Photographers, something is happening in the state of Canon.
We'll blame it on the 5D Mark II which showed that video really could be done well on a digital SLR. The 550D shows off the best out-of-the-box implementation of HD video recording on an SLR yet (without a myriad of firmware updates), and we're pretty excited.
Design and features
Following hot on the heels of the EOS 500D, Canon's (former) top-of-the-line consumer digital SLR, the 550D, certainly looks and feels very similar to its predecessor. The body shape and external appearance is almost identical, with the notable distinction of the front insignia and some extra buttons around the back of the camera.
The back of the 550D shows the addition of the Live View button, as well as the quick control button that can access the on-screen shooting functions. (Credit: Canon)
In the hand, the 550D feels sturdy and secure, though those with larger paws may find the controls a little too nimble, and the body a little too light. At the top of the camera, the mode dial contains all the requisite scene modes that are suitable for beginners, the Creative Auto mode, as well as PASM controls. Finally, at the far end of the dial is movie mode, the big calling card of this camera.
Video on the 550D comes courtesy of 1080p recording, at a selectable 24, 25 or 30 frames per second. As well as full manual control within the camera, there is also a dedicated video record button at the rear which automatically activates Live View.
As part of the video functionality, the 550D is also equipped with something that Canon is calling movie crop mode. It takes the centre portion of the image and zooms in using the full resolution of the sensor to deliver a VGA quality clip that's equivalent to 7x zoom.
Inside, the 550D contains an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor and the Digic 4 processor. And while it may be tempting to say that there are many similarities between the 550D and 7D, the latter camera is equipped with dual-Digic 4's that afford it an incredible burst speed. The 550D has to make do with a more pedestrian-like 3.7 frames per second (fps), which is just a touch ahead of the 3.4fps from the 500D. The 550D is also not built to the same standard as the 7D.
The 550D does have a few other tricks up its sleeve though, mostly to do with the LCD screen, as it's a 3-inch, 3:2 aspect ratio, 1,040,000-dot one. The viewfinder is relatively small, just like the 500D which makes manual focusing a little more difficult. Fortunately, the screen and the Live View implementation helps with this enormously.
Click the image above to see our hands-on gallery of shots taken with the Canon EOS 550D. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
It's also compatible with SDXC cards, along with the more run-of-the-mill SD/SDHC. We did experience a bit of trouble with removing one particular SDHC card from the slot; it became stuck and had to be pulled rather than pushed in to pop out. We couldn't replicate this issue with any other card so it's safe to assume that it was an issue with this particular card that was supplied with the camera.
Under the accessories port flap, the 550D is equipped with a stereo microphone jack, alongside the standard AV out, HDMI and remote shutter ports. The 550D can accept EF-S and EF lenses, but with EF lenses the focal length will be altered according to the camera's crop factor (which in this instance is 1.6x). For a full explanation of crop factor, please visit our Learning Centre article.
The external microphone jack is hidden underneath this rubberised flap on the side of the camera. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
There's also this feature called Auto Lighting Optimiser which acts a little like Nikon's D-Lighting, which aims to increase detail in shadow areas while not blowing out highlight areas. It is now more easy to access on the 550D, and comes in three levels of intensity.
The three levels of Auto Lighting Optimiser on the Canon EOS 550D are low, standard and strong. There is also an option to turn off the optimiser. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
The 550D also has up to +/-5 exposure values to choose from which is pretty impressive for a digital SLR of its class. Unfortunately, Canon has not chosen to allow users to select from different RAW recording sizes.
The extent of exposure values on the 550D. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
The 550D is a nimble performer just like the 500D before it. Using a class 6 SDHC card, the camera starts up and takes its first shot within 0.3 second. Shutter lag without prefocusing the lens measures 0.2 second; using the 18-135mm lens, the 550D was able to seek and find focus within 0.3 second in adequate light.
In continuous shooting mode the camera eked out 12 shots in high quality JPEG before coming to a halt to process them, averaging 3.2 frames per second. In RAW, it managed 6 frames before buffering in the space of 1.6 seconds, which inches just over 4 frames per second.
We conducted image tests with the EF-S 18-135mm lens as provided to us for review (and available in the Super kit configuration) and an EF 50mm f/1.4 lens.
Overall, in real-world situations the 550D performs very well, just like the 500D before it. Given the sensor is roughly equivalent in resolution as the 7D's (though not the same), image quality was quite similar. JPEG processing appears to be slightly different with an emphasis on slightly more saturated colours in the 550D. Again like the 500D there was a tendency to blow out highlights and overexpose tricky lighting situations despite Auto Lighting Optimiser.
The levels on the Auto Lighting Optimiser are all quite subtle in real-world situations, but there is a marked difference between each level in studio or controlled lighting situations, where the camera tends to oversaturate colours. (Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
RAW vs. JPEG studio tests
All RAW images were converted using Canon's Digital Photo Professional and saved using Photoshop's Save For Web settings at 80 per cent quality. All JPEG images were taken with Auto Lighting Optimiser set to standard, and saved with Photoshop's Save For Web function in the same manner as the RAW files.
Firstly is our standard comparison of RAW vs. JPEG at ISO 100. As you can see, the images are very similar, right down to the same colours, which is expected. The RAW image is slightly less sharp as no sharpening was applied in post-processing, as opposed to the default JPEG sharpening that happens in-camera.
(Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
Next, to see how the 550D deals with in-camera noise reduction, the ISO sensitivity hits 1600 as JPEG and RAW shots are again compared. Noise reduction in RAW processing has been set to 0 in order to give an indication of the standard noise reduction applied in JPEG processing.
(Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
At ISO 6400, the 550D produces a significant amount of chrominance noise which is to be expected given the density of pixels on the sensor. Here's an example (at 100 per cent magnification) of ISO 6400 as shot on JPEG with standard noise reduction applied.
(Credit: Alexandra Savvides/CNET Australia)
The 550D, like earlier cameras before it, still takes its time to hunt for focus in Live View. The camera supports focusing in video mode by pressing the shutter halfway, like the action for taking a still photo. The video quality is very good and displayed accurate colours, while the higher resolution LCD screen makes manual focusing and reviewing much easier. Video taken in movie crop mode is adequate and, we daresay, useful for those without the reach of a telephoto lens, but the VGA quality makes it relatively restricted in its use; whether it's web or computer playback. The 550D can record up to 4GB of continuous video, or a maximum of 29 minutes and 59 seconds, in .MOV format encoded in H.264.
There are now nine EOS cameras in the Canon dSLR range, and the 550D sits at the top of the enthusiast section, above the 500D, 450D and entry-level 1000D. It is available in a variety of kit configurations: body only (AU$1349), Single IS (with EF-S 18-55mm, AU$1499), Twin IS (18-55mm and 55-250mm, AU$1849), Super (EF-S 18-135mm, AU$2149) and Premium (EF-S 18-200mm, AU$2349).
While there are arguably too many megapixels for a consumer-level camera, the video capabilities of the 550D make it an ideal tool for those wanting to dabble in videography without too much of an investment in a more professional digital SLR. The camera's still image quality is fortunately up to scratch too, making it an excellent camera for the price.