A “duel” that started probably well before you were born, Nikon and Canon have always been between the most important names (if not the most of them all!) of the photography market. Over the decades they battled the throne for whom is producing the best cameras and lenses: sometimes Canon was ahead, sometimes Nikon instead.
As you probably already read a bunch of times around the web, it’s not really the camera that makes a photographer good or bad, but sometimes we can all agree that it’s a consistent help to have reliable and performing tools when you are working on the field.
If you already possess some pieces of gear from one of the two brands, I would never bother to jump ship, as differences in terms of performances won’t be life-changing for 99.9% of photographers. Instead, if you are just starting out, you might want to know which brand is in the lead at the moment and some advices about where it’s wiser to spend your money, depending on which kind of photos you would like to do.
Both Canon and Nikon have a long heritage, with both companies born in the first half of the last century.
Nikon was born in 1917 as a result of the merger of three other companies operating in the optical sector. When I say “optical sector” I do not mean only cameras and lenses (actually, at first Nikon wasn’t even producing any cameras!), but I’m also talking about inspection equipment, binocular, measurement instruments and rifle scopes, just as a few examples.
Canon instead was born a few decades later, in 1937, with the aim to replicate the fabolous and expensive Leica cameras at a more convenient price; since at that time they weren’t able to produce lenses, they had to adapt their cameras to work with Nikon (Nikkor) lenses.
Nikon has been the top choice for professional photographers till the early 90s, when Canon came out with the EF mount (read about camera mounts down here): this new system, since it was designed from scratch and not just a re-adaptation like the F-mount with autofocus, was just working a lot better, or at least better enough to make many professional photographer decide to switch brand. By the early 2000s though Nikon was again on top and things stayed like that till the end of the decade, when Canon decide to put some big innovations into their products while Nikon wasn’t improving their cameras at the same pace: right now the competition between the two brands is very tight, but probably Nikon is slightly ahead because of the great quality of their camera sensors.
We finally arrived at the main chapter of this article - the one where we’ll dig each feature of cameras and lenses from the two brands and try to figure out which one is currently offering the best pieces of gear. For the sake of the article, we won’t focus on specific cameras or lenses, but we’ll rather try to see the bigger picture and focus on the highlight features that Nikon and Canon have put in their products.
2.1 System Compatibility
Both manufacturers have their own mounting system for their cameras: Nikon is using the well known F-mount since 1959 on all their reflex cameras, while recently it came out with a completely new mount for their mirrorless cameras, the so-called Z-mount. Canon instead introduced its famous EF-mount in 1987 for their reflex cameras, designed from scratch to work with the autofocus motor; their last creation though is the RF-mount, specifically created for their mirrorless camera system.
Proprietary lenses are not the only ones that you can mount on your cameras though, as many other brands are currently producing lenses for both Nikon and Canon: Sigma, Tamron, Tokina or Samyang are just a few examples of the many.
Honestly, there’s absolutely no difference on system compatibility between Canon and Nikon: both brands have a huge line-up of lenses and will work with pretty much all the third party lenses available on the market.
Not surprisingly, performance is one of the most important features when it comes to photographic cameras, with a special regard to the image quality. Some of the main ways to understand how a camera will perform is by observing which processor it has, which autofocus motor is using and - most importantly - what image sensor is mounting.
Don’t be fooled by the megapixels number, since they don’t mean anything in terms of image quality: they measure the size your pictures will be when they come out of your camera, nothing more than that.
The image sensor, being the most important part of the camera when it comes to dynamic range, ISOs capabilities and image quality in general is the first thing you should look when you start to look for informations about a new camera. In the last few years, Nikon managed to stay a bit ahead of Canon in terms of image sensors since it was the first to come out with the so-called “big megapixels cameras” and by using Sony ones, which were (and are) between the best performing on the digital camera market. For example, the popular Nikon D800/D800E/D810 cameras, which have been a huge success for the manufacturer, are all using Sony sensors.
Now that we saw which are the most common mistakes when using a wide angle lens, it’s time to learn what are instead the techniques that will make your wide angle pictures stand out more from the others!
2.3.1 LCD - Color Shifts, Quality, Brightness
I’ll cut it short for you: Canon is currently the leader when it comes to LCD camera screens. Starting with the fact that Canon has been using the auto-brightness function for a while now on its LCD screens, while Nikon till a couple of years ago wasn’t even considering it; continuing with the more natural and accurate colors of Canon screens when compared to the slightly green-ish ones from Nikon and ending with the overall better quality in terms of image resolution, Canon is definitely winning the battle of who is mounting the best LCD screens on their cameras!
Even if most of you won’t consider video capabilities as a core feature of your camera, it’s nice to know that you can actually create some incredible videos with it in case you might start to get passionate about filming and not just photography, right? Well, till a bunch of years ago, there was no fight: Canon, by having far more experience in the cinema sector, was years ahead of Nikon in terms of video capabilities on their cameras. Now that difference between the two brands has thinned till the point where Nikon, with its last full frame mirrorless cameras (Nikon Z6 and Z7) has implemented more (and better) features compared to the Canon ones: with those cameras you’ll be able to use the whole sensor for recording videos, while with the Canon ones you’ll have to settle for using a cropped part of it.
2.3.3 Flash Control
Both Canon and Nikon cameras are equivalent on this side: you’ll struggle to see any difference in terms of flash control between the two brands. Back in the days Nikon was ahead, but right now they are at the same level.
