With HD video recording, great image quality, and a solid selection of lenses, the Nikon D5100 and Canon T3i are on the top of a lot of wish lists out there. For people already in the Canon or Nikon camp (full disclosure: I’m a Canon man), the choice is obvious if an upgrade is in their future, but for the less dogmatic and new recruits to the DSLR crowd, it’s not nearly as clear-cut. $800 buys you a lot of camera either way.
Pixel peepers will want to check out the reliable and exhaustive reviews at DP Review (here and here) and other photography-centric sites where systematic checks on image quality are conducted, but I wanted to just put these two worthy devices head to head and see not just how they compare technically but in everyday use.
Before I get into my anecdotal review, let’s just review the major specs on the two cameras.
So, nothing decisive. Nikon has an edge in its autofocus system and (ostensibly) ISO capability, and Canon has a couple more megapixels and a slightly better LCD. But they’re close enough that it’s no way to determine which to get.
Yet one of these must be the better camera, or at least certain types of shooters might reasonably prefer one or the other. I’m going to look at a few of the major differentiating points that you wouldn’t really think about unless you had the camera in your hands. Note that these points are not necessarily new with these cameras! The primary change in these two models is the addition of an articulating LCD. Otherwise they’re very similar to their predecessors. But since these are the newest models and are likely to make the prospective DSLR-buyer lose some sleep (as they are both excellent values), a straight comparison seems in order. This is a practical comparison focusing on things consumer commonly care about.
Both cameras were tested using their kit lenses and processed in Adobe Lightroom. And the lenses form as good a place to start as any, as a large amount of first-time DSLR buyers stick with the kit lens at least for the starting period.
Update: My mistake. I was under the impression Canon had upped its kit lens to the 18-135, but in fact the kit lens is in fact still the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. I’ve used the lens and I would amend the following review to the effect that the Nikon actually does come with a better lens (the Nikon kit lens, while not great, is better built and possibly better optically) – so wherever I mention an advantage due to the lens, please disregard that. I’ve also updated the conclusion. That said, my advice to prospective DSLR owners is to get the body only and spend the money you’ve saved on a cheap prime. They’re more fun to experiment with and cheap zooms are incredibly easy to come by later if you want one.
The T3i comes with an 18-135 F/3.5-5.6. The D5100 has an 18-55 F/3.5-5.6. Both have optical image stabilization, which helps keep longer exposures sharp (I wouldn’t trust it below 1/20th of a second) but can’t really help in really bad light.
The Canon lens is the more practical choice here. While neither one is any great shakes optically and you lose light really quick when zooming in, the Canon has two advantages over the Nikon: first, that extra bit on the long end is really handy if you only have the one lens. It’s quite a decent telephoto length, suitable for getting wildlife, birds, and so on at middle distance. The same object at the end of the Nikon focal length would have less clarity in most situations. Second, the Canon lens, while somewhat larger, has all internal elements — meaning nothing on the outside moves except the switches and rings. The Nikon, on the other hand, has a telescoping front element that moves in and out with both focus and zoom, and manual focusing spins the whole barrel. It feels a bit chintzy, like it couldn’t handle a good ding on a doorframe, and it’s poking out of the front all day long.
For what it’s worth, though, my brief tests showed the Nikon lens performed better optically. At 100%, the Canon shots showed significantly more fringing in bright light. Not something you’d notice if you were to shrink the pictures by a bit, but certainly worth mentioning.
Something that would have been nice to have on both lenses would be maximum aperture indicators on the zoom dial, but that’s uncommon anyway and the in-viewfinder info is sufficient.
Both viewfinders are run-of-the-mill pentamirror, so neither has a major advantage over the other. But they’re not identical. The rubber eye rest is slightly different but comfortable on both. Neither sticks out far so you’ll be rubbing your nose on the screen no matter what.
The Nikon’s viewfinder shows more of the image than the Canon — that is, given the same focal length on the lens, the Nikon shows more of what will actually be captured. It’s only perhaps 3% more (by my estimate) but it’s noticeable if you’re looking for it.
That said, I like the readout in the Canon viewfinder better; it seems to me to be brighter and more readable. The autofocus points are much more visible on the Canon viewfinder, which is a matter of taste really. The Canon has a circle for showing where center-weighted exposure will limit itself to, which is handy.
Canon’s LCD is the same size but slightly higher-resolution (720×480 instead of 640×480), and has the advantage of being natively 3:2. I find this makes images a little nicer to review, but both screens are way better than the 480×320 screens we had just a couple years ago. The Canon’s also seems to me to look ever so slightly sharper; I could read the title of a book ten feet from me at 18mm on the Canon just barely, but on the Nikon I couldn’t make it out.
Both screens articulate out to the left and then spin 270 degrees vertically. Action on both is smooth and they booth seem about as sturdy as a built-in articulating LCD should. Both lock down securely with either the LCD or plastic back outwards. However, the Canon’s has a cutout “handle” on the right, and the Nikon has two small grips on the top and bottom. Canon’s works best for grabbing with your thumb, and I found it more convenient than the two-finger pinching grab for the Nikon. That’s another matter of taste but I definitely preferred the thumb grip.
Apart from the normal differences in Canon/Nikon layouts, the latest Canons have in addition a sculpted shape and are nearly flush with the body. The D5100’s buttons are all circular, though of various “depths.” Both have a mix of clicking and non-clicking buttons, and the general rule seems to be that any buttons that directly affect the photo don’t click.
The Canon’s buttons were more consistent in their feel, but they’re so nearly flush that some can be difficult to identify in the dark or without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Its directional buttons are certainly better, though: Nikon’s circular D-pad feels soft. I prefer Nikon’s silvered, more vertical shutter button, though, and that’s certainly the button you’ll be using the most.
As a Canon user, I’ve grown used to the jog dial being under my index finger, but whether you like it better there than under your thumb is something for you to figure out on your own. Canon’s mode dial is far larger, which I find helpful, though it stops at A-Dep (why not manual?) and mode, and Nikon’s just keeps spinning. Knowing the position of the dial relative to the ends can be a time saver.
One thing the T3i has that the D5100 doesn’t is a dedicated ISO control button. On the D5100, you have to go one step into the menu to select a different ISO, while on the T3i it’s just one button press. This is strange to me because Nikon has a finer grain of control on the ISO and you’d think they’d want to have that out there. I’d trade the “info” button for ISO in a second.
As for the interface on the screen: Nikon’s graphical representation and primary-stats-central look is attractive and nice for people who aren’t used to SLR controls — but it seems a bit flashy and secondary information isn’t quite as clearly ascertained at a quick glance.
The D5100 has a great little snappy lever that switches you in and out of LV. The Canon has a dedicated (circular) button. The D5100 gets into LV much more quickly, too — I’d say a quarter of a second, while the Canon takes a half. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s truly noticeable and may affect your usage of that mode.
Once in LV, both cameras are sluggish on autofocus. The Nikon seemed to make its mind up more quickly, though, while the Canon took several extra steps, making a labored clicking noise. Manual focus is still probably your best option, but they’re getting better and Nikon is certainly the winner here.
The T3i is an ounce lighter than the Nikon, but it’s also larger and much more aggressively sculpted on the right side (though it’s difficult to tell from the pictures). Those with larger hands will appreciate this, as it provides more real estate in general, but neither camera is big enough for big hands. I’ve got good-sized hands and I’ve been shooting on a Rebel for years, but it’s not for everyone. Nikon has a bigger lip poking out under the shutter but overall Canon has more going on.
Canon also put more sculpting into the right rear and left front sides. The T3i has a texture, grippy material in both places and a sort of valley that your thumb goes in while holding the camera normally.
The flaps and doors covering the ports and such aren’t exactly leagues apart quality-wise, but the Nikon’s SD door springs up, and all its ports are under a single flap, both of which I think give it an edge.
Canon has a dedicated movie mode on the mode dial, while Nikon has you record using a separate button while in Live View. There are merits to both of these (especially considering how fast Nikon jumps into LV), but being able to boot straight into video-shooting mode is handy if you’re doing primarily video content.
As for formats, it’s a toss-up. In 1080p the cameras have the same framerates but Nikon has the advantage of two quality settings. Both produce quite huge files. At 720p, Nikon uses the more common 24 or 30 frames as options, while Canon has 50 and 60fps. On one hand, the Nikon formats are more easy to use for normal shooting, while on the other, 60fps works as a sort of poor man’s slow motion, slowing things down by a half or more depending on how you display it. But then Nikon goes and messes things up by having the low-quality option be 640×424 instead of the standard (and 4:3) 640×480. That’s 3:2 more or less, but 16:9 and 4:3 are much more commonly used for video.
Nikon has some in-camera effects like “miniature” and “Night Vision,” but to be perfectly honest I think if you’re shooting video with your DSLR you’re far less likely to want in-camera effects. At the very least a new amateur video editor will put things in iMovie or the like, where these effects are better, more adjustable, and don’t bog down the camera (as some of them do). That said, being able to see the scene in black and white could be handy.
While DP Review’s charts will tell you far more about this than my little dabblings here, it can’t hurt to have a few real-world comparison shots you can pore over if you like. The cameras were set to the exact same exposure settings and set to go straight to large JPEG (no RAW performance data for you). I do want to mention, though, that on “manual” mode, the Nikon kept changing the exposure I’d set it to. I really don’t know why in manual mode it would change anything at all.
Here you have the ideal lighting situation: nothing moving, nice fast shutter and medium aperture. I set both cameras to 1/500th at f/9 and 200 ISO. If you download the 100% one you can really see the differences in CA.
T3i (left) – D5100 (right)
Next, in the same bright circumstances, a shot using the most automatic mode. Again I think the win goes to Nikon, due to some excessive processing on Canon’s part.
And here’s a low-light situation, at ISO 3200. The Canon warms up quite a bit, but in the end the fine details are retained better.
Check out the full size shots in this Flickr set.
I can’t tell you which of these cameras will feel better to shoot. But let’s just run down the cameras’ strengths really quick. Some of these are just my opinion, obviously, but I think it’s legit to say when something seemed truly preferable to me.
- Somewhat sharper, more convenient LCD
- Aggressive shape more suitable for larger hands
- Controls more ergonomic
- More all-purpose kit lens
- 60fps video recording and 4:3 VGA mode
- More convenient as an primary video device
- Supports more in-production lenses
- More compact, definitely feels smaller
- Better viewfinder coverage
- Faster entry and better performance in Live View
- Single flap for I/O ports
- Scene modes and quality control in video
- Higher ISOs available (though not necessarily practical)
- Quick setting of single autofocus points
Look at those lists and see if anything catches your eye. Because these are both excellent cameras and either way you’re going to get a lot for your money. If I had to choose, I’d say that the Canon is a better buy: the kit lens, more versatile video, and a more serious-feeling body. That said, the Nikon is definitely more compact, and for some, its video options may be better.
Update: Adjusting for my mistake regarding the kit lens makes this choice even more difficult. Personally I would still go with the T3i because I never use in-camera scene modes, I shoot primarily in low ISO, and rarely use Live View or in-LV focus (I’m just more of an old-fashioned photographer). For a beginner, the D5100 may be more user-friendly, while someone who knows what they want (like me) might very easily choose the T3i over it. As always, the best choice may be to visit your local camera store and give them both a look.
Note: if you decide to go with the T3i, consider whether you could go with the T2i. The articulating screen is really the only major feature missing (the D5100 is more of a step up from its kid brother), so you could save quite a bit of money on getting a T2i body-only and use it to pick up a nicer lens. Just an idea.