Hands-On with the Canon EOS 300D Digital Rebel
by Michael R. Tomkins, News Editor
Canon's EOS Digital Rebel is probably one of the most talked-about digital cameras we've ever covered on this site, and quite understandably the majority of the excitement seems to revolve around its pricing. In the USA at least, Canon has managed not only to come in under the psychologically important price-point of $1000, but to include a lens at this price as well. For a camera largely based on Canon's extremely popular and competent EOS 10D, this is perhaps nothing short of amazing - the price as compared to that camera has almost been cut in half, but many of the most important features have been left intact.
For many people who can't afford to step up to the EOS 10D, and don't want to settle for a digicam with a tiny sensor and a fixed lens, the decision whether or not to buy the Digital Rebel will be an easy one. Having spoken to some of you since the announcement though, it seems that a significant portion of our readership have found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Canon have had to make some compromises in the Digital Rebel - partly to reach the price that would bring the camera within reach of as many consumers as possible, and partly to ensure that there's sufficient differentiation between the new camera and the existing 10D.
If you can afford both cameras, you're faced with a difficult decision - live with those compromises and save a not-so-insignificant sum of money that could be spent on lenses and accessories, or decide you'll outgrow the Digital Rebel too soon, and reach deeper into your wallet to afford the 10D or another digital SLR. Speaking personally, I'm finding myself in exactly this situation, and so my goal in writing this hands-on report is as much to help myself make that decision as it is to help you, the reader, decide.
A little background on who I am as a photographer is probably appropriate at this point. I'm not a professional photographer, nor do I pretend to believe that my photographs are going to win any awards. I'm an enthusiastic amateur photographer who has some understanding of the basics of photography, and I take photographs both for the enjoyment of seeing things other people might miss, and to aid my rather rusty memory of people, places and things that have touched my life in some way. A couple of my photos have been published in magazines in the past, but I've never sold any of my photos, nor have I tried to. When I can get the time, I shoot photos by the thousands, following the philosophy that the more photos I take, the more I learn - and hence the better chance I have of capturing an image which pleases me.
I've been interested in photography since I was a child, and first stepped into the SLR world with a Praktica BX20 and a couple of Zeiss and Pentacon lenses. When I outgrew this after a few years, I bought my first Canon EOS camera, the EOS 1000FN - sold in the USA as the Rebel SII. This sufficed for years, whilst I watched the digital camera market grow and anticipated my first digital SLR. My first digicam purchase was Sony's Cyber-shot DSC-D770, which mostly satisfied - were it not for the low resolution, high image noise and fixed lens, I might still be using it today. Hooked on digital, but unable to afford a digital SLR until recently, I have since used Canon's PowerShot G1 and Minolta's DiMAGE Xt as my day-to-day shooters. I'm about ready to finally take the plunge on my first interchangeable lens digital SLR, but want it to be something I won't immediately outgrow. Since I'm familiar with and like Canon's ergonomics, I'm more apt to buy a digital EOS than other digital SLRs, even though I don't currently have much in the way of Canon lenses.
So - that's who I am, and should provide some insight into the perspective from which I'm writing this report. When our publisher, Dave Etchells, offered me the chance to give the Digital Rebel a spin, I leapt at it. Since the camera arrived five days ago, I've shot well over a thousand pictures with it in most any situation I could think of. I was fortunate that the camera's arrival coincided with two interesting events on the Knoxville, Tennessee calendar - the inaugural Knoxville Dragon Boat races, and the annual Boomsday festival and fireworks display. Whilst I could certainly have used a selection of lenses and some accessories to accompany the body, I had the chance to consider most aspects of the Digital Rebel. Hopefully once production cameras are available, I'll be able to update my thoughts and test the camera with some of the other lenses and accessories in the EOS system.
Accompanying this report, you'll find a small selection of the images I captured (along with some taken by Dave's son, Chris) on our EOS 300D Digital Rebel gallery page. Whilst obviously in the real world photographers seldom exhibit their photos straight out of the camera, the gallery images are unaltered (with the exception of lossless rotation) to allow readers to see what they can expect to work from. You may want to download some of the images and edit them yourself to see what results you can obtain - personally, I found the EOS 300D's images gave quite a bit of latitude for the digital darkroom, and really come to life with judicious use of sharpening. All of my gallery photos were taken on the Canon EOS 300D Digital Rebel with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens and Lexar 40X 4GB CompactFlash card. No filters or off-camera flash units etc. were used for any of the photos.
