Conclusion - Pros
- Excellent image quality even at high ISO settings
- Extremely high detail and resolution at base ISO, good per-pixel sharpness
- Good dynamic range, improved by use of Highlight Tone Priority
- On-screen Q-Menu offers good access to shooting settings
- Excellent LCD screen is articulated (great for videographers and tripod users)
- Ability to remotely control flashguns is a nice addition (offered by several of its peers)
- Good quality 1080/720p video output with a range of frame rates and control over exposure
- External microphone socket
- Good battery life
- Comprehensive software bundle
Conclusion - Cons
- Slow AF in Live Mode reduces benefit of articulated screen for stills shooting
- White balance often excessively orange under artificial light
- Button functions in live view mode very different from conventional mode
- Key features and parameters hidden in Custom Function menu
- Lacks the in-camera Raw conversion options seen in 60D
- Hand grip can be a little cramp-inducing after long periods of use
The Rebel series has never been characterized by cutting-edge innovation or radical interpretations of what a camera can be - instead, the series' development seems to be driven by a calm, rational assessment of the features people want in a tolerably small package and at a price people are willing to pay. And, though the cameras which comprise it may disappoint the technology enthusiasts, it's a formula that has produced some of the best-selling DSLRs ever made and kept a lot of beginner and enthusiast photographers very happy.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that, from the perspective of anyone following the market, the T3i / 600D isn't a very exciting camera - it's a slight upgrade of its predecessor with the flip-out screen from the more expensive EOS 60D. However, from the perspective of someone buying their first DSLR or upgrading from anything more than about three years old, it's an excellent combination of features and capability at a very reasonable price.
Keen enthusiasts who feel they've outgrown their current DSLRs are likely to appreciate the two-dial interface, larger viewfinder and more substantial grip offered by the EOS 60D but many others are likely to recognize that almost all its underlying features are present in the considerably cheaper smaller T3i. The flip-out screen is handy for tripod and video work, though the slow contrast-detection AF in live view and video shooting means it's not as useful as on cameras such as Panasonic's GH2.
This is the fourth Canon DSLR that we've seen that combines the 18MP CMOS sensor with Digic 4 processing, so it's no great surprise that there are no great surprises. Detail representation in JPEGs is generally good and processing from Raw shows there's a little more being captured if you want to blow the images up really large.
The JPEG output is the standard Canon performance - colors closer to punchy than neutral and rather crunchy sharpening giving strongly defined edges. It's not a look that's to everyone's tastes, of course, but it does help give the images a bit more impact - which is exactly what many users at this level will be looking for. Of course it can be toned-down if you prefer. High ISO performance is also impressive - with user-adjustable noise reduction allowing you to select the appropriate balance between noise and detail for your image usage.
The sensor does a good job of capturing dynamic range and this can be boosted still further by enabling Highlight Tone Priority mode - capturing more highlights without any great cost in terms of noise. We can see very few reasons not to use this as the default mode for shooting the camera and would recommend that new users at least give it a try.
There's even more to be gained in Raw - with more fine detail and low light capability to be gained if you are willing to tailor your noise reduction and sharpening to each individual image. The 600D's files don't have quite the same exposure latitude as those from its peers using the rival 16.2MP sensor, but there's still plenty of scope for playing around in Raw if you really want to get the best out of your images.
As far as video image quality is concerned, the 600D does not disappoint. 1080p footage is sharp and detailed, and motion is captured smoothly and naturally. Noise can be a problem at high ISO settings, just like it can in still images, but you have to venture above ISO 3200 for it to be in any way obtrusive. One thing to watch out for though - the 600D's .MOV files are pretty huge, typically 5-6Mb per second of footage. This is one respect in which the more efficient footage created by certain Panasonic and Sony cameras really scores points.
As in so many other respects, the 600D's handling marks it out as the latest scion of the Rebel line. It's a familiar, incrementally refined interface that gets most things right but retains a couple of classic Canon quirks. Thankfully most of these little idiosyncrasies are things you can learn to live with - they're annoying as opposed to actually disruptive.
The CA (Creative Auto) mode offers a good stepping stone between the camera-controlled scene modes and the more participatory P,A,S and M modes. If you do venture into these more user-controlled modes, the Q. Menu interface makes it easy to check and change all the key shooting settings. The fact that these can be changed with the control dial, rather than having to dive into sub-menus makes it ever faster to use, once you're familiar with the available options.
The convoluted method for setting White Balance, the inconsistent behavior between viewfinder shooting and live view, and the occasionally perverse choices made in menu prioritization are frustrating but not unforgivable. The camera's grip is an improvement on previous Rebels, however it remains relatively small and users with larger hands may still find it uncomfortable. Although it isn't a huge design change, the additional rubber coating on the rear and left hand side of the 600D makes it more comfortable to hold than the T2i/550D, at any rate.
The Final Word
The Rebel T3i / 600D is exactly the camera that we'd expect it to be - it's feature-rich, reasonably priced, enjoyable to use and, most importantly, takes great pictures. It's not a particularly innovative camera but it is a generally well planned one. Unlike the original Rebel / 300D, the T3i doesn't sit in isolation - if you want a smaller or easier-to-use camera, there are plenty of options (including the increasingly competitive mirrorless brigade). However, in keeping with previous models in the range, it's an impressive camera for the money and it's hard not to imagine owners loving theirs.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
Enthusiast shooters looking for some of the latest technology in a well-designed, well-priced package. Movie shooters on a budget.
Not so good for
Upgraders looking for a compact-camera-like user experience. Users for whom small size is paramount (who might want to consider a mirrorless alternative)
The latest model in Canon's popular Rebel series is very much the camera that the range's history leads us to expect: well featured, well-designed and competitively priced. It's a very conventional camera in a part of the market that is seeing some interesting innovations, but the conventional DSLR design still best suits many people's needs, especially when it's done this convincingly.