Canon's latest DSLR—the EOS Rebel SL1 (MSRP $649.99 body-only)—seeks to shrink the size gap with a full DSLR body that looks like it went through the wash and shrank around 30%. Smaller and lighter than every other DSLR on the market, the SL1 provides a DSLR experience—optical finder, APS-C image sensor, and full grip—at a size that's a little easier to carry around. As far as we can tell, it'll be the smallest interchangeable lens camera on the market with a traditional through-the-lens optical viewfinder. Is that enough to woo shoppers away from a booming mirrorless segment?
Almost as small as a mirrorless camera, with fewer sacrifices.
In designing the SL1 it's clear that Canon wanted to stick to its strength—traditional DSLRs. The SL1 takes many more design cues from Rebel-series cameras like the T5i than it does the mirrorless EOS M. The SL1 includes a full optical viewfinder, a fixed 3-inch LCD screen, and a control layout similar to other Canon DSLRs. Where it differs is the raw size: The SL1 shaves considerable width, height, and depth off of the usual DSLR shape, keeping the weight to just 14 ounces.
The SL1 takes up residence at an interesting middle ground between mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. It's approximately the same size as the Panasonic GH3, slightly larger than the Samsung NX20, and smaller than Canon's bottom-of-the-barrel T3. The key difference that sets the SL1 apart from the mirrorless competition is its optical viewfinder, which will certainly win Canon some fans.
Some sacrifices had to be made to get the size down, however. Namely, the SL1 will use the same LP-E12 battery as the EOS M. As a result, you'll only get around 380 shots on a charge by CIPA measurement, which is approaching point-and-shoot territory. You can likely stretch it beyond that if you don't use the built-in flash or live view consistently, but it's around half what you'd get from the Rebel T3 and its larger battery.
Shooting with the SL1 for a short period of time, those trade-offs seem worth making. While electronic viewfinders have gotten better in the last couple years, we know for many there's still no true substitute for an optical finder. The weight and size advantage is also nice, though with most lenses there was still far more bulk than you'd get with virtually any mirrorless camera. We did get a chance to slap the 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens on the SL1, however, and found that setup was very satisfying to shoot with. It won't be for everyone, but for a lightweight walk-around camera, the SL1 and "shorty forty" seem like soul mates.
On-sensor phase detection AF and an optical finder are great, but limited battery life may be an issue.
The Canon SL1 isn't all that different from the company's newly announced T5i, and in some ways it's even more advanced. The SL1 uses a newly designed 18-megapixel APS-C CMOS image sensor with phase detection autofocus on the sensor. This is Canon's second generation of the hybrid CMOS AF system, with phase detection sensors distributed across roughly 80% of the frame. The Rebel T4i and T5i both use the first generation of this sensor, which covers roughly the central 40% of the frame, relying on slower contrast-detection AF outside that area.
When not shooting in live view, the SL1 uses a standard phase detection AF module, with nine AF points (only the center point is cross-type). The camera uses a Digic V processor, capable of 1080p video recording at 30/25/24fps, continuous shooting up to 4fps, and an ISO range of 100-12800. The control layout is simpler than even the Rebel T3, with a fixed 3-inch, 1,004k-dot LCD with touch control on the back of the camera.
For video shooters, the SL1 also includes a 3.5mm mic input, which should open up the camera to anyone who just needs a smaller, lighter, cheaper version of the T4i/T5i. The lack of an articulated screen will hurt the SL1's prospects as a dedicated video device, but for budding filmmakers on a budget it's a better option than the aging T3.
Canon's SL1 is an attractive size, but its portability still pales compared to mirrorless cameras.
Canon has done extremely well in the entry-level DSLR market for the last couple of years thanks to a combination of reliable performance, intuitive menu systems, and a strong reputation for image quality. It's arguably that dominance that has spurred so many competing manufacturers to develop the mirrorless systems that are smaller, lighter, and generally less cumbersome than their DSLR counterparts.
While its own mirrorless EOS M has fallen rather flat, Canon seems committed to tap into this market of smaller, lighter cameras with the SL1. Canon's latest Rebel retains the hallmarks of DSLR design—optical viewfinder, large grip, and phase detection autofocus—but at a reduced size and weight. It's a different tack for Canon, an attempt to satisfy a growing segment of shoppers who want smaller cameras while preserving the things the company has done well in the rest of the Rebel lineup.
If you're in the market for a pocketable camera you can take absolutely everywhere, the SL1 is not going to fit the bill. Even the smallest DSLR is still bulky, especially paired with most of Canon's EF and EF-S lineup of lenses attached. The SL1 does have one trump card over just about every mirrorless camera on the market, though: an optical viewfinder.
While the success of mirrorless cameras has proven there's a strong appetite for smaller system cameras, there may be just as many people who won't even consider giving up their optical finders. For those people, the SL1 may prove to be a perfect compromise. For that purpose alone, the SL1 will find a place in the market.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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