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Canon EOS 400D review: Canon EOS 400D

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The Good Great for aspiring photographers. Compact and lightweight. Fast and responsive. Intelligently designed with shooting-friendly layout.

The Bad Second status LCD has been eliminated. Slow kit lens. No spot metering. Poor exposure of backlit subjects.

The Bottom Line The Canon 400D remains a very good first dSLR, with a balance of automatic, semi-automatic and manual controls to progress through as your creative photography skills improve.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.6 Overall

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Editor's note: Canon has dropped the price of the EOS 400D from AU$1299 to AU$799.

The sub-AU$1,500 price point makes the 400D an attractive offering to a wide range of photographers, from first-time dSLR buyers who have outgrown their compact snapshooters, right up to professional photographers looking for a secondary camera for shoots. To reflect this split in target market, we are presenting our review of the 400D from two distinct points of view: first is a hands-on evaluation by CNET.com.au's dSLR-newcomer Jeremy Roche (below), followed by an in-depth analysis of the 400D by photography guru Lori Grunin.

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Canon has tweaked a few aspects of the design to improve shooting ergonomics, including a thumb rest, something we complained about on the 350D (inset).

Design
Canon's latest entry-level digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) camera, the EOS 400D (also known as the EOS Digital Rebel XTi), supersedes Canon's wildly popular 350D. The main differences between the two models are an increase in resolution (up from 8 megapixels on the 350D to 10.1 megapixels on the 400D), improved auto focus (nine focal points on the 400D rather than the 350D's seven) and a larger, 2.5-inch LCD (up from the 300D's 1.8-inch screen).

We soon learned the knack of quickly swapping Canon's EOS lenses onto the body of the 400D to minimise the amount of time dust has to creep onto the camera's sensor. The 400D is one step ahead, however, as it automatically cleans the sensor every time you switch it on or off -- we like to imagine a teeny windscreen wiper system inside doing the job, but as the process is entirely hidden and automatic, we are unable to confirm this.

Starting out, we stuck to the even-my-grandmother-could-use-this fully automatic setting, as we slowly waded into further settings, such as the 400D's user-selectable nine-point auto-focus system. The 179-page bundled instruction manual helps you get to grips with various settings and the layout of the camera, including its 20-odd array of buttons. There's also a quick start guide for eager beavers.

Beneath the eyepiece, which you must use to frame your shot, is a 2.5-inch LCD purely for reviewing photos and adjusting settings. Many first-time dSLR users are put off by the inability on some models to use the LCD as a viewfinder, but we came to love the what you see is what you get aspect of using the eyepiece. Holding the camera to your eye also stabilises it somewhat -- useful in low light situations where blurry shots tend to occur.

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Our only nitpick with the controls is the large power switch, which is very easy to flip while stowing the 400D in a camera bag.

Features
Although the 400D is Canon's entry-level dSLR, don't be fooled into thinking it's just for beginners. On the top is a shooting mode dial with seven easy-to-use presets for a range of environments -- portrait, action, landscape, close-up, night portrait, flash off and full auto. However, it's the 400D's five creative zones that give amateurs room to develop their skills.

First up in the "creative zone" is Shutter-priority mode, a setting that allows you to freeze the action in a shot or create a motion blur by leaving the shutter open for longer. Aperture-priority mode changes the depth of field allowing you to obtain softly blurred backgrounds or, alternatively, get everything in the frame into focus. The Manual exposure mode lets you set both the aperture and shutter speed, while the Automatic depth-of-field uses the nine auto-focus points to ensure objects in the foreground and background are both in focus. Finally, Program auto-exposure sets the shutter speed and aperture automatically, giving users the ability to shift both at once with the main adjustment dial. Tweaks can also be made to the ISO speed, exposure, colour space, white balance, bracketing and focal points through the menu.

The 400D's 10-megapixel sensor (3888 by 2592 pixels) allows you to print professional looking photos up to 13 by 8.6 inches (32.9 by 21.9cm). Be aware, though, that shooting at high resolution takes up a lot of space and unfortunately a CompactFlash card is not included with the 400D. We'd suggest a 1GB card so you don't have to scramble back to a PC to download your shots.

Recommended retail pricing for the Canon 400D starts at AU$1,299 for the camera body (black only) alone -- you'll need to purchase lenses separately. The standard kit, which includes a 18-55mm EOS lens, costs AU$1,499. There's also a AU$1,649 twin lens kit (available in black or silver), which is basically the standard kit with a paparazzi-style 75-300mm telephoto lens included.

