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. Brandon says

    The main thing you want to consider when choosing which brand to go with is what brand your friends shoot. This way you have people you can talk to if you have problems and you can also try out your friends new camera body or lens to see if you would like to buy it. Or if you doing a shoot and need back up gear you know someone with the same camera set up.

  2. Jenna says

    I got a D7000 for my birthday. As my first DSLR I was confused at first on which platform to choose. Nikon ended up beating out Canon for the low light performance, focal points, and the overall feel. It just feels more substantial to me!

    While both companies have their advantages, I wouldn’t switch for the world. I love my Nikon and couldn’t be happier!

  3. Karen says

    I read with interest all the responses to Canon vs. Nikon – the pros and the cons and the personal preferences. One in particular from Sarah – short and sweet – caught my interest: “It’s got to be Nikon for the professional photographer! No competition.” No reasons why…just a flat-out comment.

    I know several very talented, credentialed (not self-proclaimed) professionals – some who shoot Nikon and some who shoot Canon, so I took this statement as a challenge and picked up 3 random copies of Outdoor Photographer magazine and took a tally of the makes of digital cameras used by the contributors (where identified). Sad to say, Sarah, that Canon significantly outshone Nikon: Issue 1 – Canon 6, Nikon 3 (plus one film camera), 1 Fuji; Issue 2 – Canon 3, Nikon 1 (plus one film camera); Issue 3 – Canon 9 (plus one film camera), Nikon 2 (one used a Sigma lens). Interestingly, in that third issue there was an article entitled “What gear would Ansel Adams carry today?” and it was a Canon in the shot, not a Nikon.

    Obviously Sarah doesn’t have a leg to stand on with her defense of Nikon for professionals and is not likely a professional photographer herself. A photographer who is truly a professional is more likely to judge another’s images based on the vision and creativity of the photographer, not on the brand of his or her equipment.

    As for me, I own, use and love my camera – one of the two major brands – and have not used the other, so I can hardly provide a comparison, and wouldn’t be so bold as to say that mine is better than the other – it just suits me. A camera can come to us via personal choice, a gift, or even a hand-me-down. Use it to your best advantage without running down the other brands. And make up your own mind when choosing a camera, don’t let someone else do it for you.

  4. gShawn says

    I think Blue Aquan nailed the comparison. Nikon makes the better bodies for the money and Canon the better lenses for the money. The ruggedness, quality and dependability of the old Nikon FM series made many lifelong Nikon fans among professionals. Nikon still crafts very high quality bodies, but Canon has long had Nikon beat for the breadth and depth of quality lenses.

    I like to use some of the old German Web sites (like http://www.photozone.de) that do detailed testing of lenses, comparing MTF scores, among other attributes, and Canon has always been ahead in the number of optically superior lenses. Even Minolta at one time had a broader set of optically superior lenses than Nikon (I recognize that this comment will engender some scorn).

    I am biased; I believe that optics rule when it comes to equipment. You should choose your lens or lenses first and then choose your body. I transitioned to Canon many years ago and have upgraded through several bodies, from film to digital, now with a 5D. I still use some of the same fast primes I owned over a decade ago and used on my film camera. The bodies have made little difference compared to the lenses. I now use most my expensive Canon 24-70 L lens, but I can still often get better results with my cheap and light-weight fast 24mm prime or 50mm prime. An earlier poster said he was disappointed in the results of his Canon 60D and that the “Nikon had a better and sharper” image quality. Well, he was comparing his Canon with an 18-200 zoom to his Nikon with an 18-105 zoom. That’s comparing apples to oranges. No one makes an 18-200 zoom lens that will produce optically superior results of sharpness without fringing. This narrower-range Nikon lens beats the Canon lens in MTF scores at wide aperture substantially at 24mm and 100mm (the Canon does well in center, but collapses in the borders)
    http://www.photozone.de/nikon–nikkor-aps-c-lens-tests/634-nikkor181053556vr?start=1.

    Tamron, Sigma and Tokina can also make some optically superior lenses, as well as some crap. I’ve long thought that Olympus made some nicely designed quality cameras, but the lens selection is very limited; however, if they have what you want at the quality and price you need, does it matter?

    Do your research and focus on buying your lens! Don’t expect superior results from any kit lens, regardless of your camera purchase.

  5. says

    I started with Sony went to Canon then to Nikon and back to Canon just feels better and great glass.

    No need to try and shout one down over the other, just shoot what feels good and IQ that you like!

  6. says

    Its funny that someone today at work was asking me about whether Canon or Nikon made a better entry-level camera. My answer was probably in sync with the message of this article – Canon makes the better lenses and Nikon does a better job on the camera bodies. My dad is a hardcore Nikon guy and I have been shooting exclusively on Canon (current body is a humble 5D). Although, I got to say that Canon is more geared towards the prosumer with their wide choice of lenses. On the other hand, Nikon is probably more geared towards the specialists (e.g. wildlife, etc.) offering fewer lenses but more quality ones.

    All in all, a really good article – nicely balanced on perspectives weighing in both for Canon and Nikon.

    ~Happy Shooting!

  7. Kimberly says

    People ask me this question all the time. While I am a Canon girl all the way and do no see myself switching to Nikon, I remain unbiased when speaking to people about this.

    Most have no clue what type of shots they want to capture. They have never had a DSLR and just want a general, all-purpose camera. They aren’t wanting to get serious with photography, just capture life’s memories.

    Here’s what I tell them in this instance. Go to a camera store and hold the different camera’s. Which on feels comfortable in your hand? Canon has a larger body than Nikon does. Nikon’s feel tiny in my large Norwegian hands and it’s awkward for me to maneuver around the controls. If the camera they purchase, usually as a kit so they aren’t spending a lot of money on expensive glass, isn’t operator friendly to them, it will sit on a shelf and not be used.

    To me, the best camera for the beginner is one that gets used, builds their confidence and allows them to grow in their skills and knowledge of the basic rules of photography. Then, when they upgrade from their first camera, they will know what type of photography they are drawn to and can purchase accordingly.

  8. Les Moore says

    When I started out back in the film days, I was shooting with Canons. I had several bodies and lenses. Then autofocus came out. I was in the market for a nice upgrade to my lenses and wanted an 80-200 2.8 (or 70-200). I looked at lot and it was so hard to find anything at a good price for my Canons. Then I found a nice used Nikon lens at a camera shop…it was a push-pull auto focus 2.8. I put some money down on it and actually bought it before I even had a Nikon body! What sold me was the fact that Canon changed their lens mount when auto focus came out and Nikon didn’t. I still have that lens and even with the advent of the digital age I can use it! canon lost me way back then. Otherwise I’d still be shooting them.

  9. Brendan Moran says

    Having spent nearly 12 months before buying my first DSLR a couple of years ago reading reviews, checking comparisons on numerous websites, annoying the hell out of my friends/family/anyone who’d listen,and revising my budget upwards many times, I eventually chose the camera that felt right in my hands, that felt comfortable, that made sense to me. As it happens, it was Nikon – I’d spent probably an hour in the shop holding, exploring and shooting with 3 different models from 3 manufacturers. In the end, the other 2 made less sense to me, whereas I felt I instinctively knew where everything was on the Nikon, I knew exactly where to find this or that button/setting/menu. And this has helped to sharpen my skills, not having to stop for 5 minutes trying to find something on the “wrong” camera. My 2 cents anyway :-)

  10. says

    I’m a Canon guy since I was a teenager so my input will be partial.
    I borrowed several Nikon SLRs from friends as I was curious and knew Nikons are as good as Canons. At that time (15-20 year ago) I tried a F-301 a F-401 and a F-801. Great solid feeling but I recall parameters on those bodies were so complicated and info in the viewfinder not clear enough. This is surely due to my long habit of shooting with Canon.
    Recently though, I made a new try with a DSLR from the yellow brand (D90 if I’m not mistaken). Again good feeling about the body itself but when I tried to exti from the all-auto-green menu, it quickly became a headache. I do not say that Nikons are not good, how could I? They’re as good as Canons but when I get a grip of any Canon, any EOS, old or new, digital or not, I exactly know in an eyeblink how to change settings. The wheel in the back is one of their greatest find ever! In manual mode I can set speed with one wheel and aperture with the other and it is a kid’s game.
    My old EF lens still perfectly work on my DSLRs, of course some are becoming outdated yet they are strong and the “L” world is a reference worldwide! Maybe I do not know Nikon lenses as well but it seems more complicated with their different systems and less coherent. Also it’s to me more difficult to identify the pro lenses within Nikon (Canon “L” equivalents).
    For sure if I were to change my bodies and lenses for another brand, I’d still opt for Nikon, rather than Sony, Pentax, etc.
    Both Canon and Nikon are way above the lot.

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