Can the Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T21 in the US) beginner-to-amateur level DSLR match up to the hype? Our Canon EOS 550D review finds out more about the Canon 550D...
The Canon EOS 550D (Rebel T21 in the US) is the latest addition to the stable of beginner-to-amateur level DSLRs looking to capture imagination of users stepping up from advanced compacts or bridge models. The Canon 550D improves on the previous model, the Canon EOS 500D, by increasing the megapixel count, continuous shooting and screen resolution as well as improving the movie mode and microphone compatibility.
Canon EOS 550D features
Stepping up from 15 to 18MP puts the Canon EOS 550D resolutely above its Nikon rival, the Nikon D5000, which sits at 12.3MP. Much of the chasing pack fail to even come close to this impressive resolution, with the 14.2MP Sony Alpha a450 and a550 being of a few to get close. The Canon 550D’s DIGIC 4 processor is carried over from the previous Canon EOS 500D, as is the nine-point AF focus system, but the metering system has taken an impressive jump from a 35 to a 63-zone iFCL system, similar to the one used in the Canon
EOS 7D. The ISO range remains unchanged, although now the Auto setting does make up to 6400 available instead of needing to be accessed manually.
The burst mode sits at 3.7fps, which is relatively impressive for the price range, although the large file sizes produced by the 18M
P CMOS chip reduces the burst capacity to either 34 maximum resolution JPEGs or six Raw files. One of the most significant features on the Canon 550D’s spec list concerns the movie mode.
The top 1080p HD movie
resolution now has the choice of
30, 25 and 24fps capture so the frame rate of traditional camcorders and cine cameras can be replicated, as well as a hi-speed rate for the lower 720p mode to capture faster-moving action, at either 60 or 50fps. This means the overall motion should be smoother than the EOS 500D’s 20fps, giving the likes of fast action a more natural appearance when being recorded. Having a mic port means a more f
ocused manner of recording sound can be used via a 3.5mm jack and is connected via the hotshoe. See videos taken by people who own a Canon EOS 550D on our Canon 550D user videos page.
The AF system will only focus on a button press rather than constantly when filming, so it’s far better to rely on the manual focus. Full manual control is also available within the movie mode, as is the ability to lock exposure to prevent unwanted changes.
The 3in, 1040k-
pixel screen is superbly detailed in both live view and basic menu mode, and the viewing angle of 160 degrees matters little in real-world usage, in spite of being marginally narrower than its rivals. The alternative to th
e screen is the 9
5% approximate coverage viewfinder complete with light sensor to ensure the LCD isn’t active when not being used.
The Creative Auto mode on the Canon 550D allows the likes of depth of field and exposure to be changed using sliding scales via the rear display, and benefits hugely from being based in a primarily visual manner as it gives those unfamiliar with depth of field and exposure an easily understandable system. Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome, and 3 User Defined Picture Styles are also available, accessible via the interactive display on the rear screen.
In terms of looks the EOS 550D is very much a traditional DSLR design, although the body looks a far cry from some of the boxy, brick-like models of yesteryear. The mode dial gains a No-Flash mode and a colour change but is otherwise the same as the EOS 500D, being chunky enough for larger hands to grip and possessing an assured location when changing between modes. The ISO button is close by as well, alongside the on/off switch and adjustment dial, making it extremely simple to up the simulated film speed via the adjustment dial without moving away from the viewfinder.
The back of the EOS 550D offers a brand new layout, with the Live View button no longer sharing functionality with the Direct Print button and being far closer to the viewfinder. In its place is the Quick Control button, which turns the rear display interactive, allowing any value to be changed via the d-pad or scroll wheel. This simplistic method of altering the likes of shutter speed and aperture isn’t new to DSLRs, but is represented in a suitably basic manner for the beginner on the EOS 550D by having a large explanation at the bottom of the screen alongside the control method used to alter that value.
For those not yet comfortable with utilising the dials the Quick Control menu may be a slightly better fit, offering an instantly visual way of controlling the images without trawling through menus. Each of the buttons are reasonably recessed into the body giving it a sleek appearance without sacrificing functionality, and each is reasonably straightforward to locate without needing much familiarity with the camera. The only slight annoyance, which hinges around the menu system, is that the d-pad often doesn’t always work in a multi-directional manner instead only moving left to right, regardless of the button being pressed. This is especially apparent in the Quick Control menu options for Picture Styles and ISO. Otherwise the controls remain simple, not relying too much on menus to alter settings nor putting the functionality among a disparate set of buttons dotted around.
Fortunately the size and shape of the 550D hasn’t been overtly scaled back to adhere to the ‘compact DSLR’ trend, still possessing a reasonable-sized grip. Even better is the placement of the power switch and Live View button: both are close enough for the right hand thumb to activate without the need for the hand to be re-adjusted.
This gives the camera a far more versatile feel, as most of the important settings can be altered on the fly. This extends to the likes of the Quick Menu button, AV and Picture Styles, all of which are placed intelligently so as not to be an obstruction and barely a finger stretch away.
