Canon 550D - Personal Review

canon 550D 20mm f2.8

I've had this camera for 2 days now and done extensive tests with it both for video and stills. Plus yesterday it got taken out on a "real world" shoot, to the Cotswolds.

First the negatives. These are mainly to do with the body. As expected it looks and feels very lightweight and "plastic". I really don't like the design and it sits pretty uncomfortably in my hand. I would imagine someone with large hands would struggle with it. However it is nice and light and in practice I didn't have any problems with it. Some of the controls feel a little flimsy. All in all its pretty much what I was expecting. My experiences of this level of camera from Canon indicated that it would be like this and its no better or worse than the cameras I have used before - 350D, 400D, 500D.

End of negatives.

canon 550D 85mm f1.8

VIDEO.

Full HD, full manual control, which is very easy to set up. B & I gave it a good test, including shooting at ISO 6400. Incredible performance all round. We compared it to the 5DMkII and really couldn't see a difference. 1080 at 25fps and 24fps was superb, as was 720 at 50fps. Anyone who has used DSLR video will know of the limitations that you have to work under. No continuous AF, short recording time etc. but these were known beforehand and for the way that we work and our particular requirements, it will be an incredibly useful addition.
In many ways the Panasonic GH1 has advantages in real world use, not least the articulated screen, and is a lot easier to use, but the 550D performs really well.
Having never used a 7D I am unable to offer any comparison with that, but in comparison with the 5DMkII it is only that cameras high ISO performance that surpasses it.

NOISE

This leads me on to one of the real bonuses of the camera. When the camera was announced I was very impressed by the high ISO results I saw. In reality it is just as impressive. I didn't believe that it was possible to get this level of quality out of an APS-C sensor. Certainly every other camera of that type that I have used, hasn't come close to this. I took some shots at ISO12,800 !!!! to see what they were like, and compared them with some shots I had taken at this setting with a Nikon D3, a couple of years ago. I was hard pressed to see any difference. To be honest both images were fairly terrible, and would need an awful lot of work to get them looking usable. For me the best camera I've used at high ISO's is the 5DMkII. I've always thought it better than either the Nikon D3 or D700, both of which I've used extensively.
The 550D is very useable at ISO1600 and with some post-production noise reduction work at ISO3200 and even ISO6400, though I'd prefer to avoid the latter if possible. It is however really extraordinary to get these levels of performance out of this size sensor. Remember that Canon use a 1.6x crop not 1.5x as do most of the other manufacturers.
I would use this camera at a wedding or indoor event with no hesitation. Combined with my F1.8 lenses I would have lots of leeway. I've rarely shot higher than ISO3200 with the 5DMkII, and if light levels are that bad, I use a tripod and/or flashgun. (Remember those!!) Incidentally the 550D performed really well with a 580EX Mark II flash.

REAL WORLD TEST.

For the most part, my photographic work consists of outdoor work in good light. This is where I've always had issues in the past with Canon cameras. I've found them to be a little lacking in colour, contrast, sharpness and overall oomph! (Technical term there) I've always had problems with the 5DMkII for example and have been reluctant to use it for landscape work, as it requires a lot of photoshop work to get the look I like. Other cameras, such as my Leica, m4/3 cameras and the D3X I had were all much better at providing me with good punchy raw files. I was however impressed with the performance of the Canon 500D and thought it an improvement.

The 550D takes this further. I never ever thought I would say this about a Canon camera, but the 550D files are wonderful. Really beautiful, with gorgeous colour, clean shadows, smooth but punchy contrast and really, really sharp. Straight out of the camera. I was surprised, as this was much better than I was expecting. Yes I had wonderful light to work with, but I've had wonderful light with my 5DMkII and never got results like this. The 550D resolution is excellent, and has that wonderful effect that the more you zoom in on the screen, the better the image looks. At 100% in Photoshop the files are really pleasing to look at. I actually prefer the results from this camera to the D3X I used, and they are only surpassed (just) by my Leica M9. A really remarkable result.

canon 550D 28mm f1.8

canon 550D 50mm f1.8

SOME THOUGHTS

I was beginning to think that DSLR's, apart from certain specific uses, were becoming redundant for me. For the landscape work that I (we) do, other lighter, smaller cameras were the ones that I wanted to use. Leica and m4/3 had become my chosen tools. This camera has thrown me. Just when I thought I had everything sorted! I never expected it to be this good. I was expecting a good solid performer in an ugly body that would sit on the substitutes bench waiting for its turn. I was completely unprepared for this level of performance.

My initial thoughts are what do other camera manufacturers do now? Canon sensor technology is obviously so far ahead of everybody else, how do the others catch up? This sensor has the same pixel density as the Panasonic m4/3 one used in all the Lumix and Olympus cameras. The Canon is way better in terms of noise at high ISO's and significantly better for me in terms of resolution, colour and contrast. As I indicated I prefer my results from this over a D3X. All this in a camera that costs £700. (Its already being discounted) Canon don't need me to help their sales. The 500D was the worlds best selling camera, and this will surely follow suit.

It will take me a while to work out what this means for the equipment I use. It certainly changes things.
Watch this space.

Words - D
Images - D & A