If you have any experience with dSLRs, chances are you’ll have heard of and possibly handled a Canon Rebel. A carry-over camera line from the film days, the Rebel series perfected the price-to-performance ratio and ushered in the era of cheap dSLRs. The T2i (also knows as the 550D), released in February, is now the seventh Digital Rebel and, accordingly, it's the most full-featured yet. The headliners on this body are a ludicrously high 18-megapixel CMOS sensor as well as full 1080p HD video recording. For a modest $850 with the kit lens, the Canon T2i is priced to compete with other mid-range offerings from Nikon and Sony. Read on to see if it performs as well as the white paper reads.
Although not the budget model of Canon’s dSLR lineup (that honor belongs to the Rebel XS), the T2i’s build is nothing to get especially excited about, pretty standard for a sub-$1,000 dSLR. The T2i is built around a sturdy metal chassis while the outer build is made up entirely of a light plastic that, while not exuding quality, does its job and doesn’t warp with pressure. The grip is a bit small for my large hands but would be just fine for women and men with average-sized hands. It’s a lightweight camera (as far as dSLRs go), especially with the kit lens, and I had no trouble carrying it around for a few hours.
The back of the camera boasts a sharp 3-inch LCD (non-articulating, unfortunately) that makes taking videos and reviewing images enjoyable. Buttons along the back include the expected bevy of controls: Exposure Compensation, White Balance, AF mode, Picture Styles, Review, Trash, AE/AF lock, Live View, Focus Point, Display and a zoom in/out pair. There’s also an ISO button (yay!) at the top in addition to the Mode Dial, On/Off switch, single control wheel and Shutter button. It sounds like a lot when typed out, but you’ll get the hang of the interface in no time and be glad for the level of external control.
Because most people buy the T2i along with the EF-S 18-55 f3.5-5.6 IS kit lens, it makes sense to spend a few words talking about it as well throughout this review. It, too, is of matching relatively cheap construction. This is par for the course as far as kit lenses go, although the plastic mount seems like overboard cost-cutting.
User Experience and Performance
As with all dSLRs, the T2i is a snappy performer. Startup is essentially instantaneous: You’ll never have to worry about missing a shot while waiting for the camera to turn on. Like most consumer dSLRs, the T2i has no top-side LCD, and relies instead on the rear LCD for information readouts (shutter speed, ISO, exposure, etc.). This data is relayed in huge, easy-to-read font sizes. Settings are grayed-out when they're unchangeable -- for example, the aperture setting is displayed in gray if the camera is in shutter priority mode.
The mode dial has all the scene modes one would expect, from Sport to Landscape, as well as the common manual modes and an HD video mode. There’s also, in addition to the Green automatic mode, a Creative Auto (CA) mode featuring sliders that visually demonstrate how changing exposure or aperture affects a photograph. This is perfect for those who want a little more control than full-auto mode, but still don’t have a firm grasp on photography lingo and the fundamentals of exposure. There’s also an array of custom functions regarding items like choosing ISO step values, noise reduction and assigning a function to the Set button. If this amount of control is worrisome, rest assured that the camera ships ready to work right out of the box.
Autofocus (despite no ultrasonic motor in the kit lens) is still snappy and relatively quiet. The 18-55mm kit lens is too short to shoot most sports, but the continuous AI Servo focus tracking keeps up with a running person in good light. Autofocus even works surprisingly well in live view mode; it’s still a touch too slow to capture moving subjects, but proves that Canon is approaching the gold standard set by Sony with the A390. Autofocus can also be enabled during video recording, albeit not continuously and with the added noise of the focusing motor.
The kit lens features Canon’s proven image stabilization, which minimizes hand-shake blur at shutter speeds as low as 1/4 second. It's a great feature in low-light and for static subjects. It’s great that Canon and Nikon are responding to the in-body systems of Pentax, Sony, and Olympus by including stabilized kit lenses.
While all the above is great, there were a few small things that struck me as awkward regarding the T2i’s usability. Firstly, the viewfinder is smaller than most in this category and doesn’t offer a very high eye-relief. This means that it can be difficult to simultaneously see the whole scene as well as the settings along the bottom. Furthermore, the control wheel, and this may seem nitpicky, doesn’t feel as refined as it does on competing models; it requires a bit too much effort to turn and clicks quite loudly when it does. A second control wheel would have been a nice touch for a camera in this price range too(which would truly put the T2i head-to-head with Nikon's D90).
The Canon T2i delivered no surprises during the review period as far as image quality is concerned. Photos at lowest sensitivities are appropriately smooth and devoid of any detail-destroying noise. Image quality is more than usable through ISO 1600, after which noise becomes too much of a problem for my tastes. Still, ISO 6400 is usable in a pinch and would work fine for small prints and web work.
If optimum image quality is a great concern, consider switching from JPEG to RAW. Default out-of-camera JPEGs, shot with noise reduction at factory-set standard level were overcooked and lacking in fine detail. Even lower ISO settings, as low as 400, had early signs of the smudging that turns fine hair into a mottled mess at higher sensitivities. Setting the noise reduction to low was the best compromise, losing slight detail at higher ISOs while retaining some color noise reduction. Still, shooting in RAW+JPEG mode (simultaneous shooting) and comparing the two reveals just how much there is to gain from processing the RAW data yourself.
Realistically, most of those who purchase the Canon T2i will be shooting JPEG and will appreciate some of the options available that make images look better right out of the camera. The most useful option is the Auto Lighting Optimizer, which is enabled from the camera’s menu. What this attempts to do is boost the shadows of an image to reveal more detail at the expense of slightly greater noise. The standard setting was too strong for my tastes, resulting in images that looked washed out, but keeping it set to low yielded a well-balanced scene. There are also a half-dozen Picture Style presents, such as Neutral, Portrait, and Monochrome, in addition to three user-defined options.
Kit Lens Performance
The 18 megapixel sensor is capable of producing a great deal of detail, provided you use a lens that’s up to the task. While the camera certainly produced more detail than its 12-megapixel competitors, the 18-55mm kit lens is clearly not the best choice for optimum sharpness. Images taken with the lens look very good on a full-screen display, and even when heavily cropped, but at pixel level there’s little of the crispness one is used to seeing from a dSLR. To be clear, this is an issue with the stock lens, not the camera. Since most folks who buy a consumer dSLR like the T2i won't be pixel-peeping, it's a minor issue.
To get the most out of the T2i’s 18 megapixels, users will want to look into pro-grade zoom or prime lenses, either of which will help you eke out the best image quality from such a densely packed sensor. Other than not living up to 18-megapixel demands, the kit lens exhibits some corner softness at wider apertures and is prone to flare when the sun or a bright light is in the frame. Neither of these problems is unusual, however, and probably wont be huge issues in real world shooting once you’re aware of the lens’ limitations.
The Canon t2i is the only dSLR in this price segment to feature 1080p video recording. [This was true at the time of writing, though Nikon just announced the D3100, featuring 1080p video, for $699. - Ed.] The clips look fantastic, devoid of artifacts and appropriately large for high-definition recording. We haven't tested the 7D here at DCHQ, but the majority of outside reviews indicate that the T2i and the far-more-expensive 7D have comparable video quality, so this is clearly a major selling point for the T2i.
The big benefit of using a dSLR for movies over a dedicated camcorder or compact camera is the sheer dynamic range and low noise of the footage, as well as the mouth-watering depth of field effects previously only possible with camcorders many times the price. Budding film students will also appreciate manual controls that allow access to shutter speed, frame rate, aperture and ISO.
The Canon t2i continues to do what Canon’s Rebel series has done for years now, produce high-quality images in a well designed, feature-rich, if not particularly inspiring, package. Most notable are the fantastic 18-megapixel sensor and full 1080p HD video mode, both of which are firsts in the class and help the T2i stand out. If you need that kind of resolution, or even plan on doing high-quality video-shooting on the cheap, this camera is a sure bet.
So what is the Canon T2i? Despite the numerous automatic settings, one could argue that the Canon T2i is an enthusiast’s camera rather than a beginner's model. Auto-mode shooters will probably be better served by the cheaper T1i, which has a less-impressive video mode but similarly stellar image quality and nearly identical construction. Even the basic XS is worth a look.
Honestly, an 18 megapixel sensor really does require extra work, equipment, and attention to detail to achieve the best results, something typical shooters may not be willing to spend the time or money to achieve. But the enthusiasts who make photography their main hobby will find plenty to love in the T2i; the images are fantastically detailed, especially when paired with a better lens than the kit.
It boils down to this: The Canon T2i is a feature-loaded camera for those with a knack for photography but a (relatively) limited budget. Anyone can take truly excellent photos and videos with this camera, but it takes the right hands and knowledge to get the most out of the Canon T2i.