Page One: Main features
Is it a more affordable 7D or an enhanced 500D? In a first look at a pre-production Canon EOS 550D Damien Demolder tries to find out…
Main features at a glance:
? Addition to EOS range, not a replacement for EOS 500D
? 18 million-pixel CMOS APS-C sensor
? ISO 100-12,800 via expansion setting
? New limiter in auto ISO mode
? 3in 1,014k dot Clear View LCD screen
? New battery form
? 9 point AF
? iFCL metering
? HD video with 24,25,30fps
There are more obvious gaps in the Canon EOS range than where the entry-level models meet the enthusiast bodies. There are already three beginner bodies to choose from, some of which are now rather long in the tooth, but Canon has now added another in the shape of the EOS 550D. You could argue it was the EOS 1000D that needed refreshing.
However, the company has instead decided to boost its more advanced entry proposition with a model to sit between the 500D and the 50D. It is an uncomfortable fit, though, as the newcomer with its 18 million-pixel resolution rather puts the 15.1MP sensors of its neighbours to shame.
The comparison with the EOS 7D cannot be avoided as it is to this model ? Canon?s last-launched DSLR ? that the 550D owes much of its feature-set. The question of whether this is a scaled-down EOS 7D or a polished 500D is not immediately easy to answer.
In the hand
The first thing I noted when I saw the new camera was that it has a slightly different body shape. The base of the pentaprism is broader than in previous models and the shoulder above the nameplate seems much more rounded, while the lens mount bulges out of the body in a neat set of curves.
There are new grip and body coverings too, which seem to add extra purchase in the hand.
A new rubber pad mounted on the front of the body, for the left hand, works especially well. For such a lightweight and entry-level body the 550D seems remarkably well made.
Admittedly, it doesn?t have the solidity of some other models further up the range but when squeezed it doesn?t ?give? or change shape as so often happens with other ?lesser? models. The joints seem to fit well and, although it isn?t marketed as a weatherproof camera the 550D certainly feels capable of surviving a bit of wet weather.
There will be plenty of people disappointed to see Canon introduce a new battery, but I?m told this was necessary to meet new Japanese guidelines.
The LPE8 cell won?t be easily copied ? which may be what Canon wants ? but, of course, the new introduction requires a new mains power adapter and a new power grip. As is usual the grip, the BG-E8, accommodates two spare LPE8 units or 4AA cells in a cradle.
In all, the camera feels good to use and comfortable to hold. Although it will be less expensive than many others in the EOS range the EOS 550D still costs a lot of money ? so it should feel well made and solid.
Page Two: 7D on a budget or a 500D with more pixels?
7D on a budget or a 500D with more pixels?
The new 18-million-pixel APS-C CMOS sensor will make an impressive draw for enthusiasts as well as the beginners this model is said to be aimed at.
While the sensor is closely related to the unit used in the EOS 7D it is equipped with only half the number of read-out channels, so even with a DIGIC IV processor behind it the 8fps of the 7D can not be reached ? figures quote a best speed of a still reasonable 3.7fps.
Mike Owen, of Canon Europe, says that there is no reason the sensor should not deliver image quality as good as the twice-the-price 7D. It will not be an easy sell, but what consumers are paying for in the 7D are the build quality and a set of extra features.
For example, while the 550D can make use of wireless flash systems via a hotshoe-mounted EX unit, it does not feature the built-in wireless flash control from the pop-up gun that the 7D offers.
Also when those who like to store raw and JPEG versions of each shot only have the option to select the largest JPEG size, while 7D offers a range of image size and compression options.
The 7D has a magnesium alloy body shell, but the 550D will be made from plastics and fibreglass. Quite how the company will ever sell another EOS 500D again I don?t know ? there seems little to recommend it for the same price.
The 550D shares the same 9-point AF array with the 500D, and backs it with the same spot, partial, centreweighted and EV metering modes. In this model, though, the metering is controlled by the 7D?s 63-zone iFCL dual-layer sensor that is supposed to be better able to negotiate powerful colours.
As with both previously mentioned cameras the ISO range is expandable to ISO 12,800, but in this body Canon has introduced a new user-defined limiter function for auto ISO mode.
To view our masterpieces we?ll have a new 3in Clear View LCD screen with a resolution that, at 1,040,000 dots, exceeds that of any other EOS model. While seemingly clear enough in the conditions in which I used the camera this is not the Clear View II system seen on the back of the 7D and the EOS 1D IV.
Canon is also keen to point out that the screen follows the 3:2 aspect ratio of the sensor and, therefore, the images it produces. Thus we should be able to view without the customary blacked-out strips top and bottom.
Video fans will be pleased to know that the camera offers 24/25 and 30fps modes at full HD resolution in its highest-quality capture, and 50 and 60fps in 720p.
Like the 7D the 550D allows full manual control during movie shooting, while an external microphone socket should allow decent stereo audio recording.
A new feature called Crop Movie can add a 7x magnification factor to your focal length by shooting VGA quality using only the central part of the sensor. A dedicated stop/start button has also been introduced for convenience.
Other points of particular interest include firmware that links to Eye-Fi enabled memory cards, and which allows them to be controlled via the menu system, and that this is the first Canon EOS camera that is compatible with the new SDXC memory card standard.
In theory this standard will allow the capacity of SD cards to reach 2TB. For now, though, we?ll have to settle for 64GB. The card loaded in the SD compartment will have quite an impact on the number of images that can be shot in a single high-speed sequence.
Canon may well quote a burst depth of 30 JPEG images, but with a class 4 card this number could reach up to 250 frames.
Page Three: More pixels = good
More pixels = good
Mike Owen, like hundreds of other Canon spokespeople before him, recites the company mantra that image quality is the most important consideration in the design and specification of any Canon product.
And, yes, he says, image quality is improved by adding an extra 3 million pixels to this class of camera.
He quotes the example of the Powershot G11, for which Canon reduced the pixel count to 10MP, as an example of the company putting image quality first, and then explains that Canon still feels there is scope to keep lifting the pixel counts of its EOS range.
It seems 18 million pixels could become a standard even for its entry class products. This raises the question of whether Canon?s kit zoom lenses are capable of servicing so many densely packed pixels, but Mike Owen assures me they can.
The camera will be kitted in Europe with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS and the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, both of which are new-generation lenses designed for modern DSLRs. Anyone using older kit-type lenses in front of this sensor may not get the most out of it.
New version of DPP
As is always the case when a new DSLR is launched Canon will be introducing a new version of its free DPP raw conversion software.
Although at the moment it is not clear exactly what will be altered in this latest incarnation Mike Owen told AP that there have been many improvements made to the workflow and the features on offer.
Thanks largely to Adobe putting a stop to upgrades for Camera Raw in older versions of CS and Photoshop packages more Canon users have been making the most of the DPP software that came with their camera rather than buying the newest Adobe product.
Owen says this has led Canon to make more of an effort to turn this into a do-everything standalone package.
As always we can never really tell what a new camera is like until we have tested a final production sample, but it seems that the forthcoming EOS 550D has plenty of promise. If it really does produce image quality on a par with the 7D, in a body more aligned in price to the current 500D, it should prove very popular. An upgrade to 18 million pixels for the 500D is a good-enough reason for the 550D to exist, but add the more advanced features trickled down from the 7D and you get a camera that should enable new users and enthusiasts alike to reach new levels of quality. The change of battery is annoying for anyone with a current EOS body, but I guess we?ll just have to live with it.