The Canon EOS 550D is a brand new entry-level digital SLR camera that slots in just above the EOS 500D and just below the EOS 50D in Canon's range. It will be available in the UK from April 2010.
It's designed to entice novice users into making the leap into digital SLR photography - it's furnished with a lot of features that make it easy to use. At the same time, enthusiast users will appreciate its manual controls and advanced features. You could say that the EOS 550D is a camera for just about anybody who has a passion for photography - and anyone who wants to boast about a high megapixel count.
The Canon EOS 550D has an 18-megapixel CMOS sensor (APS-C sized - 22.3x14.9mm) and uses the DiG!C 4 image processor; it can shoot Full HD video, has nine selectable focus points and is capable of shooting up to 3.7 frames per second in burst mode. The other big talking point is its high ISO range (up to 6400), which allows the 550D to take well-lit, clear photos even in dark conditions, as well as an ISO limiting function, which restricts the ISO level in the programmable modes depending on the selected user setting. The latter is something we first saw in the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ7 compact camera, and it's a feature that's very useful if you want to take photos without the camera selecting too high an ISO speed and introducing noise and other artefacts into your images.
We had a chance to play with the Canon EOS 550D prior to its release and the first thing that stuck out was its 3in screen. It has a wide 3:2 aspect ratio and it's very crisp (it has more than 1 million pixels); you can use it effectively to focus while in Live View mode. You'll still want to use the optical viewfinder in bright environments and the screen doesn't pivot to make angled shots easier, but it's still one of the standout features of the 550D.
The camera's design will be familiar to anyone who has used Canon SLRs before. It feels solid but not heavy. It's not a big camera, although the overall weight and size will depend on the lens you use. It's compatible with all EF-S lenses and it will be available in a few different kits; the twin lens kit looks like the best option for users who are starting out as it will come with an EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens and an EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS lens. Pricing is yet to be confirmed.
You can change settings easily on the Canon EOS 550D by pressing the Q-mode button. This brings up many of the camera's settings on the LCD screen, including the focus points. It means you don't have to navigate the menu system to change all of the popular settings; the new ISO limiting feature can't be selected through the Q-screen, so you'll still have to navigate through the system menu settings to enable it. We found this to be counterintuitive. Nevertheless, the menu system is not hard to use and you quickly get used to it.
There is a dedicated button on the camera's body for recording video - simply press it to start and stop recording when you're in video mode. The Canon EOS 550D will autofocus in Live View mode, which makes it very easy to capture clear videos. You can change the exposure settings manually while in video mode. A feature called Movie Crop has been introduced, which allows the centre of the frame to be magnified seven times, NCIS style, in order to bring you very close to a distant subject. The camera will essentially crop away the surrounding portion of the 18-megapixel image to leave a 640x480 video instead of a 1920x1080 video. It's similar to close-cropping an image in Photoshop, except that you are cropping a video and the camera does all the work. With a long zoom lens, you can get some very candid images. It can be hard to control the camera when zoomed in so close; for best results, use a tripod in this mode.
The video mode of the Canon EOS 550D is very good - even for capturing some action - and it records in Full HD. The files are saved in the MOV file format and can easily be played back on your computer or displayed on your TV through HDMI.
The Canon EOS 550D takes very clear and vibrant photos. The 18-megapixel resolution gives you plenty of scope for cropping your images closely to bring out a fine detail or stitching many photos together to create a massive panorama. The camera focussed reasonably quickly, even when we used the camera in challenging lighting conditions. You can change focus points easily by using the thumb pad on the back of the camera, though it can be hard to see which focus point has been selected though the optical viewfinder. We would have liked the focus points to be slightly bigger and more visible.
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