Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon D90 at a glance

Canon EOS 550D:  Nikon D90:
18 million effective pixels  12.3 million effective pixels
 APS-C-sized CMOS sensor  APS-C-sized CMOS sensor
 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) video at 25fps or 24fps  720p (1280×720 pixels) video recording at 24fps
 3in, 1.04-million-dot LCD screen  3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen
 Street price £736 (body only)  Street price £622 (body only)

Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon D90

Canon’s EOS 550D offers a more affordable alternative to the top-of-the-range APS-C-format EOS 7D, but can it compete against the slightly more mature Nikon D90? We find out.

At its launch in August 2008, the Nikon D90 caused quite a stir because it was the first DSLR to feature video-recording technology. More important for many stills enthusiasts, however, was the fact that it also had much of the same technology as the very successful full-frame D3 and APS-C-format D300 at a more affordable price.

Today, the ability to record HD video with a DSLR is fast becoming commonplace, and several cameras, including the Canon EOS 550D, offer higher resolution video recording.

In addition, Nikon’s assertion that 12 million pixels is enough in a DSLR, provided that noise is well controlled and the images are of a high-enough quality, is starting to look a little out of step with the offerings from other manufacturers. Canon, for example, has been bold enough to push the effective pixel count of two of its APS-C-format cameras, the EOS 7D and EOS 550D, to 18 million, and both have a sensitivity range that can be expanded from its native ISO 6400 maximum sensitivity setting to ISO 12,800.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Nikon D90, which is billed as an enthusiast-level camera, now costs around £100 less than the EOS 550D, which sits at the top of Canon’s entry-level DSLR range. However, a good camera is, of course, more than just a sum of numbers, so in this test I’ll compare these two models to find out which is the best option for an enthusiast photographer on a budget.


Like the Canon EOS 7D, the Canon EOS 550D has an APS-C-sized CMOS sensor with 18 million effective pixels.

The Nikon D90’s APS-C-sized sensor, however, has a pixel count of 12.3 million. This is a substantial difference of almost six million pixels, which has a significant impact upon the size of prints that can be made.

As they are made up of 5184×3456 pixels, images from the Canon EOS 550D generate 43.89×29.26cm (17.28×11.52in) prints at 300ppi. In comparison, the 4288×2848-pixel output of the D90 translates into 36.31×24.11cm (14.3×9.49in) 300ppi prints. So if A2 (59.4x42cm) prints are the aim, the image resolution must drop to 221ppi for images from the EOS 550D and 183ppi for the D90.

The term ‘APS-C-sized’ means slightly different things to Canon and Nikon, so although both cameras feature ‘APS-C’-format CMOS sensors, the sensor in the Canon EOS 550D is 22.3×14.9mm while the device in the Nikon D90 is slightly larger and measures 23.6×15.8mm. One consequence is that the EOS 550D, like other Canon APS-C-format cameras, has a focal length magnification factor of 1.6x, whereas the D90 effectively magnifies the focal length by 1.5x.

Nikon maintains that sticking with a pixel count of 12 million enables the photosites on the sensor to be larger, so they generate a stronger signal that requires less amplification. Keeping amplification levels down helps to reduce the amount of noise introduced so images are cleaner.

As the Canon camera has a considerably higher pixel count than the D90, we can deduce that the photodiodes in the Nikon camera are significantly larger than the EOS 550D’s. This should give the D90 a head start in the image quality stakes, but we have seen significant strides made in noise control over the past 18 months or so and this should boost the performance of the EOS 550D.

One of the D90’s key selling points at its launch was that it has the same sensor and Expeed image processor as the D300. The sensor and processor combine to enable a sensitivity range of ISO 200-3200 that may be expanded to ISO 100-6400, and a maximum continuous shooting rate of 4.5fps that continues for around 100 of the highest-quality JPEG images or 10 raw files (or seven simultaneous raw and JPEG images) when a 30MB/s SD card such as a SanDisk Extreme III SD card is installed.

