Here’s another in my series comparing Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras. I’ve written comparisons of the Nikon D3100 vs. the Canon T1i and another article looking at the Nikon D7000 vs. the Canon 60D. I asked my good friend Chris Bennett, owner of Bennett’s Camera in New Orleans, for another good pair of consumer-level DSLRs to review, and this matchup was his pick.
The Nikon D5100 and Canon T3i fit perfectly in between my other two current reviews: more sophisticated than the entry-level T1i and D3100, but not as pricey as the 60D and D7000. Should you consider either of these cameras for your next DSLR purchase? We’ll try to answer that question here.
Like all of my camera reviews,I’ll try to keep everything in plain English. As someone who shoots cameras every day for a living, my goal is to eliminate as much techno-jargon as possible and give you a sense of what it’s like to actually get out and use both of these machines. I’ll go out and shoot both of them in Program Mode, switch to Full Manual Mode, then do a bit of video with both for you to compare. To top it off, I’ll come back into the studio and shoot a simple still life. Hopefully, when we’re finished you’ll know a good bit more about both of these options.
THE TECHNICAL GIST
We’ll keep this short and sweet:
The D5100 has a 16.2 megapixel sensor; the T3i is about 10% bigger at 18 megapixels. (I’m not sure this is a difference that will be detectable, particularly with the 18-55mm kit zoom lenses that I’m testing with here.) The D5100 can shoot a motor drive burst at 4 frames-per-second compared to the T3i’s 3.7 fps. (Neither of these is nearly as fast as it sounds, should you try and point them at a fast-moving sporting event and get peak-action photos. You need at least 6 fps to capture that.) Although these photos make them appear to be the same size, in your hands, the Canon camera is slightly larger. (I have large hands so this becomes a factor for me.) Two things I like very much: both of these models have articulated rear LCD displays, meaning you can pivot them around to shoot (and see what you’re doing) with the camera up over your head and down below your feet. They also both have external microphone jacks, a TREMENDOUS feature if you plan on doing some serious video (you’ll definitely be using external mics if you want to shoot ‘real’ video.) Both can shoot 1920 x 1080 HD video in a variety of flavors. The Canon has an ISO range of 100-6400 with a 1-stop ‘boost’ possible; the Nikon has the same ISO range of 100-6400 but with 2 stops of extra ‘boost’ possible. Unlike the D7000, neither of these cameras is built on a metal body. (Unless you drop it, that’s actually not a big deal. These are sturdy machines.)
ERGONOMIC & AUTOFOCUS CONSIDERATIONS
If you’ve spent any time at all on my site, you’ve probably already read some of my preaching about the superiority of back-button autofocus. Without going into all the details again here, suffice it to say I think separating the focus and shutter release functions on a camera is an essential requirement for any serious DSLR shooter. And on this score, the Canon is way ahead, at least for me, because I’m a left-eyed shooter. The button that you program to dedicate for autofocus on the Canon is just to the right of the spot your thumb naturally finds; on the Nikon, it’s a smaller button, closer to the eyepiece and away from the spot your thumb wants to rest. The practical result is that I find my thumb ends up jammed in against my forehead as I try to focus with the Nikon. If you’re a normal person (that is, right-eyed shooter), this will be less of a problem for you.
Let’s take a quick lookat how both cameras handle navigation through the myriad screens and options that you’re presented with when you purchase either of these bodies. Although both the Nikon and Canon will get you where you want to go through all of the choices for Image Quality, File Size, Autofocus options, Video options, etc., etc., I find the Canon approach is much easier to master.
The tabs on the Canon—just like in both of the other two Nikon/Canon reviews I’ve done—don’t scroll out of view. Every menu option on that particular tab is visible when you first open the tab. On the Nikon, the options can scroll right out of sight, making it much, much harder to find your way around. This is one thing I would really like to see Nikon address in their product line.
FINALLY, SOME EXAMPLES
With that out of the way,let’s go out into the field and shoot some photos! To start, I set both cameras on Program Mode, allowing the camera to select both the shutter speed and the aperture for the shot. The first two images are of the same sailboat heading back into harbor as a stiff wind kicks up.
You’ll notice quite a bit of difference in how the two cameras handle the scene. This was actually a surprise to me: in both of my other two Canon/Nikon reviews, the Canon camera shot a warmer version of the scene in each case, the Nikon a cooler, although I found more accurate, version. Here, the Nikon is warmer, but also flatter (lower contrast) than the Canon, which look bluish to my eye, but with better contrast.
Looking at a simple Levels histogram of another image from the same location reveals that the Nikon is indeed flatter: there’s not a solid shadow or highlight in this image. The Canon histogram is more full-range right out of the box. Keep in mind though, that either of these images will tone up fine in Photoshop or any other decent image editing software package you might be using.
Next I wanted to see how each camera would handle a backlit subject—something we all run into frequently while shooting.
Here’s what the two cameras produced, shooting up into this arbor framework with a brighter sky in the background. No adjustments have been made to the images at all—this is straight out of the camera. Although both of these are acceptable images, I find the Canon exposure to be a bit more balanced and useable. (I’ll have less work to do in Photoshop when my starting point is better.)
Next I went to full Manaul Mode to shoot this driftwood. The straight exposure didn’t give me enough ‘meat’ in my exposure: things looked a bit washed out and desaturated to my eye. Adjusting the manual setting, I was able to create these two images:
This goes to show how much more artistic control you have when shooting manual mode. I find these two images almost indistinguishable. The only thing that would improve these shots would be a much better piece of glass mounted on either of these camera bodies.
VIDEO WITH THE D5100 & T3i
To shoot video,we first have to get into each camera’s respective ‘video mode,’ and the two machines handle this dance in different ways. With the Nikon, you simply slide a spring-loaded lever one time to enter ‘Live Mode,’ then press a dedicated button near the shutter release to shoot video. With the Canon, you must first switch the Function switch over to Video (the little camcorder icon), press the Live View button once to engage it, then press it again to start shooting video. This is a bit more cumbersome than the straightforward Nikon approach.
Now for a bit of video. It was windy and the little on-board mics that come built into these cameras were no match for the blow that was coming in with an approaching storm. But a color difference is apparent with the video as well. See which one you find most appealing:
NOTE: If you do decide to get serious about video shooting with either of these cameras (or any DSLR, for that matter), external microphones are essential. The very first mic you should consider is the Sennheiser MKE 400 Shotgun Microphone. This is a GREAT little shotgun mic, built specifically for DSLR recording. It will give you wonderful results wherever you need decent quality overall audio. It does a decent job of audio interviews out on the street. And as mics go, it’s downright cheap at about $200.
Finally, I went back into my still life ‘studio’ for a couple of simple images. This is a great way to discern color and contrast differences in images without a lot of background distraction.
These both look pretty nice to my eye. I see a bit of contrast difference, with the bit of extra contrast in the Canon image exactly as we would expect to find, based upon our previous shots.
So what do you think? What do I think? I think these are both very nice cameras that offer a lot of value for the money. I love the articulated screens and external audio jacks. I won’t be shooting any sports with either of these at these motor drive speeds, but for most anything else, they’ll do fine. In fact, if you think you might be in the market for either a Canon 60D or Nikon D7000, you should go try these cheaper brethren out—they just might save you several hundred dollars!
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. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog