The new Canon EOS 550D was one of those cameras that got us really excited when it arrived at Pocket-lint towers. For some it is a camera that can potentially confuse - packing an 18-megapixel sensor into a consumer DSLR seems counter to the sensible moves to slow the megapixel race in recent years.
But Canon aren't just showing off that they can throw big numbers into a product: the Canon EOS 550D is a camera that really works and that 18-megapixel sensor, whilst producing large files and images that are possibly much larger than you need, doesn't suffer the sort of noise that you might expect from a pixel-crammed sensor.
In terms of capabilities the EOS 550D sits close to the EOS 7D, a camera to which it has been compared to widely. But the 7D comes with a pro spec and a pro price, but with it you get the sorts of things you need for professional camera use: a metal construction with weatherproofing, an enhanced focusing system, much faster frame rate, an additional shoulder LCD display and so on. In a Harry Hill style fight the 7D would win, but the 550D is lighter, cheaper, and still a formidable opponent.
The design and layout will be familiar to anyone who has owned a Canon DSLR from their consumer range before and owners of the 500D will do a double take. The body is finished in a matte plastic, which whilst not providing the resilience of the pro models, feels solid enough and means the body of the camera only weighs 530g (with no lens).
The dimensions of the 550D make it average for this type of model, although size is less critical when it comes to DSLRs. Importantly there is ample handgrip on the right-hand side to keep the camera steady whilst shooting, with a textured thumb grip on the back.
The controls fall in place for the fingers of the right hand to operate in most situations without being too much of a stretch. As usual the top of the camera offers the shutter release, mode dial, the power switch and an ISO button. There is also a dial for changing settings values, although depending in which menus you are in, sometimes you'll use the arrow buttons on the rear instead.
The rear of the camera offers up the usual four-way controls centred around a "set" or ok button, with shortcuts for focusing mode, white balance, picture style and shooting mode (including self timer). A Live View and video capture button sits up next to the viewfinder, with exposure compensation, Quick menu access, and image playback running down the right-hand edge of the screen. Two rear facing shoulder buttons give you control over the 9-point focusing system and AE/FE lock. A delete button is also present, tucked out of place where you are unlikely to accidentally hit it and the main menu and display options controls are set across to the left side of the viewfinder, as lesser used buttons.
Given the expanding remit of DSLR cameras, providing access to the right features now takes precedence and the layout and functions are considerably better than something like the ageing 400D. Of course there is also the pop-up button for the built-in flash and the depth of field preview button on the front of the camera. The latter button lets you see the effect your selected aperture will have on the shot, without having to shoot twice and compare the differences.
The real star of the show, though, is the display on the rear of the 550D. The 3-inch display has a pin sharp 1040k-dots, one of the highest resolution displays you'll find on a DSLR, especially at the consumer end. It makes previewing and composing shots using Live View an absolute pleasure. It is bright and has real wow factor. Some rivals offer swivel or reversible screens which is something we’d like to see, as in this age of video shooting and using Live View, it does broaden the scope for composing tricky shots. At any rate, you might want to look at protecting that lovely screen, as scratching its pretty face would be a real shame.
The Canon EOS 550D comes with various kit lens options, as well as body only, which would be both the cheapest and best choice for those upgrading who have existing Canon EF or EF-S lenses. Our review 550D came with the 18-135 IS kit lens, a good general lens offering a wide zoom range, but limited in macro abilities and with a maximum F/3.5 at the wide end, isn't the best available for lower light shooting. We also used existing lenses from within the range, including a more common 18-55mm, which is the standard kit lens offering for this camera.
Sitting at the core of the 550D is that 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor with Canon's DIGIC4 processor. You get a standard ISO range of 100 up to 6400, with a high ISO setting of 12800 (displayed as "H") available through the custom settings in the menu. (This custom menu is rather clunky, but does hide some of the camera's advanced settings). At ISO 12800 the results are obviously noisy, but it might be the difference between a shot you can handhold and one you can't, but the results are still usable.
You can limit the range of the Auto ISO to guarantee the quality, as well as being able to select the ISO you want via the ISO buttons in most shooting modes. The 550D does shoot itself in the foot somewhat with a big jump between ISO800 and ISO1600, and it is between these points that noise makes itself most obvious, so we'd have liked an option to limit the sensitivity to ISO1200 or thereabouts. In auto mode the camera will use between points, with some shots at ISO1250 being mostly clear from noise.
The level of detail you get out of the camera is impressive too. Shooting in fine conditions, you'll get shots at full resolution that will offer the potential for poster prints or severe cropping, with full sized viewing still retaining clarity. If this is something you are looking for then the quality of the lens will be important to squeeze out the quality, as will the 550D's option to shoot RAW or simultaneous RAW and JPEG.
Images are stored on SD, SDHC or SDXC memory cards, with the option to shoot continuously at 3.7fps up to 34 shots (JPEG, or 6 RAW) before the buffer struggles to keep pace. This in one thing that sets it aside from higher spec cameras, which will be more adept at snapping bursts of RAW.
Working around the mode dial the Auto mode copes well with general shooting, although we did find it had the tendency to pop the flash earlier than necessary - when looking at a dark object in daylight, for example (something we do a lot when shooting products). The camera can easily take the shot, so we found ourselves flipping down to the "no flash" option, or up to the Program mode, both of which, along with the CA (or Creative Auto) mode, offer simple shooting for those that don't want to get too involved in the technical aspects thrown up by the shutter or aperture priority shooting modes (or manual or A-DEP automatic depth of field modes for that matter).
CA allows you to use the on-screen display along with the Q (for quick menu) button to jump in and slide the scales up and down, using simple terms to describe what the outcome will be, pretty much replicating the Av mode without mentioning F stops or exposure compensation. It isn't quite as friendly as the approach taken by Olympus, but it is a good first step to help you grow into what is otherwise a fairly serious piece of kit.
Av or shutter priority will let you shoot from 30 to 1/4000 sec shutter speeds, with bulb being reserved for the full manual mode. Other options on the dial offer a number of presets for portrait, landscape, macro, sports and night portrait, which we feel represents a realistic number of options, rather than a slew of obscure scene modes you'll never use. The final position is reserved for video and if there is one gripe about the mode dial, it is that is doesn’t rotate 360 degrees, so if you want to swing from video to Av, it’s a lot of clicking back and forth.
The viewfinder presents the pertinent information to the shot in all shooting modes, showing you shutter speed, aperture and ISO, as well as whether the flash is going to fire along with your focal point. The viewfinder only offers 95% field of view however, so if precise composition is important then the viewfinder offers 100% using Live View. It does have a dioptre control, so you can adjust it if your eyes aren't quite set right.
The video shooting capabilities of the 550D have attracted a lot of attention. It offers shooting up to 1920 x 1080 with both 25 and 24fps options. You can also step down the resolution for capture at 50fps at 1280 x 720 or 640 x 480, with a crop mode that means you can get right in on the action. The video quality is very good with an added benefit of being able to change lenses and add filters to create different effects, using the zoom if you want to and so on.
Focusing does become an issue and focusing during video capture tends to hunt around a lot before setting on a focal point; if you can master the manual focusing in video it might give you greater creative opportunities, although the Face AF is pretty effective at keeping a face in focus. A manual video mode can be engaged through the menu which gives you the chance to change the shutter speed and aperture, as well as the ISO, for more advanced filmographers (check out Philip Bloom's 550D video on YouTube for example).
You can shoot stills during video capture using the shutter button, although this will lead to a pause in the video of about a second. If you don't want to be able to shoot stills, you can turn the option off. Sound is captured through the internal mic, which will suffer from wind noise and so on, but you can plug in an external mic to improve the overall sound performance.
A flap on the left-hand side of the 550D covers the external mic jack, the Mini-USB connection to hook up to your PC, as well as a mini HDMI for previewing directly on a TV. The wired remote connection is also here.
The pop-up flash is okay for general shots, but with the 18-135 lens kit, you'll find it casts a shadow as you extend the zoom; a hot shoe on the top of the camera will accommodate a wide variety of Canon's Speedlite flashes, or let you set an external mic on the top of the camera.
The battery gave us around 300 shots or so under mixed conditions, with plenty of video and previewing. If this sounds like a problem, swapping batteries presents little problem, or put a battery grip on your birthday list.
Overall we were very impressed with the performance of the 550D. We've mentioned that noise isn't a problem until you get up to what are some fairly high values, meaning you have a range of options to assist your low light shooting given the right choice of lens too.
Focusing is fast and generally good using the viewfinder, but is much slower if you opt for Live View with Live AF, which hunts for the focal point fairly excessively. There is a Quick AF option however, which is better, flipping the mirror down to use the normal focusing system and then returning your results on the screen on a half-press of the shutter button - a full press then takes the shot. If you are planning on using Live View on a tripod for example, it is worth looking at focusing the camera manually using the magnified view, which is very accurate and simple to use.
Colour accuracy was good with virtually no post-processing needed for typical shots, from the greens for the grass to skin tones, they look realistic, with good auto white balance performance taking care of colour temperature and is easily set manually. We were also reasonably impressed with shadow detail, although RAW shooting pulls out much more detail, as does moving off from the kit lens.
The 18-135 IS lens we tested isn't great for macro work as it won't focus at close distances, although you can always use the zoom to step in a bit so long as you have good enough light to ensure a fast shutter and avoid the shake that comes with long zooms. Some dark corners were apparent in shots at the far end of the zoom, despite engaging the in-built "peripheral illumination correction" which aims to correct this problem. It is also rather noisy in focusing, lacking the silent motors you'll find elsewhere in Canon's lens ranges.
And that's perhaps the point with the EOS 550D. It's a camera that has evolved from an entry point to DSLR photography to present specs that would impress those looking at mid range or higher cameras. As an entry point into the Canon DSLR family, it represents a camera with massive potential, from those who want to explore the CA shooting mode with the kit lens, to those who want to pair the 550D with Canon's better lenses to get the most out of the hardware.
Impressive image performance is paired with hardware specs that will widely appeal. You don't get all the bells and whistles, but those elements that are missing really are high-end features. If anything, it's the fast action stuff where the EOS 550D isn't so capable.
Some might snort at the body only price that is just under £700 (and the kit we tested here is £1099), but considering that this camera will be a solid foundation for a number of years makes it look like better value for money. Certainly, offering an arguably wider range of options than the 50D and being much more affordable than the 7D, it is the sort of camera that you'd probably want to stretch your budget to buy.
For those with a 500D, it is probably a more difficult sell, but for those with an older model or the EOS 1000D, the difference in performance is distinct and once you've used that LCD screen for a while, you won't want to use anything less. Highly recommended.