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Canon EOS 550D Digital SLR Review

Canon ramp up the specification with the Canon EOS 550D. With an 18Mp CMOS sensor, +/- 5EV exposure compensation and SDXC memory card support. It promises a great deal and we see if it delivers in this test

|  Canon EOS 550D & 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 in Digital SLRs
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Behind the scenes at the press launch

Canon 550D
Review of Canon’s latest EOS DSLR by ePHOTOzine expert Gary Wolstenholme.

Canon's new mid-range flagship builds on the popular EOS500D by squeezing in an 18Mp CMOS sensor and a top sensitivity of ISO6,400, improved movie capabilities and a higher resolution screen amongst other improvements into the same-sized body. Here we'll take a look at whether it's worth the current asking price of £749 for the body only, or £899 with the 18-55mm IS F/3.5-5-6 lens.

Canon EOS 550D: Features
Not being a company to rest on their laurels, Canon's successor to the popular EOS 500D, which was only released just under a year ago, shares many features with the recently released EOS7D, but at a much lower price point.

The 18Mp CMOS sensor gives a wider range of true ISO sensitivities than its predecessor, without having to enable the ISO expansion option in the menu. ISO6,400 now comes as a standard option, providing a little more headroom for low-light shooting than its predecessor. An equivalent of ISO12,800 can also be enabled through the ISO expansion option. The Auto ISO option has also been tweaked, with the ability to specify a maximum ISO being added. This is a welcome addition, as it will allow the user to prevent the camera from hiking the ISO too high to prevent camera shake.

A higher resolution screen has been fitted to this new model, increasing from 920,000dots as found on the EOS 500D, to 1040,000dots. The screen is bright, contrasty and sharp enough to check focus accurately. Although I feel the resolution increase is only a slight improvement over the previous unit, this new screen appears easier to see use out in broad daylight. This really helps when it comes to using the enhanced video features.

The metering system has been upgraded, with the new iFCL 63-zone dual-layer sensor found on the EOS 7D being squeezed into the camera's diminutive chassis. iFCL is an acronym for intelligent Focus, Colour and Luminance, which means the system uses distance, colour and luminance (brightness) information to work out the correct exposure when using Evaluative metering, rather than just luminance readings as found on previous Canon metering systems. This isn't that new a concept, Nikon have employed 3D Colour Matrix metering in many of their cameras since the F5 released in 1996.

HD movie has become pretty-much a standard feature on new SLR releases of late and this camera improves on its predecessor by upping the frame rate to 30fps at 1080p. Slower frame rates of 25 and 24fps can also be selected to help save memory when the frame rate isn't your primary concern. Faster frame rates of up to 60fps can also be selected at 720p resolution, which should play back smoothly at almost a third of the speed making it possible to use slow motion creatively. Exposure values for video recoding can also be set manually and an external microphone jack is included, adding to the creative scope this camera provides for movie shooters.

An SD card with a write speed of at least class six is required to make the most of the HD video recording features, otherwise the camera may not be able to write all the information to the card quickly enough. In the case that you use a slower card, the camera will attempt to buffer the footage for so long, depending on the speed of you card. When played back using Canon's software, the 30fps footage looks very clear and smooth. I did have issues playing the same footage back in Windows Media Player and Quicktime, even though both programs each have the latest updates installed. It could be that both pieces of software need a further update of some description to work effectively with this footage.

Canon EOS 550D & 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens from rear
The 3in LCD has the highest resolution screen available today.
Canon EOS 550D & 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens command dial
The command dial looks nice and chunky and I like the dedicated ISO.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it – that's what Canon's design team must've been thinking when it came to creating the EOS 550D. Users of Canon's older compact SLRs will feel right at home with the EOS 550D.

The camera body is only distinguishable from its predecessor by a few subtle differences. One of which is the new Live View/record button placed to the right of the viewfinder. This new button activates Live View when shooting stills, and starts recording when shooting video. The direct print control, which used to serve this purpose now doubles up as a quick control button, giving quick access to any number of options that would normally require a good delve into the menu. The tweaked interface improves the handling by allowing settings to be adjusted quickly via the icons displayed on the LCD screen. Some of the buttons on the rear have been enlarged slightly, making them easier for my fat fingers to press, although they're still a little small to use with gloves.

For a camera only weighing 530g, this model feels quite solid. Glass fibre reinforced polycarbonate is used for much of the exterior construction, which doesn't flex under strain like some plastics feel like they do. The overall feel of the camera in the hand is enhanced by the soft rubber grip material, which helps to give good purchase. As with previous models, the finger grip is quite shallow and those with large hands (hello!) may find themselves struggling to find a comfortable grip.

The iFCL metering system works well under most typical shooting conditions, producing pleasing exposures most of the time. I found that when shooting in program, aperture-priority AE (Av), shutter-priority AE (Tv), or manual modes that the meter would work well in conditions without too much contrast, but exposure compensation needs to be applied if say the sky is much brighter than the foreground, or if the subject is dark, light, or strongly backlit. This is fairly typical of multi-zone metering systems from any manufacturer.

Canon also provide centre-weighted, partial and spot metering options for when you want to take control from the iFCL system. It is worth noting that the exposure compensation range has been extended from +/- 2EV as found in previous Canon models at this level to a more respectable +/- 5EV, which will enable more extreme lighting conditions to be coped with more easily in program, Av and Tv exposure modes. This will also please those shooting HDR composite images, as it now means that these images can be bracketed over a wider range of exposures to ensure as much detail as possible is captured.

Canon's Auto Lighting Optimiser promises to helps to boost detail in dark areas of the image, without causing clipping in the highlights. Four strength levels can be set in-camera, from off to strong. I found that by setting this feature to strong, and dialling in negative exposure compensation, JPEGs could be produced with less detail lost in both the highlights and the shadows, all without the image looking washed out.

High contrast situations are handled well by Canon's Auto Lighting Optimiser. The shot left was taken with ALO off and set on strong for the right-hand shot.

Selecting from the range of automatic pre-set scene modes can have a profound effect on the exposure. For example, the Landscape mode not only applies higher colour saturation and contrast, but the exposure tends to be a little darker and the Auto Lighting Optimiser feature is set to strong, helping to retain as much detail in shadow and highlight areas of the image, which is particularly suited to these kinds of images.

All the tools are there to enable accurate exposures in a range of different conditions if you know how to use them. Auto shooters will do well to ensure they familiarise themselves with the different pre-set scene modes to get the best results with the minimum of hassle.

A diamond-shaped array of nine focusing points can be individually selected or chosen by the camera for you. When the decision is left to the camera, it seems to get the job done right much of the time, but for more critical applications, such as when shooting with fast-aperture lenses, individually selecting a point is often the best option.

Canon have built a reputation for great focusing systems (in most cases) and this tried and tested AF system still holds its own against competition of a similar level.

I had three lenses at my disposal during my time with the camera, an AFS 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, an EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and an EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. With each lens Single servo AF is quick to acquire a subject and lock on accurately, especially when using the centre point. Each of the lenses yield sharp images

Similar performance is achieved in continuous servo AF, and although it may not be able to keep up with very fast moving subjects, it performs well for a camera at this level.

During LiveView, two focusing option are available – Contrast Detection and Quick-mode. The contrast detection is improved over previous Canon models, taking around a second to lock onto a static subject in good light. In poor light the system struggles and can take four of five seconds to lock on, if it manages to do so at all. The Quick-mode option is certainly quicker and more reliable, but the screen is blank while the camera attains focus, which is not ideal, especially if your subject is in motion.

In the past, criticism has been levelled at Canon for some of their cameras producing images that are slightly soft. The good news is, with the right lens, the EOS 550D is more than capable of producing images with excellent detail and levels of sharpness. This can be seen clearly on the test shot of an old watch, taken with the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at f/5.6.

Fine detail is very well resolved by the Canon EOS 550D

For this I shot Raw plus Fine JPEG, so that the clarity of the two formats can be easily compared. Every last detail on the watch is rendered with super clarity in the JPEG straight from the camera. Most users should have no issues printing straight from these files. The Raw file, processed with Canon's DPP software using default settings is ever-so-slightly clearer still, the difference isn't massive but can be seen where the detail is very fine but only at magnifications of 100% on-screen or higher.

With all those extra pixels comes the fear that this camera may not perform as well when it comes to noise at higher ISOs. Luckily, the 18Mp sensor performs reasonably well with only a little colour noise showing in the shadows between ISO400 and 800.

From ISO1,600 onwards, colour saturation is reduced by fairly aggressive colour noise reduction, the resolution of the images taken at these higher settings also takes a hit due to the noise reduction smoothing the image. What noise that does show tends to be mostly monochrome though, so it is not that disturbing and is still acceptable at ISO3,200.

Images taken at ISO6,400 are starting to look a bit smudgy and the colour saturation is reduced further, especially in small areas of colour, where the colour bleeds into the surrounding areas. The results will still make acceptable prints at moderate sizes though.

Finally, the ISO12,800 equivalent setting is there for when you can't get a shot by other means. To be fair, it's fantastic for such a high ISO when compared to older cameras, and the results will look more than acceptable when reduced in size for viewing on the web, or printed small, but the loss of resolution, smudging due to noise reduction and loss of contrast will make it unsuitable for more critical applications. Still this is surprisingly good performance for a sensor with all those extra pixels squeezed in there.

