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Canon Rebel T1i Review
by Adam Crawford -  6/5/2009

The Canon Rebel T1i is the camera company's first DSLR to feature both full HD and 720p video capture in the same camera body (the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was their first DSLR with full HD capture). The T1i comes packed with pro-quality features like an APS-C sized 15.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, the impressive DIGIC 4 image processor, a high-res 3.0 inch LCD, full manual control over exposure, and easy-to-use scene modes for everything from night portraits to sports.

Canon Rebel T1i


With all the buzz surrounding Nikon and Canon's trailblazing DSLRs with HD video, we are starting to see an onslaught of cameras being released, from point-and-shoot compacts to pro-level SLRs, with this exceptional feature – appealing to those who need HD video and the highest quality stills all in one device. The T1i certainly is capable of both.

The T1i inherits the same technology as the higher-end 50D, packing the same-sized image sensor and DIGIC 4 processor, and giving a reviewer like myself reason to draw comparisons between the two cameras. Although technologically similar, the T1i and 50D are different in size, features, controls – and, of course, price. But it is interesting to see just how much of the 50D has made its way into the affordable T1i.


BUILD AND DESIGN
The T1i is similar in design to the traditional Rebel series consumer DSLR, like the XSi or XS, but trumps these cameras's features with more resolution and high-def video recording. The T1i is designed to offer any photographer, regardless of shooting experience, an easy-to-use camera that is capable of total control or just pointing and shooting. The original Rebel series was originally built around 35mm film cameras that featured fully automatic modes, and today's Rebels still carry on this same tradition with digital models.

Canon Rebel T1i

I have shot with many different Canon DSLRs over the years, including the XT, XTi, XS and XSi, and they have all featured a fully automatic mode, but the T1i features an even more advanced auto system called Creative Auto. The CA mode helps beginners explore creative photography without needing to understand the nuances of aperture and shutter speed.

Instead of going completely automatic, CA – also available on several other Canon models – allows the photographer to control shooting with more precision by allowing you to adjust flash output, depth of field with a slider called "Background," and exposure (that lets you control brightness/exposure compensation). CA mode also lets you choose your Picture Style, image size/quality, and drive mode (continuous shooting or single-shot).

Probably the most notable feature of the T1i is its video function, which only shares the Canon stable with the 5D Mark II pro DSLR. The T1i shoots full HD video (1920x1080) at 20 fps or 720p (1280x720) video at 30 fps. The 5D Mark II only has one HD video capture mode of 30 fps, making the T1i a new breed of Canon DSLR with selectable HD quality. The T1i also capture standard-definition video and has a monaural built-in microphone for sound capture.

Canon Rebel T1i

Another feature that is shared with the 50D is the Peripheral Illumination Correction, or in-camera lens correction – correcting images for fall-off or vignetting in the corners in-camera. With Peripheral Illumination Correction, the T1i can correct this problem with about 25 different lenses, including the 18-55mm IS lens that comes in the kit.

Ergonomics and Control
The T1i feels larger in the hand than most Rebel series DSLRs I have shot with, giving it a more professional feel than I am used to from a consumer camera. However, the T1i has the classic SLR look and feel, and a little more hand room on the right hand grip with both a thumb grip on the exterior and also a rubber handgrip for the middle through pinky finger. The T1i has a solid construction that appears to be a mix of hard-cast rubber and aluminum alloy. The camera is well built and has a good construction, which is neither too cumbersome nor too small to comfortably carry around with you.

Canon Rebel T1i

Like most DSLRs that have been manufactured in the past decade, the T1i has doesn't have any radically different buttons, instead it has added more pro-level SLR buttons. These include an ISO button, and Exposure Compensation button, and exterior flash button that engages the flash, as well as a Live View button that we have seen with the past few iterations of Rebels.

Canon Rebel T1i

As far as other buttons, you have a shutter release, a main dial wheel that lets you change your settings like aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation. The rest of the button layout utilizes the mode dial, which lets you quickly choose automatic to manual shooting modes, as well as scene modes like Sports and HD video capture.

