- Review Date: 9/6/2013
- Bottom line: Canon's high-performing EOS Rebel SL1 is the tiniest digital SLR you can put your hands on, but it may be too small for some hands.
- Pros: Compact design. Touch screen. Quick to start and focus. 4fps continuous shooting. Smooth live view focus experience. Microphone input. Good high ISO performance.
- Cons: Limited Raw burst shooting. Pentamirror viewfinder. Fixed rear LCD. May be too small for some hands.
Canon bills the EOS Rebel SL1 ($649.99 list, body only) as the world's smallest digital SLR. There's no arguing about that; it's impressively small, making Canon's standard 18-55mm zoom lens look positively huge in comparison. The 18-megapixel camera uses the same size APS-C image sensor as the EOS Rebel T5i, but sacrifices the hinged screen and some physical controls. It's a top option if you want a really compact D-SLR, but it doesn't do quite enough to oust our Editors' Choice, the more versatile Nikon D5200.
Design and Features
The Rebel SL1 measures 3.6 by 4.6 by 2.7 inches and weighs just 14.4 ounces. Yes, it's amazingly small, but I would still like just a little bit more of a handgrip; it extends only to the same depth as the lens mount. The front of the pop-up flash juts out another half-inch or so. Adding a little more depth to the grip would make the camera a bit more comfortable to hold, but shooters with smaller hands will likely feel right at home.
Despite its size, the SL1 uses the same image sensor as the Rebel T5i, which is larger at 3.9 by 5.2 by 3.1 inches and heavier at 1.1 pounds. If you opt for a mirrorless camera you can get the same sensor size in a smaller package; our Editors' Choice, the Samsung NX300 is just 2.5 by 4.8 by 1.6 inches and 11.5 ounces, but it doesn't have any sort of viewfinder aside from its rear display.
You get a surprising number of physical controls packed into the svelte body, but you'll still be using the touch screen to adjust certain settings. On the top panel you'll find a three-stage power switch—it has settings for off, on, and video recording; that's integrated with the mode dial, which has scene settings in addition to more advanced shooting modes. In front of that is a dedicated ISO button, the lone control wheel, and the shutter release.
The Menu and Info buttons are around back, to the left of the eyepiece. To its right, there's the button that enables Live View for stills, or starts video recording when the camera is set to video mode. On the far right you'll find an AF point selection button and the exposure lock button. EV compensation gets its own button, as do image playback and delete. You don't get the four directional controls like you do on most D-SLRs, including the Pentax K-50; instead the 4-way pad is only used to navigate through menus.
At the center of the directional pad is the Q Set control; it activates a rear menu from which you can adjust the bulk of available settings. These include aperture, ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash compensation, image effects, white balance, bracketing, brightness and contrast, the metering pattern, the drive mode, the self-timer, the autofocus mode, and image quality. You can adjust these using the control wheel and navigate from setting to setting via the directional pad, but touch control is also supported. Touch is not active without first pressing the Q Set button, which prevents inadvertent changes to settings.
The 3-inch rear LCD is just as sharp as the 1,040k-dot screen on the T5i, and supports touch input. But it's not hinged like the T5i's screen. The fixed display helps to minimize the SL1's size, and can be used to adjust the focus point or even focus and fire the camera when working in live view mode. This is a feature that Canon offers in its D-SLRs that competing brands haven't yet been able to match; if you buy a Sony Alpha 58
There aren't a lot of bells and whistles. Wi-Fi, which is becoming more common in interchangeable lens cameras, is absent here. Having wireless capability would be nice, as the SL1's size is clearly intended to be a carry-everywhere SLR. Though you can add an Eye-Fi Mobi memory card to transfer photos over to your phone for immediate Instagramming, Facebooking, and Tweeting.
Performance and Conclusions
The SL1 is impressively speedy, starting and shooting in just 0.6-second. The camera manages 0.1-second shutter lag in good light, and can fire off JPG shots continuously at 4 frames per second. If you shoot Raw or Raw+JPG you'll still be able to keep this pace up, but only for 8 and 4 shots, respectively. It compares favorably to the D5200; the Nikon starts and shoots in 0.7-second, managed 4 frames per second in our lab tests (but Nikon rates it at 5fps), and its shutter lag is a little longer at 0.2-second.
