Canon 50D vs. Nikon D300

Ahhh… The Great Debate…

A reader commented recently asking for my 2 cents on the above question – 50D vs. D300 – it can widen to which camp you follow – who's Kool-aid did you drink? Canon vs. Nikon – mac vs. pc – Coke vs. Pepsi…

Some Caveats:

I'll fess up – I'm a Canon guy. I was a film shooter for years and just didn't like the image quality of the digital cameras that were out. It wasn't until a friend showed me his Canon G2 that I finally found a camera in a price range I was willing to pay for a first digital camera – that had output that I thought did well. From there I saw some images from other cameras and just felt I liked the look of the images from the Canon sensors, so when it came time for me to buy into a dSLR – I went with a Canon. From there, it was all downhill… well – not really. I bought some great lenses and continued to build my Canon kit. Bodies: XT (sold), XTi (sold), 30D (sold), 40D, 50D – lenses: EF-S 10-22, EF-S 17-55 f/2.8 IS, EF 24-105 f/4L IS, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS, EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS, a Lensbaby 3G and a few other bits and pieces… So now, unless some truly earth-shattering happens – I'll most likely stay a canon shooter.

I've not used the D300. I've used some friends other Nikons – D2, D80, D40x, etc… but never picked up a D300.

That being said – I've always tried to keep an objective eye on things when it comes to reviews. Even with the 50D pages here – I've leaned towards posting the images and 100% crops w/ my methods so that you the readers can make your own decisions. I'll chime in from time to time w/ my 2 cents, but everyone has an opinion and they all can vary by usage, past experience, what you want from the camera, and so on – so – personal opinions are just that… personal to the person and should always be taken in that vein.

As a final caveat – so I don't have to repeat this in every section – keep in mind that at the higher end of equipment, some differences are very large and noticeable when looking without going to scientific empirical testing (max ISO at 3200 (6400 w/ boost) vs 6400 (25,600 with boost) e.g. between the 1D Mk III and the D3), others are smaller like the image quality between the top of the line lenses between Canon and Nikon when looking at prints. So keep this in mind – that I'm speaking in the general – what most users will see or notice for their $ – rather than trying to make any sort of final gavel ruling on what *IS* best… the joys of subjectivity of the user reigns supreme in the photo world IMHO.

My default answer: (just as an FYI)

Yeah – I've been asked this quite a bit. The joys of friends knowing that you are a "professional photographer" – what is your recommendation for an entry level dSLR. "I don't have a lot of money to spend, what's better Nikon or Canon for under $1000".  Most don't have existing gear, they just want to improve from the P&S camera they've been using.

My pat answer is that while I'm a Canon shooter – what you get for your entry level $ is pretty much the same between brands (yes – I know it see-saws from release to release), go down to your local camera shop, pick up both cameras and see if one or the other feels better to you or if one's menu/controls make more sense. If so – run w/ that one and just enjoy the camera you choose. If you think you'll be getting serious and know what you want to shoot – well – then that's another question…"

The Specific Question:

Thom asked about my 2 cents re: 50D vs. D300… Starting w/ a clean slate (no older film lenses to try to still use) He figures his main usage will be sports (soccer and hockey) and perhaps low light shots of bands, oh – and landscapes and other general usage. So – on the slate are Autofocus, low light performance, who's glass is better, FPS in continuous mode, RAW vs. JPG in sports – "is being forced to shoot in JPG for sports a deal breaker for me?"