Canon Rebel T1i

There is also the AE lock to lock exposure, an AF point selection button that lets you to assign your focus points on the nine-point AF system, and a four-way controller on the back of the camera, a display button to change the playback view, a playback button for image review, and a trash/delete button. Overall, the ergonomics and button layout are well thought out and typical of Canon's previous DSLRs.

Menus and Modes
One of the T1i's strong suits is the shooting information that is displayed on the LCD. When using the optical viewfinder (as opposed to live view mode) you can view shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation, Picture Styles, white balance, metering, image quality settings, AF mode and drive mode all in one place. By clicking on the Set button you can change all of these settings directly from this screen. Note that not all of these functions are accessible, depending on your shooting mode; if you're in an automatic mode, you have less control, but if you're completely manual you can change all of these settings.

Canon Rebel T1i

Pressing the Menu button calls up a standard Canon page menu, with tabs for different kinds of options (and a list of custom functions as well). The menu system and user interface are familiar, well-crafted and intuitive, making it easy to navigate. With a combination of the main dial and four-way controller, making your way through the settings isn't difficult by any means – and especially easy if you are familiar with Canon's menus on either their compacts or DSLRs.

A quick run-down of the T1i's basic shooting modes is as follows:

There is a lot on the mode dial to choose from, the shooting experience with each different mode is easy and straightforward if you read the manual. While there is a lot to choose from (which can be daunting for some first time DSLR users) the Rebel is primarily intended for the photographer who wants to step up to more control, giving the best of both worlds with both automatic settings and manual control. The menus and modes are easy to navigate, and the buttons are set up nicely, making the T1i a great camera to shoot with.

Display/Viewfinder
The LCD is impressive on the T1i, giving you 3.0-inch, 920,000 dot TFT screen (which provides the same resolution as the Canon 50D's display). The image playback on the LCD, when comparing it later after field-testing, showed faithful color reproduction and accurate images between LCD and computer.

Canon Rebel T1i

The live view, like most systems is a little slow (this is due to the AF mirror dropping out of the way, which sometimes can be sluggish), but focusing has improved in this mode. While you don't use the shutter to achieve focus, you use the AE lock button to focus during live view. Using contrast-detection AF, the camera focused surprisingly quickly with the kit lens, even in low-light conditions. I even used the live view for a few low angles so I wouldn't jar my back, and it worked well for getting at hard-to-shoot angles. The LCD gives you 100% area of coverage, so what ever you frame up, your picture will look exactly like this – and it did on every occasion.

However, the optical viewfinder provided 95% coverage, oftentimes making tight composition somewhat inaccurate in playback, giving you more of the frame than you desire when you review it. But the optical viewfinder, like always, is a great tool for composing a shot, and the T1i's viewfinder provides a lot of shooting information on screen that you can adjust while you're looking through it. With all things considered, the T1i's viewfinder, live view function and LCD are excellent in performance and color reproduction.


PERFORMANCE
The T1i is impressive for a consumer-level DSLR, seeing as how it has some of the same features as the 50D, including the 15.1-megapixel CMOS sensor and the DIGIC 4 processor. After using it initially in a few compact Canons and the 50D, I'm sold on the idea that the DIGIC 4 processor makes its cameras, regardless of model, faster and better in low-light scenarios. This is also true for the T1i, giving impressive ISO performance in scenes with only a little bit of ambient light.

With the coupling of HD video, in either full HD or 720p, and high-resolution stills, the T1i is a tour-de-force camera that performs well in the studio and in the field, regardless of shooting situation.

Shooting Performance
The T1i seems to be a middle-of-the-road performer in most of the performance testing, but overall it is a solid performer among its competitors.

Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30
0.02
Nikon D90
0.03
Canon Rebel T1i
0.04
Pentax K20D
0.04
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
0.08

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Olympus E-30
0.13
Nikon D90
0.17
Canon Rebel T1i
0.19
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
0.21
Pentax K20D
0.28

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames* Framerate*
Olympus E-30
9 5.0 fps
Nikon D90
4.0 fps
Canon Rebel T1i
170 3.8 fps
Pentax K20D
38 3.0 fps
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
2.1 fps

* Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.

