Canon SL1 Field Test

by Eamon Hickey | Posted

The Canon SL1 consumer DSLR was designed as an entirely new solution for photographers looking for a smaller, more compact interchangeable lens camera system, and to capitalize on the growing popularity of mirrorless compact system cameras. As someone who has shot with traditional (film and digital!) SLRs for more than 30 years, but who is now a big fan of mirrorless cameras, I was very interested in seeing just how good an answer the Rebel SL1 turns out to be.

Extra small. The Canon SL1 is shown here with the optional EF 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens.

Size and handling. The first thing I noticed after unpacking the Canon Rebel SL1 was its weight -- it really is surprisingly featherweight for a DSLR. It's also, of course, uniquely compact for a DSLR, but that difference didn't seem as striking to me. I'm sure that's partly because my test camera came with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens, which is fairly light but not particularly small in stature. But it's also because the SL1 is noticeably thicker than the mirrorless cameras I've used; the camera has to make room for its mirror.

After charging the battery and fitting a strap to the camera, I slung the Canon SL1 over my shoulder and headed out for a two-hour walk around New York City's Greenwich Village on a beautiful sunny day. One of the Village's landmarks, Washington Square Park, was abuzz with activity, and I spent more than an hour shooting street performers and other people enjoying the park. These included a small troupe of Irish step dancers, accompanied -- in the park, remember -- by a baby grand piano on wheels, plus an aspiring guitar god, a unicyclist and more.

The Canon SL1 simply captures solid pictures on sunny days and in low light.

Despite its small size, the Rebel SL1 felt immediately familiar and comfortable in my hands, allowing quick, stable and secure handling and shooting. Canon has managed to shrink the SL1's dimensions without compromising the camera's basic SLR-style handling and ergonomics in any significant way -- at least for me. The one slight exception is that I am naturally a left-eyed shooter, which pushed my face well into the control area on the right side of the Rebel SL1's back. I thumbed myself in the nose a few times, trying to access the exposure compensation button, and I've never had quite that much trouble on any other DSLR. But I don't really count this against the camera; I've known for a long time that left-eyed shooting was a personal vice I should be trying to conquer.

Skin tones and auto exposure are handled reasonably well by the Canon SL1.

On subsequent days, I took the Canon SL1 on similar walks in Central Park and along the Hudson River, and I carried it with me on several nights out. On all those outings, the camera's weight remained hardly noticeable. It definitely negates the portability advantage that smaller mirrorless cameras have over standard DSLRs. But in terms of size, the SL1 still doesn't match up with most mirrorless models, especially with the sizable kit lens attached. You're just not going to slip the Canon SL1 into a coat pocket or a slim bag along with your iPad Mini and a bottle of water.

Performance. In just my first few shots in Washington Square Park, I confirmed what I had expected: the Canon Rebel SL1 is a quick and responsive camera. All the buttons and dials responded instantly when I changed settings or accessed features. I never found myself waiting for the Rebel SL1 to respond to my inputs.

While shooting the dancers, I was trying to capture moments of peak action, and this is the kind of situation where the feel, responsiveness and especially the delay of the shutter release cycle can make a real difference. The Canon Rebel SL1's shutter response turned out to be typical of entry-level SLRs, which means it's fairly quick and perfectly adequate for the vast majority of hobbyist photographers. (Pro DSLRs are definitely faster, as they should be.)

The Canon EOS Rebel SL1 allowed me to separate autofocus activation from shutter release to capture peak action with no AF delay.

On the dancer shots, I also used the Canon SL1 in continuous drive mode, which shoots at about four frames per second. Combined with the reasonably responsive shutter, this allowed me to get several interesting shots of the dancers in action.

Just how fast is the Canon SL1? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

I did, however, run into one relatively modest performance shortcoming. Irish step dancing goes fast and furious, and I was firing off multiple sequences of continuous bursts to try to capture all the many cool moments happening in front of me. I had the Rebel SL1 set to record simultaneous RAW+JPEG images, and it can only shoot five frames in that mode before the image buffer fills up and the frame rate falls way off. This isn't out-of-the-ordinary for an entry-level DSLR, but it caused me to miss a lot of shots. On later outings, I tested the Rebel SL1 in RAW only (i.e. with no simultaneous JPEG) and got eight frames before the buffer filled. For some sports shots on one of those later outings, I switched to capturing Large JPEGs only and never filled the buffer -- testing this mode, I could get more than 25 images at full frame rate, which is more than six seconds of action, easily good enough for any practical purpose I can think of.

As I walked around Washington Square Park taking grab shots of the action around me, I was impressed with the Rebel SL1's autofocus when used in its normal mode -- using phase-detection AF with the eye-level optical viewfinder and the mirror in its normal down position. It was very fast and decisive on every subject I shot, from the dancers in bright sunlight to backlit people sitting on a park bench.

The optical viewfinder is, of course, the biggest difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless model, but I don't feel like there's too much to say about the viewfinder in the Canon SL1. It's pretty typical of entry-level DSLR cameras, which means it's decent but noticeably less impressive than the big, bright viewfinders in high-end DSLRs, especially full-frame models.

