The big C and the Big N
The Nikon D3000 ($450 from Adorama, B&H, Amazon)
The Canon EOS Rebel XS (1000D) ($500 from Adorama, B&H, Amazon)
The Nikon D5000 ($690 from Adorama, B&H Amazon)
The Canon EOS Rebel T1i (500D) ($770 from Adorama, B&H, Amazon)
The Canon EOS Rebel T2i (550D) ($900 from Adorama, Amazon)
Even though I’ve tried to encourage you to buy a Pentax, Sony, or Olympus, I know most of you are going to be going to buy a CaNikon anyway. *sigh*
First off, debating between Canon and Nikon is like getting into a Mac vs. PC flame war. And like modern day Macs and Windows PCs they share more in common with each other than differences. Let’s disclose our biases up front: I’m a Nikon guy. If you’re going to buy Canon the only redeeming thing about me is that I’ve probably sold as many Canon cameras to friends as Nikons.
And that’s because we’re really talking about the same camera with tweaks. It’s a very odd statement to claim Canons and Nikons are more like each other than they are different from Pentax, Sony, and Olympus—especially since Sony manufactures the sensors that goes in Nikon and Pentax specs the same sensors as Nikon in their cameras. Nonetheless it’s true.
Both are the last two holdouts in dSLR photography that refuse to put in-body image stabilization, opting instead to sell image-stabilization built into the lenses—something I predicted would be the case four years ago. Both compete for the #1 spot in photography. Both make top notch cameras that exhibit a slight price/quality premium vs. competitors. Both have the largest repertoire of lenses (with even larger premiums), which are nearly identical in focal lengths, apertures, etc. To the extent the prices of lenses are different between two lenses with the same zoom and aperture from the two brands, you can be certain to say that higher image quality neatly follows the more expensive lens.
They duel so often that the Japanese government forces them to share technological advantages each has achieved with the other: image stabilization and piezoelectric autofocus motors on one side; glass-based extra-low dispersion elements and in-sensor modulation during image acquisition on the other.
So brutal is this competition that both companies seem to have a knack of avoiding a direct comparison. They do this by staggering their prices and features.
|lower priced model||higher priced model||(retail) price jump||(main) upgrades|
|Canon 550D||Nikon D90||$800→$1000||penataprism, full dial set, high res LCD, 4.5fps|
|Nikon D90||Canon 50D||$1000→$1300||all metal body, 6.3fps|
|Canon 50D||Nikon D300s||$1300→$2400||weather sealed, 100% viewfinder, 7fps, top of the line AE/AF|
|Nikon D300s||Canon 5D mk II||$2400→$2700||(lose weather sealed, 100% viewfinder, top of the line AE/AF, built-in flash, drop down to 3.0fps), gain larger sensor (1.0x)|
|Canon 5D MkII||Nikon D700||$2700→$3000||(lose megapixel), weather sealed, 100% viewfinder, 5fps, high ISO, built in flash|
|Nikon D3s||Canon 1Ds Mk III||$5200→$8000||(lose fps, lose high ISO), gain megapixel|
(I’m using retail prices because this represents manufacturer intent at time of release, not for comparison purposes. Actual price difference may vary. Canon shooters, please check the mouseover in the last sentence before flaming.)
That’s changed recently. On the high end the Canon 7D now competes directly with the Nikon D300s head to head ($1700 price-point, more megapixels, worse high ISO, a 1.0x viewfinder), the Canon 1D Mk IV tries to regain the professional sports market niche from the Nikon D3s ($5000 price point, smaller worse high ISO, 1.3x sensor—crop factor can be an advantage in sports photography, 10fps—D3S does between 9-11fps depending on image quality), and Nikon has the D3X which is basically a Nikon version of the Canon 1Ds Mk III.
At the entry level, there was only Canon Digital Rebel (300D) at $900 (2003) for the body—now all the entry-level sells kits sit below that price. Nikon finally competed by pulling out the AF motor and making a compact body with the Nikon D40 three years later. Canon instituted a policy to introduce a new Rebel a year and keep two Rebels in production—in 2008 that was the Canon 450D and 400D—the older one having a trickle-downed street price, both still more expensive than the entry Nikon. But with the D40/D40x/D60 dominating the sales charts worldwide, they decided to respond with the Canon 1000D in late 2008. Last year, Nikon responded by reseting the category with two models: the D5000 and D3000. One would expect an updated 1000D to follow, but instead Canon surprised us all by going back to the original strategy and updating the Canon 500D with the Canon 550D. I suspect this means that Canon has a reason for doing this—either they plan on emulating Nikon’s simultaneous release and the 1050D is forthcoming, or margins were too small, or they weren’t seeing an increase in market share, or the 1000D was undercutting sales of the 500D. Who knows? The low end (street) price interleave currently stands as follows: Nikon D3000 → Canon 1000D → Nikon D5000 → Canon 500D (→ Nikon D90) → Canon 550D.
In any case, other than the control layout philosophies which still hold true from my original article, I have to issue a correction based on two recent developments.
