Canon T3i vs Nikon D5100 – A Battle Of The Entry Level DSLRs

canon t3i vs nikon d5100If you are an entry level digital photographer and or in the market looking for an entry level DSLR then chances are that two models will be right there at the top of your list of choices. These are the Canon Rebel T3i and the Nikon D5100. The entry level DSLR segment is a fiercely competitive one with both Canon and Nikon trying desperately to woo compact camera buyers to transcend into the DSLR segment. As a result, both manufacturers are trying their best to keep their wares fresh and fiercely fighting it out by introducing better features.

The D5100 and the Rebel T3i were launched about the same time, the early part of 2011. Both have tilting flipping screens at the back of the camera and both are APS-C crop bodies. In this discussion we shall be looking at these two cameras and figure out if one is any better than the other. If you are looking for some help in deciding between either one of them come along for the ride. If you are looking at some other models or is undecided whether to go for DSLR or compact camera then it is recommended that you check this course out.

Sensor, Resolution

The D5100 uses a 23.6mm x 15.6mm APS-C CMOS sensor capable of producing an effective 16.2 megapixels. It shoots large fine jpegs of size 4928 x 3264 pixels. The crop factor of the camera is 1.5x. On the other hand the Rebel T3i has a 22.3 x 14.9mm APS-C CMOS sensor producing an effective 18 megapixel. Slightly more resolution results in slightly larger image size. It shoots large fine jpegs of size 5184 x 3456 pixels. 18 megapixel is the same as 16 megapixel when it comes to small prints. It is perfectly all right if all you will ever do is share your images online. There is a popular myth which is somewhat fuelled by marketing gimmicks and one that drives consumers to go for more and more megapixel. While initially it does make sense (10 megapixels is better than 6) but as you keep adding more and more the actual size of each pixel tends to get smaller. That hampers its light gathering abilities. The benefits are thus outweighed by the disadvantages, namely noise. This also seriously impacts the low light abilities of the camera. For more suggestions and discussion on low light photography check this course out which deals with this topic along with some other vital aspects of understanding light.

Design Ergonomics and Build Quality

Entry level DSLRs are almost entirely made of plastic in one form or the other. The D5100 and the Rebel T3i are no different. These are not your preferred models for a rainy day or if you are shooting in a really dusty and dirty environment. They are not the best in terms of weather resistance either. But they can do pretty much everything on a dry day, almost, except maybe shoot sports and or quick action photography. More on their shutter speeds and processing powers later in this discussion. Keep reading!

LCD Monitor

Both the D5100 and the Rebel T3i have tilting, flipping screens that are attached to the back of the camera via a hinge. It allows you to flip them out and then point in any direction to shoot. For those who prefer to compose using live view the monitor allows you more than just that convenience. When shooting above the head of a crowd or stooping very low to photograph flowers such monitors are extremely useful. The D5100’s predecessor the D5000 had the flipping screen hinged in a way that it opened downwards from the base of the camera. This was a big problem for those who shot mostly on tripods. This has been changed in the D5100 much to the relief of photographers. The display resolution of the 3” screen is 921,000 dots. The Rebel T3i also has a very good looking LCD screen that boasts a 1040,000 dots display.

There are issues with the movie shooting options of both cameras which does make it slightly less of a preferred choice. When you shoot videos in the D5100 the aperture value does not change when you change that in the live view. This is a major problem. To work around this issue photographers are required to first select the desired aperture in any of the shooting modes. Then switch to live view mode and the aperture is set as desired.

In the Canon, autofocusing is a tag slower using the contrast detect mode available in live view. If you have a subject that is moving about in the screen focusing of the Rebel T3i would keep hunting. For stationary subjects you could achieve focus by using the viewfinder in Quick Mode AF. This will bring the camera out of live view, use the light reflected off the mirror and to the phase detect AF system, lock focus and then move back to live view. Please note that there is a major difference phase detect and contrast detect auto-focus. Contrast detect is more accurate but the camera tend to hunt for focus and is distinctly slower. Phase detect is quicker but is less accurate. This is why manual focusing is a part of every lens. For more inputs on manual focusing check this tutorial that we have.


Being crop sensor bodies and essentially entry level DSLRs pricing is a major driving force behind the design and quality of the components used. Hence, both the Rebel T3i and the D5100 uses a pentamirror based viewfinder. Both cover only 95% of the frame. Pentamirror viewfinders tend to be dimmer than Pentaprism based ones. Additionally the smaller frame coverage for both the cameras means you will have to be extra careful when composing lest you capture elements that are unwanted, in the final picture.

Video Mode

The ability to shoot videos, especially in entry level DSLRs is a must have feature these days. It is doubly important as major DSLR manufacturers are trying to woo customer who would normally look for a compact Point & Shoot and influence them to buy a DSLR.

The Nikon D5100 shoots full HD videos (1920 x 1080p) in 30 fps, 24 fps and 25 fps. There is a built-in monaural mic input which records sound.  Additionally, a 3.5mm mic input jack is provided that records stereo quality sound via an external mic. The D5100 comes with a feature to shoot a still image while you are in live-view mode and while recording videos. However, as a trade-off, as soon as you press the shutter release video recording is terminated. AF in video mode is acceptable and video footages shot are also quite good. There is an issues however with the aperture value set as discussed already above.

The Rebel T3i’s videos shooting is also impressive. It shares all of the features that the D5100 has above. Additionally, it is possible to use the wind / noise cutting option in the Rebel T3i which cuts out the noise of the wind. This feature is unavailable on the D5100.


Given all that seemingly similar features it is indeed a difficult choice to pick one over the other. So the final point of discussion, price is considered. The D5100 will set you back by about $600 with a kit 18-55 lens. Comparatively the Rebel T3i costs just under $700 with a kit 18-55 lens. Given the $100 difference the Nikon seems to be a better buy. Now that you have decided on a DSLR, it is about time that you also choose a good course to get started in digital photography. This is a great photography course, available right here at Udemy.