Are you in the market for your first DSLR? Ready to make the big step up to a ‘real’ camera? In this article we’ll sift our way through some ‘real world’ comparisons of the current entry-level DSLR kits from Canon and Nikon: the Canon T1i with 18-55mm zoom lens vs. Nikon’s D3100, also with an 18-55mm kit lens. Both of these cameras currently list right around $700 US with the lens, both will take their brand’s entire line of lenses and both will shoot 1080p video. So these two machines make an ideal side-by-side comparison. Thanks to the fine folks at Bennett’s Camera and Video in New Orleans, I’ve been able to take these cameras out into the field for some ‘test shooting.’ My thoughts, reactions and recommendations follow below.
[NOTE: These will not be ‘scientific’ reviews. I’m not putting these cameras on a bench and performing engineering tests on them. No, I’m just a regular professional photographer, one who uses cameras every day to make a living. My findings are thus less scientific, but maybe more valid and valuable for you, the average camera user. I’m going to give you my gut reaction to each camera, and then you can decide if there’s anything here of value for you as you go about making your own purchasing decision.]
Look & Feel
Both of these cameras feel diminutive in my hands, but that’s because I spend most of my time shooting Canon Mark II’s and Mark IV’s. Ergonomically, the feel of both of these cameras in your hands is similar. Both have a standard pop-up flash and a nice, big LCD screen on the back for reviewing images or changing settings.
Menus & Settings Navigation
The Nikon menu screens are logical and easy to follow. Everything is laid out in a sequential manner that makes sense. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for as you set the camera up or make changes.
That said, I found the basic menu window was very much a ‘dumbed-down’ window that seems to be intended for the complete novice shooter. The screen will even tell you, in a complete sentence, if it thinks you’re going to underexpose a shot. I found this irritating, but that might just be me.
The Canon menus had pluses and minuses as well. The basic menus are very, very similar to the menu screens on their more expensive, high-end cameras, meaning that once you learn this menu system, you’ll have no learning curve if you ever upgrade. The menus work on a series of top tabs, and all of the menu options on each tab are visible with no scrolling, a nice feature.
But the tabs and what they contain can be difficult at first. You’ll want to work your way through the settings with your manual in hand, at least once, to understand all of these options. Just like the expensive big brother cameras, this camera has ‘Custom Function’ options which contain shorthand for all sorts of tweaks you can insert. Again, you’ll need the manual to set this up.
I took both cameras and did a bit of photography with them side-by-side, shooting both interior and exterior situations. I then shot a short piece of 1080p video with each camera as well.
Setting the cameras up on all-automatic, Program mode, using Matrix metering, I took interior photos of my cat, Zoe, then walked outside and made some photos on our front porch. You can see the results below.
Both cameras did an acceptable job in both situations. The Canon version looks a bit yellowish to me on my Zoe photo compared to the Nikon, which has more neutral tones, although both are okay.
Outside, the Canon metering system seemed to do a better job of deciding exposure on my slightly backlit porch, yielding a better overall exposure. So a bit of a toss-up on this test.
I then tried using both cameras in full-Manual mode, since this is something that is my preference, and something that I would hope that you, as a reader of The Discerning Photographer, would eventually aspire to, if you’re not already at least a sometimes-Manual-mode shooter. On this issue, the Canon setup was clearly superior. The readout for manual aperture and shutter speed is larger and clearer on the Canon. On the Nikon, it’s a tiny readout across the bottom of the screen, difficult to use and work with. So on this aspect the Canon wins.
Another big issue for me, and one that I’ve written about before on this site, is Back-Button Autofocus. Having the ability to set your camera up for back-button AF is a biggie, even if you’re not planning on becoming a sports photographer. I won’t go into all of the reasons here, since I’ve already covered all of this in the other article, but suffice it to say I wouldn’t buy a DSLR without back-button AF. Both cameras have the ability to set back-button autofocus, although they accomplish it in different ways. [Note: this is a correction. When writing the original article, I had trouble setting up the back-button feature on the Nikon. A few of my excellent readers have corrected me on this, thanks!–Discerning Photog] The Canon method is pictured below.
Switching over to video, a couple of interesting notes to consider, if you think this will be a big feature for you. The Nikon camera has a dedicated, single switch to get you over into video shooting mode. I liked this feature a lot. The Canon, on the other hand, is a two-step dance in its basic configuration, first hitting one button, then another, to turn video shooting on. Not a huge deal, but I found the single Nikon button superior for this feature.
On a related note, both cameras can autofocus during video shooting, something that earlier versions could not do. BUT, and this is a huge BUT, the sound of the lens refocusing is CLEARLY discernable in the audio track with each camera. Is this a big deal? Not if you’re in a noisy place. But if what you’re shooting is in a quiet setting, you’ll this audio focus noise very bothersome. It seemed to be just as noticeable with each of these cameras. Watch the following video and you’ll hear the lens motor adjusting as it autofocuses. The Canon is louder, but both are unacceptable, in my opinion.
Part of an article posted at my photo blog, The Discerning Photographer, that compares two entry-level DSLRs: the Canon Rebel T1i vs. the Nikon D3100. This particular part of the story is about shooting video with these two cameras.
So there you have it. My quick ‘Drive Around the Block’ with these two entry-level DSLRs. Both are fine choices; both are the entry-level items into large and extensive worlds of beautiful, expensive camera equipment. The choice is yours, but I would simply suggest you go with one of these. This will get you into one of the two professional arenas that I’ve never outgrown, never really gotten tired of shooting.
Remember: In the end, it’s really all about the glass, and Canon and Nikon both make some of the finest lens optics in the world.
That said, decide what you think will make the most difference for you and your future shooting, then buy it and don’t look back!
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog