Just as the Canon 60D was aimed squarely at the Nikon D90 and D7000, the new Canon Rebel T3i has the D5000 and its eventual successor in its sights. We spent some hands-on time with the Canon T3i, which sports a swiveling LCD screen and a slightly heftier build, and both looks and feels a little more serious than past models. Bundled with a new 18-55mm IS II kit lens, or the 18-135mm lens that’s also available with the 60D, the new T3i rather looks and feels like its prosumer sibling, except for the grip spacing. It’ll be ideal for those with small to medium hands, but those will larger hands might be more comfortable with the 60D.
Indeed, the major differences between the T3i and 60D are few. It’s down to frame rate (3.7 vs. 5.3 fps), maximum shutter speed (1/4,000 vs. 1/8,000), maximum ISO (12,800 vs. 25,600 equivalent), viewfinder size (0.87x vs. 0.95x), battery type, and grip size. There are other, more minor differences, but those are the big items. As such, the T3i seems like a pretty good deal.
Compared to the T2i, the T3i adds the swivel screen, the new lens, more reduced-resolution JPEG options, and an Auto Picture Style mode. The Canon T3i also weighs a little more than the T2i, coming in at 20.1 ounces (570g) compared to the T2i’s 16.75 ounces (470g). As mentioned, it’s a few millimeters larger in all dimensions: 133.1 x 99.5 x 79.7, compared to 128.8 x 97.5 x 75.3. Some of those differences will matter, and I think many fans of swivel screens will opt for the T3i, while those who don’t like them can settle happily into a T2i without feeling like they’re missing a lot.
At a glance, the T3i looks very much like the 60D that just left my desk last week. That’s especially true when I have the 18-135mm lens mounted, which feels quite at home on the T3i. Even picking it up, though the grip is smaller, the texture is very much like the 60D’s, which is very grippy with a good leather feel.
With the new 18-55mm lens attached, the T3i is much lighter. On the front we find the usual fare: an aggressively canted shutter button, an IR remote port on the front, and a self-timer lamp all in close proximity. On the right there’s the flash release button, a four hole microphone grill, the lens release button, and the depth-of-field preview button. Not too different from the T2i at this point.
The top of the Canon T3i, too, is pretty similar to the T2i, with changes on the Mode dial and a new Display button just left of the ISO button. The purpose for this seems to be to turn off the rear LCD display when you’re approaching the optical viewfinder, preventing night blindness, since the infrared switch is now missing from the rear of the camera.
The IR sensor was displaced, of course, by the addition of the Canon T3i’s 3-inch Vari-angle screen, whose specs match those of the 60D’s LCD: 3:2 aspect ratio, 1,040,000-dot resolution, scratch-resistant fluorine coating, and the ClearView display technology that sandwiches a layer of optical elastic material between the coverglass for a remarkably crisp image both indoors and out. Controls on the back are a little smaller compared to those on the T2i, as they’ve had to move over a bit to make room for the hinge and frame around the LCD. The Menu button is off to the left for thumb actuation, and the Info. button is where the old Display button used to be. Otherwise, buttons are in the generally same position, a bonus for those upgrading from a T2i. There’s also a little less of a thumbpad, but the design still allows for a secure hold.
When in all but Movie mode, the small round button just right of the viewfinder serves as the Live View activation button; when in Movie mode, you use this button to start and stop recording. You cannot start recording a movie when in still capture modes, but you can capture a still image while shooting a movie. You can also autofocus while shooting a movie. More on Movie mode below.
The Canon T3i isn’t necessarily a compelling upgrade for T2i owners, but it does offer a lot for those who might have been considering a 60D for its swivel screen and more advanced Movie mode. It feels a little more substantial in the hand than the T2i, and early image quality looks to be quite good.
Sensor and processor
According to our early information, there’s little new about the Canon T3i’s sensor and processor combination. Representatives mentioned that they’ve again reduced the gap between the microlenses, as they’ve said many times in the past, but they were declared gapless a few versions back, so it’s tough to know how much more gapless they can get. We’re guessing that it’s the same four-channel readout as is found in the T2i’s sensor, as the frame rate is the same 3.7 frames per second. Maximum image size in pixels is 5,184 x 3,456, with a pixel pitch of 4.3µm.
The Canon T3i’s DIGIC 4 processor and buffer enables capture of about 34 large/fine JPEG images for average subjects (our tough compression target nets 11), six RAW frames, and only four RAW+JPEG frames. DIGIC 4 also allows capture of 14-bit RAW images, and the 8-bit JPEGs are created from 14-bit data.
Peripheral illumination correction
Vignetting, a darkening of the corners produced by some lens designs, is reduced via Peripheral Illumination Correction in the Canon T3i. Using a database of lenses, the amount of correction is customized for each lens mounted. Selecting the item from the menu brings up a screen where you can see which lens the camera detected, and whether correction data is available. You can then choose to disable the correction if the wrong lens is showing (as sometimes happens with non-Canon lenses), or else re-enable it.
