15MP sensor, HD video, more: Is the Canon T1i a serious enthusiast-level DSLR in a budget-busting starter DSLR body?
For several years now, Canon has been refining and updating its Digital Rebel, continuously positioning it as the camera to get when you step up from a compact camera to DSLRs. Now, with the T1i, Canon has introduced the first entry-level DSLR to have HD video. I got my hands on a production model and put it through its paces.
The $800 T1i is actually a half-step higher, feature- and price-wise, than the XSi, which will remain available, costs $640 (body only, as of this writing) but it's not quite on the same level as the 40D (just under $900), which would be next in line and is geared towards enthusiasts. The T1i is the only one of these three cameras with video.
Topping off the new features list is, of course, HD Video. There are three possible resolution levels: 1920x1080 (at 20 fps--you'll notice distracting jaggedness if you move the camera), 1280x720, (at a smoother, standard 30 fps) and 648x480 VGA-quality (also at 30 fps).
Other new features are borrowed from mid-range and high-end Canon DSLR. CA (Creative Auto) gives users some control over automatic settings, but presents the settings in a non-technical manner. For instance, if you want to reduce depth of field by increasing aperture size, CA lets you move a slider for "Background: Blur<>Sharp". Exposure compensation becomes "Exposure: Darker<>Lighter" and so on. Other choices include changing image effects (Standard, skintones, vivid blues/greens, monochrome), flash control, timer/drive, and image quality. You can also get to these settings by going through the menus, but this puts them at your fingertips.
Other than Video and CA, the T1i is basically the same as the XSi. The dial modes other than CA and Video are the same. Notable features that are inherited from the XSi include My Menu, which lets you create your own set of frequently-used camera settings, and Picture Styles, which can be quickly accessed via the down control button on the back, let you choose preset image settings as well as your own custom combination of color, contrast, black-and-white filter effect and toning. This is a convenient feature for photographers who enjoy changing the look of their pictures.
I dialed “Faithful” under Picture Styles to get this accurate rendering of my deck. Dramatic it’s not, but this image is indeed faithful to the original colors of the scene.
I created a custom Picture Style by choosing Monochrome and selecting the highest contrast setting. Faithful it’s not, but I created a more graphic picture in-camera!
ISO ranges from 100-6400, while Peripheral Illumination Correction looks for light fall-off patterns unique to the Canon lens you're using, and evens it out for you, a nice if subtle touch. Drive mode allows for 3.5 frame-per-second shooting, good but not great for sports. Other features, such as the usual range of PTAM and scene modes, are pretty much basic-DSLR standard.
As with all other Canon DSLRs, the T1i lacks internal image stabilization; you must buy a lens with this feature if you want it (and who doesn't want stabilization these days?). It also lacks face recognition, which is making its way onto more and more low-end DSLRs, and a flash PC outlet, which is a more pro-oriented feature and is available on the next level up, starting with the 40D.
As with other Rebel models, the T1i is small and light, and comfortable in the hand. Button placement is standard, although I would prefer having right-thumb access to the menu and display buttons. Their positions on the upper left side of the camera's back, above the LCD monitor, seem to be an afterthought.
The viewfinder is low magnification, and is somewhat reminiscent of "squint-finders" that we used to find on point-and-shoot cameras. The live view and preview mode are very good thanks to the high-resolution, 3-inch, 920,000-dot finder, although the image was typically hard to view in direct sunlight.
Focus was fast, although it was less decisive under moderately challenging situations than I would have liked. There was virtually no pause between shots in JPEG and less than half a second when shooting in RAW. As expected, RAW+JPEG was the slowest setting. Startup-to-shoot time was almost instantaneous.
At the sensor level, the T1i's DxO test results (below) indicate an above-average performance, with grain well controlled until ISO 640. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Thanks to the camera's new Digic 4 processor, noise is actually pretty well controlled well into ISO 1600 and is not as bad as expected even at 3200 when shooting JPEG imges. Although I wouldn't recommend ISO 6400 or the high-setting of 12,000, I was impressed with both grain and color range, and you can get nice, clean shots as high as ISO 400.
But what does the grain really look like?
Detail from 100% blow-up detail shows smooth grain at ISO 100 (not perfectly sharp because I was also testing image stabilization. This is with a Canon EFS 17-85mm lens at 1/20th sec, at 24mm.)
At ISO 800, some mottling and graininess can be observed but overall not too bad.
Pretty darn grainy at ISO 6400—but I’ve seen worse.
But what about the videos? The 720p HD setting worked best, with smooth motion and high quality. The audio quality is poor, however, because the only sound capture is via the camera's built-in microphone. The mic picked up handling noise and you could clearly hear the click-click-click of the focus mechanism. There's no accommodation for an external mic, which could provide higher quality sound to match the image.
DxOMark Lab Test Results
Test results based on unedited RAW images direct from the sensor, do not take into account internal processing, which may affect results when shooting JPEG images. Provided by DxOMark with their permission.
ISO accuracy: Accurate within 1/10 stop at ISO 100, but approximately ½-1/3 stop below manufacturer speed at all subsequent speeds. For example, ISO 200 tested as ISO 152, while ISO 800 was ISO 620. ISO 6400 was tested at ISO 4448.
Minimum ISO for acceptable image quality: ISO 800
Minimum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: ISO 800
Color Depth: Excellent (21.7 out of a possible 28)
Overall image quality: Very Good (62.5 out of 100)
The G1i maintained at least a 10-stop dynamic range through ISO 800, a better than average result. Image quality is acceptable at higher than average ISO. Overall, digital noise (signal-noise ratio) and dynamic range is above average for a camera in this category. Overall, a good performance.
Conclusions and Recommendations:
Although the lack of an external mic is a minus for those who care as much about sound as they do about visuals, and the viewfinder is a bit on the squinty side, the T1i’s overall performance was excellent and image quality very good, especially when shooting JPEGs (although it turned in an above-average performance when shooting RAW. It gives snapshooters more creative control over image quality, thanks to the Creative Auto and Picture Style options.
If you want HD Video, this camera is a very compelling option for anyone who is just getting started with DSLR photography, or Canon veterans who want an extra body with video capabilities. If you don’t need video, and/or don’t need the extra boost in low-light image quality, however, you can save money by buying the XSi