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A New Angle on Video in an Economy HD DSLR: Canon EOS Rebel T3i

By Ron Dawson    

There once was a time when launching a video production business took thousands of dollars in startup capital for the professional equipment alone. Then came the Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera, priced at $800, offering video quality on par with the EOS 7D, quality surpassing that of professional camcorders of just a few years ago that sold for five times more. Now, less than a year after the release of the T2i, Canon has released an upgraded model, the Rebel T3i, selling for about $850. Here, we look at the new model as a video production tool, and at some key differences between it and other popular Canon HD DSLRs.

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Unlike almost all earlier Canon HD DSLRs except the 60D, the T3i has a flip-out view screen with 270 degrees of rotation. That’s an important feature to event film makers, who frequently need to shoot high or low. Having a flip-out view screen and being able to angle it to get those shots is a fantastic benefit—so often it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. 

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The second major physical difference between the T3i and other models is the absence of a topside digital display. It does sport the traditional Rebel dial to set the camera modes, the power switch, the ISO button, and the adjustment dial. Turning the dial alone adjusts the shutter speed, and turning the dial while holding down the aperture/exposure compensation (Av) button on the backside adjusts the aperture. You can easily adjust other settings on the fly from the Quick Control button on the back.

The camera has a dedicated movie mode, and A/V-out and HDMI-out ports on the side for linking the camera with external monitors. There’s also a port for a mic connection with a 1/8inch mini-jack. The T3i is smaller and lighter than the 7D, and it uses SD cards, including SDXC extended capacity cards. As you’d expect of a camera in this price range, it feels much less rugged than the 7D and larger cameras, and lacks the weather proofing as well.

But let’s get to the meat and potatoes of its use for video production. It does not have the feature set you’d want for professional still photography, but it packs a powerful punch for video production. The key aspects:

FOCAL LENGTH: The T3i has an APSC sensor, which makes the 35mm-equivalent focal length about 1.6X. A good focal length range for shooting traveling shots on devices like a glide-cam is 16 to 24mm. Divide by 1.6 to determine which focal length lens to use. I prefer the 12 to 16mm range with a 1.6 lens factor. For weddings and other events where you can’t get that close, slap a 70-200mm lens on this baby and your reach extends to 320mm. That comes in handy.

ISO: One of the T3i’s biggest downsides is that it has fewer ISO increments than other HD DSLRs. It increases in full stops, starting at ISO 100, and simply doubles until it reaches 6400 (e.g., 100, 200, 400, 800.) Detailed shooting tests show that the best ISOs for shooting video on DSLRs are 160, 320, 640, 1250, 2500 and 5000. By best, I mean the least amount of noise. Video shot at ISO 320 will display less noise than if the camera were set to ISO 200. But on the T3i, you don’t have that luxury. You’re stuck with the full-stop increments.

WHITE BALANCE: Another downside. Its only white balance settings are the presets and auto. You cannot dial in the Kelvin value as you can on the 7D and higher-end cameras. You can perform custom white balance.

VIDEO QUALITY: White Balance and ISO aside, the actual video quality of the T3i is the same as that of the 7D. Like the 7D and the 5D Mark II, its .mov files are at an impressive 45 mbps compression rate. Likewise, expect to see the same kind of drawbacks of the CMOS sensor that you see on these other cameras. Namely, moire and aliasing around fine patterns, the “wobble” effect during quick pans, and flashes from camera creating a weird strobe effect.

FRAME RATE: The camera shoots 1,920x1,080 at both 30 and 24 frames per second (fps); 1,280x720 at 24 and 60 fps; and 640x480 at 30 fps. Use the higher frame rates if you want to achieve true slow motion by over-cranking—shooting at a frame rate higher than the rate at which the final video will be played. Shooting video at 60 fps to be played back at 24 fps will yield 40-percent slow motion.

NOISE: With cameras in this price range, one of the things you sacrifice is quality. Don’t get me wrong, the video quality on this camera is amazing, especially at this price. But the ISO performance is far below that of the 5D Mark II or the 1D Mark IV. Depending on the lighting setup and the color and shade of the objects in the shot, you’ll start to see noise at ISO as low as 400 with the T3i. However, the noise might not be apparent to the average Joe unless the video is played back at full, or at least 1280x720 or larger. (See NOISE TEST sidebar.)

The more controlled your lighting conditions, the less ISO noise will be an issue. Obviously, if you’re using the T3i for events at dark venues, the footage can be quite noisy, but then, a noisy image is better than an underexposed image.

Most professional photographers who choose to invest in an HD DSLR will buy one of the high-end models like the EOS 7D or 5D Mark II. The Rebel T3i would make a perfect second camera to a 7D. Its footage can also be mixed with the 5D Mark II or better cameras, but the difference in quality will be greater in dark lighting conditions. Whatever the camera, if you’re shooting video, the T3i makes a great backup. With a list price of $850 (body only), the cost-to-value ratio is off the charts.

 

NOISE TEST

This first series of frames was shot using a 50mm (equivalent to an 80mm on this camera) with exposure settings at f/2.8 for 1/50 second at 24 fps. The main light source was daylight coming through closed blinds and an uncovered half circle window, all about 15 to 20 feet from the subject. The room in general was brightly lit from both kitchen and den windows as well. These video screen grabs go from 100 to 6400 at the full stop increments (100, 200, 400, etc.) You can start to see noise at 400 ISO, but primarily on the back wall behind the frames.

 

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The next set of video frames was shot at the same settings, starting at ISO 800 and going up to ISO 6400. The only light source was a window with closed blinds and daylight barely seeping in. For all intents and purposes, the room was relatively dark. As you can see, the noise is much more noticeable on this set of shots.

 

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