Canons 6.3 Megapixel Digital Rebel

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The Digital Rebel with the EF-S 18-55mm standard lens. The silver/black color scheme is consistent with the film Rebel line.
Photos © 2003, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Did you feel it? Late in the summer of 2003 the ground shook, the earth trembled, the clouds parted, and a new vision was revealed. Well, maybe that's a bit dramatic. What did happen is another new digital camera was introduced. Big deal right? Huge deal, as it turns out.

The rumors started early last summer, when some sharp-eyed photographers noticed a little camera tucked in the back of a glass showcase at the Canon camera booth at a few different European trade shows. While all the heat was on the still new 6.3-megapixel EOS 10D, reports came back that a silver camera that looked an awful lot like a Canon Rebel was wearing the "Digital Kiss" badge. The Internet, as the Internet is prone to do, buzzed. "It's a 3-megapixel SLR" said some..."It's a 6-megapixel SLR" gushed others..."It's a fake, a red herring to throw Nikon off their real trail" exclaimed some other "experts."

Well, Canon did have a bullet in the chamber, a cheap, fast 6.3-megapixel D-SLR. Known in Japan as the "Kiss," in Europe as the "300D," and in America as the "Digital Rebel," Canon's new baby very simply has permanently redefined the digital camera marketplace.

Close focus is also nice; at 55mm the 10" focusing can fill the frame with a flower.

Déjà Vu All Over Again
This has happened before, you know. Kodak sent a warning shot across the film world's bow in 1995 with the 6-megapixel, $30,000 DCS 460. Olympus rocked the camera world in '97 with the first good megapixel camera, the D-600L. In '98 the world of photojournalism got stood on its head with the 2-megapixel Kodak DCS 520. Even at $17,000 it became a runaway success, and captured more great breaking news and sports images than any digital device of the era. The real groundbreaker, as far as the consumer marketplace is concerned, was the stunning 2-megapixel Nikon Coolpix 950 in February of '99. Now for under $1000 any photographer could capture big, beautiful color images, instantly, with no film expense. The cat was out of the bag.

Two Worlds Now One
Up until this past August, the digicam world was separated into two worlds: the point-and-shoot world and the SLR world. Point-and-shoots started at $100 and topped out at $1000. The better cameras, like the advanced models from Nikon, Canon, and Olympus, produced 5-megapixel images that rivaled color negative film for saturation, sharpness, and clarity. SLRs were for the pros and the really serious "enthusiasts." This
is why the Canon Digital Rebel is so groundbreaking.

Canon introduced their new baby and made a fairly impressive statement. The new camera utilized a modified version of the same exact sensor, exposure control system, and autofocus system as the popular EOS 10D, but would sell for an amazing $899! The magic $1000 barrier had finally been broken, a mere three years after they broke the $5000 price barrier with their 3-megapixel EOS D30. Even more exciting was the introduction of the $999 Digital Rebel Kit, which is the camera bundled with an interesting 18-55mm EF-S lens, specially designed exclusively for the Digital Rebel.

High ISO shooting is also excellent; it's comparable to the EOS 10D and vastly superior to the older EOS D60. This shot was captured at ISO 1600 in raw mode.

The Rebel Specs
First, the specs. Keep in mind that Canon has a very specific goal with this camera. To bundle the exact image performance of the acclaimed EOS 10D in a less expensive, smaller, and lighter D-SLR package. The popular Rebel line of cameras was a great place to start, since their form factor and ergonomics have been proven in the real world for years. The Digital Rebel seems like a digital version of the new Canon EOS Rebel Ti, and for the price point that seems like a very good thing.

The Digital Rebel does in fact sport practically the same 6.3-megapixel CMOS sensor as used in the EOS 10D, and even has the same seven-point autofocus system; 35-zone evaluative metering system; ISO 100-1600 speed range; BP-511 lithium ion battery; and a similar menu system. Canon claims their new "DIGIC" chip makes brisk performance and low battery consumption possible. To their credit, Canon has not stripped out the best features of the "prosumer" cameras to make the price. You still have that brilliant CMOS sensor with those incredibly vibrant colors; Canon's raw mode; and a standard stainless steel EF lens mount, capable of not only accepting the new EF-S lens but also the complete and entire line of Canon EF lenses.

Obviously, that makes this little Rebel a machine capable of handling some of the most exotic and expensive glass in the world. (Though I would not hang a 300mm f/2.8 off of this lens and carry it around by the camera strap!)

In addition, you still have complete and total control of your photography, with camera modes ranging from full auto program to total manual control. The Digital Rebel has the same excellent auto white balance system as the EOS 10D, the same six preset white balance settings, and the same quick and accurate custom white balance setting system. (Shoot a white card, white wall, or a really clean tennis shoe, click OK, and you're white balanced.)

The 18-55mm EF-S lens is capable of some great results; at 18mm it's plenty wide enough for some nice wide angle effects.

In The Box
The Digital Rebel Kit arrived packed in a colorful Canon retail box, and included the body, EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, strap, BP-511 rechargeable battery, single battery charger, Canon software disk and manuals. No media included, but of course the camera accepts standard Type I or Type II CompactFlash cards. Thank you Canon for not including some new media type, some miniaturized ultra teeny card, sure to blow away in the slightest breeze. CompactFlash is small enough for me.

New EF-S Lens
The new lens is particularly interesting. The Digital Rebel, like the EOS 10D, EOS D60, and EOS D30 before it, utilizes a sensor that is smaller than the traditional 24x36mm film frame. The sensor takes a crop out of that frame that results in approximately a 1.6 magnification factor. (Of course it doesn't magnify your lens, but instead just crops a central section.) While Canon does make a camera with a 1.3 crop factor (the photojournalists favorite is the 4-megapixel EOS-1D) as well as a full frame 24x36mm digital SLR (my favorite, the 11-megapixel EOS-1Ds), Nikon addressed the 1.5 crop factor in its cameras by introducing a new lens line that only covers the new digital sensor size.

While this has been decried by some as covering up for an obvious flaw it does give Nikon shooters a new line of lenses custom built for their cameras. Canon begins to address that issue with the EF-S lens. Does this mean that the smaller sensor will become central to the amateur and "prosumer" line? Perhaps, but the new lens does offer a tremendous amount of utility for very short money. The 18-55mm range translates into a 28-88mm 35mm zoom range, which is very handy for casual shooting and travel photography. Listen up EOS 10D owners: this EF-S lens is custom fit for the Digital Rebel and will not work on any other EOS cameras. Also, it is not sold separately; it comes only in the Rebel kit.

Canon's 35-zone metering system is tough to fool--even a shot with bright skies and dark wood is exposed nearly perfect.

Light & Compact
The whole package, once you hold it in your hands, fits like a glove. For EOS-1Ds and EOS-1D shooters like myself, it is almost unbelievably light and compact with the body weighing a mere 19.7 oz! At only 5.6" wide by a very small 3.9" tall, you would think that those with large hands would have a hard time, yet even my XL's had no trouble comfortably hand holding the Digital Rebel and accessing all of the controls. Side by side with an EOS 10D the Rebel is noticeably smaller, lighter, and more "plastic" looking. The EOS 10D seems fairly "pro," while the Rebel has a more modern, stylish, "consumer" appearance. Since you can buy an EOS 10D for a mere $500 more or thereabouts, I think the two totally different approaches make sense.

Shooting Flexibility
Shooting with the Digital Rebel can be as easy or difficult as you want to make it. I handed the camera to my 8-year-old son set to the green box "Auto" mode, and he came back with brilliantly exposed, super saturated, nice crisp images. An 8 year old! Minutes later I set the camera to "Manual," slid an IR transmitter into the hot shoe, and synced to my Balcar strobes for some brilliant studio portraits. (The Digital Rebel has no flash PC socket, but the hot shoe can trigger studio strobes with either a PC adapter or a shoe-mounted trigger.)