The EOS 550D has a lower maximum continuous shooting speed of 3.7fps, and Canon claims a conservative burst depth of 34 high-quality JPEG images or six raw files, but with the Extreme III SD card installed I was able to shoot 300 high-quality JPEGs or seven raw files.

In practice, the 100-image burst depth of the D90 is likely to be more than enough for most occasions, and the extra 0.8fps could make a difference to sports enthusiasts trying to capture fast-moving action.

Canon included wireless flash technology in a DSLR for the first time with the EOS 7D. and although the EOS 550D has much in common with this camera it has unfortunately not been blessed with the ability to control an external flashgun wirelessly. The Nikon D90, however, can.

Build and handling

The Nikon D90 is only a few millimetres larger in every dimension than the EOS 550D, and although it doesn’t look significantly bigger the difference is noticeable in the hand.

The fingergrip of the EOS 550D, for example, only really has enough room for two of my fingers, so when my index finger is poised on the shutter-release button, my little finger must curl under the camera’s body. The chunkier grip of the D90, however, can accommodate three of my fingers. I find both cameras comfortable to hold and use over a long period of time, but those with larger hands may prefer the D90.

The extra 90g in weight of the D90 also helps the camera feel a little more robust than the Canon model, but this may only be a perception as the EOS 550D doesn’t show any sign of weakness or emit worrying creaks when its is gripped firmly. However, when shooting continuously, the mirror movements feel better dampened in the Nikon D90.

I don’t have any major issues with the control layout of either camera, but I prefer the more direct method of selecting the AF point with the D90. Using the four-way control pad seems more intuitive than pressing the EOS 550D’s AF point selection button before using its navigation buttons. The Nikon control pad is also a little easier to use with the camera held to the left eye than the Canon camera’s buttons.

I like the fact that once the D90’s Live View button has been pressed to bring the scene up on the LCD, video recording can be triggered with a second press. With the EOS 550D, the main mode dial needs to be rotated to the video icon before video recording can be started with a press of the Live View/video button. However, some may prefer this approach as it avoids accidentally recording video from the Live View mode.

Although the EOS 550D has a pretty good collection of custom options for an entry-level camera (12 in total), the D90 has 41 divided into six groups covering autofocus (seven options), metering and exposure (four), timers and AE lock (five), shooting and display (12), bracketing and flash (six) and the controls (seven). These options contribute to making the D90 versatile and adaptable.

However, the EOS 550D feels a little more approachable and user-friendly, as befits a camera that is aimed at novice photographers who aspire to learn about their new hobby.

The Quick Menu screen, accessed with a press of the ‘Q’ button, is easy to use and allows the routinely used features such as white balance, exposure compensation, flash exposure compensation, Auto Lighting Optimizer and metering mode to be adjusted.

Pressing the D90’s information (Info) button twice provides a quick method of changing a few features such as the level of noise reduction and Active D-Lighting, as well as assigning the purpose of the Fn and AE-L/AF-L buttons.It seems a rather strange mix of options.

In summary, while I like the handling of the EOS 550D and appreciate its small size and weight, the level of customisation and the ease with which the AF points may be selected on the D90 make it a more logical choice for enthusiast photographers.

Resolution, noise and sensitivity

Given the higher pixel count of the EOS 550D, it’s not really a bolt from the blue to discover that it can resolve detail further along our resolution test chart than the D90. However, with images of more photogenic subjects the difference is not immediately obvious.

At 300ppi, images from both cameras look very good, and when the resolution of the images from the D90 is dropped to make prints that match the physical dimensions of a print made from an EOS 550D file at 300ppi, in many situations there is very little difference. When images are sized to make A2 prints it is possible to see a little more fine detail in some of the results from the Canon camera, you have to look for it and the difference doesn’t leap out at you, but it is there.

It is perhaps a little more surprising to find that the Canon camera doesn’t produce dramatically noisier images than the D90. In fact, when their high-sensitivity noise-reduction systems are set to their default values, the Canon camera’s JPEG files have lower noise levels.

As usual, the best results from both cameras are produced from raw files when the level of chroma and luminance noise reduction can be controlled to find the best compromise between visible noise and loss of detail.

Canon EOS 550D VS Nikon D90. The difference in the level of detail isn

Image: The difference in the level of detail isn’t immediately apparent in these two shots, but when they are magnified it is possible to see a little more fine detail in the Canon image

Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon 7D resolution charts. These images show 72ppi sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using matching 105mm macro lenses. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera

These images show 72ppi sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using matching 105mm macro lenses. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

Canon EOS 550D VS Nikon D90 noise as a percentage of pixels

White balance and colour

It can be difficult to distinguish between a camera’s white balance response and its interpretation of colour, and while both cameras’ automatic white balance systems appear to be very capable, it is interesting to see how differently the two DSLRs can render the same scene.

In its automatic white balance setting the D90 tends to produce slightly more neutral images than the EOS 550D, which generally produces warmer images. The end result can sometimes be that the Nikon camera’s images lack some of the atmosphere of the original scene, or look a little cold.

550 vs d90 auto white balance. These shots were taken using the cameras

Image: These shots were taken using the cameras’ automatic white balance settings. The Canon EOS 550D has produced a slightly warmer result

In direct sunlight the D90 sometimes produces slightly more yellowy images than the EOS 550D, which generates redder results. I found this particularly noticeable when photographing a patch of snowdrops. With a Sigma 105mm f/2.8 lens mounted on each camera, I got in very close so that the white petals of a single flower occupied most of the scene while the rest was filled with green foliage and grass.

550 vs d90 snowdrops. I had to increase the exposure by 0.67EV with the Canon EOS 550D, while the Nikon D90 got the exposure correct by itself. Neither camera managed to get the green of the snowdrop quite right, but it was soon adjusted using Photoshop

Image: I had to increase the exposure by 0.67EV with the Canon EOS 550D, while the Nikon D90 got the exposure correct by itself. Neither camera managed to get the green of the snowdrop quite right, but it was soon adjusted using Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation control

Although the whites look good in both sets of images, the greens benefit from a little post-capture attention using Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation control.

In its Standard Picture Style, the EOS 550D produces punchier, more saturated and higher-contrast images than the D90 in its Standard Picture Control mode. As usual, there is scope to adjust the output from both cameras by altering the contrast, sharpness and saturation of JPEG images, so the default settings are just a starting point.

In addition, the D90 provides options in the Retouch menu to brighten shadows, adjust the colour balance, create monochrome images, correct lens distortion and level horizons. In their default arrangements, though, the EOS 550D produces images that look more print-ready than those of the D90.


While the Nikon D90’s 3D Colour Matrix Metering II system uses data from its Scene Recognition system and a single RGB sensor to determine exposure settings, the 63-zone Focus Colour Luminance (iFCL) metering system in the EOS 550D uses two sensors to gather luminance and colour information, as well as subject distance information from the autofocus system.

One of the Canon sensors is sensitive to red/green light, while the other is sensitive to green/blue light. This is designed to make the metering system less influenced by red light in tricky lighting conditions.

In addition, both cameras have centreweighted and spot metering options, with the D90 providing much more control over the centreweighted mode than the EOS 550D, as users can specify whether to give 75% weighting to a 6mm, 8mm or 10mm circle in the centre of the imaging frame. The D90’s spot metering option also offers a greater level of precision as it covers just 2% of the frame (a 3.5mm circle), whereas the EOS 550D offers 4% spot or 9% partial metering.

Both cameras’ general-purpose evaluative metering systems have the ability to surprise (generally in a good way) by not being unduly phased by an especially bright or dark object in the scene.

However, it is still advisable to keep an eye on the histogram views when there are highlights that need to be preserved or shadows that may become too dark. It pays to be especially careful with the EOS 550D when the subject under the active AF point is lighter or darker than a midtone.

