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Canon EOS Rebel T4i review: testing the world's first touchscreen DSLR

Canon's latest Rebel adds a faster processor, a video-friendly autofocus scheme... and a touchscreen

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Canon EOS Rebel T4i review main 1020
Canon EOS Rebel T4i review main 1020

"The best camera is the one you have with you." You've probably heard the quote: it's often used these days to explain why smartphones are threatening to push traditional point-and-shoot cameras into early retirement. Pocketcams aren't the only category under siege, though. Lightweight mirrorless cameras like Sony's NEX series are threatening to replace the traditional SLR, and that's keeping manufacturers on their toes. Pros might want a purpose-built tool like a full-frame DSLR with loads of complex physical controls, but to compete with cheaper, sleeker shooters in the consumer realm, companies like Canon are finding they need to make their cameras easier to use, and more useful as well.

Case in point: Canon's EOS Rebel T4i (aka EOS 650D). The Rebel has long been Canon's lowly budget model, but this year the 18-megapixel APS-C shooter adds a number of features never before seen on any Canon DSLR, including a new focus system that allows for continuous autofocus during video recording, a stereo microphone array, and a touchscreen to control most every setting on the camera. The changes add up to something potentially huge: This is the first Canon DSLR that could substitute for a consumer camcorder, and control like a smartphone. In previous years, the 5D Mark II, 7D and T2i cemented Canon's reputation for quality video capture, but the T4i's additions could push it over the top. Has the Rebel broken out of budget territory? Read on.

Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

True to Canon

The Canon T4i has a face only a gadget enthusiast could love. It's black, bulbous, and utilitarian to the exclusion of all else. Of course, that design is nothing new; but for a handful of fine details, the T4i looks and feels exactly like the T3i, its predecessor. It's a predominantly plastic camera, but it's remarkably well-built. At 2.3 pounds with the 18-135mm STM lens included in the pricier kit, it's just a little bit weighty, and the black plastic is solid, firm and unyielding. If you ask me, that's actually a little bit of a problem, though. While I found I could fit all four of my fingers on the T4i's grip, it's narrow and firm enough that it feels hard to hold.

Not quite enough purchase up front

There's not enough traction on the front grip alone, and there's a lump that juts out in the rear that kept me from sandwiching it with my palm. Instead, if I wanted to hold the T4i with a single hand, I had to squeeze between fingers and thumb. Mind you, that grip is mostly carried over from last year's T3i, so if you were satisfied with that camera, you'll probably like this one as well, and two other Verge staffers with larger hands didn't have quite as much trouble. Still, the earlier T2i had a nice soft rubber grip with a wider, rounder design that could hang from a single hand without any worry it might fall, and I prefer it by far.

You know what does finally work with one hand, though? Switching into video mode. Where the T3i and T2i required you to painstakingly ratchet the mode dial all the way around, the T4i builds the feature into the power switch: when you slide it from Off to On, simply push it one click further and you're ready to film things. You'll still need to turn the dial to Manual mode if you want to manually set exposure for your video recordings, but if you demand that kind of control, you're more likely to be using that quadrant of the mode dial anyhow.

Display / viewfinder

Display and viewfinder



If you're considering a DSLR over a mirrorless camera, there's a fair chance it's because you want an optical viewfinder for your work. If so, the T4i will definitely do the trick. If that's the primary reason, though, you might want to consider a different camera. While the T4i's pentamirror viewfinder isn't any worse than the Rebels that came before, it's not really any better, either: it’s a little small, you're still only going to see 95 percent of what the camera is aiming towards, and the view will be slightly dimmer than real life. That’s a hard sell when you can get a Canon 60D or a Nikon D7000 with brighter, larger pentaprism viewfinders and more coverage for just a slightly higher price.



LCD screen

There's also not a lot to say about the T4i's three-inch, 1.04-million-dot LCD panel, but that's because it's all good. It's probably a lot smaller than your smartphone, but with a high refresh rate and pretty stellar viewing angles, it's wonderful. To the trained eye, it only takes the barest glance to tell if any image is sharply in focus or slightly blurred, and lining up photos in LiveView mode (using the LCD as a viewfinder) is a real pleasure. Thanks to the articulating arm (a carryover from the T3i) which lets you swing out the display and tilt it 180 degrees towards the subject, or 90 degrees down, you can frame all sorts of shots and video clips that would be far more difficult if you had to hold the camera at eye level. One annoyance: when you close the articulating screen, it doesn't automatically turn off LiveView. You'll need to press the button.

And, of course, that three-inch LCD is where you'll find the world’s first touchscreen on a DSLR.


Controls and interface


Each DSLR manufacturer has slightly different ways of approaching prosumer camera controls. Nikon has loads of physical buttons, for instance, while Canon relies a little more on menus, requiring you to dig through screens for little-used settings while keeping the primary controls at your fingertips. If you liked that, don't worry, it doesn't change with the T4i at all: every single physical control works exactly as it did on previous cameras. In fact, the only real difference between the T4i's physical controls and the T3i and T2i before is that the keys have slightly different shapes and they all jut out a little bit more. They're fairly well laid out as physical controls go, with all the most common controls accessible with the right hand alone.

What's new is this: anytime you navigate an on-screen menu, you don't have to tap-tap-tap on the four-way directional pad or ratchet a clicky dial — you can just reach out and touch the setting you want and be done with it. Well, that's not quite true: you have to press the Q key (or touch the on-screen Q button) first, which keeps you from changing settings if you accidentally brush the screen with a cheek or ear.

Once done though, the touchscreen is quite responsive. Not only can you tap on icons to select them, but you don't have to stab: you can slide your thumb across settings to highlight and select each in turn. Adjusting aperture, shutter speed, or exposure compensation with the touchscreen is a treat: you can simply drag a ribbon with a continuum of all possible values from one end of the touchscreen to the other, and lift your finger when you get to your desired selection. It's speedy: you can go from f/2.8 to f/22 aperture with a single swipe, never lifting your finger from the screen, and if you drag down and to the right from the exposure compensation menu, you can set bracketed exposures with a single motion as well. In playback mode, you can not only rapidly swipe through images, but also pinch to zoom — it's a little bit awkward on a smallish three-inch screen, but it's easier and more intuitive than tapping zoom buttons.

The longer I used the touchscreen, the more I wanted it to be able to do

The more impressive part is that you don't need to know any gestures at all. Canon usually provides distinct touchscreen keys (often + or -) to change settings, and all the physical controls can be used as well — meaning you can hold the touchscreen in one hand and the physical controls in another, using both simultaneously to change settings faster than with either alone. In fact, the longer I used the touchscreen, the more I wanted it to be able to do. There are a few things, like switching modes, changing focus points, and displaying images, that you can't do with the touchscreen alone, and no way to add, delete or rearrange the touch controls to suit the user. Imagine if you could drag controls wherever they suited you, if Canon let you build new controls yourself. Canon has, however, included on-screen popups which explain settings and modes. They're nice at first, while you get used to your options, but they actually slow the camera down. You can turn them off from a menu, thankfully, and you'll probably want to do that as soon as possible.

The most interesting uses for the touchscreen, though, are in LiveView mode. Once you're using the LCD as a viewfinder, you can see the results of your adjustments in real time, like dragging the exposure compensation to darken or lighten an image on the fly. You can tap the touchscreen to focus on a subject, or even tap-to-shoot. Focusing isn't quite as speedy in LiveView as with the optical viewfinder, but it can do some rudimentary subject tracking for some pretty neat results. For instance, if there's a object moving towards you, you can tap on it to take a shot, and the camera will wait until it comes into focus before releasing the shutter. The camera can also continually autofocus in LiveView mode, but it can be a little awkward. I’ll touch on that more later.

The world's first DSLR touchscreen: surprisingly good



As you'd expect from a DSLR, there are plenty of settings to try to get the best out of your pictures, but not a lot of special-purpose modes. There's the standard Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Sports and Night Portrait settings, as well as a variety of picture styles, and automatic modes for both. That said, there are two brand-new settings on the dial that work by combining a number of shots into a single whole using the camera's processor. The HDR mode takes three shots at different exposures, allowing you to show, say, a bright blue sky and dimmer buildings on the ground at the same time, while the Handheld Night Scene mode turns four high-sensitivity pictures, shot in low light, into one with less blur and noise. There's also a multi-shot noise reduction mode that does the same thing as Handheld Night Scene, but can be applied to any mode. All work reasonably well, though not in every situation — often you'd get better HDR results by processing bracketed images yourself — and they all take a while to process and reduce the amount of detail.

The T4i also has a few creative filters you can apply to an image, but only after it's been shot, including a miniature effect, soft focus, fisheye, and a new Water Painting effect that can, well, make pictures look like watercolor. Each time you add a filter, you save a new processed image to the SD card.

Image and video quality

Image and video quality


It's hard to complain about the T4i's image quality. The tried and true 18-megapixel APS-C sensor can deliver beautiful results, whether you're taking pictures fully automatic, manually adjusting settings, or shooting 1080p or 720p DSLR video at 60 frames per second. The results aren't quite what you could get with a full-frame camera, perhaps, whose larger sensors can reduce noise, but they're quite good for the price. Anywhere below ISO 3200, images felt clean enough to comfortably view on a large desktop monitor and zoom in, and both ISO 3200 and 6400 are usable in a pinch. 1080p video looks absolutely high-definition, if maybe a little choppy when quickly panning around. 720p60 is nice and smooth but not quite as impressive as a whole. When I displayed video files at native resolution, the edges of objects in focus looked a little jagged.

Here's a surprise: though the T4i may have a larger ISO range, it's partly hype. For one thing, the 25,600 expanded ISO mode is practically useless. At that sensitivity, pictures are extremely splotchy and the autofocus can't see in conditions dark enough where it would come in handy. More importantly, though, my T4i JPEG pictures actually came out slightly noisier than the two-year old T2i no matter the ISO. Before you take up arms, though, know that's probably because the T4i's noise reduction is less aggressive here. You get more tiny dots in each picture, but there's a little more detail, too.

Of course, a lot depends on the lens you're using. I tried four: the 18-55mm kit lens, both the 18-135mm STM kit lens and the 40mm STM pancake lens, designed for the continuous autofocus mode, and a 24-105mm f/4L zoom lens as well. The 18-55mm hasn't changed since last year, is quite cheap, and it can be a little soft and slow. The 18-135mm is better in most every way, so I'd recommend it first, though the $199 pancake is a joy: incredibly light and small, sharp, reasonably fast at f/2.8, and with what looks like gorgeous bokeh to my fairly untrained eye. One thing to note is that the new STM lenses focus by wire, even when using the physical manual focus dial. The dial does absolutely nothing when the power’s off, which can be a bit of a surprise.



Outside, it might look like a T3i, but there's more muscle within: The T4i might have the same sensor, but it's got a new Digic 5 processor that lets it shoot five frames per second (compare to 3.7 fps with the T3i and T2i) and ups the maximum ISO sensitivity to 25,600, among other benefits. The latest Rebel has a nine-point autofocus system, just like its predecessors, but they're all cross-type points this time around, which let the camera detect

To properly test the camera, I set up a T2i and a T4i side by side on a dual-camera mount and carried it wherever I went, taking pictures simultaneously with both cameras using the same modes and lenses. The results were rather revealing: with the exact same settings, both cameras took practically identical images — as you'd expect given the practically identical sensors inside — but the T4i was indeed better at automatically choosing settings most of the time.

Accurately representing the time of day since 2012

For instance, with the optical viewfinder, autofocus was fast with both cameras, but the T2i had trouble focusing at longer distances where the T4i was just fine. When left to its own devices in Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes, the T4i exposes images rather differently, too: in low light, it seemed to opt for slightly brighter, faster, but noisier pictures than the T2i regardless of how high I set the ISO.

In fairly good light, however, I found the opposite effect, with the T4i taking slightly darker pictures but also with a higher shutter speed. When I say "different," though, I don't mean bad: it actually feels like the T4i's light meter is more accurate. See these two pictures at right? Both were taken at dusk, but only the T4i's image looks so if you trust the camera to take the shot.



White balance, unfortunately, is not particularly improved: while competing cameras have more presets and some let you manually set the color temperature in Kelvin, too, I regularly found lighting situations where none of Canon's six presets or auto mode would keep images from getting tinted slightly orange or blue. Setting a custom white balance still requires far more presses than it needs to, and it's an odd thing, considering that Canon's point-and-shoot cameras make it so easy.

The T4i sounds more like a pro camera

The five-frame-per-second shutter, though, is a success, and not just for the reason you'd think. For one thing, yes, it snaps shots fairly fast. And with an extra-speedy SD card, I was able to hold down the shutter button to capture full-res JPEG images indefinitely at that speed, with the camera only slowing down if I added fancy things like lens aberration correction or RAW image capture. The most amazing thing about that shutter, though, is the sound the mechanism makes as the mirror flips up and down. I kid you not: I can't count the number of dirty stares I've gotten when my T2i or T3i makes that unnaturally high-pitched screeching shutter noise. By contrast, the T4i sounds more like a professional camera. It might be the single best reason to buy one.

The moment you've been waiting for: does Canon's continuous autofocus for video recording (aka Movie Servo) work? Yes, it does, but it's far from foolproof. With face detect on, the T4i does a pretty good job of keeping faces in focus as you or they move around a scene, but without a face it struggles a bit. Moving between close and somewhat distant objects, the T4i can adjust, but not always rapidly, and sometimes (particularly with distant objects) I found it would inexplicably fail to find focus and hunt around for a bit. That said, the continuous autofocus is far more responsive and intuitive than that on the likes of Nikon’s D5100 DSLR, but it’s not quite up to the level of Sony’s translucent mirror shooters. Where Canon's Hybrid AF puts pixels right on the CMOS sensor that are dedicated to autofocus, Sony's SLT cameras use a transparent mirror, reflecting light to both the image sensor and discrete autofocus sensors simultaneously for speedy results.

Interestingly enough, Canon's Movie Servo actually works with lenses that don’t have the STM badge, but even with STM it depends a lot on which lens you use. In my tests, the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 STM was a bit faster to find and lock focus than the 40mm f/2.8 STM, despite its smaller maximum aperture. The 24-105mm f/4L worked too, but was even less reliable and slower at finding focus.

Movie Servo isn't the only addition that's good for video, though. The touchscreen can be a giant help: now, you can adjust exposure or tap to manually refocus even while recording video without making a sound. Speaking of sound, the new stereo microphone isn't amazing, but it certainly doesn't hurt, and adds a little bit of genuine separation to what would otherwise be boring monaural audio.

Battery life is good. On a single charge with a new 1120mAh LP-E8 battery over the course of a week or so, I took 1,969 full-res JPEG pictures with image stabilization, spent about an hour and a half with the LCD screen on, and took roughly 15 minutes of video. As usual, though, the battery meter isn't accurate at all. It displayed a full three bars of battery until I'd used maybe 70 percent of its capacity, while the last bar went away in a flash. The camera shares both batteries and an optional battery grip with the two previous Rebels, so it's easy and relatively cheap to expand that capacity.


As always, rebellion comes at a cost

At roughly $800 for a body-only camera or $1,200 with the 18-135mm STM kit lens, the Canon EOS Rebel T4i costs a considerable amount more than its predecessors right now. You can pick up a T3i for around $580 (or about $850 with the original, non-STM 18-135mm lens) at the time I wrote this sentence. If you can live without intelligent scene modes and the articulating screen, you can even still find the T2i, which has a smaller, more comfortable body and nearly identical image quality.

If you're budget-conscious or already have one of those cameras, the T4i might not add enough bullet points for you: Canon's got some more work to do on the hybrid autofocus mode to make it a must-have feature, and while the touchscreen is well thought out and surprisingly useful, it feels like Canon's just beginning to explore the possibilities there.

If you’re comfortable spending over $1,000 and still photography is your highest priority, the mid-range Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D are better bets, with brighter, higher-quality viewfinders, faster shutter speeds and more comfortable, durable bodies.

Still, if you want a do-everything camera with both a speedy optical viewfinder and an articulating touchscreen, the T4i isn't merely the only game in town. It's a solid camera.

I bought one myself.