The Canon Vs. Nikon debate has raged for decades and whilst you could probably argue that it has now become Canon Vs. Nikon Vs. Sony, I don’t think I’m quite ready to tackle that broader argument. However, this week I have finally decided to write something about the longer standing traditional match up because I’ve finally reached some sort of zen-like clarity about it.
I’m a Canon user myself and I have been all my career, but to put Nikon users at ease that this isn’t going to be an unfair fight, I’ll preface this by saying that Canon’s recent camera releases have been lacklustre at best. We’ll get into that in more detail later in the post, but I really do want to make it clear that I’m not going to sit firmly in camp Canon and pretend that everything is rosy.
Everyone with me then? Ok, let’s get into it…
In the couple of weeks prior to writing this article we have seen major announcements from both Canon and Nikon. The new Nikon D850 appears, on paper, to be the most exciting DSLR that has ever been launched. It combines the speed of the Nikon D5’s autofocus system with a fast frame rate and a near-50MP sensor. Not only that, but it also introduces new features such as a BSI sensor, 8k timelapse mode plus a unique and innovative focus stacking feature that has macro and product photographers foaming at the mouth. More than any other camera I have seen, this really does have something for everyone. Nikon has a good track record with high ISO performance and dynamic range capabilities so I’m sure this is going to be a great performer.
Whilst Canon didn’t launch a new DSLR this week, they did add to their already burgeoning lens lineup with not one, but four new L-Series lenses. An 85mm f/1.4 L IS, and a trio of new tilt-shift macro lenses (50mm, 90mm, 135mm).
This pair of releases from the two brands in question really underlined their relative strengths to me, and was the catalyst to finally offering some thought on this whole topic. Nikon has been the high ISO king for some time, and the Nikon D810 set new standards for the dynamic range we can expect from a DSLR. Canon always seems to be playing catch-up when it comes to cameras, and not in a way that can simply be explained away by opposing release schedules. They seem content to simply try and match the best existing competition, rather than sticking their necks out with major new innovations. The 5D Mark IV is a great camera and I was overjoyed to read about, and then experience the improved dynamic range that it (finally) got by using new sensor technology. It was a night and day difference to the 5D Mark III in that area, but it still didn’t reach the DR of a several-year-old Nikon camera.
To make matters worse, the 6D Mark II seems to have been given the old sensor technology, so whilst Canon’s mid-range fans were teased by the improved 5D performance, it simply didn’t materialize in the 6D Mark II. In my eyes, it’s one of Canon’s biggest mistakes in the last decade, and something that again underlined to me the difference between the way that Canon and Nikon are currently going about designing new products. As every review is keen to point out, it’s not that the 6D Mark II is a bad camera that takes bad photos, it’s just nothing new. At all.
So why am I still a Canon user then? I’d love to shoot with a Nikon D850, but there’s still one big thing that’s keeping me loyal to Canon: Lenses.
Canon’s lens development department seems to operate on an entirely different level to their camera department, and they’ve put out an incredible string of lens innovations over the last decade. Unlike their camera lineup, when Canon puts out a new lens they don’t seem to be content with simply matching (or getting close to) existing products by other manufacturers. Instead, they innovate, and it’s simply something that hasn’t been said about their DSLRs since the addition of HD video recording in the 5D Mark II. When it comes to lenses, it’s usually Nikon that is playing catch up, and in many cases it takes them a heck of a long time.
Let’s take a look back at some of Canon’s unique and innovative lenses over recent years:
2009 – Canon 17mm f/4 L TS-E – The widest full frame tilt-shift lens there is. In 2017 Nikon finally launched a wide angle tilt-shift lens, but it’s only 19mm.
2009 – Canon 100mm f/2.8 L IS Macro – The first lens to feature Hybrid Image Stabilization to compensate simultaneously for angle and shift camera movements.
2011 – Canon 8-15mm f/4 L Fisheye – The first fisheye zoom lens, allowing a full 180 degree field of view on both full frame and APS-C cameras. Nikon finally launched a roughly equivalent 8-15mm lens in 2017.
2012 – Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens – They don’t all have to be big expensive monster lenses. The diminutive 40mm pancake lens always gets a smile when I put it on my camera.
