Rebel, Rebel, How Could We Know? Canon T2i, We Love HD Video So
Blockbuster VideoIn just a few short years, the high-definition, video-capable SLR market has really taken off. Before now, amateurs looking to acquire a high-definition video system that allowed interchangeable lenses had to invest thousands of dollars in high-end cameras and, at best, custom rigs. Starting with the Canon 5D Mark II, the cinematic look was finally within the lay person's economic range, and Canon's latest T2i offers these features at a very affordable $900. It's not just enthusiasts that are taking note, either; pros in both film and TV, including 'Saturday Night Live,' are shooting on these cameras.
The T2i captures the highest-level HD video at 1080p resolution, at a TV-like 30 or 24 frames per second (fps). (The T1i, in comparison, stopped at a choppy 20 frames per second when shooting 1080p.) Cinephiles recognize 24fps as the frame rate that provides the magically languid, slightly blurred look of the big screen. Both 24fps and 30fps also help outside the art house, because they allow the sensor to be exposed for a longer period of time to capture images in low light. We saw the benefits this month during the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, where most of the action happens indoors at panel discussions, concerts and parties. (Check out our test footage at an Austin City Limits concert.)
The T2i also shoots at 720p HD resolution and at DVD-quality 640-by-480 pixels. One cool option is a "crop" mode, which captures 640-by-480 video by using a tiny section at the center of the camera's massive image sensor. This radically boosts the camera's effective zoom when you don't have -- or can't afford -- a mega zoom lens. Crop mode made it possible to film Canadian crooner Michael Buble at Madison Square Garden from a skybox about a quarter mile away.
The camera also allows full manual control in video mode, providing the same creative settings available when shooting stills -- such as ISO for light sensitivity, white balance for tint and hue and aperture for controlling depth of field (sharpness or blurriness of the background). Finally, Canon added an external microphone input to capture high-quality stereo audio, although the puny built-in mic actually worked rather well in tests.
But, just like a beloved friend, this camera has a few faults that one must accept. For example, pressing the shutter button while filming will update focus, but only after a blurry auto-focus process that lasts up to a second. Although it takes a bit more effort, we highly recommend manually focusing with the lens while shooting video; it gives you significantly more control and ends up looking much better. Unfortunately, precise adjustment is basically impossible with the the rattly focus ring on the included kit lens. Any serious shooter really should upgrade to a better lens.
Also annoying, to switch from photo to video capture, you have to spin a mode knob through 14 clicks -- past a bunch of less-used photo modes -- and then press the red "record" button. The fiddling is almost guaranteed to cause missed shots. Canon's 7D, on the other hand, switches to video with a one-thumb flick.
Another nice fix would include enabling slower frame rates at resolutions below full HD. Currently, video is captured at 60fps, but a 30fps option would vastly improve low-light performance when full 1080p isn't necessary. For example, 720p is plenty for YouTube's or Vimeo's HD uploads. The DVD-quality resolution of 640-by-480 pixels is generally fine for Web posting.
Shooting video with these cameras is definitely more involved than with the VHS shoulder-mounted cams of days past or modern consumer HD camcorders, but a basic understanding of composition can result in some stunning footage.
Perfect PicturesWell, not perfect, but darn close. As with video, the T2i's low-light performance is stunning. The camera's sensitivity climbs to an ISO 6400 setting, with an ISO 12,800 option for lower-quality pictures. This means the T2i can capture bright photos in a dark restaurant with just the ambient light, avoiding the bluish glare of flash or the colored speckles of pixel noise. The gallery photos – shot in "RAW" (without any editing) -- show how clean images are, even without processing.
Auto-focus in photo mode is quite snappy. It might work even better in low light, however, if Canon included an assist lamp, as Nikon does, to illuminate dark subjects. Like the 7D, the T2i "strobes" the built-in flash; it works, but it also startles and annoys people.
Why Not?Aside from nitpicks, there aren't any reasons not to buy the Rebel T2i if you're in the market for an SLR. An $800 price for the body, and $900 with a lens, is a big investment, but it's still reasonable compared to $1,600 for Canon's 7D. Most of the latter's key features are aimed at pros and probably won't be missed by amateurs. With a smaller, plastic body, the T2i may not be as rugged and weather resistant as the 7D, but its 19 ounces are a lot easier to lug around than the 7D's 29 ounces.
Stuffed in a purse or backpack, or hanging from its strap, the T2i is a non-demanding travel companion that's always ready to help share life's moments -- great and small. What more could you want in a friend?