Canon SL2 Field Test Part I

New SL2 offers a user-friendly experience & good all-around performance

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 10/20/2017

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 18mm (29mm eq.), f/7.1, 1/50s, ISO 100.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
Introduction

The Canon SL1 was released in 2013 and at the time was the smallest and lightest DSLR camera available. This summer, Canon released the successor, the Rebel SL2, and while the SL2 is slightly larger than the SL1, it is still the smallest current generation DSLR available. Despite the similarly compact shape, the Canon SL2 has essentially been redesigned from the ground up. The compact entry-level spirit lives on, but the SL2 is a very different camera from its predecessor.

We will be tackling the SL2 in a two-part Field Test to see how its new features work in the real-world. The highlights include a redesigned camera body, new sensor, Dual Pixel CMOS AF and DIGIC 7 image processor.

Key Features and Info
  • Entry-level compact DSLR camera
  • Redesigned camera body
  • 3-inch vari-angle touchscreen
  • 24.2-megapixel APS-C sensor
  • DIGIC 7 image processor
  • 5 frames per second continuous shooting
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF
  • Full HD video at up to 60 frames per second
  • Built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC
  • US$550 for the body only
Canon SL2 Review -- Product Image

Camera Body & Handling: The SL2 is compact & comfortable

The Canon SL2 channels its predecessor's lightweight spirit, although it is a bit larger than the SL1. The SL2 may not wear the smallest DSLR crown, technically, but it is nonetheless a very compact DSLR camera. However, its small stature does not come at the cost of comfort. The redesigned camera body has a pretty deep grip for its size that is narrow and offers a good experience in the hand.

Further, controls do not feel cramped. Buttons are generally a bit small across the board, but the mode dial is easily accessed with the right hand, and the top command dial feels quite nice, especially with its new, more aggressive texture. The shutter release button feels a bit stiff for my tastes, but it's fine. The camera does not have a lot of buttons, but the ones it does have easy to use and positioned comfortably. The directional pad works well too, not that you necessarily have to use it all that frequently if you don't want to thanks to the touchscreen.

Canon SL2 Review -- Product Image

On the topic of the vari-angle touchscreen, it is a 3-inch display with 1,040,000 dots of resolution. It is fairly bright at default settings and works well in bright conditions thanks to its tilt/swivel capabilities. It is easy to manipulate the display such that you reduce glare. The touchscreen functionality works quite nicely, and Canon has done a good job of integrating touch functionality into normal camera use and menu navigation.

The optical viewfinder is usable, although quite small with only 0.54x magnification (35mm equivalent) and around 95% frame coverage. For an entry-level DSLR, these are pretty typical specifications, but it remains the case that a less than 100% frame coverage can occasionally cause issues with small objects sneaking into the edges of the frame if you're not careful.

Canon SL2 Review -- Product Image

With respect to the built-in flash, it is quite strong for its compact form factor, with a guide number of 32.2 feet (9.8 meters) at ISO 100. The maximum flash sync is a quite standard 1/200s. The built-in flash is capable of providing fill flash, even outdoors, but a hot shoe flash will be necessary for those needing a lot of flash power.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM: 18mm (29mm eq.), f/7.1, 0.8s, ISO 100.
Built-in flash not used. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM: 18mm (29mm eq.), f/4.0, 1/100s, ISO 3200.
Built-in flash used. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Overall, the Canon SL2 has a compact and comfortable camera body that does not sacrifice usability while maintaining a small stature. A DSLR, all else equal, cannot match an APS-C mirrorless camera in terms of overall size, but the SL2 has a few nice things going for it that its mirrorless counterparts often do not, such as its deep grip and optical viewfinder. Add in the vari-angle touchscreen and you have a camera body that is quite well-equipped, despite its entry-level DSLR status.

Canon SL2 Image Quality

Offering about six megapixels more than its predecessor, the SL2 now offers similar resolving power as much of Canon's APS-C camera lineup; the SL2's 24-megapixel sensor is the same one as is found in cameras like the T7i and 77D. The sensor has a focal length multiplier of 1.6x, as is standard for Canon APS-C cameras. There is a fixed anti-aliasing filter, which removes some very fine detail from photos, but helps prevent moiré and other artifacts. The native ISO range is a pretty impressive 100 to 25,600 and it is expandable to ISO 51,200.