Taking the EOS Digital Rebel out of the box, the first thing that struck me is that whilst the camera body is significantly lighter than the EOS 10D and only a touch heavier than Pentax's *ist D, it is noticeably heavier than any of the EOS Rebel-series film cameras.The weight actually lies about halfway in between the 10D and most of the film Rebels, and makes the Digital Rebel one of the lightest of the digital SLRs. In the EOS Rebel film world though, only the original Rebel and Rebel SII come close to the body-only weight of the Digital Rebel. The extra weight as compared to the film Rebels isn't necessarily a bad thing - it can make it easier to hold a camera steady, and give the camera a feeling of solidity.
The next thing I noticed is how the camera felt in my (rather large) hands. The Digital Rebel is quite comfortable to hold, and felt better-built than the Rebel film cameras I've used, but it didn't feel anywhere near as sturdy as the EOS 10D, or to my mind even the older digital SLRs, the EOS D30 and D60. It is difficult to say why the plastic-bodied D30 and D60 would feel any better in the hand, and perhaps time since I last handled those cameras has tempered my memory of them. The Digital Rebel's body didn't really make any untoward noises or flex much under a little pressure from my fingers, although the CompactFlash card door and pop-up flash do creak a bit.
Reader opinions seem to vary on Canon's EF-S lens and mount for the Digital Rebel. Nikon has already done something similar with their cameras, creating a line of lenses that are incompatible with full-frame sensors or 35mm film because the image circle produced is smaller - accounting for the crop of the smaller image sensors compared to 35mm film. This allows smaller, lighter lenses that can potentially be less expensive, and can make wide angles more feasible despite the crop. If you've read the rest of our review, you'll be aware that Canon's EF-S lens that is optionally bundled with the camera can't be fitted to other EOS cameras - including the D30, D60 and 10D which all use the same sensor size. I can sympathise with owners of those cameras who may be disappointed that they can't use the new lens. I can also understand the point made by those who see this as against the entire philosophy of the EF mount - that any EF lens can be used on any EF camera.
At the end of the day, though, I can also understand why Canon have to do this - not everybody can afford to trade their first-born for a decent wide-angle lens, nor do they want to carry around large, heavy lenses. The way I see it, at least Canon have consciously moved to ensure that there cannot be confusion as to whether a certain camera works with a certain lens or not - either the lens fits your camera (in which case it will work), or it doesn't (in which case it won't). The simplicity is maintained, but the potential advantages can be gained with a minimum of fuss. Now, we wait with anticipation to see whether EF-S is destined to remain a curiosity, or whether Canon will release further EF-S lenses.
I've read interviews with Canon executives suggesting the former - that this is not a new lens format, and is only a one-off solution to a particular need of this camera. Personally, I'd like to see Canon release more EF-S lenses, and bring the EF-S mount to other digital cameras in the EOS line. Realistically, it is going to be quite some time before full-frame sensors become affordable for the masses, and it seems unnecessary to adhere rigidly to making lenses that produce an image circle much larger than the sensors in our cameras. Only one thing struck me as odd with the EF-S mount: Why did Canon put a white square on the lens mount and lens to aid in aligning the EF-S lens with the body, but remove the red dot on the lens mount to aid in aligning with the red dot on an EF lens when mounting it? Surely with many EF lenses available, and only one EF-S lens, the red dot would be the more important of the two?
The control layout of the Digital Rebel seemed pretty good overall, as I've grown to expect from Canon. Pretty much everything was easily within reach, and the only controls I really found I had to take the camera away from my eye to find were the drive button on the top of the camera body and the AV / Exposure Compensation button. This latter was the one button I found to be frustratingly placed, as it never felt natural to reach and hold whilst rolling the main dial to select an aperture or adjust the exposure compensation level. One other potential interface improvement I'd like to see relates to the playback mode. Currently, the main dial on the top of the camera, and the left and right buttons of the four-way arrow pad on the rear of the camera both have the same function when reviewing images - moving one at a time through the stored images (whether they're viewed individually, or on index pages of 9 thumbnails at a time). Instead of this duplication of controls, I'd like to see the main dial skip past several images with each turn, rather than just one at a time. Similarly, when viewing index pages, the main dial would be more useful scrolling through whole index pages, rather than single images.
I've heard some consternation from readers over Canon's choice of a pentamirror instead of a pentaprism for the Digital Rebel's viewfinder, so it was with some trepidation that I first brought the camera to my eye. I have to say that the viewfinder was much better than I was expecting. No, it probably wasn't quite as bright as that used in the EOS 10D, but it was much, much better than the viewfinders in most consumer point'n'shoots. Anybody who can put up with those, or the electronic viewfinders used in many prosumer cameras, should have little difficulty adjusting to the Digital Rebel viewfinder. I found it easy to use even in relatively low light, and focusing manually was a pleasure. I must note at this point that I have near-perfect vision, and so can't comment on the use of the viewfinder for eyeglass-wearers (although Dave wears glasses and I'm sure will have commented on this in the main body of our review).
I only had a few real issues with the viewfinder. Firstly, I much prefer the method of indicating the active focus point(s) used in the EOS 10D. Where the 10D illuminates a hollow rectangle in red for each AF point that is active, the Digital Rebel illuminates a pinpoint of red light in the center of the AF point. This red "dot" can be anywhere from difficult to very difficult to see, depending on the conditions at the time - frequently on a complex background such as trees in bright light, or city lights at night, I found it took several attempts to see which AF points were being illuminated. I had no problems seeing the AF points on the 10D in my time using that camera. Secondly, I found that in some situations, a distracting red "glow" would appear above the top AF point, or below the bottom AF point, when those points were being illuminated. I also like to see the partial metering area displayed in the viewfinder, as it helps the photographer to visualise whether the camera's metering is likely to be fooled by a tricky composition.
The only other annoyance I noticed was that the viewfinder display doesn't show the ISO rating and white balance mode selected - even when you're in the process of altering it - which means that unless you remember what rating you're currently using, you have to take the camera away from your eye to change the ISO rating or white balance mode. Even if there's not space on the viewfinder LCD to show these functions at all times, they should be displayed whilst you're changing the current setting.
I honestly couldn't tell much, if any, difference between the autofocus speed or accuracy of the Digital Rebel and the EOS 10D. The Digital Rebel focuses as well or better than any of the film Rebel cameras I've used, and is light years better than most consumer digicams that use contrast detection from the image sensor for focusing. It is unfortunate that the choice of AF mode rests with the camera and not the user, though. Depending on the type of subjects you shoot, this is probably the single point most likely to make the Digital Rebel a no-go for you. If you shoot a lot of sports, you won't be happy to only find AI Servo AF in the "Sports" Image Zone mode, as this mode brings its own set of limitations - for example, you can't shoot RAW files in the Sports mode. Hence, photographers who place importance on being able to select the AF mode will want to skip the Digital Rebel, and go for either the EOS 10D, EOS 1D, or another brand. Focus lock is also missing, although a rough-shod workaround is to autofocus and then switch the camera to manual focus mode. If you don't shoot a lot of sports or fast-moving subjects though, chances are that 99% of the time you'll be satisfied with autofocus on the Digital Rebel - it is certainly far faster and more accurate than AF on pretty much any other camera in this price range.
Metering with the Digital Rebel can feel a bit limiting at times. Center-weighted metering is not available in Program AE, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority modes; Evaluative is not available in Manual mode. Honestly in most circumstances, I didn't find this caused me much of a problem when I knew how things worked, but it is nice (not to mention logical) to allow any metering option to be used in any of these modes. Perhaps more curious is that the Digital Rebel, like the D30, D60 and 10D before it, doesn't offer a true spot metering function. Partial (9%) metering is as close as it gets, but it is hard to see why when point'n'shoots that cost a third of the price can offer this, Canon's EOS SLRs can't. In some circumstances, a true spot meter is preferable to a wider partial meter, and I for one would like to see spot metering also available to EOS users.
Most of the time, I found myself staying in the Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes on the Digital Rebel. The only other modes I used much were Sports - solely because that was the only way to access AI Servo AF - and the A-DEP mode. Personally, I found that the limitations of the Image Zone modes, such as the inability to select a focus point or use RAW mode, convinced me to stay out of them wherever possible. They might prove useful to somebody who is new to photography and intimidated by the camera, but I can't imagine most users who would pay almost $1000 for a digital SLR would want to live with those restrictions.
A-DEP, or Automatic Depth of Field mode, is an interesting idea that can be very useful - but could be much better implemented. The idea is that the user tells the camera what range of distances should be kept in focus in the final photo. This is achieved by the camera checking all seven AF zones, and then calculating the shutter speed and aperture required to keep all seven zones in focus. A-DEP mode is a very useful feature in theory, and sometimes useful in practice as well - but at least one older Canon camera had a much better way of handling A-DEP mode. What happens when the subjects you want in focus can't be simultaneously lined up under the seven focus points, or the camera can't achieve a focus lock on them?
