It's good to be back, a review of the Canon XSi
My first DSLR was a Canon. More precisely, the original Canon Rebel. Wow! I still remember how cool it was to start shooting digital photography. After a couple of years with Canon I took a 'leap of faith' to the Nikon brand. When testing the XSi, I have to admit it was a lot of fun shooting with a Canon again. And boy, Canon's entry-level cameras sure have come a long way since then.
So what's so great about the Canon XSi?
Most people buying the XSi will come from a point and shoot camera and probably at first find the DSLR somewhat larger and heavier. Myself (shooting with a full frame camera, larger lens and often time an external flash attached) on the other hand is finding the lightweight body a bliss to shoot with. The point being, instead of focusing how heavy shooting with a DSLR is over a pocket camera, enjoy the fact that you will most likely not shoot so lightweight again (after adding bigger lenses, flash, etc.).
When testing the camera, I would often just bring the camera and kit lens. No bag, no neck strap, just carry it in my hand and shoot away. It was quite comfortable to hold for extended periods with a large groove for the middle finger to rest, and the index finger naturally placed on top of the shutter button. The only minor grievance being that, despite quite comfortable, I wish Canon had made the body slightly more rounded. The camera is a bit on the boxy side with a potential of being made even more comfortable.
Inherently, all camera manufacturers have their own approach to button layout and functionality. Which one you end up preferring is in the end a mix of coincidence and personal choice depending on shooting style. Normally, I shoot with Nikon, so it took some shots before I got used the the Canon layout. Once you have familiarized (or studied the manual, which I didn't do) with the layout there is a lot to like. All the main shooting settings are accessible from the back or top of camera. By pressing a button, say ISO, the setting is activated and can be changed with either the top wheel or four way selector on the back. No need to keep holding down the button. Just press and select. Very clever!
All the settings are nicely presented on the back LCD when not reviewing images. But as soon as you bring your eye up to the viewfinder, a sensor turns off the back LCD. Great implementation preventing the bright screen shining in your eyes, especially useful under darker shooting conditions.
This is what it is really all about, right? The quality. Rest assured, the XSi's 12MP sensor produces great image quality. Even at higher ISO settings, the images come out perfectly usable. The camera has a maximum ISO of 1600, but to perfectly honest I cannot see what kept Canon from a technical standpoint from including ISO 3200 or even 6400, as found in other entry level cameras.
The only flaw I came across when shooting was a consistent underexposure by the metering system. I had to dial in between 1/3 to 2/3 of overexposure to get correctly exposed shots. Something easily corrected, so not a huge deal.
The lenses and focus
Entry level cameras typically come coupled with a 18-55mm kit lens. As a bonus, the XSi comes coupled with a stabilized (IS) version of the 18-55mm lens. Super! In 35mm equivalent terms that corresponds roughly to 28-85mm which is a standard walk-around zoom range. Until recently, the kit lens included was 'just' a plain-jane 18-55mm lens, but now Nikon and Canon in most cases include a stabilized (IS/VR) lens. A great win for the first-time DSLR buyer. It should be noted that entry level cameras from Pentax and Sony also come with a 18-55mm kit lens, but the lens is non-stabilized as both camera manufacturers build in the stabilization in the body.
Along with the added stabilization, the kit lenses have generally gotten a boost upwards in terms of performance, such as sharpness and contrast. Overall, a great lens to start with. But hopefully at some point you will outgrow the lens and be looking for something else.
A very good candidate is the 50mm f1.8 lens which I coincidently tested with the Canon XSi. The 50mm f1.8 (regardless of brand, and I say this having tested the Canon, Sony and Nikon versions is easily my favourite lens on a cropped APS-C sized sensor body. Converting to around 75-80mm effective focal length it is right in the sweet spot for portraits. And the large aperture conveniently let't you blur out the background, creating great background-foreground separation.
Note the nice, smooth background in the shot. Feinschmeckers will note that the out-of-focus highlights are pentagon-shaped and not perfectly rounded. This stems from the aperture blades not forming a perfect circle, but rather a pentagon. Not a big deal in my book.
The autofocus in the XSi is pretty snappy. As an added bonus all Canon's entry level cameras come with a built-in focus motor, enabling you to use even the cheapest lenses, such as the 50mm f1.8. For Nikon's entry level cameras, you have to buy AF-S lenses with built-in focus motor in the lens in order to use autofocus. A bit of a bummer.
While testing the focus in low-contrast situations, I did come across that the focus would hunt a tiny bit back and forth. Meaning if you are shooting in situations where you need critical focus (such as at a low aperture with a thin depth of field) I found that switching to manual focus often times gave me better results than the autofocus. Again, not a deal breaker. But probably something Canon can improve on.
All in all
The Canon XSi is a great entry level camera. Image quality is top-notch and the camera is very easy and intuitive to use with only a minimal learning curve, especially if you come from shooting with a Canon pocket camera as the button layout is somewhat similar. The test didn't uncover any major flaws with the camera, but rather some areas for Canon to improve their entry level cameras on.
A better implementation of a couple of the features, such as maximum ISO value, would have yielded an even better camera ultimately giving you more milage.
Normally I shoot Nikon, but my first DSLR was the original Canon Rebel, so I have to admit it was fun 'coming back home'. All test shots were with the Canon XSi coupled with either the 18-55mm IS kit lens or the Canon 50mm f1.8 plastic fantastic lens. The kit lens is a great start, but at some point you want to explore photography more and the 50mm f1.8 lens is a (very) cheap way to do so. Product shots are with Nikon D700 coupled with 105mm VR lens and flash bounced off a white ceiling.
- 85mm f1.4
- San Francisco
- shutter speed