Pros: 12 megapixels, Image Stabilization (with the kit zoom), a real spot meter
Cons: Slow f3.5 maximum aperture on kit zoom and skinny hand-grip
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 imaging platforms. Canons fourth generation Digital Rebel XSI retains most of what made its precursors so successful and adds some genuine improvements several of them lifted directly from Canon's more expensive semi-pro D40 model, in fact the XSi is something like a de-tuned D40 in a Rebel body (lacking the D40s pentaprism optical viewfinder, ISO 3200 sensitivity setting, faster frame rate, and quick control dial) all in all an impressive balance of useful features and enhanced capabilities in a proven package.
Digital camera manufacturers introduce new models with almost mind numbing regularity, but the new Canon Digital Rebel XSi (the EOS 450D everywhere except the U.S.A. and Japan) isnt just another pretty face in the entry-level dSLR crowd. The XSi features 12 megapixel resolution (the XTi was a 10 megapixel camera), XSi images are stored to SD/SDHC memory media (the XTi stored images to CompactFlash memory media), and finally the XSi features a new 3.0 inch Live-View LCD (the XTi featured a 2.5 inch conventional LCD). In addition the XSi has a larger optical viewfinder and a higher capacity battery than the XTi. Finally, consumers have been complaining for years that the Rebel tribe didnt feature spot meters; Canon finally listened to the complaints and the XSis now features a real spot meter. What the XSi (like the D60) doesn't have is a camera body focus-drive motor. Second tier manufacturers like Pentax, Sony, and Olympus offer entry level dSLRs with camera body focus-drive motors which means that they can use a much broader selection of lenses (in AF mode) than their Canon and Nikon counterparts.
NUTS & BOLTS
Sensor and Dust Reduction System
The XSi features a 22.2 mm x 14.8 mm (APS-C sized) CMOS sensor with Canons 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 XSis low-pass filter (which covers the front of the sensor) utilizes anti-static technologies to repel dust. The XSis Self-Cleaning Sensor uses hi-frequency vibrations to shake dust from the sensor at start-up.
The XSis pentamirror TTL (through-the-lens) optical viewfinder is noticeably larger and brighter than those of its predecessors and thats a good thing because the XTis optical viewfinder was a little squinty and noticeably dimmer than average - especially with the slow f3.5 maximum aperture kit lens mounted. Viewfinder images are sharp, fairly bright, and color (hue) accurate. Magnification is 0.87X compared to the XTis magnification of 0.8 and the optical viewfinder covers approximately 95 per cent of the image frame. When the XSi is raised to eye-level a built-in IR proximity sensor detects the users eye/face and turns off the LCD display. 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 and shows aperture, shutter speed AF/AE/FE lock, AEB, flash ready, WB, flash exposure compensation, processing data, exposure data, battery status, and Viewfinder ISO value. Finally, viewfinder blackout has been slightly shortened (from 180ms to 130ms) and theres a diopter correction adjustment for eyeglasses wearers.
The XTi featured a 2.5 inch hi-res (230,000 pixels) wide-viewing-angle LCD screen the XSis LCD has grown to 3.0 inches, but its still 230,000 pixels, so the effective screen resolution is actually lower. The XSis LCD is fairly sharp and images are hue correct. Theres an on demand grid line display to assist with framing and a live histogram display for assessing dynamic range and for correcting under/over exposed compositions pre-exposure.
Until recently most entry level Digital SLR LCD screens couldnt be used as viewfinders (like they are with Point & Shoot digital cameras) so shooters were limited to using the LCD screens that dominate the rear decks of all dSLRs for menu navigation and post exposure image review. The latest bandwagon that just about every camera manufacturer is jumping on is Live-View LCDs and the XSi is no exception. Live View allows users to frame and compose their shots with the LCD screen rather than using the optical viewfinder. Engage live view and the XSis reflex mirror swings up out of the light path and a live TTL image appears on the LCD screen users can then zoom, frame, compose, and adjust exposure parameters before exposing the image. Sounds great, but is it really? In Live View mode the XSis LCD screen isnt as bright or as sharp as it is in review/playback mode and it is not as fluid as most P&S digicam screens.
Auto Focus (AF)
The Rebel XSi/EOS 450D features the same 9 AF point wide-area AF with f2.8 cross-type center point contrast detection Auto Focus system used in 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). AF seems marginally but not substantially faster than it was with the Digital Rebel XTi/EOS 400D. The XSis 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.
Like some of its competitors the XSi provides a Live View LCD - with earlier Live-View systems when the photographer pushed the shutter button the reflex mirror dropped back into place momentarily to measure light levels, modify exposure parameters, and adjust active AF and then flipped back up out of the light path which added about a second to the image capture cycle - making Live View mode basically useless when shooting anything but static subjects. New with the XSi is a live passive contrast based AF function that permits the camera to focus automatically in Live-View mode without lowering the reflex mirror. This new method sounds impressive, but it is still noticeably slower in operation than using the cameras optical viewfinder and standard AF.
Manual Focus (MF)
Manual focus is easy simply turn the MF ring on the lens to adjust focus, just like they used to do back in the olden days.
The Digital Rebel XSi's built-in multi-mode pop-up flash has (according to Canon) a maximum range of about 12 feet/3.3 meters - coverage is adequate for the 18mm end of the kit zoom's 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 just 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.
The Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D (like its predecessors) supports Canon's proprietary E-TTL II flash system which combines data gathered from the pre-flash (subject reflectance/contrast and ambient light level) with subject distance data from the AF system to calculate correct flash output. Top flash synch speed is 1/200th of a second and recycle time is about 3 seconds.
The Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D features a dedicated hot shoe (in addition to the built-in flash) and can mount all Canon EX Speedlights, but some advanced features (FP flash sync, flash exposure bracketing with multiple flash units, and flash modeling) are available only with the 580EX flash. Canons nifty (and very useful) E-TTL II flash exposure metering system can only be used to full potential with the 580EX, 550EX, and 420EX.
Image Storage/Image File Formats/Connectivity
The Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D is the first Rebel Series dSLR to save images to SD/SDHC/MMC memory media earlier models stored images to CompactFlash memory media. SDHC memory media are available in a variety capacities ranging from 512MB to 8 GB. 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 XSi (like its predecessor) supports USB 2.0HS for transferring images and provides Audio/Video Out jacks for connection to a TV.
The XSi/EOS 450D draws its power from the new Canon LP-E5 battery. The LP-E5 is a Li-Ion 1080mAh rechargeable battery the XTi pulled its juice from a Canon NB-2LH Li-Ion 720mAh rechargeable battery. What that means in real world terms is that the XSi has about 30 percent more capacity than its predecessor. Canon claimed the XTi was good for about 500 exposures with a fully charged NB-2LH will the LP-E5 power the XSi through 650 exposures? Probably not since the greater power demands of the live view LCD are likely to quickly eat up any increase in power depth. For those who forego the Live-View LCD in favor of the optical viewfinder that increase in capacity might power the XSi through a couple hundred additional exposures. The included charger needs about 90 minutes to punch the battery back up to full capacity.
Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS Zoom
The primary reason folks buy a dSLR is to gain the ability to use interchangeable lenses. The XSi features a metal alloy lens mount and can mount any EF or EF-S ( for digital SLRs) lens. The XSi 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.
XSi 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. This slightly redesigned optic now provides optical image stabilization. The EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 ISs maximum 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 (if bought as part of the POS XSi kit).
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 portrait/environmental portraits, and for the record pictures with the subject generally in the center of the frame that probably shouldnt be a problem for the XSis 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 13 inches, 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 XSi/EOS 450D (like its predecessors) provides serious 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 corresponding aperture), Aperture Priority mode (users select the aperture and the camera selects the appropriate corresponding shutter speed), and Manual mode (users select all exposure parameters).
The XSi 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 III processor automatically optimizes all exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, white balance, sensitivity, etc.) for the specific scene genre selected. The XSi also features six Picture Style pre-sets - sort of like Scene Modes for serious shooters (first seen on Canons pro caliber 5D) which optimize all exposure parameters for the specific Picture Style selected while allowing shooters to control sharpness, contrast, hue, and color saturation. Picture Style options are Standard basically a user designed Scene Mode, Portrait slightly lowers saturation and optimizes hue for more accurate skin tones and decreases sharpness for softer edges and more flattering facial lines. Landscape boosts greens and blues and increases sharpness for crisper more colorful outdoor grand vistas. Neutral this setting is designed photoshop aficionados it produces straight from the sensor images for post-processing. Faithful automatically adjusts camera color to match subject color. Monochrome B&W with the full range of traditional filter effects (yellow, orange, red and green) and conventional toning effects (sepia, blue, purple and green).
