Nikon and Canon—eternally locked in battle—do each other good by keeping product quality neck and neck. But in the newest entry-level DSLR shootout, if there has to be a winner, it's Canon's Rebel T1i.
I'm not trying to be all namby pamby, like "Oh, you're each so special in your own ways, it's so hard to choose!" but I can't stress enough how solid both the Nikon D5000 and the Canon Rebel T1i are. For the price—$850 for the D5000, $900 for the T1i, both including beginner-level 18-55mm lenses—either one will work fine, whether you're a beginner looking to learn about photography, or a veteran with investment in a few lenses but not enough cash for a step-up Nikon D90 or D700, or a Canon 5D Mark II. (I highlighted their spec differences here.)
In fact, the differences between the D5000 and the T1i tend to be more about button layout and interface design than picture-taking ability. If you basically know what you're doing, you can take essentially the same picture with either camera, except in certain situations mentioned below.
Like I said, there are differences in interface. Unlike fancier DSLRs, both have single dials on the right-hand side, and both have just one large full-color LCD screen for managing settings, setting up shots and reviewing them later. The Canon's is a little bigger with a lot more resolution, which makes a big benefit when you're shooting video or focusing in Live View, but is otherwise irrelevant.
In interface design, however, the better design goes to Nikon. As you can see below, the organization of information on the screen is much more palatable and less arbitrary. Nikon users who are used to having the second LCD screen up top for basic info—plus specialized buttons—can quickly learn a new behavior, getting all information on the big LCD, using the "i" info button for making most quick setting tweaks.
The Canon interface is similar to previous Rebels, and is pretty durn fugly, and the extra buttons only help in some cases where they are clearly labeled. (And even when the buttons are clearly labeled, there are some hidden functions—hitting the ISO button while shooting video will lock the auto exposure, for instance.)
I tested each camera both in full-manual mode and on some of the automatic modes. I've heard from a lot of uppity photographers who don't like people discussing auto shooting, perhaps as a way of trumpeting their own apparently stellar knowledge of the workings of photography. But it's important to remember that these sub-$1000 cameras are aimed at untrained entry-level shooters, and many of those people tell me that they almost always leave it in auto.
In this case, Nikon has six auto modes, plus a SCENE setting with like 14 different options, in each case including a photo. The Canon is shy on this point, with just five presets. The scene modes are helpful to newbies who can't translate what they see into camera settings. Still, anyone who buys a camera like this should do so with the intent to learn manual settings, and may benefit more from just taking 100 shots in each setting, like I do, changing settings all along.
What I did find is that even in semi-automatic modes, the Canon and Nikon were more different than better. For instance, when I set the White Balance on Cloudy, both got the white more or less right, but the Canon tended to look more pink, while the Nikon was more green, as you can see:
Everybody bitches about how more megapixels don't matter and that optics determine picture quality more than anything, and they're right. But sensors still matter, especially when shooting in low light—which you do by jacking up the ISO. As you can see below, while both cameras handle relatively noise-free shooting at ISO 800, they both start to get noisy by 1600, and at 3200 they are both noisier still. But the Canon is less noisy in this case.
It stands to point out that I shot this with both cameras on the default "normal" aka "basic" noise-reduction settings. Both cameras let you jack up noise reduction more, or take it off entirely, but in each case, you probably have to consult the manual to learn how, hence me testing on the default settings.
Live View was last year's ace in the hole, something first championed by Sony and Olympus, which Canon then took and ran with, followed, only recently, by Nikon. Now everybody's got it, and it's okay, but it's not great, and it's certainly not the preferred shooting mode for either of these cameras.
The problem is, when you have a live picture on your LCD, the typical auto-focus mechanism doesn't work, because the mirror inside the camera is lifted up, exposing the optical sensor.
Canon and Nikon have different ways of handling this. Canon says "screw it" and drops the mirror for a split second, letting the camera use its normal AF sensor and getting a nice tight focus.
