After last year's Editor's Choice, the EOS 400D, is a solid camera but one that didn't improve significantly over its predecessor, the Canon EOS 350D. The Canon ESO 450D comes as a welcome change, and a model worthy of upgrading from your old 350D. It may have a typical, uninspired body design and a modest feature set, but where it really counts -- performance and image quality -- the 450D manages to stand out from the crowd.
Canon offers the 450D in four configurations: body-only, a single-lens kit with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, a twin lens kit which adds the EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens, and an enthusiast kit which comes with the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens.
Slightly larger than the 400D, the 450D shaves 35 grams off the weight to 475 grams. Its smooth plastic body still feels a bit on the cheap side, and we're not crazy about the grip. We can't quite work out the reason why: it's not especially shallow, and Canon improved it over the 400D's with a more rubbery-feeling cover. Still, we don't find it as comfortable to hold as most other dSLRs. The larger 3-inch LCD necessitated some changes to the control layout from the 400D's, and we prefer the new over the old. Almost all the buttons lie under your right hand, and each feels slightly different so that you can grope them without looking. None require two-handed operation: when you push the button to change ISO, white balance, metering, and so on, the menu persists while you navigate the options. (For more on the camera design, click through to the photo gallery.)
The biggest operational advantage the 450D offers over competitors is My Menu, which it inherits from older models. With My Menu you can build a go-to list of the most frequently accessed menu settings -- in our case, for instance, Format and Live View settings. However, the menus can be, irritatingly, a bit inconsistent and sometimes dumb. For instance, you can change ISO sensitivity with either the dial or the navigation buttons, but can only navigate metering choices via the nav. Also, in some cases when you have two columns to navigate, as with Picture Style settings, it doesn't let you move to the right or left. It requires you to move all the way down the first column to get to the settings in the second column.
On some counts, the 450D offers some pretty nice specs, highlighted by the 12-megapixel APS-C size CMOS sensor (for Canon's traditional 1.6x focal-length multiplier) and 9-point user-selectable autofocus system. The latter wouldn't be much of a standout if Nikon hadn't dropped to three-area AF in the D60. We also mark the switch from CompactFlash to SDHC in the plus column. The camera also includes the same Highlight Tone Priority mode found in the 1D Mark III, which helps preserve detail in the brightest portion of a scene. Also, the 450D includes Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer, which automatically adjusts contrast and brightness in case the image you captured isn't quite perfect. Introduced last year in the 40D, the Auto Lighting Optimizer is now available in all exposure modes and employs face detection to prevent the underexposure of backlit faces we complained about in the 400D (it works). Remaining specifications are in line with the previous model. For example, shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/4,000 second with a flash sync speed of 1/200 second and the camera employs a 35-zone TTL metering system. Canon also offers the BG-E5 battery grip.
On the other hand, it lacks common perks Sony, Pentax, and Olympus include in their cameras, like in-body mechanical stabilisation and a wireless flash controller in the body, a feature we occasionally find quite useful. The inclusion of an image-stabilising kit lens doesn't quite compensate, since additional optically stabilised lenses tend to cost more in the long run. The 450D's sensitivity range also tops out at ISO 1600, when others routinely reach as high as ISO 3200, and a spot meter that uses a whopping 4 percent of the viewfinder -- that's even larger than the 3.8 percent we complained about for the EOS 40D. Though it offers a Live View shooting mode with contrast-detection AF, Live View's usefulness is limited without support from an articulating LCD. Furthermore, all the manufacturers seem to incorrectly think the equivalent of Canon's Picture Styles, custom contrast, sharpness saturation, and colour tone, are more important in this market segment than the ability to save groups of custom exposure, white balance, metering, drive mode settings, and so on.
Overall, in CNET Labs' tests the 450D just edges past its competitors for shooting speed. It goes from power-to-photo in a hair more than 0.2 second. At 0.5 second in good conditions, the 450D's JPEG shooting lag is a bit longer than the rest; its 1.2-seconds duration in dim conditions, while not very zippy, is about average for its class. Once focused, shot-to-shot time typically takes about 0.4 second for RAW or JPEG, and adding flash recycling time bumps it to only 0.7 second, which is very good for any class. It's also the fastest burst shooter among entry-level dSLRs, snapping 3.4 frames per second, for more than 60 JPEGs in testing. The buffer maxes out at six RAW frames, however, so you'll have to move to another class of camera if you take shooting your children's soccer games really seriously.
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Regardless of the other entries in the 450D's pro and con columns, it delivers hands-down, best-in-class photo quality, surprising given the higher-resolution sensor. It does tend to underexpose -- we rarely use exposure compensation, but bumped it up a stop for many of our shots with the 450D -- and you might need to kick the sharpness settings up a little to your taste. But its colour accuracy, dynamic range, and consistently good noise profile up to the maximum ISO 1600 clearly put this model in front of the pack. With both built-in and external flash, as well as without, it delivered even exposures, and the lenses rendered extremely good edge-to-edge sharpness.
Though it'll run you a few bucks more than competitors such as the Sony Alpha DSLR-A200 or the Nikon D60, the Canon EOS 450D will deliver slightly better performance and noticeably better photo quality in return, making it a worthwhile trade-off.