The XSis light metering options include TTL 35-zone SPC Evaluative (default), a new 4% true spot metering mode, a 9% Partial Spot metering mode (the XSis predecessors provided only the 9% Partial spot-metering mode), and a Center-Weighted Averaging mode. The Evaluative metering mode (linked to Face Detection AF/AE) assesses numerous individual points across the frame. 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). Spot metering reads only a small portion (either 4% or 9%) of the image frame allowing users to bias exposure on the single most important element in the composition (like the eyes or face in a head and shoulders portrait). The XSi's light metering system (EV 1.0 to - 20 EV at ISO 100) is dependably accurate and the broad range of metering options should be more than adequate for most users. The XSis 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 Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D 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 XSi 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 XSis auto WB setting does a very good job as do all the outdoor settings (Daylight, Shade, Cloudy). I didnt try the Tungsten, Fluorescent, or Flash WB settings.
In-Camera Image Adjustment
Most casual shooters dont appreciate the value of in-camera image adjustment options, but serious shooters know that the image saved to the memory card becomes, in effect, the digital equivalent of a traditional film negative (or a positive - for transparency shooters) so whatever can be done in-camera simplifies the process of generating a digital negative.
The Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D provides a nice range of In-Camera Image Adjustment options. Shooters can utilize the Parameters options and choose Parameter 1 (sets contrast and saturation adjustments to 1 and increases sharpening to 2 for brighter and sharper images) or Parameter 2 (sets contrast, sharpness, saturation, and color tone to neutral). Parameters 3, 4 & 5 can be customized for user specific contrast, sharpness, color saturation and color tone variations. Also available under the parameters menu are Black & White, filter effects (like a digital version of the yellow, orange, red, and green screw in filters used by B&W film shooters and toning effects (which adds sepia, blue, green, or purple tint) to B&W images.
The XSis Exposure Compensation function allows users to tweak exposure (to incrementally lighten or darken the exposure) through a series of small increases or decreases from 2EV to -2EV in either one-half or one-third EV increments. The automatic exposure bracketing function permits users to capture three sequential images of the same subject and vary exposure slightly with each shot ( /- 2EV in 1/2 or 1/3 EV increments).
Design, Controls, & Ergonomics
The Canon Digital Rebel XSi/EOS 450D 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 Digital Rebel XTi/EOS400D had a somewhat busy user interface and the XSi is actually more complex. All controls (and there are lots of them) are logically laid out and easily accessed and the re-designed menu system is straightforward and easily navigated. Canons product development folks still havent really listened to all the complaints about the Rebels skinny handgrip the D40/D40X/D60s beefier grip is a lot better. I said in my review of the XSis predecessor that, "Id also like to see an SD card slot (in addition to the CF card slot) added to the XTis successor" that didnt happen, instead Canon replaced the CF media slot with an with SD media slot.
Camera Type: dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex)
Lens Mount: Canon EF/EF-S
Resolution: 12 Megapixels (4272 x 2848)
Viewfinder: TTL Pentamirror
LCD: 3.0 inch Live_View LCD
Exposure: Auto, Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, full Manual, and Auto Depth of Field modes
Auto Focus: 9 AF point active contrast detection and passive contrast based Live-View AF
Manual Focus: yes
Metering: TTL 35-zone SPC evaluative, 4% spot, 9% partial spot, and center-weighted averaging
Flash: built-in multi mode and dedicated hot shoe for external flash
Sensitivity: 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600 ISO equivalent
White Balance: TTL Auto with user selected pre-sets for Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, and Custom (manual)
Memory Media: SD/SDHC/MMC
Power: LP-E5 Li-Ion rechargeable battery
Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS zoom (kit only), LP=E5 battery & charger, neck strap, USB & AV cables, software CD-ROM, and (printed) users and software manuals.
In the Field/Handling & Operation
I often get together with a very old friend who shares my passion for photography. Between us we have over fifty years of hands on experience in every area of photography from business to photo shoots. My friend was able to get his hands on a Canon Rebel XSi/EOS 450D with the new EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS (image stabilized) kit zoom. The first thing we did was to run some color tests using a homemade macro stage and a selection of brightly colored (red, green, yellow, blue, orange, and purple) plastic childrens beach toys arrayed on a white photo paper background. This test allows us to check color accuracy and the precision of each camera's white balance system (and compare the results from camera to camera). The XSi's Auto White Balance setting rendered slightly oversaturated but hue correct color for all the plastic beach toys. Default color interpolation is a bit warm, which is not surprising in a camera targeted toward the amateur/advanced amateur market niche.
