Should you buy a Canon EOS 30D or Nikon D200?

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The Nikon D200, a 10 megapixel SLR with an APS-sized sensor began shipping in November of 2005. At $1700 for the body, it was $200 more than Canon’s nearest competitor, the 8.3 megapixel EOS 20D. Canon has now fired back against the D200, but not with a similarly-pixeled competitor. The new EOS 30D offers several improvements over the 20D that it replaces, but rather than matching Nikon’s pixel count, Canon stuck with the 8.3 megapixel sensor of the 20D, and dropped the price of the 30D body to $1,399. Photographers who are looking for a mid-range Canon or Nikon camera now find themselves asking "Do I need more pixels, or more dollars?"

Who these cameras are for

Both Canon and Nikon offer excellent lower-priced alternatives to these cameras. The Canon Rebel and Rebel XT, and the Nikon D50 and D70s are all great cameras with good features sets and excellent image quality. However, they are all hampered by slower performance, mostly in the form of slower burst rates and slightly slower recycle times. Some of them also lack some of the features of the mid-range models. If you have found that the entry level SLRs don’t pack the features that you need, then the 30D and D200 are probably more in line with what you’re looking for.

The quick answer

First the good news: both of these cameras deliver excellent images, whether you choose to shoot raw or JPEG. Yes, if you search through hundreds of images, you will definitely find some instances where the 30D performed slightly better than the D200. But right next to these, you’ll most likely find a set of instances where the D200 performed slightly better than the 30D. In both cases, you’ll probably find that any differences are easily corrected using simple adjustments.

With that said, it is worth noting that the 30D performs a little better at high ISO than the D200, particularly when shooting in low light, with long exposures. Both cameras provide built-in long-exposure noise reduction capabilities, but the D200 is noticeably noisier at ISO 800 and 1600, especially in very dark situations. What’s more, the noise manifests as both chrominance and luminance noise, meaning you’re gonna have your work cut out for you if you want to try to remove it. Note that the noise is not terrible, it’s just worse than what you find from the 30D. If you don’t do a lot of low-light shooting, then this will rarely – if ever – be a concern.

Many users have reported troubles with vertical banding in the D200. These frustrating artifacts can appear at any ISO and in any type of image. Nikon has acknowledged this problem and offers a free and speedy fix for it. You can read Nikon’s official policy about this issue here.

I did not experience any banding issues during any of my testing.

Note, too, that I shoot almost exclusively in raw mode. Both cameras offer a number of JPEG-specific features that make it simple to change in-camera JPEG processing parameters, but these features are irrelevant to the raw shooter. If you shoot only JPEG, then these features might be useful, but neither camera offers anything in this regard that is a deal-breaker or maker.

In JPEG mode, the D200 ships with a default sharpening setting that is less aggressive than the 30D, which might lead you to believe that the 30D immediately produces better images. Both cameras provide control over in-camera sharpening, and you can easily adjust both to produce equivalent results.

Your camera salesman might try to pitch you on pixel count as a deciding factor, but this is really a non-issue. While the difference between 8.3 million and ten million may sound significant, in practical terms it’s really not. The extra pixels provided by the D200 simply aren’t going to give you a significantly higher degree of cropping possibilities, or improved image quality at large print sizes.

These two squares show the relative size differences between the two cameras. The inner square represents the size of a full-res 30D image, while the outer square shows the size of a rull-res D200 image.

Since image quality is, for the most part, not going to be a huge factor in your decision-making, you can focus on feature set, interface/usability, and price. Those are the issues that we’ll address in the rest of this feature.

Note that if you already own lenses for either system, then your choice is fairly simple. Neither camera offers features or quality differences that warrant jumping the fence to the other side. If you’ve got an investment in lenses already, then your choice is whether the upgrade to a newer model is better than what you already have, not whether you should switch to a different system.

Build and interface

These are both very sturdy, hefty cameras, and both models offer excellent build quality, with no creaks or flex. The D200 is slightly taller than the 30D, but both fit the hand comfortably. Neither camera offers the complete high-end weather proof seals of their more expensive brethren, but you should feel confident taking either camera into just about any shooting situation. The D200 does offer sealed seams, which might give it a slight advantage in certain conditions, but I was unable to test this.

That said, the cameras do feel different. Though the D200 is slightly larger than the 30D, it’s not noticeably heavier. However, depending on the size of your hands, one camera might be more comfortable than the other.

Before we go any farther, I should state upfront that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of the Nikon SLR interface. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because there are people who find that the Canon interface makes as little sense to them as the Nikon interface does to me. The two companies have staked out very different interface philosophies, and this should mean that one approach or the other is going to feel more "correct" to you.

Both cameras have specific interface elements that work better or worse than the other, but in general its safe to sum up the differences with a few generalizations:

• Nikon cameras use interlocked controls, which means that you have to use several controls simultaneously to make a change. While this means that it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever accidentally change a setting, it also makes the camera extremely difficult to use with one hand.

• Canon’s interface uses far fewer buttons, because multiple features are stacked on individual buttons. While this makes it easier to find a particular adjustment, some people feel that it’s more of a hassle getting to a particular control.

Curiously enough, the only time I had any trouble with accidentally changing a control was on the Nikon. The camera’s focus mode selector is a three-way rocker switch located near the bottom of the lens mount, and in handling the camera, I changed the position of the switch on more than one occasion.

Both cameras provide external controls (as opposed to controls buried within the menuing system) for all of the everyday shooting adjustments that you’d ever want to make. Shooting modes, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode, focus mode, drive mode, white balance, and flash exposure compensation are all adjustable from buttons on the camera. The D200 also lets you change image quality from an external button, something that you must do inside a menu on the 30D. I don’t find this a detriment on the 30D as I rarely – if ever – change the image quality setting.

However, the 200D also lets you change bracketing mode with an external control, while the the 30D requires a trip to the menuing system. We’d gladly exchange the 30D’s Print Direct button for a bracketing button.

On the 30D, all of the controls mentioned above – except for shooting mode – are located in one place on the camera – on the top right side, above the status LCD. Shooting mode is controlled by a single dial on the other end of the camera’s top. On the D200, these options are spread all over the camera, from the top, to the back, to the side of the lens mount. Though you can count on getting used to the control layout of any camera that you work with regularly, the Canon controls simply make more sense to me.

The D200 has two other important interface pluses over the 30D. First, the power switch is a rocker switch that surrounds the shutter release. Because you tend to pick up the camera by it’s hand grip, powering up the D200 is something you can easily do with your right hand. On the 30D, the power switch is located on the rear of the camera. The 30D also has a poorly placed depth of field preview button. Canon has opted to included the depth of field preview control in the "traditional" location, on the bottom left side of the lens mount. Even after all these years, I still find it difficult to locate while framing a shot. By contrast, the D200’s DOF preview button sits between the handgrip and the lens mount, making it simple to reach over from the handgrip with your forefinger to activate the DOF preview.

The D200 appears to have a slightly brighter viewfinder than does the 30D. I say "appears" because the difference is very slight. The 30D focusing screen has a rather grainy texture, while the D200 has a very clear screen. This might serve to make the D200 appear a little brighter than the 30D. The brightness difference is no where near what you notice when you compare either of these cameras to a full-frame camera like the Canon EOS 5D.

Both viewfinders provide the same 95% coverage and same magnification.

Canon and Nikon’s philosophies differ all the way down to how a lens should screw on to the camera. Canon’s lenses mount by rotating them in a clockwise direction (when facing the camera) while Nikon’s mount in a counter-clockwise direction. If you’re used to one mount already, switching to the other will seem weird and counterintuitive. (Given that Pentax and Olympus lenses also mount counter-clockwise, I feel a tiny bit justified in saying that Nikon has it backwards! But at the end of the day, this is not a deal making or breaking issue, so never mind.)

