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Comparison: Nikon D200, D80, D70, D50, D40, Canon 5D and XTi
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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December 2006

INTRODUCTION

I own all of these bodies today, except for the Nikon D50.

Which is best for what?

You can sweat over the details in my individual reviews. Here are my gut summaries of what really matters - to me.

Sneak Peak Summary

Get the Nikon D200 if you don't mind the weight.

Get a Nikon D40 for everything else.

Get the Canon 5D if you work on a tripod.

Forget the rest.

PERFORMANCE

Nikon D200: I love my D200 more than I've been able to write.

Why?

Its exposure meter is worlds better than my Canon 5D, worlds better than my Canon XTi, worlds better than my D80 and worlds better than my D40. With my D200 I just shoot. With everything else I shoot, look at the LCD, make changes, and repeat. If I'm on a tripod this is OK. If I'm shooting something that matters, it would mean missed shots, forever. My D200 and I miss nothing.

I would never have gotten off 23 perfect shots in the 51 seconds between when my new baby Ryan Rockwell stuck his head out, came all the way out, had me cut the cord, and put him on top of mom. The light ranged between 20kW of HMI spotlight on mom to the dim surrounding fluorescent light of the hospital room.

Exposure ranged from F/5.6 @ 1/125 in the the spotlights to f/5.3 @ 1/30 in the scheiße (dim fluorescent) light. Auto ISO ranged from 100 in the spotlights to 1,600 in the dim light. Auto WB dealt with the HMI, fluorescents and every mixture thereof. My Nikon 18-200mm VR let me zoom into his head at 3 feet in the hole at 200mm and zoom out to 18mm to get the whole room later.

I shot so fast I had no idea what was going on until I viewed the images a day later. Holy cow, I had perfect exposure and have sequence shots of each of his body parts exiting mom. There is no way I would have gotten all this with any other camera, except my D70. I would have missed almost everything changing exposure compensations and lenses. My 5D/XTi/D80/D40 would have botched the exposures requiring twiddling with compensations, and Canon has no 18-200mm IS lens or real Auto ISO.

Ryan Rockwell cord cutting

Birth of Ryan. D200, 18-200mm VR at 95mm, f/5.3 @ 1/30, Auto ISO at 1,600.

My wife's modesty prevents me from sharing anything else, but take my word for it, the results astounded me when I saw far more in the images than I ever imagined happened during the incredible 51 seconds over which I made this sequence. Life waits for no camera. When this happened I had no idea what was going on. I just kept shooting without worrying about anything.

I haven't looked, but the D200 is cheaper than it was a year ago. Want the best camera for serious shooting of anything that moves? Get a D200.

Nikon D40: If I'm shooting all day I'll lug my D200, otherwise, I grab my nearly weightless D40 and its gem of an 18-55mm kit lens.

Except for it's meter being as bad as the D80 and the Canons, my D40 does what my D200 does. (Megapixels don't matter.) A bad meter means that different conditions require different exposure compensation settings. You have to make a shot, look at the results, adjust the +- button to the right of the shutter, and try again.

Its kit lens, the 18-55, is perfect for baby shots up close and everything else.

The D40 is a great camera; don't let its fun weight fool you. It's my top recommendation to everyone who wants a camera for general use and the camera I use most often today. It's the camera that's doing most of the chronicling of baby Ryan Rockwell's life.

My D40 has replaced my D80. If price matters for you, get the D40 and forget the D80.

The D40 is much more pleasant to use because it has a bigger, better, snappy five-way nav switch on the back, compared to the mushy 4-way thing on the back of my D80.

My D40 allows me to strengthen its menu system with only what I use, while every other camera still makes me wade through all the distracting junk, like foreign language settings, to get to the relevant menu items I need all the time.

The included 18-55mm is so good you're not likely to need any of your older lenses. I've learned the new lenses are so much better and flexible than my old ones that I don't use my old lenses anyway.

One potentially important detail is that the D40 doesn't autofocus with non-AF-S lenses. (It works perfectly with the old pro AF-I lenses, like my ten-year-old 400mm f/2.8 AF-I ). This means if you have any lenses like a 50mm AF you'll have to focus manually, which is almost useless for normal and tele lenses.

This is no problem with my 105mm micro since I focus my macro work manually anyway, and my 10.5mm fisheye, which has almost infinite depth of field. I tape my fisheye to 6 feet/2m and shoot all day. Pay attention to this if you're intending to use a stable of old lenses, but realize you probably won't be using your old lenses in time. I find the new benefits of my D40 outweigh what it can't do.

Nikon D80: Old news. Things change fast in 2007; it's not 1997 anymore.

My D80 is great, just that's not much better than my D40 and not much less expensive than a new D200. I prefer the ligher weight and better switches of my new D40, and I can get two D40s for the price of a D80.

The D80 didn't get worse; the new D40 got better for half the price and skunked the D80. That's the way technology works.

My D80 was hot when it came out, but for me it sits in the middle between my D200 and D40. If I want small and light I grab my D40. If I'm serious, the D200's meter makes all the difference.

The D200 meter is perfect. The D80 and D40 meter are about the same, exposing for the shadows and requiring constant readjustment. The D40 and D80 meters are about as good for ambient light as the Canons. All the Nikons have superior flash exposure, the Canons don't.

Since the price of the D200 has dropped; if you want a serious camera, get the far superior D200 for not much more money. It's twice the camera.

My D80 has a few features I thought I would miss over my D40, like the ability to set the slowest speed with flash in the regular sync mode, but honestly I've never missed them while out shooting. I prefer my D40.

An advantage of the D80 over the D40 and D40x is that the D80 works perfectly with any old AF lens since 1986, not needing AFS lenses like the D40 and D40x to autofocus. Then again, if you want compatibility with old lenses, the D200 works perfectly with all manual focus lenses made since 1977.

I haven't gotten a handle on it yet, but the colors are different. I haven't shot with it enough (only about 7,000 shots) to dial it in.

Nikon D70: Ancient History. My D70 has the great meter of the D200 (much better than D80 or Canon or D40), but only has the useless, obsolete black-and-white histogram of ancient cameras. All the others have a modern color RGB histogram which is critical for determining exposure in-camera.

The D70 has a tiny screen. I'm a sucker for the superior 2.5" screens of the modern Nikons.

Nikon D50: Same as D70. Better meter than D80 or D40.

Canon 5D: My Canon 5D has the best technical image quality of anything, if and only if I'm on a tripod and setting everything manually. I have to set ISO and contrast and exposure compensation and more, all manually. If you're on a tripod, go get a 5D while the $600 double rebate is on. You'll love it. I was, and still am, knocked out when I fired up its images on my 30" Apple monitor.

The bad news is that I find the 5D awful for ergonomics and utility. It's a pig for capturing life. Canon still has no Auto ISO or auto contrast (dynamic range optimization, standard and default on all Nikons), except a little bit in an idiot mode.

The depth of field preview is on the wrong side, requiring a second hand!

The 5D's LCD is an awful, dim, low-contrast and off-color piece of junk that leads to bad images if it's used to evaluate images while out shooting. Canon's point-and-shoots have far better LCDs.

Most people don't see any problems. Most people are so new to digital photography that they still think having any LCD is a novel extra. I'm picky enough that it drives me up the wall, and yes, I have measured this.

I have to hope for decent images blindly, as when shooting film, or take the files to my Mac to see how they really look. I can't make image decisions on my 5D's LCD, and the poor meter of the 5D requires constant babysitting, like the Nikon D40 and D80.

A decent LCD is much more than a convenience. The ability to see what we're doing, while we're still doing it, is the most powerful photographic tool created since the invention of photography. It's why I get better images on my digital cameras than I do on my technically superior 4x5" film cameras.

An off-color LCD is like driving a car only looking out the side window: you're not seeing what's really happening, and it can lead to painful mistakes. The off-color and dim, low contrast LCD of the 5D leads me to bad color and exposure choices if I pay attention to it. I have to shoot blind, relying on my past experience, as I did with film.

I would pay several hundred dollars to have a decent LCD retrofitted to my 5D. I certainly hope this will be fixed in the 7D.

All the Nikons have great flash exposure. The Canon DSLRs I've used are all poor, meaning you have to jack with the flash exposure setting to correct it.

Canon Rebel XTi: I only bought one to test Canon lenses with my 5D. The XTi is very similar to the 5D, with a better LCD but ordinary image quality.

 

PLUG

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

 

Caveat: The all the ads below come from third parties. I don't see them before they appear on your screen. See more at my Buying Advice page. Personally I get my goodies at Ritz (the store, not the hotel gift shop), Amazon and Adorama.

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