Canon vs Nikon – The Great Debate

When you’re in the world of photography, you’re bound to hear this debate more often than you really want to. It has been going on for decades and there’s always someone claiming that one is better than the other. But these two are not the only DSLR brands out there? Why don’t we hear much about Olympus vs Sony or Panasonic vs Pentax etc? Konica Minolta (now Sony) was in fact a very popular brand back in the day. Back in the 70s my father’s choices were Minolta and Pentax. I still have couple of those old lenses (unfortunately unusable) lying around the house. Canon and Nikon simply devoured the SLR market share of other brands within the last couple of decades, especially with their entry level digital SLRs which allowed a lot of people to experience the wonders of photography that previously has been a realm restricted to few professionals.


Image Courtesy – Mark Josue

So which one is better then? Canon or Nikon? The simple answer is, neither. But you knew that all along, didn’t you? It is impossible to claim that one is better than the other. Both companies make excellent, nearly identical, DSLRs capable of taking stunning images. Unfortunately it seems like photography also had religious touch. So there are extremists in photography too.

However, that being said, choosing a camera brand is probably one of the most important decisions you will make in photography. In the years to come, you will accumulate gear that is specific to your brand of choice and it’s rather difficult to switch after that point. So how does one go about choosing a brand? It’s simple really. I assume that you’ve already decided to go with either Canon or Nikon if you’ve read this far. The advantages of going for either one of these are the amount of support available, their excellent lens line up, and the availability of third party gear. Down side is that famous brand name is going to cost you and you will be paying a little bit more than what you would pay for a less famous brand with near identical features.

First you need to figure out your budget. When you do, look up several camera models from both brands that you think would satisfy your needs. Then go to a camera store and try them out. This is probably the best way to find out what brand works for you. Which one feels best in your hands? Do you like the button and menu layout? What ‘seems’ right to you? Take couple of shots using each camera to see how you like them. This will give you a far better understanding on both brands.

There are few other things that you might want to consider.

  • What do most of your friends use? Canon or Nikon? If you pick the same brand they use, it would be easier to exchange and borrow equipment from them. Photography is expensive. It’s nice to be able to borrow a lens to take a picture that you really need rather than buying a lens. But if you constantly find yourself needing a particular lens, it’s worth investing the money.
  • Do you intend to use your DSLR for videos? Then it might be a good idea to stick with Canon just because Canon is a big name when it comes to videos. They have dedicated cinema cameras which should take all of your EF lenses if you decide to upgrade.
  • What type of lenses will you be using most of the time? Both brands have excellent lenses available but it might be a good idea to take a look at what they have. For instance Canon offers slightly faster 50mm f/1.2L and the 85mm f/1.2L whereas Nikon has the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4. Although Nikon does have a 50mm f/1.2, it only works in manual focus.

These two companies took slightly different routes to arrive at the place they are today. Nikon has a great legacy. They have kept their Nikon F mount which dates back to 1959 until now. So if you have an old Nikon lens stuffed in a closet, it would still work on a newer Nikon body. However, some metering modes and auto focus functions may not work without special adapters. The Nikon F mount is one of the only two lens mounts which hasn’t been discontinued since the introduction of autofocus. The other one is the Pentax K mount (aka PK mount, introduced in 1975). Nikon has been making their F mount for over a 50 year period and the only brand to do so. These are mostly Nikon’s bragging rights. While Nikon’s marvelous integration system is a great news for lifelong Nikon users, the old Nikon lenses are full of archaic technology and glasses. They won’t out do the new Nikon lenses. The rumor has it that Nikon is trying to put the medium format cameras out of fashion. Hence their D810 packed with (almost unnecessary) 36 megapixels. I’m not so sure about this rumor though. If you’re still dazzled by the megapixel count, you can check out the Nokia Lumia 1020 with a 41 megapixel camera sensor.

Canon, on the other hand, introduced a new system in 1987. The EF mount (Electro Focus) is the standard lens mount on Canon EOS (Electro Optical System) cameras. The EF mount succeeded the FD (Focal plane shutter with Dual link for diaphragm control, introduced in 1971) mount which replaced the FL (Focal plane shutter Linked, introduced in 1964) mount which replaced the Canon R mount (introduced in 1959). While this seems like Canon is inconsistent, they started from scratch to build something excellent and they sure did. Canon has also been spending a lot of resources in refining the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) sensors which was a huge leap in DSLRs. Before CMOS sensors became popular, the CCD (Charged Coupled Device) sensor was the name in town. In the 90s CCD sensors produced much higher quality pictures. They performed much better in low light. The disadvantage was that CCD sensors were much more expensive to make. However, Canon managed to bridge this gap by improving their CMOS sensors. The CCD vs CMOS is a story on its own. There are only five EOS cameras with CCD sensors and out of those five, four of them were produced with the help of Kodak. Canon provided the body but the electronics and sensor came from Kodak. The other EOS camera that features a CCD sensor is the EOS 1D. The body and the electronics of the 1D was both designed and built by Canon but they outsourced the sensor. This should tell you how much time Canon has put into improving their CMOS sensors. Now Canon not only designs and build their CMOS sensors, they also manufacture the equipment that make the CMOS sensors. 

Some interesting points about both brands.

  • The name Canon comes from Buddhism – Bodhisattva Guan Yin. Guan Yin is actually pronounced Kannon (beats me!) in Japanese. In English, it roughly translates to Goddess of Mercy. Nikon stands for Nippon Kogaku (Japan Optical).
  • Canon’s first full frame DSLR (EOS 1Ds) was introduced in September, 2002 and Nikons first full frame DSLR (D3) was introduced in August, 2007.
  • Canon lenses are branded Canon but Nikon lenses are branded Nikkor.
  • Canon’s flashers are known as speedlites and Nikon calls their flashers speedlights.
  • Canon’s APS-C sensors are slightly smaller (22.3mm x 14.8mm) compared to the Nikon’s APS-C sensors (23.6mm x 15.6mm).
  • Canon has APS-H format DSLRs available. Nikon doesn’t. However, the last APS-H camera was released in October, 2009. I doubt they are making them anymore.
  • Nikon’s some entry-mid level cameras don’t have a auto-focus motor in the body. So older Nikkor lenses without auto-focus motors won’t auto-focus. But Nikon has been releasing newer versions of these lenses with autofocus motors. So this is hardly a problem. All Canon EF and EF-S lenses since 1987 have autofocus motors built in.
  • Older Nikon DSLRs had a lower megapixel count compared to Canon counterparts. But the tables have been turned. Newer Nikon DSLRs have a higher megapixel count than Canon counterparts.
  • You can mount a Nikkor lens on a Canon body with a special adapter but the reverse is not true. This is another reason why people who like to do videos on their DSLRs prefer Canon. You can mount almost any type of lens on a Canon DSLR with an adapter. This is due to the distance between the sensor and the lens flange. More technical reasons. Let’s just stop there.
  • Nikon (and many other brands) has great lens caps where you pinch in the middle to remove the cap from the lens. But to remove Canon’s lens caps you have to press the side of the cap, which can prove difficult with a lens hood on. You can simply put a different cap on a Canon lens though.
  • Some Nikon DX lenses (designed for their APS-C bodies) can be used on Nikon full frame cameras, though it will crop the image. Canon’s EF-S lenses cannot be used on their full frame bodies. The lens will hit the mirror.
  • Nikon’s 800mm lens is currently $17,896 and it weighs 10.1 pounds whereas the Canon’s 800mm lens is $13,999 and weighs 9.9 pounds. The reason why I mentioned these two here is because these two are the big brothers of super telephoto lenses. There are specially designed telephoto lenses (mega telephoto?) that exceeds 800mm, if you can afford to spend more than the amount you would spend on a brand new Mercedes. No really, they are easily pass the $75,000 mark. Well you probably could count the teeth (and deduce what they had for lunch) of someone who is half a mile away. At this point, those lenses are really cannons 🙂
  • Canon’s 5D Mark III (released in March 2012) currently has the highest number of focus points – 61. Nikon’s D810 (released in June 2014, 2 days ago at the time of writing this) has 51 focus points. These are extremes just so you know. My camera only has 9.

Now that the history lesson is over, I should say that both companies have been around for a long time. Although they did certain things quite differently, both produce excellent optical equipment. So if someone tries to tell you that their 50mm lens works better than yours, ignore that person much like you would ignore people who claim they are better than other people because they wear a different type of hats.

The bottom line is that go get yourself a camera without wasting too much time pondering which brand is better. The sooner you have a camera, the sooner you can take pictures, which is the ultimate goal here. Honestly, in order to see any difference between these two brands, you would have to push your camera to the extreme but the majority will never have to do it. I probably won’t either. If you’re still asking this question, it’s very likely that you don’t have enough experience in photography to distinguish any minor differences that they may have. There are so many photographers out there whom I respect immensely. Some use Canon, some use Nikon, and some use other brands.

Personally, I shoot Canon. My brother shoots Nikon and like I said before my father shot with Minolta and Pentax. The reason why I went for Canon is simply because I had to pick one and I just happen to pick Canon. There are no camera shops out where I live. The few shops we had in our capital exploited the little DSLR market they had here. They were charging an insane amount of money (like couple hundred dollars more than the actual price) for each item they sold. Luckily, things seem to be changing for the better now. Anyway, I didn’t have the luxury of walking into a shop and trying them out. I read reviews online and decided what I wanted to get. I ordered mine from Amazon, shipped it to a friend, and got him to bring it back to Sri Lanka. I was not disappointed with my choice. Make sure you like what you get and get what you like. If you keep thinking that your camera is crap (it isn’t), you won’t be making any good shots with it.


Things to Know Before Buying a Lens

If you’re just starting out photography and bought your first DSLR, it’s very likely that you got it with the kit lens. Different camera bodies come with different kit lenses. Higher end bodies usually come with pro grade lenses whereas entry to mid level bodies come with regular lenses. For instance, the Canon 5D Mark III (Canon’s current flagship camera) comes with the EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM which is an excellent lens. Mid level cameras like the Canon 60D, 70D, or 7D usually come with either the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM or the EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS UD or the EF-S 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. Finally the entry level cameras come with the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM. Although some of these lenses are excellent glasses, they do have their limitations. Of course, you can just buy the camera body and get any lens you want. I do strongly suggest that you play around with your kit lens before you consider getting a new piece of glass because the more experience you have, more easier for you to figure out what type of lens you want to buy next, rather than winging it.

Once you’re either fed up with your kit lens or pushed it to its limits and finally decided to get a new lens, you need to be able to make the choice. What I’m trying to do here is to suggest several things you could do, in order to make a smart choice. Even though I explained a bit about lenses, how they work, and some lens lingo, I didn’t really say what to look for when you’re buying a lens. There are several questions that you need to ask yourself before buying a lens.

What kind of a photographer are you?

Are you the type of person who enjoys taking beautiful sceneries, cityscapes, seascapes etc.? Then you’re looking for a lens with a focal length below 35mm for landscape/architecture photography. If all you take are portraits, you are going to need something in the range of 70-135mm. If you’re fascinated with tiny little details and would like to see a whole new world open up to you, macro lenses are your calling. If birds, wildlife, or sports interest you more than anything, you’re looking at telephoto lenses. This is why I said it’s important to play around with your kit lens for a while, until you figure out what type of a photographer you are. Otherwise you might just buy a lens out of the blue and might end up not getting its money’s worth.  Of course if you enjoy every type of photography (nothing wrong with that), get ready sell couple of body parts unless you’re loaded because it is going to cost you!

When and where will you be shooting most of the time?

Once you finally figure out what type of lens you need, you need to think of the occasions you’re going to use this lens. Is it going to be inside or outside? What kind of light available to you? Do you have the opportunity to use a tripod? If you’re going to be shooting under low light conditions most of the times, you should probably invest in a lens with a wider constant aperture like f/2.8 (or f/4.0 on super telephoto lenses) throughout the focal length range and has image stabilization. Unfortunately these lenses are expensive than the others. Usually wedding photographers and event photographers use these type of lenses. If you’re shooting landscapes etc and getting a wide angle lens, the maximum aperture is not a huge deal because you will be stopping down the lens to get a deeper depth of field anyway. Also, more often than not you can afford to use a tripod. You don’t really need image stabilization with wide lenses or when you’re using a tripod. In fact, it is advised to turn off the IS if you’re using a tripod because the lens will “look” for movement when there is none and create not as sharp images. Most lens manufacturers have couple of different versions of similar lenses. For instance, Canon has four 70-200mm lenses and all of them are pro grade lenses.

  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L USM ($709)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/4.0 L IS USM ($1349)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L USM ($1449)
  • Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM ($2499)

The prices are from Amazon at the time of writing this. So what makes the difference? The first two lenses can only open up to f/4.0 which means they won’t be ideal for low light situations. The second one has image stabilization. So it would be a little bit better than the first one. These two lenses however, weigh less significantly compared to the other two. Canon doesn’t make the third one anymore because they came up with the second version of that particular lens. That’s what “II” means on the fourth lens. But you can still find the third one if you really want. All four lenses are equipped with USM (Ultra Sonic Motor). This makes the lens focus faster and virtually silent. The bottom line is that these lenses have different functions, different dimensions, and different weights. Knowing what you really need can save you a lot of money because while it is very desirable to get the fourth one, you may not need it.