2013 – Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4x – The first super telephoto lens to have a 1.4x extender built into it. Nikon copied this idea and released their own version of it, but it was 5 years after Canon’s one came to market.
2015 – Canon 11-24 f/4 L – The widest rectilinear full frame lens on the market for Canon or Nikon. Not just wide, but also a stunning performer.
2016 – Canon 400mm f/4 DO II – The only 400mm lens with diffractive optics and probably my favourite Canon lens on the current market due to its tiny size. Nikon have something similar on the way now too, but a super telephoto diffractive optic lens has been in Canon’s lineup for 17 years.
2016 – Canon 28mm STM Macro – The first ever lens to have a built-in ring light in the front.
2016 – Canon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 IS II – The first DSLR lens to have an LCD display on it for displaying focal length and depth of field.
2017 – New TS-E macro lenses – Yes Nikon had two 2:1 tilt-shift lenses first, but instead of just matching them, Canon went one further and added a 135mm f/4 TS-E Macro, the longest focal length tilt-shift lens between the two competing brands, taking Canon’s tally to five TS-E lenses.
2019? – 600mm f/4 DO IS – Canon has already shown prototypes of a 600mm DO lens, which is likely to come to market within the next couple of years, shaving a huge amount of size and weight off a typical 600mm lens design.
These are just the new innovations that I’m listing here, it doesn’t even take into account the updates that are the 24-70 f/2.8 L II and the 100-400 L IS II which take zoom lens sharpness to a whole new level.
Of course there are some Nikkor lenses that I’d love to see in the Canon lineup as well, such as the 28mm f/1.4, but by and large there has been very little innovation from the Nikkor lens team in recent years. Even the new flagship 70-200 f/2.8 VR3 release in 2016 was met with puzzled faces from many people when they swapped the focus and zoom rings around, causing some major handling issues.
Cameras or Lenses?
When you consider Canon’s most recent lens releases, and Nikon’s most recent camera releases, the choice is pretty simple: Do you want the chance to own the best lenses or the best cameras? It’s clear to me that in general Nikon make higher performing cameras these days but Canon’s lens division is kicking some ass. So which do you prefer? Nikon make very few “bad” lenses, just as Canon make few “bad” cameras, but which piece of the puzzle is going to inspire or enable your photography? That’s really what you have to ask yourself.
I own many of the Canon lenses that I listed above, and I love to see a new lens design that pushes optical boundaries. When I get a new lens that gives me a new ability, I run around with it attached to my camera for months and months, exploring new opportunities and looking for ways to create images that were previously not possible for me. When I get a new camera, it just tends to feel like a new tool. I’m excited for about a day, and then I move on. For this reason, I feel I’m well suited to the Canon brand.
How do you react to a new lens or a new camera? Understanding that is probably the key to making your choice between these two brands.
32 thoughts on “Canon Vs. Nikon – Here’s How to Make Your Choice!”
Very good article Dan.
Heres the deal your not really saying. Your so vested into Canon ie lenses etc that it would break the bank to switch out. This is why most dont jump ship. I am a Nikon guy but I am very happy with Nikon. I hv thought about Sony but again new lens time….A big pass. Ill stay Nikon till im dead.
It wouldn’t break my bank. I make my living off photography so if there’s a reason to switch to something then I’d be happy to make it. But like I said, other people have better cameras but not better lenses. Even since I wrote this piece, Canon once again proved they are at the top of the game with lens design by launching 400mm and 600mm lenses that are 1KG lighter than their predecessors, and new R lenses like a previously unimaginable 28-70 f/2. I’ll be buying the 600mm at the end of the year.
Switching to a different system has never crossed my mind because I’m with Canon for the lenses, not the cameras.
Great read and I agree with every single word – but for me the bottom line is:
– if you’re pro (like you Dan) and you need to meet special needs of trip and choose the right gear to specific shoot – it’s truly optic that matters due to its size, weight etc since Canon covers propably every single field with their lenses and also got plenty of bodies to choose from. BUT – if you’re an amateur/enthusiast shooter (like me) it’s start to matter to have most features in one or two not so overpriced body and couple decent lenses which Nikon happens to provide quite well recently.
As you mentioned the 5D2 was a real deal – versitile camera, but IMHO with terrible AF. 5D3 was an upgrade but only with minor changes and 5D4/5DS should’ve been combined into one to be the D850 of Canon. Sadly though without any major improvment I wasn’t convinced to upgrade my 5D3.
Only thing I now imagine is that DSLRs are on this level of advancement that companies will provide smaller and smaller upgrades to their gear. Sun doesn’t shine brigther, night isn’t darker, athletes don’t go oversonic and most of nowadays middle market xxD and even xxxD will do the job as the xD series done few years ago so propably we hit the wall of tech specs.
I only hope that prices will drop a bit without polarising the market to entry level, afordable cameras and super expensive semi-pro and pro ones.
Thanks Artur! Great points, well shared!
I am a Canon Pro-tog/Am-videographer, and find the 4K implementation a bad joke on the latest 5d, but I bought into Canon for the two reasons, button layout (makes sense, tidy and consistent), but mostly for the f1.2 glass.
I travel a lot, so looked at Sony, but just like Nikon, it looks like the have just thrown the bodies into a box of sticky buttons.
I bought my first SLR from a sales lady with hand disabilities, and she really showed me how ergonomics were most important when choosing a body, my working experience has taught me that glass is king.
Obviously from what I wrote, I’m inclined to agree! Glass is king. Thanks for sharing your story!
Hate to say it but most of the best lenses are no longer made by either Nikon or Canon and scarily often at the same or lower price.
Its never going to happen but the industry could explode if they could agree upon some common standards (such as a mount) and wouldn’t it then be amazing to be able to constantly chop and change with no consequences encouraging innovation through your spending!
I’m a complete noob when it comes to photography, cameras, and lenses. That being said, is it possible to own a Nikon camera but equip it with Canon lenses?? I read that there are converters that can easily be attached to Nikon cameras to allow any and all lenses. Is this not true or are there different issues with interchanging brands of cameras and lenses?
Whilst there are adapters to use Canon lenses on a Nikon camera, it’s not recommended unless you have a VERY specialist reason to do this. Image sharpness is not the same, and you’ll either get no autofocus, or at best, very slow autofocus. It’s not really something that is done. If you have a Nikon camera, stick to Nikon lenses. Or stick to the Nikon versions of Sigma and Tamron lenses. Those companies (and a few others) make lenses that have a Nikon mount on them, or you can buy them with a Canon mount. The lenses are essentially the same, you just buy it with the mount that suits whatever camera you have.
Great article …
and this is my always bad point about the Canon but let me say something… im a pro landscape photographer and have been almost 9 years with Canon 5D and mk ii III and currently 5DsR…. the canon lens is sharper than nikon this is sure even zoom lens… i have made a switch for 1 month to D810 to check dynamic range the this is 14 stops and 12 stops all make great photo and when u look to the internet 2 stops not a big deal human eye 20 stops and currently canon developing new sensor that almost 13.7…. canon cant develop DSLR in video like nikon they have their video line and u have to keep this in mind… for me the liveview and and the body and color in canon is the best.. lens choices debends on ur budget.
Thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts! It’s always great to hear from other professional users as well.
Your article succinctly sums up my feelings about the essential differences between the two brands: Nikon bodies vs Canon lenses!
Currently I’m trying to decide which FF brand to invest in. Its devillish: I prefer Canon lenses & Nikon bodies (the sensor dynamic range, control layout). Plus the D850 has improved some useability features: eg screen res, VF size
I feel other lens manufacturers have made up for SOME of Nikons deficiences in that department in recent years, but it still doesn’t equal Canons’ choice (eg compare the Canon & Nikon 16-35 f4’s. Canon is better all round).
Whichever I decide, I’ll get the inevitable thought: ‘I wish I’d bought the other system’
I’ll console myself with the thought that I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two systems in a final print!
Stephen, your last point is very true haha.
I think you just need to think about what excites you when using your gear. As I said, for me I get excited about using specialized lenses to create interesting compositions. I don’t get a buzz when I’m shooting by thinking of the huge dynamic range that I’m capturing.
I think these days you also need to consider the fact that DSLR is going to die quite soon and be replaced by the new mirrorless FF systems. Again, Canon’s RF lenses look unbelievable and the patents for upcoming ones are simply mind boggling. I think the current trend looks set to continue!
What about the sharpness of the lenses? I am into landscape and nature photography. I own and use one of the first generation of Nikon DSLR camera and it is time for me to get a newer camera. Which lenses, Canon, Nikon,or Sony provide the sharpest pictures?
I would say that in terms of sharpness, Canon maybe has a slight edge with their 11-24mm lens and 24-70 f/2.8 L II, which are the two staples for landscapes. It’s a pretty close thing though, but in general Canon seems to be the optical leader theses days. Their new RF lenses are also testing VERY well.
Thank you Dan Carr for the inputs. Way, way back (~ 10 years ago), I had the impression that Nikon lenses optics were better than Canon. I guess things have changed now. I also heard that Nikon has its lenses made in China which cast some doubt on the quality of the lenses manufacturing.
Thanks for the great article Dan. I have been endlessly searching for the right startup camera for my girlfriend as she has slowly been getting into photography with her mothers old camera. It is obviously outdated so I would like to get a new one for Christmas. Not sure which route to go considering she is still just starting and I would had to make a huge investment and watch it collect dust, however I would also hate to buy her a camera that doesn’t give the quality that you would expect. I have no bias between Nikon or Canon and am completely clueless. Any advice on a brand or specific camera even? Thanks!
Hey Jake, if it’s a starter then I would recommend The Nikon D3500 that’s on sale for Black Friday right now. There’s a $450 discount on this kit and that’s an amazing deal: https://bhpho.to/2Fxbuci
As a amateur, I looked and compared the two lines for a long time to get “most bang for the buck” when I recently bought all new gear. I’m shooting a lot of different sciences, sports, portrait and landscape.
For me that was a Nikon 500 with the really nice and really sharp lenses from Tamron; 24-70/2.8 and 70-200/2.8. Both G2 series. And to get a light setup to carry when running, I got a Nikon 50 mm 2.8 (witch actually perform better than the 1,4.)
Bottom line; nowadays there are really good lenses that doesn’t come from Nikon, Canon or Sony. That’s the main reason for me to abandon Sony.
It’s true, Tamron and Sigma are changing the game again with their new lenses.
Great Article Dan ..and still very relevant in 2019 where both Nikon & Canon have launched Mirrorless.
In 2019 I have been seriously thinking of switching brands…however the argument you make is still highly relevant in February 2019…Canon dragging heels on Camera development and even mirrorless …I must say I am impressed with the both the Z Nikon mirrorless as with the much lauded Nikon DSLR D850 …I have been with Canon for a while and been weeping (and cursing) for Canon to be a market leader in Cameras..the commercial answer is Canon will NEVER be Camera innovators they are too big (& commercially lazy they like to wait and see then pounce) … Canon have a critical mass of customers (especially in Japan if not the world) ..they have the Canon 5D Mk IV ….a powerful professional workhorse of a camera..but sadly not as nifty in some areas as the Nikon D850…but I was poised to make a change to Nikon this month …I studied everything even hiring a Nikon D850 and a couple of lenses for a month ….a minor issue …the Nikon menus are not as good as Canons ..period!…plus I like the Canon hand/button feel…the lens selection was the biggest issue….I love the Canon Lenses …the masterpiece is Canons 200-400 f4 with Extender 1.4 …it has outperformed my Canon 400 f2.8 for wildlife photography in obtaining the versatile composition with fine detail I have ever wanted…my last trip to Botswana/Namibia had Nikon users weeping for this lens ..or a Nikon equivalent ..then there is the 85mm f1.4 lens for portrait photography (the shot I took of Himba Tribes women in Namibia) …I could go on to the Canon 100mm macro lens which won me and honours of a malaysian butterfly or the Canon tilt shift lenses for architecture …but I love the Nikon D850 for its (noticeable) dynamic range.. I love the flip LED and I love that it has an inbuilt intervalometer for Astro. With over $100,000 in cameras and lenses …Trust me I can afford to switch in a blink ..I am a very serious professionally minded photographer but not a photographic professional …. After my review of both Canon & Nikon systems.. it was the Nikon lenses review that said it to me ..While Canon might be dragging their heels on Camera development … Nikon today are still dragging their heels on lenses …it takes BOTH camera and lens to to begin with…its only recently Nikon released their (re-released) 180mm-400mm f4 Ext 1.4 to compete with the Canon lens equivalent..Nikon released this lens to professionals then took it off the market to improve the bugs then released it again…that said everything. As a side argument … I have tested and purchased the top Sony Mirrorless Camera and lenses…after all they made a big impact but …Sony are competitive but definitely not up there with either Canon or Nikon ….Sonys secret though is they have sensor technology development & technology to a fine art.
Dan you made a great point in that you need both a good camera & a good lens ..today I think even if you have an iphone and take photos ..in the future you will be able to use desktop photographic logarithms and software to create anything you like photographically….eg Topaz bringing out AI Clear and AI gigapixel to sharpen and to resize images ..my advice stay with what you have and work on your Composition and understand the Exposure triangle (ISO , Shutter Speed , Aperture)..pick any Camera these days and you could get a great image ..I saw on a film years ago when I watched Annie leibovitz pick up a simple low end camera and take photos of her nieces ..her composition and the use of exposure triangle was …legendary.
For now I have the Canon system but who knows ..I know friends with the top end Nikon system and they are very happy…tomorrow next year …when ever …I might have both…:)
Thanks for sharing such detailed thoughts Peter! I’m glad you put the Canon 200-400 to good use on safari 🙂 I should probably add more to this article to talk about the Canon RF lenses in more detail. They are once again ahead of the field in that aspect.
Very interesting article – much better than others I’ve read comparing these two brands. I find it curious that the reason you shoot Canon is because you feel they make better innovations when it comes to lenses. I feel that lenses have better staying power – that is they are a better long-term investment – whereas camera bodies become obsolete sooner, so the argument of innovation is one I would think would currently fall in favor of Nikon.
My first DSLR was a Nikon D70 and I upgraded to a D200 before switching to Canon in 2007. At the time, Canon’s sensors were a full stop better in terms of noise and Nikon’s super-telephoto lenses did not yet have VR available yet were thousands more than the Canon equivalents with IS. Now it seems like Nikon has rebounded in a big way, and I’m waiting for Canon to catch up. The D850 is truly a fantastic do-it-all camera; I wish Canon had a closer competitor. I’m currently shooting with much older Canon bodies – a 5D Mark II and 1D Mark IV – and the 5D Mark IV is the obvious upgrade, but it just doesn’t excite me as much as what other companies are offering so thus far I have been holding off, hoping a fantastic innovation is around the corner.
Over the years these two industry leaders have flipped back and forth in terms of who is alpha dog and each has had different strengths at various points in time, but Nikon seems to have been leading the pack for a while now, with Sony also ahead of Canon in some areas. If I didn’t have a lot invested in Canon glass and was still shooting professionally, I’d probably have switched back to Nikon just for the low light performance and better autofocus accuracy and tracking. Most of what I shoot would greatly benefit from that, and there is more than enough good Nikon and Sigma glass to suit it.
Plus, going back to your original point about lens innovation, the lenses I have now are really good, so even if the second or third version of a Canon lens provides improvements over the first, if the lenses I currently own haven’t been a problem for me, I don’t generally feel tempted to upgrade. Of course maybe I’d feel differently with a higher resolution sensor, like those on the 5DS or 5DS R, but generally I don’t need new versions of the same old lenses. It just seems strange to me that Canon is putting all of its creative energy into lens design while playing catch up when it comes to the cameras themselves.
I did end up picking up a Nikon at a wedding (the photographer the couple had hired was too drunk to take pictures) and it was kind of incredible how foreign it seemed to me, even though I used to own Nikon cameras. I definitely prefer the layout of Canon cameras, but it might just be that I’m more familiar and comfortable with them now.
Thanks for the good write-up!
You’re welcome! And thank you as well for the detailed reply to share your story. I occasionally try Nikon cameras just to stay up-to-date with current gear for this site, and I also find it foreign. It takes a few days to adjust, particularly the fact that the lens release mechanism rotates the opposite direction to Canon!
I also need to update this post a little to talk about the insane upcoming Canon RF lenses… the new 70-200 f/2.8 RF looks staggering. Another huge lens innovation for the Canon lens team. But where are the impressive cameras to put them on? Same old story!
How did I end up reading this article ?
A few weeks ago I had almost all my Nikon/Sigma gear stolen in a burgling at home. The burglars left me with the AF-S 14-24 2.8 and a Sigma 120-300 2.8 (I think they might have found them too heavy to run away with …. )
I came into DSLR photography from using Minolta’s SLR back in the days. I’ve long waited them to release their first Maxxum (Dynax) 7D allowing me to reuse my A-mount lenses and, when it broke, I naturally went for Sony Alpha bodies (from 700 to 77 II).
Sadly, as I love to shoot birds, I’ve been waiting long (again) to find a suitable 500mm or 600mm prime from Sigma or Tamron to replace the Sony 70-400mm zoom lens but it never showed up.
So I went for … Nikon (just because they were using Sony sensors, yes just for that reason….)
I bought a second hand D800 and a couple of second hand Nikkor lenses, just to figure out that, as my hands were shaking a bit, 36Mpx were too much for me to avoid blurr.
I then jumped over the D500 as it was only 20 Mpx and was able to shoot 10 fps (pretty much close to the 11 ones of my late Sony Alpha 77 II).
I was happy :-). So happy that I bought a second hand D4S to be able to shoot FF for landscape and macro pictures.
The main drawback I found to both Sony Alpha and Nikon bodies was the time spent to post process the raw files and the lack of sharpness (ok I know I’m shaking but even with a tripod and without IS/OS/VR it wasn’t what I expected)
So…. here I go again with all my gear to replace….
Question: Will I go again for Nikon or switch to Canon ?
This article seems to address at least one of my concerns: quality of lenses, so sharpness.
I found many other articles on the same subjects saying that, on top of optics high quality, Canon colours were magnificent compared to Sony and Nikon’s. Is it due to optics, sensor, image processor, all of this ?
If I look, for example, on results of online photo contests like Gurushots and without prior looking to the exifs of the top rated images, the highest ranked images are often out of Canon gear (when competing against really well composed/exposed images of good focus quality shot with other brands).
I can almost blindly guess from which brand does the image come from 90% of the time.
I know that these findings are quite subjective but at the end of the day…… I still don’t know which brand to turn to :/
“the highest ranked images are often out of Canon gear” well that’s most likely due to the fact that more people shoot Canon. There is absolutely no way that a specific camera brand is going to influence the results in photo contests! The skill of the photographer is by far the most important thing. As for the colours… personally I don’t buy into this either. Assuming you are going to do some photo editing, the smallest of adjustments to colour balance from any raw file from any camera brand will nullify this. My advice: ignore colour science in your decision, and stop looking at photo contests.
Dan, great review (as usual) of the Nikon-Canon choice, but the comments show that you should re-visit the question now that 2020 has almost arrived! You have highlighted some of the issues, like the new Canon RF products. How about the issue of adapters? As I consider what to do with my long-standing Canon 6D or my Canon 7DII bodies (upgrade or move), I see many ex-Canon users jumping to Sony bodies and using an adapter for Canon EF glass. What are your thoughts? Can we expect an updated article in the near future?
It’s a good point. I actually just purchased a Sigma MC-11 to use Canon lenses on Sony cameras because this is something I want to try. But the issue is that even with that adapter you do not get full frame rate and full tracking autofocus. Given that most people are switching to Sony to take advantage of their vastly better AF system, it seems silly to rely on an adapter that then takes that away. At best it’s a short term solution for people while they sell lenses. If you go Sony, you are eventually going to want to use Sony lenses, otherwise it would be a pointless move to make, unless all you do is landscapes where you are focusing on static subjects or manually focussing with live view.
On the subject of Canon EF to RF adapters, I have already begun to trickle out the reviews of all 4 of Canon’s different adapters to use Canon EF lenses on RF cameras. This works very well. Essentially there is no downside to it.
I will try and assign some time to update this post, though. My overall feelings haven’t changed too much on the Canon Vs. Nikon debate. Canon is still making vastly better lenses than Nikon, even for their respective mirrorless systems. While Nikon is making better cameras (Z7). Same old story.
What is perhaps needed now, is a Canon Vs. Sony article…