Review: Canon Digital Rebel XSi
Pros: Very comfortable design for a small camera; all essential functions are easily accessible while shooting; great image quality; Live View; full feature set.
Cons: Live View focusing can be complicated; no dedicated status display.
Canon’s digital SLR line is divided into three categories. There are the Rebels, sub-$1,000 cameras with small bodies; the mid-range cameras, such as the EOS 40D and 5D, which range from $1,200 to $2,200; and the high-end cameras with huge burst rates that create gigantic files and cost $5,000 and up.
The Rebel line is further divided into a few categories. For $500 bucks, there’s the Rebel XT, an 8 megapixel SLR, and for another hundred dollars you can upgrade to the 10.1 megapixel Rebel XTi.
Topping off the Rebel line is the new Rebel XSi, a 12.2 megapixel camera with a redesigned body, DIGIC III image processor, and a raft of important new features. Priced as low as $799, the Rebel will appeal to the serious amateur, the beginning shooter who wants plenty of room to grow, and users of higher-end Canon bodies who are looking for a small, affordable second camera.
Figure 1. The Rebel XSi’s redesigned body is small without compromising on comfort.
What’s In the Kit
For $799, Canon delivers the XSi body and a new 18-55mm image stabilized (IS) lens, along with software, a battery, and all the usual cables, camera strap, and manuals. As with most SLRs these days, a media card is not part of the package.
While many vendors are listing an XSi body-only configuration, most also say that this will be back-ordered for quite a few months. Canon is plainly prioritizing the kit configuration for its initial production runs, and happily, this works out well for many potential buyers, since the included lens is very good.
The original digital Rebel was a fairly large-sized SLR, but with the XT, Canon introduced a much smaller body. In fact, most entry-level SLRs these days are packed into tiny forms that make them light and easy to carry. I never liked the feel of the XT or XTi, not because they were so small, but because the handgrip was shaped in such a way that my fingers always felt mashed against the lens barrel. Canon remolded the XSi’s grip and changed some other dimensions on the camera to produce a unit that is very comfortable to hold and shoot with, despite its small size.
The Rebel XSi follows the design of Canon’s other Rebels. A dial on top of the camera lets you select shooting mode, while a top-mounted Main Dial is for adjusting parameters. On the back of the camera you’ll find four-way buttons for navigating menus, and for single-press access to metering mode, autofocus mode, picture styles, and drive modes. Other buttons let you control focus spot selection, exposure lock, exposure compensation, white balance choice, and image deleting.
Figure 2. The back of the Rebel features a 3-inch screen and the bulk of the camera’s controls.
Top-Notch LCD. Like previous Rebels, there’s no top-mounted status LCD display, as there is on Canon’s higher-end cameras. Instead, the rear LCD, in this case a bright 3-inch screen, displays status and the usual menus and image reviews.
Normally, I don’t like using an LCD screen as a status display, because they’re always bright enough that when you look through the viewfinder they can be an annoying distraction. Like the XTi, the XSi includes a sensor just below the viewfinder, which automatically detects when you’re looking through the viewfinder, and activates and deactivates the screen accordingly. This mechanism works very well, and the screen is never an annoyance when shooting.
The other problem with using an LCD screen for status is that it can be difficult to read in bright light. However, the XSi’s screen is very bright, and you can configure it in four different color schemes, which lets you change the brightness and contrast of the display for different shooting conditions. Whether you’re shooting in bright light and need something punchy, or you’re in low light and prefer something subdued, the display color choices have a good solution. The screen is viewable from a very wide angle, and I could see it clearly even when wearing polarized sunglasses, something that’s impossible on some other screens.
Easier Control. To accommodate the larger screen, Canon had to re-arrange some buttons from the previous design and eliminated one or two, making for a very streamlined design.
For example, the ISO button now sits just behind the Main Dial, and the ISO readout is part of the in-viewfinder status display. The practical upshot of these changes is that you now have easy control of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO using just the thumb and forefinger of your right hand, and all without ever taking your eyes from the viewfinder. These welcome changes help solidify the XSi’s position as a serious photographic tool that can please even experienced photographers.
