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Building A DSLR For 2012

How do you build a bulky DSLR for normal people that still matters when everybody's got smartphones that shoots fantastic photos and video? The T4i is Canon's attempt to answer that.

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It's kind of a crazy time in cameras, crazier than in most areas of electronics. It's a good thing, mostly, but it also means you need a 6,000-word feature to truly know everything that's happening. Cheap DSLRs are shooting incredible video; virtually pocketable cameras have swappable lenses, big sensors and high praise like DSLRs without the bulk; point-and-shoot cameras are getting crazy to stay relevant; and your smartphone probably shoots just as well most cameras under $200. This is the world into which Canon's bringing its new DSLR, the T4i.

Two years ago, I thought its predecssor, the T2i, was big deal: It was the first camera to make seriously good DSLR video available to the masses. It set a standard, and it was something of a turning point in establishing what even a cheap DSLR must do, and we practically take it for granted now cameras that shoot good photos also shoot good video.

The T4i cements just how much the world's changed: Even while it maintains the classic digital single lens reflex form factor, video's no longer a tacked on feature. (It shares equal footing with photos on the main dial, if that tells you anything.) The T4i, you see, is the first DSLR that actually nails continous autofocus while shooting video, knocking down a huge accessibility barrier for normal folk — historically, autofocusing while shooting a video with a DSLR has been a cripplingly awful affair, so it was all about manual focus. But the T4i's video autofocus is fast and it's smooth and it's silent. It works, in other words. During a demo, I shot video all around a room, moving from distant subjects to close up stuff, and the T4i adjusted and re-focused, quickly and gracefully, like if you chucked a corgi at a pro ballerina in the middle of a performance. (Canon wouldn't let pull sample photos or videos off the camera, so below is the next best thing I could manage.) Oh and did I mention it has stereo mics built in? (Finally.)

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Here's the stuff for people who know cameras, including how the new video-oriented autofocus system works (just skip down to the next 'graph if you don't). The T4i is using a new 18-megapixel APS-C sensor and Canon's now-standard Digic 5 image processor, which allows it to hit up to 12,800 ISO in normal range, but it extends up to 25,600 ISO. Also, it means 5-frame-per-second burst shooting, significantly faster than the 3.7fps on past entry-level Canon DSLRs. But let's talk about that autofocus: The trick is that it's using a hybrid CMOS autofocus system, with phase detect autofocus when the subject it's in the center of the phone, and contrast AF when they're not in the center in live view or video mode. Oh, and the AF itself has been upgraded to a nine-point, all cross-type system, the same as the slightly pricier 60D.

Hi, non-camera people, welcome back. So, the catch is that to get that fast and silent continuous autofocus while shooting video (which includes perks like face detection carried over from Canon's Vixia camcorders, you'll need to use one of Canon's new STM lenses — the STM stands for "stepping motor." Fortunately, one of them is Canon's first pancake lens, a 40mm F2.8 number. The other is an otherwise standard 18-135mm lens.

Also, your smartphone has had more impact on a camera like this than you might think. It's got a 3-inch multitouch glass screen with pinch-to-zoom for looking at your photos (just like an iPhone), and basically everything is touch-enabled. Though Canon didn't redesign its menus to be super touch-friendly, the single and multi-point autofocus works pretty much like you'd expect from an iPhone — just touch on the screen where you want it to lock. Also like you're used to on a phone, it's got a slew of built in photo filters and helpers, like a faux lomo camera. (One trick your phone will probably take from it: a handheld night scene and multi-shot noise reduction modes that merge four shots together to make cleaner, less noisy photos in the dark.)

I'm still not sure that people who simply want a better camera than a cheap point-and-shoot are necessarily going to be better off picking up this $850 camera, as interesting as it is, instead of something like Sony's NEX-5N, as the Wirecutter argues, since the NEX-5N does have a lot of the same tricks, including decent video autofocus. Not unless they're super dedicated to getting better at photography and are committed to bringing along the extra bulk and complexity that this requires, both in the camera itself and the lenses. But the fact that Canon's changed their main consumer DSLR this much, making it as much of a hybrid photo/video camera as they can given the limits of the DSLR format, all while tacking on creature comforts people expect from their smartphones, shows just how different things are now than they were even a couple of years ago. Not that it makes them any less complicated.