Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gordon's Digital Rebel XT review

Ok, so there are a million reviews of the Digital Rebel XT, which is my solstice present this year. I suspect my review will differ. I'll write it here as I learn about the camera, so this posting will evolve. Incidentally, the most useful and brutally honest review I've read is also the most succinct. That review tells you that the sensor is quite good and the autofocus is really only reliable if one uses the central focus point; that's the most important thing to know about this camera. (The other key thing is that the "rattle" is not a problem, see below.)
  • I bought the camera from abesofmaine: Canon Digital Rebel XT EOS Digital SLR Camera w/Canon 18-55mm Lens (Black) - This is a rather risky thing to do; on the spectrum of retailer reliability Abesofmaine (which is Brooklyn or the Bronx I think) ranks below Amazon, J&R, and other discount vendors. I wanted to buy from Amazon, but at the time I was looking I got annoyed by their experiments with repricing (which, weirdly, stopped the moment I blogged about them). Amazon never again came close the $830 price they showed for one brief shining moment, and, having missed that sweet chance, I refused to pay much more. I tried iBuyDigital since I'd bought my Canon G2 from them, but their web site was unresponsive. Abesofmaine displayed a panoply of various "seals of approval" on their site; I got the sense they were trying to move up a pay grade. So I chanced them. Camera came on time, no problems. They called once to try to get me to buy something else (that's where their profit margin is), but they quickly took no for an answer. I'd expected that based on iBuyDigital experience.
  • The rattle you hear when you shake the camera is "normal". It's reported to come from the side-arms of the flash. So expect it, but don't fear it. It bothered me a bit until I read the explanation.
  • This is very much an SLR. No surprises -- I owned a Minolta SR-2 as a teen. I agree with those who say a digital SLR is retro; like strapping a jet engine on a horse drawn cart. The noise and vibration of the shutter and mirror is unwelcome after the silent G2. There's no IR assisted focus like our Canon s400; dim light focus uses the pop-up flash. I really liked the G2's swivel LCD -- it allowed great camera angles. Let's not say much about the plague of sensor dust. I'm not happy with the compromises of the SLR, but that's what it takes to get a decent sensor with good light sensitivity. I wish the marketplace were smarter, but it isn't -- yet.
  • It uses the same LiON battery as our Canon digital video camera.
  • It comes with a wonderfully compact external battery charger -- perfect for travel. A vast improvement on the G2's bulky external power supply.
  • It uses the same mini-B USB sync cable as our Canon s400 -- a standard cable that also works with my travel mouse. Wow. It astounds me when vendors are so sensible. This is one reason I buy Canon.
  • It comes with software that is an upgraded version of the software used for my G2 and our s400. Another reason to buy Canon.
  • It uses old-fashioned CF II and CF III cards. Ahh. Pleasure. Same cards as the G2 and S400. It doesn't come with a CF card, but I have several "toy" 32MB cards around. A 1GB card is about right for me and I'll order one.
  • The LCD display is completely exposed. I'll cover it with the protective clear plastic I bought from Radio Shack.
  • Amazon reviews complain the camera is too small. Excuse me?! Clearly those reviewers have never used a compact digital camera. It's significantly larger than my G2. It also feels less solid and robust than the G2, but I'm glad it's light. The G2, by the way, is a tank.
  • The lens is cheap. I knew that. I wanted it anyway, but the sensor is better than the lens. I'm ordering the $70 Canon 50mm 1.8 lens from Amazon. On this camera that's the equivalent of an 80 mm lens on an 35mm SLR. A bit too zoomy, but great for portraits. By all reports it's an excellent lens.
  • The darned lens cap doesn't have anything to attach it to the camera or the camera strap. Grrr.
  • The manual focus doesn't have the old split-prism stuff I remember from years ago, but it still seems easy enough to use. Manual focus is pretty odd on the cheapo lens.
  • You have to order an IR remote separately, but at least the built-in flash allows one to put off the expense of a flash for a while. The flash results are much better than I'd expected; I'm not sure why but I suspect Canon put quite a bit of effort into matching the flash with the camera.
  • The camera is actually fairly simple. Anyone who's used a Canon G2 or compact Canon will quickly recognize everything. Max ISO is 1600. You can choose two color profiles: Adobe RGB or sRGB. I use sRGB in all my workflow, that's the default. Pretty simple.
  • At the maximum ISO of 1600 the color artifacts are pretty bad. I got a tolerable image with some noise reduction software but this is really not a useful ISO. I guess to go this high you need the pro models. I think ISO 400 is the max for this camera. I am experimenting with using a lower megapixel rating and noise reduction software to see what works best for picture taking at ISO 800.
  • The aspect ratio for this camera is 2:3, which is the traditional film aspect ratio. Most consumer digital cameras have an aspect ratio of 3:4 (same as original IBM CGA display). This shift is a mixed bag. It means it's easier to order traditional prints, but I'd gotten used to to 3:4 world.
  • The Amazon ratings complain of out of focus shots. I can see why. Depth of focus is back! When I use my 50mm Canon 1.8 (equivalent of 80mm on 35mm camera) the depth of focus is inches. I've been spoiled by the super depth of field/focus of the consumer digicam (small sensor, small lens). Also, the 'smart' 8 point focus tends to fail for me. Lastly, the default built-in flash settings favors an odd combination of flash and long exposures (so one gets the background exposed) along with wide open lens and ISO 400 sensitivity (to reduce power drain?). It's a wonder anything is in focus! I switched to single point focus or choosing the focal point, locked the shutter speed to 1/200 with the flash in Av mode (latter is a custom setting, read the manual), and I'm realizing that limitations of an f1.8 80mm-equivalent lens.
Update 12/9:
  • I received the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens. As I'd expected from the Amazon reviews it's not mechanically impressive -- better than the package zoom but this is not one of Canon's "pro" lenses. On the other hand, with this lens and a reasonable amount of light I can take indoor pictures during the daytime without a flash. On the XT it behaves like an 80 mm lens on a 35mm camera -- too tele for optimal indoor use. Recommended.
  • Philip Greenspun loves the Sigma 30 mm lens/XT combination. On the other hand, the Sigma cost 4 times as much as the Canon 50mm. It may, however, be the next lens I buy.
  • A number of Amazon reviewers complained about focusing problems. I noticed the same thing with the 50mm at f1.8, the focal plane was not where I wanted it to be. I read the manual (gasp) and started using a single central focal point and using the 'lock and move' technique. The results are much better.
Update 5/2/06: After six months of use I'm still learning how to take better pictures with this camera. I insist you buy and read the enhanced manual, Michael Guncheon's Magic Lantern Guide. (example: If convenient, turn the camera off a few minutes before a lens change to minimize dust-attracting charge on the sensor). It is a truly remarkable product and the engineering is better than you imagine. The only areas for future improvement are that the histogram is awfully small and that if you don't have the viewfinder up to your eye light leak will mess up exposures (that's why Canon includes the viewfinder cap, put it on the camera strap). I use the Canon 50mm f1.8 lens all the time, I rarely lose the cheap zoom that came with it. Someday I'll buy the Sigma 30mm f1.4, but really that 50mm lens is amazing -- and very, very inexpensive.