How much weight are you willing to lug around?

Let’s be honest here. There are so many people who will get a DSLR but rarely use it because it’s too heavy. Until you get used to your camera, it does seem a little heavy. However, the lens can make all the difference in the world. This is especially true for pro grade telephoto lenses because they are built like tanks. Pro grade telephoto lenses are made with metals unlike regular lenses which are made with high grade plastic. They have a lot of lens elements contributing to their weight too. These can easily weigh anywhere between 3.5-4.5 kilograms (~8.5-10 pounds). These lenses are near impossible to handhold due to their weight and magnified camera movement. So you’re going to have to carry a tripod – a tripod that is capable of holding these beasts. A $30 tripod won’t cut it. These tripods are heavy and expensive too. It may sound easy to carry around but remember that you will most likely to have this around your neck for couple of hours at least. Therefore, weight is a serious thing to consider before buying a lens. So if you think weight is not going to hinder you from taking photos, by all means get these lenses. They produce very high quality images. Although I’m going to be very sad if I see a $12,000 lens sitting on a shelf unused.

Do your homework

Reading reviews is a great way to find out about a particular lens. There are so many unbiased reviews out there and there is no reason why you shouldn’t read them. Not only the professional reviews, read reviews from consumers to see what they think about the lens. Most online stores, such as Amazon, has customer reviews. They are usually very helpful. If you want to justify buying this lens, go to flickr and search for the lens you have in mind. This will bring up pictures taken using that particular lens. Make sure it’s the correct lens because sometimes flickr tags can be misleading. You will either inspired by the results or look for another lens. You’re about to spend your hard earned money and lenses are not cheap. So it’s important to be well-informed.

Try it out before you buy it

There are so many services/companies that rent out lenses for a reasonable price. Take your potential choice on a “date”. See how you like it. All the reviews can be positive but only you can decide if it’s the right choice for you because you might just find something annoying about the lens. Renting out lenses is a great way to learn a lot about lenses. This is also very useful if you’re a portrait photographer but you need to get that one landscape shot or similar situations. It’s obvious that you don’t want to spend couple hundred dollars on a wide angle lens if you are not going to use it often. Renting a lens is the smart choice here (or borrowing it from a friend).

General purpose lenses

This may be the solution for those who want a “do it all” lens or for those who are too lazy to change their lenses. These lenses have a big focal length range, from wide angle to telephoto. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s because there is a down side too. The downside is that these lenses sacrifice a little bit of optical quality for convenience. Of course these lenses come in several levels too. So if you buy a pro grade general purpose lens, the optical quality would be much better than a regular general purpose lens. But if you want to do a specialized type of photography like macro or fish eye, general purpose lenses won’t cut it. You wouldn’t go to a gynecologist for a brain surgery, would you? Lenses are kind of like doctors in a sense. If you want a fantastic job done, a specialized lens is the way to go. Others may or may not screw you over, although not to the same level a doctor would.

There are some lenses that can do multiple jobs. I think it would be fair to call them “multi purpose lenses” rather than general purpose lenses. The 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for instance makes an excellent portrait lens specially when coupled with a full frame camera. You won’t be sacrificing any optical quality here.

MTF chart

This could very well be the most technical way to compare two lenses or even learn how a particular lens performs. If you want an objective point of view on a lens, it is vital that you take a look at its MTF chart. MTF stands for Modulation Transfer Function and it measures the optical performance of a lens compared to a hypothetical perfect lens. You can find the MTF chart of a lens usually in the camera manufacturer’s website or in some review websites. Keep in mind however that different manufacturers may use different measurement standards. Therefore it won’t always be possible to compare two lenses from two different companies. But this would hardly be a problem because most of the time you’re sticking with one camera brand anyway. Explaining how to read an MTF chart is a very lengthy process. So I’m simply going to redirect you here where they have done an excellent job explaining all the details.

Hopefully this will help you to make an educated choice when it comes to buying a lens. If you have specific questions, I would be happy to help you out in any way I can.


On Cameras and Choices – What is the Best Camera?

