Canon EOS 550D review

£748
Price when reviewed

With the Canon EOS 1000D now catering for the entry-level market, the more basic cameras in the EOS range need to bring something more than basic features. The 550D certainly delivers that on paper.

The megapixel wars are over – the battleground is now high-ISO performance – but the 550D nonetheless has a token increase, up to 18 megapixels from the Canon EOS 500D’s 15.1 megapixels. And, talking of ISO, the 550D sports ISO 6400 out of the box, and ISO 12800 if you enable ISO expansion in the custom-functions menu.

Behind the reflex mirror lurks an all-new CMOS sensor, boasting the latest Canon design with gapless micro-lenses. With no dead gaps between the tiny light-gathering lens positioned over each of those 18 million pixels, Canon claims dramatically increased light-gathering capability. That, theoretically, offsets increased noise from the smaller, denser photo-sites needed for an 18-megapixel sensor.

Unfortunately, we found high-ISO performance a bit disappointing. Drinking in Canon’s gapless-sensor claims, we were expecting something groundbreaking from the 550D. In truth, it’s not noticeably better than the 500D.

The maximum setting we’d call acceptable is still ISO 3200, with fine detail and nuance almost entirely sacrificed to noise at ISO 6400 and especially ISO 12800. If you want truly low-noise shots at very high ISO, you’ll still need to budget for a full-frame camera such as the EOS 5D Mk II or Nikon D700.

At lower sensitivities though, sensor resolution is great. Those extra three million pixels do give slightly more detail, rather than just bigger file sizes with no extra quality. Enable the highlight-tone priority mode, and dynamic range is excellent even in very high-contrast shooting situations.

Its outward design is nearly identical to the 500D, save for some slightly restyled buttons. What may not be immediately obvious at first glance, however, is that the rear display has effectively gone widescreen. The 550D is the first camera to sport a 3:2 aspect-ratio display, compared to every other DLSR whose screens are closer to 4:3.

Since 3:2 is the native image aspect-ratio of a standard DSLR, that means you can preview shots without letterbox borders at top and bottom. Expect to see other manufacturers follow suit very soon.

Canon EOS 550D

The screen itself is one of the new generation, with 1,040k resolution; high enough that you can’t see the pixels in on-screen menu text.

Looking around the slickly animated new menu system, there are one or two additions. Playing catch-up with the competition is a feature that finally allows you to set an upper ISO limit when sensitivity is set to Auto.

It still lags behind Nikon however, since you can’t set the base sensitivity level nor the minimum shutter speed at which the camera starts to up the sensitivity.

Enthusiasts of HDR (high dynamic range) will be pleased to note that exposure compensation has been expanded to +/-5EV from the usual +/-2EV, but unfortunately you can still only go two stops either side in exposure-bracketing mode, and the mode’s still limited to three shots (one correctly exposed and one either side).

Beyond the slightly underwhelming news for still photography, the biggest advance for the 550D over its predecessor is its video capability, and a serious advance it is too. It will now record full 1080p at up to 25fps (you can choose film-standard 24fps too), or super-smooth 720p at 50fps. It will record up to half an hour of footage per take with a big enough SD card.

Details

Image quality 5

Basic specifications

Camera megapixel rating 18.0mp
Camera screen size 3.0in
Camera optical zoom range 3x
Camera maximum resolution 5184 x 3456
Camera optical image stabilisation in kit lens

Weight and dimensions

Weight 710g
Dimensions 127 x 130 x 96mm (WDH)

Battery

Battery type included lithium-ion
Battery life (CIPA standard) 440 shots
Charger included? yes

Other specifications

Built-in flash? yes
Aperture range f3.5 - f5.6
Camera minimum focus distance 0.30m
Shortest focal length (35mm equivalent) 28
Longest focal length (35mm equivalent) 85
Minimum (fastest) shutter speed 1/4,000
Maximum (slowest) shutter speed 30s
Bulb exposure mode? yes
RAW recording mode? yes
Exposure compensation range +/-5EV
ISO range 100 - 12800
Selectable white balance settings? yes
Manual/user preset white balane? yes
Progam auto mode? yes
Shutter priority mode? yes
Aperture priority mode? yes
Fully auto mode? yes
Burst frame rate 3.7fps
Exposure bracketing? yes
White-balance bracketing? yes
Memory-card type SD, SDHC
Viewfinder coverage 95%
LCD resolution 1,040k
Secondary LCD display? no
Video/TV output? yes
Body construction Plastic
Tripod mounting thread? yes
Data connector type mini-USB

Manual, software and accessories

Full printed manual? yes
Software supplied Canon Digital Photo Professional
Accessories supplied None

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