The Canon T3i offers nine-point focusing with a central cross-type f/2.8 focus point and eight single-axis points. Though the number of AF points is the same as the 60D, the later has a significant advantage in that all of its AF points are cross-type, which are sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail. The focusing screen is of the etched variety, with boxes surrounding dots, which light up red to confirm focus.
The Canon T3i inherits Canon’s latest metering system, previously seen in the EOS 7D, T2i, and 60D. It’s a 63-zone iFCL sensor, which stands for Intelligent Focus, Color, and Luminance metering. The name hints at how the sensor works: the iFCL chip has a dual-layer design with each layer sensitive to different wavelengths of light, allowing subject color to be taken into account when determining exposure. Information on focusing points is also taken into account in metering calculations. In this area, the Canon T3i, T2i, and 60D’s iFCL chip differs from that of the EOS 7D.
The Canon T3i has an expanded sensitivity range, from a minimum of ISO 100 to a maximum of ISO 12,800. You have to enable ISO Expansion via a Custom Function setting. Instead of offering EV compensation from -2.0 to +2.0, the T3i offers a much wider +/-5.0EV exposure compensation range.
CA and A+
CA mode is relatively familiar, giving the more novice user an easy way to adjust the exposure, flash, resolution, drive mode, and Picture Style. Setting aperture and shutter speed are converted to simpler concepts of background blur (blurred or sharp), and exposure level (darker or brighter) with a slider that’s adjusted with the Main dial. The more complex exposure decisions remain under the Canon T3i’s control in CA mode. The exposure slider is the more useful, standing in as a more comprehensible EV adjustment.
What’s new is the new Auto+ mode (A+ on the Mode dial), which is similar to Smart Auto on Canon PowerShot cameras. Employing what Canon calls EOS Scene Detection Technology, the new setting replaces the old “Green Zone” Auto icon. The new mode combines information from five of the Canon T3i’s systems, including Auto Exposure, Autofocus, Auto White Balance, Auto Lighting Optimizer, and Picture Style Auto into one smart exposure mode, according to Canon.
Picture Style Auto
is a separate setting of its own, naturally selected as one of the Picture Styles, which you can bring up either via the down arrow on the back of the camera or through the Quick menu, or even the main menu. With this new setting, the camera will consider the scene and change the Picture Style accordingly.
Of course, the Canon T3i offers Live View mode, a fairly mature mode at this point, with contrast-detect focus as well as Quick AF focus, which uses the camera’s phase-detect autofocus system. It seems pretty full-featured as Live View modes go. You can move the AF point around, you can switch between Contrast-detect and Phase-detect (Quick AF) modes, and you can even zoom in to 10x. Activating it is as easy as pressing the Live View/Record button on the back.
The Canon T3i has the best excuse for using Live View mode: its swiveling LCD screen, which allows you to compose images from odd angles. You won’t want to use it all the time, because both autofocus methods are slower than autofocusing through the optical viewfinder, but when you need it, both the swiveling LCD and Live View mode are ready for action. Be aware that Live View mode also burns through battery life, typically cutting the number of shots per charge by more than half.
While the T2i included significant upgrades to Movie mode, the Canon T3i receives only a few, as the former’s offering was pretty complete. We’re talking Full HD 1,920 x 1,080 pixels at 24, 25, and 30 frames per second. And 720p or VGA video at 50 and 60 fps.
Movie Crop mode has been enhanced from the T2i’s offering, now called Video Digital Zoom, which allows a cropped zoom from between three and 10x magnification in either 1080p or 720p resolutions. You have to enable it from the Movie Record Size menu option, and when you do, it starts out zoomed to 3x. From there, you can zoom in to 10x and back out smoothly, with no steps in-between. (Note that camera shake can be quite an issue when in Video Digital Zoom mode, particularly as you get out to 10x. A tripod definitely makes sense.)
A new video mode imported from the PowerShot line is designed to help you shoot and create very simple videos in short segments. Set the mode to shoot 2, 4, or 8-second snapshots during the day, and the Canon T3i will splice the snippets into a movie. You can also add a soundtrack. Just set the mode in the Quick menu screen, or on the Movie Record Menu 2. Select among Disable, or 2, 4, or 8 seconds. When enabled, pressing the Movie Record button records a fixed-length segment, rather than the normal toggle on/off behavior. Clips of the same length will be combined by the camera into albums. After shooting each clip, you have the option to add to the existing album, save to a different album, playback the latest snapshot, or delete without saving to an album. You can also edit the Video Snapshot albums on the included Video Snapshot Task software included on the software disk.
Choose among five standard background music tracks, or you can import your own music to the SD card via the EOS utility. We’re not sure whether shipping models will include the audio tracks, or whether you’ll have to upload them from the computer software before you can add the songs to a slideshow or video.