Viewfinder, LCD and Live View

Before Nikon introduced the D3 and D300, a 230,000-dot LCD screen was about all that photographers could hope for by way of a monitor in a DSLR. Today, 920,000-dot (306,000-pixel) units such as the one on the D90 are fairly standard, and the EOS 550D is noteworthy for breaking the one-million-dot barrier with a 3in, 1.04-million-dot (346,000-pixel) screen.

It is hard to say whether it can be attributed entirely to the extra 120,000 dots, but in good viewing conditions the Canon screen has a slight edge over the Nikon camera’s monitor. The image has a little more ‘bite’ and this makes it easier to be certain that the focus point is exactly right when focusing manually.

When shooting outdoors, however, any advantage is lost and in some situations I had a better view of the scene on the D90’s slightly brighter LCD screen. On the whole, though, neither screen provides a clear enough view for focusing manually when shooting outside in daylight unless some form of shade is used.

Helpfully, the Canon LCD screen has the same 3:2 aspect ratio as the images that the camera captures. This means the entire screen is used for image display, but when the exposure details are displayed in Live View mode, they are shown in a black rectangle that overlays part of the bottom of the image.

With the D90, the exposure details are shown on a strip with a black background along the bottom of the Live View display. As the image cannot occupy the entire screen, it isn’t covered.
I have no complaints about the Canon EOS 550D’s viewfinder; it is smaller than the D90’s, but there is hardly any difference in brightness. I have no problem focusing manually when using either viewfinder.

Video technology was seen in a DSLR for the first time in the D90 and it gave the camera the wow factor. However, the 1920×1080-pixel footage that I recorded with the EOS 550D looks a little smoother and more natural than the 1280×720-pixel, movies I captured with the D90.

Dynamic range

Our laboratory tests indicate that the D90 has a dynamic range of around 10EV, while the EOS 550D’s range is closer to 12EV. This may be a little surprising given the smaller size of the Canon camera’s photodiodes, but in practice the 2EV difference isn’t apparent and generally the D90’s JPEG images benefit from a slight boost to the contrast.

Both cameras allow the dynamic range of images to be optimised. With the D90, Active D-Lighting can be applied at one of four levels (plus Auto and Off) to darken highlights and brighten shadows. Like the EOS 550D’s shadow brightening Auto Lighting Optimiser (ALO), its effect can be difficult to predict, but its highest setting can be useful with high-contrast scenes, although it may be accompanied by an increase in the level of noise visible in the brightened areas.

The EOS 550D also has a mode called Highlight Tone Priority that is used to preserve and darken the highlights, but this cannot be used in conjunction with ALO and it can therefore be more beneficial to use the exposure compensation facility to protect the highlights and let the camera concentrate on adjusting the shadows.


Unlike the cameras further up Nikon’s DSLR range that have 51 AF points, the D90 has 11 AF points, with just the central one being a cross-type. However, it still has four methods of selecting the active AF point: Single point AF, Dynamic Area AF, Auto Area AF and 3D Tracking AF.

The 3D Tracking AF mode uses the 420-pixel RGB sensor and Scene Recognition system to gather and interpret colour information to help recognise the subject and keep track of it as it moves around the image frame. Helpfully, the active AF point can be illuminated to make it easy to see whether the subject is being tracked.

Nikon’s 3D tracking is very effective when the subject is a different colour from its background. However, it’s not especially helpful when photographing team sports, as having numerous players in the same colour can cause some confusion. In these instances Dynamic Area AF mode, in which the user selects the starting AF point and the camera tracks the subject automatically, selecting the AF points it calculates to be appropriate, or the entirely automatic Auto Area AF mode, may be of more use.

Alternatively, the D90 also has a Single point AF mode, which uses one AF point to adjust the focus in continuous focus mode. Like the Canon EOS 550D’s continuous AF (AI Servo) mode, this option works well and does a good job of keeping the subject sharp provided the user can keep the AF point over the subject. Thanks to the fact that the AF points of the D90 are larger than those in the EOS 550D, I found it easier to keep a point over the subject with the Nikon system.