The package Canon lent us to review, however, would make any aspiring photographer jump with glee: the EOS 400D twin lens kit, lens cleaning cloth, remote control switch, high-speed 1GB CompactFlash card, spare battery, tripod and a spiffy Crumpler camera carry bag -- Australian-based bag maker Crumpler makes some great looking bags that carry all your gear neatly, with padded compartments for storing a camera and two lenses.

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The Canon EOS 400D's LCD's status display is extremely useful and easy to read, and it provides a single place to change all the relevant settings.

Performance
With a fully charged battery we found the 400D lived up to Canon's claims of around 500 shots with no flash and 360 shots using the flash half the time. If you know you'll be away from a power source for more than a day or are using the camera a lot in a given day, we'd suggest buying a backup battery to take with you.

Photos we took with the 400D looked stunning; colours were reproduced accurately; and images were crisp and clear. Using the telephoto lens at 300mm, we noticed a lot of blurriness caused by camera shake in our pictures -- using a tripod helped considerably.

--Jeremy Roche

What's true for doctors applies equally to consumer electronics manufacturers: First, do no harm. Canon is usually pretty good at adhering to that philosophy, making only minor changes to successful products and saving the daring moves for the models that need it. Now, changing sensors isn't normally considered terribly daring when it comes to digital cameras. But when its predecessor -- in this case, the EOS 350D -- was renowned for producing excellent, low-noise photos at a more-than-adequate 8-megapixel resolution, it's risky to replace it with a higher-resolution but potentially lower-sensitivity chip as Canon did with the EOS 400D. Perhaps the Nikon D80 upped the stakes; perhaps Canon felt it was an inevitable necessity. Whatever the reason, it yields mixed results.

Design
Sticking with similar sensor dimensions allowed Canon to keep the same moderately compact design for the EOS 400D, though it weighs 113g more than its 485g predecessor. With the small, exceptionally light kit lens, the camera felt well balanced in our hands. Attached to the substantially larger and heavier 16mm-to-35mm (25.6mm-to-56mm equivalent) lens or the Speedlite 580EX flash, however, makes the 400D feel a bit lopsided.

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On the 400D, hitting the Set button while shooting brings up the new Picture Style selections.

Although much of the design remains the same as the 350D's -- it comes in either black or metallic-silver plastic -- there are a couple of key changes. The LCD display grew from 1.8 to 2.5 inches, which essentially squeezed the status/info LCD into the ether. On one hand, using the main LCD allows for an exceptionally readable, in-your-face method of monitoring the settings. However, the paper-white background gets distracting, and the automatic sensor -- which blanks it when you put your eye to the viewfinder -- makes it even more so. You can turn it off altogether, but the info in the viewfinder doesn't include ISO speed, white balance, battery level, and other useful settings that generally display on a status LCD.

In most other respects, the control layout on the 400D mimics that of the 350D, which is pretty much how it's been on Canon dSLRs since the beginning. That's an unfoolish consistency we can get behind. It can also accept all the same accessories as the 350D does.

Features
For better -- or sometimes worse -- the feature set of the Canon EOS 400D remains roughly the same as the 350D's. The kit version comes with the F3.5-to-F5.6, 18mm-to-55mm EF-S lens (28.8mm-to-88mm equivalent, thanks to the 400D's 1.6x conversion factor), which is a trifle too slow for frequent indoor shooters.

Most amateurs will find all the essentials: a handful of manual, semimanual, and automatic exposure modes; user-selectable nine-point autofocus, and AI Servo autofocus for moving subjects; and simultaneous RAW-plus-JPEG capture. To keep up with the camera Joneses, the CMOS chip in the 400D is now self-cleaning. Similar to many other dSLRs, the low-pass filter layer vibrates when the camera powers off or on in order to shake dust away from the sensor; plus, there's an antistatic coating on the filter that repels dust. Furthermore, a bit of adhesive surrounding the sensor is designed to grab the dust, keeping it from flying around inside the camera chassis. In addition to dust control, Canon has split the low-pass filter into two parts, effectively placing whatever dust does settle beyond the range of focus.

LCD

Simply metering on the subject's face should have solved this shot's exposure problem, but the partial metering didn't work (left). A spot meter probably would have been able to handle it. Instead, I had to boost the exposure value of the entire scene by jumping to ISO 400 (right).

Unfortunately, like the EOS 350D, the 400D lacks a spot meter; it supplies only evaluative, center-weighted average, and partial center-weighted metering. There is simply no substitute for a spot in tricky lighting situations. In fact, we couldn't avoid severe underexposures of a backlit subject with the available metering tools, which is inexcusable for a camera of this class.

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