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Canon Digital Rebel XT
Better than ever but get a grip!

Let's get the one thing I don't like about Canon's new Digital Rebel XT out of the way. It has a wimpy grip. Nowhere near the best-in-class, most-comfortable-in-the-world grip its predecessor had. Aarrrgh! Canon says "the ladies love it," but what about all the men who are going to find a lady's grip just a bit too petite? It's a gaffe, to be sure, but Canon isn't worrying. It'll just move those ham-fisted guys up a notch to the 20D, which everyone knows is a man's camera.

Now that the rant is over, let's get to the raves. The XT is one mighty dSLR that has just about every feature you'll need to shoot outstanding images without spending hours learning to use it. And with 8 megapixels to play with, you can shoot and crop to your heart's content as I did with some of the pictures that illustrate this review--just to see how far I could push the images without having them fall apart. Some of them ended up at 2MP and held together even when output at 11x14-inches on my Epson 2200. Of course the "kit" lens that comes with the XT--an EF-S 18-55mm, f/3.5-5.6 II or 29-88mm in 35mm terms--also played a big role. It delivered images that had excellent contrast and definition.

The placement of the XT's buttons and controls is nearly perfect. Let's take a quick tour. The front side of the camera has a lens release button (the lens itself has a switch that can be set to auto or manual focus), and a recessed self-timer/red-eye reduction light emitter. Moving to the camera's left side, there's a button near the top that can manually pop the flash up and another near the bottom for previewing depth-of-field. There's also an access flap in the middle that covers a video-out port, a electronic shutter tripper, and a USB 2.0 socket for direct connection to computers and printers. You can output directly to a PictBridge savvy inkjet, dye sub or laser, or print directly to a variety of Canon printers. A door on the camera's right side allows access to the compact flash memory card.

The top right of the XT has the shutter release, a control dial (for specific selections after pressing buttons such as ISO, white balance and others) and the main mode dial with an integrated on-off switch. There are the usual pre-set modes in what Canon calls a "basic" zone: full-auto, portrait, landscapes, close-ups, sports, night portrait, and flash off. And then there's a "creative" zone with choices of program, shutter and aperture priority, manual, and A-DEP. OK, what's A-DEP? The camera uses seven detectors to sense both near and far subjects or objects and Automatically calculates the DEPth of field required to keep them all in focus. Then it sets the correct aperture (and corresponding shutter speed) to make sure everything is sharp. There's also a hot shoe for dedicated Canon flash units (and others) if you want more power than the integral flash provides.

On the back of the camera other buttons abound, allowing quick and easy choices without using menus. But first, there's a bright viewfinder with diopter adjustment and, right beneath it, an LCD status monitor for all the nitty-gritty details about your settings. A button to its right lights it up at night so you can actually see all the data. Just below the status monitor is the 1.8-inch LCD Monitor which seems bigger than it is, probably because the camera is smaller than you'd expect it to be.

To the left of both monitors are buttons for menu, info, jump (more about that in a second), playback, and trash. The jump function on Canon cameras has always appeared to me as an afterthought--as though their engineers had some chip power left over and couldn't bear to have it go unused. For what it's worth, you can jump forward or backward though images you've shot, 10 or 100 at a time. Moving on to the right side of the monitor, there's an exposure compensation button and a drive mode selection button that toggles directly (no control dial spinning required) for single, continuous or self-timer shots.

Near the bottom of the camera, there's a cross-key (4-way) setting button for rapid access to ISO, white balance, metering mode (evaluative, center-weighted, and a 9-degree spot), and three choices of autofocus (single shot, tracking moving subjects or single-shot-switching-to-tracking if the subject starts to move). The last two buttons are in the upper right hand corner of the back panel. The AE/FE lock button (for auto exposure and flash exposure) can perform two functions. First, it can lock in the exposure anywhere in the frame independently of where the camera is focused. And when the flash is popped up, it can be used to pre-determine the correct flash exposure under dim lighting conditions. Just aim the camera at the subject, press the button, and the XT will send out a series of flash pulses to gather exposure data. Then press the shutter release and voila, a perfect exposure. It works marvelously well.

The remaining button, right beside the AE/FE lock, sets your choice of focus points the camera will use, similar to A-DEP but with more manual control. Unless you know exactly what you are doing, my advice is to select the focus point at the center and leave it there. If you need to focus on an off-center target, just aim the center point at it, hold the shutter down halfway (which will freeze the focus there), reframe your image, and then release the shutter the rest of the way. By the way, both this button and the AE/FE lock button let you zoom in or pull back on your images in playback mode. Our tour ends at the bottom of the camera where the battery compartment and tripod socket reside.

Now on to some good stuff. Though it's obvious I'm not enthusiastic about the XT's abbreviated grip, there is an upside. The XT balances extremely well in portrait mode; everything falls in just right, unlike many other cameras that require contortions to hold the camera in that position. Unfortunately, in landscape orientation, if you view with your left eye you'll find your nose jammed against your right thumb, a bit uncomfortable. But that may be a good thing- it will encourage you to take more vertical pictures. And the world needs more vertical pictures, take my word for it.

Regardless of whichever orientation you use, this is a speedy camera. The XT focuses quickly and shutter lag is a non-issue. I was able to fire 13-15 shots at three frames-per-second before the buffer filled and slowed me down to about a picture a second while it was clearing--a process that then took only about 10 seconds before I could shoot another rapid sequence. However, you'll want to use that feature sparingly (like during the kids' key soccer plays or a NASCAR finale) or you'll quickly end up with a full memory card and hundreds of shots to untangle on your computer.

The XT has excellent dynamic range and holds details well in both shadows and highlights. Its color quality can be adjusted to suit your taste--either a more natural rendition or with a bit more saturation. My advice is to keep the color natural and make adjustments in your imaging program. Images are not over-sharpened in the camera (a good thing that eliminates a lot of artifacts) and they may look a mite soft. But they can easily be sharpened to your liking in Photoshop with a couple of mouse clicks.

Speaking of artifacts, what really impressed me about the XT was the lack of noise at high ISO settings. At ISO 200, nothing. At ISO 400, so little it was hard to see. And, as 13 x 19-inch images taken at ISO 800 rolled out of my Epson 2200, I had to hold the prints closer than their usual viewing distance to see the noise. What about ISO 1600?

Try it and don't be surprised to hear yourself exclaim: "How'd they do that?" It's a combination of Canon's CMOS sensor and their superb DIGIC II image processing magic which also allows more pictures to be stored on the memory card because images can be compressed tighter without compromising picture quality. Compared to other 8MP cameras, the XT will store 45 more RAW and 132 more highest-quality JPEGs on a 1GB card.

The XT has nine custom functions you can set to make the camera dance to your tune, including low-light noise reduction, an autofocus-assist beam, mirror lock-up to prevent camera shake during long exposures, and a fully automatic mode that will calculate fill-in flash during daylight. Finally, here are two features that you'll really appreciate: an excellently written manual, and a menu system that is simply the best. There are just five menu pages with no more than seven items per page--eliminating the confusion of multi-page scrolling. And the legibility and color scheme (white on gray with items outlined in red) is outstanding.

Canon has once again pulled off a small miracle with their new Digital Rebel XT. In almost every way it's a vast improvement over the original Rebel without an increase in price. It's a dSLR that Goldilocks would love: not too simple, not too complicated, just right. Except, of course for that itsy-bitsy grip--though that, too, might be perfect for her tiny hands. - Arthur Bleich



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