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.

149 thoughts on “Canon vs. Nikon: What’s the difference? (Updated for 2012)”

  1. Nikon lenses fit all cameras that Nikon make some may not have full functionality but work fine in manual

  2. I may add the fact that Nikon entry cam’s needs a motorized lens wich are very expensive. On the canon-hand it is not the case. The EF-S range is a recent invention by canon, for the needs of APS-C’s. That is not really a problem for the rest of canon user’s, since it doesnt fit only on APS-H and FF cam’s. I am a canon girl, but the decision came to Canon for mainly ergonomic reasons for me.

  3. Because Sony is late to the party, there is little “system” to their system. They sell cameras and lenses, not systems.
    Another issue is passion. Sony is a big company that looks for niche markets and tries to buy market share instead of focus on a field of interest. Canon is all about visual imagery(cameras, printers, etc). Nikon is all about precision optics(cameras and lenses, optics and steppers for microelectronic fabrication ) so their products seem to be driven by engineers who are focused on these fields. Sony makes 500,000 products, a similar number to Panasonic, so products are designed primary by the sales and marketing department, which responds to what it thinks customers want or will sell instead of what can be made superior. They have no corporate passion for photography, it is not in their blood. I was in the pro recording field and witnessed the same thing when they tried to buy their way into that realm in the 1980s. All their products were good on paper and well made but it was obvious no one actually used them before putting them on the market. My recorders were all Swiss made Studers but bought a reel to reel Sony Digital deck when it became available. Sure it was cool but Sony had no passion for sound recording, they made products for it but did not care about it like the smaller specialty companies like Studer. A few years later my $124,000 investment was worthless because Sony never provided parts access as a system. My Studers were still worth money most of what was invested in them because their only business was recording and broadcast sound and knew that parts and support were a fundamental requirement for pro usage. I will never buy another Sony major product, one expected to be kept for a period of time. I do have a phone made by them which is not a risk because phones are throwaway items.
    Spec wise Sony DSLRs are competent but none are items that instill passions of users because it is obvious the designers and planners are not photographers, they are salesmen. Nothing stands out as the pinnacle of the craft. Another issue is that they abandon product lines when they do not return the profits headquarters expect for a division. That means long term support, parts etc is a problem and can ruin the resale value of the item. Sony will always be in that second tier of company’s in the minds of photographers, large companies fighting for market share in the mass market. They compete well in the phone, point and shoot, and camcorder market because the casual user is familiar with the name and they have advertising clout. But so do Samsung, Panasonic and a dozen other maga companies with hundreds of thousands of products. They make products for markets, not for photographers.
    Overall, they are in the middle of the pack of performance, their a900 looks great on paper but you know when you pick it up, it was loaded with features but there is no system of long term commitment by the company so influential photographers, pros, ignore them.
    At least Pentax, which has its own set of problems, fights for a spot in the sun by innovation and good ideas that are focused entirely on photography, sometimes to the detriment to sales or marketing.
    How many serious pros can you name who uses the Sony system. Why don’t they?

    For full disclosure, I am a Nikon shooter and will continue to be. I used Canon for years but when they changed their mount and made my considerable investment in accessories obsolete overnight, I have not been anxious to invest in them either. All the companies make decent cameras, no bad clunkers in the bunch but right now Canon and Nikon are the only ones that people can trust to be in it for the long haul.

  4. Good reply, Stan. I might add that Sony is not profitable. Scares me to invest in a system from a company that could just slash the entire line any day.

    Sony makes good DSLRs, but their lens line up is too shallow.

    To me, it comes down to one point Stan made. Nothing Sony make (in the DSLR world) is the top of the line. There is not even ONE feature that I’m dying to get that would even make me consider leaving Canon or Nikon. They just don’t have any serious feature to add.

    Also, I can’t stand that Sony always locks you into proprietary memory cards and such. They are notorious for annoying policies in that regard.

    Last, Sony’s pellicle mirror love is driving me wild. It’s cool, but it cuts low light performance. If they had listened to photographers, they would know that low light performance is ALL WE CARE ABOUT right now.

  5. Let’s get back to Canon-Nikon
    I’m a Canon user but have no fanaticism on it either
    I’ve heard Nikon fans saying the colors and tones in Nikon are better for landscape while Canon has better portrait results. It seems a very shallow defense to me though because one can change colors and tones in PP

  6. I am a Canon user currently, but have been thinking about switching to Nikon. I bought a Canon DSLR while in school when my photo classes switched to digital shooting and 90% of my classmates (and my instructor) had digital Canons and raved about them. I’ve had focus issues with several Canon cameras/lenses, and I don’t always feel I get the color I expect. I’d like to try out some Nikon gear to see what it is like.

