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. The Nikon D7000 (6 fps) seems to have a better burst rate over the Canon 60D (5.3 fps).
    But in practice the Canon 60D has a better buffer.
    The Canon will take well over 50 shots at full quality jpeg, that’s more than 10 seconds of action.

    The Nikon D7000 will only take about 15 shots at full quality jpeg, that’s only about three seconds.

    I love the better low light advantage and AF fine tuning of Nikon but when it comes to action photography Canon gets my vote.

  2. I’ll stick with Olympus equipment. You wanna talk low light situations, try shooting with an endoscope or some of their other medical equipment. Just kidding, I don’t use their medical equipment just their great DSLR cameras. I won’t switch either because of their great customer service. Long Live Oly!

  3. I just recently bought my first DSLR and I went back and forth between Canon and Nikon for MONTHS before finally deciding on a Nikon D3100. I almost bought a Canon T1i kit, but a couple factors sold me on the Nikon. First, the T1i is now 2-years old and the $750 price tag includes only the 18-55mm kit lens. By comparison, the D3100 came out just late last year and thanks to a $200 instant rebate promotion from Nikon during the month of April, I was able to get the kit with both the 18-55mm VR lens and the 55-200mm VR lens for the same $750 the Canon would have cost me. I know they both take great images and have tons of lenses available, so for me, the decision came down to price and value. Nikon won out and I couldn’t be happier with my D3100. It is a FANTASTIC camera that I’m sure I’ll enjoy using for years to come.

  4. I think that the main difference is the Usability of the systems. The menus gave different structures etc. You can only find out which one you will prefer by actually trying them out thoroughly.

    Best wishes


  5. I haven’t herd anyone talk about Nikon photos having a warmer/lighter color tone to them, as ware Canon colors are a little cooler/brighter. I’m currently looking at both, it’s a difficult decision since when you start buying glass and get invested your pretty much locked in.

  6. Well, I loved reading all the comments. And I think all the commentators (almost all) are canon. But what about Nasa’s Nikon project. Thats so cool. When I hear that I never turn towards canon!

  7. Mimi & Jassim:

    The 5D Mark II was the first digital camera used for an official U.S. Presidential portrait, that of Barack Obama taken by Pete Souza in 2008.

    So there’s a feather back in canon’s cap. It’s really 6 of one, half a dozen of the other, as far as I’m concerned. My friend who got me into shooting shoots mostly Canon- when he’s not driving a Hasselblad MF or something silly.

  8. I have 2 PS Canon cameras and honestly am not happy with both of them. Okay, I know DSLR quality cannot be judged from how they make PS. However, I thought it’s time to give Nikon a try, and that’s why for DLSR I bought Nikon D5000. I’m happy with it. It produces excellent images! But I still keep my Canon printer…:)

  9. Rhys, Obama picts would look like Obama whether they’re taken by Canon, Nikon, or Casio. But Nasa project is something else…:)

  10. I agree with Heather and Gwen. I shoot with a Nikon D80 and this camera is a solid workhorse.

    Prior to making my purchase, I was set on getting a Canon EOS 400D based on the specifications, better high ISO performance (at that time) and the glowing reviews. However, when I tried out demo units of both models, the Canon simply felt awkward. The body felt flimsy, and I wasn’t in love with the UI. Even though the D80 body is also constructed out of plastic, it felt so much more solid. I also fell in love with the extra large grip. I just made steadying the body and composing my image that much easier. I also found the various buttons and dials to be far more ergonomic, and the UI to be easier to navigate.

    The feel of a camera is so important, more so than the specs and the bells and whistles. When you’re shooting, the camera is ultimately an extension of you and your imagination. If your camera doesn’t feel intuitive, then you’re going to have a much harder time creating your art.

  11. my camera isn’t even in the game with this one. lol. i shoot with an olympus. i like being weird 4/3 and noisy. every camera maker has their pros and cons, where they slack i make up in talent. i think. hahaha. enjoying your blog as you can see

  12. It should be noted that Nikon briefly offered tan colored telephoto pro zooms a few years back. I know I”ve seen the 80-200 af-s and I think it was the 300 f/4 af-s (no VR)… Canon therefor might not be able to get a copyright on it, and nikon might have quit it because it’s such a symbolic canon thing…

  13. I shoot a Nikon D80 and I do agree with most everything in the blog. However I think the AF point is a little off. I find that Canon has the better AF system for sports while Nikon is better in lower light situations.
    (I have shot with borrowed newer Nikons and Canons in both situations.)

  14. I choose which one is cheaper and has better deal!

    Side note: why don’t they make a DSLR that’s water proof? I enjoy going to the beach, water parks with family and it’s impossible to take photos having constantly worry about camera getting wet from some kid splashing water at me!

  15. I’ve been a Canon-fan for most of my life, and shoot with a 30D and 40D (would love to upgrade to full-frame, though).

    I hear what is being said about low light and focus points, but honestly, the ONE thing that would make me switch from Canon to Nikon is the fact that the Canon’s shutter is so damn noisy!!!! I’ve missed a good few shots during events because I simply could not bear to click that awful loud noise in a quiet intimate moment…

  16. i shoot Nikon…

    not only because their Image Quality..

    but simply… i can operate my camera with my single hand. from turn on,to change my setting (if u use Func Button for custom Menu), change Focus, anything….
    and the most every photographer want,very good AF assist light… even Pentax could not caught up with their K-5 (dont mention Canon their sucks)

    its true every camera can produce great image… but not every camera can fit in your hand and imagination…


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