The Canon EOS 350D represents a leap forward from its predecessor, the original EOS 300D, offering more than one might expect from the addition of a couple consonants to the name. The 350D is a zippy performer. It offers more creative control than its predecessor and boasts an 8-megapixel CMOS sensor and Canon's Digic II processing engine.
Canon touts its smaller, lighter body as well; it's nearly as small as you can get in a digital SLR. But while that might appeal to the small handed and nimble, the 350D's compressed, lightweight, and slightly chintzy-feeling frame will be a hindrance to others who prefer a solid grip and a balanced camera body -- particularly if they're using a lens any heavier than the mediocre 18mm-to-55mm f/3.5-to-f/5.6 unit included in the kit.
In terms of image quality, the 350D is a bargain, delivering wonderfully detailed and colourful images for a competitive price. While the 350D lacks some features found on the more solid and slightly pricier Nikon D70, the 350D is the clear winner when it comes to resolution and dynamic range.
The all-plastic Canon EOS 350D is extremely lightweight for an SLR. Without a lens, it weighs only about 490 grams. It also comes in your choice of a traditional matte-black or brushed-silver finish. The body is quite small, too, about a half-inch narrower than the EOS 300D. The only dSLR that's more compact is Pentax's *ist DS.
While the camera's size and weight make it wonderfully portable for travel, we found it a little uncomfortable for prolonged shooting. The hard plastic and only slightly textured grip aren't ergonomically designed for average-size hands, and the limited real estate makes it too easy to accidentally trip buttons while shooting. That's particularly true of the autoexposure-lock button on the upper-right side of the camera back, which sits where your thumb needs to be to keep the camera balanced. These quirks become much more noticeable when you're using a Canon EF-mount lens other than the very lightweight zoom included in the kit.
Most controls are laid out well. There isn't enough space on top of the camera to display camera status, but a status readout appears above the rear LCD monitor. The power switch is secure and out of the way alongside the top command dial, which is logically labeled with standard exposure abbreviations and six scene-mode icons (although one of those "scenes" is Flash Off, the only flash adjustment you can make without menu surfing). On the back, there's a pad of four-way directional buttons designed to enable quick adjustments of ISO, autofocus, white balance, and metering mode. While you must make these adjustments within the LCD menu system, pushing the buttons brings you directly to them. The control dial located on top of the grip primarily changes aperture, shutter speed, and when used in tandem with a button on the back, exposure compensation.
The Canon EOS 350D loosens a number of the restrictions that bound EOS 300D shooters. It offers more flexibility with respect to metering mode, with easily selectable evaluative, partial, or center-weighted average metering (but still no spot metering). There are also more options with flash-exposure control and autofocus selection via the One Shot, AI Servo, and AI Focus modes.
The 350D can simultaneously record raw and high-quality JPEG files, whereas the original 300D's raw-plus-JPEG mode could capture only lower-quality JPEGs. You can also override the automatic seven-point AiAF focusing -- a good thing, given its occasional unreliability -- but doing so requires first pushing a button to initialise the process, then navigating to one of the seven points using either the directional buttons or the main dial. It's a little clunky, but you can actually streamline the process by changing the camera's custom settings to eliminate the first step.
Shooting choices include the four basic exposure modes, a depth-of-field priority mode, a fully automatic mode, and six scene options: Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Portrait, and Flash Off. The 350D provides colour-space options of either Adobe RGB or the default sRGB. It also allows tinkering with sharpness, contrast, and colour through the menu's Parameter settings. A black-and-white mode has trickled down from Canon's EOS 20D as well. This camera also features adjustable white-balance bracketing and exposure bracketing. As with its predecessor and similarly priced "advanced amateur" dSLR models, the 350D offers a maximum ISO of 1,600; it can't capture TIFF files, and it doesn't allow the white balance to be set according to colour temperature. Nine custom settings allow you to control such parameters as flash-sync speed (to 1/200 second), exposure-level increments (from 1/3-stop to 1/2-stop), and shutter-curtain sync (first- and second-curtain flash sync).
Along with other software, the 350D comes with Canon's excellent Digital Photo Professional 1.6 program for raw file processing. It also supports Canon's sophisticated E-TTLII external-flash system and is compatible with an optional vertical grip that adds more battery power and a second shutter release. For wireless multiple-flash support, you'll have to purchase an accessory transmitter -- one respect in which this camera falls short of Nikon's D70 and D70s.
The Canon EOS 350D continues the trend of increasing zippiness in consumer-grade dSLR models. Particularly impressive is its nearly instantaneous start-up time. In our tests, we fired up the camera and took a shot in only 0.2 second. The shutter lag was a miniscule 0.2 second at its slowest -- this is a very responsive camera. We clocked a shot-to-shot time of just 0.4 second when shooting raw files and slightly less when shooting only high-resolution, low-compression JPEGs.
Less impressive was the camera's continuous-shooting speed, which in our tests for JPEGs scored a little less than the 3 frames per second (fps) claimed by Canon, for only 10 frames, compared with Canon's claim of 14. Interestingly enough, the rate was closer to 4fps when shooting raw files, but the buffer filled after only 5 shots. This is one key area in which Canon obviously seeks to maintain distance between the capabilities of the consumer 350D and those of the semipro EOS 20D.
The 350D's viewfinder provides 95 percent coverage, which is typical for its class, and it's sufficiently clear and bright. Its 1.8-inch LCD is also sharp and bright, though it can still be challenging to read in open sunlight.
The 350D runs on Canon's diminutive NB-2LH lithium-ion battery pack, which is the same one used by point-and-shoots such as the PowerShot S60. That explains, in part, the XT's smaller, lighter form factor (the previous 300D used the larger BP-511A battery). It also speaks to the power efficiencies of the Digic II processor. The 350D was good for more than 1,100 frames of real-world shooting with moderate flash use before the low-battery indicator appeared.
The Canon EOS 350D makes gloriously detailed 8-megapixel images and offers unsurpassed image quality for a consumer dSLR. That said, a comparison of output shot with the EF-S 18mm-to-55mm f/3.5-to-f/5.6 zoom lens included with the kit and Canon's fantastic EF 24mm-to-70mm f/2.8 zoom (which retails for more than the 350D itself) reveals the limitations of the kit lens. The former's output was prone to softness at telephoto settings, slight barrel distortion at the 18mm end, and fringing around backlit borders. While these flaws were relatively minor, the output of the big-money lens revealed just what the 350D is capable of: Tack-sharp images with a superior tonal range and extraordinary detail from shadows to highlights. For those reasons, we'd recommend buying the 350D body without the kit lens and investing in even moderately better glass; the 350D is capable of so much more.
But even with the shortcomings of the kit lens, image quality is impressive. Colours are saturated and generally natural, although the automatic white balance tends toward warm and yellowish in some situations. We recommend shooting raw files for the best quality and so that you can make white-balance adjustments after shooting if necessary. Noise levels are remarkably low and barely noticeable at ISO settings less than 1,600. Even at 1,600, we found the noise to be very manageable. If you shoot long exposures, you can also turn on Canon's noise-reduction filter through the custom settings.