In a comparison of the Nikon D3100 vs. Canon T3i, how do you choose?
If you’re looking to buy a new digital SLR and have never owned one—even a film SLR—you’re in somewhat of an enviable position. You’re not bound to a brand the way that some of us are, and by bound I mean you’re not sitting on hundreds or even thousands of dollars of lenses that will only work with one brand of camera or the other.
People who’ve bought into the Nikon line in the past are pretty much going to go with Nikon for a new body, ditto for people who own Canon gear. For them, the first decision—which brand?—is already made, and then they find themselves working within the confines of their brand of choice’s lineup.
But, you: you’re free to go any way you like. You’re starting fresh with no allegiances. So, which brand? This article is geared more towards the entry-level shopper—you’re not ready to part with the money required to get something more robust than the entry level, but you’re done with the point-and-shoot world. Nikon and Canon each have impressive beginners’ cameras, so let’s take a look at their offerings and see how they stack up against one another.
Most people begin their search, and some end it, by looking at the megapixel count of the camera. But this shouldn’t be a deciding factor for you.
It seems like a basic assumption that the T3i will take higher quality pictures because of its 18 megapixel sensor (compared to the D3100’s 14). If you look at camera reviews online, I don’t think you’ll ever see the lower resolution camera win out. And I’m not suggesting here that the T3i is worse or better than the D3100.
In fact, as we’ll see, there’s very little practical difference between them. It’s just that we’ve reached a tipping point with megapixels: that is, the image resolution these cameras are capable of are different in ways unnoticeable by the human eye.
Sound crazy? Consider your 1080p HD TV, which when you watch a baseball game on it enables you to see the stitches of the ball as it spins off the pitcher’s hand, or reproduces every blade of grass on the field faithfully and distinctly. That picture is only 2 megapixels.
So, if we’re talking about the difference between 14 and 18, understand that the benefit is not in the picture you’ll share on Facebook, or even in the 8×10 print of your baby that you send off to your parents.
The difference is when you need to decide how big you want your high resolution poster-sized print to be. If you’re not going to print that big, you will be satisfied with either the Canon or Nikon; you’ll never see the four megapixel difference.
Similarities between the two cameras:
Like megapixels, when you look at the Nikon D3100 vs. Canon T3i sensors, they are pretty comparable, just a notch or two different. Nikon’s DX sensor and Canon’s APS-C are both compact, which end up cropping the field of view your lens can pick up.
There’s no way around this unless you want to jump to a pro-grade full frame camera, but the D3100’s sensor is about 10% larger and so has slightly less cropping than the T3i. When you factor in how much you’ll pay for your lenses, the camera’s ability to record more of what that lens is capable of seeing becomes important.
Both cameras have similar native ISO sensitivity, with the Canon’s 6400 edging out the Nikon’s 3200. Both have custom function to bump the speedier end up to a 12800 “equivalent.” These higher ISOs are not going to be in your regular shooting repertoire, though—you’ll use them very minimally, if at all.
Both cameras also offer shutter speeds as slow as 30 seconds, but the Canon goes a bit faster: 1/8000 of a second vs. the Nikon’s 1/4000.
And they have similar video capabilities, shooting full 1080p HD quality movies.
They’ve each got built-in flashes, but the D3100 has a wireless transmitter is able to execute a high degree of control over multiple external flashes.
And internally, the cameras’ software have a wide variety of in camera processing options.
There’s a lot to like about the Nikon and the Canon.
So where do they differ?
Well, if you are concerned about picture quality, the Nikon’s got some specs that slightly edge out the Canon there. Its sensor is able to pick up 22.5 bits of color; the Canon records 22.1. This is a small difference, but it has more impact on the quality of your photos than megapixels do, since it means the Nikon is able to record more gradations of color.
The Canon’s dynamic range is greater, but only by a small margin, about a quarter stop. This essentially means that the T3i can properly expose in a marginally wider range of illuminance than the Nikon, from light to dark. Expect there to be a larger difference on the dark side, given the Canon’s ISO advantage.
How about the autofocus system of the Nikon D3100 vs. Canon T3i? How do they stack up?
The Nikon’s got 11 autofocus points, with only the center one being cross-type. Cross-type sensors are preferable, as they’re able to focus on a horizontal and vertical plane simultaneously, offering greater precision.
The Canon’s got fewer focus points overall—just nine—and like the Nikon only the center point is cross type. You can see how having only one cross-type affects a camera by its shutter lag. The Nikon and the Canon have essentially the same shutter lag, 279 ms and 283 ms, respectively.
There are a lot of cases where the Nikon’s autofocus is hands down the winner over Canon, but this isn’t one of them. Sure, it’s got 2 more focus points, but ultimately these cameras are very similar in their abilities to produce sharp, clear photos. Neither one is particularly well suited for shooting action/motion shots, though if that’s what your intended use for the camera is, the Nikon is the better choice for its two extra focus points. These are probably more essential than the Canon’s faster rate of shooting in burst mode—3.7 frames per second to the Nikon’s 3.
Other Slight Differences:
There are a few other areas where if we look at the Nikon D3100 vs. the Canon T3i comparison reveals negligible differences, and it goes back and forth between the two over which one has the slight edge.
The T3i has a flip-out LCD screen; it can swung out away from the camera body and then tilted up or down, giving you freedom to take pictures from oddball angles while both feet are still comfortably on the ground.
If you’ve ever tried to get down on your side and shot a picture of a child from his level—instead of from your natural stance above—you’ll know it can be uncomfortable to lie there, holding your head and a camera up. Canon’s “Vari-angle” LCD makes it so you can just hold the camera down at the child’s level, and you only need look down at the LCD to compose the shot.
And while both cameras shoot full 1080p HD video, the D3100 has autofocus in video mode. Though the video autofocus feature can be helpful, don’t get swept up in Nikon’s hype. It’s a contrast type autofocus—meaning it relies on there being a great deal of image contrast between the subject and background—that makes no use of the still camera’s autofocus abilities. The sensor can easily be “confused” and is slow to pick up where the subject of the shot is; the video will go in and out of focus as the camera attempts to lock onto something.
But the Canon has an external mic jack, for better stereo sound in your videos.
But the Nikon has a longer battery life.
But the Canon has a larger viewfinder.
But the Nikon has less of a startup delay.
We could go back and forth like this for awhile.
Final Verdict: Either camera will be a great option
In comparing the Nikon D3100 vs. Canon T3i, we see that there is a lot of similarities to these cameras, and only very subtle differences.
In both cases, you’re going to get high quality images, and each model has something to recommend it over the other. But in a comparison this close, price tends to be the deciding factor.
When you consider that these cameras have so much in common, the nearly $200 list price difference doesn’t seem worth it. But searching online for more current prices shows a narrower divide between the two, as in: yet again, there’s not much difference. Both are selling for about $350 – $400, with the Nikon consistently about $20 less than the Canon.
My advice? Flip a coin. You’ll be happy either way. Or, start shopping for lenses instead, and when you find the one you want at a decent price point get it along with whatever camera body goes with it. But which lens? That’s another article for another day.