The last Canon Digital Rebel DSLR I reviewed was the XSi. Entry-level digital SLRs offer amateur photographers affordable access to the world of interchangeable lenses and the enhanced creative capabilities and expanded versatility of modular (system) imaging platforms. Canon’s Digital Rebel T3/EOS 1100D retains most of what made its predecessors so successful and adds some genuine improvements – some of them directly from Canon's more expensive semi-pro models. For most of the past decade Canon and Nikon split the entry-level DSLR market between them. Consumers graduating from upscale P&S digicams and film shooters moving into digital imaging devices for the first time read the reviews and then bought whichever Nikon or Canon came closest to their budgeted price point.
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Entry-level DSLRs from Pentax and Olympus didn’t get much respect and they got even fewer sales. However, the landscape of the hi-tech marketplace changed when a consortium of camera manufacturers (not including Canon or Nikon) developed the 4/3 format. 4/3 format imaging devices are inherently much smaller than DSLRs because there is no mirror or pentaprism in the live-view light path. 4/3 format cameras were the first major advance in interchangeable lens camera design since the invention of the pentaprism viewfinder in 1948 and the introduction of the instant return mirror in 1954. Suddenly shutterbugs had more choices – those who actually wanted an advanced P&S with interchangeable lenses could buy an Olympus EP1 or a Panasonic GF1 instead of the latest DSLR. Canon and Nikon both lost market share and both companies responded by cutting corners wherever they could including using cheaper materials like polycarbonate lens mounting flanges on kit zooms, removing control dials, knobs, and buttons and incorporating features from their semi-pro DSLRs to reduce manufacturing costs. Nikon also introduced the Nikon 1 (Nikon’s compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) while Canon responded to the increased competition by dividing its Rebel entry-level DSLR series into multiple models at different price points.
Canon is the most modular of the major digital camera manufacturers and they have an extensive catalog of consumer tested components to draw from when creating new models. Re-utilizing proven components to create new models allows Canon to skip the expensive R&D phase of product development and quickly introduce new DSLR models at prices calculated to entice consumers to buy. The Rebel T3 (EOS 1100D) is a sterling example of this winning formula for camera design. The T3/1100D blends together consumer tested components to create a new DSLR - the T3’s 12MPCMOSsensor is from the 450D/XSi coupled with the 9-point AF system and the 63-area iFCL metering system first seen on the EOS 7D. Mix these (and other) consumer tested components up with the tried and true Digic 4 processor that has driven the last few Rebel models and the updated (18mm-55mm) kit zoom from the earliest Rebel and you’ve got a brand-new DSLR that is currently selling for around $450.00.
Digital camera manufacturers introduce new models with almost mind numbing regularity, but the new Canon Digital Rebel T3 (the EOS 1100D everywhere except theU.S.A.andJapan) isn’t just another pretty face in the entry-level dSLR crowd. The T3 can be found on line for about the same price as Canon’s top of the line G12 P&S digicam and that frugal initial outlay opens up whole new worlds of creativity and flexibility for photography enthusiasts on a budget.
NUTS & BOLTS
The T3’s pentamirror TTL (through-the-lens) optical viewfinder is noticeably brighter than those of some of its predecessors – and that’s a good thing because the XSi’s optical viewfinder was noticeably dimmer than average - especially with the slow f3.5 maximum aperture kit lens mounted. Optical viewfinder images are sharp, fairly bright, and color (hue) accurate. Magnification is 0.80X and coverage is approximately 95 per cent of the image frame. When the T3 is raised to eye-level a built-in IR proximity sensor detects the user’s eye/face and turns off the LCD. Inside the viewfinder are 9 AF focusing points (the active focus points are illuminated so shooters know exactly where the camera is focusing). The viewfinder's status readout is very comprehensive, viewfinder blackout has been slightly shortened, and there’s a diopter correction adjustment for eyeglasses wearers.
The T3 features a 2.7 inch (230k) wide-viewing-angle TFT LCD monitor. Brightness can be adjusted over a 7 step range and frame coverage is approximately 100%. The T3’s LCD monitor is fairly sharp, relatively fluid, and hue correct, but overall it’s a bit grainy. There’s a user enabled grid line display to assist with framing and a live histogram display for assessing dynamic range and for correcting under/over exposure pre-capture. The LCD monitor must be used for video capture, but the optical viewfinder works nicely for most compositional chores and using it instead of the LCD screen to frame and compose pictures extends battery life.
Auto Focus (AF)
The T3 features the same hybrid 9 AF point wide-area AF with cross-type center point Auto Focus system that graced its predecessor. Users can manually select the specific AF point they want to base focus on (handy for composing images with off-center subjects) or allow the camera to automatically select the AF point (closest subject priority). The T3’s AF system did a pretty good job tracking moving subjects with the camera set for single point AF and AI Servo tracking. This option makes the center AF point the primary focus point. Users can select any one of the nine AF points as the primary focus point, but because the center point is a cross point sensor - using it as the primary AF point insures that focus acquisition will be quicker and more accurate for both vertical and horizontal subjects.
AF seems marginally, but not substantially, faster than it was with the XSi. The T3’s AF system evaluates subject movement and automatically selects locking or tracking AF mode, which vastly simplifies shooting sports and action. AF is consistently quick and accurate even in moderately dim lighting.
Manual Focus (MF)
Manual focus is dead easy – simply turn the MF ring on the lens to adjust focus, just like they used to do back in the olden days.
The T3's built-in multi-mode pop-up flash has (according to Canon) a maximum range of about 19 feet, but 8.5 or 9.0 feet is actually more accurate – flash coverage is adequate for the 18mm end of the kit zooms range, but it may produce images with dark corners when using wider optics. In manual exposure mode the flash is enabled by pressing the flash button, but in all AUTO exposure modes the flash automatically pops up when the camera's light metering system determines it is needed. In Flash-Off mode both the pop-up flash and the hot shoe (and any external speedlight mounted) are disabled. Top flash synch speed is 1/200th of a second and flash recycle time is about 3 seconds.
The T3 features a dedicated hot shoe (in addition to the built-in flash) and can mount all Canon EX Speedlights, but some features are available only with Canon’s more expensive external flash units.
Image Storage/Image File Formats
The T3 saves images to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media – earlier models stored images to CompactFlash memory media. Images are saved in JPEG and RAW formats and there is a RAW+JPEG mode that saves a RAW file with an embedded JPEG file.
The T3 draws its power from a proprietary Canon Lithium-Ion LP-E10 rechargeable battery pack. Canon claims the T3 is good for about 700 exposures with a fully charged LP-E10. Will the battery really power the T3 through 700 exposures? Probably not since that number is based on using the optical viewfinder essentially all the time, but few users will totally eschew the monitor and the greater power demands of the live view LCD will lower that figure dramatically. The included charger needs about 2 hours to charge the battery back to full capacity.
Lens Mount/Kit Lens
There are a couple of things potential purchasers should consider carefully before buying their first DSLR. DSLR AF systems and IS systems fall into two basic categories. AF drive/focus motors are either incorporated in each lens (Canon & Nikon) or built into the camera body (essentially everyone else) – image stabilization systems are also either lens based or body based. Canon’s image stabilization system works via the lens shift IS method so what the T3 doesn't have is a camera body focus-drive motor. Second tier DSLR manufacturers like Pentax, Sony, and Olympus (which utilize the sensor shift IS method) offer entry-level dSLRs with camera body focus-drive motors and that means those cameras can achieve auto focus and image stabilization with a much wider (and generally cheaper) selection of lenses than their Canon and Nikon competitors.
The T3 features a 22.2 mm x 14.8 mm (APS-C sized) CMOSsensor with Canon’s EOS Integrated Sensor Cleaning System. The EOS Integrated Sensor Cleaning System combats dust via a 3 step process - Internal camera mechanisms are specifically formulated to not attract or generate dust or particulate matter. The T3’s low-pass filter (which covers the front of the sensor) utilizes anti-static technologies to repel dust. The T3’s Self-Cleaning Sensor uses hi-frequency vibrations to shake dust from the sensor at start-up.
The primary reason folks buy a dSLR is to gain the ability to use interchangeable lenses. The T3 features a metal alloy lens mount and can mount any EF or EF-S series Canon lens. The T3 is compatible with more than fifty zoom and prime lenses (ranging from a 14mm ultra-wide-angle to a 1200mm super-telephoto) currently available from Canon and dozens of EF/EF-S mount lenses from third party makers Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina. Purchasers should keep in mind that since DSLR sensors are smaller than a frame of 35mm film that all 35mm format lenses are subject to a multiplication factor of 1.6X (a 200mm telephoto lens magically becomes a 320mm telephoto lens) but the maximum aperture remains the same.
T3 purchasers can opt to buy the either camera body only or they can buy the "kit" which includes the latest version of Canon's compact EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS zoom or a cheaper non-stabilized version of the same lens. The EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS’s maximum aperture - f3.5 at 18mm is pretty slow and the f5.6 maximum aperture at 55 mm is even slower (too slow for virtually anything except outdoor shooting), but overall this zoom offers fairly decent performance – especially for a lens that only costs a hundred bucks.
The EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS (like most consumer quality zoom lenses) is sharper in the center than it is in the corners, but since most purchasers of this zoom will be shooting outdoor family/event, travel /vacation, informal portraits, and record pictures with the subject generally in the center of the frame that probably shouldn’t be a problem for the T3’s target audience. Resolution improves noticeably as the aperture gets smaller (with f8.0 as the optimum aperture). There is minor barrel distortion at the wide-angle end of the zoom range, but no visible pincushion distortion at the telephoto end of the range. Chromatic aberration is a big problem with many compact zooms, but the dreaded purple fringing (while present in high contrast color transition areas, especially at maximum aperture) is well controlled in this optic.
EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS users can get as close as 9.8 inches (at the long end of the zoom), which is acceptable for e-bay auction shots and general close-ups, but not tight enough for frame filling bugs and flowers shots. The pop-up flash provides decent macro coverage, although it leaves the lower third of the frame slightly darker than the upper two thirds. Minimum aperture is f/22 and filter thread diameter is 58mm.
The Digital Rebel T3 (like its predecessors) provides serious amateur shooters with a comprehensive range of exposure options including: Auto (P&S mode), Program AE (P&S mode with user input), Shutter Priority mode (users select the shutter speed and the camera selects the appropriate aperture), Aperture Priority mode (users select the aperture and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed), and Manual mode (users select all exposure parameters). The T3 provides a small but useful selection of Scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night portrait, & Flash off). In all Scene Modes the camera's DIGIC IV processor automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific scene genre selected.
The T3’s light metering options include the default Evaluative 63-zone iFCL (intelligent Focus, Color, and Luminance) metering plus center weighted averaging metering. The Evaluative metering mode (linked to Face Detection AF/AE) assesses numerous individual points across the frame while Center-weighted metering biases exposure on the central portion of frame (great for landscape and travel images where the subject is likely to be centered). The T3’s default Evaluative metering mode is consistently accurate and I suspect most users will leave the camera in the default metering mode full time.
White Balance (WB)
The T3 provides a very comprehensive range of White Balance options for an entry-level dSLR including: TTL Auto and pre-sets for Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, and a Custom (manual) setting that bases color balance on a white card. The T3 also allows users to bracket white balance (the camera captures one image and writes 3 image files with +/- 3 steps in 1EV increments from 5500K). Color space options are sRGB or Adobe RGB. The T3’s auto WB setting does a very good job as do all the outdoor settings (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy). I didn’t try the Tungsten, Fluorescent, or Flash WB settings.
Design, Controls, & Ergonomics
The Canon Digital Rebel T3/EOS 1100D is a fairly conventional and relatively compact dSLR. Construction/build quality is excellent (polycarbonate outer shell over a metal alloy frame) and fit/finish is impressive, especially so for an entry-level dSLR. The T3 has a somewhat busy user interface. All controls (and there are lots of them) are logically placed and easily accessed and the re-designed menu system is straightforward and easily navigated. Canon’s product development folks still haven’t really listened to all the complaints about the Rebel’s skinny handgrip.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
I often test cameras at our local extreme sports park because it is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture action shots. Skateboarders, BMX bikers, and Rollerbladers are drawn to the park 24-7 and I’ve met several really talented athletes over the years. The best of them are good enough to have sponsors. The rest of them are looking for sponsors. In order to get a sponsor extreme sports athletes must have a nice collection of attention grabbing pictures and at least a couple of really good HD video clips. I get asked more for camera recommendations at the extreme park than everywhere else I go. When I turned up with the T3 one of my talented young friends fell in love with the camera. I spent about an hour walking around shooting pictures with my friend leaning over my shoulder the whole time. My friend asked me what the T3 cost and when I told him that it could be purchased on-line for about $500.00 with the kit zoom my firend decided he had to have one. My friend put his Panasonic FZ7 on Craig's List and purchased a T3. My friend chose the T3 because of the low initial price and because his father has an EOS 7D and a bag of EF/EF-S mount lenses.
The driving force behind this camera change was that my friend’s boyfriend wants to be a professional photographer. My friend asked me if his boyfriend could go along on a couple of my photographic expeditions and bring his T3 and I would show him the basics of photography as I used my T3 test unit. Jason actually has a good eye for framing and his compositions are strong and graphic, he just has difficulty remembering all the technical stuff. For our first outing we took the T3 to the Louisville Extreme Park so Jason and I could take turns using it to shoot my friend in action. The T3’s short 18mm-55mm zoom put us pretty close to the action, which can be risky. I got a broken collar bone out of a collision with a beefy skateboarder in 2007 and I’ve been a little leery about getting too close ever since. Jason, being 24 years old, didn’t have my healthy sense of fear so after a brief run through of how the T3 worked, he waded right in and got a couple of decent frame filling shots of our friend frozen in mid-air. We next tried shooting a couple of video clips of my friend doing his short routine. The short routine is about 30 seconds and ends with my friend doing a 360 degree flip before skidding to halt (right in front of the camera) on his BMX bike. It took Jason four tries - after I showed him where to stand, explained how to frame the ending, and showed him how to use the red one touch start/stop video button - before he got a decent video.
