You get what you pay for and honestly you get a lot of it
The Digic 4 image processor makes the 550D a very fast camera. Switch on the camera and you can almost immediately take a picture assuming focus is achieved. You can capture images in three different sizes: Large 5184*3456, Medium 3456*2304 and Small 2592*1728; and in two different qualities: Fine and normal. You can also shoot in RAW (5184*3456) format or RAW + large (fine) together.
The autofocus (AF) system is exactly the same as the 500D which means the camera is at par with most competitors. DSLR cameras are accurate and snap into focus quickly though the performance may vary depending on what lens you’re using, whether you’re using live view and the lighting conditions. Using the 18-135mm lens, the camera focuses in about 0.2-0.6 seconds in normal indoor lighting which is quite impressive. Moving to low light conditions, the camera struggles to focus and you might find the need to use the pop up flash as an AF-assist lamp.
AF speed when using live view is quite slow in comparison. When using either of the Live AF modes with the kit lens, the camera took around 1 to 4 seconds to focus. In low light condition, the camera struggled to focus and manual focusing seemed like the only option because you can’t use the pop up flash as an AF-assist lamp. Using the Quick AF mode is the faster option though they’ll be a short moment where the LCD will blackout while the AF speed is about a second slower than the speed when shooting with the viewfinder
The camera can shoot at 3.7fps which means there is almost no lag between shots. You can continue to shoot till the buffer runs out i.e. 6 RAW images or 34 JPEG images. The smaller buffer compared to the 500D is mostly due to the larger file size from the 18mp resolution sensor which the single Digic 4 processor struggles to process especially when shooting RAW+jpeg. When shooting with the pop up flash, you can shoot continuously for anything between 10 images to about 40 images depending on the flash power before you get the ‘Busy’ message which basically means the flash needs to refresh.
Two convenient tools while shooting in harsh lighting is the Auto lighting Optimizer which brightens the darker areas and the Highlight tone priority that reducing clipping on the over exposed areas. Both are found under custom functions in the Menu.
Lets move on to the ISO test to see how the camera performs at different ISO settings. We first shoot some objects under control studio lighting.
When comparing the images from the 550D to that of the 500D, it’s clear that the images look a lot sharper and crisp. ISO 100 and 200 images look identical and noise free. As you move to ISO 400, you begin to see slight hints of noise in the darker colours and you lose some of the sharpness around the corners. At ISO800, it’s the same story with a little bit of more noise. At ISO 1600, more noise creeps in but things still look fine. At ISO3200, the edges seem to become a little unclear and the details become fuzzy. At ISO 6400, the images are still usable for web or small prints. ISO 12800 is unusable and must be avoided.
Now to see how the camera performs in low light.
The amount of noise showing up at ISO 100 is at par with the 500D but at ISO 200 and ISO400, the 550D images look better and have less noise. Unlike the 500D where the noise seems to have gradually increased from ISO200, the 550D seems to take a plunge at ISO800 in terms of noise and sharpness. The image loses a lot of detail around the bright areas though it still looks better than the 500D image. As IS01600, the noise level is high and so is the detail loss. Just like the 500D, the ISO6400 and ISO12800 images are quite unusable with heavy detail loss and lots of noise.
Overall, the Canon EOS 550D images looked sharp and the colours seem to pop. The image quality was spot on though the metering could have been more reliable.
The 500D enables you to shoot Full HD video at 30, 24 or 20 frames per second which is just about perfect. You also have the option to shoot at 720p at 30 frames per second or VGA at 50 frames per second. You can keep shooting till you hit the 4GB file size limit.
Just like the 7D, you have total control over the camera when shooting video i.e. you can choose the shutter speed, ISO and aperture.
Auto focus is available by pressing the AE/AF lock button but similar to live view, the focusing is quite slow and the noise of the lens focusing will be picked up by the cameras microphone. You can obviously manual focus but managing that can be harder than it seems.
The quality of the videos is a lot better than what you might find on a point and shoot camera due to the large sensor in comparison. Also with complete creative control with HD quality, it enables you to take videos that look better than a lot of high end HD camcorders.
Features wise, the Canon EOS 550D is the best entry level camera on the market right now. With a whopping 18mp sensor, top notch image quality, fantastic LCD screen and full HD video capabilities, it can almost be called a mid range consumer DSLR. What lets this camera down is the poor viewfinder, small buffer and an ancient AF system that suffers in low light conditions and lags behind competitors. But in the end, you get what you pay for and honestly you get a lot of it. The 550D is highly recommended if you’re looking for a camera that introduces you to the world of photography.