Imagine that you want to build a dog house. Then you find out that you don’t have a hammer. Naturally, you start looking for one. Then you hear stories, legends, and ballads about this great hammer. You embark on a quest to find this legendary artifact. For years you travel through jungles, rivers, oceans, conquer mountains, volcanoes, blizzards and finally you find this supposedly mythical hammer. You take it, go home, and build your dog house. Then it turns out to be crappy. Why? Because you have no experience in carpentry what-so-ever.

Now imagine the outcome if you spent all those years you wasted finding this mythical hammer, honing your skills and carefully designing what you were planning to build. You would end up with a beautifully finished work of art. When you want to make something, do you focus on the product you’re making or the tools you use to get the job done? When you see a beautiful painting, do you ask the artist about his paint brush? When you enjoy a nice meal, do you ask the cook about his stove? Then why do most people end up asking a photographer about his camera?

With the introduction of entry-level DSLRs to the market several years ago, digital photography has become one of the most popular hobbies. Yet one question keeps appearing all over the internet. What is the best camera? It’s very simple. It does not exist. When you post a picture somewhere, there is always that one guy who inquires about the camera you used. The best camera is what you have. You cannot take pictures with a camera that you don’t have. Stop chasing around something that does not exist and learn to use what you have.

Now, a perfectly legitimate question that you can ask a photographer is how he planned the shot and what settings he used. If EXIF data is available to you (in most cases it is) you can easily look at all the settings that were used to make the shot. You can learn a lot from that. But all those famous camera brands have yet to release a camera that takes no bad pictures.

I think the question “what is the best camera?” originated from the misconception that the camera does all the work. But it is a tool just like a paint brush or a hammer. Perhaps the fact that there are so many brands and models is confusing. Why are some cameras more expensive than the others? It’s simply because some offer features that others don’t. Is it absolutely necessary have all these features? Not at all. At the end of the day, a camera just take pictures.

When it comes to buying a camera, you really are spoiled with choices. The range is incredibly large, going from cheap compact point and shoot cameras to high end professional DSLRs that cost as much as a used car. I know I said that the tool you’re using does not matter. But now I’m going to tell you why it would be advantageous to have a decent DSLR. This is a little tricky. Does it matter or not? Well, yes and no. If you can snatch a priceless moment with your cheap pocket camera, that would be much better than a regular snap shot captured by a very expensive DSLR any day. Let me put it this way, it’s something like 75% the photographer and 25% the camera. So it does matter a little. I know, I lied.

So what is the advantage of having a DSLR? First and foremost, it’s electronics vs. mechanics. Compact digital cameras use an electronic shutter system whereas DSLRs use a mechanical shutter system. So the shutter lag in DSLRs is minimal, allowing you to freeze the moment. A DSLR is as fast as you are. Unlike point and shoots that takes couple of seconds to turn on and couple more seconds to take a picture, a DSLR is always ready. Then there is RAW capability of DSLRs, although some compact cameras now offer this feature. But shooting RAW is a story on its own, which I’m hoping to cover in a future post.

DSLRs have larger image sensors than compact cameras. Which means, if you look at a 12MP compact camera and a 12MP DSLR, the DSLR will have larger pixels. Thus it performs way better (higher quality) than the compact camera, especially under low light conditions. High quality and speed, these are the two main advantages of having a DSLR. There’s more but there’s always a catch, isn’t it? The catch is that they are big, heavy, and annoying to lug around. Please do the world a favor and don’t buy a DSLR if you’re just going to keep it on your shelf. You’ve been warned. Now you know it’s heavy and not many people are ready to make the commitment.

Here’s the best and the worst part of having a DSLR. Interchangeable lenses. Why is it the best? Because the quality of the pictures mostly depend on the optics and with specially designed lenses for specific jobs, the performance is fantastic. Worst part? They are going to cost you an arm, a leg, and a liver. Soon you will find out that you’re going to need more than one lens and they cost way more than what you paid for the camera, which is already a hefty sum of cash. Remember, it’s much better to have a cheap camera body and a decent lens than a very expensive body and a crappy lens.

When you buy your first DSLR, it’s easy to get frustrated real fast because you probably only have the kit lens that came with it. The kit lens performs far better than its reputation but it has a lot of limitations. There’s no alternative other than slowly building up your lens arsenal. Until then, stay strong folks!

“Having a camera makes you no more a photographer than having a hammer and some nails makes you a carpenter” – Claude Adams.