Since the Canon Digital Rebel / EOS-300D revolutionised the DSLR market in 2003, the company have been working hard to improve on what was and still is a very successful DSLR. In the past year several rivals from other well know brands have appeared, with the immensely successful Nikon D70 as their strongest competitor. Now that Canon have released their new Digital Rebel XT - or EOS-350D as it is called in some markets - the tables have been turned once more and it will be interesting to see how the competition will react to this.
Apart from being smaller and lighter, build quality on the Digital rebel XT has been improved and several new features have been incorporated. Canon have updated the pixel count to 8 million, using a newly developed CMOS sensor - the fourth new CMOS sensor from Canon in just 12 months - and the same DIGIC-II processor that can be found in Canon's pro and semi-pro models. The camera will be sold as a kit with Canon's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II lens or as a body only.
Using the camera
The Canon Digital rebel XT is available in silver or in black (default). Which of these you prefer is down to personal preference, although we would choose the black version as it gives the camera more of a pro appearance. Physically the camera is quite a bit smaller and lighter than the older 300D. In fact it's almost exactly the same size as the extremely compact Pentax *istDS which we tested earlier. Everything seems to be well put together without any rattles or free play in the camera or its controls. The handgrip on the right is ideal for people with smaller hands, although the lack of space between the grip and the lens mount might pose problems for those with bigger hands and fingers. If you plan to use the Rebel XT with longer and consequently heavier lenses, the relatively small hand grip may prove insufficient and you may find that the hard rubber finish on the grip doesn't help much here either. To make sure that the rebel XT is for you, we would advise you to try it out for size before you buy one.
Apart from a reduction in size, many features on the Canon Rebel XT have been improved, not least of which is the 8-megapixel, second generation CMOS sensor coupled to the same DIGIC II image processor that powers the EOS 1Ds Mark II. Its influence shows in even better image quality, lower power consumption and even faster processing times. Power on time is now almost instant (0.2secs instead of 3secs on the 300D) with a faster shutter release and shorter blackout time. Shooting speed has been increased from 2.5fps to 3.0fps with a larger buffer of 14 JPG images. Quite an improvement over the limited number of 4 frames the 300D could master.
The layout of most controls is largely identical to its older sister model, so 300D users will instantly feel at home with the new camera. The drive mode button has now been transferred to the rear panel while metering and AF controls have found their place on the L/R buttons of the 4-way dial. Top and bottom controls here are for immediate access to white balance and ISO settings. A slight change in design of the 4-way dial means you now need to operate it with your finger nails as the buttons are slightly raised above the back surface of the camera, contrary to the buttons on the 300D which were deeply recessed, making operating them more comfortable. Our tester - being a left-eyed photographer - managed to accidentally change drive mode with his nose a few times, although we realise this probably says more about his nose than about the camera. The top mounted mode dial is now metal instead of plastic with the same program modes as on the previous model -
six scene modes for family use, and Program, Av, Sv and Manual for advanced users, together with an A-DEP setting for maximum depth of field.
Many 300D owners complained about the fact that some functions were locked up or linked to certain program modes only, with no possibility for the user to override the camera's setting. It is good to see that these features have now been released and offer full user control. Most notably this is true for colour space (sRGB and Adobe RGB), metering and seven points AF mode, which can now be freely selected. But the best feature has to be that flash exposure compensation can now be set over +/- 2 stops. In day to day shooting situations it will sometimes be necessary to use just that tiny bit of fill-in flash to lighten up a face or a darker image area without the need for full flash output. It is good to see that Canon has listened to owner's comments and incorporated this in the Digital rebel XT.
The new Canon has quite a few features which have also been implemented on the semi-professional Canon EOS 20D. There are 2 pre-set parameter sets with Parameter 1 as the default setting. The latter has higher contrast, saturation and sharpness while Parameter 2 has neutral settings and is perhaps more useful for portraits or skin tones. Three further user-defined Parameter sets can be used to fine-tune colour characteristics to your own liking. Apart from these, there are now nine true custom functions that offer user control over things like noise reduction; selectable exposure increments (0.3 or 0.5EV); flash sync speed in Av mode; AF/AE lock when half pressing the shutter; 1st or 2nd curtain flash; mirror lock up; AF-assist beam or function of the SET button on the 4-way dial.
The camera can capture RAW or JPG images plus it has the option to shoot both simultaneously. When doing so it writes one RAW and one JPG image to card for each frame taken as opposed to the old 300D that only provided a JPG embedded into the RAW file. White balance has the usual 7 options plus a custom setting. An interesting feature is that white balance settings can be shifted in two axes, from Magenta to Green and Blue to Amber and combinations of the two. WB shift is set in a dedicated screen by using the 4-way dial. Settings can be remembered by noting down its position on the XY co-ordinate graph. For instance A8G6 would mean a (considerable) shift towards the green/amber setting. Bracketing can be added by turning the quick control dial on the top plate.
It works perfectly although your settings can only be judged after capturing an image and seeing what it's like on screen. It is these items that greatly extend the flexibility of the Digital rebel XT and make it a strong competitor to the likes of Nikon or Olympus.
Also new is an in-camera black and white mode with digital colour filters to darken skies or adapt other colours in varying degrees. This works the same as filters used in conventional BW photography. Admittedly the same effect can be had by using the Channel Mixer in monochrome mode in Adobe's Photoshop where it is possible to adjust the amount of red, green and blue to shift grey tones in an image. An advantage of doing these adjustments on your computer instead of in-camera, is that you can always go back to the default colour image if the results do not look right, whereas out in the field it will take up quite some time to determine the right settings, plus it may be difficult to assess the result on the camera's small 1.8" LCD screen.
In the box
The Canon Digital rebel XT is available in two kit configurations with or without Canon's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II zoom lens. This lens now carries the "II" suffix but Canon inform us that changes are purely cosmetic and that optically nothing has been changed. All kits include the camera body, NB-2LH li-ion battery and CB-2LT charger, high speed USB and video cables, shoulder strap and bundled software with Canon's Digital EOS Solutions disk No 10. The camera manual can be consulted on CDRom, but there is also an elaborate, pocket-sized booklet of 170 pages in your own language, so you can read all about the camera's functions in the comfort of your arm chair. The battery should be good for about 400 to 600 images per charge depending on the amount of flash usage.
For organising your images Canon's familiar ZoomBrowser EX has been included, which is now version 5.1 and getting better all the time. Further software includes EOS Capture - for remote shooting - and PhotoStitch, which is handy if you are interested in panoramas. Then there is Digital Photo Professional 1.6, the one to use for converting RAW images to conventional formats. You also get ArcSoft Photo Studio 5.5 for even more creative options.
Apart from a whole range of EF and EF-S lenses and Canon's dedicated Speedlite flashes for the Digital rebel XT, various other accessories can make life easier or expand your possibilities with the camera. A handy extra could be the optional battery grip, which would help if you find the original hand grip too small. It uses either two NB-2LH rechargeable lithium batteries or four AAs for greater versatility.
Although the upgrade from 6 to 8 megapixel will not be that obvious in day to day photography, the new DIGIC II processor guarantees good contrast and nicely balanced colours for images full of detail. The possibility to choose between Parameter 1 or 2 settings or one of the other customisable sets is an attractive option. Parameter 1 - which is the default setting - has higher contrast and saturation for punchy images, which is in line with what amateur photographers expect from digicam and film output. Parameter 2 has more subdued colours and contrast for slightly more neutral images. The latter is the norm for professional use and ideally suited for post-processing. Your own preferences will certainly be among them. (see the sample images below, the top ones are taken with Parameter 1 settings while the bottom row uses Parameter 2)
The Canon's EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II zoom lens that comes with the kit delivers clean and sharp images as we have come to expect from this lens on the 300D. There is some barrel distortion at wide angle, which becomes less prominent when zooming in, to be replaced by slight pincushioning towards the tele end of the zoom. Some tests have remarked about noticeable softness and ghosting at telephoto when using smaller apertures, but we have not been able to verify this. At the extreme edges of the image some vignetting is visible which disappears when closing down a few stops. In all we were very satisfied with the performance of this low-cost lens and we would consider this optic to be an ideal starting point for building a system, if you plan to take your photography to a higher level.
Fine JPG mode showed very clean images with no detectable artefacts and even the Normal compression mode, which effectively halves the file size, was free from obvious artefacts. Clearly Canon's downsampling processing works so well that no "jaggies" are visible. At ISO 100 image noise is virtually undetectable and even if you go up the scale beyond ISO 400 or 800, noise never becomes prominent enough to become a serious issue. Automatic White Balance could handle most lighting situations although for incandescent light, it would be preferable to switch to the relevant setting in the menu for more neutral results. Remember that settings can be fine-tuned with the new WB shift feature as explained earlier.
Considering the big success of the EOS 300D last year, Canon's expectations to sell twice as many Digital rebel XT's could well become true if you look at the array of advanced features. For existing 300D owners though, the upgrade to 8 megapixel is not really significant enough to warrant trading in their old camera yet, but who knows what Canon have in store for them in a few months time. In fact the Digital rebel XT is one of 70 new products Canon is planning to put on the market in 2005 and it will be interesting to see what the company will come up with to remain the number one brand in digital and film SLRs.
We had the chance to play with the Canon Digital rebel XT for some time and we can conclude that the camera is a worthy successor to the EOS 300D. It is ideally suited to its target market - the family amateur who is serious about his photography. Its small size will be an advantage to most users, although some might well find the tiny handgrip too small for their liking. It is good to see that Canon have now included flash compensation and released all limitations on the camera so that any metering or AF mode can be selected freely. There is no question that the Digital rebel XT is an extremely capable and compact camera at a competitive price that will certainly find its way in today's digital arena.