I've always been a big fan of how Canon cameras render color straight from the camera and the SL2 is no exception. Images are not necessarily going to pop right off the bat, as colors can be a bit subdued compared to cameras from some other manufacturers, but they look good and RAW files in particular offer good flexibility.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM: 100mm (160mm eq.), f/10, 1/13s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The Canon SL2 includes a wide range of "Picture Styles," which allow the user to augment the look of the image through a variety of parameters, such as saturation and contrast. The SL2 also includes an "Automatic" Picture Style. During my time with the SL2 so far, Fine Detail and Natural Picture Styles have been my go-to options. You can see the different Picture Styles in our SL2 Gallery.

I find that the SL2's JPEGs are a bit soft straight from the camera. This could be in part due to the anti-aliasing filter, but no matter the reason, the files lack punch when viewed up close. That is not to say that the camera cannot capture detailed images, because it certainly can, but a good RAW processing technique and sharpening approach will be needed to bring the most out of the SL2's sensor.

Overall, at lower ISOs, image quality is generally pretty good. Colors are nice and the sensor is capable of delivering high-quality images. Let's take a look at how the SL2 does at higher ISOs.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 14mm (22mm eq.), f/8, 1s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 14mm (22mm eq.), f/8, 1s, ISO 100.
100% crop from original JPEG. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
As you can see, the Canon SL2 can resolve pretty nice detail. However, the anti-aliasing filter does remove some of the very fine details, which the camera tries to compensate for with somewhat heavy-handed sharpening. This leads to some artifacts around edges in particular. Overall though, the SL2 captures sharp images.
High ISO Performance

At high ISOs, the SL2 does fairly well straight from the camera, although the noise reduction processing can be a bit heavy-handed at times. In the image below, captured at ISO 6400, we can see that the camera removes quite a bit of fine detail. However, the noise levels are not too bad considering it is an APS-C camera.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 312mm (500mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 6400.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 312mm (500mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 6400.
100% crop from the original JPEG file of the above image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Dynamic Range

In the sample images below, we look at the types of RAW processing you can do with images captured in challenging lighting. First, looking at shadow recovery, I found the SL2 to be a bit lacking in this department. There is not as much latitude with shadow recovery as I am used to seeing with APS-C sensors from competing brands.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 10mm (16mm eq.), f/5, 1/250s, ISO 125.
This image has been modified through the use of shadows and highlights sliders in Adobe Camera Raw. No other modifications except for lens corrections. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 10mm (16mm eq.), f/5, 1/250s, ISO 125.
The original JPEG image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

On the other hand, highlight recovery was quite good. When you combine highlight recovery and shadow recovery, the camera does produce pretty flexible files overall. Dynamic range performance is not great, but it's acceptable.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 340mm (544mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 1250.
This image has had highlight recovery performed in Adobe Camera Raw. No other modifications except for lens corrections. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 340mm (544mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 1250.
The original JPEG image. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Autofocus: SL2's Dual-Pixel CMOS AF steals the show

Dual-Pixel CMOS AF is definitely the main feature in the autofocus department for the Canon SL2 as its optical viewfinder autofocus system feels quite dated. When shooting through the viewfinder, you have a mere nine autofocus points to work with, which while not particularly small for an entry-level DSLR camera is still quite limiting at times, particularly when trying to precisely focus on a small subject or when tracking a moving one. You can utilize all nine points through an automatic full-area autofocus mode or manually select a single point. You can also use the touchscreen while selecting points, which is nice, but you do need to press a dedicated autofocus area button first.

When you are using a single point, all 9 of the dots are always visible in black in the viewfinder, but you can't see which point is active until you at least half-press the shutter, at which time the selected point illuminates with a small red dot. I would like a way to see which point is active without needing to press the shutter. However, you can see which AF point you've selected on the camera's rear display, as shown in the screenshot on the right. Further, the red dot can sometimes obstruct the subject slightly, although that was not often an issue.

You have access to one-shot, AI-Focus (automatic switching between one-shot and C-AF mode) and a standard continuous autofocus drive (AI-Servo) modes. In one-shot AF, the autofocus performance felt fairly snappy and precise, at least in good light. The SL2 does not perform particularly well in low light. Continuous autofocus is serviceable when photographing a slow-moving subject but the entry-level SL2 is not a sports camera, so it's a bit extreme to ask too much of it with respect to subject tracking, especially considering its 9-point autofocus system.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 340mm (544mm eq.), f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 2500.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

Dual-Pixel CMOS AF is available when shooting in Live View or when recording video, and this is a feature that feels truly modern. While it is now featured in many Canon cameras, it continues to impress. The Dual-Pixel CMOS AF system covers about 80% of the width and 80% of the height of the image sensor and serves double-duty for autofocus and metering. You can get very precise focus in Live View and speeds are pretty good overall, very good with some lenses such as the 18-55mm kit lens, which Canon claims can acquire focus in as little as 0.03 seconds.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II: 135mm (216mm eq.), f/7.1, 1/800s, ISO 100.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.
I heard the jets and rushed outside to capture an image, but I didn't have time to zoom in further or set the camera up differently. Nonetheless, the SL2 was able to lock focus on the fast-moving distant jets.