Other Positive Changes. In addition to its 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, the XSi includes many technologies inherited from Canon’s higher-end models. The new DIGIC III processor offers faster performance, better quality, and helps keep the XSi’s high ISO noise to a minimum, even though the camera packs so many pixels onto its APS-sized sensor.
Foreshadowing a more widespread change in Canon’s future, the XSi has abandoned CompactFlash storage media and switched to SD and SDHC. With the high capacities and zippy speeds of SDHC, you get all of the advantages of a smaller card, without giving up performance or capacity.
A spot meter delivers a 4% metering circle, a handy addition to Canon’s partial meter, which is also included, and still provides a 9% metering area.
Burst rate has been improved to 3.5 frames per second, and the XSi’s buffer allows enough space for 53 full-res JPEGs or 6 raw files. While you might think that an entry-level camera doesn’t need high performance memory cards, my experience was the exact opposite. Since the XSi’s buffer is a little small, you’ll want to make up for it with a faster SD card. Look for a card with at least 133x performance, to minimize waiting when shooting bursts. (This is likely only an issue for raw shooters, as 53 JPEG files ought to be enough for most users.)
Canon claims that shutter lag has been reduced and, sure enough, I never experienced any shutter lag problem, though I can’t say I thought the XTi was slower.
Playback mode includes the option to magnify images more than previous models, and you can now control flash compensation of external flash units from the Rebel XSi menus, just as on Canon’s higher-end cameras.
Like almost all new entry-level SLRs, the XSi has a Live View function. Live view lets you use the camera’s LCD display as a viewfinder, just as you can on a point-and-shoot camera. (In the past, this wasn’t possible because the mirror assembly is in the way.)
You enable Live View through a menu option, and then activate the feature by pressing the camera’s Set button. You’ll immediately hear the mirror flip up, and the shutter open, and then the LCD screen will give you a real-time view of your scene.
Live View can be very handy for tripod-mounted compositions, such as product photography or landscape work. It allows you to refine your composition, subject, or lighting without having to crane your neck to look through the viewfinder. Live View is also great for shooting over-the-head shots, or macro shots, where you tend to keep the camera low and twisted into strange positions.
Figure 3. I shot this with the camera at arm’s length, above my head. Live View made it easy to frame the shot in this position. Note the low noise of this low-light, ISO 1600 image. Click on the image to see a larger version.
However, there’s a big caveat to Live View shooting. Because the XSi’s focus sensors are in the pentamirror chamber at the top of the camera, they require the mirror to be down in order to “see” out the lens, to focus. So, Live View mode effectively blinds them, leaving the camera unable to autofocus as it normally does.
Canon offers three workarounds to this problem. By default, you use manual focus. To facilitate easier manual focusing, the XSi has two levels of zoom — 5x and 10x — that give you a larger view of image detail.
Figure 4. Here you can see Live View’s zoom feature, which has allowed me to zoom in to a 5x and 10x view to aid manual focusing. Click on the image to see a larger version.
You can also autofocus before you activate Live View. Give the shutter a half press to autofocus, then press the Set button to activate Live View, and your image will be in focus. Since you’ll most often use Live View to shoot subjects that don’t move — product shots and landscapes, for example — focusing once before entering Live View is probably all you’ll need for your entire session.
Through a Custom Function, you can enable two autofocus modes in Live View. The first lets you use the camera’s normal autofocus mechanism. When enabled, you can press the AE Lock button while in Live View. The mirror will flip down — temporarily cancelling your Live View — and the camera will begin focusing. When you hear a beep, focus is locked and you can release the AE Lock button. The mirror will flip out of the way and your Live View will return.
This procedure is very quick, though the delay and the time spent moving the mirror around means you can’t track a moving object or quickly focus to capture a specific moment. But again, those probably aren’t the type of subjects that you’ll be shooting with Live View, anyway.
The second autofocus mode leaves the mirror up, so that your view is uninterrupted, and uses the main image sensor to drive autofocus. The onboard computer drives the whole mechanism, and while it works, it’s very slow. It’s the least usable of all of the options.
While it’s easy to complain about these problems, in the real world, I didn’t find them to be that serious. You don’t buy an SLR to use the LCD screen as a viewfinder, and the times when I did want to use Live View were easily handled by autofocusing before activating the feature.