The EOS 1000FN (EOS Rebel SII in the US) - and perhaps other EOS film cameras of early 1990s vintage, I don't know - had a different approach to A-DEP mode (or DEP mode, as it was then called). The user aimed the focus point at the nearest and furthest objects that should be in focus sequentially, half-pressing the shutter button for each object, before finally recomposing and capturing the actual image. This avoids the potential problem of your subjects not conveniently lining up with the locations of your focus points, and even allows you to use objects that are completely outside the boundaries of the final photograph to define the distances to be sharply in focus. Perhaps the best of both worlds would be to allow A-DEP mode to function in either manner - lock focus across all seven AF points, or let the user opt to select a single AF point and then lock focus by aiming the camera and half-pressing the shutter button twice to indicate minimum and maximum focus distance.
One point that bears mentioning quickly in relation to A-DEP mode may just be down to a firmware glitch or unimplemented feature in our pre-production camera. When in A-DEP mode, you're obviously interested in the depth of field of your image - but in A-DEP mode on our camera the depth-of-field preview button didn't function. The user guide lists depth-of-field preview as possible in A-DEP mode, so hopefully when we receive a production-level camera we'll be able to report that the user guide was correct... It certainly makes sense to allow depth-of-field preview in A-DEP mode!
Built-in flash strobes on SLR cameras are something that most photographers seem to either love or hate. Some say it is pointless and that they'd rather use an external flash unit - personally, I'm of the opinion that it adds little size or weight to the camera, but could just save the day if you neglect to bring your external flash or it fails on you for whatever reason. At least the Digital Rebel's flash stands well above the camera body when extended, reducing problems with the flash being blocked somewhat, as well as reducing the chance or red-eye. Still, you're likely to get much better results with an external flash - the internal one isn't that powerful and can be blocked by large lenses. The Digital Rebel also lacks flash exposure compensation, meaning that the flash can't be throttled down to reduce the power if necessary (if your external flash offers its own setting to reduce the power, that can of course be used).
Whilst shooting fireworks with the Digital Rebel, a couple more minor annoyances made themselves known to me. Firstly, the camera has no mirror lockup function - meaning that all of your photos suffer from the vibration caused by the mirror moving out of the light path to allow the sensor to capture an image. Secondly, the self-timer is fixed at ten seconds long, and unless you have a remote control (I didn't), that means there's no way to trigger the shutter without moving the camera, other than waiting what seems an eternity for the photo to be taken. I missed quite a few good bursts of fireworks because of this - it shouldn't be too hard to add a menu option that would set the self-timer to a user-specified number of seconds. Long exposures on the self-timer were also frustrating because after each exposure, I had to wait for the camera to finish processing the previous image before I could capture the next one - even though there's a nice big dual buffer in the camera.
Finally, and this is really being rather picky - the rubber viewfinder cover attached to the neck strap is a nice idea, but I'd much prefer to see it made of hard plastic. The rubber cover is difficult to quickly slide onto the viewfinder, and I frequently got it attached on one side only. A plastic cover would be much easier to slip quickly over the viewfinder, and the ideal cover would also offer the ability to attach your viewfinder eyecup to the back of it, so you don't lose it.
At the end of the day, image quality is probably the single most important thing about any digital camera, and the EOS Digital Rebel has it in spades - as you'd expect for a camera so closely based on the EOS 10D. Considering how little time I had to get accustomed to the camera, I felt that a good proportion of my images were pleasing, and I'm sure with more time I could have increased that ratio. Long exposures on the Digital Rebel can make your jaw drop, and low-ISO images have that almost indescribably "buttery-smooth" feeling that has come to be associated with Canon's CMOS-sensor based SLRs. I'll let the sample and gallery images in this review do the talking in that respect though - a picture being worth a thousand words, after all!
So - did I manage to decide whether or not the Digital Rebel is the camera for me? Honestly, no... I'm going to need to play with it a little longer to see if I can live with the compromises, or whether the EOS 10D is the camera for me. I can say that the Digital Rebel is a camera that it hurt to repack into the box and return to sender when reviewing time was over, though. Some cameras you're excited to receive, and then they don't live up to the hype - but this one most certainly does. The camera fits just right in my hands, is easy to control and achieves what I want a good proportion of the time. Most importantly, the images frequently look stunning - occasionally almost better than I remember the scenes looking in real life. To say I'm looking forward to a production-level Digital Rebel arriving on my doorstep to test would perhaps be the understatement of the century - and if I can convince myself that it is the camera for me, I'll have an extra $500 to spend on my collection of Canon lenses...