Overall, while the through-the-viewfinder autofocus is fine, it does not wow in the same way that the Dual-Pixel CMOS AF does when shooting in Live View. The SL2 is a good autofocusing camera, although it is not particularly well-suited for moving subjects or for shooting in low light.

Performance: Faster processor makes SL2 faster, but buffer depth is limited

The Canon SL2 includes a DIGIC 7 image processor, which is considerably faster than the one found in the SL1. Of course, with this faster processor also comes a higher-megapixel sensor, which means that the SL2's images place a greater demand on the camera's processing. With that said, the SL2 offers generally good, and at times very good, performance for an entry-level DSLR.

You can see the full lab results by heading over to our Canon SL2 Performance page, and in real-world use, the camera felt snappy and delivered good speed for its class. The camera can shoot at around 5 frames per second and is pretty quick to clear its buffer. This latter aspect is appreciated, as the RAW buffer depth is a low five frames. This is not unusual for a camera at this price point, but it is still disappointing for users who want to shoot sports or wildlife with RAW image quality.

The battery life, at least when using the optical viewfinder, is good as the SL2 is rated for around 650 shots. This is plenty for most scenarios. If you want to use Live View, which works well with this camera, you might want to carry a second battery because the battery life rating drops to about 260 shots, which is not nearly enough for a day of shooting for most people.

Overall, the only time I ever felt limited by the SL2's performance was when shooting bursts of RAW images, but otherwise, the camera felt quick in real-world use.

In the Field

One of the best aspects of the SL2 in the field proved to be its Vari-angle touchscreen display. It make it easier to shoot from difficult angles, which is a common occurrence for me when doing landscape photography. Plus, the addition of Dual Pixel CMOS AF is a very welcomed improvement. In particular, the Dual Pixel CMOS AF gave me much more flexibility to move the autofocus point around the frame compared to limited 9-point AF system used with the viewfinder.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 14mm (22mm eq.), f/6.3, 0.6s, ISO 100.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

The touchscreen user interface works very well too. While I do not consider myself a beginner, I left all the assistant functionality enabled so that I could get a sense of how the camera would perform for someone who has purchased their first DSLR, or perhaps their first dedicated camera in general, and I think that the SL2's user experience is very well-suited to beginners. There are very nice illustrations and notes that help showcase what different shutter speeds and apertures will accomplish. I think these will be helpful for those new to photography, but they can be disabled as well.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- GPS Menu
The Canon SL2 describes its shooting modes so that beginners can better understand what impact different settings will have on the final image.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- GPS Menu
The SL2 will tell you how to adjust your camera for more or less background blur. Additional illustrations include ones showing how to blur or freeze motion when shooting shutter speed priority mode.

So far, the Canon SL2 has been rather impressive in the field due to its good usability. While the image sensor does leave a bit to be desired, especially at higher ISOs and with respect to dynamic range, it has still proven to be capable and is definitely sufficient for many shooting situations and applications.

Field Test Part I Summary

Canon's new compact entry-level DSLR offers great usability

What I liked:

  • Compact and comfortable camera body
  • Very good Vari-angle touchscreen
  • Intuitive user interface
  • Helpful shooting assist displays
  • Dual-Pixel CMOS AF works well

What I disliked:

  • in-camera image processing is only fair
  • Camera struggles at high ISOs
  • Only 9 autofocus points when shooting through the viewfinder

The Canon SL2's biggest strengths so far are its compact size, its usability and excellent touchscreen interface. The camera is easy to use and it works very well in Live View. The image quality is not quite up to par with some other modern APS-C cameras, but it is still impressive -- the camera makes it easy to capture good-looking images with nice detail and color.

Canon SL2 Review: Field Test -- Gallery Image
Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM: 14mm (22mm eq.), f/8, 2.5s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image. Click here for RAW image.

In my next Field Test for the Canon SL2, I will be looking at the camera's video features and functionality, discuss the shooting experience further, address wireless features and summarize my overall time with the SL2. Look forward to that in the coming weeks.

 



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