The T1i uses a phase-detection AF with 9 cross-type points that can all be used, or can be assigned by the photographer. During field-testing, well-lit frames were easily captured without any resistance, but at longer telephoto lengths the kit lens proved to be slightly slower finding focus. Also important to note is that AF in low-light scenes worked considerably faster than other DSLRs in its class, finding focus without too much lens creep.

Continuous shooting in the lab proved to be faster than the spec sheet from Canon, which is rated for 3.4 fps, but the lab results rendered 3.8 fps, which was a nice surprise. Field-testing when depressing the shutter in Continuous burst mode started to slow down in speed when it passed the 170-frame mark.

The built-in flash is a nice feature of the T1i, but can be somewhat temperamental when trying to initiate it manually. Flash Exposure Compensation allows you to control the amount of fill that will fire when using the flash. The guide number is from 13-43 feet at ISO 100, and is satisfactory, mainly bringing out a flat lighting source, but can be remedied via Flash Exposure Compensation.

Image stabilization is built into the lens, but is not part of the camera body, so without an IS lens, you can't get IS. The kits lens comes with a IS motor built-in, and works by sensing tilting and shifting via a gyro, and then compensates by moving the lens element to stay steady with the focal plane by adjusting its position automatically. Canon IS lens are great in providing a few stops of light and steady shots at telephoto lengths, so it's great to have a kits lens with this operation.

Finally, the power of the lithium-ion 1080 mAh battery was a solid performer. Even after a day of shooting with 400 frames, and about 10 minutes of video in Full HD and 720, I still had a lot of shooting power left.

Canon Rebel T1i

The field-testing aspect of the T1i was the strong suit of the DSLR, giving me great AF performance in most lighting situations, even at night. Regardless of your skill level, if you have ever shot with a digital camera in your life, the T1i is easy to figure out once you play around with it for a few minutes. That being said, flash, continuous shooting, AF acquisition and shutter lag matched up nicely with field shooting and lab testing.

Lens Mount/Kit Lens
The T1i came with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, which is great because it comes equipped with image stabilization right inside the lens, allowing low-light shots or telephoto lengths easy to capture without motion blur. This EF-S (Canon EF-S lenses are specifically designed for the APS-sized image sensor) 18-55mm is limiting for long distance shooting, but for wide-angle to medium telephoto lengths, this lens coupled with the IS system gives you a few stops that a lens without would.

Canon Rebel T1i

Using this lens in the field was somewhat difficult in terms of playing with shallow depth of field because of its variable aperture. While it is a good starter lens, and better than most kits lens camera manufacturers add with their SLRs, it can be limiting depending on what you intend to shoot. That being said, the lens rendered great accuracy at all focal lengths, and showed only a little bit of purple fringing in images like my macro shots. The 18-55mm lens is a pretty decent lens for the travelling photographer, because it's light, focuses fast and gives you a nice focal range.

Video Quality
HD video in a DSLR is great any way you swing it, and being able to select between full HD and 720p is something I have not yet seen in this class of camera. So how was the performance of the HD video? Well it was excellent in both Full HD and 720p, whether it was low-light or great light. I tested out both of these settings on a rollercoaster and in a darkly lit room with a merry-go-round.

Even though the lens was not an f/2.8 lens or faster, it still was able to bring out a lot of great video. I will say this though, the Full HD (1920x1080) shoots at 20 fps, and can cause a little bit of sluggishness when shooting moving subjects. The real champion video resolution, in my opinion, is the 720p (1280x720) mode, which captured great detail in both shooting scenarios. When comparing them both, I preferred 720p because it was more fluid. Now if only Canon or Nikon will make a DSLR with full HD at 24 fps, filmmakers will be drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I'm hoping to see this in the next few camera releases from both companies: it will be interesting to see who will be first up to bat.

Image Quality
With the borrowed tech from the 50D, the T1i reproduces a wide gamut of color both on screen and on the LCD monitor. The DIGIC 4 processor and large 15.1-megapixel image sensor works in unison to make the camera fast for processing, especially at extreme sensitivities to light.

