55mm is quite a bit lighter, though, with a slightly improved build and appearance. Its new image-stabilization engine also seems more stable. Canon claims it's capable of four stops of correction, and can now automatically tell when the camera is panning. Neither lens uses an ultrasonic motor (USM), by the way, so they do make a slight buzzing noise when focusing; it's not bad, though.

ISO 3,200 was an excellent choice for the Kindergarten concert, giving me a fidget-freezing 1/160 second while holding the camera above the crowd.

Family activities. After receiving the shipping version, I found the Canon EOS T3i an excellent companion on a great many family outings. Combined with the BosStrap, I was able to sling the T3i comfortably at my hip much of the time, which I found more convenient than my usual backpack or handheld carry. Since I've suffered a little nerve damage in my arms, my grip is not as sure as it once was with cameras, so I've gravitated to some kind of strap, and sling designs eliminate neck strain, allowing me to carry my youngest when necessary, while keeping the relatively light T3i at the ready. It's also less showy than having the camera strung around your neck.

Video sample. This 15-second 1080p30 clip shows how well the T3i does in relatively low light. (86.3MB download.)

School events. Normally I bring a longer lens and a big flash for school concerts, but the T3i promised more resolution, better low-light performance, and video capability, all in a smaller, less pretentious package, so I was happy to have it along. A man of average height, I was still able to get a good shot thanks to the swivel screen, which I nearly forgot about until I found myself envying a nearby camcorder user who was getting the whole show with her arm held high. I flipped out the T3i's handy 3-inch LCD and found I was able to get a more firm hold with my fingers under the camera's base and my thumb pressing against the LCD from the side.

Activating the Record button was easy, as it's in just the right place. There's just enough plastic surrounding the button where you can place the main part of your thumb and gently rock it forward to slowly press the button without shaking the camera too much. The resulting video is clean and of good quality.

The dark background gave the meter some difficulty, with many of my shots appearing too bright. This one was reasonably good, though.

Many of my videos, especially those taken of nearby subjects, are out of focus. They looked quite in-focus as I shot them, so I too often didn't find out until long after the event was over. As I test it here at my desk, it's very easy to assume that the camera has a greater depth of field than it does. I can focus on an object and three feet away and the objects six inches closer and six inches further appear to be in focus as well on the LCD, but when viewing the resulting video, it's clear that both near and far subjects are quite badly out of focus. Moving the camera just an inch or two this way or that throws the main subject out of focus too. This is especially problematic at close distances.

As for stills, which I shot from both the swiveling LCD and the optical viewfinder, the quality is excellent, good enough to shoot at ISO 3,200 with confidence that I'd get a low-noise image. Autofocus in contrast-detect mode, however, was not as fast as I needed, so I switched to the optical viewfinder.

Almost missed this giraffe portrait; good thing I was shooting RAW to resurrect this image from the shadows.

I spent a day wandering around the local zoo with the family, and I brought along the tripod in hopes of getting a chance to study a cool animal. Unfortunately, there were very few cool animals on that hot Atlanta day, and most were in hiding. The few I did get, though, required a little work to capture well. While shooting a giraffe in full sunlight, I found I had to adjust the EV by minus two-thirds stop. This happened in several circumstances, so watch your exposure.

Unfortunately, when another giraffe moseyed right in front of me in the shade and stopped about 10 seconds for his portrait, I couldn't change the EV back to zero fast enough. Instead I just made what shots I could, relying on the RAW file, which I processed afterward with the included Digital Photo Professional software. The giraffe's head was in an uneven tree shadow, with the bulk of that shadow in the center of its face, so I had to do some dodging in Photoshop as well, but my quick edit made a decent shot for the kids' walls.

Continuous Self-timer made the most of the few crowd-free moments at the zoo.

Self-timer. I also brought the tripod in hopes of getting a family portrait. I wasn't sure where, but surely there had to be a good place to get everyone in. As we left the Panda section, I noticed an interesting circular archway, and shuffled the family off to the side so people could walk by while I set up the T3i. Pressing the Drive mode button on the back brings up five options, the last of which is Self-timer Continuous, which will focus, then shoot between two and 10 images. When you have four kids, this is the way you want to go, because getting everyone with a decent expression and no blinks is tough, and they tend to get restless when you run back and forth to press the shutter too often. I also had my 580EX flash mounted, which I knew would probably fire for all ten shots, given the overall brightness of the image. I had the tripod open low with its legs set wide to minimize the damage should someone accidentally bump it.

Since people leave the Panda enclosure in surges, I just had to wait for the right moment. When I saw a group hanging back, I quickly organized the crew and pressed the shutter. "Okay, it's going to take 10 shots one after the other, just be ready!" Slick as you please, all 10 shots went off without delay. We were a little short to have the opening frame us as well as I wanted, without including too much foreground, but a square crop helps convey the message and makes for a decent impromptu family portrait at the zoo.

Handheld. This 0.4-second exposure caught the sparks as they trailed off toward the fire buckets and the moon shone in the distance.

When I set up other shots, one of them in shade, the flash had to work a little harder, making it through five shots quickly, then having to pause to recharge for the remaining shots. I think it was a combination of worn batteries and shadows. All the shots turned out okay, but shot shown above right was the better.

The T3i is an excellent family camera. I was happy I got the kids more in-focus than the fish.

Night. Between skits at a campfire, I noticed some moonlight coming off the water, and sparks were rising from the fire in just the right way, so I tried ISO 3,200 and handheld the shot for several 0.4-second exposures. I managed to capture the ambience of the evening reasonably well. I'd have liked to capture the moon as well, but it would have required a smaller aperture and a longer exposure, and there was no way I'd do better than this with dozens of kids jumping around in all directions. I was surprised how much detail came up in the trees. Everything's a little soft, but that's more thanks to shooting wide open and noise suppression than focus.

File sizes. As Spring cameras kept rolling in, this review was delayed again and again, so I racked up quite a library of images with the Canon T3i, such that just moving the main review folder from one computer to another took a long time. That's what you get when you shoot RAW+LF JPEG with an 18-megapixel camera, one that also shoots Full HD video. It's hard to argue with the level of detail you get, but just be aware that you should invest in a hard drive or two to store the images and movies you'll gather.

Bright. Here's another example of slight overexposure in bright light. I made another shot of this same dragonfly with the Olympus E-P3 just moments before and it was better exposed.

Overall, I was more pleased with the stills than the videos I got with the Canon T3i. The narrow depth of field that you want with still images becomes a problem when trying to shoot video of rapidly moving children. I tend to move as I shoot video, and it's more difficult to do that when shooting indoors, where you're more likely to be shooting wide-open where depth of field can be a problem. That's not necessarily a problem with the T3i, but it is a caution I should give to anyone hoping to shoot video with an SLR, as it requires at lot more than just pressing the record button as you would on a digicam. When it's in focus, though, the T3i's video is excellent. And still images from the Canon T3i are stunning, so it's an easy camera to recommend with enthusiasm.

For photography enthusiasts: Like the Canon 60D, the T3i is a great choice for family to enthusiast photographers. If you're happy shooting natural light and have no intention of tuning your lenses, you won't notice that neither the T3i nor 60D has the Microfocus adjustment or an X-sync terminal (if you have no idea what those are, again, you probably won't miss them). The 3.7 fps frame rate on the T3i is also a little slower than the 60D, as is the maximum shutter speed, which is limited to 1/4,000 second, all of which we said at the outset. If those are issues for you, you'll be happier with the Canon 60D's 5.3 fps and 1/8,000 second for about $200 more. If I were looking to do a little more of what I like to do, namely shoot sports and studio pictures, I would save a little longer and get the Canon 7D, bypassing the 60D altogether. Since both cameras would work with studio lights via a hot shoe, it's not a huge distinction, and both cameras can also remote control a limited set of EX flashes, so my complaints will not apply to most hobbyist photographers. For them, the T3i is a bargain.

For the family shooter: As a family camera, I'd go for the Canon T3i. It was an excellent companion, and offered enough of what I shoot an SLR for that I really didn't miss my more capable cameras until I needed to shoot in the studio. The slightly larger grip and articulating LCD are great to have, and the main high points over the slightly cheaper T2i. As for the video qualifiers I mentioned, they're the pitfalls you'll encounter with any digital SLR, especially when shooting indoors, so unless you're going to start a hobby shooting video carefully and methodically, please discount video as a major feature of any digital SLR you're considering, but you needn't avoid the T3i for that reason. For the money, the Canon T3i is one of the best cameras on the market.

 

Canon T3i Image Quality

Most digital SLRs will produce a reasonable ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do at ISO 1,600 at their default noise reduction settings. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We're also comparing ISO 3,200 shots below, as well detail shots at ISO 100, 3,200, and 6,400. Be sure to check our Thumbnail and Gallery pages for more image quality samples.

Canon T3i versus Canon T2i at ISO 1,600

Canon T3i at ISO 1,600
Canon T2i at ISO 1,600

As expected, results from a production model T3i are very similar to the T2i, though the T3i's images seem just a little bit softer in low-contrast areas, suggesting more aggressive noise suppression is at work.


Canon T3i versus Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

Canon T3i at ISO 1,600
Canon 60D at ISO 1,600

The T3i's ISO 1,600 performance is pretty much a toss-up compared with the Canon 60D.



Canon T3i versus Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600

Canon T3i at ISO 1,600
Nikon D5100 at ISO 1,600

There are some noticeable differences between the T3i and D5100. First, of course, is resolution, with the T3i coming in at 18-megapixels and the D5100 at 16.2-megapixels, so that explains the slightly different size of elements. Looking at the top tile, chroma noise in the shadows is a little more pronounced on the D5100, but the Canon employs more aggressive sharpening, leaving halos around the letters in the label. In the middle tile, the Canon does better with the mosaic tile, retaining more of the detail in the beige tiles in particular, but the Canon also removes some of the hints of color between the dark tiles, which the Nikon retains. The D5100 also does better with the red leaf swatch. Neither does a stellar job with it, but Nikons tend to do better than all other manufacturers with this element of our test suite.


Canon T3i versus Nikon D7000 at ISO 1,600

Canon T3i at ISO 1,600
Nikon D7000 at ISO 1,600

Against the D7000, the T3i does fairly well, rendering most detail a little more crisply, though the Canon applies a bit more sharpening by default. Again, more of the variability of the tan tiles is retained in the T3i. Nikon wins again on the red swatch, though, doing slightly better than the D5100.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Canon T3i versus Canon T2i at ISO 3,200

Canon T3i at ISO 3,200
Canon T2i at ISO 3,200

The Canon T3i seemed only marginally improved over the T2i at ISO 1,600, but the T3i retains more color at ISO 3,200, though detail and noise suppression are about the same.


Canon T3i versus Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

Canon T3i at ISO 3,200
Canon 60D at ISO 3,200

It's very close, and could come down to a difference in focus between the two, but the Canon 60D seems to have slightly more detail than the T3i.


Canon T3i versus Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200

Canon T3i at ISO 3,200
Nikon D5100 at ISO 3,200

Here again, it is Nikon this time that has chosen to leave a little more chroma noise in the shadows to maintain a more photographic appearance (a few years ago, it was Canon that took this approach). As such, the Nikon image appears to have more detail -- quite a change from the ISO 1,600 image. Nikon's red swatch rendering is also still better than the T3i's, which is a blur.


Canon T3i versus Nikon D7000 at ISO 3,200

Canon T3i at ISO 3,200
Nikon D7000 at ISO 3,200

As we saw with the D5100, the Canon T3i has less detail than the Nikon D7000 at ISO 3,200, quite different from the result at 1,600. The D7000 still has a little chroma noise in the shadows, but more detail. And the red swatch is much closer to reality than the T3i can manage.



Detail: Canon T3i vs. T2i, 60D, Nikon D5100, and D7000

Canon T3i
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon T2i
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon 60D
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon D5100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon D7000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. When it comes to the detail shot, the Canon T3i does well. These five are so close to one-another, there's not really much to say. They all manage to render the lines between the letters, though the Canons may have an advantage here over the Nikons thanks to their higher resolution; but at ISO 6,400 I really don't have a preference. They're all five top-notch cameras and their image quality attests to that.

 

Canon T3i Print Quality

ISO 100 images are excellent, with sharp detail when printed at 20x30 inches, with good color and no trouble with noise. ISO 200 and 400 shots are essentially identical, with excellent detail across the board.

ISO 800 shots also look good at 20x30, though the slightest softening occurs in very low-contrast areas. Color and detail, though, are good.

ISO 1,600 images start to show some of the noise in shadow areas, and detail begins to soften as well. Yet the print size is still 20x30. Low-contrast reds, especially our red leaf swatch, starts to show the first signs of "creative interpretation" of what the fabric looks like.

ISO 3,200 shots are usable at 20x30, luminance noise is noticeable in the shadows, and the red swatch continues to deteriorate. Even higher-contrast detail softens from the noise suppression, so reduction to 16x20 is warranted, where all these elements improve.

ISO 6,400 images are usable printed at 13x19 inches, though at this setting the red leaf swatch is very soft and would look so even at 4x6 inches. (Many cameras have this problem, so we'll stipulate it from here on.) Better image quality is obtained at 13x19 inches.

ISO 12,800 files print surprisingly well at 8x10, though close inspection reveals dark grain in shadow areas. 11x14-inch images would be usable provided the subject background was dark enough (a setting in which you'd expect a little more noise).

Overall, the Canon EOS T3i does just about as well as its 18-megapixel brothers, and fares very well against the competition. Safely shooting at ISO 800 and still expecting to produce a 20x30-inch print really opens up some possibilities for a photographer. Finding excellent usability at even its highest ISO setting is comforting.


See below for our conclusion; be sure to check the other tabs for details and test results.

 

In the Box

The retail package contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories



 

Canon T3i Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent and proven 18-megapixel sensor
  • Lots of detail, especially in RAW files
  • Very good high ISO performance
  • Very accurate colors
  • Full HD video capability at three frame rates with auto or manual exposure control
  • Video Digital Zoom, ranging from 3-10x
  • Good quality optics with image stabilization (if purchased with in a lens kit)
  • High-resolution, swiveling LCD
  • HTP tames highlights
  • ALO brightens shadows
  • Good quality grip
  • Captures 14-bit RAW images
  • Peripheral Illumination Correction
  • 9 AF points, one f/2.8 cross-type
  • 63-zone metering
  • ISO ranges from 100 to 6,400, expandable to 12,800
  • Built-in audio level control
  • Multiple aspect ratio settings, including 3:2, 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1
  • Built-in flash has Integrated Speedlite Transmitter mode to control up to two groups of flashes
  • HDMI output with CEC compatibility, allowing control of the camera's Playback mode via the TV remote
  • Infrared remote receiver
  • Wired remote port
  • Very fast AF in Auto Selection mode using optical viewfinder
  • Continuous self-timer mode captures 2-10 shots per shutter press
  • Dynamic range is not up to par with the best APS-C sensors
  • No microfocus adjustment
  • Very warm auto white balance indoors
  • Sluggish startup and mode switching
  • Only center AF point is cross-type, while the Canon 60D has all nine cross-type (for those considering a 60D)
  • 3.7fps is slow for sports shooting
  • Shallow buffers with slow buffer clearing
  • AF in Live View is slow
  • Below-average battery life
  • Camera does not correct for chromatic aberration or geometric distortion
  • Multiple aspect ratios only visible in Live View modes (not in viewfinder)
  • Kit lenses are not ultrasonic (USM)
  • Often overexposed full-sunlight shots
  • Tight optical viewfinder (~94% coverage)

As it stands, the Canon T3i is the flagship Rebel, with the T3 and T2i beneath it in features. Its still image quality is among the best in its price range, and its video modes are quite complete, offering excellent quality, provided you can handle shooting video more carefully than you would with a digicam or camcorder.

Taken as a whole, the Canon T3i is an excellent digital SLR, with just about every feature we've been longing for in a sub-$1,000 camera. The articulating screen stands out in particular as a very useful feature, and with the Nikon D5100 having the same side-swiveling design, it was important that a Rebel have one too. The LCD is gorgeous and very high resolution, excellent in sunlight, and the only problem we had with it was that it was harder to notice out-of-focus areas while shooting video.

Either kit lens option is a good one, with the 18-55mm keeping the overall package light and nimble, and the 18-135mm lens taking care of most photographic needs with aplomb. Optically, both are better matches to the 18-megapixel sensor than past offerings, and both include optical image stabilization.

Prints made from ISO 100 to 3,200 look quite good at 20x30 inches, which is very impressive; and even ISO 12,800 images make a good 8x10-inch print.

The only problem Canon has on its hands is having three excellent 18-megapixel digital SLRs that are priced within a few hundred dollars of each other. The T2i was already excellent, then the 60D came along with its articulating screen and a decided lean toward the Rebel line, and then the T3i entered the scene. The good news is that you can't go wrong with any of them, especially in terms of overall image quality. They're all excellenity. They're all excellent. It's then just a question of which features you'd like your excellent digital SLR camera to have. If you're looking for the best compromise between the three, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i is it, and a certain Dave's Pick.