The SL1's images showcase good color and detail, even in a heavily backlit scene at medium ISO taken at Hudson River Park.

On a different outing to Hudson River Park, I also tried the Canon SL1's Live View mode for taking some pictures of flowers, and folks walking along the river promenade. I had no trouble viewing and framing with the LCD except in the brightest direct sunlight.

Live View mode features Canon's new Hybrid CMOS II AF system which is unique to the SL1 so far and combines phase- and contrast-detect autofocus technologies. The new system uses a lot more of the Live View screen -- in fact, about 64% of the screen in total -- than models such as the Canon T4i and T5i.

I found the SL1's hybrid AF to be adequately fast, but not quite up to the standards of the best mirrorless cameras in my opinion. In my use, it was about half as fast as the Rebel SL1's standard phase-detection mode AF. That said, it was still faster than DSLRs I've tested that utilized solely contrast-detect AF for Live View still picture shooting -- and more importantly, a huge improvement over the T4i which had remarkably slow AF in Live View and video, even though it had an earlier version of the Hybrid CMOS AF technology.

The SL1 performed well in this high ISO test taken at dusk in the East Village.

When I headed home at the end of my Hudson River Park shoot, it was dusk edging into night, which gave me a chance to try both of the Canon SL1's AF systems in dim light. As I shot pictures of some East Village landmarks like McSorley's Old Ale House, both AF systems were impressively decisive despite the low light levels. Here, the Hybrid CMOS II AF system in Live View mode worked almost as fast as the SL1's phase-detection AF system with the viewfinder. I found that pretty impressive.

To really give any AF system a challenge, you need to shoot sports, so on a subsequent day I took the Canon SL1 to a park near my apartment where I know I can find young -- and sometimes not so young -- men battling it out in pickup basketball games. I shot continuous bursts at 4 fps using AI Servo AF mode with the Rebel SL1's phase-detection AF system, and the camera did a really good job. It was able to easily follow fast-moving action and gave me a high percentage of in-focus shots. This remains one area where DSLR cameras significantly outperform nearly all mirrorless cameras. I should mention one caveat: this was not an absolute AF torture test for the Rebel SL1 because the kit lens I was using only opens up to f/5.6 (at 55mm), which provides enough depth-of-field to hide small focusing errors.

Controls. The control systems on DSLR cameras are pretty well worked out by now, and so the buttons and dials on the Canon SL1 were instantly familiar to me, as they would be to anyone with experience taking pictures with DSLRs, especially Canon SLRs.

Before my first shoot with the Rebel SL1, I set up the camera to separate autofocus from the shutter release button. On my trip to Washington Square Park, when capturing images of the dancers, I simply autofocused once on the center dancer, and then I could fire the shutter multiple times with no AF delay, as I tried to capture the peak of the action. It's also always been a snap to switch between manual and automatic focus on Canon DSLRs -- with a switch on the lens -- so the SL1 provided all the focus flexibility I needed.

On my trip to Hudson River Park, I did a lot of switching from one sensitivity to another, as I went from shooting front-lit landscapes and people to backlit flowers -- sometimes to allow narrower apertures, sometimes to allow faster shutter speeds. With its dedicated ISO button, the Canon SL1 made it easy to quickly make these changes.

The SL1's autoexposure bracketing can help on a tricky backlit scene such as this at Hudson River Park.

Like nearly all entry-level DSLRs (and mirrorless cameras, for that matter) the Canon SL1 has only one main control dial, but within that constraint, its exposure control system is quick to operate. In Hudson River Park, I used it mainly in Aperture Priority exposure mode, and I could quickly set positive or negative exposure compensation from shot to shot. I used this in combination with autoexposure bracketing for many backlit shots, and was able to get good exposures for several tricky images, including a group of teenagers backlit against the Hudson River, and a bed of flowers in dappled sunlight with backlit runners jogging by. As I mentioned earlier, my only small issue was that my nose covered the Rebel SL1's exposure compensation button, and I ended up with a thumb inside a nostril once or twice before I figured it out.

Quick Control System. Get all your exposure settings right at your fingertips with the SL1's touch screen.

The Rebel SL1 mostly conforms to the Canon family menu style, which isn't necessarily brilliant but is perfectly acceptable. Most functions are quick to understand and access, and the My Menu, which you can customize with your own most-used function settings, is very handy. By my second shoot with the SL1, however, I had largely switched to using the Quick Control system, which lets you access important features and functions using the camera's touch-screen LCD. I was happy to discover that two very useful functions that are sometimes buried in menus are available directly with the Rebel SL1's Quick Control system: autoexposure bracketing and flash exposure compensation. Very nice.

The Canon SL1 includes a variety of scene modes and special effects filters, but I didn't find it particularly intuitive to activate them. That said, I used the HDR Backlight Control mode to shoot an image of a new building down the block from my apartment. The sun was low in the sky in the background, and the Rebel SL1 automatically combined three images into one HDR shot that easily captured more detail than I could get in a single image.


