Canon EOS 550D at a glance:

  • 18 million effective pixels
  • Live View on 3in, 1,040,000-dot LCD screen
  • 1920x1080pixel (Full HD) video recording
  • Sensitivity range expandable to ISO 100-12,800
  • Street price approximately £750

I was very impressed with the Canon EOS 7D when I tested it in AP 7 November 2009, and it seems I wasn’t alone in this view as AP forum members voted it their Product of the Year at the 2010 AP Awards. Subsequent investigations have also confirmed that even though it has a smaller APS-C-format sensor, it can really give the full-frame EOS 5D Mark II a run for its money.

So when Mike Owen, Canon Europe’s photo products planning manager, came to the AP offices to give us an exclusive preview of the Canon EOS 550D, a camera billed as a ‘baby EOS 7D’, he had my full attention. A camera that has the same 18-million pixel count and much of the same technology as the EOS 7D for almost £500 less could be as attractive to enthusiast photographers as it is to the novices at which it is primarily aimed.

In this test, as well as putting the Canon EOS 550D through its paces, I’ll look at how it compares with Canon’s top-of-the-range APS-C-format EOS 7D, which is pitched squarely at enthusiast photographers.


According to Canon’s Mike Owen, the 22.3×14.9mm (APS-C-sized) CMOS sensor inside the EOS 550D has a lot in common with the unit inside the EOS 7D, but they are not the same devices. The effective pixel count of 18 million, for example, is the same, and unusually for an entry-level DSLR, the micro lenses are also gapless. This is significant as more of the light that exits the mounted optic is directed onto the EOS 550D’s photoreceptors, and this helps to minimise the level of noise as the receptors’ signal needs less magnification.

However, a notable difference between the two cameras’ sensors is that the unit in the EOS 550D only has four read-out channels rather than eight. The smaller number of read-out channels, and the single, rather than dual, Digic 4 processor mean that the EOS 550D has a maximum continuous shooting speed of 3.7fps rather than the 8fps of the EOS 7D. Although a rate of 3.7fps is very respectable for an entry-level camera, keen sports photographers may look enviously at EOS 7D users shooting away at the faster rate – at least until they come to editing the inevitably larger number of images. Canon claims a maximum burst depth of 34 high-quality JPEG images or six raw files, but with a SanDisk Extreme III SDHC installed I was able to shoot 300 high-quality JPEGs or seven raw files in a single burst, so it’s worth investing in a faster card if you want to shoot long continuous sequences.

Although a compatible external flashgun, such as the Speedlite 580 EX II, can be controlled via the camera’s menu, the EOS 550D relies on such units (or the Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter) for providing wireless control over other flashguns. Unlike the EOS 7D, the EOS 550D doesn’t have wireless flash control built in. Another difference between the EOS 7D and the EOS 550D is that the EOS 550D accepts SD, SDHC and SDXC media rather than CF cards. Given that there are now 64GB SDXC cards available, this isn’t a major drawback and it enables the camera to be smaller. In addition, the EOS 550D is the first Canon DSLR to allow control over an Eye-Fi card via the camera menu. This type of feature is more likely to appeal to professionals working in a studio than to enthusiasts, but some may find a use for it.

The EOS 550D is also the first Canon DSLR to have an LCD screen that breaks the one-million-dot barrier. I will discuss this in more depth later, but the image on the 3in LCD screen is made up of 1,040,000 dots. The screen also has a 3:2 ratio, so more of it is dedicated to displaying images and there are no blacked-out areas. The screen displays 100% of the scene in Live View mode, and both contrast and phase-detection autofocus are possible (in addition to manual focus) when images are composed using this technology.

By and large the EOS 550D’s specification meets most of the requirements of the average enthusiast photographer. In addition to the slower continuous shooting rate, however, keen sports photographers who are trying to choose between the EOS 550D and the EOS 7D may be disappointed to learn that the EOS 550D has the same nine-point AF system as the EOS 500D, rather than the 19-point module of the EOS 7D. While this means that the speed of the continuous AF response cannot be tailored to suit the subject, this is unlikely to be a concern for those photographers for whom nine points are more than enough.

Evaluative metering and live view

As I mentioned in the metering section, the EOS 550D’s evaluative metering is linked to the selected AF point and this can impact upon the exposure of the image. I composed these images in the LCD screen with the camera on a tripod to ensure that the view remained constant, and, as I’ve found before, the exposure changed depending upon whether the selected AF point was over a white or a black area. However, the exposure also changes when the camera is set to manual focus in Live View.