The weight and build of the camera is also a major benefit, as even without a lens attached the body feels as if it could survive a reasonable fall without incurring severe damage. Even the connection covers and card slot are sturdy enough to stand up to repeated use. Both locate into position in a satisfying manner, and the raised area of the card slot becomes extremely useful when trying to access the SD/SDHC card with wet hands. The small grip patches at the rear and around the front perform a similar task, making the 550D far less likely to slip in damp conditions.
Having the largest resolution in it’s range puts a far amount of pressure on the EOS 550D to comfortably blow the opposition away.
The 18MP CMOS sensor makes a fairly sizeable impression as far as file size is concerned, which had an obvious impact on the buffer, but other than the increase in potential magnification not a huge amount more is gained.
The nine-point focus system offers selectable areas across the frame, and even when swapping between these zones the focus speed remained impressively rapid and, when left to the automatic offering, was superbly quick even in low light.
Only when the live view was in use did the EOS 550D’s AF slow, as the selectable focus area took a long time to manoeuvre into the correct position using the d-pad.
The metering functionality, which almost doubles the metering points from 35 to 63, has a less obvious impact when shooting, but provides an impressively balanced exposure overall. In brighter conditions the EOS 550D successfully kept the amount of blown highlights to a minimum, even in longer exposures on a cloudy day. In fact, the exposure control was excellent in numerous situations, and the low light performance was a particularly impressive example of that. T
here was very little to pick between the higher ISO settings in terms of noise, with only an extreme amount of magnification in a photo editing program capable of showing the differentiation outside of the EXIF data. Leaving the camera on the auto ISO setting did produce some mixed results and lengthy shutter speeds, which can heavily comprimise the focus when off tripod due to camera shake, but manually upping the settings to 3200, 6400 or even the H 12,800 mark resulted in far sharper shots.
Unlike recent Micro Four Thirds models the EOS 550D isn’t overrun with preset picture modes offering such niche settings as Tilt And Shift or Pinhole, instead sticking to more traditional offerings such as Portrait and Monochrome. On the basic settings there was no evidence of over-saturation, which has occasionally blighted Canon DSLRs, and colour quality in general was impressively balanced, keeping reds in check without dulling the entire image.
The 3.7fps frames per second rate is quite impressive when in JPEG shooting, and in spite of the quoted numbers went well beyond 34 images before slowing down, slowing in pace at around the 60 images mark. Involving Raw led to a more noticeable drop in pace as the buffer quickly fills after a couple of seconds.
One of the major improvements in terms of image quality over the EOS 500D isn’t related to the stills, with the video having 24fps and 30fps frame rates available. The result is far smoother motion overall, especially when panning and recording rapid motion. Although the whirr of the AF is still noisy in terms of being picked up by the internal microphone, a directional mic at least maximises the potential for cutting out unwanted environmental noise, even if it requires the extra expense. Although not quite up to the standard of its more professionally-aimed sibling, the 5D Mk II, the video outputted by the EOS 550D was extremely impressive for the price range. See examples of video taken on the 550D, from ownes of the camera.
One stumbling blocks for the EOS 550D will be the price, as the RRP is high for a beginner-aimed DSLR. Sitting at £900 SRP with the 18-55mm kit lens, the EOS 550D is already almost £300 more than the SRP of the Nikon D5000, one of its close rivals.
For the extra cash both the increased resolution and Full HD movie mode are the only real benefits over the chasing pack, so those unfussed by the larger file size or higher quality HD video needn’t shell out the extra cash.
Comparing a number of shots and results side-by-side, the 550D does come out favourably against the competition. Those with an existing stock of Canon lenses are likely to embrace the full EOS 550D’s functionality, so the extra few hundred pounds shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
The EOS 550D is an excellent camera, offering a beginner similar specs to an EOS 7D semi-pro model at a fraction of the price. The low-light and video perfromance are a superb bonus to the excellent overall image quality.
The 18MP resolution may mainly make the files larger, but the sharpness and detail are top notch regardless. The most impressive new addition on the stills side is the 63-zone metering system, as it seems to be capable of coping with almost any lighting condition and still turn out a decent shot.
The ISO range may be verging toward unusable at 12,800, but below that the noise was minimal enough to make it difficult to tell the shots apart.
The price may be a touch high compared to it’s rivals, but the Canon EOS 550D is well worth the extra cash.
View product shots of the Canon EOS 550D
Auto, 7 presets, 1 manual preset storage, WB compensation
Yes (Remote Switch RS-60E3, Remote RC-6)
+/- 5EV in 1/3, ½, EV
5184 x 3456 pixels
3in Clear view TFT 1040k-dot
9 point (f/5.6 cross type at centre, extra sensitivity at f/2.8)
3 frames +/- 3 levels
18MP APS-C CMOS
M, A, S, P, CA
USB, HDMI, AV out, Mic-in
Rechargeable Li-ion LP –E8
128.8 x 97.3 x 62mm
JPEG, Raw, MOV (H.264)
Single, continuous, self-timer
One Shot, AI Servo, AI Focus, Manual
sRGB, Adobe RGB
View sample photos of the Canon EOS 550D