The autofocus system has 9 selectable focus points, but by default the camera will select the active points automatically. The focus speed slows a bit in dim light; it takes about 0.8-second to lock onto a shot in dim conditions. Live View focus is slower; in good light you'll wait about 1.3 seconds for focus to lock and for a shot to fire, this extends to 1.9 seconds in dim light. The image sensor does have phase detect pixels on about 80 percent of its surface area; this is an increase from the rather small center patch of phase pixels on T5i. But the SL1 still needs to hand off to contrast-based focus before firing a shot, which slows down performance in Live View mode. The brand-new EOS 70D promises to fix this issue. We've not yet performed a full review, but during hands-on time with a pre-production model we noticed that Live View focus was noticeably faster and smoother. This is because the 70D is able to verify focus using only phase detection in Live View. But it's a much larger camera that costs more than twice as much as the SL1.
We reviewed the SL1 as a body only, but it's also available in a kit with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens. You can see that review for the full rundown on that lens; Imatest shows that it performs similarly with the SL1 as it did with the T5i. It's sharper than the 1,800 lines per picture height that we require for a photo to pass muster throughout its zoom range, although it does show some barrel distortion at its widest angle. It's fairly large on the compact SL1. If you're a prime lens shooter, you may want to consider pairing the inexpensive EF 40mm f/2.8 STM with the SL1. That lens features a pancake design and also features an STM focus motor for smooth, silent focus during Live View and video recording.
Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can make photos look overly grainy and hurt detail when shooting at the higher light sensitivities that are required to get a sharp photo in dim light. The SL1 keeps JPG noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 1600, and only hits 1.8 percent at ISO 3200. I viewed JPG and Raw output on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. The detail captured in either format at ISO 1600 is impressive; we fully recommend shooting the camera at that setting if the situation calls for it. JPG output at ISO 3200 is a little grainer and some detail is lost, but Raw output is still quite impressive. At ISO 6400 JPG detail really starts to suffer, fine lines start to get a bit mushy; Raw images are grainy, but still impressive. The top ISO setting is 12800; regardless of your Raw or JPG preference, but this should be avoided if possible. Image detail falls off a cliff here. The Pentax K-50 is a better camera when it comes to extreme high ISO performance; it manages to keep image noise under control through ISO 3200. Like the SL1, it offers customizable noise reduction levels so that you can tweak JPG output to suit your taste.
Video is recorded in 1080p30, 1080p24, or 720p60 quality in QuickTime format. When paired with an STM lens, like the standard 18-55mm zoom, focus is smooth and silent. There is still a bit of hunting back and forth as the contrast detect system verifies focus, and if you opt for a lens that doesn't boast an STM motor the experience isn't as smooth. You'll get better video autofocus with a Sony D-SLR with a fixed mirror, electronic viewfinder, and full-time phase detect focus, like the Alpha 65. But the SL1 is one of the better traditional D-SLRs that we've tested in terms of video focus; it even tops the T5i, as there are phase detect pixels on a larger portion of the image sensor. The just-released 70D promises to better it, as it doesn't have to hand off to contrast detect to verify focus, but that's a much more expensive body. Even with the quiet operation that an STM lens delivers, Canon has opted to include a mic input port, a boon to anyone who is considering the SL1 for more than just home movies. There are also connectors for a wired remote control, a mini USB cable, and a mini HDMI cable. The SD card slot is located in the battery compartment at the bottom of the body, and also supports SDHC and SDXC cards.
If you prefer your digital cameras on the smaller side, there's not another D-SLR on the market that can match the Rebel SL1's size, though it's still larger than a mirrorless APS-C camera like the Samsung NX300. The video focus is impressive, as long as you use a lens with an STM focus motor, and still image quality is just as good as the larger T5i. It doesn't have the hinged rear display that the T5i offers, though, and burst shooting capability is a bit limited when capturing Raw photos. But if you want a tiny camera, find the SL1 comfortable to hold, and are married to the idea of an optical viewfinder, the SL1 should be on your short list.
This review is in partnership wiht PCMag.com.