Canon SL3 Field Test Part I

The tiny, record-making EOS DSLR gets its first real world test!

By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 07/31/2019

11mm (18mm eq.), 1/160 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100
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Mirrorless cameras might be where it's at these days, but what if you prefer an optical viewfinder to an electronic one or, worse still, to shooting at arm's length on the LCD? Well, DSLRs might not be as compact as their mirror-free brethren, but that's not to say they have to be big, bulky behemoths either.

A little EOS SL-series history to set the stage

Back in 2013, Canon decided to gift its long-running EOS camera series with a new model, aimed at taking on its mirrorless rivals by paring away all the fat. The lean-as-could-be Canon SL1 was the result, and not only was it the world's lightest DSLR at the time, it actually remains the world's smallest DSLR to this day.

A couple of years later in 2015, Nikon responded to its rival with the D5500, which it announced as the world's smallest and lightest DSLR with an articulated LCD monitor, a handy convenience the SL1 lacked. Fast-forward two years to 2017, though, and Canon took both titles from its rival with the Canon SL2. While not as small and light as its predecessor, it was more feature-rich in general than was its predecessor, and boasted better image quality and performance to boot.

Last year, Nikon's answer was the D3500, an entry-level model which while identical in stature to the D5500, was nevertheless lighter even than was the SL1, thanks to a fixed-position screen. (And as of this time, it remains the lightest DSLR that money can buy.)

The world's smallest, lightest DSLR with 4K or an articulated display

And now, the Canon SL3 (also known in some markets as the EOS 250D or EOS Kiss X10) is here. While it's not quite as light as the D3500 or even the SL1 before it, it nevertheless bests the D5500 in terms of weight, earning it the title of world's lightest DSLR with an articulated display. It's also the world's smallest and lightest DSLR to offer 4K video capture, and ties with the SL2 for world's smallest DSLR with an articulated display.

22mm (35mm eq.), 1/125 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 100
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That's not to say it can rival the smallest mirrorless cameras money can buy. For example, it positively dwarfs the recently-announced Sigma fp mirrorless camera, despite that camera featuring a much larger full-frame image sensor. But by SLR standards, make no mistake: The Canon SL3 is really compact and amazingly lightweight, especially given the fact it includes both a viewfinder and a versatile articulated display.

How the Canon SL3 stacks up against its nearest rivals

Before I go any further, I thought it might be informative to take a very quick look at how the Canon SL3 stacks up against its nearest current-generation rivals. Compared to Nikon, the nearest two cameras are the D3500 and D5600, with the SL3 sitting in the middle in terms of pricing (but just a little closer to that of the D5600.) For Ricoh's Pentax brand, meanwhile, the nearest camera would be the company's entry-level option, the Pentax K-70.

135mm (216mm eq.), 1/13 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 100
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Looking first at the Canon SL3 vs. Nikon D5600 matchup -- you can click that link for a more detailed comparison -- we see that while the Nikon lists for about US$100 more body-only, both cameras have similar sensor size, resolution, sensitivity range and maximum burst capture speed. Nikon's camera has a more sophisticated dedicated autofocus sensor and is ready to shoot faster after powering on, but the Canon SL3 has much better video (including both 4K and on-sensor phase detection AF), shoots faster when using a raw file format, and has a significantly more generous buffer.

61mm (98mm eq.), 1/400 sec. @ f/7.1, ISO 100
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As for the Canon SL3 vs. Pentax K-70 comparison, the list pricing is a bit closer here, with Ricoh's model clocking in at just $50 more than the Canon. Again, both cameras have similar sensor size and resolution, but the Pentax K-70 shoots a bit faster, has a much larger and higher-quality glass pentaprism viewfinder, in-camera image stabilization, a more sophisticated dedicated AF sensor, a higher fastest shutter speed of 1/6,000 sec., and a higher maximum sensitivity, too. (On paper, at least.) But the Canon SL3 bests the Pentax in its own ways, with far more capable video and wireless communications, a touch-screen display, faster startup and much better battery life. It's also far lighter than the Pentax.

Strikingly lightweight, and yet still very solid as well

On first taking the Canon SL3 from its packaging, I was struck more than anything by just how light it felt. Even loaded up with a battery and flash card and with its optional 18-55mm kit lens mounted, it's still quite startling just how light it feels. Walking around town, I occasionally caught myself carrying it suspended by the handgrip from a couple of fingertips.

Yet while it's obvious just from that first touch that it's made of plastic, the quality still feels good. There's not even the slightest hint of panel flex or creak anywhere. The reason for this is probably that it's more than just plastic -- it's actually a composite material comprising both polycarbonate resin and a mixture of glass and conductive fibers, the same construction used for its predecessor. (It's a brand-new body design, though.)

As well as the kit lens, I chose three other optics that pair nicely

The EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM kit lens I just mentioned is the same as that bundled with the previous SL2 model, incidentally. It has 35mm-equivalent focal lengths ranging from ~29-88mm. We've yet to review it separately, but in our Canon SL2 review called it "better than the average kit lens" with "decent performance for its class." Also on-hand for my review, as well as the camera body and kit lens, I chose three other EF-S mount lenses which seemed like they'd pair well with the SL3's extra-compact body.

100mm (160mm eq.), 1/200 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 160
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For really wide-angle shots I have the EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM ($300; 16-29mm eq.), which we called "quite the solid performer" and "one of the best deals for Canon APS-C shooters". For more distant subjects, I have the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM ($300; 88-400mm eq.), a lens we said you "really can't go wrong [with]" and "impressively sharp for a 'kit' lens, even [at] its widest apertures". And finally, for some macro fun in a small package, I opted for the EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM ($300; 56mm eq.), an unusual and rather fun lens which we've yet to review. It's not only the widest macro lens in the EF-S lineup, but also has a built-in dual LED ringlight.

These four lightweight lenses give you great versatility in a pretty small package

Between the SL3 body and these four lenses above -- click the links for our reviews -- you can cover every focal length from a very generous 16mm-equivalent wide angle to a 400mm-equivalent telephoto, and optical image stabilization is available across the board. You also have a bright f/2.8 aperture available at a touch over 50mm for shooting attractive portraits. And you have decent macro possibilities, too, so long as you can get close enough to your subject, as there's a 1:1 reproduction ratio at a distance of 5.1 inches (13cm).

113mm (181mm eq.), 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100
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And doubtless because they were designed for the sensor size, all four lenses are (for their respective classes) relatively compact and very lightweight. Together with the camera, they make for a nice little kit that weighs just under 3.5 pounds, including a battery, flash card, all front lens caps and three rear caps, and the lot fits easily along with a charger and a spare battery or two inside even a quite modestly-sized camera bag.

250mm (400mm eq.), 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 200
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To tote this kit around town, I borrowed an equally-lightweight and cheap-as-chips $30 Altura sling that my son scored last Christmas, as all of my own bags seemed unnecessarily large and hefty by comparison. The whole kit complete with camera packed up with plenty of room to spare in the 8 x 8 x 5-inch section at the bottom of the bag, with the entire upper portion of the bag completely empty. If you were happy carrying the camera and one of the lenses on a neckstrap, you could easily fit the three unmounted lenses inside an even smaller camera bag or perhaps even a moderately-sized purse.

Decent handling, but big hands may feel a bit cramped

The Canon SL3 handles very nicely with all of these lenses, incidentally. It's a bit light to balance well with heavier, higher-end Canon glass, but that's not a likely use case in a camera of this class. With the lighter EF-S lenses for which its best suited, the camera feels well-balanced and pretty comfortable in-hand.

Those of you like me with large hands -- I'm 6'1" tall -- will almost certainly have to curl your little finger under the handgrip, and will find your fingertips do press into the camera body inside the grip. However, while this can be uncomfortable with some cameras, I really didn't find it bothersome with the SL3. My guess is that's down to a combination of its light weight, the gentle curve between handgrip and body surfaces, and the soft-touch rubber material that wraps both surfaces. It's about as comfortable as an SLR this small can be, honestly!

Loads of controls, and they're mostly great to use

The SL3's body sports a reasonably generous selection of controls for its market segment, and most of them are easy to locate and use by feel once you're familiar with the camera. There's not enough feedback from the buttons to comfortably use them while wearing gloves unless they're very thin, but it's sufficient for bare fingertips to tell quite easily when most buttons have been pressed. The mode dial and front dial also have a strong-enough click detent with enough resistance to prevent accidental changes, without being unduly hard to turn.

40mm (64mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 250
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Really, my only complaint on the controls front is the power switch, which I found to be a little small and fiddly. It has a very short throw between the leftmost and rightmost of its three positions, so you can't really tell the current position by touch, either. Its small size coupled with, again, a pretty decent detent click as it moves between positions probably helps to prevent it being accidentally bumped and switched on or off, though.

The removal of the depth-of-field preview button isn't a big deal

Compared to its immediate predecessor, the SL2, Canon has removed a few controls for the followup SL3. All three controls used to sit on the left side of the SL3, two of them at the base of the lens mount, and the third atop the SL2's left shoulder: The flash, depth-of-field preview and Wi-Fi buttons respectively. While a bit of a shame -- I usually prefer more external controls to keep me out of menus, especially if they can be customized -- I can see the reasoning for all three changes.

160mm (256mm eq.), 1/250 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100
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Most consumers likely forgot the SL2's depth-of-field preview button was even there, what with it being tucked away in an easily-missed location under the lens mount button. In its absence, you can easily configure the display button to provide depth-of-field preview anyway, so long as you don't mind not having that control available to turn the display on and off. The display still turns on as needed for menus or playback anyway, so it's not a big inconvenience.

250mm (400mm eq.), 1/500 sec. @ f/8.0, ISO 100
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Doubly so because you can also set the screen to remember your chosen display state through power cycles. And even if you need ti confirm setup after the screen is disabled, you can press the 'Q' button instead, to call up the Quick Control screen in interactive mode. You can then either wait a few seconds for it to go away by itself without any settings changes, or half-press the shutter button to dismiss it instantly. (You can also tap the on-screen back button when you've checked your setup, if the touch screen is enabled.)

The flash and Wi-Fi buttons won't be missed by many, either

As for the flash button, there's been a simultaneous change to a manually-raised flash which removes that control's primary purpose. For newbies, the older auto popup strobe was nice because it could potentially save you a blurry, noisy or underexposed image, until you learned when flash was necessary yourself. For experienced photographers, though, the removal is a blessing because the flash can't annoy you by popping up unexpectedly.

And while you can't access the flash control menu as quickly now -- that was a secondary function of the SL2's flash button, once the strobe had popped up -- the most important functionality is still possible without having to visit the first page of the menu to open the flash control page. You can enable or disable the flash simply by raising or lowering it manually, and flash exposure compensation is just a button press away in the quick control menu. All of the remaining functionality from the SL2 can still be found in the aforementioned flash control page -- including an auto flash mode which functions only after you first manually raise the strobe.

Finally, Canon has also removed the SL2's Wi-Fi button, and frankly I see this as the least significant change of the trio. Once you've paired via Bluetooth, which we'll come back to later in this field test, there's no really need to access the W-Fi menu at all, other than to disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when traveling by air. (Even though small electronic devices can typically be used throughout flights these days, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi use are typically still forbidden during taxi, takeoff and landing.) More on wireless communications in a bit.

113mm (181mm eq.), 1/200 sec. @ f/5.0, ISO 1000
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The pentamirror finder is a bit small and dim, but unlike an EVF, lag-free

Of course, the most important difference between the SL3 and most other similarly compact interchangeable-lens cameras is its viewfinder. Since it's an SLR camera, it's a true optical viewfinder which lets you frame your images without any lag and using the same lens through which your photo will be captured.

However, it also means that you won't get any preview of your images beyond their framing and (if you use the relevant control to preview this) the depth-of-field you can expect. Your image's brightness and color won't necessarily match what you're seeing through the viewfinder, and nor will you be able to see most setup information, zoom the view for easier focusing, etc.

220mm (352mm eq.), 1/400 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 1000
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The Canon SL3, like its predecessor, uses a pentamirror viewfinder that's much less bright than the glass pentaprism viewfinders used by higher-end Canon and Nikon DSLRs. (And in all DSLRs from rival company Ricoh's Pentax brand, even at almost the same price-point as the SL3.) Compared to a pentaprism viewfinder, the SL3's pentamirror finder is smaller, dimmer and more tunnel-like, and not as useful for judging manual focusing accuracy.

Whether you'll prefer it is down to personal taste, but I wish it used a pentaprism

124mm (198mm eq.), 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100
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But while some really great electronic viewfinders are available these days, at the pricepoint and in the market segment we're discussing here, EVFs tend not to be so spectacular either, with graininess and lag between what happens in the real world and what's shown on the viewfinder being common pain points. And while the SL3 isn't really intended as a sports shooter, affordable mirrorless cameras can often be challenging for sports shooting as they aren't showing a live view, but rather a slideshow of the shots just captured, making it harder to track your subject. The SL3's viewfinder does have noticeable blackout as frames are captured, but what you see in between is the real world in real-time, and that makes panning with subjects easier.

Really, the viewfinder versus EVF debate largely comes down to personal preference. At this point, you can't expect the best of either. I think the SL3's viewfinder merits the description "good enough for the price", even if I'd really like to see Canon and Nikon take Pentax's lead and just standardize on pentaprism viewfinders in all of their SLRs. In an increasingly mirrorless world, if you're opting for a DSLR camera, you probably care about the viewfinder quality, after all. And it can't be that expensive, because Pentax DSLRs have offered pentaprisms at similar price points for years now.

Creative Assist mode is a great, friendly way to give newbies some control

Canon's Creative Assist mode isn't entirely new, but it's new to the EOS-series, and to me personally. It first popped up in the EOS M3 some four years back, and has appeared in every EOS M-series model since. Reviews Editor Jeremy Gray has handled almost all of our EOS M-series field testing, though, so I've not personally had much more than a brief exposure to the function.

I have to say that after giving it a whirl in the EOS SL3, I think it's a handy addition to a roster of features which already do much to make the complexities of shooting with a DSLR simpler for beginners. The SL2 before it already defaulted to a simplified, guided menu structure and quick control screen, and by default also gave handy on-screen hints when choosing exposure modes or browsing menu and quick control screen items, and had a friendly green "A+" icon on its mode dial to access an Auto+ mode that'd try to get you the best possible results with little to no effort.

55mm (88mm eq.), 1/125 sec. @ f/4.0, ISO 100
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The SL3 retains all of this intact (and with some subtle refinements to the on-screen UI), then adds a Creative Assist function both pre-capture in the Auto+ mode whether shooting through the viewfinder or in live view mode, as well as a post-capture Creative Assist tool for processing of raw files. You can interact with the Creative Assist tool either using the touch-screen user interface or the four-way controller pad, and can either select from one of 11 preset image styles, or tweak variables like background blur, brightness, contrast, saturation and more with handy on-screen controls and then save up to three user styles of your own. It makes light and relatively easily-understood work of functionality most beginners would otherwise likely ignore if only surfaced in the standard menu system.

Great daytime image quality and good performance; after-dark testing coming soon!

And now for the bit we're sure you're keen to know: How's the image quality? Well, with the proviso that I've yet to shoot with the Canon SL3 much after sunset, I have to say I'm pretty pleased so far. You can see the results of my shooting throughout this field test, and all images are straight as they came out of the camera, with no editing of any kind -- click through each image to see the full-sized original, or the link in the caption to download the raw file for local editing and review.

143mm (229mm eq.), 1/320 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 100
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Images shot with the SL3 in the daytime have pleasing color straight out of the camera, and while saturation feels a tad high to me personally -- I tend to favor more realistic color -- it's probably not pushed quite as far as by some rivals. (And truth be told, most consumers prefer saturated and contrasty images anyway, which is why manufacturers tend to skew in this direction with their defaults, especially in consumer-oriented cameras like this.)

10mm (16mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 1000
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Exposures have been very accurate so far, too, with relatively few shots needing a little exposure compensation, and only in conditions where most any camera would struggle. And so far, performance has been decent for the class too, with reasonable burst performance, swift focusing, minimal shutter lag and quick startup.