Control Changes
Canon has made a few major changes to the control system of the EOS 10D. The Digital Rebel makes one positive change, positioning the ISO shift control right on the back panel. Press the down arrow button, turn the main dial with your index finger, and instantly change your ISO. This is a substantial upgrade from the EOS D60 system of diving into the menu to change ISO. The other changes are clearly not upgrades, but have been made to accommodate the smaller, less expensive body. The most surprising omission is the famed Canon control wheel. Yes, the big round dial on the back of most EOS cameras has been replaced with a set of four arrow buttons. No longer can you aim the camera in P mode and tweak your exposure by rotating the control wheel--you must now press the AV +/- button and turn the main dial just behind the shutter release button. Not a big deal, but if you're using the Digital Rebel as a back-up for an EOS 10D or one of the pro EOS cameras, you'll feel a little out of place.

AF Performance
Once you're shooting how is the AF performance? Frankly, I think it's amazing. Almost every subject bangs into focus quickly. The non-USM 18-55mm EF-S lens focuses quietly and very, very fast. I even used a good USM lens, the 24-70mm L on the Rebel and an EOS 10D, and everyone who handled the two cameras thought the Rebel focused just a bit quicker, and seemed to do just a bit better with dark objects. The goosed AF performance more than makes up for the slightly smaller viewfinder (only noticeable in back to back comparisons). Of course the old bugaboo of any AF system, the subject in the foreground with a contrasty background, can throw the AF off, and I captured a few of those during my test. Nothing automatic is ever perfect, but overall I thought the AF was great, certainly better than my older pro film EOS-1N SLR.

Exposure Lock
Thankfully Canon has included the exposure lock button, which I use all the time, on the back. Now you can simply aim your camera at an area of the scene that seems to have the tones you want to expose, hit the button, and then you have 6 seconds to fire and use that locked exposure setting. The same button is an exposure preview for the built-in flash, which will pre-flash, lock exposure, and then use that setting for your actual exposure. Nice!

New AF Wrinkle
A new feature that I'm sure will clog up thousands and thousands of posts to the Internet digicam forums is the new "Automatic" autofocus mode control. Sure, the Digital Rebel utilizes the same seven-point AF system, but the user-set "AI Servo" and "One-Shot" modes are gone. When the camera is set to many of the Programmed Image Control modes--like portrait, close-up, etc.--the camera automatically is in One-Shot mode. Switch to "P" or "M" and you're in Auto mode, which means that you start out in One-Shot mode and the camera will automatically switch to AI Servo if necessary, based on its own analysis of subject movement. This should, in theory, allow you to compose any image and then follow focus that subject seamlessly.

First of all, always starting out in "One-Shot" mode means that you cannot fire the shutter unless focus confirmation is achieved. This is similar to every point-and-shoot out there, and should reduce the number of out of focus images. However, it also means that picking the camera up and firing always results in a bit of shutter lag until the camera achieves lock focus. With the 18-55mm it's almost negligible, but bolt on a longer lens, especially the kind of super-zoom 28-200mm lens with an f/5.6 minimum aperture that most Rebel owners will pine for, and you can have a decent amount of delay. While the camera shoots at a decent 2.5 fps, it only has a four image buffer. Between the AF issues and the small buffer, the Digital Rebel is a tough choice for really fast moving sports photography, though it is certainly more than capable for most everything else.

In The Field
I took the Rebel out for a couple of days of local shooting, using both the EF-S 18-55mm lens and a Sigma 28-200mm super zoom, as well as my working kit of Canon EF "L" glass. At first blush the EF-S lens is a wonder. It's so small and light, plus the viewfinder image is so crisp. It focuses extremely close at about 10", filling the frame with a small flower. The whole package fits your hand beautifully, and shooting in decent light everything works quickly and accurately.

Like the EOS 10D, the 118,000 pixel LCD is bright and contrasty, and its 1.8" diagonal size is a perfect size for this camera. I had no trouble reviewing images in bright sun. Canon has included position sensing, so verticals review as verticals, and when opened in either Canon's software or in Photoshop 7 they display as verticals. No more rotating images! (The vertical feature only applies to files opened using Photoshop's browser.) To accommodate the form factor Canon had to move the LCD control screen to the back of the camera, where it is both less readable in room light and frankly less useful. That's a small quibble, and a nice amber backlight makes the display usable in dim light.

Image Quality
Back in the studio I downloaded the images into a Windows XP machine running Photoshop 7. While I am used to working on images shot with the 11-megapixel EOS-1Ds, I was completely satisfied with the Digital Rebel files. That awesome CMOS color still impresses. Skies are blue--really, really blue. Green grass pops, flesh tones are gorgeous, and even bright chrome and dark shadows seem to have endless detail. Like the other CMOS sensor cameras, images shot in default JPEG settings need some unsharp masking. Shooting at ISO 100 the images are nearly noiseless, and can tolerate quite a bit of USM, resulting in very, very sharp files with almost no digital artifacting. I found absolutely no issue with color fringing or moiré, though bright images toward the corners of the frame can occasionally display some purple chromatic fringing.

Sharpness of the 18-55mm lens was surprising. Even wide-open I found the lens to be crisp and fairly sharp. By f/11 it was tack-sharp throughout the range, though a minimum aperture of f/5.6 for a fairly tame focal length--55mm--seems like a terribly limiting feature. (I would expect it in a 200mm zoom.) I was pleased with the images, handling, and overall performance of this camera with the 18-55mm lens. If this camera came with this lens permanently attached for $999, I would absolutely buy one and never complain. The images are brilliant and sharp, the camera handles beautifully, the batteries last for a really long time, and even the on-camera flash performs well. (Though contrary to early reports there is no provision for flash exposure compensation.)

However, this camera positively explodes when coupled to some really good lenses! Running and jumping subjects that were always a bit soft with the 28-200mm super zoom were crisp and really vibrant when shot with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS USM "L" lens. Birds shot with my EF 400mm f/2.8 "L" lens just about popped off the screen and made stunning 16x20" enlargements. The 16-35mm "L" lens and ISO 800 combination turns this camera into a fast and capable indoor camera, and at ISO 100 produced very crisp and vibrant architectural images. The big and heavy 24-70mm "L" lens was an amazing match for our new puppy darting about the backyard, producing more than 50 perfectly exposed, perfectly focused images.

Wow.

The paradox thus becomes how far do you go. If you buy a Digital Rebel you'll surely lust after the great glass, all of which costs much more than the camera itself. Did Canon make this camera too good?

In Conclusion
The EOS Digital Rebel is a groundbreaking camera. It brings professional quality images, industry-leading camera performance and compatibility with the entire EOS line of lenses and accessories to a very affordable price bracket. What makes this camera so peculiar is that performance.

As a working professional photographer I know that I could use this camera every day for most of my assignments. Coupled to good glass and handled by an experienced photographer, it produces images that are simply fantastic, in all cases the equal of any film camera. In the hands of a total amateur and shooting through Canon's excellent budget lenses, it produces beautiful, crisp images sure to please. Bolted to Canon's BG-E1 handgrip the camera now has a heftier feel, and can shoot for a week on a pair of batteries.

As an entrée to the Canon EOS system it is a no-brainer, must-have. As a back-up to a more expensive EOS digital camera it is an amazing bargain. As a do-it-all fun machine, it currently has no equal. The camera feels quick and responsive, operates flawlessly, and provides dozens more features than most users will ever bother with.

A new day has dawned in digital photography. The earth has shifted just a bit, and the rest of the industry is sure to feel it.

For more information on the Digital Rebel, visit Canon U.S.A.'s website at www.usa.canon.com.

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