I claimed that Canon is about auto-focus, and Nikon is about exposure. And while Canon still does area-based AF and Nikon point-based AF, recent developments, especially due to “3D” color matrix integration, means that Nikon has edged out Canon in autofocus technology across the line. Trust me, I’m as shocked as anyone. The latest Canon 1D Mk IV shows that Canon, though not caught up yet, is not going to take this development lying down. Note that Canon AF sensor areas are larger (Nikons are more numerous and have an assist from the 420 or 1005-area RGB meter) and the Canon AF servo is tuned to be more aggressive. The net result is that the latest Canon AF will continue to achieve lock faster (especially in low light) than the latest Nikon ones, though the Nikon one will maintain lock better and more predictably.
Canon also has responded with improvements in the metering system—but they still lag Nikon in this regard—as do all the manufacturers. One example of this is Canon has crippled out the spot metering capability on the “Rebel” line. This was a deliberate attempt to segment the market—even the 300D back in 2003 could be firmware hacked to get back the metering capability of the higher priced 10D—a tradition that continued until the Canon 500D which finally put this feature in. Another example is the latest Canon 550D has more metering points and uses a depth-based metering imager that can extract limited color data, emulating Nikon.
The second development is the addition of video. Nikon was the first to offer this on an APS-C body. Canon quickly followed and their cameras offer higher definition (1080p vs 720p), a less prounounced rolling shutter, and stereo microphone input. Unlike with the firmware crippling fiasco of the past, Canon is showing a lot of commitment here by offering firmware patches to their higher end cameras to enable an off-requested feature (manual controls). Video is a function of sensor and image processor so for Nikon to catch up here, they would need a new sensor and image processor class which they don’t have. The popularity of such feature was unanticipated, and Canon currently offers the better video camera at every price point. This can be found in the form of higher resolution (1080p vs 720p), better compression (MPEG option instead of just MJPEG), and stereo microphone input jacks on most models.
Video is a strange beast on dSLR cameras because it requires CMOS technology, but that same technology means that all video has a rolling shutter. The fundamental SLR camera design will forever relegate it to having a slow autofocus and no automatic zoom without a complete redesign. In other words, the current differences in video between Nikon and Canon are minor in the grand scheme, and they will be continue to be that way when Nikon leapfrogs Canon in video capability as I’m sure they will. In my opinion, if video is a “killer” feature for you and you object to the tiny sensors in “3CCD” video camera designs, then you should probably go with Panasonic—a company with a much nicer video platform and lenses actually designed for videography.
Even control layout philosophies are a strange thing when you reach the entry level because the characteristic features of both brands—the dual wheel on the Nikons and the control dial on the Canons—are removed for cost saving purposes. These cameras have very nearly the features of prosumer and professional cameras, yet need to add beginner ease of use on a smaller control deck so the interface is mostly menu-driven anyway. There are little of the traditional brand differences at this level.
So what is different? The same subtle philosophical differences that are still manifest in this salient: Nikon has gone for higher ISO performance while Canon has gone for a larger pixel density—one trades off on the other so you cannot have both.
To reach these phenomenal ISOs Nikon has connected the CCDs together to perform a real-time in-sensor approximation of Apical’s Dynamic Range Correction. When done in post-processing Apical DRC goes by many names: Nikon D-lighting, Sony Dynamic Range Optimization, Canon Auto Lighting Optimizer, Olympus Shadow Adjustment Technology, and Pentax D-range. When done in-sensor (and turned on) it is known as Nikon Active D-Lighting and Sony DRO+. Even not turned on, the sensor achieves benefits (and creates artifacts) of high ISO photography. A related technology is the introduction of gapless microlenses so more light is captured per pixel.
Canon has opted to use the same technology to go for more megapixels without an increase in noise. Megapixel is a strange beast that you probably don’t need and markets a lot better than its utility. This is because what you really care about is resolution and that increases much more slowly than megapixel—the square root of megapixel, actually. As I mentioned, the human eye at a close viewing distance (1 foot) has a maximal resolution such that 2.5 megapixels will beat it for 4×5″ print, 6 megapixels will beat it for an 8×10″. Now that megapixels are skyrocketing we can update this: 8 megapixels will outpace a full size A4 print, 18 megapixels will be enough for a two-page spread, and 24 megapixels is enough to cover a two-page A4 spread. Every camera in this class has over 8 megapixels, and the cream of the crop, Canon 550D, weighs in at 18 megapixels. BTW, please don’t pull the “cropping” justification for more megapixels—people don’t eyeball area; they eyeball linear distance: again we hit the square-root thing—twice as good of 8 megapixels is not 18 but 32!
That’s not to say that Nikon’s philosophy is superior! First, the Pentax K-x uses the same sensor as the Nikon D5000 at $140 the cost savings—so image quality differences between these cameras are really in processing and the microlens/filter stack. Second, even though it is the second best performing sensor in this class ever measured by DxO, this still amounts to only about ⅔ of a stop better than the worst performing sensor of this class: the Sony A230. Not only that, but the newly minted Canon 550D has nearly the same ISO performance as the Nikon and 20% greater resolution—the cost of that resolution is a one stop worse dynamic range. To see how small this difference is understand that the D5000 entry kit dSLR at high ISO will outperform the top-of-the-line point-and-shoot, the Canon Powershot G11, by 2⅓ stops and will do 1⅓ worse than professional Nikon D3: ISO 1600 on the D5000 is as noisy as ISO 360 on the G11 is as noisy as ISO 4000 on my D3 ($5000 in 2008).