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Canon EOS Rebel T3i Review
by Jim Keenan -  3/21/2011

Formally announced on February 7 and available in early March 2011, the Canon EOS Rebel T3i (henceforth T3i) becomes the company's flagship entry-level model and is accompanied to market by a budget-priced T3 variant as well. No fewer than six Rebel models are currently displayed on the Canon USA website, so entry-level folks considering a Canon have their work cut out for them wading through all those choices.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i


The major differences between the T3i and the T3 (aside from a $300 higher MSRP for the T3i) are an 18 megapixel sensor vs. 12.2; 3.7 frames per second (fps) continuous shooting rate vs. 3 fps; a spot-metering exposure option; an articulating 3.0-inch monitor vs. a fixed 2.7-inch and 1080 HD video vs. 720 HD.

The T3i features Canon's newest DIGIC 4 image processor and a native ISO range from 100 to 6400 (expandable to 12800). Exposure metering uses a dual layer 63 zone sensor and AF is accomplished via a 9-point system with a cross-type center point. The camera is compatible with Canon's EF and EF-S lens lines, accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and is offered as a body only or in kits paired with 18-55 or 18-135mm stabilized zoom lenses; our review unit was the latter kit. Canon includes an eyecup, camera strap, AV and USB cables, battery pack and charger and CD-ROM software with each camera.

About now you might be asking yourself, "Didn't we just do this a year ago with the T2i as the new Canon entry-level flagship model?" and you'd be right - aside from the articulating monitor, 1080 HD video and a couple of automatic shooting modes, the T3i spec sheet reads pretty much the same as that of the T2i, right down to identical MSRPs for the kit with the 18-55 lens. Here's the view with the 18-135 lens, which covers the 29 to 216mm focal range in 35mm equivalents owing to the T3i's 1.6x crop factor:

Canon T3i Sample Image
Wide Angle, 18mm

Canon T3i Sample Image
Telephoto, 135mm

The cameras bear a strong family resemblance, but Canon lists slightly different dimensions and weights for each and visually there are some slight differences in body contours. It looks like a T2i, costs like a T2i and has a bit more hardware than a T2i - let's see how it shoots.

BUILD AND DESIGN
The T3i has a composite body with the deeply sculpted handgrip and overall shape we've come to expect from a modern DSLR. The camera appears well built, with materials, fit and finish in keeping with its price point.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Ergonomics and Controls
Overall, the body falls into the smaller end of the DSLR size spectrum, with dimensions of 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 inches. With my average-sized hands the top of my middle and ring fingers just touched the base of the lens mount during shooting, so clearance may be a concern if you've got large hands or fingers. My shooting finger fell naturally to the shutter button and there are patches of rubberized material on the handgrip, thumb rest and left front/side of the body, but I'd like it to be a bit tackier. The little finger of my right hand ended up curled beneath the body since it fell somewhat uncomfortably on the bottom edge of the handgrip when shooting.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Controls are fairly straightforward but somewhat redundant, with a "Q" button bringing up the quick control screen to allow control of shooting functions including white balance, auto focus, drive mode, exposure compensation, aperture/shutter speed, picture style settings and ISO sensitivity. The white balance, auto focus, drive mode and picture style settings all have dedicated cross keys, and there are aperture/exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity buttons as well.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

The aperture/exposure compensation button handles exposure compensation in most manual modes, but in full manual, it actually takes you to aperture. Shooting mode determines whether the various dedicated controls or the quick control screen actually allow you to input settings - the automatic modes are largely preset and offer little in the way of user input, but the T3i departs a little from the typical auto mode script as we'll see in just a bit.

Menus and Modes
Menus are simple and intuitive, and vary in complexity based upon shooting mode. The automatic modes have six pages of menus divided equally among shooting, playback and setup. Manual modes offer four pages for shooting, two for playback, three for setup and a single "my menu" page. In camera post processing options are limited with the T3i, consisting of resizing and the ability to apply creative filter effects to existing images.

