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. says

    well, I am new with digital cameras. I did not have a cam yet. I just decided to buy one and again the comparison comes between Nikon P500 vs Canon SX30IX. I don’t know but somehow I am tending towards Nikon P500. CMOS lens, 3 inch LCD, 1080p video, lower price are the advantages for Nikon. At the other hand, better image stabilization and hot shoe is the advantage for Canon. Still in a dilemma though..Thinking….thinking….

  2. says

    @Shannon – I’d opt for the Nikon in that situation.

    @Lisa – Yes. Any Nikon lens will fit on that camera, but there are a few older lenses that won’t autofocus. I doubt you’ll ever need any of the older lenses.

  3. says

    So…I have a Canon Rebel XSi, and my question is this…do any high-end Canon users notice a difference in the noise their shutter makes versus a Nikon? I was at a wedding where the photographer was shooting Nikon and every time she clicked the shutter it was just this almost silent, “Flbp.” I was shooting a friend’s son’s Eagle court of honor a few weeks ago, and of course it’s all quite in the room and then you hear me take a photo: “CHIKAAAANK!!” Drives me NUTS.

    Anyway, my question is – do higher end Canons have loud shutters like this, or is it just a Rebel thing?

  4. says

    @Ryan – Higher end Canons have a quieter shutter than the entry-level Canons, but I have to say that Nikon has always dominated the “really cool shutter sound” space.

  5. says

    As a photographer who started with Canon, then switched to Nikon, then used Canon systems wherever they are needed I have my points as well.
    “I think” Nikon mid and high end cameras are more user friendly,that saves a lot of time when i’m shooting.

    Nikon and some other 3rd party lenses that i own somehow gave me better results than some Canon USM lenses that were told to be epic, I had to use my lenses on Canon bodies even.

    Canon’s image processors are better for fashion and portraits, gets rid of unnecessary detail.

  6. says

    I am researching till my eyes in trying to find the right camera for me. I want to shoot local high school sports, weddings, portraits.

    1. Should I buy a kit or just the body?
    2. What lens should I get?
    3. Is it true that Nikon lenses are so expensive that Canon is a better choice for those with a budget?
    4. Are 3rd party lenses of good quality?
    5. Is it better to buy a cheaper camera (T3i, D5100) and a seperate nicer lens or a more expensive camera (7D,D300s) and a cheaper lens?

    Cameras I am eyeing
    Canon
    1. T3i
    2.7D

    Nikon
    1. D5100
    2. D90
    3. D300S

    Thanks for all help offered

  7. says

    Hey Santanna! First of all, i know more Nikon than Canon. Both of the systems are great. It just want u prefer as tool ;)

    1. Buying a kit is quite useful? Though, the lens given isn’t a superb piece of glass. Still i like the 16-55 that Nikon gives… Even it’s super plasticky. If you know what kind of lenses you are looking for, no need to buy useless lens kit :)

    2. For what you wanna do, there’s lots. Sports, a zooms lens like the 70-300 Nikon is a nice one. Ideally, the 70-200 2.8 is waaaay better. Sigma can be a very nice option too :D
    For Portrait, idk… Some photographers like their 70-200 2.8. Honestly, i prefer primes such as 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.4 (85mm F1.2 for Canon… Nom nom nom! Bokeeeh) or even better, the 135 F2 * drools* If you take a 70-200 2.8, that could be ur portrait lens as it covers a nice focal range for portraiture :)

    If you are going with Nikon: 35mm F1.8DX is a lust have lens :)

    3. Meh! I find that when going on good lenses, it’s almost the same price. ^^”
    Just take want is available for you! :)

    4. Mmmm… Carl Zeiss is indeed good lol
    Honestly, i like Sigma a lot. 10-20 3.5 sigma is such a nice lens on my DX camera :D Depends on what kind of focal and aperture you are looking for. Check out for reviews on the internet. There are more and more good stuff now :p

    5. I’m those guys who prefer to buy quality glass over the body but for sports…
    I think you shall go with something like the Nikon D7000, even it’s doesnt have a 9FPS or idk what. “Spray and Pray” = not cool. Just wait for the good moment and press the shutter. That will make u a better photographer :)

    Hope it helps :)

  8. says

    Thank you for all of your wonderful advice! I have soo enjoyed reading all of the articles on your site!!

    I just recently bought a Nikon d3100 and have been very impressed! I love Nikon and wouldn’t change to Canon. I like how comfortable my Nikon is compared to the Canon t31. It (the Canon) does have some advantages but I really don’t mind…. so does Nikon! :)

  9. says

    As someone who wants his camera to feel like an extension of himself rather than something I’m just holding, there are other important reasons to choose Nikon over Canon.

    Nikon’s exposure controls are more flexible than Canon’s. Nikon’s Auto-ISO lets you set a minimum shutter speed so that you can match the slowest allowable speed to the subject matter at hand. Canon doesn’t described how their Auto-ISO selects the ISO. Nikon allows the use of Exposure Compensation with Auto-ISO in manual mode, turning M mode into a hybrid auto mode. Canon doesn’t allow EC in manual mode. Nikon allows an AE Lock to be held across multiple images without any input. With Canon, you have to press a button immediately after taking a picture to maintain an AE Lock across multiple shots. Nikon has a method for setting a custom white balance in 5 seconds. With Canon you have to work with menus to set a custom WB.

    For me, this extra flexibilty for setting exposure put Nikon above Canon.

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