Canon vs. Nikon: Everything you need to know about the camera heavyweights

Canon vs. Nikon: Zooming in on a longstanding camera rivalry

Like Batman versus Superman, the Red Sox versus the Yankees, or paper versus plastic, the Canon versus Nikon debate has been raging for decades. Long two of the top-selling brands for professional and consumer cameras alike, the names are likely the first that come to mind when thinking about buying a new camera. That long-standing rivalry means the two companies are constantly trying to one-up each other — but it also makes for a tough decision for photographers choosing a new camera.

Once you’ve made a choice, you’re invested into a system — and switching becomes a huge expense, since you need to replace lenses, flashes, and potentially other accessories instead of just a camera body. Understandably, that puts a lot of pressure on the initial purchase decision. But photographers concerned about the name on the front of the camera are worrying about the wrong things.

Why? Because choosing between Canon and Nikon isn’t really like those other matchups above, where there’s an obviously correct answer — Batman, Red Sox, paper — and is more like, well, dating. It takes a while to get to know someone and to find that special person whose odd nuances you don’t mind putting up with for the rest of your life. Similarly, you might not know if you made the right choice between Canon and Nikon until long after you’ve made it.

But don’t worry; because unlike dating, there’s really no right or wrong answer to the Canon versus Nikon debate, partially because the differences between the two are a matter of personal preference, rather than objective performance statistics. What’s more, each company tends to leapfrog the other from one model to the next; if you’re feeling like you chose the wrong brand, maybe just bide your time until the next release comes out.

So what do photographers need to know before deciding whether to pick up a camera with that white Canon logo emblazoned on the front or one with Nikon’s characteristic red swoosh on the grip? While both Canon and Nikon have great cameras, you shouldn’t just flip a coin before investing in a system, either.

History

Canon launched in 1933 as the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory in Tokyo, producing its first camera, the Kwanon, in 1934 before trademarking the name Canon a year later. Throughout the company’s nearly century-long history, Canon is responsible for a number of industry firsts, including the first camera with a shutter synchronized to a flash, the first still camera with a video mode, and the first camera-to-lens electronic connection with the launch of the EOS line in 1987 (which stands for Electro-Optical System, not Every Other Shot as Nikon fans will tell you). Along with both still and video cameras, Canon also produces printers, calculators, broadcast equipment and even digital X-ray equipment.

Nikon is the older of the two companies, having celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, but didn’t produce its first camera until more than a decade after Canon did, in 1948. The company started as an optical instrument and glass company, lunching its line of Nikkor lenses (which continues to this day) in 1932, before its first camera. Nikon even made lenses for early Canon cameras. The company’s history includes landmark cameras like the Nikon F, which introduced the F-mount still in use today; sending cameras into space with NASA; and technological achievements like developing Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass. Today, besides cameras, Nikon also produces products in the healthcare, precision equipment, and industrial industries.

Current camera series

What’s in a name? At least a few clues about the camera’s design and capability. 

Canon’s DSLRs start out with the Rebel series — these are the more basic camera bodies that are ideal for beginners. The company’s high-end DSLRs have single digit numbers followed by the letter D, with the lower numbers being more advanced, all the way up to the flagship EOS-1D X Mark II. Mid-level DSLRs have two digit numerals in the name.

Canon’s mirrorless line keeps the EOS designation, with the EOS R and EOS RP full-frame cameras. The company’s EOS M line use smaller APS-C sensors. Note that all three — EOS, EOS R, and EOS M — use different lens mounts, however. Canon’s point-and-shoot cameras use the PowerShot name.

Nikon’s professional flagship DSLR is the D5 (with the D6 currently in the works), while the remaining full-frame DSLRs are designated by a three-digit number like the D850. Crop-sensor DSLRs use four-digit numbers in the name, with the exception of the D500. The D3000-series is the most basic, followed by the D5000 series for beginners and users on a budget, and the D7000 series for enthusiasts and more advanced users.

For mirrorless, Nikon has the Z 6 and Z 7 in the full-frame line-up, with the Z 7 being the more advanced of the two. Nikon also recently added crop sensor mirrorless cameras with the Nikon Z 50. Unlike Canon, Nikon’s crop sensor mirrorless and full-frame mirrorless use the same lens mount. Full-frame lenses work on the Z 50, making it easy to upgrade to a full-frame camera down the road. The Z DX lenses will also work on full-frame Z cameras, albeit in a cropped mode.

Nikon used to make an even smaller mirrorless line, the 1 series, but it has been discontinued. Nikon’s point-and-shoot cameras use the Coolpix name, and while these are far less popular nowadays due to smartphones, the Coolpix P1000 stands out for its insane 125X zoom.

For DSLRs, both Nikon and Canon have a good selection of high-end models, beginner options, and mid-range bodies. Our favorite DSLR tends to flip flop from one year to the next — on the high end, the Nikon D850 is our current favorite followed closely by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, but the Canon EOS Rebel T7i is possibly the best entry-level DSLR we’ve ever tested.

While there’s usually a competing model for the two brands in DSLRs, mirrorless is a bit different due in part to the shorter history. Canon has an entire line of APS-C mirrorless cameras while Nikon only has two full-frame models and a single crop sensor. The companies’ full-frame mirrorless cameras don’t directly compete, either. Nikon has the 45-megapixel Z 7 at around $3,400 and the 24MP Z 6 at $2,000 that both use the same, professional-level body and design. Canon has the 30MP, $2,300 EOS R targeted to professionals, and the the $1,300 EOS RP which uses a different design and control layout and targets beginners.

Image quality

Can you tell which of the above images were shot on a Nikon, and which were taken with a Canon? Without digging into the files’ metadata, probably not. Professional photographers have been shooting both brands for decades and producing great results from each. Some photographers may prefer the straight-from-the-camera colors from one brand over the other, but there is little that truly separates them, especially once those photos have been edited.

If you look at sensor performance measurements, like those from DxOMark, you’ll notice there are some objective differences. Nikons tend to rate higher for dynamic range, for example. But these numbers can be misleading as they don’t necessarily translate into a noticeable real-world difference. What matters more is the effort you put in to creating a good photograph.

Video

A few years ago, Canon was well out in front when it came to video. Now, that lead has disappeared — and in the case of mirrorless, Nikon has clearly sprinted to the front. Both Canons and Nikons will shoot some good video, but as Nikon has no competing cinema camera line, it is free to incorporate higher-end video features into its still cameras. Comparing the current full-frame mirrorless options, the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7 can use the full sensor for video, while the Canon EOS R uses a 1.7x cropped region for 4K. The Nikons have higher-quality video output over HDMI, as well, great for pros who want to record video using an external recorder.

Design

Holding a Canon feels different than holding a Nikon, and ergonomics are a surprisingly important part of the photography equation. Again, this is something that comes down to personal preference. The grips each have their own distinct designs, and the placement of the command dials and buttons is quite different. If you’ve never shot with either one, heading to a store that has both on display will go a long way toward helping you choose the right camera for you.

The mode dials also look a little different. The four manual modes on a Nikon camera are called the exact same thing as the manual modes on a Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, or Olympus: Aperture Priority (denoted by an A on the mode dial), Shutter Priority (represented by S), Program Auto (P), and full Manual (M).

Canon had to go and be different, using Aperture Value (Av) rather than the standard aperture priority. Shutter priority instead becomes Time Value (Tv). The actual functionality of these modes is exactly the same. A/Av let you set the aperture manually while the camera adjusts shutter speed to compensate, while S/Tv let you set shutter speed and the camera compensates with the aperture automatically.

Lenses

Nikon Nikkor 105mm f/1.4E ED
Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Both brands have pretty wide lens selections thanks to their long histories — our picks for the best Canon lenses have a lot of overlap with similar focal lengths and features on the best Nikon lenses. The most popular focal lengths are available from both brands, but if you are looking for a very specific lens, you may want to make sure it’s available before committing to a brand. For example, for DSLRs, Canon doesn’t have an equivalent to Nikon’s 105mm f/1.4, but Nikon doesn’t have the 135mm f/4 tilt-shift macro that Canon has.

When it comes to the younger mirrorless systems, both Canon and Nikon have a lot of catching up to do. Canon started out on the high end with some very good — but very big and expensive — lenses, whereas Nikon started with more compact and relatively affordable options. Fortunately, each company offers an adapter that lets you mount its DSLR lenses on its mirrorless bodies without sacrificing any functionality.

Price

In general, neither brand is more affordable than the other. Entry-level models are usually within $50 of each other, depending on whatever sales are going on in the moment.

For their full-frame mirrorless series, however, the scenario is different. The Canon EOS RP is the cheapest, current-model, full-frame camera ever made, and a fair margin less than the Nikon Z 6, at just $1,300 compared to $2,000. The RP, however, is missing many features compared to the Z 6, and is meant for a different audience.

Lenses follow the same sort of variation, but can be even harder to compare directly. A price difference may be indicative of a quality difference, but you can’t always tell how good a lens is just by looking at the spec sheet.

So who wins?

Brand hopping is expensive once you’ve committed to an interchangeable lens system — but how much does choosing between Canon and Nikon really matter? For most people, the answer is very little. Both companies make great cameras and lenses, and the best DSLR on the market tends to favor one brand one year and the other brand the next. Simply put, the people viewing your images won’t care if those pixels came from a Canon or a Nikon.

While the brand doesn’t matter when it comes to taking great photos, each brand has some nuances that make a photographer favor one brand over the other. The grip and control schemes differ between the brands, and there’s slightly different terminology for some settings. 

Choosing between Canon and Nikon then, tends to come down to the smaller, more minor differences between the two. Some of us shoot Nikon, for example, because the photographer who taught us shot Nikon. Some us bought into Canon because there was a great deal at the time, and we’ve been happy with the system since.

The best thing to do before committing to a brand? At the very least, head to a store that has cameras on display. (No excuses, even Walmart does this, at least with entry-level models). Hold a Nikon, adjust some controls and see how the camera feels in your hands. Then, do the same thing with a Canon. An even better option is two rent one of each and shoot with each camera for a few days — there’s a cost, of course, to renting, but it’s minimal considering the investment in lenses once you’ve committed to a brand.

The Canon versus Nikon debate is one without a definitive answer, but there is a right answer for your personal shooting style and preferences. And remember, more important than the brand on the front of the camera is the person behind it.

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