There are fourteen shooting modes available in the T3i, including video capture, and to simplify the discussions of individual modes I'll preface that discussion by mentioning that the user can set image quality for every shooting mode:

I mentioned "ambience" being a user-available setting on most of the automatic shooting modes, and this is where the T3i allows a bit more user input to modes that traditionally were quite limited. Here's a brief summary of how it works. Turning the T3i mode dial to "landscape" gives us this screen:

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

After about 5 seconds the first screen turns to this one:

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Pushing the "Q" button gives us this screen:

Canon T3i Sample Image

Which turns into this one after about 5 seconds:

Canon T3i Sample Image

Pushing the "set" button gives us this screen:

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

And we can use the cross keys to scroll to other choices and select them with the "set" button. There are "darker" and "monochrome" ambience settings if you scroll down past "brighter".

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

Here are the standard, vivid, warm and intense ambience settings all shot in landscape mode.

Canon T3i Sample Image
Standard
Canon T3i Sample Image
Vivid
Canon T3i Sample Image
Warm
Canon T3i Sample Image
Intense

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the T3i has a 1.04 million dot composition, is adjustable for 7 levels of brightness and offers nearly 100% coverage. More significantly, the monitor may be swung out from the camera body through 180 degrees of motion, rotated through about 270 degrees and can be stored facing the camera body for protection when not in use. The ability to adjust monitor angles is an advantage when shooting video or live view stills in bright outdoor light, but even then, there are times when image composition is difficult under these conditions.

The monitor rang up a 444 nit peak brightness score and 779:1 contrast ratio - a bit under the 500 nit threshold that seems to characterize monitors that do better in bright outdoor conditions, but solidly near the top of the 500-800:1 contrast ratio. In practice, I found the T3i monitor usable to about the same degree as other entry level DSLRs, although as mentioned above the articulating nature of the monitor is a plus.

The T3i viewfinder offers about 95% coverage and has a diopter adjustment for varying degrees of eyesight. The 95% coverage means some objects that were not visible in the viewfinder will find their way onto the edges of frames in the actual captures.

PERFORMANCE
The ink has barely dried on my review of the Canon 60D, and with the T3i matched with the same 18-135mm zoom that accompanied the 60D, there's a certain sense of deja vu shooting the T3i. A few control differences, but the body/lens combination remains a fairly compact and light setup for walking about. Additionally, there are some performance parameters where the T3i and 60D match up and in some instances I'll include comments from the 60D review when they apply to the T3i.

Shooting Performance
The T3i starts promptly and you can get off a first shot as quickly as you can acquire focus and push the shutter after flipping on the power switch. Sensor cleaning, when enabled, is conducted on power down so you don't have to override that process to get off a quick first shot. Single shot-to-shot times were as quick as you could focus and shoot, and the camera just kept cranking out images at its advertised 3.7 fps continuous shooting rate with JPEGS. The camera will take 3 RAW/JPEG combos at speed, slows a bit for numbers 4 and 5, then takes a break.

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.04
Pentax K-r 0.04
Nikon D3100 0.04
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 0.04

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

Camera Time (seconds)
Nikon D3100 0.14
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.16
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 0.18
Pentax K-r 0.19

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 17 10.8 fps
Pentax K-r 29 6.4 fps
Canon EOS Rebel T3i 3.7 fps
Nikon D3100 24 3.1 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.

Focus acquisition with the 18-135mm lens ran about 0.18 seconds, right in line with other cameras of this class. Shutter lag came in at 0.04 seconds, again right in step with the competition. Tracking moving subjects with the T3i was pretty good with AI servo mode autofocus enabled for the manual modes, and in fact reminded me of the 60D in overall performance. Probably no surprise there as the two cameras appear to share the same AF system.

The guide number of the T3i flash is 43 feet at 100 ISO - same as the 60D. That equates to about a 12 foot range at the lens's f/3.5 maximum aperture. Recycle times ranged from instantaneous to about 4.25 seconds at worst.

