Canon EOS Digital Rebel

Digital photography for the "amateur professional" SLR hobbyist

It’s taken me a while to dive into the world of digital photography, as I mentioned in my review of the Canon i9900 Photo Printer. I consider myself an “amateur professional” photographer, and I prefer a camera that lets me experiment with settings and lenses rather than a simple point-and-shoot device. Digital pictures taken by my friends with their 2-megapixel and 3-megapixel cameras leave a lot to be desired in my eyes, looking pixilated and digitally harsh and full of image noise and just…wrong. That’s why I’ve hung on to my old trusty Canon SLR, happy as ever with its antiquated film, while my friends go through point-and-shoot digital cameras left and right, upgrading to better resolutions as prices come down.

Me, I decided a while back to avoid even considering a digital camera until one came along that tempted me in all the right ways. One that offered a resolution that could come close to matching the noise-free splendidness of traditional film-based imagery. One that gave me freedom in pre-pic manipulations, including aperture and f-stop settings, precise manual and automatic focus, and choice of lenses. One that I could use in low-light scenarios without relying on an inadequate flash. One that, in short, offered all the photographic freedoms of an SLR shooter. And most of all, a camera that boasted no shutter lag—a problem that bedevils all of the point-and-shoot digital cameras I’ve ever seen or tested.

After a considerable wait, my search is over. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel ($999) is a fabulous camera for photographers who desire more than the basics. If you have the time and inclination and curiosity to explore the myriad capabilities of this striking piece of equipment, I think you’ll find that very few cameras at this price point can match the professional image quality and sheer usability of the Digital Rebel. Best of all, in my testing of the Rebel, I found that I could swap out the included 18-55mm lens and affix my old lenses, meaning this is a camera that gives me the best of SLR functionality in the digital realm.

First Impressions
As I pulled the Digital Rebel from its box, the first thing I noticed was that it is very similar in appearance to Canon’s Rebel SLR—the same matte silver-and-black finish, and many of the same knobs and levers, obviously delivering much equivalent functionality. I was impressed by the way all the camera’s features were available with just a short wander of the finger. The camera fits nicely in the hand, offering an even more comfortable grip than I’m used to with Canon cameras. After charging up the battery—a quick, painless process—I flipped the power switch to On and tried taking a picture out of the box. The viewfinder is extremely reminiscent of the Rebel SLR—the metering dots are there, except now they’re updated with cool, red pinpoint LEDs to let you know precisely where the camera is metering. (You can also choose these metering areas manually with the use of a flywheel behind the shutter button.)

Detailed Tech Specs
Number of pixels: 6.5 million, 6.2 million effective
Image sizes (resolution): 3072 x 2048
2048 x 1360
1536 x 1024
Memory card provided: None, requires purchase of CF Type 1 or 2, compatible microdrives
Standard interface: USB 1.1
Image formats: RAW, JPG
LCD screen: 1.8" TFT, 118,000 pixels
Sensitivity: Auto, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 ISO
White Balance: Auto, Sunny, Shade, Clouds, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Flash, and Custom.
Focus: 7-point autofocus
Metering: 35-zone multipattern metering, center-weighted Average, centre-partial metering (9 percent of viewfinder area)
Flash: Built-in popup flash, plus external hotshoe
Exposure modes: Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Depth of Field Priority, Manual, and six Program modes
Power: Lithium battery pack
I depressed the shutter halfway to prepare for a quick, impromptu photo of my baby daughter, Sophie. Like the Rebel SLR in point-and-shoot mode, the camera immediately reads the subject and automatically adjusts focus, speed, and aperture. This digital version adds a few more tasks to this preparation process, including white-balance adjustment. But this preshoot preparation gives me what I’ve been hoping for in digital photography—instant aperture access! In other words, no shutter lag when I actually take the shot! The flash popped up high out the camera, actually startling me. The flash seemed insubstantial and gawky. It’s a clacky thing, this flash, snapping into place with more awkwardness than the SLR’s flash.

I snapped the pic and stared blankly at the LCD screen on the back. Apparently, before I could take (and keep) any pictures, I would have to go out and buy a CompactFlash (CF) card, as that is the camera’s mode of storage. To ultimately transfer images to my computer, I would also need a new USB 1.1 cable. So, I headed to my local consumer-electronics store for the goods. Now, I was set. I inserted a 256MB CF card, and the LCD screen immediately registered that I had room on the card for 89 high-quality images.

Takin’ Pictures
I experimented with the controls at the top of the Digital Rebel by spending a few days shooting and trying out the various settings. Behind the shutter-release button is a dial that provides a great range of both photographic freedom and in-camera automation. The options span from fully automatic to fully manual, with many semiautomatic steps in between, letting you give priority to different aspects of the shot, whether it be shutter priority, aperture priority, depth of field priority, and so on. For example, you can set the aperture you want, and the Digital Rebel will do the rest for you. You can also choose fully manual photography, of course. All these settings are carried over from the film-based Rebel.

New to the digital camera is a White Balance mode that lets you modify your white levels according to your light source. You can also change the camera's Processing Parameters, letting you determine in the camera whether you want more vivid, high-contrast or more subdued, low-contrast shots. Perhaps the most essential digital feature is Image-Recording Quality, which lets you choose your photos’ resolution. The default setting is High (6.3 megapixels), followed by Medium (2.8 megapixels) and Small (1.6 megapixels). Of course, as you scale down resolution, you’ll be able to fit more photos on your CF card, but larger prints will suffer in quality.