2.3.4 Flicker Shoot-Through
If you’ll ever try to shoot sport pictures indoors, you’ll notice that the colors and exposure of them will change quite dramatically; that’s because the lighting of the stadium/arena/building are flickering. You won’t be able to see it since it’s happening really fast, but your camera will. Canon have introduced in their recent cameras a mechanism that identify this flicker and automatically delays the shot of a few milliseconds in order to get the right exposure. That’s why, if you know that indoor/low light sports are what you’ll be shoot the most, Canon would be the way to go!
2.3.5 Weather Sealing
If you have plans to shoot a lot outside in harsh weather conditions, you better look for a weather sealed camera: in order to find one of those, (unfortunately) you’ll have to look at the higher end of the brand lineup generally. Both Canon and Nikon are producing weather sealed cameras that will resist more than you could possibly do out there in the field, so you should be worried about which brand to choose!
Usability should cover a fundamental part of your decisional process: remember that your camera should be an “extension” of your arm, not just a tool. You should be able to work with it without even opening your eyes, otherwise you might miss a lot of shots!
There’s no way to tell you in advance which one has the best ergonomics. The only way to know it is by testing both personally and see which one fits your hands better. For me it was Nikon, for others was Canon. There’s not a brand that objectively prevails here, the only way is to try cameras from both manufacturers and see which one “feels right” for you.
2.4.2 Quick Control Screen
Along the years I managed to try both Canon and Nikon control screens, and even if I got more used to the Nikon one, I have to admit that Canon ones are great too! Probably, if I was starting from scratch, I would find the Canon quick control screen more intuitive than the Nikon one.
2.4.3 Battery Chargers
Canon opted for a wall charger, without any cables: you just open the charger, insert the battery and that’s it. Nikon instead is using cable chargers, so you’ll have to bring the cord with you together with the charger. Canon chargers are showing the percentage of battery (one blink till 50%, two blinks from 50% to 75%, three blinks from 75% to 99% and then green when it’s ready) while Nikon ones are just blinking for the whole charging time and then they stop blink when the battery is ready.
Before starting to talk about lenses, put this in your mind: both manufacturers are producing some incredibly sharp lenses and the lineups from the brands are answering to all kinds of different needs. If you already possess a Nikon or Canon body, I’m sure you’ll find a lens for your needs without having to jump ship!
2.5.1 Wide Angle Lenses
Nikon is currently offering the AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 for their DSLR lineup, which is a milestone in terms of wide angle lenses; problem is that the lens it’s been out since 15 years now and it’s starting to show its age, specially with the most recent big megapixels cameras. Canon instead kept updating its also popular 16-35mm f/2.8, now at its third evolution, and came out with the extreme 11-24mm f/4 a few years ago. If you are looking for a wide angle that will also allow you to shot at night, the Nikon is the best choice, if instead you are not interested in shooting in low light conditions, the 11-24mm will give you some spectacular perspectives!
2.5.2 Standard Zoom Lenses
Both Nikon and Canon are producing excellent lenses in this focal range, starting with the incredibly good 24-70mm f/2.8 and f/4, to some prime lenses like the 24mm, 35mm, 50mm or 85mm, available in bright apertures like f/1.8 and f/1.4. I’d honestly call it a tie here.
2.5.3 Telephoto Lenses
Let me start by saying that both Nikon and Canon have excellent versions of the classic 70-200mm, available in f/2.8 and f/4, and the classic 70-300mm. Let’s not focus on those so: Canon was ruling in the telephoto sector till a few years ago, when they had the fantastic 100-400mm in their lineup, together with some of the sharpest prime telephoto lenses the world has ever saw like the 500mm f/4, the 400 f/2.8 and the 600mm f/4. Canon is still slightly ahead now, but the gap became thinner with Nikon releasing the great 200-500mm f/5.6 and a new version of their dated 80-400mm. Let’s just say that if you have a Nikon camera you won’t struggle to find a great telephoto lens for your needs!
2.6 Customer Support
It’s known that Canon has some of the best technical support and customer service in the photography world. That doesn’t mean that Nikon customer service is bad, it’s not just at the same level of Canon. I personally never tried neither of the two, since I luckily never had the need for assistance. From what I’ve heard and learnt, both services are great and will fix your problems right away. With Canon it might be faster/easier, but Nikon will also take care of it without many problems.
If you compare similar models of cameras or lenses between the two brands, you’ll notice that there isn’t much of a difference in terms of price tag: on some products you’ll find Nikon to be a bit more expensive, on some others Canon will be the more expensive one. It generally depends on the age of the product (is it new or just released? or is it dated or going out of production?) and the popularity of it!
3. Canon vs. Nikon: Which is the Right Brand for You?
Now that we’ve compared the most important aspects and features that you should pay attention to when deciding which brand to choose (or if it’s worth to switch brand), it’s time to sum up.
I’m not in the position to give you a final, univocal answer to the question “which one is better?”; you should think about what are the most important aspects for you and then decide which brand is offering the best specifications on those aspects. For example: if pure image quality is what you are seeking, Nikon cameras nowadays are better. Instead, if knowing that in case of a problem you’ll get the best possible help from the assistance, Canon would be my choice. Again, if you prefer to shoot sports, action, wildlife and you need telephoto lenses, you should probably go with Canon. If instead you are more into landscapes, architecture and travel photography, Nikon would be my choice. But again, it’s just my opinion, I’m sure you’ll find other photographers saying the opposite!
You’ll probably already heard this, but in case you haven’t: it’s not the gear that will make you capture great pictures. It may help you obviously, but in the end it will be up to you and your skills to catch the right moment, the right composition and the right subject.
It’s good to have an idea about what equipment you want and need, but don’t focus too much on these part: rather spend more time learning about settings, techniques and composition and even more shooting!
A great camera and/or an excellent lens will help you taking some sharper pictures, not better pictures.
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