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The Rebel line of Canon DSLRs have rightfully earned a reputation as easy-to-use, beginner-friendly cameras. But for the past couple years, the pace of innovation in Canon's entry-level models has slowed to a crawl. The Rebel T4i introduced on-sensor phase-detection autofocus and a touchscreen to the line, but the most notable update from this year's T5i was a redesigned mode dial. Canon's current base model, the Rebel T3, was released in 2011 and it hasn't even received so much as a token update since then.
This year Canon finally seems to be shaking things up a bit with the Rebel SL1 (MSRP $749.99 with 18-55mm IS STM lens). While the SL1 doesn't introduce any radical new technology, it's the lightest, smallest DSLR that the company has released yet. Noticeably more compact than even the T3, the SL1 goes toe-to-toe with compact mirrorless offerings while still including DSLR staples like a built-in flash, optical viewfinder, off-sensor phase-detect autofocus, and a full 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor.
The SL1 doesn't set any new marks for performance, but it shows that the market-leader is finally feeling the pressure from competing manufacturers. The result is a mid-range model that provides the full DSLR shooting experience and adequate performance at an attractive price in a compact body. More importantly, it shows that Canon believes in the traditional DSLR form factor while recognizing the shifting tides in camera design.
On its own, there's not much that is remarkable about the Canon SL1. It's a camera crying out for context, and placed next to other mid-range DSLRs from the last few years, the size difference is startling. It's very common in the camera market to hear superlatives like "lightest" or "smallest" thrown around, though frequently the difference is barely more than a millimeter here or there. The SL1 is different, shaving off quite a bit in every direction while also cutting down on the weight considerably.
Compared to the Rebel T5i—the next model up in Canon's line—the SL1 is about a quarter pound lighter, and several millimeters smaller in every direction. Though the grip is also slightly more shallow, the shooting experience isn't impacted negatively. There's still plenty of room on the grip for your fingers to rest, and the rubber material employed here has a nice diamond knurling that provides more than enough purchase, even when shooting with larger, heavier lenses.
The SL1 otherwise is practically identical to recent Rebel DSLRs. The top plate of the camera has a full (360°) mode dial, on/off/video switch, ISO button, and a single control dial just behind the shutter button. On the back there's a four-way directional pad with buttons for the "Q" control menu, exposure compensation/aperture control, zoom in and out, playback, delete, triggering live view, accessing the menu, and pulling up more shooting info. These are placed around the 3-inch, 1,040k-dot monitor.
Looking at it next to the T5i, the only thing you really give up is the articulating LCD and some direct controls for white balance, focus, timer/drive mode, and picture controls. All these controls can be accessed directly from the full menu or the "Q" quick control menu, which is available on both cameras. While the number of controls is slightly reduced, we never felt that the SL1 was any more difficult to use. Everything we wanted to access quickly was readily available inside of one or two button presses. While the lack of an articulated LCD sometimes poses an issue, the SL1 does include touchscreen functionality. This makes the "Q" quick control menu even easier to use, as it lays out every major shooting option in a simple GUI that's easy to navigate.
This is designed to merely be a quick overview of the Rebel SL1's performance in our lab tests, for a full breakdown of each test and how the SL1 did, please visit the SL1's Science Page.
The Canon Rebel line currently has three models: the T3, the T5i, and the SL1. The T3 was released back in 2011, and we found that, even then, it was merely an average performer. The T5i is little more than a rebadged T4i. To be honest, between those two models we simply didn't have high hopes for the SL1. After running the SL1 through our battery of lab tests and shooting with it in the field, we've found that it's actually a compelling mid-range option for those who prefer the shape, feel, and operation of a traditional DSLR.
While the SL1 does use practically the same 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor as the T5i, it has an upgraded on-chip phase-detection autofocus system that now covers up to 80% of the frame. On top of that, the T5i and SL1 are practically equivalent in our lab tests, with the T5i having the slight edge in shot-to-shot speed. When you consider that the SL1 is cheaper, lighter, and smaller than the T5i, that's a solid achievement, though it perhaps says more about the T5i's lack of improvement than the SL1 on its own.
Overall, the SL1 doesn't represent a major leap forward for Canon from an image quality perspective. The SL1 has very accurate color rendition, acceptable image quality through ISO 1600 (3200 with noise reduction), and acceptable dynamic range for an entry-level DSLR. The major areas where the SL1 lags behind the pack—image quality above ISO 3200 and resolution—are concerning, but they're easily mitigated; it's rare that you'll be forced to shoot above ISO 3200 and you can get vastly superior performance simply by upgrading the kit lens with any of Canon's inexpensive prime lenses.
In our video testing the SL1 also did quite well, with only a few artifacting and trailing issues plaguing otherwise acceptable footage. Combined with the included STM kit lens, 3.5mm mic jack, and the hybrid autofocus, the video quality and control offered here does make the SL1 an attractive all-in-one option for those who want a camera fairly adept at both stills and video. The use of a video switch around the mode dial (instead of the a switch/button combo on the back for live view and video) does add an extra step when taking impromptu videos, however. There's also no headphone jack or clean HDMI output, so serious videographers likely need not apply.
The recipe for a mid-range, entry-level DSLR usually goes something like this: Combine one serving optical viewfinder, two helpings of manual control, a large accommodating grip, sprinkle on a mode dial or two, and dip in some magnesium alloy. Even in shrinking down the size and shape of the SL1, Canon has remained true to this basic blueprint. Of course, sacrifices have to be made somewhere, but Canon has managed to succeed in shrinking down the SL1 without giving up too much elsewhere.
From a hardware perspective, the only thing the SL1 is really missing is an articulating screen. Found on mid-range cameras like the Canon T5i and Nikon D5300, articulated screens sit on a hinge that can flip away from the body, rotating up or down to give you the ability to frame at odd angles. The major practical benefit of an articulated screen—other than letting you frame shots from the back of a crowd with the camera held above your head—is the ability to angle the screen away from direct sunlight. Since the SL1 also includes an optical viewfinder that's not a necessity, but it's a feature we missed.
On the software side of things, the SL1 doesn't give up much ground at all. The camera features a full collection of custom, creative, and manual control modes. For true novices, there's also several scene modes and a fully automatic "green" mode that will make all the exposure decisions for you. Between that, the "Q" quick control menu (with touchscreen control), and Canon's main menu system, this is as simple a DSLR as there is on the market. Even if you need the camera to mostly hold your hand at first, you'll be able to shoot right out of the box, with all the manual control you could want as you start to learn more advanced shooting techniques.
Other than the articulated screen, we do have two big complaints about the SL1's feature set. First, the smaller grip necessitated a smaller battery. The SL1 uses the Canon LP-E12, also found in the compact mirrorless Canon EOS M. The SL1 gets about 10-15% fewer shots from a full charge than the T5i as a result, though your mileage will vary depending on how often you review photos or shoot using the rear LCD.
Our other big complaint is with the autofocus system. The SL1 has the same nine-point (single cross-type sensitive) system found in the Canon T3. It's functional, but to get the most accurate AF you'll often have to focus with the center point and then recompose. The Rebel T5i isn't much better by comparison, though all of its nine autofocus points are at least cross-type sensitive. The Nikon D5300 also has nine cross-type sensitive points, but it has 39 total points throughout the frame, giving you more latitude and better coverage as a subject moves around.
There's been quite a bit of noise in recent months about the "Death of the DSLR." We've written about this previously, and there's definitely a nugget of truth to it. Every major camera manufacturer now produces a mirrorless camera system, with only Canon, Nikon, and Pentax still making traditional DSLRs with optical viewfinders. There's a reason for that: Optical viewfinders are difficult to make, they require bulky mirror boxes that are tough to design around, and electronic viewfinders have improved dramatically in the past few years.
The Rebel SL1 shows that, as cumbersome as some of the traditional DSLR elements can be, there's plenty of room for smart, pithy design choices to preserve the soul of a DSLR while shedding most of the bulk. The SL1's claims of being the "smallest, lightest" DSLR don't have the usual stink of vain, corporate one-upmanship, but rather the feel of a legitimate step forward in DSLR design. The result is a respectful disagreement with the notion that the optical viewfinder is obsolete; the SL1's design is a de facto admission that, yes, smaller cameras are desirable, but it legitimizes the movement towards compact cameras while dismissing the idea that the future will only be mirrorless.
Of course, while we're fans of what Canon has done from a design perspective, the SL1 still has some issues that need improvement. From a pure performance standpoint, the SL1 lags behind similar mid-range models from other companies. Canon has now released seven different models that feature roughly this same 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor (the EOS 60D, T5i, T4i, T3i, T2i, EOS M, and SL1) and it has simply been outdone by the latest models from Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. Economy of scale is nice (as are the improvements Canon has made to live view/video autofocus, with Dual Pixel CMOS AF showing particular promise), but it's well past time for Canon to upgrade their APS-C sensor technology.
At this part of the market, these are sins that we can overlook, however. If you're after pure performance (or weather-sealing), a mid-range DSLR might be more your style. You can also get the same performance from a mid-range mirrorless camera that will be even smaller. But the Rebel SL1 is a compelling choice for its mix of size, performance, optical viewfinder, and dead simple ease-of-use. It's an ideal choice for those looking for a good all-around beginner DSLR, especially if you want the comfort of an optical viewfinder but don't want to lug around a full-size DSLR.
Should you upgrade if you have an older Rebel T2i or a T3i already? Only if you're desperate to trim down the size of your kit, as performance is practically identical. But for those looking to wade easily into the world of DSLRs for the first time, the Rebel SL1 is as good a starting point, even if there is better performance to be had elsewhere.
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