  7. I have worked at Harold’s Photo Center (photofinishing retail store) for 3 years now (I started at the age of 20 and really had NO IDEA about digital cameras) and this is one of the BIGGEST questions asked. My answer “personal preference” both Nikon and Canon make excellent cameras… I personally find myself drawn to Canon. I like how user friendly Canon is. Every time I pick up a Nikon I get lost in the menus. As far as the colors(yes I know you can fix them in PS) I really do prefer Canon to Nikon. I feel more “warmth” The colors are more saturated than with a Nikon. I haven’t ever been satisfied with Nikon’s colors and that is with BOTH their point and shoots and their DSLRs. I do agree Nikon takes the cake for low light situations though. Its noise reduction system is top notch. I feel they are a little bit sharper too. The only other thing that bugs me is Nikon’s LCD screens, I don’t know if its just me but they seem duller than Canon’s. (not that this would make or break the deal on a Nikon) just something I wanted to point out. YES! Nikon is sooooo slow when it comes too shipping their products. One other fact you should know is canon lens only have a one year warranty on them as were Nikon has a 5 year. Now I personally use Tamron lens but I wasn’t sure if you guys were aware of that… we have a lot of customers who will go with a Nikon over a Canon because of that reason. Finally I strongly believe YES a 5D MARK 2 or a Nikon D700 will give you good pictures… but honestly I think it is the photographer and how they see the world. How they try to capture it. A camera is just a tool along with lens that help you to capture what you want. 🙂

    1. Totally agree. Thanks Jennifer for saying what I have had in mind.

      For background, I started with Nikon D40, D5000, and more recently D7000. Later on, I let go D40 and D5000, kept D7000, added a Canon 6D and 5Dm3. Most recently, a Sony RX100m2 arrived and stayed along with others.

  8. I went with Canon, as they had the best price and features (e.g., video) when I was researching entry-level dSLRs. Now I’ve invested so much in the Canon system, I am locked in. There are valid arguments on either side of the Canon/Nikon debate. However, I see no comrpelling reason to switch, and would not want to take the financial hit. I’m an enthusiast, not a pro, so switching costs would be borne by my personal, after-tax dollars. No thanks. I will happily stick with Canon.

  9. This debate is brought up in EVERY meeting of photographers… You claim that Nikon has had better auto-focus… I have not found this to be the case. I mainly shoot Canon (50D, 1Ds series) but I also have owned a Nikon D700 (which I HATED) and a D90… on both of these Nikons I found the auto focus to be slow and regularly inaccurate! I gave up using the D700 because time and time again I was losing necessary shots (when shooting theater productions without a flash). I went back the next day and used the Canon 50D and got every shot I needed. Since then I have gotten rid of the Nikon D700… and kept the D90 to use in classes for those students with Nikons.

  10. As a Nikon user there are a few things I envy about Canon:
    1. Availability of modern f/1.2 primes.
    2. A used 5d (mk I) is much more affordable than a used D700. Not counting the Kodak slr/n, it’s the most affordable full frame DSLR.
    3. Canon’s point and shoots are ahead of Nikon. A Canon shooter could use a g12 as a casual camera and be able to use his Canon flash whereas I have to choose between an inferior camera or get a G12 and a separate Canon flash.

    On the Nikon side I know at least one wedding pro who switched from being a user of both to Nikon because he found his Canon to be less reliable and require more repairs.

  11. Nikons are the best – period. Made by photographers for photographers. Don’t crap out, don’t have recalls, JD Power highest rated every year. Plus, Nikon is a camera company. If I want a photocopier or fax I’ll use a Canon.

  12. Great post!

    I entered the DSLR market with a Sony – and did most of my PBing with it. While it has treated me well I’ve already made the decision that I’ll be upgrading to a FF Nikon come this fall. The biggest factor in picking Nikon is their noise performance – other than that, it simply boils down to personal choice and ergonomics. I like how the Nikon body feels in my hand more than I do the Canon.

  13. Good point Gwen! I completely agree with your comment about liking how a Nikon body feels in your hand. I feel like I have something in my hand. It’s heavy, it feels like it is made of something, like it isn’t going to fall apart. I shot Cannon before I moved to Nikon, and honestly, I feel like the Cannon isn’t made of good quality material. Simply put, it is all about personal choice.

  14. I shoot with a Nikon out of personal preference. However, I’d challenge anyone to look at a photo and tell me whether it was shot with a Nikon, Canon, or any other brand of camera.

    1. Challenge accepted Matt.
      As Jennifer mentioned in an earlier post, Canon has a slightly warmer tone, or maybe feel, to their images, and I can tell the difference. Not in every shot, but in a lot of them.
      And it’s pretty obvious too if you have a photographic eye.
      And also there’s a DOF difference, the way the Canon vs. Nikon lenses transition from in focus to bokeh, how smooth, sharp etc.
      It’s there, there’s a difference.
      And FTR, I’m a Nikon shooter.

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