Canon vs. Nikon: What’s the difference? (Updated for 2012)

Canon versus Nikon

I know what you’re thinking, and I think you’re wrong.  That may be a confrontational way to start this post, but this Nikon vs. Canon DSLR debate is fueled by such passion in 2012 that I have to explain what we’re discussing here.

Both Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras provide fantastic image quality and similar features.  Because there are so many similarities between the brands, many people think that it makes no difference which brand you choose.  While I agree that either brand will give great results, I believe there are important differences between the brands that may inform your decision.

I must mention that there are–obviously–other brands to choose from.  Sony and Pentax also make great cameras that are on-par or even exceeding many Canon and Nikon models.  The only reason I haven’t included more about them in this article is because more than 90% of the people who use this site shoot Canon or Nikon.  I have other articles where I discuss Sony and other brands.

Advantages of Nikon DSLR Cameras

  • Low-Light Performance.  Over the past two years, few people would disagree that Nikon has generally served up superior low-light cameras than the comparable Canons.
  • Number of autofocus points.  This one is controversial, but I think most people would agree with me.  Head-to-head, most Nikons have more autofocus points than their Canon equivalents.  When you get your camera, you’ll realize how important this is because sometimes the low number of autofocus points on Canon cameras means there isn’t an autofocus point for where you want to focus in the frame, forcing the photographer to focus and then recompose.
  • Flash Control.  Nikon has had better built-in options for controlling off-camera flash for years.  Canon has recently caught up, or almost caught up, with its new built-in flash triggers in the 7d, 60d, and T3i.
  • Larger APS-C sensors. Nikon uses slightly larger sensors in their crop sensor DSLR cameras.  You can read about the difference between crop and full frame cameras here.
  • Availability of minor features.  Over the years, Canon has been notorious for refusing to add in easy-to-fix features to their cameras.  For example, Nikon has been better about including geotagging via GPS in the camera, and expanded auto-exposure-bracketing sequences.  In this way, Nikon is more responsive to adding the “little features” into DSLRs–even if the two brands are mostly equal in all other respects.

Advantages of Canon DSLR Cameras

  • Video.  No question on this one.  Canon has creamed Nikon in terms of video performance.  Nikon is starting to catch on with 1080p video and a basic autofocus system in its most recent releases, but still lags far behind Canon in this aspect.  Canon DSLRs offer more frame rates, some Canons offer better codecs, etc.
  • Price.  Nikon cameras and lenses are often slightly more expensive than Canon.  Obviously, there are exceptions, but if you check the range of DSLRs and popular lenses, Nikons generally cost approximately 8% than the comparable Canon gear according to my calculations.
  • Megapixel Count.  Most photographers don’t care about this, but it is handy to be able to crop in tight with more megapixels.  Canons have outperformed Nikons in terms of pixel count for a few years now.
  • Availability.  When Canon announces a new camera, you can generally expect to get it in your hands within a short period of time.  When Nikon announces a new camera or lens (especially higher-end gear), it frequently takes 4 to 6 months before it is available…. sometimes longer!
  • Focus motors.  All modern Canon lenses have built-in focus motors.  While most Nikon lenses (and certainly all the pro lenses) have focus motors, the beginner DSLRs made by Nikon cannot use all of the Nikon lenses.

Differences That “Might” Matter


Canon is a much larger company than Nikon.  It creates printers, cameras, video equipment, binoculars, calculators, and more.  Nikon is a much smaller company which focuses almost exclusively on cameras (though they also make sports optics and film scanners).  This factor may or may give an advantage to one company or the other, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions here.  Canon may have an edge for the resources of a huge mega-company, or Nikon may have the edge for being focused on one main product.

The “cool” factor.  Come on, we all know that the huge cream-colored lenses on the sidelines of sports events always catch our eyes.  Admit it.  The Canon L lenses look cooler than the dull black Nikons :-)  Canon actually claims that the white lenses aren’t a fashion thing, but actually an engineering decision to lower heat, among other things.  (If you’re a law nerd, you’ll recognize this as extremely stupid, because it militates against them getting a trademark for cream-colored lenses if it the trademark is functional).

So what DSLR camera is best for beginning photographers?

Both the Canon Rebel DSLRs and the entry-level Nikon DSLR cameras are very good.  I know that it can be agonizing to choose between them.  Generally, I recommend this Canon camera for beginning photographers who are interested in DSLR video or portraits.   If you’re more into wildlife, landscape, candids, or flash photography, then I’d give a slight edge to this Nikon camera.  By the way, I’m continually updating these camera recommendations as both companies release new products.  I changed these camera recommendations most recently on September 15, 2011.

What’s your personal choice?

I’m personally a Nikon photographer, having recently jumped ship from the land of Canon.  I switched for the low-light performance of Nikons, but I’m sure Canon will catch up very soon and then I’ll look longingly to the other side of the fence.  It was a fit for me at the time, but I think Canons are just as good or better in other respects.

The purpose of the post was to inform you of some of the differences, not to persuade you one way or the other.  Do you disagree with me on my analysis?  Send in a comment below and tell me how wrong I am.  I don’t mind :-)  Also, make sure to LIKE ImprovePhotography on Facebook so you can get our daily photography tips.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Jeanne says

    Wow, wish I would have seen this sooner! I use a Nikon D60 with a 28-300mm lens and a old Sony DSC-H1 for an infallible point & shoot. I wanted to get my son a DSLR and after gathering some recommendations (mainly from Canon users) and reading an article that said that Canons were good for beginners and Nikons were for people more interested in the technical aspects, I went with the Canon EOS T51 with an 18-135mm lens. I started on a Canon AE-1, so I thought this was an acceptable choice. The camera takes beautiful shots, no question about it. When we shoot side by side, I find where the Nikon under performs, the Canon gets it just right. However, there is one thing that absolutely drives me nuts…the autofocus points. I was wondering if that would change with the lens. I thought if I added a lens that wasn’t wider than 24mm or 28mm to the Canon, would I be able to focus better on the foreground and background? I have no complaints with the Nikon, because I feel like I have really good control. It can be hinky in low light, but I attribute that to the lens length. Would I realize better control with the Canon with a different lens or is this just something I have to live with? I do also have a full HD Canon video camera to go with my Nikon, I have not had much luck operating the built in HD camera on the Canon T5i, but I haven’t spent a ton of time working with it, either. Suggestions?

  2. DTC says

    Company I use to work for doing auto design research switched from Nikon to Canon when I prove to them the efficiency and quality of Canon. The image quality of the L series lens of Canon impressed them very much and the simplicity of the function on professional EOS series.

    For any beginners I come across I always tell them to invest in the Canon L series lens to begin with, because it’s a lens they’ll will use all the way up to professional stage. As for the body it could be upgraded as peoples career improves and also as Canon technology keeps improving.

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