At the lower end of the 10 Megapixel digital SLR market, you have the Nikon D80 and Canon Digital Rebel XTi (also known as the Canon EOS 400D). It’s difficult to directly compare the two, as they’re priced differently, but hopefully, the following summary that has been compiled from various forum discussions and articles can help in your search for the right camera for you.
You might want to keep this Nikon D80 vs Canon EOS 400D / Digital Rebel XTi side-by-side comparison chart handy as you continue with your research.
Canon 400D / XTi Pros
Price is a big factor here — the XTi costs about $700, while the D80 retails for approximately $900. That’s USD200 you save by purchasing the XTi, and you can apply that $200 towards other purchases such as accessories. If you’re on a budget, the $200 can also go towards the purchase of a quality lens that will definitely contribute to better images. Advantage to the 400D in this department.
Canon includes a highly-capable RAW processing software (Canon Digital Photo Professional, or DPP for short) in the bundle. Nikon does not, so you would need to spend another $110 to purchase its Nikon Capture NX program (which, in its defense, is considered a professional-level RAW editing software, thus justifying the price tag — read more on the Nikon Capture NX). The software cost cannot be ignored if you intend to perform serious processing of RAW files. Yet another plus to the XTi in the budget department.
Canon XTi wins in terms of ease of use. Images shot at default settings have been reported to print better than the D80 equivalents. Something to consider if you don’t relish the thought of messing around with camera settings to obtain the best possible images.
The XTi is Canon’s first digital SLR to have a built-in anti-dust feature. A nice and convenient feature to have, and something the D80 lacks.
The XTi has a full-featured Mirror Lock-Up (MLU) capability, which is handy for landscape or macro photography to minimize camera shake from mirror slap. The D80 has a pseudo MLU in the form of a delayed shutter action (known as mirror pre-fire or exposure delay), where the shutter opens a split second after the mirror flips up, which helps minimize camera shake (here’s a night scenery example where a Nikon D80 owner used the delayed exposure effectively). Canon XTi marginally wins this one.
Nikon D80 Pros
The D80 is the bigger and heavier camera, and those who prefer their digital SLR cameras to be designed this way would naturally gravitate to the D80 instead of the Canon XTi. The D80 is easier to hold, and the grip can accommodate all of your fingers, unlike on the XTi’s handgrip. In terms of ergonomics, the D80 wins.
Nikon is currently the only manufacturer to offer a zoom lens with a huge range, starting at 18mm and extending all the way to 200mm. The $750 Nikkor 18-200mm DX lens also comes equipped with AF-S (where a silent wave autofocusing motor is built into the lens) and VR II (Nikon’s second-generation vibration reduction technology that promises non-blurry images when shooting at low shutter speeds). For an example of the versatility of this lens, follow the links in this summary of a Nikkor 18-200mm user review to read the related discussion and view some sample images. Another set of samples can be viewed in this forum post (be sure to scroll a few pages down). Canon and third-party lens manufacturers such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina have no equivalent lens, save for the Sigma 18-200mm or Tamron 18-200mm that do not come with any image stabilization and have a smaller aperture at the long end. If you are looking for a DSLR that serves as a useful walkaround camera, then the D80 holds the advantage, provided you mate it with the all-purpose Nikkor 18-200mm lens.
As an alternative to the rather expensive Nikkor 18-200mm, you can opt for a lower cost, 2-lens solution, namely the D80 plus a Nikkor 18-55mm “kit lens” (approximately $USD150) and the newly-announced Nikkor 55-200mm VR lens (expected to cost less than USD250). There’s an older version of the 55-200mm lens that’s just as good optically, but without vibration reduction, and that goes for about $170. These lenses have been tested to be absolutely superior to any other consumer zoom lenses on the market. Again, neither Canon nor any of the third-party manufacturers have any equivalent lenses, either optically or in terms of image stabilization, at this price point.
The D80 pentaprism VF (viewfinder) is significantly larger and brighter than the pentamirror VF on the XTi (here’s a forum post where it was described how much better it was to look through the D80’s VF). The D80 also has VF gridlines that can be switched off if desired — these gridlines help immensely with composition and keeping things level. If VF quality is a high priority, the D80 wins here.