Jason picked me up the following afternoon and we headed for nearby Cave Hill Cemetery. Cave Hill Cemeteryis a popular destination for local photographers because there is almost always something to shoot - even in the winter. Louisville’s oldest burying ground is filled with thousands of weatherworn native limestone grave markers, dozens of ornate mausoleums, a rustic groundskeeper’s cottage, and scores of ducks, geese, and swans around the banks of the small lake at the center of the grounds - the resident waterbirds are fairly tame, since most of the folks they see have bags of stale bread in hand, and that makes them pretty easy to photograph.
After a couple of hours spent wandering around the 300 acre cemetery taking pictures we loaded up and drove over to Baxter Avenue to shoot the exuberant signs, colorful but tacky cement animals, and in-joke murals along the Baxter Avenue business corridor. After finishing up for the day Jason and I stopped in at Lynn’s Paradise Café for a sandwich and a few indoor pictures with the T3.
The following weekend I took the T3 down to Waterfront Park, but it was so icy cold with a freezing wind right off the river that I decided to call it quits right after I got there and head for home. On my way home I noticed a colorful clown on stilts waving traffic off of Market Street. I stopped to see what all the commotion was about and discovered the Flea Off Market, a seemingly spontaneous two square block flea market that offered local art, Kentucky crafts, upscale collectables, and outright junk for sale at bargain prices.
The Flea Off Market was like a trip back in time, it looked remarkably like the block/rent parties that folks in Louisville used to throw back in the seventies. There were a couple of food trucks, a beer stand, and music from a local rock and roll group. I called Jason and suggested that he join me and learn how to shoot environmental portraits since it looked like every “character” in Louisville was in attendance. Jason made it downtown in record time and I spent the rest of the afternoon showing him how to shoot informal portraits and environmental portraits. Jason got into it so much that he had to be escorted out of the performance area because he was crowding the musicians.
When Jason and I reviewed the images we'd shot over the course of our tests both of us were impressed with just how good most of the pictures were. The T3 and Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS kit zoom do a dependably impressive job in a broad variety of outdoor lighting situations, but indoors or in dim/low lighting images (due to the slow maximum aperture of the kit zoom) tend to turn out a bit flat. The T3 will do the job for action shooters if they get in close and pre-focus on the spot where the peak action will occur, but those who are serious about capturing action will likely opt for a faster maximum aperture zoom. Most of my images for this camera test (and all of Jason's during our joint excusions) were shot with the T3 in Program mode (Auto WB and Auto ISO). My images and HD Video were recorded to a SanDisk Ultra II 4GB SDHC memory card - Jason's images were recorded (without problem) to an old Walgreen's 2GB SD card.
The T3’s image quality (with the Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS kit zoom) ranges from very good to near pro quality - especially at the 100 ISO sensitivity setting - with decent detail capture in both shadow and highlight areas. Edge transitions are crisp, corners are reasonably sharp, and noise is very well managed. ISO 400 images display fairly low noise levels and actually look pretty decent, but they are a bit soft and fine detail (like hair and grass) looks a little mushy. I didn’t try the ISO 800 or ISO 1600 settings, so I can’t offer any specifics, but ISO 800 and ISO 1600 images shot with earlier versions of the Rebel were fairly typical (soft with flat colors and high noise levels). Overall, the T3’s images show a nice dynamic range; colors are bright, hue accurate, and slightly over saturated, but they are a bit on the warm side of neutral with a little less contrast than average.
HD video clips shot with the T3 (and 18mm-55mm zoom) were consistently well exposed with accurate (although slightly oversaturated) colors and fluid movement. Audio is crisp and clear and the wind noise filter seems to be effective without being intrusive.
The T3 seems a bit faster than the XSi, but that conclusion is based on subjective rather than objective data. The boot up cycle is about 2 seconds. Shot-to-shot speed is excellent, noticeably faster than average (for entry-level dSLRs). Shutter fire is essentially real time with pre-focus and almost instantaneous from scratch – equal to or faster than any camera in its class.
A Few Concerns
After more than forty years as a photographer I can pick nits with any camera - the Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 zoom’s f3.5 maximum aperture is too slow for anything beyond outdoor shooting and a meatier hand-grip would have been nice.
The T3 is an impressive entry-level DSLR, especially in light of its bargain price, however like its predecessors, the T3 is best suited for amateur photographers and budget constrained shutterbugs who want an inexpensive but capable platform for mounting Canon EF/EF-S lenses.
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