Hardware

Head-To-Head Review: Canon T3i Vs. Nikon D5100

Comment

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.

Kit lens

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.

Viewfinder

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.

LCD

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.

Controls

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.

Live view

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.

Body

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.

Movie mode

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.

Image quality

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.

T3i

D5100

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.

Conclusion

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.

Canon T3i

  • 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

Nikon D5100

  • 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.

Product page: Canon T3i
Product page: Nikon D5100

More TechCrunch

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

16 mins ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more