At first glance, the Canon 600D/EOS Rebel T3i seems to be another routine update to Canon’s entry-level line of SLR cameras, but two features in particular compel me to comment. Before we get to that part, it helps to lay down a little context.
Canon broke open the high-definition video DSLR video market with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and solidified its position with the Canon EOS 7D. It was not too long ago that if you wanted to do Canon HD-DSLR video, you had to pick between those two models, and you couldn’t get in for less than roughly $1600 US. However, neither model has automatic continuous focus during video shooting, nor the articulated (swivel) LCD screen found on just about every video camera out there. Those omissions aren’t a barrier to professionals who routinely surround an HD-DSLR camera with a rig, a field monitor, and focus pulling hardware, but they do annoy more casual videographers.
From a predictable hierarchy…
Canon started migrating HD video down the line, reaching 1080p at 30/25/24 fps with the Canon 550D/Rebel T2i a little less than a year ago, largely matching the video capabilities of the 7D. But the 7D and 5D Mk II continued to offer definite advantages in other ways, such as the sensor size and manual audio gain control of the 5D or the wireless flash control of the 7D.
…to a significant change in feature alignment
With the 600D/T3i, Canon starts to turn things upside down a little. For one thing, it finally adds an articulated LCD screen to the Canon SLR line. Because the video capabilities of the 600D are largely on par with the 7D, the video power of the $1600 7D is now available in the $800 Canon 600D. And that’s not all. The 600D is now only the second Canon digital SLR that has built-in wireless control over Canon Speedlite flash units. It was a big deal when the 7D picked up this feature (in part because it finally caught up to a feature Nikon has had for a while); I’m surprised Canon moved it so far downmarket so fast.
A sign of big things coming?
Because both the swivel screen and wireless flash control are now available way down in the Canon product line, Canon probably intends to add unknown new features to the 5D and 7D that Canon feels are big enough to continue to differentiate those models at the high end (full-time video autofocus, anyone?). The swivel screen will eventually appear further up in the Canon line, but they may keep it off of the 1D and 5D series which are more likely to be used by pure still photographers. And someone who buys a 5D to do serious video is more likely to attach an optical viewfinder or field monitor rather than rely on any on-camera LCD.
It will definitely be interesting to see how it all sorts out. For now, while pros will continue to shoot with the 7D and 5D, still-image enthusiasts who plan to shoot a lot of video may find that the 600D/T3i could be all the Canon camera they need—dramatically reducing the cost of both HD-DSLR video and wireless E-TTL flash control.