I took this sequence of shots with the focus set manually on the spout of the black teapot. After focus was achieved I moved the Live View magnification box between the white and the black pots, and although neither the focus nor the scene was changed, the camera adjusted the exposure as soon as the shutter-release button was half depressed. This needn’t be a problem provided the user is aware of it, and a quick ‘in and out’ with a grey card could ensure perfect exposure. I got the best result by increasing the exposure suggested when the magnification box was over the white teapot by 1.33EV.

Build and handling

Although a polycarbonate body is generally considered to be inferior to a magnesium-alloy structure, the EOS 550D feels pretty tough. I was unable to make it produce any creaking sounds when I gripped and squeezed it, and there was no sign of any give along the joints. The control dial and buttons also have a fairly high-quality feel and are responsive.

While I usually attach a strap to a camera, I prefer to carry a camera in my hand where possible and the deep textured finger grip and pronounced thumb groove of the EOS 550D make this very comfortable. In fact, during one phase of this test I carried the camera in this way between shots for around four hours without feeling the need to give my hand a rest.

As the EOS 550D is at the top of Canon’s entry-level DSLR line, rather than at the bottom of its enthusiast collection, it doesn’t have the large thumb wheel or mini-joystick on its back like the EOS 7D has. This means that the AV button must be used in conjunction with the small dial at the front of the top-plate to select the aperture setting in manual exposure mode or apply exposure compensation.

This isn’t a major hardship, but I miss the ability to select the AF point quickly using a joystick. Instead, EOS 550D users must press the AF point selection point button above the thumb rest and then use the navigation buttons. As a left-eye user, I find these buttons a little awkward when looking through the viewfinder as I have to squeeze my thumb between my nose and the camera. It’s not a problem that is exclusive to the EOS 550D, though.

Like Canon’s other DSLRs, the EOS 550D has a well-organised menu that is divided into tabbed sections. This makes it quick and easy to locate the desired feature. I find the My Menu screen, which can list up to six user-selected menu options, very useful. I use it to access the Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO), custom white balance, Highlight Tone Priority (HTP), mirror lock-up, Live View function settings and format control. In addition, I opted to use the Set button to access the pop-up flash exposure compensation control.

The EOS 550D has a Quick Control Screen display that is accessed by pressing the Q button just above the navigation controls. This displays the camera’s current settings (including the exposure mode, picture style, white balance, image quality and exposure settings) and allows all except the exposure mode to be selected and changed. Apart from the issue of selecting the AF point, I have no complaints about the handling or control layout of the EOS 550D. It appears to be well put together and is comfortable to carry and use. At 128.8×97.3x62mm and 530g, it is also smaller and lighter than the EOS 7D.

White balance and colour

Canon’s white balance system is one of the best around, but that doesn’t mean it is advisable to set the EOS 550D to its automatic white balance setting and forget about it. There are many occasions when the automatic system delivers satisfactory results, but it doesn’t completely remove the colour cast from a scene, and while this retains some of the atmosphere it may not always be what you want. In some more ‘non-standard’ lighting conditions using the auto white balance option results in images that are a little too far from neutral.

On the whole, Canon appears to have calibrated the camera towards producing warm images – which is not surprising, as many people prefer a warmer, cheering image. When shooting inside a church on a bright sunny day, my images taken using the EOS 550D’s automatic white balance system are a bit too warm and the best results were produced with the camera set to its daylight setting. When shooting in late afternoon light that was filtering through cream blinds, I found it is best to set a custom white balance value.

Setting the custom white balance is easy provided you know that the option to select the calibration image is located in the main menu and not in the white balance submenu along with the preset values. I am sure many first-time users would find it more easily if it could be accessed from the white balance short-cut button or the Quick Menu. The usual Canon picture style options of Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome are provided for EOS 550D users to determine the overall look of their images.

Control is provided over the sharpness, contrast, saturation and colour tone of colour images, and the sharpness, contrast, filter effect and toning effect of monochrome shots. In many instances the Standard mode produces print-ready results, and although they are sometimes a little oversaturated, when I adjust the more subdued results from using the Neutral or Faithful options I often find they end up being quite close to the Standard mode images. However, these adjustments are easy to make and files do at least give some scope to manoeuvre.

Image: While the Faithful picture style has produced a muted image, the Landscape setting has made the blue of the water go a little over the top. I prefer the Standard picture style image


Canon introduced a new 63-zone Focus Colour Luminance (iFCL) metering system with the EOS 7D and this is also present in the EOS 550D. The new system uses two sensors to gather luminance and colour information, and this is claimed to make it more reliable by making it less influenced by red light. In its evaluative mode, the iFCL system also gathers information about the subject’s distance from the AF system.

In addition to evaluative mode, the EOS 550D has centreweighted, partial and spot metering, which can be useful, but occasionally I find the evaluative metering behaves in a similar way to centreweighted metering. As the iFCL system is linked to the selected AF point, it can make a difference where the AF point is positioned. I noticed that the exposure can change significantly depending upon the brightness of the subject beneath the AF point when the scene is the same.

Despite this issue, the evaluative metering is generally very good and using it usually results in the main subject being correctly exposed. It isn’t excessively distracted by bright or dark objects within the scene. However, as usual it pays to keep an eye on the histogram view, especially when shooting under overcast skies.


Like the EOS 500D, the EOS 550D has nine AF points arranged in a diamond around the centre of the image frame, with the central point being the f/5.6 cross-type that is extra sensitive at f/2.8. Having nine points rather than the 19 of the EOS 7D means that there’s a reduced chance of the subject falling directly under one of the rectangles in the viewfinder. For photographers like me who were brought up using the focus-and-recompose technique, this isn’t a major issue when the camera is handheld and shooting stationary objects.

When the camera is on a tripod the tendency is to compose the image and then get the focus spot-on, and unless there is an AF point in just the right place it may be necessary to move the camera to focus and readjust the composition. Alternatively, there is the option to focus manually. With a high-resolution, Live View-enabled LCD screen, my inclination is to compose the image on the monitor and use the magnified views (5x and 10x) to ensure the subject is sharp. However, in bright ambient light some shading is required to give a clear view of the subject detail.

Not unusually, the AF performance in any particular lighting situation can vary depending upon the lens mounted. With the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS kit lens, autofocusing is reasonably quick and accurate in decent light, but when light levels fall or the subject’s contrast is low it can become a little slower and more hesitant.

However, with a high-quality optic like the EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM or EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM it is speedy and decisive. I was impressed by how small a detail the AF system could latch on to. Furthermore, when the continuous AF option is selected, the camera does a good job of tracking a moving subject under the AF point.The EOS 550D doesn’t have the same options to adjust the speed of the continuous AF response as the EOS 7D. For most novice photographers this would be an unnecessary complication, but for sports enthusiasts it may be a disappointment.

Noise, resolution and sensitivity

Image: The gradation on the fleece is a little smoother and less ‘blocky’ in the processed raw file than in the JPEG image. There is also more detail in the raw image

As the images of our resolution chart show, the EOS 550D is capable of resolving a lot of detail at the lower sensitivity settings, and it is on a par with the EOS 7D. The most detail-rich images are captured in low-sensitivity raw files when the level of noise reduction applied using the supplied processing software, Digital Photo Professional (DPP), is kept to a minimum.

Images captured at the highest sensitivity setting, equivalent to ISO 12,800, contain a fair amount of chroma and luminance noise. When the high-sensitivity noise reduction is turned off, the level of noise in JPEG images is approximately double the amount that is present in JPEG files captured with the noise reduction set to its standard setting. Although applying noise reduction doesn’t obliterate all detail, there is an inevitable loss and more detail can be drawn from simultaneously recorded raw files. However, when the luminance noise reduction in DPP is set to zero, the ISO 12,800 raw files develop a crosshatch pattern (as do the EOS 7D’s) that is visible at 100% on the computer screen. This can impart a gritty texture to images sized for making large prints and it may therefore be preferable to apply a little luminance noise reduction.
Left: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using matching 105mm macro lenses. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting. Right: This graph shows the brightness values recorded by the test camera when it is used to photograph a stepped graduation wedge. The wedge has transmission values in 1⁄2EV steps ranging from 0 to 12EV. The camera’s exposure is set so the 12EV section in the wedge has a brightness value of 255. Software analysis of the image then determines the recorded brightness values of all the other steps and calculates the camera’s dynamic range.

Dynamic range

A densely packed sensor can be a recipe for low dynamic range images, but Canon engineers have managed to crack this particular problem and the EOS 550D has a very respectable dynamic range of 12EV. Like all Canon’s recent DSLRs, the EOS 550D has both Highlight Tone Priority (HTP) and Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO) modes to boost the effective dynamic range of images by darkening the highlights and brightening the shadows respectively.

However, Canon has now decided that using both of these together can be detrimental to image quality, and as with the EOS 7D it is not possible to use HTP and ALO at the same time on the EOS 550D. Although HTP can be useful when highlights need protecting, it works by reducing the exposure and darkening the brightest areas. Consequently, many enthusiast photographers will find it better to reduce the exposure and use the ALO options (Low, Standard, Strong and Disable) to determine the degree of brightening to be applied to the shadows.

