This year Canon finally seems to be shaking things up a bit with the Rebel SL1 (MSRP $749.99 with 18-55mm IS STM lens). While the SL1 doesn't introduce any radical new technology, it's the lightest, smallest DSLR that the company has released yet. Noticeably more compact than even the T3, the SL1 goes toe-to-toe with compact mirrorless offerings while still including DSLR staples like a built-in flash, optical viewfinder, off-sensor phase-detect autofocus, and a full 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor.
The SL1 doesn't set any new marks for performance, but it shows that the market-leader is finally feeling the pressure from competing manufacturers. The result is a mid-range model that provides the full DSLR shooting experience and adequate performance at an attractive price in a compact body. More importantly, it shows that Canon believes in the traditional DSLR form factor while recognizing the shifting tides in camera design.
The Canon Rebel SL1 presented no surprises during its trip through our labs for this review. We expected that: the SL1 is built off of the same platform we've seen with the Canon Rebel T5i, T4i, T3i, T2i, EOS M, and EOS 60D previously. While the processors and on-sensor autofocus systems vary with those cameras, they're all built around essentially the same 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor. As such, the SL1 performed right on par with those other cameras, proving that you can design a light DSLR without going light on performance. Color accuracy and white balance were typically excellent, high ISO and dynamic range performance lags behind the pack, and the 18-55mm IS STM kit lens is still not very sharp, though the SL1's shot-to-shot performance is good for a mid-range compact DSLR.
The 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor being employed here may not be cutting edge, but when it comes to color rendition that doesn't matter all that much. Canon's programmed the SL1 to be extremely accurate when necessary, complementing the excellent custom and auto white balance performance.
In our lab tests using a standard 24-patch X-Rite ColorChecker chart, the Canon Rebel SL1's Faithful mode reproduced colors with an average color error (∆C00 saturation corrected) of just 1.86. Given that anything less than 2.2 is essentially perfect, 1.86 is excellent, with that mode also producing an image that was perfectly saturated at 99.08% of the ideal.
The other color modes were also quite good, with the SL1 keeping color errors under 2.3 in both the Auto and Standard modes, while also favoring a slightly more saturated image. The Neutral and Portrait modes both produced a ∆C00 of around 2.8, though Neutral favors accurate saturation while Portrait pushed things to 111% of the ideal. The least accurate mode is Landscape, which heavily saturates blues and greens to 121% of the ideal.
The SL1's color accuracy is underpinned by superb white balance performance. In that test we shoot the same chart under three different lab-controlled lighting conditions: daylight, compact white fluorescent, and incandescent tungsten lights. We shoot these setups with both automatic and custom white balance settings, recording the color temperature errors.
Performing these tests with the SL1's automatic white balance, we recorded an average color temperature shift of around 30-40 kelvins for daylight and fluorescent lighting, though that rose to around 2050 kelvins under incandescent. That may seem like a huge error, but it's actually quite typical of automatic white balance systems, which almost always return poor performance numbers under warm incandescent lights. When we utilized a custom white balance for these conditions, the SL1 performed much better, with an error of just 60 kelvins under incandescent. It fared slightly worse under fluorescent light (off by around 140 kelvins), and identically under daylight conditions.
An experiment in form, not function
On its own, there's not much that is remarkable about the Canon SL1. It's a camera crying out for context, and placed next to other mid-range DSLRs from the last few years, the size difference is startling. It's very common in the camera market to hear superlatives like "lightest" or "smallest" thrown around, though frequently the difference is barely more than a millimeter here or there. The SL1 is different, shaving off quite a bit in every direction while also cutting down on the weight considerably.
Compared to the Rebel T5i—the next model up in Canon's line—the SL1 is about a quarter pound lighter, and several millimeters smaller in every direction. Though the grip is also slightly more shallow, the shooting experience isn't impacted negatively. There's still plenty of room on the grip for your fingers to rest, and the rubber material employed here has a nice diamond knurling that provides more than enough purchase, even when shooting with larger, heavier lenses.
The SL1 otherwise is practically identical to recent Rebel DSLRs. The top plate of the camera has a full (360°) mode dial, on/off/video switch, ISO button, and a single control dial just behind the shutter button. On the back there's a four-way directional pad with buttons for the "Q" control menu, exposure compensation/aperture control, zoom in and out, playback, delete, triggering live view, accessing the menu, and pulling up more shooting info. These are placed around the 3-inch, 1,040k-dot monitor.
