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Image Quality Comparison - Head-2-Head Review: Canon EOS Rebel T1i vs. Nikon D5000
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H2H ROUND-1: Image Quality Comparison

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Picture quality is yet another area that we see the influences of two different design strategies. The basic reality of any design - that you can’t have everything, and you give up some for every bit you get - is pretty obvious here. Here are two modestly priced cameras, and the genius behind their designs is the balance of the performance and features.

Let’s look at the three basic parts of image quality - color fidelity, noise, and resolution. They’re all related; when you process noise from high ISO, you’re changing the color rendering as well as degrading the resolution. It’s all about the balance of the three.

Image Resolution

One of the most noticeable differences is the fact that the Canon T1i has a 15MP sensor and the Nikon D5000 has a 13MP sensor. This seems like a slight difference, yet mathematically it’s a little over a 10% increase in pixel density. We’ll see later on if this has an impact on noise, however, we’re curious if there is a real-life image resolution difference, and, above all, a difference that is visible. 

Keep in mind, we’re not looking at lens resolution, we’re looking at the image itself - what detail is being held or lost, due to the pixel density on the sensor. To determine this, we’re shooting our “more interesting” test board at the same distance with the same focal length lens. We want, above all, the same image magnification on the sensor.

Here’s what the board looks like:




Off the upper left corner of the ColorChecker, you’ll see this note:



We took the two files and processed them identically from the RAW capture. We then zoomed in to the “ #2: ”, and this is what we saw at identical zooms (3200%) in Photoshop.



There is a difference. See the # sign on the Canon file on the left? It’s bigger; there’s more detail and definition. Literally, there are more pixels making up the symbol, well, maybe two extra rows of pixels, maybe only one. Look now at the figure 2, about in the middle. Here you can actually count the pixel rows, and the Canon has four rows, the Nikon, three.

Is this difference visible to anyone viewing the file at anything but 3200%?


We do see, however, that a 10+% increase in pixel density DOES make more resolution, though it really doesn’t add up to a big difference in the actual file - certainly nothing visible in the print, even at extreme enlargement.

Color Accuracy
Here are the results of our standard color tests. The first set of charts show the target colors (the little squares), the camera’s rendering of those colors (the circles), and the difference between the two (the connecting lines). If you’re looking for color accuracy, the smaller the distance between the two shapes is ideal.

The first diagram is from the Nikon D5000. We’re seeing a very tight, very accurate rendering of colors here. Typically we’d expect more error in the reds than anywhere else yet we’re seeing very tight, accurate red mapping. The biggest deviation is in the yellows, where the camera goes to a lighter tone, and the cyans, mapped lighter, and more to the magenta. It is, overall, a remarkably accurate chart.


Nikon D5000


The Canon results, below, show a little different result. The Canon is showing a much more typical red gamut rendering, where the biggest deviation is in the deep red tones moving to lighter, and more magenta. The yellows are mapping just the reverse of the Nikon - to deeper tones - and the cyans are spot-on. This is again a question of balance, and the issue with many cameras at this level is squarely on the consumer market. A casual photographer is going to be happier with a camera that renders “nice” colors, without needing any help or adjustment. Accuracy is often sacrificed for pleasant rendering.


Canon EOS Rebel T1


Another way to see this is in the ColorChecker results. You can see very clearly how the Nikon files, in the reds especially, are quite accurate. The big outer squares are the camera’s rendering. The small inner rectangle is the actual target color, and the square in the middle of each patch is the target color adjusted to match the brightness of the camera’s rendering- essentially, to show the hue in the same context that the camera is using.


Canon Rebel T1i

Nikon D5000


The hue disparity persists when the white point is set in Photoshop, as you can see in the shots below.


Canon EOS Rebel T1i

Nikon D5000



The Canon renders the entire target a bit brighter and more vibrant. If it’s my Mom taking pictures of the grandkids to post to her Facebook page, she’s going to be happy. If it’s me shooting a client’s product, I’m going to be cursing as I fight against the errors in the reds.

Noise & NR Processing

The graph below plots the total amount of noise produced by the Nikon D5000 and Canon T1i at each available ISO setting.



At low ISO there’s very little difference. From ISO 200 to the 800 range you’re seeing some interesting disparities: the Canon T1i lets the noise go, doing very little processing, then, at 800, the levels wander back down to the Nikon’s levels. From there, Canon treads a fine line: higher noise than the Nikon, but not much deviation from the slope.

Here’s the interesting result. The first two images are from the Canon at ISO 400 and 1600.


Canon Rebel T1i - ISO 400

Canon Rebel T1i - ISO 1600


Looking closely we can see little difference in the noise between the 100 and the 400 - the gamble has paid off. Canon has not applied a lot of processing, and has held great detail. When you get to the 1600, however, the noise is much more noticeable; in this case it appears as red-green-blue blotches, and a slight hit in resolution.

The Nikon, at 400, is looking a little soft - the noise processing has had an effect - and at 1600 there’s a much bigger difference between the two cameras. The Nikon has less red-green-blue blotching, but is softer overall, too.


Nikon D5000 - ISO 400 

Nikon D5000 - ISO 1600


Here they are side-by-side. Canon on the left, Nikon on the right, both at ISO 1600



The Canon looks sharper and has more contrast between the areas of detail - the hair strands are brighter against the shadows, but there is more red-green-blue blotching and color corruption. The Nikon, even though it’s very close in actual resolution, looks softer - not as snappy, and at normal zoom is going to feel like it’s got less punch to it. To its credit, the color is cleaner and more accurate, with very little RGB effect.

Image Quality Conclusions
So which is better? That’s a resounding “It depends…” As we’ve said, this product range is about balance, and what you prefer really depends on what you expect of the cameras. The Nikon D5000 is coming out, overall, on top of the image quality evaluation. We’re seeing a more accurate file, better noise control, and better color mapping throughout the range of ISOs. In a lot of ways, we’re starting to consider this a great “pro-sleeper” camera - a camera that can be tossed into the bag for backup or as a “disposable” camera the pro-shooter can have on hand no matter what the shooting conditions because of the affordable price for accuracy and control. The high-ISO performance is a slam-dunk for the working pro - especially for a backup.

The Canon EOS T1i, however, makes a “prettier” file out of the box - something that the average amateur may appreciate, the casual photographer will take for granted, and the pro may prefer for those jobs where the files get delivered directly to the client with little time for editing or adjustment.

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