For most of my tests, I took both indoor and outdoor shots featuring my new daughter, Sophie, as well as her older sibling, Harper. I tried the fully automatic mode for a while, but I got into a nice experimentation groove that yielded all kinds of different lighting scenarios and depths of field. I also tried taking pictures at the various resolution settings. One thing that struck me as unusual—something that was different from my experience with my film-based SLR—is that the image I framed in the viewfinder was slightly narrower than that of the resulting photograph, which had more room on the top, bottom, and sides. I suspect that the more "open" result is a feature of digital photography that I just need to get used to, but it's tough for someone who's accustomed to using the viewfinder to frame exactly what I want to see. (Of course, later, I can crop and trim the image as necessary, but at first, it was jarring.) We spent part of an early afternoon at a local flower garden, giving me all sorts of opportunities to judge color accuracy in daylight. I used up all the room on the CF card, then went home to upload the pics onto my computer.

Viewin’ and Printin’ Pictures
Hidden underneath a rubber flap on the camera’s left side is an assortment of output connections. You get digital USB 1.1 for computer connection, RCA Video Out for TV connection (cable included), and a remote-control terminal. Through the USB port, the Digital Rebel supports PictBridge printing directly from the camera to a PictBridge-enabled printer. However, I'm disappointed that the Digital Rebel doesn't offer a USB 2.0 connection, particularly considering that the company's recent i9900 Photo Printer (on which I would be testing the PictBridge feature) offers that high-speed connection.

Before I could check out my pics, I had to install some software, which was a straightforward process. An EOS Digital Solutions Disk walked me through the easy steps of installing the necessary programs for image download. I was particularly impressed by the inclusion of Adobe Photoshop Elements for photo manipulation. I hooked up the camera using my new USB cord, and the software immediately recognized the connection. With one click, I began downloading pictures to my computer’s My Pictures folder. Now comes the disadvantage of a high-resolution camera: Each 6.3-megapixel photo consumed nearly 3MB of disc space, and downloading the entire batch of photos to my hard disk took a considerable amount of time.

When the download was complete, I opened up the automatically created folder that appeared n My Pictures. Its name was automatically the date of the download. I started opening one picture at a time on my monitor. The constant among all of them was a supremely fine level of clean detail. In the higher-resolution shots, I noticed no noise and a remarkable sense of depth that equaled that of my traditional SLR photography. Even in the mid-quality and low-quality shots, the images looked surprisingly free of softness on my monitor. I was quite impressed. I also noticed no red-eye situations in the low-light shots, presumably due to the high pop-up flash and the camera’s built-in red-eye reduction lamp. In some shots, the flash appeared to create an unnatural sheen over everything, but a little manipulation in Elements later cleared that up. Also, I found that by using the Processing Parameters and White Balance feature, I could try different settings and come up with shots that reduced that unnatural effect. Of course, the benefit of any digital camera is that you can simply trash the photos that aren’t entirely successful and snap another one—truly, the Digital Rebel is ripe for photographic experimentation.

I hooked up the i9900 printer through the USB 2.0 port and got ready to print out a sampling of different resolutions at various paper sizes. Simultaneously, I had my wife whittle down the CF card to our absolute favorite shots and take the card to a local photo lab that we trust. The technician at the lab read the CF card in mere moments and had my wife on her way within 15 minutes, bringing back a couple dozen 4x6 prints with which to compare our home-printed shots. I printed many 8x10 prints without putting the pictures through any software manipulation, and the results were, frankly, stunning. The level of detail and depth in the 6.3-megapixel photos actually caught my breath—I stared for long moments at one particular photo of Sophie, marveling at the crispness and you-are-thereness of the image. I searched for digital flaws and found none, only a warmth and depth that I hadn’t thought possible in digital photography. I perused the lower-quality shots and, at the 8x10 size, did see some loss in image sharpness in the form of digital softness. Printing the same image at 4x6 fixed that right up.

The pictures taken at the flower garden burst with accurate color, and when I compared the lab-processed photo of the same shot, I found that the lab technician had inserted just a bit too much pink—enough to make my daughters’ face look extra healthy, I presume, but in comparison, the slightest bit unnatural. I also had an opportunity, later, to have several of the same photos processed by an online photo lab. This proved to be the most impressive option (considering my low level of expertise with PhotoShop Elements): The prints came back with sparkling clarity, increased (but appropriate) brightness in the indoor shots, and very accurate color. With a little experimentation in the software, mostly using the brightness/contrast and color/hue corrections, I obtained results similar to those of the online lab. I have no doubt that with further experience in Elements, I would feel as though I were the master of my own photo lab.

I tried out the PictBridge printing, which yielded similarly fine results, but I found the navigation (which you do on the camera itself) to be a little cramped in the small back-of-camera display. Also, I discovered that digital photography, for the most part, practically demands at least a modicum of digital manipulation, if only to crop the photo down to the precise framing you desire. I suspect that I'll do the vast majority of my printing through the computer. Still, the PictBridge option is cool to have for quick printing.

It's a Keeper
I showed off all the images (particularly the 6.3-megapixel 8x10s) to friends and coworkers, who were literally amazed that such resolution was possible with digital photography. I’m afraid I’ve made them all too aware of the limitations of their point-and-click cameras. With the availability—and really, the affordability—of the Canon EOS Digital Rebel, I'm finally sold on the prospect of digital photography.

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