DSLR shooters who fall somewhere between hardcore and tyro are getting the cross-hair treatment from camera makers these days. That's who Olympus is aiming for with its tiny, creatively playful, yet powerful new E-620 ($700, body only).
Now the two biggest guns-Canon and Nikon-have these buyers in their sights, with DSLRs that bring high-definition video capture and other major-league features to kits costing $900 or less.
Canon's entry, the 15.1MP EOS Rebel T1i, inherits capabilities from the EOS 50D and 5D Mark II. Similarly, the 12.3MP Nikon D5000 is packed with much of the tech coolness of Nikon's upmarket D90. But these contenders also demonstrate some divergence in thinking by their respective makers.
Let's look at them side by side in several key areas.
Both cameras use sensors and processors from existing models of what might be called the high-midlevel class.
The Canon gets its 15.1MP CMOS sensor from the 50D, plus 14-bit A/D conversion, and like the 50D, ISOs can be pushed into an extended range to 12,800. Naturally, we expect that image quality from the Rebel T1i will closely match that of the 50D.
The Nikon D5000 plays it a little more conservatively, using the 12.3MP CMOS sensor of the D90, with its 12-bit A/D converter, and ISOs expanding up to 6400. This hardly makes it a slouch. As the Nikon D90 ran practically neck and neck with the Canon 50D in our lab tests-and bested the 50D in noise performance at higher ISOs-we expect a comparison of the two new cameras to be quite competitive. Keep in mind, too, that camera makers often tweak the processing firmware for newer models with the same sensor, so we might even see some improvement.
Viewing And Focusing:
The D5000 shows some new thinking from the Nikon engineers-it's the first Nikon DSLR to have an articulated LCD screen. A great idea in any event, the D5000's does something different and, in our view, better. The 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot display flips down- not out to the side-and then rotates.
Since the display remains centered laterally, you don't need to move the camera to the right to keep the screen in front of your face while you frame your shots. This also keeps the screen centered on the optical axis and makes panning feel more natural than with a flip-to-the-side design. This setup will also come in handy when capturing video.
Canon took the more traditional path, with a fixed 3-inch, 920,000-dot LCD borrowed from the EOS 50D and EOS 5D Mark II. If fine-grained screen viewing is more important to you than an articulating LCD, the Canon may tug harder on your heartstrings-it's a gorgeous display.
Autofocusing systems on both cameras are also off-the-shelf items. The Canon uses essentially the same 9-point, diamond-pattern AF array as the EOS Rebel XSi (which will remain in the lineup, as well as the EOS Rebel XS). The center cross-sensor is surrounded by linear sensors.
The Nikon, as you might expect, employs the AF system of the D90, with 10 linear sensors arrayed in a box pattern around a central cross-type sensor. Both systems tested out fast and sensitive in the respective older models, and we'll see how they fare in these new cameras.
The Nikon D5000 has the same video capability as the D90: 1280x720-pixel HD video at 24 frames per second in clips up to 5 minutes long, with mono sound and manual focus.
Canon seems to have a clear advantage with its full 1920x1080-pixel HD recording, up to 12 minutes a clip, but there are a few asterisks. Because the T1i has just two outlet channels from the sensor, as opposed to four on the 5D Mark II, the camera can manage only 20 fps at 1920x1080, making for choppy motion.
And since it has a smaller sensor (and smaller pixels) than the full-frame 5D Mark II, there may be greater noise issues in videos taken at higher ISOs. Unlike the stereo-capable 5D Mark II, sound recording is limited to the builtin mono microphone.
The Rebel T1i does take lowerresolution 1280x720 video at 30 fps, though, and at this price, it may prove a boon for film students.
Handling And Add-ons:
We shot with the two cameras in brief field tests and were impressed with both. In terms of the body, the Canon Rebel T1i is a near-clone of the Rebel XSi, differing only in the video setting on the mode dial on top, and a thumb button on the back, for live view and video recording. (Note to Canon: That button needs to be raised a little more-it's almost impossible to find by feel alone.)
The fit of body panels was trim and tight on the beta version we handled. As with other Rebels, if you have big hands, your pinky could slip off the bottom of this petite camera, so you may want to add the battery grip for extra finger room. (The T1i uses the same battery grip, Li-ion battery, and remote switches as the XSi.)
The D5000 is similar to Nikon's D90 in body design. There's a dedicated live view button to make it easy to switch to framing images on the LCD or to capture video. Also, the grip is longer than the one on the Rebel, so your pinky won't feel left out. And a bevy of buttons gives you access to all the most important controls.
Nikon's display lets you change other important settings and see all your main settings quickly. The build quality felt solid on the preproduction sample we used. The D5000 isn't compatible with any of Nikon's existing battery grips, and unfortunately there won't be a new grip for this model.
But it is compatible with current Nikon Speedlights, ML-L3 wireless remote, and GP-1 geotagger.
The Bottom Line:
Both DSLRs stack up fairly evenly in terms of in-camera effects like dynamic range adjustments, filter effects, JPEG profiles, and so on. (The Nikon D5000 doesn't offer wireless flash control from the pop-up flash, unlike higher-end Nikons. But since Canon doesn't offer this feature on any EOS model, mark them even here, too.)
The Nikon D5000 does not have the AF-coupling pin found on more expensive Nikons, which means that you need AF-S lenses (which have internal focusing motors) to autofocus. The Canon, on the other hand, can take any lens from the EF arsenal, digital-only or full frame.
Whether you're a Canon or Nikon fan, you're getting a ton for your money in these respective models. And if you're sitting on the fence deciding on a sub-$1,000 DSLR, your decision just got exponentially harder.