Canon EOS 550D £799.99
19th Mar 2010 | 11:53
18MP sensor and full HD movie mode at a keen price - so what is the catch?
Canon EOS 550D: Overview
The Canon EOS 550D is not quite Canon's highest-spec'd consumer digital SLR, but it still packs a mighty punch.
For example, the EOS 550D packs in more megapixels than the EOS 50D (18Mp versus 15.1) and offers more sophisticated HD video features, with the ability to manually control exposure.
Of course, Canon is not Father Christmas, so you're not getting an EOS 7D on the cheap here.
The 550D lacks the 7D's bullet-proof alloy construction and lags behind in the speed stakes. While the EOS 550D can shoot at 3.7 frames per second in Continuous Shooting Mode, it's restricted to 34 JPEG images, or six RAW files – so sports and action photographers might want to look elsewhere.
But don't get us wrong; while the EOS 550D is not a professional-spec SLR, the keen photographer will still get a lot of bang for their buck.
This is an ideal DSLR for the serious amateur or somebody wanting to upgrade from an entry level model.
The 550D also puts a lot of pressure on Nikon to respond in kind; the Nikon D300s, while a sturdy and impressive stills SLR, lacks the megapixel count and the sophisticated HD movie options of the EOS 550D – and a D300s with kit lens will cost you several hundred quid more than the Canon.
Then there's the Nikon D90, but again it's looking a bit dated compared to the EOS 550D.
That said, the 550D still appears to have more sophisticated HD video-editing functions than either of these Micro Four Thirds hybrids. Conventional DSLR lenses tend to be cheaper too, and come in more flavours.
The feather in the EOS 550D's cap is that it offers full HD mode, rather than just standard HD – 1,920 x 1,080 pixels versus 1,280 x 720.
And as you'd expect the EOS 550D works with the full range of EOS lenses. Just as well, as the supplied kit lens is a bit of a let down, but more on this later.
Canon EOS 550D: Features
Despite lacking the tough alloy frame of the 7D, the build quality of the EOS 550D is pretty good.
The plastic chassis manages to feel stiff and sturdy without being heavy, and the EOS 550D is certainly lighter and easier to lug around than a more pro-spec'd camera.
The ergonomics and menu layout are generally good too. The three-inch rear LCD is easy to read and manipulate in all but the poorest light, coming as it does with a resolution of 1,040,000 pixels.
This rear LCD is also a big help when recording and previewing moves in Live View mode. The top viewfinder is a bit small in comparison to the rear LCD; we had to squint through it a bit, and it's not the greatest aid to composition if, like this reviewer, you are cursed with a big nose.
Otherwise the various dials and buttons are well laid out and easy to manipulate, and it's nice to have a dedicated ISO button.
The EOS 550D strikes the perfect balance between the ease of use of an entry level Canon SLR and a more pro-spec'd model like the 7D; we're impressed.
The top mode dial looks a bit crowded, mainly because Canon's still insisting on squeezing on all those dumbed-down exposure presets that you get on beginner DSLRs (portrait, landscape, and so on). We reckon the boffins have got room for about three more icons before the whole wheel fills up!
It's not a big problem, but the clutter makes it easy to fail to notice the movie mode icon at the end and the extra CA (Creative Auto) mode, introduced with the EOS 50D.
Canon EOS 550D: Image and video quality
So we've mentioned the 18-megapixel sensor, but what difference does this make to the camera in practice?
While it's an APS C-CMOS sensor rather than full-frame, it's an impressive piece of circuitry.
Detail and resolution are really up there and although you probably don't 'need' a couple of extra million pixels on an amateur DSLR, it's still good to have all that power on tap.
Just remember that to make the most of all that extra sensor resolution you'll need to shoot in RAW, and get some extra lenses. The EOS 550D will typically be sold in a kit with an 18-55mm IS lens, as with our review sample, and this lens doesn't do the rest of the camera justice.
It's OK as an every-day lens when you've left your camera bag at home, and focuses quickly and quietly, but you do notice some distortion – edge definition could be better and there's some chromatic aberration.
You really need a couple of extra lenses, for example a wide angle and telephoto/superzoom, to enable the EOS 550D to reach its full potential.
Cough up for some good glass and you'll be rewarded with some lovely images from this camera. Shooting in RAW is important too, as JPEGs taken with EOS DSLRs tend to be on the soft side – this is not just a quirk of the EOS 550D, it's a characteristic of Canon DSLRs across the board.
