Prosumer, enthusiast, advanced amateur. Whatever you call it, there is a class of photographers who are not pros but are serious about picture taking -- committed enough to spend a grand or more on an SLR body and at least several hundred dollars more on lenses. Those shutterbugs recently got two new choices from the big guns of digital photography. In September, Nikon released its veeeeerrrry long-anticipated D90 (a winner in our latest Best of What's New honors). In August, Canon released the entirely expected but very welcome 50D. Technically, these cameras are not direct competitors. The Canon has a magnesium-alloy body, esoteric adjustments such as vignette correction, and a higher price tag (about $1,200 online); the Nikon is around $900. But after lugging each of them around for the past several weeks, I think they're quite comparable. So the question is, which one should you get?
If you're this serious about photography, quality is mainly what you care about.
Ultimately, I like the Nikon D90 better. Colors--especially reds--are more saturated. And the exposure is more reliable and consistent. Perhaps I lean towards the D90 because I'm not a pro: I'm less likely to take a horrible picture with this camera.
That's especially true if you are shooting photos as compressed JPEGs, like most amateurs do, because you don't have as much control over how the images are refined and little wiggle room to fix mistakes. The other option, called RAW, is to record the unprocessed data from the sensor as massive files that you refine by hand on a PC. The big advantage here is that you can "re-shoot" a photo, changing settings like the white balance after the fact. To evaluate both types of photos, I set each camera to record both a JPEG and RAW version of the test photos I took.
Shooting both outdoors and inside, in a variety of lighting conditions, the D90's JPEG files consistently beat the Canon's. Specifically, the Nikon prevailed in 10 of 14 tests.
Exposure was the biggest differentiator. Set to matrix metering, the Nikon never let a portion of the photo get "blown-out" bright, even in tricky conditions like photographing a bright sky over a shady street, or a building that was half in direct sunlight and half in shadow. Set to evaluative metering (the equivalent setting) the Canon 50D often overexposed, turning a pale-blue sky nearly white.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.