If you’re in the market for a digital SLR that’s as ‘future proof’ as possible and reassuringly expensive without being prohibitively so at under a grand, the 550D, which slots into the middle of Canon’s EOS range, is worth your attention. Not least because the camera offers both a very high resolution at 18 effective megapixels from an 18.7MP CMOS sensor, plus Full HD 1920x1080 pixels video recording with adjustable frame rates and HDMI output from a conventionally styled layout with helpfully large buttons and clearly marked controls. That’s a semi professional specification for a consumer-level price at just under £800. For an extra £100 it also comes with an image stabilised 18-55mm zoom in kit form affixed via its standard EF/EF-S mount, anti shake built into the approximately 28-88mm 35mm-film equivalent lens (thanks to a 1.6x magnification factor) rather than the DSLR body. The same is true for all Canon DSLRs, and also those of arch rival Nikon.
As we’d expect from Canon, the camera feels solid at 530g without lens but with polycarbonate resin construction reveals its amateur market by being a tad plastic-y. Main shooting modes – 14 in total – are selected via a familiar bottle top style dial on the top plate. On both paper and in practice the 550D’s other impressive features include a fixed (i.e non angle adjustable) 3-inch LCD monitor with crystal clear 1040k-dot resolution – typically, consumer cameras offer a modest 230k – plus the ability to expand its light sensitivity to an equivalent ISO12800 for shooting in near darkness without flash (an ISO6400 top setting is otherwise the default). Conversely, users can limit how high an ISO setting the camera selects when in full auto mode. Continuous shooting has a top speed of 3.7 frames per second: respectable if not quite the best option out there for action fans.
Framing a shot is via the provided optical viewfinder or main monitor below it, with dedicated ‘Live View’ button for those wishing to switch to the larger view provided by the LCD. The same button doubles up as a camcorder-style one-touch record button when filming; provided the video mode has been selected via the shooting dial first – you can’t just hit record no matter which mode you’re in. Furthermore, eye sensors under the optical viewfinder neatly turn off the LCD display as you bring your eye level. A half press of the EOS 550D’s shutter release button and the DSLR’s combination of 9-point auto focus (AF) and 63-zone metering proves lightning quick in response and accurate with it, keeping subjects vivid no matter where they may wander in the frame, determining sharpness and exposure in an instant, and ensuring that getting started for anyone upgrading from a compact is as easy as simply pointing and shooting. For those who do want to get more hands-on, the 550D has a wider range of exposure and bracketing options than its manufacturer has previously provided in this class of camera.
As regards picture performance, the combination of kit lens and sensor deliver exposures that are consistent and colours that are natural, if erring slightly on the warm side to produce more flattering results. For those for whom video is just as important, there’s the ability to add on a stereo microphone for better sound, whilst a 7x movie crop/magnification option provides the impression of an additional zoom in this mode.
You’ll need a fast and large capacity media to make the best of the 550D’s high resolution stills and video though. Recording to SD card, compatibility with the new Eye-Fi wireless equipped cards that boast automatic download to your desktop is offered. Power duration is suitable for a short holiday; 440 shots from a full lithium ion battery charge is a very respectable performance. Helpfully battery and card compartments are separate – with the latter located at the camera’s side. This means that you can swap cards whilst using a tripod without having to unscrew and re-attach the DSLR each time.
For those aspiring pros who want a capable multimedia tool that still resembles a conventional DSLR, the Canon EOS 550D should come near the top of your list as a safe option. If you don’t already own a set of lenses, laying out almost £900 for your first DSLR may seem daunting, but inevitably street prices will be much cheaper. We found body and lens combined for £670 online at the time of writing.