Note, though, that I've thus far only captured relatively few shots at ISO 2000 or above, with almost all of my exposures at ISO 1600 or below thus far. Noise has yet to trouble me, but I wouldn't expect that at ISO 1600 these days. Watch this space for more thoughts on performance, noise and the effects of noise reduction in my second field test, after I've tried some more extensive high ISO and long-exposure shooting.

Good Wi-Fi performance and decent range, too

In discussing the absence of a Wi-Fi button on the Canon SL3 earlier in this field test, I promised I'd return to wireless communications later -- well, that moment is here!

Once you've paired and established a Bluetooth connection, basically everything Wi-Fi related can be done through the Canon Camera Connect app on your phone, with Wi-Fi connections being raised and dropped again automatically, as needed. (Or just rarely, unnecessarily. For example, accessing the camera settings option in the app raises a Wi-Fi connection, even though the only info therein is date/time, time zone and daylight savings information, plus an option to keep the camera's time in sync with your phone. All of these would seem to me to be good candidates for transfer of small amounts of data via Bluetooth.)

But for the most part, if you see a brief delay while a Wi-Fi connection is established, it's genuinely because the camera needs to transfer significant amounts of data at high speed. Once connected, the Wi-Fi hookup seems quite robust. Range is pretty decent -- at least 50 feet or more indoors, even with the signal passing through a wall or floor between the camera and phone. Performance was good, too, clocking in at around 3.3MB/sec. to my Google Pixel 2 XL smartphone, excluding conversion time if downsampling JPEGs or videos on the camera before transfer.

250mm (400mm eq.), 1/400 sec. @ f/6.3, ISO 250
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Canon has made using your phone with your camera simple and straightforward

And getting connected in the first place is about as simple as it could be, other than the lack of NFC for bump functionality with Android devices. (Sadly, the industry is moving on from NFC bump-to-share functionality for anything but payment processing services, probably because Apple refused to open up the NFC hardware in its devices for other purposes.)

Both app and camera guide you through the process of pairing via Bluetooth, including obtaining the necessary Canon Camera Connect app from Google or Apple's stores as appropriate. Getting a Bluetooth connection set up was quick and easy, and once that was done, raising a Wi-Fi connection from my phone took just ten seconds or so start to finish when necessary, providing the camera was already switched on.

64mm (102mm eq.), 1/100 sec. @ f/4.5, ISO 400
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JPEG images can be transferred from camera to phone at either the original resolution or at a reduced resolution of around 1.7 megapixels, and movies are transferred at a maximum resolution of Full HD, even if shot in 4K. Raw files are silently converted to JPEG for you before transfer to your phone, again at either full or 1.7-megapixel resolution.

218mm (349mm eq.), 1/400 sec. @ f/5.6, ISO 800
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Comprehensive remote capture, but live view magnification won't yet work

And on top of all of this, you can also control the camera remotely with a live view feed and a generous array of remotely-controllable settings, including all of the main exposure variables plus options like metering and autofocus. (The list of options available depends on whether you're in still or movie-capture modes and what the current exposure mode is set to on the camera itself, however.)

Remote control functionality worked superbly for me, with the sole exception of the live view magnification function. It's supposed to be accessed by double-tapping on the live view feed, a gesture I'm thus far unable to get to work. All things considered, though, with a couple of very minor quirks it's an exceptionally comprehensive and well-considered Wi-Fi implementation that makes it simple to get your photos and videos on your camera and online. Kudos, Canon!

Still to come in part two

That about wraps things up for this first field test, but there's still plenty to come in part two.

As well as looking at nighttime image quality both for long-exposure and high-sensitivity capture, I also want to take a look at video shooting both day and night. And I'm planning to get some more side-by-side testing of Canon's lossily-compressed C-Raw file format against the standard raw format, so I can take a look at what tradeoffs if any it involves. I also want to discuss the SL3's battery life and charging setup, and I'd like to get some more portraits for the gallery while testing out the new eye-detection AF in live view mode, as well.

If there's anything you'd like to see discussed which I've not already mentioned, please do sound off in the comment section below!

35mm (56mm eq.), 1/60 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600
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