Sunday, March 23, 2014

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (100D) Review


2014 is still young as this is being written, but already its clear that this will be remembered as a particularly difficult year for the camera industry. The higher end of the market, dominated by DSLR's, has been more economically solid than the inexpensive compact camera side of the market. However, both Canon and Nikon have been looking anxiously at the mirrorless segment, and both have made small steps towards competing with this rising segment of the market. The EOS SL1 (EOS 100D) is one attempt by Canon to combat the likes of the Sony NEX and Fujifilm X systems. In one aspect, the SL1 is a design success, as it is indisputably the smallest APS-C DSLR available on the market. It's small, lightweight and has a little bit more design flair than its EOS Rebel siblings. The question then, is it just another DSLR in shrink-wrap, or is it a credible mirrorless fighter?

Design and Operation


Most of the EOS Rebel line has a utilitarian aesthetic. It would be unfair to describe the physical appear of cameras such as the T3i or the T5i as "budget" merely because they are affordable DSLR's, but the SL1, though familial, has a bit more of an ambitious design aesthetic. The shrunken-down form factor has produced a more svelt but sculpted version of the typical Canon design language. The camera is quite sophisticated in terms of construction. It uses a metal frame with a polycarbonate/fiberglass/carbon fiber shell. The external composite material has a slightly different feel and texture that sets it apart form the other EOS Rebel cameras.

The SL1 is related to the EOS M, and shares a similar 18mp hybrid-AF sensor and image processor (also shared with the T5i). This was the second version of this sensor; the EOS M in particular had a very lukewarm reception in North America, and part of that was down to its inconsistent and slow autofocus system. On the SL1, that is less of an issue, as it maintains the classic strength of a DSLR, namely fast through-the-viewfinder phase detection AF. In other words, in live view the focus is slow for a modern mirrorless camera, but relatively quick for a DSLR. The phase detection units cover approximately 80% of the sensor area. This not only aids with focus acquisition speed, but also with tracking performance during still photography in live view and while recording video.

Canon SL1 and 18-55mm STM kit lens

Other than the diminutive overall size of the body, a key defining feature of the SL1 is the shape of the grip, which is much more sculpted than with the other EOS Rebel models and which has a higher-quality mesh-like textured finish on which to wrap your fingers around. The top of the grip forms a pronounced ledge on which the shutter button rests. The grip will feel small for men of larger build, but men of average build and most women will be able to use the SL1 in relative comfort. This isn't like holding a larger camera  where you can just absent mindedly clutch the right side of the camera with a "power-grasp." Handling the SL1 merely requires a "precision-pinch" as there is not much weight to lug around.

Canon avoided the temptation to dumb-down the SL1 control layout simply because it is a smaller body, something that occurs frequently in camera design. The controls on the top of the camera are the same as the T5i. The only functional difference is that there is no stereo microphone, only a single mono port.

Small but sculpted grip.

The rear LCD screen is 3" in diagonal. The display is the  same unit on the T5i, but it lacks the swivel feature; ostensibly, its exclusion saves space on an already small camera body. The screen has capacitive touch capabilities, meaning that not only can you touch to navigate, but you can also touch to focus/shoot as well. An on-going Canon virtue is that there is ample room on the back of the camera to rest your thumb, and the SL1 is no exception. Camera operation is generally a simple affair; even advanced users will appreciate the simplicity of control layout. Nikon users have long bemoaned the lack of a true digital version of the spartan and pure FM2 film camera; this is the closest Canon DSLR to that concept.


There is no built-in Wi-Fi capability, nor is there an optimal Wi-Fi unit to attach to the camera. This is an unfortunate omission in a camera that ostensibly caters to those stepping up from smartphones and the connectivity that they represent. A more frustrating omission is the lack of an automatic panorama mode; again, this is a feature that is prevalent in all modern smartphone operating systems.  

The included kit lens is the EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 IS STM. "STM" denotes the use of stepper motors to drive the autofocus mechanism. Compared to the USM (ultrasonic motor) lenses, STM lenses are a tad bit slower, but are quieter and focus with smoother motion. This makes for good general purpose usage, but it especially makes them good for video use, as there is less noise during operation to interfere with the audio recording. This is a light weight lens that does feel inexpensive, but its operation is competent and lacks for nothing that the typical user of this camera would want. A downside is that the lens is long relative to the size of the camera body. The problem with optics is that you can shrink the size of the camera, but you can't shrink the size of the lenses if you want to maintain mount compatibility.


The hybrid autofocus system on the SL1 was tuned to work with STM lenses. When using non-STM lenses, focus performance suffers a bit in live-view and continuous focusing during video mode. Oftentimes, much is made of how fast a camera focuses, but it's the combination of camera and lens that determines the overall performance, and that is certainly true here.

Image Quality


A common criticism of the entry level Canon DSLR's is that their sensor technology is lagging behind the competition. Though it is unfair to say that the 18mp sensors have not been updated throughout all of this time, there is truth to the fact that they are competent but not class-leading. Nikon is solidly into the 24mp era and has managed to do so with low noise and high dynamic range. However, even though a comparable Nikon D3200 has 50% more pixels, that is only the equivalent of 22% more in terms of linear resolution. To put that into perspective, the human can just barely see a 10% increase in linear resolution; 20% is visible, but not significantly so. The following is an ad hoc test subjective of the SL1's ISO capabilities and dynamic range. Watch for how the detail in the bottoms is rendered as the ISO increases. Dynamic range is indicated by the increasing harshness of the highlights and reflections inside the refrigerator.

ISO 100
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

For most people, the comfort level of the SL1 will be roughly until ISO 1600: the impact on image quality won't be critically important at small reproduction sizes and web viewing. Even ISO 3200 is usable, though there is a palpable grain with the image and a loss of colour saturation. ISO 6400 is best used only for emergencies. As an entry level camera, the fact that the image quality is not state-of-the art is not as pertinent as it would be on an advanced-enthusiast camera; the SL1 produces images vastly better than what first-time DSLR users are used to.

Comparisons

 

Canon EOS SL1/100D vs. T5i/700D and T3i/600D


When it was first introduced, the SL1 was something off the beaten path for the entry-level Canon DSLR's. While it offered something distinctly different in terms of size and portability, it was initially priced at a higher cost/feature level than either of the T3i or the T5i cameras that flanked it in terms of price. In other words, if cost was the biggest consideration, then the T3i was clearly the front runner. Likewise, the T5i did not cost significantly more than the SL1, but has more features. In other words, the SL1 was caught in a no man's land price-point-wise. As time passed, the SL1 became a more reasonable purchase after the 2013 Christmas season. With the eventual passing of the T3i in favour of the stripped-down T5, the product positioning of the SL1 makes better sense in the spring of 2014.

Left to right: Canon SL1, T3i and T5i

Canon EOS SL1/100D vs. Mirror-less Cameras


With the slow demise of the EOS M in North America, the SL1 is Canon's de facto mirrorless fighter. Performance-wise, it is more than a match for the middle-weight mirrorless offerings like the Fujifilm X-M1, Sony NEX-5T or Olympus E-PL5. Though the SL1 is larger than all of these competitors, it is not significantly larger or heavier, and will pretty much fit in a similarly-sized camera bag. As a DSLR, the SL1 is superior to almost all of the mirrorless cameras when it comes to focusing on moving subjects... provided that you use the viewfinder to frame and focus rather than the rear LCD. Again, reducing use of the rear LCD helps with the battery life, and a DSLR like the SL1 will get roughly twice the number of shots per battery charge that a comparable mirrorless camera would be capable of.

With Canon (and Nikon), you have the benefit of a large number of first and third-party lenses to choose from. However, not all of those lenses will handle well on the SL1 due to its small size. That said, the 18-55mm STM kit lens is wonderfully smooth and quiet. It is physically long  for a DSLR kit lens, though. This is a camera that would benefit from a collapsible lens like those found on the Nikon D3300 or the Olympus PEN cameras.  However, the SL1 becomes an astonishing small device when it is paired with the 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens.

Canon SL1 and Fujifilm X-M1

Concluding Thoughts


Even though the future of the camera industry looks like it will be increasingly mirror-less, there are still good reasons to choose an entry-level DSLR. The SL1 embodies those virtues; it's quick and responsive while making a nod towards the shift of the consumer end of the DSLR market towards smaller and lighter devices. It's not a perfect device, and neither is it perfect for all people as there are some that will most definitely find it to be too small. 


In that regard, the SL1 is curiously self-defeating. Because it is so small, it doesn't handle as well as the T5i or larger Canon DSLR's when it's paired with longer/larger lenses. This is a machine that plays well with short zooms and primes; that's also a characteristic of the mirrorless camera segment with which the SL1 competes. What this means is that the SL1 is not necessarily the best DSLR to grow with, but it is a good camera to use if immediacy and spontaneity are priorities. There are a lot of virtues to the EOS SL1, but those virtues are a bit clearer for some users compared to others.



With thanks to Broadway Camera

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