I normally shoot with a Canon EOS 5D, so I’m used to a different interface than the XSi’s. Where the 5D has a big control wheel on the back of the camera, the XSi has four buttons, and while the 5D has a comprehensive top-mounted status display that you can easily see while glancing down at the camera, the XSi uses its LCD screen for status, and you almost always have to tilt the camera to see it.
That said, I found it very easy to switch to the XSi, and while I missed the 5D’s control wheel on the back of the camera, the XSi’s buttons were never cumbersome enough to cause me to miss shots. In fact, the menu design of the XSi is much better than what I’m used to, and I greatly appreciated the My Menu feature, which lets you build a menu composed of just the features you want.
The camera is small and light and easy to carry, yet it feels sturdy and solid. It’s quick to respond to settings changes and easy to navigate. The fact that I can drive all essential shooting functions with two fingers makes it easy to shoot quickly in a rapidly changing environment, without ever taking my eye from the viewfinder.
Image quality is top-notch; it’s amazing that Canon has managed to keep the noise down on a high-res camera with a smaller sensor. As pixel size gets smaller — and cramming an extra 2 million pixels onto the same size sensor as the XTi can’t be easy — the signal to noise ratio degrades. But plainly, pixel size is not the only issue that contributes to noise. Image processing has a lot to do with it also, and the new DIGIC III processor handles the situation very well.
Even at 1600 ISO, in low light, I got perfectly usable images. I wouldn’t hesitate to use this camera for shooting concerts and events.
Canon has increased the image-processing pipeline to 14 bits from 12, which also contributes to the lower noise, and buys raw shooters some extra editing latitude. Cribbing a feature from the 40D, the XSi has included an Auto Lighting Optimizer custom function on the camera. When shooting in JPEG mode, this biases the camera to preserve more highlight detail, at the expense of shadow noise. For wedding shooters and other people who shoot bright whites in daylight, this feature can help prevent blown highlights.
JPEG shooters will appreciate the Picture Styles feature, which lets you define specific image processing settings to control the look of your final image. The included picture style editor allows you to create styles that are tailored to the look and feel that you want.
Raw shooters will appreciate the camera’s reasonable raw buffer and raw+JPEG capability.
The included 18-55mm EF-S 3.5-5.6 IS lens is a big surprise. For cropped sensor Canon cameras, I usually use the 17-85 EF-S, a more expensive, larger lens. But that lens has bothersome chromatic aberration problems. The 18-55, while a little bit shorter in focal length, is very sharp, very light, and I have yet to encounter any optical problems. The four stops of image stabilization are very welcome. While the camera doesn’t have a super long telephoto (which often benefits from image stabilization), the stabilizer can buy you more handheld capability in low light. For a starter lens, or a light walk-around lens for everyday use, it’s a great bargain.
Rebel XSi versus Canon’s Other Cameras
Many prospective buyers will compare the XSi to the EOS 40D. The main difference between the two cameras is interface, and on that count, the 40D definitely scores higher. The dedicated status display and two-wheel interface makes quickly changing settings much easier.
The 40D also boasts several extra features. For example, you can push it to ISO 3200; control shutter curtain choice when shooting slow sync flash; and customize it much more. However, the cameras are very similar in their day-to-day, primary features. But if you have specific needs, look closely to ensure that the XSi has what you want.
If you’re comparing the XSi to the less-expensive XT and XTi, first consider image quality. While the XSi’s images are of higher quality, it’s a slight difference that is most apparent when shooting at high ISO. If you don’t do a lot of low-light shooting, or don’t want to print large prints of high-ISO shots, one of the cheaper cameras might suffice.
Obviously, if you want Live View, the bigger LCD, faster burst rate, or any of the XSi-only features, you’ll need to spend the extra money.
No matter which models you’re thinking about, get your hands on the cameras. You may find that one model is uncomfortable in your hands, or that you really prefer one interface approach over another.
It’s a Winner
Canon has done a great job with the XSi. There was no holding back on high-end features, and the improvements to the body and features are very smart. The XSi is a great camera for the money.