[sound of knuckles cracking as I limber my fingers to begin to type my responses…]


Well – being that I've never used the D300 – I can't comment on if it's AF routines are better, faster, stronger than the Canon system. I can say that with any AF system, a LOT depends on what you are shooting, how cluttered the viewfinder is with items that may "fool" the AF system, and a myriad of motion metrics. These MMs can include speed of subject, direction with regard to the camera, motion relative to other items you DONT care about in the image, distance to the camera, % change of the distance to the camera per frame rate (ability to follow w/ intelligent focus), and so on…

Soccer_2 What I can comment on is what I've shot w/ my Canons. Of what you asked about, I've shot club soccer from the sidelines, and professional hockey from the stands – about 1/3 the way up the lower level – just so most shots were above the near glass, but still giving great low-ish angles of view. For the soccer stuff, I used my 100-400 lens w/ a monopod and had no trouble getting tack sharp shots… stopping the action was pretty easy, and the AF had no problems w/ accuracy or getting the right subject in view. Keep in mind I was always zoomed in on 1 or 2 players for most of the shots. Perhaps I was avoiding situations where cluttered shots that might have given the AF fits because I didn't want that sort of "shot" anyway. 

Stars8895_2 With the hockey, I used my 70-200 f/2.8 L IS… sometimes w/ a 1.4x TC, but mostly without so I could get a faster shutter speed. Again – the AF worked great and I had few if any problems with getting in focus shots. The biggest problem here was just plain old amount of light (or lack thereof). If you are going to be shooting league hockey, I'd guess they don't spend the same amount in the local rinks as the American Airlines Arena in Dallas did to ensure even light for the TV cameras, so know that the high end ISO will play a factor here. The ability for the Canon to boost to 12,800 ISO may give you a leg up here… Sure – the noise in the image may be less than optimal, but you could get a shot that would not come out at all if you were shooting at 6400. I'll leave the noise comparisons up to you to decide on.

When it comes to the number of points the AF system uses, I would have to say that yes – more should be better. The Canon 1D series of cameras have been using a 45 point system… Up until the Nikon release of the D3, the Canon 1D Mark II AF system was pretty widely regarded as the best for sports shooting… If you think sports is what you really want to shoot – my 2 cents is to not get the 50D, but go get a 1D Mark IIn – used for $1600 – $1800 or so. That'll make you happy w/ AF performance, but will only get you to 3200 iso with boost. Ahh… the trade offs…

Low Light Performance:

Welcome to the subjective zone… on paper, yes – the 50D will shoot at 12,800 ISO while the Nikon only shoots to 6,400… but how usable are images shot at those resolutions. Some purists will say that the noise on both images makes them unusable while others like the effect the grain gives to the shot.  Read my two posts on jpg and RAW high ISO posts to see some examples from the 40D and 50D… tho also understand that very little (if anything) was done to clean up any noise in the images – and that your "actual mileage may vary"… no matter if you start w/ the Canon or the Nikon image – plug-ins for PhotoShop and other post processing tools, have come a great way in helping eliminate noise…

This area will also come down to what sort of lenses you use… if you buy great glass that is really bright (say f/2.8 for a longer zoom, or f/2.0 or less for a nice prime) it will help you greatly – helping you by not forcing you to go to your highest ISO to get the shot… which leads us to:

Who's Glass is Better?

Ahhh… the next subjective zone. Sure – you can get down to all sorts of uber scientific tests as to which lens has less distortion, less chromatic aboration, etc… What it all comes down to is the end result to the eyes of the beholder. I think (sorry to be a Canon heretic here) that Nikon makes the better glass. but only by a slim margin. This is when looking at both lines "top of the line" lens offerings. When it comes down to most of their other offerings, I think it is really a push. Also – keep in mind that if you want to save some on glass, Tamron, Sigma, and quite a few other manufacturers offer their lenses with both Canon and Nikon mounts… so if you go the 3rd party lens route – the question is moot.

I'd suggest that you draw up your "dream bag" of glass, a set of lenses that will cover the needs you foresee, and then try to fill that bag from both vendors. See if there is a price difference between the two and take that into account. Will the % difference really get you a noticeable difference in the images you get?

With your desire to shoot low light, let's go with a bag that will cover super wide angle, then cover 16-400mm all at 2.8 till we get to that longest of zooms… and a 1.4x and 2x TC.  Yes – I'm avoiding primes – but that is when the $$ can really soar… since this is just a quick comparison – I just went to one site and priced each bag:

Canon Bag: $7,943
Canon EF-S 10-22mmf3.5-4.5 – $799
Canon EF 16-35mm f2.8L II  – $1659
Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L – $1349
Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS – $1799
Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS – $1599
Canon Extender EF 1.4xII – $369
Canon Extender EF 2xII – $369

Nikon Bag: $8,643
Nikon 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S $1029
Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF AF-S – $1669
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S – $1699
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR – $1799
Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED AF VR – $1519
Nikon TC-14E II (1.4x) Teleconverter AF-S – $444
Nikon TC-20E II (2x) Teleconverter AF-S – $484

So about $700 difference between the two, primarily in the wide angle lenses, the 24-80, and the two TCs… In all, about a 10% difference. Again – you make the final call.

The Bundled-up Question – FPS, RAW vs JPG etc…

Thom asked about the fact that when shooting in 14-bit RAW, the Nikon can only shoot at 2.5 FPS. The 50D shoots 14-bit RAW files at 6.3 FPS. Would shooting jpg vs. RAW be a deal killer for me… Yes… yes it would. As a note – the D300 can shoot at *up to* 8 FPS (w/ the added battery pack) in 12-bit RAW – but I wanted to keep the comparison at 14-bit RAW. 

I think the frame rate comparison is easy – more FPS – more chances to get sports action to freeze players (or equipment) at the dramatic point where arms and so on are in aggressive and compelling positions… but as for RAW v. JPG – the RAW wins every time counselor.

Crash4885 RAW is to a negative as a JPG is to a print from the negative. RAW files just give you so much more flexibility in post processing, once you learn what all you can do to them, including saving images that you thought were un-usable. The first photo I ever had printed in a national magazine was shot raw and while the moment would have sold the picture anyway, the adjustments I was able to make it helped illustrate that moment with more clarity. So yes – hands down – shooting sports in JPG is a deal killer for me; but I do know that the top rated cycling photographer in the world shoots jpeg exclusively. I guess if I was better I could shoot jpeg only too? LOL

Okay, thanks for all that Will, but… what do you recommend?

My 2 Cents, a summary:

Step one – go get your hands on both cameras and play with them some… you can read whatever you want about other's impressions – but you can't just go with their info exclusively. Which feels better in your hands, which one's controls make more sense to you? Step two – from a technical basis, I like the higher resolution (more crop-ability, or better detail if you frame in camera); almost double the FPS when shooting RAW; and the ability to shoot higher ISO (though it is a "2nd push" ISO) – all seem to lean towards the Canon. I think that glass quality is pretty much a push with a lean towards Nikon but at a slight price premium on some lenses. At this point the Nikon is a more thoroughly tested camera (for having been announced back in August 2007) and some say their multi point AF may be better, while others think that more points can cause more points of confusion for the system. Keep in mind also that the Nikon is $400 more than the Canon, which while newer with potentially newer tech – is the untested body. The one last thing to consider is pedigree… Canon has been *the* choice for sports shooters in the past, and while the hiccup (or heart attack – depending on who you read) they had w/ the 1D Mark III auto focus, and Nikon's well received first steps into the Full Frame sensor DSLR arena with the D3 – I'd still give the nod to Canon – especially given the critical acclaim for the 5D Mark II.

It is going to come down to what you think you'll make the most use of – the AF system – the resolution – RAW FPS – Glass – etc. Then the decision should be easy! (Riiiiiiight!)

Good luck with your decision!

Thanks for reading!

10 thoughts on “Canon 50D vs. Nikon D300”

  1. Sorry to bother you with stupid questions… but i’m in a dilemma now and need some advice. With the current crisis of the $, would you wait fo the Canon 5D mkII (lets say that if you do you could loose some money because of the dollar’s value in the market) and keep using a Tamron 28-75 F/2.8.. OR get the 50D now with a BG-E2N hand grip and a 50mm F/1.4 lens ?
    Thanks a lot for a very interesting info you provide about the camera (50D) it’s your blog that made me reconsider the waiting…

