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Canon EOS Rebel SL1 review: A dSLR for dainty hands

The Canon EOS Rebel SL1 tries to bring the dSLR camera to folks who want more compact dSLRs, but it just ends up in limbo.

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
9 min read

About six-and-a-half years ago, Olympus announced the E-Volt E-410, which at that point became the smallest dSLR ever. In the years since, I don't remember anybody attempting to match it for size. But given that it used a Four Thirds-size sensor -- smaller than the traditional APS-C size sensor that's used by consumer dSLRs -- that was pretty unsurprising. Now Canon's EOS Rebel SL1 manages to outdo the E-410 for lightness and compactness, at least in two dimensions (the E-410 was thinner), becoming the smallest dSLR available.

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (with 18-55mm STM lens)

Canon EOS Rebel SL1

The Good

Sized for small-to-medium hands, the <b>Canon EOS Rebel SL1</b> delivers the expected photo and video quality in a comfortable and well-executed design.

The Bad

It's pretty slim on features.

The Bottom Line

While the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 is a perfectly reasonable entry-level dSLR, you can get the same photo and video quality in a smaller body for the same money (or less) by opting for a mirrorless interchangeable-lens model.

The result is a nice, fast, though somewhat feature-light, dSLR that I find very comfortable to grip one-handed. Then again, I have relatively diminutive hands compared with the more masculinely proportioned Josh Goldman (CNET's other digital imaging editor), who finds the grip exceptionally cramped. However, it's still significantly bigger than competing interchangeable-lens compacts like the Sony Alpha NEX-6, which makes the more compact design dubiously advantageous.

Essentially a shrunken version of the T5i that's targeted at folks with smaller hands -- the SL stands for "super lightweight," though Canon might as well as have gone with WF for "womenfolk" -- there are a few notable differences between the SL1 and its big brother. For one, it incorporates an updated version of the company's hybrid CMOS, which Canon claims offers a larger area dedicated to the contrast AF system for better autofocus outside the center area during Live View shooting and movie capture. (And it makes me wonder why they didn't use this sensor in the T5i.) Other differences include a fixed, rather than articulated, version of the touch-screen LCD, a slightly slower continuous-shooting capability, and mono audio. The battery life is also weaker, as it uses the same battery pack as the EOS M.

Image quality
For the most part, the photo and video look about the same as those from the T5i. Still-photo colors aren't bad with the default Picture Style settings, though there are some hue shifts. JPEGs look clean up through ISO 800, which is typical for this class, and usable at full scale to about ISO 1600 and ISO 6400 at smaller magnifications. While a 13x19 print of an ISO 1600 photo wasn't quite as clean or sharp as I would have liked, it doesn't look that bad, but that's still not as good as the T5i.

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 photo samples

See all photos

There also seems to be a little more blooming and fringing on edges than I'm used to, as well as high-contrast edges that the in-camera image processing isn't dealing with.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 800
ISO 3200

Video looks good, but not significantly better than you get from similarly priced competitors. While I didn't see any rolling shutter, there's quite a bit of aliasing and moire. I do like the tonality of low-light video, despite the appearance of some color noise on blacks.

The SL1's performance is close enough to the T5i's to be identical with the exception of continuous shooting; that is, overall it's very good and certainly as good as you'd expect when stepping up to a dSLR. It takes about 0.6 second to power on, focus, and shoot -- the Canon tends to be a little slower than the Nikon D3200, but it's still faster in this aspect than the Sony NEX-6. Time to focus, expose, and shoot in bright light runs about 0.3 second and 0.8 second in dim light. The latter isn't spectacular but pretty average. It typically takes about 0.2 second (JPEG) to 0.3 second (raw) for two sequential shots; JPEG and raw times really differ because of rounding beyond the margin of error, so they're effectively the same. Flash increases shot-to-shot time to a respectable 0.7 second.

While testing using a 95MBps SD card, the JPEG burst buffer didn't slow at as high as 30 shots, sustaining a rate of 4.1 frames per second, while raw burst a little faster at 4.4fps, but slowed significantly (and erratically) after 10 shots.

Overall, the camera's performance is up to its intended tasks -- photographing kids, pets, and vacations -- albeit with some caveats. The autofocus works relatively quickly and accurately in both still and Live View/Video, as long as you don't rely on the camera to choose the AF points (no camera chooses the correct subject). Using the touch focus in Live View is a big help. Like the rest of the Rebels, though, the viewfinder has tiny little focus points that are almost impossible to center over your subject while shooting burst. You pretty much have to rely on happy accidents to get sharp, correctly framed action shots.

The only problem is the LCD. On one hand, it has the same great touch screen and interface as the T5i's, which is really nice for navigating the settings and shooting video. But it's nearly impossible to see in direct sunlight, and since it doesn't articulate like the T5i's, you're stuck. It's not much of a problem for shooting stills, since you can see most of the relevant settings you need to change in the viewfinder, but shooting video outdoors can get really frustrating.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot
Raw shot-to-shot time
Typical shot-to-shot time
Shutter lag (dim light)
Shutter lag (typical)
Sony Alpha NEX-6
Canon EOS Rebel T5i
Canon EOS Rebel SL1
Nikon D3200
Nikon D5200
Typical continuous-shooting speed (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Canon EOS Rebel SL1

Design and features
Smaller and lighter than its dSLR competitors, SL1 in design sacrifices surprisingly little to shave some size off the T5i. Most of the difference is in the grip, which is shallower and lower than the bigger camera's, and the LCD, which is fixed rather than articulated.