LCD, viewfinder, live view and video

One of the attractive features of the EOS 7D is its 100% field of view viewfinder, which has 1x magnification. The upper entry-level EOS 550D has a slightly less well-specified viewfinder offering 95% coverage with 0.87x magnification. Many enthusiasts will be familiar with the repercussions of a sub-100% viewfinder and will keep an eye out for objects that may stray into the edges of the final image.

While it isn’t the largest viewfinder, the EOS 550D’s finder is clear enough to allow manual focusing with a high degree of confidence. Helpfully, the LCD screen has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as the images captured by the camera and the class-leading resolution of 1,040,000 dots means that there’s plenty of detail visible.

When shooting indoors, the screen provides a clear view of the scene being composed, and the 5x and 10x magnified views make it easy to position the point of manual focus precisely. However, when shooting outdoors in fairly bright light, I found that reflections on the monitor made it difficult to focus manually in Live View mode without using a shade over the screen.

The EOS 550D can record Full HD (1920×1080 pixels) video with full manual control. While this may not be high on the list of priorities for many enthusiast photographers, I suspect that the high quality of the footage recorded by the EOS 550D will make users grateful they have it. An external microphone socket also allows sound to be recorded without the interference of hand movements, and so on.

Image: As I shot this crocus outside, the LCD screen had lots of reflections over it and I had to use the viewfinder to compose this image with critical focus and shallow depth of field

The competition

Image: Nikon D90

Given the extensive feature set and current street price of the EOS 550D (around £750), it is difficult to identify its direct competition. The Nikon D90, for example, is available for around £620 and has many of the features of DSLRs further up Nikon’s range, including a versatile AF system, but its pixel count is only 12 million and videos have a lower resolution of 1280×720 pixels.

Image: Pentax K-7

Pentax’s K-7 is available for around £824, and although it has in-camera Shake Reduction, 1280×720-pixel video technology and a 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen, it has a pixel count of just 14.6 million. The evaluative metering system also behaves fairly traditionally, underexposing when bright areas appear in the scene.

The EOS 550D generally does a better job of getting images looking right in-camera.


I like the Canon EOS 550D, and although £750 is by no means a small amount of money, it does seem to buy a lot of technology. Importantly, the EOS 550D also delivers excellent image quality making it a good choice for enthusiasts looking for a sub-£1,000 camera and novices who want a little more headroom along with the satisfaction of owning the very latest equipment.

Those who are concerned that the EOS 550D only has nine AF points rather than the 19 of the EOS 7D should remind themselves that a nine-point AF system has served enthusiast photographers very well in cameras such as the EOS 40D and EOS 50D, so there is no reason why it shouldn’t continue to do so.

Although I like the EOS 550D’s build and its stocky little shape, like the rest of Canon’s entry-level cameras its control layout is much better suited to right-eyed shooters than left-eye users. The larger form, combined with the mini-joystick control, of Canon’s enthusiast cameras, is easier to use when holding the camera up to the left eye. Therefore, I suggest that unless the prospective left-eyed buyer is looking specifically for a small DSLR, they wait for Canon to refresh the cameras that sit between the EOS 550D and EOS 7D. The time would seem ripe to replace one or both of the EOS 40D and EOS 50D.

Canon EOS 550D – Key Features

Display sensors
These two sensors detect when the camera is held to the eye and automatically turn off the LCD screen to prevent the photographer being dazzled.

Live View/Movie button
In stills mode, pressing this button activates the Live View so that images may be composed on the LCD screen. However, when the mode dial is rotated to the Movie option, pressing it starts video recording.

HDMI port
This is used to connect the camera to an HD TV via the optional HDMI HTC-100 cable (RRP £61.41).

Picture styles
The look of JPEG files may be adjusted by selecting the picture style via this button. The styles may also be edited for a personal look via the menu.

Digital Photo Professional
As well as supporting the EOS 550D, the latest version (308) of Digital Photo Professional (DPP) allows images to be rotated and automatically cropped to correct sloping horizons. It’s a useful feature that takes the software one step closer to be all the raw shooter needs.

New battery
Canon introduced the new LP-E8 Lithium-Ion battery for the EOS 550D to meet Japan’s Electrical Appliance and Material Safety Law, which came into effect in November 2008. This law limits the voltage of each cell to 2.5volts though the overall battery voltage is 7.2V.

LCD screen
Although the EOS 550D’S 3in LCD has a higher pixel count (1,040,000 dots or 346,666 pixels) than the EOS 7D, the gap between the cover and the crystals is not filled with optical plastic.

Lens correction data
Canon supplies the EOS 550D with peripheral illumination correction data for around 25 lenses installed. Data for additional lenses may be downloaded and installed via the supplied EOS Utility software.