In most cases this is dependent on shooting conditions and what sort of lens you are using. The faster the lens, the better it will be in light, but using a slower lens that loses a few stops of light can prove to be disastrous in little available light. So in terms of image quality, even with the kits lens, the T1i worked well in all scenarios, providing images with great dynamic range in shadow areas, and providing fine detail in all of the Picture Style settings. The Standard setting reproduces color faithfully, presenting a wide gamut and great accuracy.

The default exposure method is evaluative metering, and consistently worked as the best method for most shooting scenarios, but had a slight tendency to overexpose for bright light sources or scenes with unusual contrast.

Canon Rebel T1i
Evaluative metering

While there are four metering options, the best performers in terms of consistency were evaluative and center-weighted – though experienced photographers will appreciate the options provided by spot metering, especially.

Canon Rebel T1i
Center-weighted metering

Canon Rebel T1i
Partial metering

Canon Rebel T1i
Spot metering

Picture Styles, or different in-camera processing options, include: Standard as the default, which works great for nearly any situation; Portrait, which gives more a soft cast to subjects by using less saturation and shifting mid-tones; Landscape, with saturation to bring out greens, reds and other colorful scenes; Neutral that is a fine balance between all worlds; Faithful that is very accurate and balanced; Monochrome for in-camera black and white; and three user definable settings that you can create by setting your own parameters for contrast, saturation, etc.

Canon Rebel T1i
Portrait
Canon Rebel T1i
Landscape
Canon Rebel T1i
Neutral
Canon Rebel T1i
Faithful

Also to note on a processing front is the formats in which you can capture your images. The T1i allows you to shoot in different incremental JPEG standards, from highest quality to compressed images to save space, or smaller JPEG sizes when 15.1-megapixel images are too big. The highest quality JPEG is sufficient, but RAW processing is my favorite when it comes to capture. The T1i offers a RAW only capture or RAW + JPEG, which is great for post-processing when you want to change White Balance or any details easily, which JPEG cannot because it doesn't hold enough RAW image data. While capturing RAW can be cumbersome for processing, it's the pros go to, but for most shooters the high-quality JPEG will be perfect.

The default white balance setting for the T1i is the auto mode and it works well in most situations, except indoor incandescent light (and even there it's better than many of its peers) and the kinds of cloudy, overcast days which I shot in – both of which can be fixed by using custom white balance or appropriate preset settings. Overall, the white balance default settings are easy to change.

Canon Rebel T1i
Auto White Balance, 3200K incandescent light

One of the strongest suits of the T1i is the ISO performance from 100-6400 in the studio tests, proving that it has a usable image at all these settings.

Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 100
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 200
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 400
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 800
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 1600
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 3200
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 6400
Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 6400, 100% crop

Field-testing also rendered great shots in low-light, allowing me to even get a workable image shooting at night with the highest setting of 12800, which reminded somewhat of the film-like noise reduction capabilities of the Nikon D90 and D300.

Canon Rebel T1i
ISO 12800

Additional Sample Images

Canon Rebel T1i Canon Rebel T1i
Canon Rebel T1i Canon Rebel T1i
Canon Rebel T1i Canon Rebel T1i


CONCLUSIONS
The Canon Rebel T1i is both a great camera for the photographer looking to move up from compacts and advanced amateurs who want total control and excellent image quality. Most Canon Rebel generations only slightly evolve in terms of features – and mostly in subtle areas like resolution and more automatic control. The T1i has evolved much farther, making it the first Rebel with HD video. With a lot of pro and semi-pro features borrowed from the rest of Canon's line, the T1i is a good second entry into the DSLR/HD video camera hybrid category shared with the pro EOS 5D Mark II.


Not only do you get some of the trickle down technology from the mid-level 50D, you get it for less than its sticker price. Like most Canons that come off the assembly line, the T1i is great in low-light, has a respectable AF system, shoots great video and show impressive dynamic and tonal range in the images it produces. Best of all, you get the whole kit for $899. This is one of the better DSLRs I have shot with in the past few years, and by far the best Rebel yet to hit the market.

Pros:

Cons: