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Canon EOS 350D Digital Rebel

Canon makes an impressive update to their wildly popular "Digital Rebel."!

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Page 3:User Report

Review First Posted: 3/23/2003, updated: 6/4/2005

User Report

Retrospective
The launch of the Canon EOS Digital Rebel in 2003 brought the digital SLR within range of consumers. The camera was so popular, Canon had to quickly ramp up production to keep up with demand. It wasn't a perfect camera, but the price was right, at $999.99, and the Digital Rebel hit the target much as did the Canon AE-1 in the late 1970's, offering ease of use in an attractive package. The Digital Rebel met most amateur photographers needs, and many pros were also seen shooting the camera on occasion, as well as scads of intermediate photographers and weekend warriors trying to make a buck with their favorite hobby. Though the camera's case wasn't as professional looking as its predecessor, the EOS 10D, its sensor was actually better than the 10D, and tuned for consumer tastes with its Parameter 1 setting (this setting boosts saturation, sharpening, and contrast to more closely match what amateur photographers expect from digicam and film output).

But there were some important features missing from the Canon Digital Rebel. Many enthusiasts complained that there was no flash compensation possible with the Digital Rebel; and though I pooh-poohed this complaint myself at first, I soon came to agree. Some didn't like the silver painted case, others thought it felt somewhat cheap in its build. The camera rattles slightly when shaken, due to some loose brackets in the pop-up flash mechanism. By far my biggest complaint with the Digital Rebel was its buffer depth. Capturing only four frames before filling the buffer, regardless of resolution or compression settings, this was an impediment that often hampered my portrait and event photography.

Still, there was no disputing the great value of the Canon Digital Rebel. Its image quality was superb, besting even very fine competitors like the Nikon D70 in some aspects. Its high-ISO performance was impressive, and its lens was surprisingly sharp and useful for all manner of photography. The combo was light, easy to use, focused quickly, and kicked out great shot after great shot.

Every great performance demands an encore, and Canon was happy to oblige. The new Canon Digital Rebel XT improves on the original in almost every way. It's smaller, lighter, faster, more versatile, more capable, and takes on nearly every trait of the benchmark EOS 20D. Its 8 megapixel sensor is slightly lower resolution than the 20D, but features like the White Balance correction table, and E-TTL II have been brought over intact. Nothing's perfect, however, and there's a bit of a dust-up here at Imaging Resource about the camera's overall size; and in particular the grip.

Surprising size
You notice it immediately: the Rebel XT is a very small camera. Not compared to most consumer-level digital cameras, mind you, but for an SLR, it easily rivals the Pentax *istD, and comes close to many of the 35mm film-based Rebel SLRs in overall size. They've taken what they claim is the basic guts of the 20D and fit it into a smaller package. The result is an SLR that can be easily concealed in a jacket or sweatshirt pocket. Okay, maybe not "concealed," given the significant bulge, but it nonetheless fits and could ride there for some time without a problem if necessary. Many buyers are going to love the Canon Digital Rebel XT for this reason alone.

But Dave's hackles have been raised by the Rebel XT's design. This doesn't usually happen, especially with cameras that he's seen deliver excellent quality images. All he has to do is pick up the XT, and he's immediately incensed. (And I mean incensed -- I'm filtering his comments on the subject quite a bit here.) The grip is way too small for his hands, and the control arrangement is too confining. My initial response was that, yes, it is smaller, but if you re-think how you hold the camera, you can still fit the pads of your fingertips in a decent position to maintain grip. As I've shot with the camera--though I'm becoming accustomed to the grip--I've begun to agree with Dave on this point. What he doesn't like is that his fingertips cram into the body because the grip isn't big enough. Trying my fingertip method unfortunately leaves your thumb and thumb heel in the wrong position to easily move to and actuate nearby controls. Also, when using the exposure compensation function, the relatively small distance between the two controls leaves my thumb and forefinger bent at awkward angles, and my grip on the camera feels very insecure in the process. The grip just isn't big enough for a medium to large man's hands.

Now, I've placed this camera into the hands of several women, and they all love it. I can see why, as several of the women who have smaller hands have no trouble finding a comfortable home for their thumb, palm, and fingers; just like it was made for them. Even my wife, whose hands aren't that much smaller than mine, really liked the grip, and the Digital Rebel XT's light weight, button arrangement, and overall feel were just right (she was fairly familiar with our Digital Rebel, by the way, so this is an informed opinion).

What I don't like about the grip is the lack of space between the grip and the lens mount, where my fingernails rub up against it. The tip of my index finger pinches in the bulge near the shutter release. If I truly palm the right side of the camera, my thumb rides up way above the Mode dial, popping up above the hot shoe.

My analysis here will probably vindicate the Japanese engineers I've talked to in the past, who have said the reason they don't bring their ultra-small product designs to the US is that Americans tend to like big, crude controls. Perhaps what's most odd to me is that we here at Imaging Resource don't notice this problem when it's a point and shoot camera, even in the case of very tiny cameras like the smaller models in Canon's own ELPH line, or cameras like the Panasonic FZ20, with its biggish lens and small grip. The difference is that the Canon Digital Rebel XT can accept some very heavy lenses, and this grip will be insufficient.

My final word on the grip is that I could easily deal with its size when using the Rebel XT as a family and travel camera. As a portrait photographer, I would only use the Canon Digital Rebel XT with the optional BG-E3 battery grip. The camera's entire character changes with this addition. Since I mostly shoot vertically, the much larger vertical grip gives a better hold. And since the camera itself is so light, the balance is shifted, with much of the weight in the vertical grip. I sampled the combo at PMA. It was more comfortable in my hand, and I could imagine far less strain holding this arrangement for four hours at an event than a similarly-equipped Digital Rebel or 20D.

Adding the battery grip is a fix that only applies to people interested in using the camera with the optional grip, and significantly increases the overall size of the camera over the body and lens. If it fits your hand and is comfortable to hold, it's an excellent choice for you. If it doesn't fit, it's still an excellent camera, but you may not find it comfortable to use day-in and day-out.

The optional battery grip, by the way, now uses either two NB-2LH Lithium Ion rechargeable batteries (the PowerShot S70 uses these), or six AA batteries for greater versatility. This contributes to its lower weight.

Walkaround

Now that the grip is out of the way, we can talk about the rest of the Rebel XT. We received the black body version of the Canon Rebel XT, and are also split on whether we like that or not. Its surface texture is similar to that of the EOS 20D, with a tendency to abrade fingernails, leaving temporary marks on the surface (this is fingernail dust, apparently). I like the look of the black body a lot; it gives the camera much more of a pro appearance. It doesn't offer as much grippable surface area as the former silver body though, feeling almost powdery to the touch. Skin tends to slip right off rather than stick. Also missing is any rubbery texture to the grip area.

There are three controls on the left of the lens: the flash pop-up button, the lens release, and the depth-of-field preview. On the top deck are the shutter, main dial, mode dial, and power switch. I'm glad to see that they moved the drive mode button to the back of the camera, where all the other controls reside, because I always forgot how to enter that mode on my own Rebel until I looked at the top deck.

The buttons on the back have undergone a slight redesign. The five buttons on the left have gotten bigger, with a reverse D shape. On the right, the five way nav cluster is also different, and smaller. Dave has trouble with these buttons as well. They just don't work right for him, not actuating consistently when he used them to navigate around the camera's menus system. I haven't had as much trouble, perhaps because I'm used to dealing with the small buttons on PDA keyboards, where you have to use the tip of your thumb to properly activate them. Compared to the nav buttons on the original Digital Rebel, these buttons are actually raised slightly above the back surface of the camera body, whereas the buttons on the former are deeply recessed. One thing I like about these four arrow buttons is that rather than expect you to look to the status LCD to set something like White Balance, the camera goes straight to the menu screen for White Balance when you press the rear-panel button assigned to that function. The same is true for ISO, Metering Mode, and AF mode. Pressing the Drive mode button still cycles through icons on the status LCD, but the icons appear directly adjacent to the button itself, so it's easy to see what's happening.

Also new, but present on nearly every other digital camera in Canon's lineup, is the illuminated Print/Share button. It's combined with the LCD illumination button, which gives the status LCD an orange glow for about eight seconds.

I'm not sure whether this will only be true of our early review unit, but there's a distinct difference in one factor about the Digital Rebel XT's bottom plate: The words "Made in Japan." Most of the original Digital Rebels were made in Taiwan. Not a big deal, but it appears Canon too may be bringing more manufacturing back to Japan as we've seen other manufacturers do lately, most notably Olympus.