Both AF systems perform well, and although there were a few occasions when the EOS 550D’s AF system was able to bring a subject into focus when the D90’s could not, by the end of this test I had a little more confidence in the Nikon system than the Canon one.

The EOS 550D has smaller AF points and is better able to identify small details and bring them into sharp register, but in its continuous mode it is also more twitchy. This may be an advantage with fast-moving subjects travelling along a predictable line, but with other subjects it can mean unnecessarily dramatic shifts in focus. When photographing a local running race I was able to get decent shots with both cameras, but it seemed a little easier to do so with the D90.

It takes a little while to get to know the Nikon D90’s AF system, but it is more versatile than the EOS 550D’s and it helps make the Nikon camera a better choice for keen sports or wildlife photographers.

Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon 7D image samples - autofocus systems. Although it is possible to shoot sport with the Canon EOS 550D, it is a little easier with the Nikon D90, especially once the more flexible AF system has been mastered.

Image: Although it is possible to shoot sport with the Canon EOS 550D, it is a little easier with the Nikon D90, especially once the more flexible AF system has been mastered


Some people may consider it a little odd to pitch a 12-million-pixel camera against a model with 18 million pixels, but if you want a Nikon DSLR with more than 12 million effective pixels you have to be willing to part with around £4,800, putting it way beyond the reach of most novice and enthusiast photographers.

At around £736, the average street price of the Canon EOS 550D is about £110 more than the Nikon D90. The extra money brings an additional six million pixels, which is important for those wanting to make very large prints or crop and selectively enlarge images. Low-light photographers will also appreciate the extra stop on the EOS 550D’s sensitivity range.

I really like the EOS 550D, and it is very capable, but as I switched between it and the D90 during this test, I began to prefer using the D90, especially with moving subjects. The Nikon camera feels more solid and its AF system is a little more decisive. Whether I was shooting daffodils nodding in the breeze or runners at the six-mile point of a half-marathon, I had greater confidence in being able to get the subject sharp and keep it that way with the D90.

Some of the differences between the EOS 550D and the D90 can be explained by the fact that the EOS 550D is Canon’s top-end entry-level camera, while the D90 was built with more experienced photographers in mind. Although I would prefer to have the scope to make larger prints because of the EOS 550D’s higher pixel count, I found using the Nikon D90 a more enjoyable experience, and as enjoyment is a key part of any hobby I think the D90 is a better choice for enthusiast photographers, provided they are happy with a comparatively low pixel count.

As 12 million is now a rather below average pixel count for an enthusiast-level DSLR, I have reduced the D90’s score.

Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon D90 Scores

  Canon EOS 550D Nikon D90
 Tested as: Entry-level DSLR Enthusiast DSLR
 Rated: Very good  Good
 Overall score:  83% 78%
 Features:  7/10  8/10
 Noise/resolution:  27/30  23/30
 Dynamic range:  8/10  8/10
 LCD/viewfinder:  8/10 8/10
 Build/handling:  9/10  8/10
 Autofocus:  8/10  7/10
 Metering:  7/10  8/10
AWB/colour:  9/10  8/10

Canon EOS 550D vs Nikon D90 Focal points

In-camera sensor cleaning

Both cameras have sensor-cleaning functions to help keep the sensor clear of dust and debris.

Post-capture adjustment

Unlike the EOS 550D, the D90 has a Retouch Menu that allows photographers to adjust captured images. As well as converting images to monochrome, this allows images to be brightened using the D-lighting facility, or cropped and resized to make smaller versions.

Multiple exposure

It is still fairly unusual to have a multiple exposure facility in a DSLR, but the Nikon D90 allows users to shoot up to three images that are then automatically overlaid into a single composite. Helpfully, the auto-gain facility takes care of adjusting the exposure so the final image looks correct.