Allied to the beefy sensor is the powerful ISO performance. High ISOs are hardly headline news on consumer DSLRs these days, but the EOS 550D really does score 10 out of 10 in this area.
As our test shots reveal, ISO 800 and 1600 are perfectly usable on a day to day basis.
This is actually saying a hell of a lot, and it shows just how much Canon's light sensitivity technology has progressed over the last few years.
ISO 1600...See full-res test image
You're pushing it at ISO 6400, but considering the EOS 550D gives you a chunk of change from a grand, it's an astonishingly good performance. Noise is really well controlled throughout the range and colours only start to smear when you push the ISO to the kind of extreme levels that you rarely need to resort to.
ISO 3200...See full-res test image
We're impressed, as being able to ramp up the ISO without worrying about ugly noise gives you so much more flexibility – not only in terms of light sensitivity but also in terms of getting faster shutter speeds.
Canon's really thrown the gauntlet down to its rivals here and the EOS 550D makes the (more expensive) Nikon D300s look like yesterday's camera when it comes to ISO.
In terms of exposure and metering, there's plenty to commend too. As mentioned, you must shoot in RAW to get maximum detail, tonality and crispness from your shots, but changing from JPEG to RAW (or JPEG and RAW) is child's play on the EOS 550D – it's a very logical and well-laid-out camera.
The 550D includes something called iFCL metering, which also appears on the semi-pro EOS 7D.
Without getting too technical, iFCL is based on a 63 zone dual-layer sensor designed to complement the 19-point AF.
By taking into account the colour and luminosity surrounding chosen AF points, the new system claims to deliver more accurate exposures, even in difficult lighting situations.
Since the metering sensor has a colour measurement function, exposure errors and focus errors caused by different light sources are minimized.
Canon claims this makes iFCL-equipped SLRs ideal for scenes with extreme difference in brightness such as brightly lit scenes or backlit scenes; the camera balances exposure of the main subject at the background, and exposures are not overly influenced by bright areas in the shot.
As with a lot of this hyped-up technology, it was hard to see a huge difference in day-to-day camera performance, but there's no doubt that our EOS 550D coped well with brightly lit scenes. Not that there was a huge amount wrong with the EOS metering system anyway, and so long as you get some extra lenses and shoot in RAW you'll be more than happy with the images produced by this camera.
Another big selling point of this camera is the enhanced HD movie recording mode.
While it's great to be able to shoot in full, rather than standard HD mode, and manually adjust exposure, it's not perfect.
It can take the contrast detect autofocus a while to lock onto the subject, and it doesn't feel as quite as slick and polished as the HD movie recording on comparatively priced Panasonic cameras, for example.
As our test movie reveals, the quality of the HD movies recording is impressive, with accurate colour rendition and motion tracking.
Canon EOS 550D: Verdict
Even though it was only announced fairly recently, we're already seeing the EOS 550D discounted to around £740 with the 18-55mm kit lens, which makes it an extremely good buy.
While the lens is pretty basic, the camera itself is built to an extremely high standard, and is replete with helpful features that you normally only get on DSLRs costing several hundred pounds more. Remember also that the camera will be available with a range of lenses, so you are not just restricted to the 18-55mm kit lens.
It's worth buying the EOS 550D just for the astonishingly good high ISO performance and sophisticated full HD movie recording; throw in cutting-edge metering and a quality 18-megapixel sensor capable of recording exquisitely detailed shots, and you've got a killer deal.
While the EOS 550D is a great upgrade from an entry level DSLR, it would also make a great first SLR, as it's very easy to use. Considering how much camera you're getting for the money, we predict it will convince a lot of Nikon and Sony DSLR users to make the switch.
The lens is a let down after the camera, but you can't have everything for just over £700.
It's not necessarily a bad lens, just cheap and basic, and it doesn't do the rest of the camera justice. Apart from this we're struggling to come up with many downsides.
OK, HD movie recording could be slicker, the top dial has more icons than a Greek Orthodox church and the optical viewfinder is cramped, but these are niggles rather than deal breakers.
The EOS 550D is something of a triumph. Shoot in RAW, invest in some decent back-up lenses and spend time studying the various exposure modes and options, and the EOS 550D will reward you with pro-quality images at a mass-market price.
And you'll be able to record quality HD home movies too. What's not to like?