The EOS 550D isn't built for speed in the same way as its high-end stablemate the EOS 7D, but it is a lot faster and more responsive than enthusiast-orientated DSLRs of old. In all respects, in fact, the 550D goes about its business impressively quickly, and for normal use (and let's be honest - shooting sports isn't 'normal use' for most of us) the 550D is plenty quick enough.
Unlike most lower-end DSLRs, the EOS 550D's performance is not hobbled by its various optimization settings, such as Auto Lighting Optimizer, Highlight Tone Priority, and noise reduction. Although these functions all place additional load on the 550D's processor, they have very little effect on performance. The only time that frame rate and buffer decrease significantly is when you shoot raw, at which point the camera slows down considerably, as you can see from the figures presented below.
Timings & File Sizes
Timing Notes: All times calculated as an average of three operations. Unless otherwise stated all timings were made on a 5184 x 3456 JPEG Fine (approx. 6,500 KB per image) at ISO 100.
The media used for these tests was:
- 8Gb Sandisk Extreme III SDHC card
|Power Off to On *1||~0.05 (effectively instantaneous)|
|Power Off to Shot||<0.05 (effectively instantaneous)|
|Power On to Off *2||<0.05 (effectively instantaneous)|
This is the time from turning the switch to the 'On' position to the status display appearing on the LCD monitor (as soon as you would be able to verify camera settings). By default sensor cleaning is activated at start-up.
You can turn this feature off which reduces this figure to 0.8 sec.
|*2||This is taken up with 'Sensor cleaning' at power off disabled (default). When sensor cleaning at power off is enabled the power off time is approximately 2.2 seconds.|
Continuous Drive mode
To test continuous mode the camera had the following settings: Manual Focus, Manual Exposure (1/500 sec, F5.6), ISO 100. Measurements were taken from audio recordings of the tests. Media used were the same as above.
The tests carried out below measured the following results for JPEG and RAW:
- Frame rate - Initial frame rate, this was always 3.7 fps (+/- 0.05 fps)
- Number of frames - Number of frames in a burst
- Buffer full rate - Frame rate if shutter release held down after burst (buffer full)
- Write complete - Time after the last shot in an extended sequence before the SD lamp goes out
Burst of JPEG Large/Fine images Auto Lighting Optimizer/Highlight Tone Priority
ALO on 'Strong'
HTP on (ISO 200)
|Frame rate||3.7fps||3.6 fps||3.7 fps|
|Number of frames||100+||100+||100+|
|Write complete||~7 sec||~7 sec||~7 sec|
Burst of JPEG Large/Fine images Hi ISO noise reduction
NR on 'Strong'
|Frame rate||3.7 fps||2.5 fps|
|Number of frames||100+||100+|
|Write complete||~7 sec||~7 sec|
Burst of RAW images
8 GB Sandisk Extreme III
|Number of frames||5 or 6|
|Buffer full rate||
It is not unusual for entry-level cameras to feature smaller buffers and significantly lower processing power than their high-end contemporaries. The EOS 550D, however, provides remarkably consistent performance in JPEG mode, regardless of whether (or how) you set noise reduction, ALO or HTP. In the handbook, Canon warns that these functions can reduce continuous shooting performance but in our testing we've found that it is hard to put a dent in the 550D's 3.7 fps shooting rate. With a fast card, like the Sandisk Extreme III SDHC we used for these test, the 550D's buffer is effectively unlimited, too, at well over 100 frames in a burst.
Autofocus speed / accuracy
The EOS 550D offers an impressively capable phase-detection AF system for its class, and although the bundled 18-55mm kit lens isn't the snappiest in Canon's lineup, AF is fast and positive in the vast majority of environments in which we used the camera. The only time that the 550D regularly falters is when shooting into bright light, at backlit subjects. It must be said though that the same is true of even the best top-end DSLRs. After extended use in fact, my main frustration with the 550D's AF actually relates to the viewfinder, which, although pleasantly large for its class, is rather too low in contrast to judge focus accuracy with 100% certainty. What this means is that if (for whatever reason) focus is slightly out, you're unlikely to be able to notice without bringing up the image on the rear of the camera and taking a good look at maximum magnification.
In Live View mode, the EOS 550D can operate in either phase-detection or contrast-detection AF modes, and when contrast detection is used, AF speed drops dramatically, but focusing (on static subjects) is extremely accurate. This is par for the course with such systems, and it is one of the factors that makes contrast-detection so useful for studio and still-life photography, where the point of focus needs to be accurately placed on a specific area of the scene.
Whilst contrast-detection AF from the 550D is relatively fast, and certainly an improvement over older models, it is nowhere near as snappy as phase-detection though, and it is not designed (nor is it able) to to track moving subjects. For this sort of requirement, phase-detection is the way to go, and despite its relatively low price, the 550D stands up very well to more expensive cameras when it comes to AF tracking. Accuracy isn't guaranteed in 100% of all shooting situations 100% of the time, and the system really isn't capable of following sports or fast action, but for less critical subjects the 550D is quite capable of punching its weight.
The EOS 550D's supplied battery is rated at 550 shots without flash, and 430 shots assuming 50% flash use. Canon doesn't quote expected life when using live view or recording movies (presumably because it would be impossible to present an 'average' figure for mixed use) but I have found that in normal use, swapping between live view and viewfinder shooting, and regular but not excessive video shooting, battery life is extremely good. I can confidently shoot for entire days at a time without worrying about depleting the battery, which represents very good performance, and a world away from the '200 pictures if you're lucky' battery life of some previous generation low-end DSLRs.