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.