Canon Rebel SL1 Other Creative Effects filters
Miniature Effect filter
Grainy Black & White
Soft Focus
Fisheye Effect
Art Bold
Water Painting
Toy Camera
The Canon Rebel SL1 offers an array of creative filter effects for additional artistic expression. Like many, if not most other cameras that offer similar effects, these creative filters do not work for RAW shooting. Furthermore, if Auto Exposure Bracketing, White Balance Bracketing or Multi-Shot Noise Reduction is enabled, Creative Effects cannot be applied to the photos.

Later that same day, I shot a streetscape using the Handheld Night Scene mode, and the Canon SL1 automatically combined four images into a single, sharp shot with a half moon set against a deep blue nighttime sky over St. Mark's Place in the East Village.

I tested the Handheld Night Scene mode in the East Village and was pretty happy with the results.

Lens. My test Canon Rebel SL1 came with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens. As we mentioned above, this lens is specifically designed for quiet operation when shooting video, and sure enough, it's essentially soundless. I shot several video clips on busy 2nd Avenue in the East Village and could not hear any lens noise from either focusing or zooming.

Functionally, I was mostly impressed with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. It autofocuses not only silently but also very quickly. In five different shooting days with it, I left its Image Stabilization on for nearly every shot, and it let me make sharp handheld shots down to 1/10 second (zoomed to 55mm).

In manual focus, however, the lens leaves a lot to be desired; the manual focus ring is significantly underdamped and the focus throw is very short. I shot a few test images using manual focus, but it just was not very satisfying. The zoom action on the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens is also mediocre -- overall, it just feels plasticky, but this is almost certainly the price we have to pay for the very low weight of the lens.

Overall, however, I found the 18-55mm to be a pretty decent kit lens, better than most you'll find that come packaged with entry-level DSLRs.

How good is the Canon SL1's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM kit lens?
Find out by clicking here to see our optical test results.

Image quality. We evaluate the image quality of the Canon Rebel SL1 in detail, using standard test images side-by-side with some top competitors, later in another section of this review, but I'll add some subjective impressions from my test shots.

I used careful technique -- a high shutter speed, medium f-stop, careful focusing and stabilizing -- to shoot images designed to show me what kind of detail the Canon Rebel SL1's 18-megapixel sensor can record. The SL1 doesn't disappoint. Even though it may not have as much resolution as some competing entry-level DSLRs such as the Nikon D3200, there's more than enough detail to make very large prints. (A fact which we confirmed in our Print Quality Analysis further down in the review.)

The Canon SL1 performed well in high contrast scenes such as this street scene that demonstrates the camera's dynamic range.

Also, I shot a lot of other contrasty subjects and many backlit scenes into the sun setting over the Hudson River, and the Canon SL1 was able to capture a decent amount of dynamic range. All of my test images were shot at the camera's default JPEG settings, which produced good skin tones but colors that are, to my eye, not particularly inspiring, although reasonably neutral and accurate. I also shot a large number of high ISO images (up to ISO 6400), and these were quite good, with a nice balance of noise reduction and detail at the default JPEG settings.

You can view the IR Lab's in-depth Canon SL1 image quality test results by clicking here,
and read further on in the review for side-by-side comparisons
against the Canon SL1's top competitors.

Canon Rebel SL1 Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (76.1MB MOV)

Movies. To test the Canon Rebel SL1's movie mode, I shot a series of short clips one evening on 2nd Avenue, one of the most active streets in the East Village. I found the camera's movie mode controls a bit unintuitive. However, once I figured them out, they were fairly flexible, allowing focusing while recording and also providing reasonably advanced exposure control options. The Rebel SL1 provides a good range of video resolution and frame rate options (up to 1,920 x 1,080 Full HD at 30 fps, or 1,280 x 720 HD at 60 fps).

The resulting clips were very stable, courtesy of the image stabilization of the 18-55mm lens, and also very sharp. As noted above, I couldn't detect any noise from the lens in the recorded clips, as the EF-S 18-55mm IS STM is both smooth and silent. Most importantly, unlike what we found with the Rebel T4i, the AF speed didn't exhibit any noticeable lag or otherwise get in the way.

All in all, the SL1 proved to be quite good at recording videos -- better than most entry-level DSLRs that I've used.

Summary. I was reasonably impressed after shooting with the Canon SL1. It undeniably provides the benefits of a DSLR, including very responsive autofocus and overall operation, a well worked out control system, and an optical eye-level viewfinder. And it captures extremely high quality images and movies. Canon has managed to fit all this in a small and very lightweight DSLR body without compromising usability very much at all.

On the other hand, the SL1, especially when considered with a lens mounted, is still significantly bulkier than most mirrorless cameras and, of course, the overwhelming majority of compact point-and-shoot cameras. For photographers who have their minds set on a DSLR but would like to save as much weight as possible, it's a great choice. For shooters who are more interested in ultimate portability, it may still be a bit too bulky.


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