Battery life is listed as about 550 shots without using flash; 50% flash usage gives a 440 shot battery life. Live view shooting has a battery life of about 200 shots, 180 if flash is used half of the time. The camera can also accept the BG-E8 battery grip that holds a second LP-E8 battery or six AA batteries. Battery life doubles with the second LP-E8; AAs are good for about 470 shots, or 270 with 50% flash usage.

Lens Performance
The 18-135mm Canon zoom on the T3i produced a similar performance to the 18-135mm on the 60D, so I'm going to excerpt portions of that review here:

There is some fairly distinct barrel distortion (verging on moustache distortion) present at the wide end of the zoom which goes away at about 24mm - then a milder pincushion distortion appears once you move past 24 and on out to telephoto. Corners and edges of the frame are a bit soft at wide angle, but performance in this regard is good. Telephoto is about the same as the wide end.

Chromic aberration (purple fringing) is present at both ends of the zoom, a bit more so at the telephoto end. In either case the effect is fairly well controlled and is relatively hard to detect except at enlargements in the 200% and up range.

Back in the modes section we mentioned discussing the close-up capability of the T3i at this point of the review. While it has a "close up" shooting mode, all the T3i really does there is try to optimize settings for image capture at close range. A true macro close up capability - the ability to fill the frame with small objects at a 1:1 reproduction ratio - requires a dedicated macro lens. But the 18-135 will focus as close as about 18 inches at the telephoto end of the zoom, and that distance is from the subject to the sensor plane in the camera, not subject to lens. As a result, you can get some fairly close in shots and fill the camera frame with larger subjects. It's not the T3i accomplishing this feat, but rather the lens and its close focus properties. Here's our state flower, the poppy (and a guest), and an orchid shot up close.

Canon T3i Sample Image Canon T3i Sample Image

Video Quality
The T3i and the 60D share sensors (at least in resolution, but probably a lot more) and the procedure for video capture is the same. Video restrictions as to clip size are identical, so it probably comes as no surprise that I found video performance pretty much the same. Some of what follows was taken from the 60D review.

The T3i allows 1080 HD video capture and image quality is good. The camera makes use of a CMOS sensor so rolling shutter effect is a consideration, but the effect is well controlled. Video capture involves setting the mode dial to the movie shooting setting, acquiring focus with a half push of the shutter and then initiating capture by pushing the live view shooting/movie shooting button on the camera back.

Like the 60D, the T3i is a bit slow to acquire auto focus for video capture. The best time I ever saw was around two seconds or a bit longer, and trying to acquire on a moving subject can be an exercise in frustration. The T3i captures mono sound with its built-in microphone, but can accept an external microphone to permit stereo recording. There is also the capability for manual exposure. A wind cut feature is available. File size is limited to 4GB or 29 minutes and 59 seconds - videos to the 4GB size at 1080HD run about 11 minutes. The camera may shut off before either the size or time limits are reached due to internal temperature. There is no full-time AF, a feature which is appearing in some competitors.

Download Sample Video

Image Quality
Default still images out of the T3i are pleasing, with good color rendition and acceptable sharpness, although I preferred increasing sharpening in the manual modes. That 18 megapixel resolution sensor produces large files that offer some cropping leeway to get you "closer" to subjects than the kit lens allows. Canon will happily sell you any number of longer lenses to complement the kit glass, but until you opt to add to your lens quiver cropping can give you a bit more telephoto-like punch. Here are two original files and 8 x 12 cropped versions of each shot at about 300 dots per inch for printing purposes.

Canon T3i Sample Image
Original
Canon T3i Sample Image
Cropped
Canon T3i Sample Image
Original
Canon T3i Sample Image
Cropped

The picture style color palette offers an auto setting and six preset color options as well as three user-defined custom settings for creative zone shooters - same as the 60D - and each may be modified for sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone. Here are the standard, neutral, landscape and faithful versions.

Canon T3i Sample Image
Standard
Canon T3i Sample Image
Neutral
Canon T3i Sample Image
Landscape
Canon T3i Sample Image
Faithful

Auto white balance was used for virtually every shot in this review and did a good job with most light sources, although it shot warm with 3200 degree Kelvin incandescent (tungsten) bulbs. The T3i also offers daylight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent and flash presets, along with a custom WB setting.

Canon T3i Sample Image
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

Evaluative metering is the camera default and does a good job with most lighting conditions, but could lose some highlights in high contrast situations. There are partial, spot and center-weighted exposure metering options as well. The T3i uses "Auto Lighting Optimizer" to expand the camera's apparent dynamic range - it's enabled in the automatic and manual modes with a standard setting, but may be disabled or set for low, standard or high levels when shooting with the manual modes. Here are shots in aperture priority with ALO disabled and at the default standard level.

Canon T3i Sample Image
ALO Off
Canon T3i Sample Image
ALO Standard

A few years back Nikon introduced the D300 and the followed up shortly after with the D90, which carried the same sensor and offered the image quality of the D300 at a more budget-friendly price. I don't know if Canon is using the exact same sensor and processor in the T3i as the 60D, but I have a hard time differentiating noise performance between the two and the 60D did a very credible job for a cropped sensor camera.

ISO 100 and 200 in the T3i are basically indistinguishable from one another, and 400 picks up a slight amount of graininess over 200 but will be hard to tell apart except in big enlargements and perhaps even not then. ISO 800 is a bit grainier than 400 but still holds fine details quite well, and 1600 adds a bit of grain and a few more artifacts here and there, along with a bit of a drop in fine detail.

Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 100
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 200
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 400
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 800
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 1600
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 3200
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Canon EOS Rebel T3i
ISO 6400
Canon T3i Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 3200 takes the most dramatic drop of any step so far with graininess increasing and fine details beginning to lose ground to smudging. ISO 6400 is by far the biggest drop off, with grain on the increase and fine details beginning to smudge fairly noticeably in some areas.

With the Nikon D300/D90 I didn't think Nikon had held much back from the D90 in the image quality/noise department to separate it from the D300, and the same appears true for the T3i/60D. At least to my eyes, the entry-level flagship is on equal terms with Canon's prosumer body in the image and noise arena, and that's not a bad place at all.

Additional Sample Images
Canon T3i Sample Image Canon T3i Sample Image
Canon T3i Sample Image Canon T3i Sample Image
Canon T3i Sample Image Canon T3i Sample Image

CONCLUSIONS
While Canon's pro body lineup turns over in a more leisurely fashion, the entry-level lineup now has six offerings including the T3i "flagship" that replaces the former flagship T2i after only a year on the market. To be sure, there are features that differentiate the two, notably the full HD video capability and an articulating monitor. But with recent experience using the 60D, I was struck more by the similarities between the performance of the Canon prosumer body and that manufacturer's new entry-level leader - much the same as when the Nikon D90 showed up with image quality and noise performance like my still-new (and more expensive) D300.


The T3i is perfectly content to fire away all day in full auto, or a handful of scene modes for those folks who want to do nothing more than frame and shoot, yet offers all the versatility of any DSLR for more advanced users. Image quality and noise performance mimic the prosumer 60D, and if you don't need the extra 1.5 fps continuous shooting speed (for JPEGS) of big brother, you'll probably not lose any sleep over shutter lag being a paltry 0.02 seconds longer. All bets are off for RAW shooters, however, as the T3i has a fairly limited buffer capacity for RAW or RAW/JPEGS shot in continuous mode.

Unfortunately, video auto focus times also mimic the 60D, so the T3i takes a while to get you set for movie capture. And, as an entry-level model geared toward folks transitioning from compacts and used to image composition with a monitor instead of a viewfinder, battery life for live view shooting is low.

Having seen firsthand the noise performance and image quality of the T3i and 60D, Canon could have easily called the T3i "60D Light" - as in, light on your wallet but heavy on image quality.

Pros:

Cons: