Canon EOS Rebel T3 Review
The T3 is Canon's entry-level DSLR for 2011, debuting at a kit price of just $599.
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The Canon Rebel T3 is the spiritual successor to the Rebel XS and XSi models, entering Canon's lineup as the company's least expensive current generation DSLR.
Despite the low price tag, the T3 comes with 720/30p HD video and slides in just beneath the more expensive Rebel T3i. As such, it's evident that Canon has stooped to some feature gouging, both to make up the price difference and to refrain from eating into the higher-end sales. We're left with a rather plain DSLR, stripped of its pomp and frills. Hopefully, performance and image quality aren't as skimpy as this model's chintzy plastic chassis. Forward then, to the lab!
Design & Usability
The T3 feels cheap to the touch, but its navigation is solid.
Handling is really where the T3 suffers. It's a very lightweight camera, which is wonderful, but the shooting experience is hampered by some design choices that seem predicated by cost more than ergonomics. The camera just doesn't feel stable in the hand, and the grip is not the plush rubber we've seen on every other Canon DSLR. Instead, it's a solid material that has some resistance to it, but has none of the texture or give that we expect from a camera of this variety. It feels cheap.
The buttons are nicely formed and have an excellent design flow, as well as clear, audible clicks. There is a dedicated live view/record button, as well, and all the controls are now placed on the right side of the camera's backside to ease single-handed operation. The menu is the same tabbed setup we've come to expect from Canon. The tabs minimize the chore of excessive scrolling and they're color coded nicely. The T3 also offers a custom "My Menu" tab, allowing users to deposit the settings of their choice onto a single tab for easy access. The T3 uses a fairly basic 2.7-inch rear LCD, with just 230k dot resolution. It's functional for manually focusing, and it also reacts well to changes in exposure, providing a good idea of the relative brightness of the final image as you adjust settings. There is also an optical viewfinder, offering approximately 95% coverage as well as a diopter range of -2.5 to +0.5 m-1, and a magnification of about 0.8x. It's not a perfect viewfinder, but it's a superior option to shooting with live view, especially for focus speed.
The T3 does not bother with many of the fun modes that today's compact cameras tend to offer.
The T3 offers a range of familiar shooting modes. Amongst these are the typical shutter/aperture-priority, program auto, and full manual modes, but there are also several auto modes, some of which cover scenarios ranging from portrait, to macro, to sports scenes. For all this, some users may feel disappointed with their step up to the T3, because it lacks some of the specialty modes and digital filters that many compact cameras offer. In-camera editing is missing too, save the rotate function and a five-star rating feature. A variety of color profiles are available though, and three of them are even customizable.
The hardware on the T3 is a bit of mixed bag. A 12-megapixel sensor performs very well for the price, but the camera is saddled by a poor 18-55mm kit lens. True, the T3 has an EF mount, which is compatible with both EF and EF-S lenses, which means photographers can use any lens from a vast Canon library that spans from the dirt-cheap (and highly recommended) 50mm f/1.8 lenses to the professional L-series line. Bear in mind though, that a camera like this won't get the most out of an $8000 dollar lens—so don't get too carried away. As for video capability, Canon has released multiple DSLRs that have at least some level of control during video recording, so it's hard to believe that the T3's hamstrung video control is anything but an attempt to make the pricier T3i more attractive via SKU differentiation. Video quality is nice, but this mode lacks control and it's resolution maxes out at 720/30p.
The T3 is like a luxury car without the options. Sure, it might not have air conditioned leather seats, but it's a solid performer where it counts.
The Canon T3 performed very well for an entry-level camera—in some ways, even marginally upstaging the more expensive T3i—with fine color accuracy, decent dynamic range, and very little image noise. This camera is right on par with nearly every other sub-$1000 DSLR we have tested, with only a poor kit lens and lack of sharpness to hold it back. The lens is not that bad wide-open through f/10, but your best bet is to just buy a better one, even if you're looking for affordability first.
The T3's best performance came in white balance accuracy, where it handled a variety of lighting conditions without complaint. The only lighting condition that the T3 had any real trouble with was the same that we see with all DSLR cameras: tungsten lighting. This refers generally to household light bulbs, which emit very warm light which auto white balance has difficulty metering. White balance customization will take care of the problem though, and the image sensor does a great job across the board. The T3's phase detection autofocus system works well too, with nine cross-type AF points. The 720/30p video mode isn't particularly sharp, but it handles motion quite well and if you aren't in a dark bar, it's quite reliable.
Image quality on a budget
The Canon T3 is an entry-level DSLR camera, coming in at just $499 for the body only. As such, we weren't expecting miracles, though the camera does suffer from obvious cost-cutting in production and a truncated feature-set that keeps the T3 placed firmly below the T3i in the Canon model line. One thing that hasn't been cut is the image quality—the sensor performs very well for this price point.
The spec sheet is a bit limited, though, and the T3 offers less resolution than the T1i, with the least powerful flash Canon has included in some time, a rather poor kit lens, and a grip that is cheaper than every entry-level Canon DSLR as far back as the 300D from eight years ago. The T3 performs as well or better than those cameras in terms of image quality, but Canon seems to be cutting closer to the bone with this model than some of their previous entry-level efforts.
That isn't to say the T3 isn't a good camera, as it offers quite a lot for the price. However, it's a troubling step backward in build quality from previous models. Those with a functional XS or XSi shouldn't be chomping at the bit for an upgrade, but those looking for simple operation and solid image quality in a rather inexpensive camera body will be very satisfied with the T3—though we'd recommend picking up a better lens, since Canon offers substantially better options.
The handling on this plastic T3 may feel iffy, but image quality isn't. This camera excelled in terms of color accuracy, dynamic range, noise, and white balance. We only wish it came with a better lens, because image sharpness left something to be desired.
Color & White Balance
The Canon T3 offered surprisingly accurate colors for an entry-level price, with great white balancing to go along with it.
The T3 offered perfect 100.2% saturation levels and a delta C color error of approximately 2.8 with its faithful color mode setting. Almost all the color modes kept the average color error under 4, usually emphasizing specific colors depending on the mode. The color modes are all customizable, with slider settings to adjust sharpness, saturation, contrast, and color tone on a +/- 8 scale, along with three user-defined settings.
The most accurate color mode on offer is the faithful setting, as we have seen with other Canon DSLRs. The other modes all tend to emphasize specific characteristics of the image in order to change the image. Most of them emphasize sharpness specifically, with only the neutral and faithful modes offering no added sharpness. The neutral mode was less accurate under our lab lights, but the faithful mode is specifically tailored to a color temperature of 5200 kelvin (our lab lights are 4700 kelvin, but we use a custom white balance that accounts for some of the difference).
Automatic white balance returned very little error under daylight conditions, off by just 66 kelvins on average. Under compact white fluorescent lighting, that error jumped up to 133 kelvins, but would still be considered very minor. Tungsten lighting was not handled particularly well by the automatic white balance meter, with an average error of 1673 kelvins. Still, the strength of the camera under daylight and fluorescent lighting was enough to keep the T3 scores high in this category.
Moreover, custom white balance worked very well in all lighting conditions, with the most egregious error found under tungsten lighting, but that error was still just 184.5 kelvins on average off of the ideal, which is a very accurate result. The next worse error was found under daylight conditions, where the T3 returned an average color error of 125 kelvins. This was worse than the camera performed with its automatic white balance, which isn't terribly uncommon for daytime lighting as many automatic white balances seem tuned to handle daylight well in particular. Under compact white fluorescent lighting, the T3 had a color error of just 70.33 kelvins, giving it another great score.
The Canon T3 had excellent scores on noise performance, rendering completely usable images up to ISO 3200.
The noise reduction on the Canon T3 is more subtle than it is with other cameras, but it doesn't need to be aggressive with this camera. With noise reduction disabled, the camera shows just 0.52% noise at the minimum ISO speed of 100, rising to just 2.14% average noise at ISO 6400. Compare that to the maximum noise reduction setting, which returned 0.44% noise at ISO 100, and 1.02% noise at 6400. Those aren't major swings, and really the low and medium noise reduction settings are fine enough. The major culprit with the T3 is noise in the red channel, which spikes to over 3% luminance noise and 2.5% color noise at ISO 6400. On average, however, noise is not a major concern.
The T3 offers three levels of noise reduction, but they're hardly needed, as noise doesn't even cross 2% until ISO 6400. There are specific color channel noise issues, but in general noise was kept to an absolute minimum—even outperforming the more expensive T3i.
Sharpness & Dynamic Range
The kit lens is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but dynamic range performance is on par with more expensive models.
Typically, with a DSLR lens, we like to see sharpness over over 1000 lw/ph at a variety of apertures and at least in the center of the lens. The T3's 18-55mm kit lens could barely crack 900 lw/ph in the majority of our test shots, and only barely cracked 1000 on average in two. The lens is sharpest at the wide angle from the maximum aperture of f/3.5 through f/8, but even then it only has a sharpness measurement of around 1200 lw/ph in the center of the lens. Given the way they price DSLRs, it likely will make no difference in price to get the 18-55mm kit over body-only, but buy a better lens to get the most out of your camera.
The T3 posted very good dynamic range results, keeping more than seven stops of clean dynamic range at ISO speeds as high as 400, only dropping to 6.79 at ISO 800. Things fell off more dramatically from there, dropping down to 2.94 stops at ISO 6400. These are very good results, especially from an entry-level DSLR, and they're right on par with what we usually see out of Canon's higher up models.
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