How to Choose Between Canon and Nikon DSLRs
It's a question all photographers ask themselves: Should I get a Nikon or a Canon? Pro users are the first to admit that technical differences between the two iconic brands are not deciding factors. In fact, the more experienced the photographer, the more adamant they are that camera brands do not matter, according to veteran photographer
Ken Rockwell. "It's like golf. Winning's all about the golfer, not the club.” Yet, strong loyalties do exist.
To make the decision easier, we've explored the heady combination of features and market forces driving today's DLRS sales.
A Fork in the Road
Photographers typically develop niche preferences early on and rarely stray from them. These choices often reflect the respective historical reputations of Canon and Nikon.
From its start as a supplier of lenses, first to science labs in the 1920s and then to Japan's military during WWII,
Nikon's expertise in optical technology has never been questioned. To this day, their lenses are used in equipment in the best labs in the world and most consider theircamera lenses
superior. To many, this is enough to choose Nikon.
Canon was a late-bloomer, beginning as a consumer company dismissed for its lack of standout features. Their reputation climbed with years of steady upgrades until the 1987 unveiling of Auto-focus
, a marketable, practical technology. The '87 EOS autofocus SLR took great action shots at top-speed and forced photojournalists
to reconsider Canon. By the early 90's, almost all sports photographers had switched to Canon.
When DSLRs were ready to go mainstream, Canon offered an attractive price-point that, combined with its 90's momentum, cemented its lead. InfoTrends analyst Ed Lee confirmed: “The DSLR market [took off] when Canon introduced the EOS Rebel in 2003 at $900 for the body. It was the first DSLR to break the $1,000 barrier.”
With two DSLR monoliths now sharing the stage, it was inevitable they'd try to outdo each other by upping the feature ante every 18 months or so
, leading to a proliferation of upgrades and new features.
Small, Real Differences
In our research, we found consensus on a few feature differences.
Canon's famed image processing
system maintains a fast frame rate and helps smooth over images during processing. It's one reason “point-and-shoot-and-nothing-else” DSLR users tend to like Canon; they minimize post-processing and help avoid “fringing.” However, many users are turned off by Canon's in-camera adjustments.
Nikons' image processing, on the other hand, is not as fast, and tends to have more fringing
and less "smoothing over." (See: D40 at a wide angle with a DX 18-55mm II lens.) But photographers work around this by shooting on raw mode and relying on stored correction-data to take care of fringing in post
. Plus, IDC analyst Chris Chute says Nikon has more efficient auto-focus. The image stabilization technology is equally good in both product lines.
Another Canon advantage over Nikon, is the pre-dial settings that reduce the time it takes to set-up shots. However, everyone singled out Canon's lack of picture playback as a nuisance. Rockwell
spiritedly concurs: “It holds pictures hostage! The Canon 7D LCD went blank when you … turned the rear dial. Nikon gives you full access to your pictures immediately after they're shot.”
As for light-performance, full-frame sensors of current Nikon rigs offer the best minimal-light performance, according to San Francisco Chronicle
photographer Noah Berger
, though Canon's full-frame EOS 5D
is also well regarded.
And what about the lenses? Chute notes that the lower-end consumer market favors Canon's good zoom range and constant aperture, while pro photographers often prefer Nikon's wider and brighter glass. ArtBistro user Dylan Harper also appreciated Nikon's reverse engineering: “All the lenses they've made work on any of their cameras. [And] the ergonomics make them feel better.” In fact, Nikons were universally thought to be the most comfortable to use. But this is certainly a subjective feature. You can always learn how to use – and love – a new configuration.
Brands Align With Shooting Goals
Clear understanding of shooting intent goes a long way towards making the right choice.
Feature consensus crystallized in the context of shooting goals, especially along varied expertise levels
. A photography student
from the Ringling College of Art and Design
said that though Canon and Nikon were equally popular at the beginning of school, Canon was the preferred choice of all by graduation day. Most were happier with the first version of photos and felt the lenses were more reliable than Nikons, whose shutters tended to stick.
Despite such idiosyncrasies, older photographers tended to back Nikon, focusing on the premium lens quality.
The students' choice reflects their need to produce a wide range of images in a shorter period of time. The veterans' preference reflects their need for craft and expert technique. Consequently, most agreed that people dealing with widely varying shooting situations and fast-moving object should go with a Canon. For carefully set-up shots and better low-light sensitivity, go with Nikon, which gives you the most control on a shot-to-shot basis, says Lee.
The Impact of Consumerism
The industry's emphasis on selling cameras based on the latest features has transformed the buying experience. Our research suggests that the overall change has been for the better as it pushes companies to continually raise the bar on their products. But it also leads to superficial upgrades, making it harder to figure out what's really important.
Consider the marketing focus on megapixels, instead of ISO levels, image sensor size, and noise reduction. All four features work together to translate light accurately into a digital image. ISO levels determine how much light hits the camera's sensor, which works with a converter chip to transfer the light to pixels. It's the heat generated by light that contaminates nearby pixels, creating noise
. The solution? Large sensors
, which allow more space between pixels, minimize heat contamination. It also allows for larger pixels, which better pick up the light. So for cameras with a comparable number of megapixels
, it's the sensor size that will largely determine picture clarity. Now, consider how often companies advertise the size of the sensor — never. Instead, they heavily promote how many megapixels this year's model has. A greater number of megapixels allows for larger final images but it's by no means the be-all end-all of picture quality. “I can make great 12"x18" prints from a 3MP camera and 40"x60" prints from a 6MP camera,” Rockwell said.
Calculated feature staggering is also easy to see over time. Fresh rigs usually come every 18 months and few offer huge technical leaps
over their immediate predecessors
. (Exceptions: the Canon 5D Mark II, with 1080p video and a 2x resolution jump and Nikon’s d3 with full-frame sensor). Differences between, say, the Rebel XS and Rebel XSi, are too minimal to see in finished pictures or productivity gains. What's more, the compulsion to continually revisit each feature does not guarantee better performance. Take the Canon Mark III, whose problematic new autofocus
struggled with multi-frame bursts as well as non-moving subjects even in ideal light conditions, causing many professionals to reject it outright. Clearly, buying the latest and greatest DSLR
isn't always a slam-dunk.
Finally, it's worth noting that Canon is “more adept at marketing than Nikon," says Chute. Canon effectively highlights features (such as HD video) that "anyone, from an advanced amateur to professionals, can easily recognize and use.” And of course, Andre Agassi
helped. Canon's long-term marketing advantage translates directly to sales
: It dominates the sub-$1,000 category, though Nikon increasingly closes the gap as cameras get more expensive. Last year, Canon sold 4.4 million DSLRs to Nikon’s 3.4 million.
What's the next distinguishing feature that users should look for? HD video is one. Last week Nikon announced the addition of full HD video to its new d3100 camera
. Data shows HD video has already buoyed Canon: “Nikon had the DSLR lead from 2007-08 but when Canon released the full HD video Canon 5D Mark II, it increased its market share, going from 38% in 2008 to 45% in 2009,” Chute said. InfoTrends' Lee also adds that image sensors might finally, rightly, take command of the stage, possibly tipping the scale in Nikon's favor.
So with the perpetual race to upgrade in full swing and less-than-reliable marketing, how do people choose the right DSLR?
For those starting out in their photography careers, Canons may ultimately be the best option, offering a more streamlined shooting process. For the mid-career to mature pro, any new high-end camera with a top quality lens will do, but if you're looking for the most accurate reproduction, Nikon is probably best, unless frame rates or video are especially important to you.
Just don't get caught up in every upgrade, and know both Canon and Nikon offer quality cameras. If you love photography,
you’ll get years out of any rig.
Head illustration: Kevin L. Cole and U-g-g-B-o-y-(-Photograph-World-Sense-)/Flickr (CC). Second image: Kirstea/Flickr (CC). Camera photos courtesy of Nikon and Canon.
This article was originally published in ArtBistro.com