The Canon EOS Rebel T1i belongs to a relatively new class of camera: a still-inexpensive model wedged somewhere between bare-bones budget DSLRs that cost between $500 and $700, and almost-prosumer models approaching the $1,000 range, such as the Nikon D90. These cameras, while still beginner-friendly, offer faster speeds, higher resolution, and better image quality than their entry-level siblings, not to mention HD video. While we wish it performed better in harshly lit situations, the $799 T1i delivers fast speeds and solid image quality, making it a worthy competitor to the Editors' Choice-winning Nikon D5000.
At 1.1 pounds, the T1i is lighter than the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380, and its plastic build makes it feel much less substantial. Some might appreciate the lightness, but other photographers might prefer the more solid construction of the A380.
The T1i looks almost identical to the Canon EOS Rebel XSi (now $649), a similar DSLR that lacks movie recording and utilizes slightly lower resolution (12.2 megapixels to the T1i's 15.1). Similarly, there's a mode dial on top, only this time there's an added notch for movie recording. We prefer the approach that cameras such as the Nikon D5000 take; simply select a dedicated Live View button on the camera and press the center of the navigational pad to begin recording. In contrast, you have to pause what you're doing on the T1i to switch modes.
Other buttons include dedicated delete, display, exposure, ISO, menu, and playback buttons, a five-way navigational pad (whose buttons double as white balance, auto focus, metering, and self-timer controls), plus two more buttons for zooming in and out of photos in playback mode. We wish Canon had included an Auto Exposure/AutoFocus lock button for continuous shooting.
LCD and Autofocus
The 3.0-inch LCD on the T1i is bright and has a high resolution of 920,000 dots, but it doesn't swivel out, as on the $629 Nikon D5000. However, that feature is really only useful if you're shooting in Live View mode, which many DSLR users avoid because it slows down both autofocusing and shutter speeds.
The viewfinder has 95 percent coverage, which is standard. It also has nine autofocusing points, just like the Sony A380, and the dots where the camera is focusing glow red when you half press the shutter. That's good, but the Nikon D3000 ($549) and Pentax K-x ($599) offer finer 11-point autofocus systems.
The T1i's menus are easy to navigate, though they're not as polished as similarly priced models by Nikon and Sony. These cameras have on-screen graphics illustrating what might happen to the image, say, when you adjust the aperture (Nikon's UI shows a lens opening and closing; Sony's has a line graph of sorts). While the settings are easy to adjust, you can't change much in Auto or even no-flash mode; even ISO and continuous shooting are off limits.
We don't recommend shooting in Live View mode, since it slows the focusing and shot-to-shot time. Whereas the T1i takes about two seconds between shots in Live View mode, the Sony A380 took just one second, and felt noticeably faster. The difference in clarity is fairly slight, although we noticed that the colors and exposure on the screen itself were more balanced than on other DSLRs, such as the Pentax K-x, which also shoots HD video.
Our 15.1-MP shots yielded some of the best colors we've seen in an entry-level to mid-range DSLR. Images were punchy and vibrant, but usually accurate and not too saturated. The best example is a shot we took of some tiny berries at close range; while the Nikon D3000 made them look too red and the Pentax K-x too pink, only the T1i (and the Sony A380, a close second) were able to capture their cranberry color. In Macro mode, the camera produced stunning foreground detail while artfully blurring the background.
In lower-lit and more harshly backlit situations, the T1i did an excellent job of bringing out shadow detail in the foreground, but too often blew out the background, overexposing it and losing some detail in the process. The Nikon D5000 has more of an edge in low-light performance. The Sony A380, while not as strong a camera as the Nikon D5000, also does a good job of balancing highlights with shadow detail.
Unlike many of its competitors, the T1i lacks in-body image stabilization; rather, the device relies on lens-based stabilization (this kit comes with a standard 18-55mm lens). Still, our photos looked crisp from every angle.
The T1i shoots video at either 1080p resolution (at a relatively slow 20 frames per second) or 720p resolution at a higher frame rate (30 fps); we recommend the latter mode. Our biggest gripe with the video wasn't image quality, but sound quality: the built-in, monoaural mic recorded a distracting amount of wind noise. Also, it's disappointing that movie mode is full Auto, whereas with the Nikon D5000 you can manually tweak all of the settings as you would for a still photo. However, the mini-HDMI output is a nice convenience.
Battery Life and Performance
The T1i is fast. This DSLR starts up, focuses, and readies itself for consecutive shots quickly. It even shuts down quickly, despite the fact that the automatic sensor cleaning system kicks in every time. However, the T1i's burst shooting rate of 3.4 fps is just average for its price class, and not quite as fast as the Nikon D5000, which fires off approximately 4 shots per second. When we chose a consistent subject and stayed focused on him as he moved, we got clear shots, although the exposure was uneven (some shots were dimmer than others).
The camera is rated for approximately 500 shots without the flash, and up to 400 shots with 50% flash use (these numbers dip into the 160-190 range once you enable Live View, something we didn't do). We fully charged the camera before attending the 2010 International CES, and then didn't have to charge the battery again during our trip, despite taking more than 200 photos.
The $799 Canon EOS Rebel T1i inhabits an exclusive class of DSLRs that provide strong image quality, fast speeds, and HD video for a reasonable price. Overall, we prefer the Nikon D5000 because of its more intuitive interface and low-light performance, Plus, it costs $170 less. Nevertheless, the T1i is a very strong contender.