Shooting Experience

By Dale Baskin

The original Canon EOS Digital Rebel holds a special place in history for many photographers. It was the first digital SLR to cost less than $1,000, and became the portal through which many photographers were able to experience serious digital photography for the first time. As a photographer who was inspired by that original Rebel myself, I was excited to try out the newest generation of the series to see how the Rebel has evolved over the past 12 years.

Two Rebels

Of course, this time Canon threw us a loop and introduced not one, but two, new Rebels. Although there are a few differences in physical layout and features, at their core both 'T6' Rebels are different flavors of the same camera, built around a new Canon-designed 24.2MP CMOS sensor.

Side by side, it's virtually impossible to tell the T6i apart from its predecessor, the T5i. The only obvious difference is the addition of two buttons: the AF Area selection button and the Display button (which toggles the LCD on and off). Suffice it to say, if you've shot with the T5i (or the T4i, T3i, etc.) you should feel right at home on the T6i.

Despite a handful of design differences, the T6s and T6i are built around the same imaging sensor and AF system.

In contrast, the T6s seems to inherit some of its DNA from the enthusiast-oriented EOS 70D, including a top plate LCD screen, a mode dial repositioned to the left side of the camera, and most notably the addition of a rear thumb wheel in place of directional buttons. While it may be tempting to look at the T6s and think of it as a 'baby 70D', it lacks the build quality and some of the important features of that higher end camera.

So, do the differences between the two T6 bodies actually have a real world impact on the shooting experience? Read on to find out.

Build Quality and Ergonomics

The T6i and T6s have typical EOS Rebel build quality. Their largely polycarbonate bodies won't be mistaken for pro level equipment, but they nevertheless feel solid in your hand. Ergonomically, the two cameras are similar to previous Rebels. Most controls are well positioned and within easy reach (with one notable exception I discuss below). Basically, if you've picked up any of the recent generations of Rebels you have a pretty good baseline for how it's going to feel in your hand.

One characteristic of Canon's Rebels that I've never really cared for, and which continues on the T6 models, is the rather minimalist grip, which is narrow and not very deep. One could argue that it's difficult to build a good grip on a camera body this small, except that other manufacturers have done it; by comparison, the grip on the similarly sized Nikon D5500 feels much more comfortable and secure in my hands.

Handling

You won't notice a lot of differences between the T6s and T6i just by holding them in your hands. However, the differences become more pronounced once you start shooting, as I discovered when I headed off to Seattle's famous Pike Place Market with both cameras in my pack.

One of the challenges of shooting at the market is the sometimes tricky lighting, due to the indoor/outdoor nature of the place. It's a location where I constantly use exposure compensation to bump exposure up or down a bit as conditions dictate.

I wanted to bring up the shadows in this image a bit, so I added +1/3 stop of exposure compensation on the T6i.

The T6i follows the 'classic' Rebel approach for setting exposure compensation: reach over and press the exposure comp button with your thumb, then make EV adjustments with the control dial. It's a two step process that makes redundant use of one control, but it works. Looking at the two cameras sitting on my desk, I decided in advance that I would prefer using the T6s due to the thumb wheel on the back, though this turned out to be only partially true.

The thumb wheel on the T6s is located fairly low on the back of the camera, and I found that I always needed to twist my hand in an awkward way to reach it. To be fair, this is one of those things that will vary person to person, depending on the size of your hands, how you hold the camera, and potentially other factors, so your mileage may vary.

The Rebel T6s gets a thumb wheel with integrated four-way controller instead of the T6i's standard buttons. It's a nice addition, though it's placement low on the back of the camera may be awkward for some people to reach.

The wheel also doubles as a four way controller on the back of the camera. In a nice design move, the eye sensor above the viewfinder on the T6s disables the buttons under the wheel when you use the optical viewfinder to avoid accidental menu selections.

Overall, the thumb wheel is a nice addition to the T6s, but given its placement and small size it may not appeal to everyone.

It was also helpful to have the top plate LCD on the T6s. It definitely makes it easier to look down and see your settings at a glance, though all the same information can be displayed on the rear LCD if you want to get by without it.

Autofocus

After several generations of using the same 9 point 'red dot' focusing system, the Rebel line inherits Canon's 19 point, all cross type, AF system. It's essentially the same system that first appeared in the EOS 7D and which is also used in the more recent 70D.

This AF system may not be groundbreaking by today's standards, but it performs quickly and without hesitation, even in low light conditions that called for shooting at ISO 12,800 and F2.8. In addition to performance improvements over previous Rebels, the updated AF system also supports zone focusing.

The T6s and T6i focus better in low light than previous Rebels thanks to their updated AF system. I shot this drummer and his dog in very dim conditions at ISO 12,800.

Previous Rebels had two basic AF modes: automatic or manual AF point selection. The new 19 point system adds the ability to assign focus to one of five zones. This is a useful addition and I found it helpful for certain types of shots, particularly when I was trying to shoot a moving subject such as an approaching cyclist or a pet that moved a bit fast to keep under a single AF point.

Switching between focus modes is quick and easy, thanks to the new AF Area selection button located near the control dial on both cameras. Pressing the button cycles through focusing modes and the rear four-way controller can be used to select your desired AF point or zone. As with other EOS bodies, you can change your selected AF point on the fly using the AF point selection button on the right shoulder of the camera.

Another important addition to the Rebels' focus system is a 7,560 pixel RGB + IR metering sensor for more accurate metering. To be clear, this is nothing like the 150,000 pixel sensor on the 7D Mark II, nor do the Rebels claim to support face detection or Canon's iTR (intelligent recognition and tracking). However, the metering sensor does support 'color tone detection', which should allow the camera to at least identify and focus on skin tones.

I found 'color tone detection' to work fairly effectively when using One Shot or AI focus and automatic AF point selection enabled. In most cases the system did a good job of identifying and focusing on people. Unfortunately, in One Shot mode there's no ability to track the subject, so if your subject moves you need to refocus.

The RGB + IR metering sensor in the Rebel T6s and T6i uses 'color tone detection' to help identify skin tones in the scene, however it lacks Canon's iTR (intelligent tracking and recognition) technology which helps identify patterns and faces. In the photo above, you can see that the AF system focused on Dan's hand even though his face is clearly visible in the center of the photo.

If you really want to track moving subjects you'll need to switch to AI Servo focus mode. In AI Servo you initiate focus with a single AF point and the system tries to track your subject by automatically selecting AF points to stay on top of it anywhere in the frame. I found this to be very hit or miss, even with well isolated subjects. At best the AF system would stay on the subject around 50% of the time, and mostly when it moved slowly.

As I noted above, the Rebels don't include Canon's iTR system for subject tracking, however one might have expected some rudimentary subject tracking due to the presence of the RGB + IR metering sensor. Instead, the cameras appear to only use depth information to track subjects across the frame, which offers limited success. As a result, you may be better off just turning off tracking and using a single AF point or zone to track your subject.

This is disappointing as cameras in the Rebels' peer group do a much better job in this department. The Nikon D5500, for example, employs Nikon's 3D tracking and does an impressive job of tracking subjects in the optical viewfinder. Similarly, mirrorless ILCs such as the Sony A6000 do a good job of subject tracking as well, so I was disappointed that Canon still lags in this area.

While reviewing my images after a few days of shooting I uncovered one problem that I hadn't noticed while viewing images in camera. A couple of the lenses I used were front focusing, particularly the 70-200mm F2.8L, on the T6s. You can see this in the photo of the sailboat below. The AF points were right on top of the sail, but if you look at the full size image the plane of focus appears in front of the boat. This behavior was consistent and showed up in almost every shot I took of the sailboats.

In this photo taken with the Canon 70-200 F2.8 IS L lens the autofocus points were right on top of the sail, but on closer inspection the plane of focus appears to be in front of the boat in the water.

Unfortunately, the Rebels don't offer the ability to perform AF microadjustments, so there's really no way to correct for this short of sending your equipment to Canon for calibration. (For the record, the Nikon D5500 doesn't support microadjustments either.) The cynic inside me wants to pass this off as a limitation of entry level cameras. After all, the thinking goes, most people who buy this camera will probably only ever use a kit lens and shoot at F5.6 or smaller, so they will never run into this problem.

While there may be some truth to this logic, I don't think this gives enough credit to consumers. I've known plenty of enthusiasts, and even pros, who use Rebels for various purposes, and the inability to perform microadjustments is a significant handicap. In fact, this is one area where mirrorless cameras have a distinct advantage over entry level DSLRs as they generally don't suffer from AF accuracy issues.