Both cameras have large, bright LCD screens and top-mounted LCD status displays. For the most part, both companies have done an excellent job with their status displays, crafting readouts that provide all the everyday shooting information that you need.

In playback mode, I found the Nikon interface to be slightly non-intuitive. I’ve been reviewing digital cameras for years, and have shot with more cameras than I can remember. Still, I had to consult the D200’s manual to figure out how to get a histogram display. Again, this may just be that Nikon’s overall interface heuristic doesn’t fit with my brain somehow.

Both cameras accept CompactFlash type I or II cards, and both provide USB-2 and Video Out ports.


Both cameras are very comfortable to shoot with, though they both have feature and interface issues that make for occasional rough spots. While both cameras provide excellent auto focus and metering, with similar modes and features, I found that the 30D had an easier time focusing in low light. It focused faster than the D200, and was regularly able to focus in situations where the D200 spent a lot of time searching for focus, and occasionally couldn’t find focus at all.

The 30D’s new spot metering mode is long overdue, and very welcome. The D200’s Spot Meter specs are a hair better than the 30D’s, though, offering a a tighter spot of 2%, vs. the 30D’s 3.5% of the viewfinder image.

No matter how feature-packed your camera is, when it comes to everyday shooting, there are only a few controls that you need to regularly use. For most situations, you’ll probably find yourself routinely adjusting:

• Exposure compensation
• Shooting mode
• Auto bracketing
• Drive mode

If you change to a different shooting mode, such as aperture or shutter priority, then you’ll also be adjusting shutter speed or aperture. Finally, you might find yourself changing metering modes to contend with tricky lighting situations. If you’re a JPEG shooter, then might find yourself regularly adjusting your camera’s white balance setting, although both of these cameras pack excellent auto white balance modes.

The D30 has two control wheels, a large one on the back which is easily turned with the thumb of your right hand, and a top-mounted wheel, just behind the shutter release. The D200 also has front and rear mounted control wheels, and its rear wheel is similarly easy to operate while holding the camera. I found the front wheel – which is positioned on the front of the camera, below the shutter release – to be a little more difficult to reach while shooting. Both of these wheels are used for adjusting the every-day camera settings that you’ll change.

On the 30D, you adjust exposure compensation by turning the rear mounted wheel, while on the D200, you press an exposure compensation button situated behind the shutter release, while turning the rear wheel. I’ve always found the Canon control much easier, speedier, and far more comfortable to use. That said, the wheel stiffness seems to vary slightly from user to user. Friends have complained that they’ve accidentally changed exposure compensation on their Canon cameras by bumping into it with their nose. Whether this says something about Canon’s design, or these people’s noses, I’m not sure. Personally, I’ve never had a problem.

Both cameras provide exposure compensation readouts both in the viewfinder, and in the top mounted status display. The D200 provides an exposure range of -5 EV to +5EV, a nice boost over Canon’s -2 to +2 EV. Both scales are adjustable in 1/3 or 1/2 EV increments. However, Nikon’s exposure compensation display goes from overexposed, on the left, to underexposed on the right which still confuses me.

On the D200, the exposure compensation setting persists even after you cycle the power. If you’re used to an exposure compensation control that resets with power-down, then you’ll need to get in the habit of checking your exposure compensation setting every time you power up the camera, to make sure that you haven’t left it in an odd place. If you expect your camera to be configured just as you left it, then you’ll be frustrated with the 30D.

Film shooters who make the switch to digital quickly get accustomed to having ISO as a third exposure parameters, and both cameras offer ISO adjustments in 1/3-stop increments. On the D200, you change ISO by pressing and holding a button on the top left of the camera, while turning a control wheel. On the Canon, you press a button on the top of the camera, near the shutter release, and then turn the control wheel on the back of the camera. Again, I find the Canon control easier, and can even adjust ISO while looking through the viewfinder.

Shooting mode is adjusted on the 30D with a physical dial on the top left of the camera. On the D200, you press and hold the Mode button on the top of the camera, while turning the rear control wheel. Again, I find the 30D’s control much easier. Interestingly, the D200 does not provide any scene modes (Landscape, Sports, Sand and Snow, etc.) while the 30D still provides the full complement. This is a wise move on Nikon’s part as anyone will to spend close to $2000 on a camera probably doesn’t need these modes.

On my 20D, I regularly use the Night scene mode, which activates the camera’s Slow Sync flash feature. On the D200, slow sync flash is activated using the flash control, just like any other flash mode.

Both cameras provide auto-bracketing, but Nikon offers far more power, in an easier-to-access interface. To activate auto-bracketing on the 30D, you must go into the menuing system. Once there, auto-bracketing is easy to set, and appears clearly marked in the top mounted status display. As you adjust exposure compensation, the bracket display slides back and forth making it simple to see exactly where your bracketed range will fall. However, the 30D only allows for brackets of three shots, in regular 1/3 or 1/2 stop increments. One bug I find particularly annoying is that your auto-bracketing setup is lost if you change a lens – even if you never power off the camera.

To activate auto-bracketing on the D200, you press and hold the bracket button while turning the rear wheel. This external control is more convenient than the 30Ds menu-based control. What’s more, the D200 lets you bracket up to nine frames. This is ideal for HDR shooting, or any situation where you want to bracket heavily. But, the D200 has another advantage in its ability to bracket only 2 frames. Very often, I want to shoot metered, plus one stop over. Being able to auto-bracket two shots is a handy feature that I would use every day. Finally, the D200 remembers your auto-bracketing setting after cycling the power.

On the downside, the D200’s autobracketing display is harder to read in bright light and doesn’t display the shifting readout that Canon uses when changing exposure compensation while bracketing.

Both cameras provide a self-timer, and two burst speeds. In the faster burst mode, both cameras are capable of roughly 5 raw frames per second. In the slower burst mode, this rate drops to around 3, but the slower rate provides the camera with more time to flush its buffer, meaning you’re less likely to have the camera lock up to finish file writing.

Both cameras provide shutter speed ranges of 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second.

On a less relevant note: when I reviewed the Nikon D70s, I developed a case of shutter envy. As a 20D shooter – with it’s loud, mirror-slapping shutter – the sophisticated quiet shutter of the D70s was very enticing. I expected to find the same shutter sound on the D200, but was surprised to find that the two cameras sounded very similar.


If you’re hoping to find a single characteristic that will make your decision for you, performance is not going to be it. Both cameras power up seemingly instantly, wake from sleep just as quickly, offer speedy burst rates, and excellent file write and read times. If you really want to ensure maximum performance from either camera, it’s worth investing in speedier flash cards, as these will make a difference. Overall, though, you’ll find both cameras very responsive.

You also won’t get very far in weighing battery life. Both cameras provide excellent longevity, easily shooting 500 shots on a single charge, with power left over.


While both cameras pack more features than you’ll probably need (really, when was the last time you actually USED white balance bracketing?) the D200 has a particularly useful extra feature in the form of a built-in intervalometer. Completely customizable, you can configure the intervalometer to start shooting at a particular time, as well as control how often it fires, how many frames it should shoot at that moment, and how long it should continue to shoot at the regular interval that you’ve specified. Canon’s only intervalometer option is to buy their $130 remote control or tether your camera to your computer, and – at least on the Mac – the included remote control software doesn’t offer as many features as the D200’s built-in intervalometer.

Both cameras provide a number of options for adjusting in-camera image processing. As mentioned earlier, I’m a raw shooter, so these options aren’t features I use. However, if you sometimes (or always shoot JPEG) you’ll find a similar complement of features on both cameras.

The D200 has a few other cool extra features. Repeating Flash mode lets you set an interval for flash firing, allowing you to perform cool long-exposure/multi-flash combination shots. As with the D70s the D200 offers a superior flash system, allowing for easy slaving of multiple flash units. On the more silly end of the feature list are Multiple Exposure features which let you create composites of multiple exposures within the camera.

Getting to all of these features is a bit of a hassle on the D200, due to Nikon’s 4-way rocker controller. To scroll down a long menu, you must repeatedly press the button. On the 30D, the rear wheel is used for menu scrolling, making it simple to zip through a long menu with a single motion (it’s just like selecting an item on an iPod menu). Nikon needs to allow menu nav using one of the D200’s control wheels.


As mentioned earlier, the D200 yields noisier images when working at high ISO. These two 100% crops show the same scene photographed in Auto mode at 1600 ISO.

That’s the 30D crop on the left, and the D200 crop on the right. Both images were shot in raw mode. Please note that this is a low-light/high ISO torture test. I do a lot of work shooting in extremely low light and so spend a lot of time working in the dark at 1600 ISO. This image was shot in a dark, windowless lab that was lit only by the light of some computer monitors and some flourescent lights outside an open door. This is not meant to be an indication of high ISO performance under normal lighting conditions. In brighter light, the difference between the two cameras is not nearly as pronounced, but it is still noticeable.

Lens selection

Whichever camera you choose, you’ll be buying into a lens system that you’ll probably stick with for years. Long after you’ve upgraded to another camera, you’ll most likely be using the same lenses you buy today. Both Canon and Nikon provide excellent lens offerings, and both systems are well-served by third-party lenses of varying degrees of quality. Both companies also now produce a series of lenses designed specifically for the reduced sensor sizes in these cameras.

The D200 has a cropping factor of 1.5x, while the 30D has a 1.6x factor. Both cameras provide excellent wide-angle options for those of you who are frustrated by the lack of full frame.

Both cameras provide lenses with excellent image stabilization technology (Nikon calls it "Vibration Reduction") and both companies produce some stand-out lenses. Lens choice will not be an issue with either of these cameras.


The simple answer to the question "Should you buy a Canon 30D or Nikon D200" is "yes, you should." Both cameras are excellent photographic tools that yield beautiful images, have deep feature sets, and are compatible with a huge range of lenses. You’ll be able to use either of these cameras for years.

Since neither camera has a clear technical advantage – the resolution difference is really not significant, there are no significant performance or image quality differences unless you shoot a lot at high ISO – your final decision will probably be based on two factors: personal preference for the cameras feel and interface, and price.

I’ve tried to point out the places where I feel both cameras fall down, interface-wise, but that’s just one person’s opinion. To really make an informed decision about these cameras, you need to get your hands on them, and see how you like the feel. While you have access to them, pay particular attention to the process of changing exposure compensation, shooting mode, ISO, auto bracketing, and drive mode. These will be the features you use regularly, and this small sample of operations will give you a good idea of the overall interface approach used by both vendors. (Obviously, if you have some particular need, you’ll want to test the relevant features.)

For the time being, the only raw conversion softare that supports the 30D is the included Canon software which is, in a word, bad. Hopefully, major vendors will be updating their software to add 30D support very soon.

Your price concerns might be a little clearer and easier to understand: the D200 costs more. The typical street price difference is about $300, so if you’re already feeling like the Canon camera is pushing your budget, the Nikon offering is probably not an option. Bear in mind also that you’re going to want to buy some lenses, so the $300 difference might impact your lens-buying options. On the other hand, you get a couple of features in the D200 that the 30D doesn’t have – such as the built-in intervalometer and better auto-bracketing – so there is a slight value add for the extra price of the Nikon.

If you make your living shooting in low-light, then I would say that you’re better off with the 30D. The better low-light autofocusing, and quality advantage that it has in low-light, high ISO situations will serve you better.

Both companies deserve credit for continuing to advance the field, and for striving to produce better, more usable tools. Your next concern should be to get to a camera store and get a feel for the cameras. You’ll probably find that your decision is easier once you’ve done a little experimenting of your own.


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