After we finished our color tests, we took the XSi and a Nikon D60 (that I was evaluating for another website) to nearby Cave Hill Cemetery. Cave Hill Cemetery is Louisville's unofficial arboretum and popular destination for local photographers because there is almost always something to shoot the old burying ground is filled with thousands of old headstones, dozens of ornate mausoleums, a rustic groundskeepers cottage, and scores of waterbirds around the banks of the small lake at the center of the grounds - the resident ducks, geese, and swans at Cave Hill are pretty tame, since most of the folks they see have bags of stale bread in hand, making them pretty easy to photograph.
Spring is here in full force and there is no better place to test a couple of nifty new entry level dSLRs than a 300 acre cemetery filled with native and exotic blooming plants and trees. After we completed a couple of circuits at Cave Hill we drove over to nearby Cherokee Park and hit the scenic loop to shoot outdoor people pictures. We didnt find much in the old growth trees along Beargrass Creek; it is still too early in the season. Once we got into the open meadow part of the park the area was filled with runners, skaters, bikers, and dog walkers. We parked and spent about an hour shooting folks enjoying the spring weather after a long dismal winter.
For our second outing with the XSi - we got together on Sunday morning (which was even prettier than Saturday afternoon) and headed for Louisvilles Extreme Park. The Extreme Park is the go to place for local photographers looking to capture some action shots. Skateboarders, BMX bikers, and rollerbladers are drawn to the park 24-7 and many of them are very talented athletes. The XSi's AF (in standard AF mode) was a bit quicker than the XTi's and seemed marginally quicker than the D60s. Shutter lag was not a problem with either dSLR. We managed to get a couple of pretty good shots with BMXers frozen in mid air with both cameras.
When we reviewed the images we'd shot over the course of our tests (on a NEC 19 CRT monitor) both of us were impressed with just how good most of the pictures were. The XSi and Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS kit lens do a dependably impressive job in a broad variety of outdoor lighting situations, but indoors or in dim/low lighting images (due to the relatively slow maximum aperture of the kit zoom) tend to turn out a bit dull. The XSi and kit lens 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 images for this camera test were shot with the XSi in Program mode (Auto WB and Auto ISO). Images were recorded to a SanDisk Ultra II 4GB SDHC memory card.
The XSis image quality (with the Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS kit zoom) ranges from excellent to near pro quality - especially at the 100 and 200 ISO sensitivity settings - 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 didnt try the ISO 800 or ISO 1600 settings, so I cant offer any specifics, but ISO 800 and ISO 1600 images shot with the XTi were fairly typical (soft with flat colors and high noise levels). Colors are bright, hue accurate, and slightly over saturated. Overall, the XSis images are a bit on the warm side of neutral and a little contrastier than average with nice dynamic range.
The Digital Rebel XSi seems a bit faster than the XTi, 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). Side by side (under identical conditions) the XSis Auto Focus seems slightly faster than the D60s, but once again this is based on subjective rather than objective data. Shutter fire is essentially real time with pre-focus and very quick from scratch equal to or faster than any camera in its class.
A Few Concerns
After thirty-five years as a photographer I can pick nits with any camera - the Canon EF-S 18mm-55mm/f3.5-f5.6 IS zooms f3.5 maximum aperture is too slow for anything beyond outdoor shooting, battery life (with live-view) is likely to be noticeably shorter than the D60s, and a meatier hand-grip would have been nice. But the XSi (in terms of bang for the buck) is probably about as good as it can be.
In many important ways the newest Rebel is sort of like a stealth D40 - which is great for serious shooters, but in the end this camera (like its predecessors) is best suited for amateur photographers and budget constrained shutterbugs who want a platform for mounting Canon EF/EF-S lenses without giving up all the nifty features and ease of use of a P&S digicam. While the Nikon D60 was more fun to shoot with, the Canon Digital Rebel XSi is a worthy successor to the XTi.
For definitive advice on How to Choose a Digital Camera please see my review: