Canon 600D/T3i: Wireless flash control and swivel LCD

Canon EOS 600D T3i product photograph

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.

Canon EOS 7D updates (January 2011)

Canon EOS 7D product photograph

If you’ve got a Canon EOS 7D, here’s some 7D news you might have missed during the holidays.

Firmware update version 1.2.3

A recent update to the 7D firmware addresses issues with the Speedlite Transmitter STE-2 and the Macro Ring Lite. Download 7D Firmware Update Version 1.2.3 here. This isn’t the first firmware update since the 7D came out, so even if the Version 1.2.3 fixes don’t apply to you, you might want to install this to get caught up if you haven’t installed any firmware updates since you bought the camera.

Add a lock to your mode dial

Do you ruin shots by accidentally nudging your mode dial to the wrong setting, ending up with B when you meant M or with Tv when you meant A? Now Canon will add a mode dial lock to your EOS 7D or EOS 5D Mark II…but it’s cost you. About $100. Engadget has the details.

Canon rebates expiring January 8, 2011

The current round of Canon rebates expires this weekend, so if there was Canon gear Santa didn’t bring you, now’s your chance to pick it up for yourself. Rebates apply to bodies, lenses, flashes, and more. For more information, go to the Promotions page on the Canon USA Professional Imaging Products web site. It’s worth checking that page periodically, since Canon tends to offer different rebates and discounts during the year.

I won’t be publishing news on every camera out there, but if you and I have some hardware in common you’ll periodically see some news about it right here.

Canon 7D: Optimizing DSLR video dynamic range

There’s a great tutorial over at Vimeo on controlling the dynamic range of digital SLRs when capturing video. It turns out that the video mode of digital SLRs is tuned like a typical JPEG mode: To get a contrasty, “finished” look right away. But like JPEGs, this means a lot of tonal and color information is tossed out before the capture is saved, which can be limiting if you need a look that’s different than what the camera gives you. If highlights are blown or shadows are plugged, you may be left with nothing to work with at the high or low end when you try to adjust the image quality.

The technique covered in the video linked below involves using Canon Picture Styles (presets for how the camera processes images) to dial down the contrast and color in an attempt to squeeze as many of the original scene’s tones as possible into the range the sensor can capture. A file captured this way looks flat and lacks contrast, and isn’t something you would show as finished. But that’s because, as with raw capture or like Ansel Adams shooting film, we are at a step in the process where we’re not trying to create a perfect picture at the moment of capture, we’re trying to capture enough of the right data from which we can produce a perfect picture in post-processing. That’s an important difference.

It’s also important to understand that this capture technique isn’t quite as good as actually capturing video in raw format, but video cameras that do are pretty rare and I think most of them are expensive and called RED. This technique is about doing the best you can with the non-raw capture you have.

This capture technique is often called increasing or maximizing the dynamic range, but I prefer to call it optimizing. You’re not making the sensor capture more tones, you’re rearranging the tones you’ve captured before they’re recorded. I suppose you could call it maximizing the available dynamic range.

Here’s the URL to the video:

While the video talks about the technique in terms of the Canon 7D, Canon Picture Styles can be used with the 5DMkII and others. And the principle can be applied to other brands of cameras that give you control over the image quality of the video.

(Update: [May 2011] You might want to try the new Cinestyle picture style by Technicolor and Canon, a more “official” version of the picture styles described in this post.)