Canon EOS 550D Review

Canon 550D Review: Canon’s latest consumer DSLR sounds a killer, with specs like an 18MP sensor and full HD Movie mode – but is it equally as impressive in action?

The EOS 550D joins the Canon range as its latest consumer digital SLR. It sits just below the Canon 60D and professionally orientated 7D, but shares many of the latter’s exciting features, including the 18MP sensor and full HD Movie mode. Although the Canon 550D is strictly part of Canon’s ‘amateur’ range, it’s a powerful camera. It even has the manual exposure controls found in the 7D’s Movie mode, a feature missing on most rival D-SLRs. Find out more in our Canon 550D review.

What it doesn’t have is the 7D’s hefty alloy construction and eight frames per second (fps) Continuous Shooting mode. The 550D can manage 3.7fps, which isn’t bad, but can only keep it up for 6 RAW files or 34 JPEGs, which is somewhat disappointing. Even so, the 550D offers a lot for the money.

Canon EOS 550D key features

There’s that impressive 18MP sensor, for a start. Just to put this into perspective, that’s 50% more than the 12Mps of rival Nikon DSLRs, and around 23% more than the best that Pentax and Sony can offer. Do these extra megapixels count towards extra real-world definition, though? Read on to find out…

The HD Movie mode is a step above Nikon’s – and Pentax’s too. You get full HD rather than standard (1920×1080 pixels instead of 1280×720), manual controls and a choice of frame rates. This could prove crucial if you need to export to different broadcast standards. The 550D also has an external microphone socket for more professional sound recording and a 7x ‘Movie Crop’ function that uses a 640×480 pixel area in the centre of the sensor.

It’s like a 7x digital zoom, although of course the quality of images is reduced. Canon’s also gone for a super-high ISO 6400 rating with this camera (or 12800 in Expanded mode). Normally, high resolutions and high ISOs don’t mix, but Canon’s latest sensor has sophisticated on-chip noise reduction circuitry, so it’s especially interesting to see how this works out.

The iFCL metering system first used on the 7D turns up here, too. It uses a 63-zone dual-layer sensor and focus, colour and luminance information to work out the best exposure. The two layers are used to combat the oversensitivity of most metering systems to red (leading to exposure errors) and the focus information is used to work out the distance of the subject and apply suitable exposure weighting.

Canon EOS 550D handling

In use, the 550D doesn’t have the solidity of the alloy-bodied 7D, but its size and weight make it more portable. The refreshed control layout is very good indeed. The external buttons are larger, with clearer icons, and they’re supplemented by an interactive Quick Control screen that displays the camera settings and enables you to select and change them directly. Is this feature necessary? Possibly not, because the external controls on this camera make everyday settings such as ISO, White Balance, Drive mode and EV compensation easy to apply.

Canon’s EOS cameras have always offered extremely efficient control layouts and they just seem to get better and better. The only quibble with this one is that the control dial on the top of the camera isn’t used consistently. It’ll scroll quickly through the options if you press any of the external buttons to change the settings, and you use it to adjust the shutter speed or lens aperture, but it’s not used during menu navigation.

The menus themselves are extremely good. They use a clear, attractive typeface and a very efficient navigation system, in which the left/right buttons select the menu tab and the up/down buttons select options on each menu. Even the buttons are great. Canon hasn’t used a conventional four-way navipad and has resisted any urge to incorporate a spinning dial around the outside (seen on many of its compacts). The controls are much better as a result. The buttons have a precise, positive feel, and mistakes are rare.

The viewfinder’s not the largest, but it’s bright, clear and crisp. The AF points show up clearly, and the 18-55mm kit lens’s USM focusing is as quick and quiet. It has a short zoom travel too, though in other respects this lens is clearly built down to a budget. The front element rotates during focusing, which makes using filters tricky, and there’s no distance scale on the focus ring.

Canon EOS 550D LCD screen quality

Around the back, there’s an excellent 3-inch LCD with a resolution of 1,040,000 pixels. This makes it exceptionally sharp, and perfect for playing back photos and composing stills and movies in Live View mode.

Good as it is, this Live View mode does have weaknesses. The contrast detection autofocus is slow, sometimes taking a couple of seconds of clunking and shunting before it locks on to the subject, even in good light, and Canon’s HD Movie mode lacks the fast, full-time autofocus found on Panasonic’s GH1.

What really counts, though, is picture quality, and here the results are mixed. The Canon doesn’t really make its extra resolution count to any great degree, for two reasons. First, the camera’s JPEGs look a little softer than its RAW files, and this was borne out by a quick test with an ISO standard resolution test chart.

RAW files processed in Digital Photo Professional do show more detail at a pixel level. This is an annoying property of Canon’s consumer SLRs – you don’t get their full definition if you shoot JPEGs. Second, Canon’s 18-55mm IS kit lens isn’t terribly good. A combination of weak edge definition, distortion and chromatic aberration undo a lot of the good work done by the sensor. If you want to make the most of this camera, you may want to think about buying a better lens.

There are good points, though. At high ISOs the quality is exceptional. Whatever Canon’s done with the sensor, it’s paid dividends. While the quality at ISO 6400 deteriorates, you could use it at 1600 and 3200 without hesitation. The movie quality is excellent, too. The 550D needs to be used with a bit more care than the typical point-and-shoot camcorder, but it repays this effort with super-sharp footage that makes you realise the step up to full HD really is worth it.

The 550D’s kit lens and JPEG processing don’t make the most of its 18 million pixels, and an articulating LCD and fast Live View focusing would improve it still further. Nevertheless, this is clearly Canon’s best consumer DSLR yet.

Canon EOS 550D sample shots: