Sony DSLR Review: How does Sony compare with Nikon and Canon?

In Gear by Jim Harmer67 Comments

Sony DSLR review

Today's article is a review of Sony DSLR cameras.  Every time I mention differences between Canon and Nikon DSLRs, I get (often angry) emails from readers (almost assuredly Sony shooters), who want an explanation as to why I do not talk more about Sony DSLRs.  I don't want to start an interstellar war over petty differences between camera manufacturers, but I do think that we photographers should be knowledgeable about the real differences between the camera systems so that we can make informed decisions about which brand will earn our hard earned money.

I want to mention up-front that I would LOVE to see Sony succeed in the DSLR market–if for nothing else than to put some fire under the seat of Nikon and Canon.  In my mind, competition is always a good thing.  I'm rooting hard for Sony, but as you'll see below, there are some serious drawbacks to buying into the Sony system right now.

Benefits of Sony DSLR Cameras (Pros)

Pro #1: Autofocus for video

Many Sony DSLRs use what is called a “pellicle mirror” to show the image in the viewfinder.  In contrast to a traditional DSLR mirror that is opaque, the pellicle mirror allows most of the light to go to the sensor while using some of the light to produce the electronic viewfinder image.  This technology is new to popular DSLRs, but it has been used in cameras for years.

There are many advantages to using this technology in Sony DSLRs, and one of them is full-time autofocus for video.  It also means that the viewfinder doesn't go dark when a picture is taken.  Unfortunately, it also means that some of the light that could be sent to the sensor is soaked up in the mirror.  You know what that means… worse low light performance.  Sony claims to overcome this limitation with advanced noise reduction, but it always makes me think how good the camera could be if it used all of the light.  Low light performance is the number one most important feature that I look for in a DSLR.

Customizable auto ISO

Pro#2: Customizable Auto ISO

I have been asking for this feature for years and I'm so glad to see that Sony has put this feature in the Sony a77 DSLR.  I love shooting in aperture priority mode whenever I can, but I have to keep watching my shutter speed so that it doesn't dip too low for shooting in the evening when the light is fading fast.  Imagine if I could set my aperture and shutter speed, and then know that the ISO will automatically increase to allow for proper exposure up to a certain level where I know that the camera won't produce too much noise.  Very useful for wildlife and sports photographers.

Pro #3: High frame rates

When you see the specs of Sony DSLRs, nothing will impress you more than the frame rates.  It is truly remarkable.  For example, the Sony a77 can capture 12 frames per second of 24 megapixel images.  While I certainly want to use that every day, it would be INCREDIBLE for shooting sports, wildlife, or kids.  I better stop writing about 12 frames per second before I can't hold myself back from Amazon.com.  It's begging me to buy one just for the times when I neeeeeed that kind of speed.

Pro #4: Price

While the recent releases from Sony have not been overly price conscious, it has generally produced DSLRs that are slightly more affordable than their Canon and Nikon competitors.

Pro #5: GPS

Someone needs to send the message to Canon and Nikon that many or most of us would gladly pay $50 more to get GPS built into our DSLRs.  Sony has apparently understood that message and has been better about including it in their cameras than Canon and Nikon.

Pro #6: In-camera image stabilization

Whereas Canon and Nikon have placed the image stabilization/vibration reduction feature inside each lens, Sony puts the image stabilization mechanism in the camera itself.  While I have not seen any head-to-head comparisons of the two approaches to say which performs better, most people say that this is an advantage for Sony.  Having the mechanism in the camera means you do not have to pay to have the technology put in each and every lens, which is a nice feature.

Drawbacks to Sony DSLR Cameras (Cons)

You know the Marlboro man, now you meet the Sony Alpha DSLR man

Con #1: Proprietary… incredibly proprietary

One of the things about Sony that really bothers me is their reluctance to embrace open standards.  Canon and Nikon own so much of the market share that they can produce proprietary file formats and lens mounts and still know that there will be plenty of products available for their customers.  On the other hand, Sony is tremendously proprietary even though they are the small fish in the DSLR pond.

For many years, Sony created its own memory cards (Memory Stick brand) that were the only memory cards that would work in their cameras.  That means if you had a point-and-shoot from another company and switched to Sony, you'd have to buy a bunch of new Memory Sticks that were then useless when you switched brands.  Also, their Memory Sticks were usually more expensive.

Sony has continued their proprietary regime with file formats.  Their cameras shoot their own proprietary file format (like Canon and Nikon).  Unfortunately, they are smaller than Canon and Nikon, so when you get a new Sony DSLR, you may find yourself unable to edit the RAW files with popular digital image editing programs until the companies update the software, which can take quite a bit longer than the updates for Canon and Nikon.

That's not it!  Sony has recently released the NEX line of cameras.  The 4/3 lens mount was an open standard followed by Panasonic and Olympus.  Did they follow the open standard so that we could use the lenses from one manufacturer on the camera of another?   No.  This divided the market and made things tougher for photographers.  They had an opportunity to follow the standard and chose not to.  Unfortunately, Nikon has chosen to follow their lead with a proprietary lens mount on the V1 and J1.

But there's more!  At least Canon and Nikon have stuck with the same hotshoe mount for flashes.  Sony…. chose a different route.  Ugh!  That means the third party flashes like the YN-560 won't work with the Sony unless you buy the special YN-560 Sony version.  That's all fine and dandy, but it means that Sony users also don't have access to the multiplicity of cheaper flash triggers and other flash goodies that their Nikon and Canon buddies can use.  If you're interested in flash photography, this is a HUGE drawback in my opinion.

In short, Canon and Nikon are into the proprietary thing, but Sony is proprietary to the extreme.  This problem is compounded by the fact that they are a smaller market and so third party manufacturers are less apt to design for them.  This may not seem like a big deal until you're ready to get into flash photography, and then you'll hate yourself for buying into Sony's walled garden.

Con #2: Dramatically reduced lens options

I know I'll draw comments on this one because Sony shooters love their Zeiss and Zuiko lenses.  I'm NOT saying that Sony has no good glass available, but it would be absolutely impossible to argue that there is as much good glass available for Sony DSLRs as there is for Canon and Nikon cameras.  It's simply not true.

Sony has worked quickly to make more lenses available, but it is still way behind the 8 ball.  Also, many of the “Sony” lenses are simply re-branded lenses from other manufacturers such as Tamron.

The lens selection is a major drawback to moving to the Sony system.

Con #3: Fewer resources available for learning

I have taught dozens of in-person photography workshops and have taught photography through this website to hundreds of thousands of people.  One thing I hear CONSTANTLY from people who purchase Sony DSLRs as their first camera is that they are frustrated that few learning resources are available to them.  Photography bloggers simply cannot write articles that only apply to the 5% of the audience who use Sony DSLRs.  It doesn't make sense.

While there are some learning resources available, it is much easier to find content on using Canon and Nikon cameras.

Camera manufacturers are always bickering about who is better. Canon and Nikon against Sony... cage match!

Con #4: Fewer available accessories

As I mentioned previously in the section on how proprietary Sony is, it is difficult to buy accessories for Sony cameras.  If you want a battery grip for your Nikon D7000 or Canon 60D, it is simple to find one for $50 made by a third-party manufacturer on Amazon.com.  If you shoot Sony, it is much more difficult.  In fact, even Sony doesn't produce battery grips for all of its cameras.  Battery grips are only one example, but it can be a major headache.  If you want to get into flash photography, I would strongly suggest staying away from Sony.

Con #5: Electronic Viewfinders

This is a personal preference, but I just can't stand electronic viewfinders.  I do not like that they never seem to show the highlights accurately, which is a big deal for landscape photographers especially.  The new AMOLED electronic viewfinders are a significant improvement, but they still don't compare to the traditional prism and mirror schemes in DSLRs from Canon, Nikon, or any other manufacturer.

Con #6:  Unavailability of full-frame cameras

For photographers who wish to go full frame, you will find a dramatically reduced set of options.  Sony is coming out with another full frame camera in 2012 if all of the rumors are true, but the options are slim now.

So which should I buy?  Canon vs. Nikon vs. Sony?

Again, I am glad to see Sony innovating and producing great features on their cameras.  I sincerely hope that they continue to grow and eventually provide legitimate competition for Canon and Nikon.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Sony as a first DSLR to my readers.  There are simply too many drawbacks and I don't see them overcoming the advantages in most situations.

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About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. hello sir,
    i currently own a sony alpha 58..an entry level dslt..its my 1st interchangeable lens camera…i bought inorder to learn photograhy..before going to the store i had nikon d3300 in mind..but after seeing the technology sony has put in,i considered it would help me learn as i am new to this completely..i did a lot of study on photography and as i surf through websites i doubt on my product seeing all pros suggesting the top two..did i do wrong to choose sony over the visible cam giants ie nikon and canon?i am completely satisfied with my product but will it hinder my lessons?should i sell nd buy nikon or canon?

  2. pls tell me one in sony A58 & Canon 700 D or pls tell me best camera in 40K budget

  3. thanks for your article but i think most of your notes in Sony are logistic issue like property lenses availability ………etc
    but not technical issue like sensor performance or possessor acting or any essential differences and you ignore superiority of Sony sensors over Nikon and canon (Dxomark rating ex.) and please look for canon rating from my small experience i used to use Sony camera and the only Nikon i used and i’m very sorry for the money i spent is Nikon D5200 it’s with the kit lens 18-55 no VR believe me its peace of shit no more . believe me Nikon and canon without Photoshop or Light room is peace of shit.

  4. Isn’t Nixon body made by Sony ?? It’s a body built by Sony with the name Nikon on it. Last I heard Nikon makes glass. Making the lens only…. ??

    1. Author

      No, Sony doesn’t make Nikon’s cameras–just some of their sensors.

  5. Hi,how is your experience with Sony a 58?me too plan for that..so please share your opinion…

  6. Jim and timothi kindly suggest me for buying my first dslr… After lots of research on Internet i have shortlisted nikon 5200 and Sony alpha 58 both with there basic 18-55 kit lens. I am buying camera for first time so nothing specific in mind to shoot. Kindly help me to choose one among it.

  7. Hi,
    I am looking forward to buy Sony Alpha A6000, which has many features in comparison to Canon & Nikon in that price range.
    Talking about lenses and image format, now Sony has started supporting both in a progressive way. Please guide me if there is any particular specification in which Canon or Nikon model wins over Sony Apha A6000. Your suggestions will be hepful

    1. Your Comment *don’t yourself, just go and by Sony SLT a65. Thanks.

  8. Your Comment * Sony has gone far now, so if you by a6000 is even better than canon Mark III if you don’t care about imaging.

  9. plz suggest me a best ,latest and less price DSLR I will buy…….

  10. optical vf is for grandpas because they have eyes prob…evf is for youngsters

  11. May I suggest Nikon D3300 in the world of DSLRs it is the maximum bang for the buck or the D7700 if your willing to spend more

  12. I used to shoot Minolta, I have quite a few Minolta lenses. I hopped in with the first Alpha because I could use the same lens. as we went along I purchased a new Sony every couple of years. But now, I feel like a rat in a sinking ship. Sony’s DSLRs are nearly gone. Sad days.

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