Monday, March 14, 2011

Digital cameras plateau - from my 2005 XT to my 2011 T2i

I bought my Canon G2 in October 2002 [1] and my Digital Rebel XT in Nov 2005. A few days ago I picked up the Canon Digital Rebel T2i (550D) body for $650, about $150 less the minimally improved T3i (same sensor, same processor, some improvements for videographers).

I'm happy with my purchase, though it's not the camera I've been waiting for. I've been waiting for a 12 megapixel camera that could produce quality images at ISO 3200. Instead I got an 18 megapixel camera that can produce quality images at ISO 1600 and occasionally useful images at ISO 3200. I gave up when I saw the paltry improvements from the Canon T2i to the T3i. It feels like digital photography is nearing the limits of current imaging technology; I decided I wouldn't gain much by waiting another year. So my daughter got the XT and I got the T2i instead of the T3i.

Progress is nice, but there are worse things than living with a dSLR that can take good pictures at ISO 1600 and that, after I crop, effectively doubles my image stabilized zoom range. The technology plateau means I'll get more years from my purchase;  it might be 8-10 years before I switch to the MILC future. Although this technology halt isn't all bad for me, for Canon it must be very bad. For camera shops, who've struggling to stay alive in the post-film era [2], this may be a terminal arrest.

I won't bother with a full review of this 1 year old device; there are many good reviews of this camera, as usual Amazon's amateur reviews are among the best. I was surprised by how familiar it is; it feels very much like my six year old XT -- which is quite fine with me. I've never understood complaints that the Rebel body was "too small" -- I have large hands and it feels great to me. The shutter feels softer with less vibration. Of course the video is all new, but the manual focus in video mode makes it a poor fit for many settings [3].

As with the old XT, there are many features of the camera that are aimed at the "JPEG" photographer. Several of these are new, such as ways to manage dust spots, to adjust dynamic range, etc. Similarly there are several features for image management and printing from the camera. None of this interests me. I photograph RAW, review and edit in Aperture 3, then save JPEGs to iPhoto for archiving [4].

The new "Quick" menu and the "auto ISO" are good additions. I live having easy access to the ISO button. On the other hand, I'm seriously bummed that Cannon sacrificed my exposure "meter" control (weighted, average, etc) in favor of the 'picture style'  control. (For "Picture Style" I use Portrait, because it uses a 'level 2' sharpening and no other camera mods. I might drop to 'level 1' sharpening or Neutral/Faithful style -- let Aperture do the rest. Still experimenting.)

The biggest change, other than image quality and light sensitivity (yay) is the SD card. It works with SDHC, SDXC or SD. For video work a "class 6" card is required. I bought a Transcend Class 10 SDHC 16GB for about $24 or so. It is a fine size for me; 300 images use about half the card. Individual RAW images are about 28-30 MB each, the JPEG produced after cropping and processing is about 2.8 to 4.4 MB.

As to the images, they are rather fine. I don't think the T2i's ISO 1600 images are quite as good as the XT's ISO 400 images, but they are much better than the XT's ISO 800 images. The T2i's ISO 3200 images resemble the XT's ISO 800 -- meaning they're only for desperate times. I didn't try ISO 6400, those would have to be grayscale only (so an option, but not for color.) The images do stress my monitors; they don't look nearly as good on my old Dell as on my 27". Curious.

Aperture 3 on my 8GB iMac 5i does well with individual images; I think the GBs of RAM are coming in handy.

Good camera, I'm loving being able to take hockey pictures at 1/125!

[1] I boxed it up recently and left it, with a note at the office. It found a home within minutes!
[2] I visited National Camera with a friend today. The retail display included darkroom gear and a wide variety of picture frames; much of the floor space was film and print focused. 
[3] The T3i has a Canon G2 style flip out LCD, which is handy for tripod videography. If I do any video with this camera though, I'm likely to be handholding. There is one major point in the dSLR's favor though -- unlike the mad zoomers of today's dedicated camcorders the T2i has many affordable wide angle lenses. 
[4] Crazy eh? There's a method to this. If Apple ever provided a true upgrade path from iPhoto to Aperture I'd archive in Aperture, but I'd still archive JPEG and delete the RAW originals. I'm much more interested in image longevity than small quality improvements. After an initial adjustment in Aperture (esp. dynamic range) the JPEG gives me enough room to tweak as needed.

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