The Nikon, from what I've seen in my testing, can't do this. Instead it uses secondary auto-focus techniques that are annoyingly slow. The fact that the Nikon has a flip-out "vari-angle" LCD to make Live View more useful is actually silly—by having to wait for the damn thing to autofocus, and by not guaranteeing as good an autofocus, you lose any advantage you'd have by watching this happening in the LCD. I think the mirror-drop technique used by Canon and the vari-angle LCD would be a good combination, however, and my guess is, Nikon is exploring this even now.
This year's killer upgrade is video, specifically, high-definition video. The Nikon D5000 has 720p at 24 frames per second; Canon's T1i shoots 1080p at up to 20fps. The question is, will you use it?
I said it before and I'll say it again: Shooting higher-res video with larger sensors and big honkin' lenses is awesome. They wide-aspect shots have a cinematic quality, and make better use of light in the room for a more natural feel.
BUT—yes, big ole "but"—the fact that autofocus is pretty borked when you're shooting videos means you get naturally lit cinematically scoped blurry videos, unless you and your subject remain perfectly still.
Like with standard Live View, Nikon and Canon take different approaches. Nikon says "no AF during shooting whatsoever," meaning you focus first, then hit record, then, if you have to, start manually refocusing as your toddler, cat or ginormous model rocket starts to make its move. Having lived with the D90 for a while, I want to say I got good at manually focusing, but I did not.
As is the case with Canon's 5D Mark II, the T1i does let you autofocus during shooting, but it's not the nice instant refocus you get while shooting stills. It's the wiggy servo-noisy zoom-zoom-zoom-zoom kind of contrast-based AF that takes too long. So while you're shooting, you not only see the auto re-focusing in action, but you hear it too.
While Canon's noisy AF is by far the better option of the two for shooting videos, Canon does something in the T1i that might piss off serious photographers: It disables shutter, aperture and ISO controls for video shooting. It's full auto, unlike the Nikon D5000, which, like the D90, gives you a certain degree of camera control while shooting video. While the Nikon lets you choose your ISO for instance, the Canon actually varies ISO settings along with auto exposure every time your video's lighting changes dramatically. I personally don't miss it—and in my experience, Canon does a slightly better job of getting automatic settings like WB right, and is a more trustworthy camcorder maker in general—but you might miss the control.
One overlooked benefit to the Canon is that you can take still shots while shooting video, without interrupting the video itself. You just get a momentary freezeframe, and the recording continues. On the Nikon, when you shoot video, you can take a still pic, but the video recording stops when you do.
In the End
So, why did I pick the Canon by a nose? Mainly the video and the better Live View focus technique, as well as the slightly better high-ISO performance. When I chatted with NYT's David Pogue about his rave review of Panasonic's Lumix GH1—a far better camcorder than either of these because of its quiet lens and full-fledged autofocus—he told me that this kind of half-baked AF makes the video on these cameras a mere "parlor stunt." I reprint his comment because I agree with him for the most part.
Still, as someone who enjoyed the Nikon D90 video mode, half-baked as it is, I look forward to extended testing of the T1i, shooting video whenever I can. Because in the YouTube era, we're not looking to go remake Dr. Zhivago. I for one just want something to record a quick vid of my kid doing something hilarious (which her mom won't let me post on Giz). What I find is that the best video camera is the one built into the still camera I already use. And that's why, parlor stunt or not, DSLR video is going to be important from here on out. Here's hoping both Nikon and Canon keep working to make them better.
Great all-around entry-level DSLR camera
Well-designed user interface; more friendly to beginner photographers
Vari-angle LCD rendered less effective by slow auto-focus in Live View
Can't autofocus during video shooting
High ISO settings have more noise
Great all-around entry-level DSLR camera
Live View autofocus technique is fast and effective, and you can also auto-focus while shooting video
Less noise at high ISO, better automatic-shooting results
Interface can be confusing to new photographers
Autofocus in video mode is noisy (as in "audibly annoying") and slow, so it's a better perk than the Nikon but not a hands-down win