The D80 has spot metering capability, and this is absent on the XTi. I consider spot metering to be of significant importance in photography, and the glaring omission of this feature on the 400D means the D80 holds the advantage here.
If you have the necessary funds but don’t want to be bothered with lens selection hassles, go with the D80 plus kit lens configuration. In this configuration, the D80 comes together with the extremely sharp and versatile Nikkor 18-135mm lens and against this combination, the XTi plus Canon EF-S 18-55mm lens pales considerably. You’ll end up with images of much higher quality with the D80 combination that’s all there and ready (at a higher price). Again, there’s no equivalent Canon combo to match this zoom range, so the D80 wins this one.
The availability of Automatic ISO signal gain on the D80 means that the camera automatically increases the signal to the imaging sensor in order to keep shutter speeds up. The maximum ISO value and lowest shutter speed settings are configurable. This makes the picture-taking process on the D80 very convenient. No similar feature is available on the 400D (or any Canon digital SLR for that matter, except for the newly-launched $3999 Canon 1D Mark III professional sports camera).
If you love being creative with flash photography, then go for the D80, which gives you wireless flash capabilities right out of the camera. The D80 is able to communicate remotely with compatible Nikon flash units such as the SB-600, SB-800 or SB-R200 via the use of pulses of light from the pop-up flash. No such feature is available on the internal flash of the XTi. Some other nice flash capabilities found on the D80 are repeating strobe flash for special effects and flash modeling. The D80 also makes it easy to adjust flash exposure compensation and select flash modes such as rear curtain sync, flash with red eye reduction, slow sync and such — there is a dedicated flash button and all you need to do is press that and turn one of two other dials to change the required setting. The XTi requires you to dig into the menu or change a custom function in order to modify those settings.
The D80 uses SD cards for memory storage, as opposed to CF cards on the XTi. No real advantage to the D80 here, except that you don’t have to contend with the problem of bent pins when you use SD cards.
In low-light situations, you can call upon the dedicated autofocus (AF) assist lamp on the D80 that illuminates automatically to help with focusing. The brightness of this lamp is non-intrusive, and can be turned off if you prefer to autofocus without it (not much of a problem here, as Nikon digital SLR cameras are unrivaled when it comes to acquiring focus lock in dim lighting, provided you pick out an object with sufficient contrast). On the XTi, you pop up the internal flash to help with autofocus, and what happens is that irritating pulses of light are emitted — it’s been reported that it can cause the subject to be confused as to whether the photo had been taken. If you want the benefits of AF assist but don’t want to use flash, you will have to remember to lower the flash after focus lock is achieved. The AF assist implementation on the Nikon D80 is definitely the preferred method.
If you decide to go with the Canon XTi, you might like too compare the image quality from the Sigma 18-125mm vs Sigma 18-200mm vs Tamron 18-200mm lenses here.
This forum post is an example of a photographer who has owned various Canon cameras such as the EOS 20D, XT and XTi, but much prefers the D80. There are several like him, but I could not find any examples to the contrary, that is, D80 owners who were happier switching to the XTi. This says a lot about how the “feel” and overall user experience with the D80 would, on balance, be more positive than with the XTi. The same user referred to above wrote up this list of capabilities you would most likely miss if you went with the 400D.
Needless to say, it’s quite impossible to declare an outright winner.
The D80 wins in features and functionality, but the big question is your style of photography.
For example, if shooting birds in flight is your thing, then purchasing the XTi is a no-brainer because this gives you access to Canon’s huge range of super telephoto fixed lenses — just one example, if you purchase the Xti plus a $1000 Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM telephoto lens (see examples of this lens in use), you’re good to go for birding; Nikon has no equivalent to offer with the D80 for that amount of money spent.
On the other hand, if you want a quality walkaround and responsive system which gives you a ton of creative options in flash photography and in-camera image tailoring, then the D80 is the obvious choice.
In the right hands, either camera will give you excellent results. Do not discount going to a store and trying the cameras out extensively — this will undoubtedly help you a lot in your final decision. For instance, many have simply excluded the XTi from their list after finding that they started getting cramps (two examples of folks who experienced this while trying out the XTi at a store — Example #1 | Example #2) after holding the XTi for more than a few minutes.