On the right shoulder of the camera sits the mode dial, which has the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, plus a three-way on/off/movie switch. In addition to the three multishot modes offered by the T5i -- HDR Backlight Control (which automatically combines four image exposures to retain detail in shadow and highlight areas for backlit subjects), a four-shot Handheld Night Scene mode, and Night Portrait -- the SL1 includes kids, food, and candlelight scene modes. The mode dial itself is smaller than on the T5i but still manageable.

The SL1's body compared with the T5i. Sarah Tew/CNET

The controls on the back are smaller and flatter than those on the T5i, though the layout is roughly the same. The big difference here is the lack of functions attached to the navigation buttons -- you've got to use the touch screen to choose autofocus mode, drive mode, white balance, and Picture Styles, though I didn't find it much of an inconvenience (except in direct sunlight, when I couldn't see the screen).

The touch screen is responsive and has an intelligent user interface, including the usual capabilities, like touch focus, that streamline Live View shooting. You don't have to use it if you don't want to, though operations like selecting ISO sensitivity go much faster when you can directly select rather than having to cycle through them. Overall, I find Canon's interface straightforward and easy to use.

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 Canon EOS Rebel T5i Nikon D3200 Pentax K-50 Sony Alpha NEX-6 Sony Alpha SLT-A58
Sensor effective resolution 18MP Hybrid CMOS II 18MP hybrid CMOS 24.2MP CMOS 16.3MP CMOS
(12 bits)
16.1MP Exmor HD CMOS
20.1MP Exmor HD CMOS
22.3mm x 14.9mm 22.3mm x 14.9mm 23.2mm x 15.4mm 23.7mm x 15.7mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.2mm x 15.4mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 12800/ 25600 (exp) ISO 100 (exp)/
200 - ISO 6400/ 12800 (exp)
ISO 100 - ISO 51200 ISO 100 - ISO 25600 ISO 100 - ISO 16000
Burst shooting 4fps
8 raw/ unlimited JPEG
6 raw/22 JPEG
8 raw/30 JPEG
11 raw/15 JPEG
(10fps with fixed exposure)
6 raw/7 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) 95% coverage
95% coverage
0.85x/ 0.53x

95% coverage
0.80x/ 0.53x

100% coverage
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
Electronic OLED
0.5 inch/ 480,000 dots
100% coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
center cross-type;
31-point contrast AF
9-pt AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 11-pt AF
center cross-type
11-pt AF
9 cross-type
99-point phase detection, 25-area contrast AF 15-pt phase-detection
3 cross-type
AF sensitivity -0.5 to 18 EV -0.5 to 18 EV -1 to 19 EV -1 to 18 EV 0 to 20 EV -1 to 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/6,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 seconds; bulb; 1/160 x-sync
Metering 63-zone iFCL 63-zone iFCL 420-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 77-segment 1,200-zone 1,200-zone
Metering sensitivity 1 to 20 EV 1 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 22 EV 0 - 20 EV n/a
Best video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/
24p/25p; 720/50p/ 60p
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/ 24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440 x 1080/30p @ 12Mbps AVCHD 1080/60i/ 50i/25p/24p @ 24Mbps
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input Mono; mic input Mono Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes n/a Yes n/a
IS Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift Optical Sensor shift
LCD size 3-inch fixed touch screen
1.04 MP
3-inch articulated, touch screen
1.04 MP
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
3-inch fixed
921,000 dots
3-inch tilting touch screen
921,600 dots
2.7-inch tilting
460,800 dots
Memory slots 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC 1 x SDXC
Wireless flash Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 380 shots 440 shots 540 shots 710 (AA lithium); 410 (lithium ion) 270 shots
(with viewfinder)
690 shots
Size (WHD, inches) 4.6 x 3.6 x 2.7 5.2 x 3.9 x 3.1 5 x 3.8 x 3.1 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.8 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.1 5.1 x 3.8 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 14.9 20.8 17.6 22.9 (est) 12.3 17.4 (est)
Mfr. price $649.99 (body only) $749.99 (body only) n/a $699.95 (body only) $649.99 (body only) n/a
$799.99 (with 18-55mm STM lens) $899.99 (with 18-55mm STM lens) $699.95 (with 18-55mm lens) $779.95 (with 18-55mm WR lens) $799.99 (with 15-60mm PZ lens) $599.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
n/a $1,099.99 (with 18-135mm STM lens) n/a $879.95 (with 18-55mm WR and 50-200 WR lenses) n/a n/a
Release date April 2013
April 2013 April 2012 July 2013 October 2012 April 2013

But without even an articulated display, the camera disappoints even more than the T5i on its features. It's got the basics you'd expect from a $700 body, but lacks a lot of modern options, like GPS or wireless, as well as interesting traditional features, such as time-lapse, multiple exposure, and intervalometer. It's got the same handful of "meh" special effects as the T5i. I also miss peaking for manual focus in Live View; it would make focusing with every lens besides the STM model so much easier. It does include the Video Snapshot mode carried over from the camcorders and PowerShots for shooting quick clips.

The SL1 is a fine dSLR, and I enjoyed shooting with it. But from a buying-advice perspective, its only real advantage over dSLR alternatives is its size, and in that respect it's simply not small enough -- especially compared with a mirrorless interchangeable-lens model equipped with a power zoom lens. Its optical viewfinder isn't significantly superior to the electronic viewfinder, either, which would be one of the main reasons to opt for a dSLR. And there are much cheaper compact ILCs that deliver similar performance and photo quality, with better feature sets, especially if you're willing to forgo the viewfinder. If you already have a selection of Canon EF or EF-S lenses, or want to be able to share lenses with bigger Canon bodies, it's a reasonable purchase, but otherwise you might want to check out the competition.

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (with 18-55mm STM lens)

Canon EOS Rebel SL1

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 8Image quality 8