Looking at it next to the T5i, the only thing you really give up is the articulating LCD and some direct controls for white balance, focus, timer/drive mode, and picture controls. All these controls can be accessed directly from the full menu or the "Q" quick control menu, which is available on both cameras. While the number of controls is slightly reduced, we never felt that the SL1 was any more difficult to use. Everything we wanted to access quickly was readily available inside of one or two button presses. While the lack of an articulated LCD sometimes poses an issue, the SL1 does include touchscreen functionality. This makes the "Q" quick control menu even easier to use, as it lays out every major shooting option in a simple GUI that's easy to navigate.
The Canon Rebel SL1 features an ISO range of 100-25600, with four levels of noise reduction available when capturing JPEGs (Off, Low, Medium, and High). With noise reduction off we recorded a noise level of 0.66% at the base ISO of 100. This rose quickly, hitting 1.13% at ISO 800, 2.21% at ISO 3200, and skyrocketing up to 6.54% at ISO 25600 from there.
Applying noise reduction keeps things in check, but comes at the expense of fine detail in your final image. With NR set to Low, the SL1 only hits 1.34% noise at ISO 1600, 1.99% at ISO 3200, and heading off from there. Upping NR to Medium keeps things a little lower, with noise only hitting 1.87% at ISO 6400, though fine detail really falls off at this point. If you really want to keep noise out of your shot you can set NR to High, which muddies most of your fine detail, but keeps noise under 2% through ISO 12800, hitting 2.62% at ISO 25600.
While this noise performance is typical of most entry-level DSLRs, it does lag a bit behind cameras such as the Nikon D5200 and Pentax K-50, both of which have the benefit of newer APS-C image sensors. We don't really recommend shooting with the SL1 above ISO 1600 if you can help it for this reason, though if you are just making small prints or sharing shots online you can push things a bit more. This iffy noise performance, especially at higher ISO speeds, contributes to a lack of dynamic range with the SL1.
Most dynamic range results you'll see at other testing sites count the amount of stops that a camera can capture in a single shot before the signal to noise ratio drops below 1:1—where that part of the image is half noise, half signal. We cut things off much sooner, at a threshold of 10:1, showing how many stops you'll get that will look clean of noise, where detail can easily be rescued without worrying about grainy shots.
Under these conditions, the SL1 managed 6.79 stops at ISO 100. While this is adequate, the newest APS-C sensors can manage a little more than 8 stops at base ISO, with this sensor really showing its age. Things drop off linearly from there, with 6.33 stops at ISO 200, 5.3 stops at ISO 400, 4.18 stops at ISO 800, and 3.11 stops at ISO 1600. There are 2.19 stops of clean range at ISO 3200 and 1.47 stops at ISO 6400, though no stops qualified above this threshold at ISO 12800 or 25600, cementing their usefulness as strictly for emergencies only.
Can I interest you in a cheaper, lighter, smaller T5i?
This is designed to merely be a quick overview of the Rebel SL1's performance in our lab tests, for a full breakdown of each test and how the SL1 did, please visit the SL1's Science Page.
The Canon Rebel line currently has three models: the T3, the T5i, and the SL1. The T3 was released back in 2011, and we found that, even then, it was merely an average performer. The T5i is little more than a rebadged T4i. To be honest, between those two models we simply didn't have high hopes for the SL1. After running the SL1 through our battery of lab tests and shooting with it in the field, we've found that it's actually a compelling mid-range option for those who prefer the shape, feel, and operation of a traditional DSLR.
While the SL1 does use practically the same 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor as the T5i, it has an upgraded on-chip phase-detection autofocus system that now covers up to 80% of the frame. On top of that, the T5i and SL1 are practically equivalent in our lab tests, with the T5i having the slight edge in shot-to-shot speed. When you consider that the SL1 is cheaper, lighter, and smaller than the T5i, that's a solid achievement, though it perhaps says more about the T5i's lack of improvement than the SL1 on its own.
Overall, the SL1 doesn't represent a major leap forward for Canon from an image quality perspective. The SL1 has very accurate color rendition, acceptable image quality through ISO 1600 (3200 with noise reduction), and acceptable dynamic range for an entry-level DSLR. The major areas where the SL1 lags behind the pack—image quality above ISO 3200 and resolution—are concerning, but they're easily mitigated; it's rare that you'll be forced to shoot above ISO 3200 and you can get vastly superior performance simply by upgrading the kit lens with any of Canon's inexpensive prime lenses.
In our video testing the SL1 also did quite well, with only a few artifacting and trailing issues plaguing otherwise acceptable footage. Combined with the included STM kit lens, 3.5mm mic jack, and the hybrid autofocus, the video quality and control offered here does make the SL1 an attractive all-in-one option for those who want a camera fairly adept at both stills and video. The use of a video switch around the mode dial (instead of the a switch/button combo on the back for live view and video) does add an extra step when taking impromptu videos, however. There's also no headphone jack or clean HDMI output, so serious videographers likely need not apply.
Succeeds despite a few sacrifices in the name of a smaller footprint
The recipe for a mid-range, entry-level DSLR usually goes something like this: Combine one serving optical viewfinder, two helpings of manual control, a large accommodating grip, sprinkle on a mode dial or two, and dip in some magnesium alloy. Even in shrinking down the size and shape of the SL1, Canon has remained true to this basic blueprint. Of course, sacrifices have to be made somewhere, but Canon has managed to succeed in shrinking down the SL1 without giving up too much elsewhere.
From a hardware perspective, the only thing the SL1 is really missing is an articulating screen. Found on mid-range cameras like the Canon T5i and Nikon D5300, articulated screens sit on a hinge that can flip away from the body, rotating up or down to give you the ability to frame at odd angles. The major practical benefit of an articulated screen—other than letting you frame shots from the back of a crowd with the camera held above your head—is the ability to angle the screen away from direct sunlight. Since the SL1 also includes an optical viewfinder that's not a necessity, but it's a feature we missed.
On the software side of things, the SL1 doesn't give up much ground at all. The camera features a full collection of custom, creative, and manual control modes. For true novices, there's also several scene modes and a fully automatic "green" mode that will make all the exposure decisions for you. Between that, the "Q" quick control menu (with touchscreen control), and Canon's main menu system, this is as simple a DSLR as there is on the market. Even if you need the camera to mostly hold your hand at first, you'll be able to shoot right out of the box, with all the manual control you could want as you start to learn more advanced shooting techniques.
Other than the articulated screen, we do have two big complaints about the SL1's feature set. First, the smaller grip necessitated a smaller battery. The SL1 uses the Canon LP-E12, also found in the compact mirrorless Canon EOS M. The SL1 gets about 10-15% fewer shots from a full charge than the T5i as a result, though your mileage will vary depending on how often you review photos or shoot using the rear LCD.
Our other big complaint is with the autofocus system. The SL1 has the same nine-point (single cross-type sensitive) system found in the Canon T3. It's functional, but to get the most accurate AF you'll often have to focus with the center point and then recompose. The Rebel T5i isn't much better by comparison, though all of its nine autofocus points are at least cross-type sensitive. The Nikon D5300 also has nine cross-type sensitive points, but it has 39 total points throughout the frame, giving you more latitude and better coverage as a subject moves around.
The Canon Rebel SL1 comes kitted with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 STM IS lens, which includes a stepping motor for smoother autofocus during live view and video shooting. As we've seen with other Canon cameras, this lens simply isn't very sharp at all. It's not particularly terrible, but it suffers from all the usual pitfalls that affect kit lenses: soft corners, poor central resolution, and lots of chromatic aberration and coma.
The best resolution results we saw with the 18-55mm STM lens was in the center with the aperture stopped down. Even then, we only recorded a result of around 1400 line widths per picture height at MTF50. This would be a good result if we were talking about the average across the entire frame, but as the peak sharpness it's pretty poor, with most of our sharpness results hovering around 950-1050 LW/PH at MTF50. While this advice applies to basically every kit lens on the market, it's especially true here: invest in something better. Lenses rarely lose their value and, truth be told, if you never upgrade your lens you're paying for performance that your DSLR will never realize. In particular, look at Canon's line of prime lenses, many of which are cheap, excellent performers and complement the compact size of the SL1 perfectly.
The future of DSLRs?
There's been quite a bit of noise in recent months about the "Death of the DSLR." We've written about this previously, and there's definitely a nugget of truth to it. Every major camera manufacturer now produces a mirrorless camera system, with only Canon, Nikon, and Pentax still making traditional DSLRs with optical viewfinders. There's a reason for that: Optical viewfinders are difficult to make, they require bulky mirror boxes that are tough to design around, and electronic viewfinders have improved dramatically in the past few years.
The Rebel SL1 shows that, as cumbersome as some of the traditional DSLR elements can be, there's plenty of room for smart, pithy design choices to preserve the soul of a DSLR while shedding most of the bulk. The SL1's claims of being the "smallest, lightest" DSLR don't have the usual stink of vain, corporate one-upmanship, but rather the feel of a legitimate step forward in DSLR design. The result is a respectful disagreement with the notion that the optical viewfinder is obsolete; the SL1's design is a de facto admission that, yes, smaller cameras are desirable, but it legitimizes the movement towards compact cameras while dismissing the idea that the future will only be mirrorless.
Of course, while we're fans of what Canon has done from a design perspective, the SL1 still has some issues that need improvement. From a pure performance standpoint, the SL1 lags behind similar mid-range models from other companies. Canon has now released seven different models that feature roughly this same 18-megapixel APS-C image sensor (the EOS 60D, T5i, T4i, T3i, T2i, EOS M, and SL1) and it has simply been outdone by the latest models from Nikon, Pentax, and Sony. Economy of scale is nice (as are the improvements Canon has made to live view/video autofocus, with Dual Pixel CMOS AF showing particular promise), but it's well past time for Canon to upgrade their APS-C sensor technology.
At this part of the market, these are sins that we can overlook, however. If you're after pure performance (or weather-sealing), a mid-range DSLR might be more your style. You can also get the same performance from a mid-range mirrorless camera that will be even smaller. But the Rebel SL1 is a compelling choice for its mix of size, performance, optical viewfinder, and dead simple ease-of-use. It's an ideal choice for those looking for a good all-around beginner DSLR, especially if you want the comfort of an optical viewfinder but don't want to lug around a full-size DSLR.
Should you upgrade if you have an older Rebel T2i or a T3i already? Only if you're desperate to trim down the size of your kit, as performance is practically identical. But for those looking to wade easily into the world of DSLRs for the first time, the Rebel SL1 is as good a starting point, even if there is better performance to be had elsewhere.
If there's one area where we recommend stepping up to the Canon Rebel T5i (or, preferably, the Canon 70D or Nikon D5200/D7100), it's for those who want to capture action. The Rebel SL1 can shoot at a respectable-if-lackluster 3.5 frames per second (4 during peak conditions), but the 9-point autofocus system is the same one found on Canon's entry-level T3, which came out in 2011. While this is surely a cost-effective decision for Canon, what's the point of economies of scale if you can't bring better components to cheaper models and keep prices affordable?
The AF system is fine when capturing shots of a static subject, but it can struggle tracking a moving subject around the frame. The issue is twofold: Only the center point is cross-type sensitive, and there's too large of a gap between points, often confusing Canon's AI Servo AF mode. Even the 9-point (9 cross-type) sensor from the T5i would've been an improvement here, let alone something like the 39-point AF found in Nikon's D5200.
Ultimately, the lack of a superior AF system is just puzzling. Canon built its reputation among the professional ranks by offering superior autofocus performance and the Dual Pixel CMOS AF tech found in the EOS 70D is revolutionary. Autofocus should be a hallmark of every Canon DSLR, not an area where Nikon is handily eating Canon's lunch. Yes, the entry-level users don't need 1D X-level performance, but given that so many first-time buyers are specifically snagging a DSLR to capture shots of sports games and sugar-fueled children, this seems like an area where Canon should really reconsider cheaping out.
In our video performance tests, we found the Canon Rebel SL1 was an able performer. Though it lacks the video functionality of the more expensive Rebels in Canon's lineup, the SL1 does feature manual control, a 3.5mm mic jack, and 1080p 30/24fps h.264 video shooting. While there's no clean HDMI output, the rear touchscreen is actually very nicely put to use during video recording, with on-screen controls for exposure/ISO, and autofocus in addition to the usual informational displays.
From an actual performance standpoint, the SL1 kept its own with recent Canon cameras. We noticed the usual macroblocking artifacting, with smooth motion and only a hint of trailing mostly around high-contrast objects. While the lack of 1080/60p is a bummer, it's to be expected given Canon's sluggishness to adopt the AVCHD 2.0 standard in its camcorders and high-end DSLRs as well. The video from the SL1 was acceptably sharp, though the smooth focusing of the STM kit lens does mean having to live with a generally soft image straight from the camera. You can probably pull some more detail out in post, or you can get a better lens.
One area where Canon has improved video is with low light sensitivity. While the expanded ISOs (12800 and 25600 in still shooting modes) aren't very useful for photos due to the abundance of noise, they do play a useful role in video. Well, ISO 12800 does, since 25600 isn't available while shooting video. That said, the increased ISO range does allow for some extreme low light capture, with the SL1 capable of producing a 50 IRE image with just three lux of light on a white target. This isn't the best we've seen, but three lux of light is about what you get at night close to a major city, so it's pretty impressive.
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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