  2. WOW – I can’t even begin to thank you for this insanely informative post! I’m sure it took you awhile to type all of this up and research the lens/price comparison, etc and for that I’m truly grateful.
    I have tried both cameras out at a local electronics big box, and I do seem to like the Canon better. It sounds as if the 50D really is the best overall choice and I look forward to purchasing one soon.
    I hope your other readers will also find this informative and that they appreciate the time you’ve spent on doing articles like this! Thanks again,

  3. Michael – I’m sorry I don’t have a good answer for you as I don’t know: are you shooting for money, if so is that your primary job, what you are shooting with now, what sort of shooting you do, what sort of shots you can’t get now w/ the equipment you are using, and what you think you would like to be able to shoot that is making you want the 5DmkII or the 50D.
    With that being said, I’ll plow on in a vaccum… I’d try to ignore the rising and falling of the $ in the market, if you wait, things may get worse (or better) but you’ll still be w/out gear either way. I’d focus on what you need and what you can afford now… and then figure out if what you can afford will meet the needs of what you need.
    As an example – I’d love to get the 5D Mk II, it would give me a full frame camera for better bokeh at any focal length compared to the same effective focal length in a crop camera. I also feel it will give me better low light performance for shooting in dark environments and in limited use at the cycling track where I shoot often.
    I’m not going to buy it yet for a few reasons: because it won’t really give me significantly more sellable picutres than what I can shoot now – bokeh differences are subtle; I don’t shoot too much available light shots at the track or other events, so this won’t get me that much more biz either; and to utilize it in social shooting environments, I’d need to get something for full frame that would match the angle of my 10-22 for my crop factor camera. So the 16-35 II would be great, but that adds another $1500 ish to the price of the body… and battery grip, and batteries, etc. So in my case – the 50D was the way to go – it got me the higher resolution I needed to get better cropping options for my sports photography, and better resolution for the internal shots for my interior design and builder clients.
    Up till now I’d been investing in glass, I’m fairly well set on that front now… So I’ll stick w/ my 40D and 50D for now, will book biz and squirrel away $$ to get the 5D mk II and the other bits and pieces. At that point I’ll sell the 40D and will put that $$ towards additional batteries, grip, glass, etc…
    Hope that helps!
    – Will

  4. Robert,
    Sorry I missed your comment, great question tho. I’ve just shot some photos at a recent cyclocross race in the SRAW1 format, but they were at ISO 400. I’ll do some tests at higher ISOs with the same shot taken at RAW and sRAW1 and will post the results. I’m not sure if the lower res files utilize pixel binning to get better results, or if they are just resized in the camera w/ some standardized (meaning – not optimized to improve image quality) algorithm.
    – Will

  5. Thanks for all the information. What do you you think of the sharpness between the 40D & 50D? I’ve viewed as many pictues as I could from both of them and I’ve seen that each one can be sharper (albeit slightly) than the other. I’m not sure if that has to do with the subject matter or the photograhper or the glass. Sometimes the 50D looks a little soft while other times it looks better than the 40D. I’m kind of agonizing over my decision as to which one to purchase. I have spoken to a few professionals though and they love the 50D and having played with it in the store it feels good and seems fairly intuitive. I do like the fact that the 50D mas more megapixels which would be nice for larger prints and cropping but I think I need a better reason than that.

  6. Adam – as you said, sharpness is something that can be different depending on the shooting situation, the subject, how steady the shooter is, and so on. I have since sold my 50D (I’m now using a 1D Mark IIn and a 5D Mark II) but I was able to get tack sharp images out of my 50D and 40D. Between the two, I leaned towards the 50D as the extra pixels gave me a bit more flexibility to crop as I wanted to. When it comes down to it though, MP can be very over rated. The shot above that was printed as a full (oversized) two page spread, was shot w/ a 6 MP camera and it was tack sharp in the magazine… you don’t need 15mp to get a great image. Aside from sharpness, the other features (screen, af microadjustment, and so on) of the 50D make it even more of a “win” in my book. Try them both with your lenses and a memory card, then go back home and look at the images yourself – and then make the decision.
    Thanks for reading!
    – Will

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