Update 9/3/06: Now getting towards 10 months of use. The camera takes great pictures, but I'm increasingly impressed with the fragility of the SLR platform and the cost and fragility of the lenses. Everything needs a lot of protection from dust, sand, dropping, etc. I want Canon to produce a G2-like prosumer camera (the G5, G6 etc were more con- than pro- sumer) with an APS sized sensor, no shutter lag, and a premium lens with at 4-5 times zoom. The problem is, of course, that there's no revenue stream from such a camera ... no lenses to sell, very infrequent upgrades, etc ... The "perfect" camera would be death for Canon ...

Update 10/24/10: I'm still waiting for Canon to make a significantly better camera! Screw the pixels, I want ISO.

In its old age the only problem I have is that iPhoto can't pull images off via the USB cable with with the 4GB CF card I bought. It only sees some of the images. I can pull the images off easily if I mount the CF card directly. I think it's a firmware bug.

I also had to relearn the workaround for focus issues. Here's more detail than I mentioned above:
  1. You press the small button at top right back and rotate the spinning wheel. This moves the focal point about the six or so sensors. It's easiest to see this by watching the top back panel LCD while spinning.
  2. Set the focus point to the center point. Use that to focus, press to lock, then move camera. It's not professional perfect, but it's better than trusting the six point autoselect.
I kept looking for a camera setting that set the focus point behavior. I forgot it was a separate control; once you set the focal point the camera defaults to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you are way too hard on the rebel. if used right and with good software it is a winner.