Anyone picking up the EOS 500D who has used a Canon camera before will be instantly at home: there is little difference in terms of layout or controls from previous models. The back sports the new 3-inch LCD display, with a striking 920,000 dots, meaning it's razor sharp and an absolute pleasure to use, not just for previewing and sharing your shots, but also for Live View and video capture.
The majority of controls lie to the right of the screen on the back, conveniently placed for quick access with the thumb of your right hand whilst gripping the camera. Paired with the scroll wheel behind the shutter button, it is simple to navigate menus, which look clear and simple on that screen.
The button layout (in fact most of the body) is the same as the 450D, it's predecessor, whilst the internals more closely reflect those of the EOS 50D, Canon's mid-range model.
The shooting mode dial on the top of the camera gives you a couple of new options. The first of which is video capture, the second is labelled CA, for Creative Auto, which nods to novices, and basically walks you through a few basic settings to change the type of image you get. CA is a good introduction, teasing newcomers out of full auto, but those more familiar with the controls may find it faster to change the settings using the mode dial and buttons, rendering the feature redundant.
Supporting the video functions, besides the new icon on the dial, is the front-mounted mic and rear mounted speaker for playback (with adjustable volume). Sadly audio is mono only and there is no socket for an external mic. Home users may not care about this but if you are considering the 500D as a tool for capturing vox-pop interviews for example, then you might want to think again.
Wind seriously interferes with audio capture and the placement of the mic means it's easy to put your figure over it if hand-holding the camera. Audio capture can be turned off if you don't want it, say, if you are going to lay a soundtrack over the video.
Video capture comes in three resolutions, Full HD (1080) and HD (720) whilst those more interested in web use may want to deploy the 640 x 480 mode. Sadly the top setting only gives you 20fps and the other two 30fps, which means that movement can come across as rather juddery, should you get into any pans. However, the quality of the captured video is very good, with the HD settings giving great crisp results that come across brilliantly on high-definition displays, thanks to the built-in mini HDMI.
But a video camera replacement this is not. In fact you get very little control over the video side of things. There are three focusing modes (as well as being able to force manual focus through the lens), the same as with Live View, so you have to press * to focus. Unfortunately the lens is not made for video, so all the noise comes across in your video as the focus hunts around. It isn't very fast either, so shifting or refocusing during live shooting should be used with caution.
The other controls that you can manually apply is exposure compensation, so you can lighten or darken a scene to get the results you want, as well as AE lock, so you can fix the metering for your entire shoot (variable metering times can also be set). You can shoot stills whilst recording, but you'll get a pause and the shutter sound in your video.
However you can still get some good results. You might not be able to grab video on the fly (like you can with the Panasonic Lumix GH1) but if your video is more along the lines of setting a static scene and filming from a tripod, then the final thing will be very crisp with great natural colours.
The boost to a 15-megapixel sensor is backed by Canon's DIGIC 4 processor, as found in the 50D and 5D Mk II. Noticeable improvements really come in the suppression of noise as ISO levels rise. This makes the ISO range much more practical use, and as a result, the 500D is a much happier camera in low light. The higher, manually engaged, steps up to ISO 12800 also work with some subjects, especially for smaller images online.
A pop-up flash is built into the top of the camera. This tends to be too harsh for more delicate work but the hotshoe provides amble scope for adding an external flash - we used Canon's excellent Speedlite 430EX II extensively with the 500D, a flash that comes highly recommended.
We tested the EOS 500D with the EF-S 18-55 IS kit lens, the same as seen on the 450D, which is a reasonable zoom lens, but does suffer barrel distortion at the wide angle. The image stabilisation is a bonus, but Canon haven't quite graduated to the in-camera stabilisation we are seeing from the likes of Olympus.
The results from the camera are very good. Colours are well balanced and the 500D coped well with picking out details, for example, in tricky overcast skies and shadows. Focusing is crisp and fast on the 9-point system (aside from video) and the metering is good also, so exposure is pretty much spot on across a range of conditions. Fringing in high contrast shots isn't too much of a problem either.
As we've said, noise is well controlled, with detail maintained in shadows, although naturally noise does start to creep in as the ISO rises. Depending on the size of image you are going to produce, this noise may not be an issue, so indoor candid or slightly softer portrait shots are a breeze, a distinct improvement over the 400D.
Full size high-resolution prints won't be much of a problem, with the 500D performing admirably when fed the right conditions. The Auto mode can get a little feisty, preferring to bump the ISO to 1600, rather than suggest a flash. Whilst the noise isn't intrusive, it's worth watching out for especially in darker shades and blacks, if you plan on using a close-up. At least Auto mode displays on the screen the setting it is using - something that some models don't always do.
One gripe that we do have on that new screen, however, is the lack of flexibility. It looks good, yes, but it doesn't give you the range of articulations now appearing on rival models. Articulation of the LCD not only means you can compose low- or high-level shots without having to get behind the camera, but you can also (on some models) flip the screen in for protection from scratches. Hopefully Canon will consider this option on future models.
Battery life is rated at 400 shots, which is pretty close. Video will cut this down, obviously, as will lots of use of Live View. We found that an average mix of video and still shooting gave us over 200 shots before the battery started complaining. Video alone will give you just over an hour from the battery.
In general use, the Canon EOS 500D is an excellent point and shoot DSLR, for those who want an uncomplicated camera that offers greater potential than compact models. The Creative Auto may convince you to click that mode dial, but will perhaps be lost on more experienced users. The still image performance is compelling but we can't help but feel the video is something of a novelty. Yes, you can capture crisp and detailed high-definition video, but it comes with a list of limitations.
Originally over £800, the 500D is now more reasonable, with prices in the £600 region looking far more appealing. The camera should appeal to those looking for a DSLR and we think it steps in nicely for anyone who has a 350D or 400D that is looking to upgrade: considering the compatibility with existing EF and EF-S lenses and the range of accessories you've probably collected over the last few year, it brings a number of enhancements that you'll appreciate.
Thank you to Jessops for the loan of this review model.