Images converted from Raw in Canon's DPP software tend to fair even better, retaining more detail than the JPEGs straight from the camera.

Click on the images below if you want to see a high resolution file.

 Auto white-balance in flash lighting. Auto white-balance in incandescent lighting.
Incandescent preset in incandescent lighting. Fluorescent preset in fluorescent lighting.

Canon ISO100 test.

Canon ISO200 test.

Canon ISO400 test.

  Canon ISO800 test.

Canon ISO1,600 test.

Canon ISO3,200 test.

Canon ISO6,400 test.

Canon ISO12,800 test.

Colour reproduction
Out of the box, the EOS 550D tends to produce pleasingly punchy colours. Saturated reds, pinks and yellows in particular tend to be rendered quite strong, whereas more delicate hues such as skin tones tend to be rendered quite accurately.

This effect can be seen on our colour chart, where the saturated reds and pinks appear more dominant. If you prefer your colours even stronger, or more subdued there are six pre-sets and three user definable Picture Styles to choose from, giving you plenty of scope to get the colours just how you like them in-camera.

This camera's auto white-balance performs pretty well in daylight and surprisingly well with some incandescent lighting sources.

When taking pictures in a room lit by warm-white halogen light fixtures AWB actually over compensated slightly, giving the image a mild cool cast. Selecting the incandescent pre-set under these condition actually gave a slightly more pleasant warmer tone.s In the studio test shot, lit by tungsten lighting of a warmer colour temperature, the results are the other way around. In this case AWB leaves a warm cast and the incandescent pre-set produces a more neutral image. Using the custom white-balance setting in each case would be the only way to ensure accurate colour if it is required.

Using the flash pre-set with the Bowens Gemini flash units in the ePHOTOzine studio leaves a slightly red cast in the image, which again can be prevented by using the custom setting instead.

Battery life
Despite the small dimensions of this camera, the LP-E8 battery pack carries an ample amount of charge. During one day I took in excess of 350 shots, many with LiveView, and took about half an hour of high definition video and the battery indicator still showed that it was fully charged.

Write times
Using a class six Lexar Professional 8Gb SDHC card, I was able to take precisely 100 large JPEGs at 3.7fps before the camera started to slow down. When I released my finger from the shutter button, the card access light only stayed lit for another two seconds. This is commendable performance from the DiGIC 4 processor.

When shooting Raw, the camera only manages a burst of six shots before locking up completely for a second or two. It seems the buffer size hasn't been changed from its predecessor despite the extra information the camera has to process and store due to the 18Mp sensor. The 500D could manage a burst of nine Raw images before locking up. A larger buffer would have been welcome so that this camera could at least match the performance of the older model.

Lens performance
The review sample of the camera we were supplied came body only. The lenses we did use on the camera were the EFS 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM, EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and the EF 100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. When combined with this camera, all three lenses were capable of producing great results and we will be testing each lens separately soon. Please visit here to view our latest lens reviews.

Portrait test Canon EOS 550D review Portrait test Canon EOS 550D

DxOMark provides objective, independent, RAW-based image quality performance data for lenses and digital cameras to help you select the best equipment to meet your photographic needs.

Visit the DxOMark website for tests performed on the Canon EOS 550D.

Canon EOS 550D:Verdict
Even at the guide price of £899, this camera is a worthy addition to the current Canon line-up, especially if it's the video features that may have caught your attention. If that applies to you, this camera offers virtually the same video main video features as the EOS 7D, but costs £800 less. With this camera, videographers interested in a HD movie equipped SLR are truly spoilt.

From a still photographer's perspective, there are still a few additional features that may make day-to-day shooting that bit more pleasurable, such as the improved Auto ISO function, higher resolution screen and improved control layout.

Overall the performance of this camera is excellent, and will find many fans whether they be interested in still, or video, or both.

Tweaked Auto ISO function
High resolution LCD screen
Quick control function
Larger buttons
Increased exposure compensation range
Battery life
Movie mode

Small buffer for RAW images
Although improved, AF during LiveView could still be better


ePHOTOzine met up with Canon's David Parry at the recent Focus on Imaging show at the NEC to chat through some of the new features of the EOS 550D. Click here if you want to read the exclusive interview.

Canon EOS 550D: Specification
Price £899.99 (c/w EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens)
Resolution 18Mp
Sensor size 22.3x14.9mm
Sensor type CMOS
Max. Image size 5184x3456
Aspect ratio 3:2
Focusing system TTL-CT-SIR-AF dedicated
Focus points 9
Focus types AI focus, One shot, AI servo
Crop factor 1.6x
Lens mount EF/EF-S
File types JPEG, Raw, Mov (video)
ISO sensitivity ISO100-6,400 (expandable to ISO12,800)
Metering system Full aperture metering with 63 zone SPC (new iFCL system)
Metering types Evaluative, partial, spot, centre-weighted
Exposure compensation +/- 5EV in 1/3 & 1/2 step incrmenents
Shutter speed range 30sec-1/4000sec
Frames-per-second 3.7fps
Flash sync speed 1/200sec
Image stabilisation No, lens based
Live-view Yes
Viewfinder Optical, pentamirror, approx 95% coverage
Monitor 3in Clear View TFT, 1040,000dot (345,600px)
Media type SD, SDHC & SDXC
Interface USB 2.0, HDMI, video, external microphone
Power Li-Ion battery LP-E8
Size 128.8x97.3x62mm
Weight 530g

ePHOTOzine's Jane Hobson was there for the UK launch of the Canon EOS 550D, and she was impressed.

A noisy throng of journalists, customers and staff packed the first floor bar at BAFTA as Canon ‘Went to the Movies’ last night (8th February). After being ushered in the screening room, the presentation began. To give us a feeling of being at the cinema, popcorn was provided which was amusing. I got the Edirol and MacBook ready to record my delight and surprise of the launch of the Canon EOS 550D.

First a general intro covering Canon’s activities over the last year, such as awards that have been won and quotes from photojournalist John D. McHugh saying that “the moving image tells a bigger story than stills” and that he now describes himself as a multimedia journalist rather than a photojournalist. This all pointed towards the EOS 550D having a movie function.

Indeed, the EOS 550D does have impressive HD movie capabilities with an external mic port, but they don't stop there. Canon have also released a number of IXUS compacts to upgrade the current range.

Canon EOS 550D launch event
After the presentation was over, we adjourned to another room to get our hands on the gear. It was a tight squeeze as is usually the case when an exciting camera has been released. Everyone wants a go first. To help people get a feel for the camera, there were a number of Bollywood dancing girls and they were being duly recorded and screened by the new camera. I did manage to get my hands on with an IXUS though and it is an aesthetically pleasing, clever little thing, which I’d be quite happy to carry around in a pocket for those moments when you don't want to lug the full kit. Personally, I’d go for the top specification model but then it’s horses for courses, or rather cameras for pockets!

The Canon EOS 550D looks like a welcome addition to the line up (it sits between the 500D and the 50D) because it boasts things previously dreamed of in enthusiast level cameras (high ISO, HD movie etc).

Words and pictures by Jane Hobson

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Photographs taken using the Canon EOS 550D & 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6

Wish I Wiz in BLACKPOOLThe DefendersSIX STEAMING SNAPSallureDungenessTHE AUDIENCE[and other grey tales]last rose of summercutting the fringeIN THE LAND OF MAKE BELIEVEUntitledUntitledUntitledyesterday once moreCethosia penthesilea (orange lacewing)

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Chaitanya 12 15 1 United Kingdom
6 Mar 2010 5:54PM
Still the question remains are those 18MP needed on a consumer grade SLR. I know a very few professional photographer who use that kind of resolution but only with expensive high speed prime lenses. I dont think any average consumer can afford those. I had sell my telephoto zoom lens to buy Carl-Zeiss lens recently.
poetcrs 12 United Kingdom
17 Mar 2010 12:29AM
I had sticky shutter problems that could not be fixed with my EOS500D and I truly loved that camera to bits, in the time itís taken to resolve Canon are now giving me an EOS550D by very kind means of an apology

Canon are the greatest in my books and I hope to review this model in more detail soon
poetcrs 12 United Kingdom
21 Mar 2010 12:59PM
It took me three days in all to know this camera back to front and inside out, the 550D itís simply awesome and easily surpasses the 500D.

Iíll be posting photographs over time.
A must have camera for Canon fans
24 Feb 2011 8:08PM
I have recently purchased this camera and I must say it is fantastic. I have put together a few articles to give my insight on my own canon 550d website. The image quality you can achieve is astonishing, especially for a entry level DSLR.
dane_c1987 11 2
3 Mar 2011 1:55PM
Reading this review makes me want this camera even more. Not to elaborate on the video mode any more than it has already been, but my band were recently filmed at a show by both a Canon 550D and XL1. Despite the XL1 being much larger and supposedly higher spec, the 550D produced much better results, especially under low level lighting where the XL1 just looked grainy.

I wish I could show you the video but encoding problems means it shan't be on YouTube until tomorrow.

I'm told one of the biggest contenders are Sony's digital SLR cameras, particularly the A380 and its 'live view' capability. I'm not sure how they fare against each other in terms of lens compatibility, though.
The 550d is a good camera and if used with good quality lenses, the results are great whether for photography or video shooting. We always bring with us the 550d when shooting property videos using a ultra-wide Sigma. The only down point is the overheating issue especially in warmer climates. Let us hope the future 650d will address the issue of overheating.
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