Faster
If smaller didn't make the Rebel XT better for some, faster should do the trick for most. This new little powerhouse now has the same DiGiC II processor that powers the EOS 1Ds Mark II. Its influence shows in the quicker shutter response, improved buffer clearing speed (it writes 3.5 times faster than the original Digital Rebel), and greater frame-per-second throughput. Maxing out at three frames per second, the little Rebel can capture a conservative 13 frames before the buffer is filled. Canon claims 14 frames of buffer depth, but we consistently got 13 frames in our studio with the worst-case color-noise target we use for timing analysis. With varying subjects and a Lexar 80x 2GB card, I've gone on as far as 40 frames. It's far better than the old Digital Rebel's four frames of capacity, to be sure.

As you're winding those shots off, you'll notice a funny little whirring sound, something we first heard on the EOS 1D Mark II. We wondered whether that was necessary, or just added to make for a more impressive motor-drive-like sound. It turns out that this is sound of the motor loading the spring for the shutter, and this sound can vary, from the almost inaudible wind on the Digital Rebel, EOS 20D, and EOS 1D Mark II, to the louder sounds on the Rebel XT and EOS 1Ds Mark II. According to Canon, a camera's X-Sync speed can affect this sound, but ultimately I'm sure it's also a function of the motor chosen to cock the shutter and the strength of the spring it's loading. The upshot is that while the XT seems to have a quieter click, there's a lot more noise generated each time the shutter's released, which adds up to quite a din in continuous mode.

Capable
As I mentioned, many new functions made their way over from the 20D, including a Black and White mode with many options. Look in the gallery for a few variations on this concept. You can add the equivalent of Yellow, Red, Orange, and Green filters, which darken the skies and other colors to varying degrees, and you can add a "toning effect," including Sepia, Blue, Purple, and Green. Contrast and sharpness can also be adjusted.

The EOS 20D's innovative White Balance Shift/Bracketing mode also made it into the Digital Rebel XT. Presented with an XY coordinate graph, you can move the White Balance table around, and set bracketing points along either the X or Y axis.

Also omitted from the original Digital Rebel was the option to set your AF method and metering mode. You'll find that on the Digital Rebel XT, One Shot, AI Focus, and AI Servo methods are all user-selectable, as are Spot, Matrix, and Center weighted metering modes.

Finally, a healthy set of Custom Functions have been brought to the Canon Rebel XT, where there were none on the original. Nine in total, these include Long Exposure noise reduction, Mirror Lockup, and First and Second curtain shutter flash sync.

Shooting
Out in the field, I found the Canon Digital Rebel XT a reliable performer that is faster than I'm used to, and easy to use. Its small size was not a big problem when out shooting gallery shots; all I would need to be happy for casual photography is the optional vertical battery grip, since most of my shots are vertical.

It's great for photographing the family, given its low shutter lag and nearly instant power on time. AF seemed fast too, resulting in far more good shots than throwaways. In low light (which is almost always what you have available when indoors), you'll want to pop up the flash, as this is the only AF assist light that the camera offers. I also suggest setting Digital Rebel XT's AF to the single center point almost all the time for indoor shooting, as this is the most sensitive AF sensor in the camera. You should also feel confident cranking the ISO up to 800, since the XT has impressively low noise. ISO 1600 is also good, but unless it's absolutely necessary, you'll be happier sticking with 800 or below.

Digital SLRs like the Canon Rebel XT offer a smaller depth of field than most people are used to from modern digital cameras, making focus accuracy paramount. In general, you'll do much better using the center AF point for most situations, then recomposing as necessary. Put your kids in contrasty clothes to help the AF a bit when you're shooting indoors. You'll find that the E-TTL II flash exposure performance is excellent, even for close-quarters indoor shots. Though the XT is better with limited lighting than are most point-and-shoot digicams, you should always do your camera a favor and shoot with a light source nearby to help the AF system. Rather than off-the-cuff snapshots, a better approach is to take pictures on purpose and move your subject to a window or other pleasing light source.

There's no question that the Canon Digital Rebel XT is a leap ahead, offering a quality SLR in a very small package. I think it'll be ideally suited for its target market, which is the family shooter who wants to catch the kids at play. It'll give you more of what you need to catch action at sporting events and is a good size for the traditional keeper of family photographs, the mom. Those who think the smaller size will be a problem can still choose the original Digital Rebel, now available in a kit that includes the lens for around $800. You can also buy the new BG-E3 battery grip, which you can load with less expensive AA batteries if you like. Since humans are vertical, shooting vertical is a great way to eliminate clutter in the background, so buying and using this grip by default would immediately improve your people photography. For travelers and anyone else wanting a powerful digital camera with a spectacular imager, and the option of a few different lenses that take up little space, you'll not find a more portable SLR, and certainly not a more capable one anywhere near its size or price range.

 

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