by Jim McGee

If I had a dollar for every email asking when digital SLRs are finally going to drop to a reasonable price I could buy a whole new digital outfit for myself.

Most of those people defined “reasonable” as a competent digital SLR with a price below $1,000. Our readers aren’t the only ones in the industry asking this question. Surveys have shown that breaking the “$1,000 barrier” will have a dramatic impact on sales.

A marketing exec at one company confided “There are two price points we’re looking at, $1,000 and $700. At each of those price points you bring in significant numbers of buyers.”

“At $400 you open a flood gate.”

The Digital Rebel
The new Digital Rebel, called the 300D outside the U.S., is the first digital to break one of those barriers. The simplest way to describe this camera is that where the 10D is an Elan 7 body fitted with a Canon DIGIC processor this is a Rebel fitted with the same processor – and priced at just $899.

We were thrilled to see that Canon used it’s DIGIC imaging engine in the new Rebel. A CMOS based design, it delivers 6.3 megapixel images and a 1.6X effective focal length with Canon’s 35mm lenses.

The DIGIC processor captures an expanded color space (Adobe RGB vs. sRGB). According to Canon that expanded color capability enables the Rebel to render images that rival film and capture the luminous quality that you find in slides. Digital images often fall a bit flat and require a tweaking in Photoshop to get the three dimensional look you get from film.

Another important feature is the ability of the DIGIC processor to virtually eliminate signal noise at the chip level. Signal noise manifests itself as stray light and off color pixels. The result of the expanded color space and reduced signal noise is said to be a “dramatic” improvement in the gradation of highlight areas and the rendering of highlight detail. Improved detail means that the images hold up better when they are blown up or tightly cropped. And like the 10D the Rebel captures images in both JPEG and raw mode simultaneously. The difference being that the JPEG size is fixed in the Rebel and customizable in the 10D.

The Rebel allows you to shoot in one of seven program modes or to set virtually any setting manually. ISO speed can be set from 100 to 1600 and white balance can be set to auto or one of six pre-programmed modes. You can also dial in your own manual white balance setting.

The default settings for the camera are a good indicator that the Rebel is targeted to a different audience than the 10D. On the 10D settings for saturation, contrast and sharpness default to zero from the factory. After all pros like to determine for themselves exactly how they want to shot a camera. The Rebel on the other hand has had a touch of “Velvia” applied to it’s settings, which are defaulted to +1 for saturation, contrast and sharpness. This will add a touch of vibrancy for users who are printing directly from their memory cards and addresses one of the most common consumer complaints about digital images – they’re less vibrant than film.

The Rebel uses Canon’s proven seven point autofocus system. The focus points are displayed in the viewfinder and you have a choice of letting the camera pick the focus point or you can manually choose the focus point using the buttons on the camera back. AI servo autofocus is available for shooting sports, allowing the camera to continually adjust focus when tracking moving subjects. The meter is a 35 zone TTL meter. Experience with Canon’s digital cameras has shown very positive results with their metering systems and we’d be surprised if there were any problems here. The meter range is EV 1-20 (ISO 100, 50mm f1.4). If you choose the Rebel allows you to override the meter. Exposure is can be varied in one third stops, and both exposure and white balance bracketing are available. Shutter speeds of 1/4000th to 30 seconds are on tap in 1/3rd stop intervals.

The Digital Rebel also offers Canon’s A-DEP focus option. A-DEP mode attempts to include everything covered by the focus points in the viewfinder within the lens’ depth of field when you press the shutter. This is a handy feature for beginning photographers who haven’t mastered depth of field control.

The Rebel’s hot shoe is E-TTL compatible and will work with all current Canon flash units and the flash sync is 1/200th of a second. But unlike the 10D there is not PC terminal to allow the Rebel to work with studio flash units.

The viewfinder has a built in diopter adjustment. One thing the finder doesn’t have is a pentaprism; instead the Rebel uses a lighter, less expensive pentamirror. The tradeoff is a darker image in the finder. This won’t be an issue in most situations but it can make manual focusing more difficult in low light situations, when using slower lenses, or when using extension tubes. The use of a pentamirror, and a lightweight plastic body are two of the factors that contribute to the reduced weight of the Rebel compared to the 10D. In fact it’s a half pound lighter than the 10D which weighs in at just under two pounds.

Power comes from a rechargeable lithium ion battery (BP-511) provided with the camera, and an accessory grip (BG-E1) is available that holds two BP-511 cells and provides a vertical shutter release, command dial, and autofocus point selector.

The Rebel accepts both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards and IBM Microdrives and is FAT32 compatible. That means that it can take CompactFlash cards larger than 2GB.

The controls on the Rebel are straightforward and should present no problems for anyone who has used a digital camera. However less information is available from the Rebel’s display when compared to the 10D, though this isn’t surprising considering the way Canon is positioning the cameras relative to each other.

Odds and Ends
The Rebel includes software for stitching together panoramic images called PhotoStitch. There are several packages on the market that do this, but it’s a nice feature to have bundled with your camera – especially if you’re an avid landscape shooter.

The rear LCD allows you to zoom from 1.5x to 10x to get a good look at sharpness and detail. It will also auto rotate images on the LCD so you’re not flipping the camera on it’s side to view an image. They’re also transferred in the proper orientation to your computer so you won’t spend a lot of time in Photoshop flipping images around.

Rebel vs. 10D
Many consumers will ask why they should spend $1,499 for a 10D when they can buy the Digital Rebel for $899. I’ll answer that question with a question – why would you buy an Elan 7 for $350 when you can buy a Rebel for $225. After all you can put the same film in either camera?

The answer is the Elan 7 is more rugged, faster, has more features, and if you take a lot of pictures or use a camera roughly, the Elan 7 will likely last longer. It’s the same answer when comparing these two. They may use the same processor to capture the image but all the features that make the Elan 7 superior to the Rebel hold true with their digital siblings.

That in itself may signal a huge change in how we look at digital cameras. Until now it’s all been about megapixels. But now digital camera technology has matured to the point that you can buy a digital camera from a number of manufacturers and not see an obvious difference in image quality. That means that digital cameras will have to start competing on features – just as their film siblings have done all along.

This camera is truly a bell weather product. It signals that digital is growing up.

 

Digital SLR Street Prices
Camera Megapixels Price
Canon 1Ds 11.1* $8,000
Canon 1D 4.1 $4,000
Canon 10D 6.3 $1,500
Fujifilm S2 Pro 6.1 $2,000
Kodak 14n 13.8* $5,000
Nikon D2H 4.1 $3,500
Nikon D1X 5.47 $3,900
Nikon D1H 2.74 $3,200
Nikon D100 6.1 $1,700
Pentax *ist 6.1 $1,700
Sigma SD-9 3.4 $1,100

*Full frame imaging chip