Friday, May 4, 2012

Comparison Between Canon and Nikon

The goal of this article is to introduce Canon's system to Nikonians and Nikon's system to Canonistas. It is not to "prove" that one system is superior to the other, but instead to discuss the differences for increasing our mutual awareness, or to help someone select a system or switch to another system.

At the end of the day, you will be able to get excellent pictures with any system you have (even with systems not mentioned in this comparison) provided that you spend more time taking pictures than fighting over the forums defending the superiority of your brand. This is a grown-up, calm discussion about the variations between one brand and the other. This post is mostly discussing DSLRs.

More after the jump... and flame suit on. :-)


  • mshafik: I am 100% brand-neutral, and although I like or hate some things about certain brands, this doesn't mean I hate that brand and would never use it, there is no perfect system and it's all compromises. I currently shoot a Canon 5D MarkII, I have used Canon and Sony P&S, I have also used Samsung and Yashica film cameras. As for video cameras, I have used a Sony and a Samsung.

  • Mic: I consider myself reasonably brand-neutral. I currently own DSLRs by Nikon and Fuji. I have previously owned a Pentax DSLR. Through friends and family, I have used Canon and Panasonic DSLRs. I have lenses from Nikon, Sigma, Tamron and Tokina. With P&S cameras, I've had Casio, Nikon, and Panasonic. I've given Canon P&S as gifts and recommended Canon P&S to friends. I have a Canon HD camcorder.  When friends ask for advice on buying their first DSLR, I tell them to choose between Canon or Nikon, and give the pros and cons of each.


  • mshafik: My first DSLR was the Canon 550D when it was introduced, I was comparing it to the Nikon D90, both were similarly priced, the 550D was newer with more megapixels and great high ISO performance, while the D90 had a much better body with a top LCD, better battery, and a very good sensor, (confession: I really like the way the Nikon cameras renders noise, it looks like fine grain with no color blotches or banding). At the end I decided to go for the newer body and the more affordable lenses (besides, I already had two Canon flashes). It was a straight sailing from there as I acquired more lenses and upgraded through the bodies.

  • Mic:  My first DSLR was a Pentax K100D.  I bought it based on DPReview tests showing that it had excellent high ISO capability (at the time) for an entry-level DSLR (similar to that of the Nikon D40).  In addition, it had shake reduction (sensor-based image stabilization) which meant that I would get stabilization with all lenses. After about a year of using the Pentax, however, I found the autofocus too slow for baby pictures, so I thought about switching.  Based on my research it appeared that Nikon had one of the best reputations for autofocus.  I was also learning about off-camera flash, and in 2008, only Nikon had cameras with built-in commander capabilities.  Nikon also had a good reputation for their flash system.  So I bought a Nikon D80, the lowest-end Nikon that had a built-in commander.  I haven't regretted my choice then, except perhaps during those times when I was shopping for a lens and I saw that Canon has less expensive lenses (see below).  I also had Canon envy when I was thinking about a full frame camera and saw how much more affordable the low-end Canon full frame cameras were.


We've organized the differences according to categories:
  • History
  • Camera Bodies
  • Lenses
  • Basic Operation
  • Lighting
  • Functions and Features

  1. Canon was named after Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Nikon is short for Nippon Kogaku (Japan Optical).

  2. Canon lenses are branded Canon. Nikon's lenses are branded Nikkor.

  3. Pronunciation: Canon is pronounced the same everywhere. Nikon is prononuced with a long 'i' in the US while it is pronounced with a short 'i' everywhere else.

  4. Model names:
    1. Nikon's model names have recently become more standardized and logical.  Models with fewer digits are higher end. Among models with the same number of digits, higher numbers are higher end, and within the same range of numbers, higher numbers are newer models.  Thus D4 > D3 > D800> D700 > D300S > D7000 > D5100 > D5000 and so forth. However, older Nikons did not follow this pattern (D40 to D90 are all lower-end than D300 or D700).
    2. Entry level Canon cameras have different names in different countries, for example, the Canon 600D is called that everywhere except in the USA (Canon Rebel T3i) and Japan (Canon Kiss X5). In the recent lineup, the lower the digits the higher the end the body is, and lower numbers within the same number of digits indicates a higher end body, example from lower to higher end: Canon 1100D, 600D, 60D, 7D, 5D MarkIII, 1DX.

  5. Market share:
    We don't have global data for 2011, but historically, most reports I've seen show that Canon is the leader in DSLR market share with Nikon second.

    1. April 15, 2011 Bloomberg article: "In the market for cameras with interchangeable lens, or single lens reflex cameras, Canon controlled 44.5 percent of the market, followed by Nikon with 29.8 percent and Sony with 11.9 percent, according to the data."
    2. Japanese market share 2011: here.

  1. Full frame bodies: Canon has had a full-frame DSLR since 2002, whereas Nikon's first full frame DSLR was the D3, released in 2007.

  2. If you want a full frame DSLR, the Canon 5D is the least expensive full frame DSLR by a huge margin (under $1000 used, compared to around $1900 for a used D700).

  3. For APS-C cameras: Canon's sensor is slightly smaller (1.6x crop factor) than Nikon (1.5x crop factor).

  4. In addition to full frame and APS-C, Canon has an APS-H format (1.3x crop factor), which only uses full frame (not APS-C) lenses (you can mount EF-S lenses to APS-H with heavy vignetting, but please don't). Canon will stop producing APS-H cameras in 2012.

  5. Mirrorless: Nikon has a mirrorless line called the CX format (2.7x crop factor - smaller than Micro Four Thirds). They use different lenses from DSLRs. Canon has not yet announced a mirrorless line, the closest to a large sensor mirrorless camera they produced is the Canon G1x.

  6. Command dials: Entry-level and mid-level Nikons have only one command dial - a horizontal one in the rear. More advanced Nikon bodies have two command dials - one in front, and one at the back, both horizontal. Entry level Canon bodies (xxxxD and xxxD series) has only one dial at the top, the higher end bodies have two command dials - a vertical dial on top, a wheel at the back, and an 8-directional joystick (except for the 60D).

  7. Menus: Canon menus have categories/tabs on top, and options listed below. Nikon menus have categories/tabs on the left, and options listed on the right. mshafik here: excuse this personal opinion, but I find the Nikon menus (especially the quick control screen and the top LCD) to be awfully organized and garbled, this is the major thing that offsets me from a Nikon, I am very strict when it comes to neatness and tidiness.

  8. Button control:  With higher-end Nikons, you don't need to go through menus to activate several options.  You simply press buttons and rotate one of the command dials.  Some of the options that you can change without going through the menus include: focus area (number of active AF points), bracketing, flash exposure compensation, white balance bias (toward warm or cool), image format (JPEG, TIFF, raw, or both, etc.).

  9. Sensor aspect ratio: Both Nikon and Canon uses 2x3 (4x6).

  10. Autofocus motor: entry and mid-level Nikons don't have an autofocus motor in the body. Older lenses without built-in motors can't focus on these bodies, however Nikon is working on releasing new versions of these lenses with built-in focus motors. All Canon EF and EF-S lenses released since 1987 have built-in focus motors, so whether you are using an entry level or a high end body, you will get autofocus.

  11. Resolution: Historically, Nikon sensors had lower resolution than their Canon counterparts. But now the trend may be reversing - recent Nikon sensors have very high resolution.
    1. D700 12mp vs 5DII 21mp - D300 12mp vs 7D 18mp - D90 12mp vs 60D 18mp.
    2. D800 36mp vs 5DIII 22mp - D3200 24mp vs 550D 18mp

  1. Cost: Canon lenses are usually less expensive than their Nikon counterparts.
    1. Canon 17-55 IS: $1150. Nikon 17-55: $1540.
    2. Canon 24-70: $1580. Nikon 24-70: $1890.
    3. Canon 24-105 f/4L: $953. Nikon 24-120 f/4G: $1300.

  2. f/1.2 lenses: Canon has modern 1.2 lenses (50 1.2L, 85 1.2L). Nikon has a 50 1.2 but it's manual focus only.

  3. Lens Lineup:

    1. Canon's current lineup of autofocus lenses has 71 lenses (and 2 teleconverters).
    2. Nikon's current lineup of autofocus lenses has 62 lenses (and 3 teleconverters).

  4. Compatibility with older lenses: Nikon has maintained compatibility with older F-mount lenses produced since 1959, which can be used on modern DSLRs (with some limitations). When Canon introduced EF lenses in 1987, they did not maintain native compatibility with older lenses.

  5. Lens adapters: You can mount a Nikon lens on a Canon body with an adapter, however you cannot mount a Canon lens on a Nikon body even with an adapter. Generally, video shooters love the Canon cameras because they can fit almost any lens with an adapter, I am using an Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 with my Canon body.

  6.  Lens caps: Nikon (and Sigma, Tamron and Sony, for that matter) have very good and strong lens caps with clips in the middle, unlike Canon's flimsy lens caps which can only be operated from the sides of the cap, this makes it very difficult to operate with most lens hoods. I have bought Tamron lens caps for all my Canon lenses, and they are way better.

  7. Zoom direction: On a Nikon zoom, you rotate the barrel clockwise to use longer focal lengths. Vice-versa for Canon.

  8. Lens names: Canon calls their full frame lenses EF, and their APS-C only lenses are EF-S. Nikon calls their APS-C only lenses "DX". Full frame lenses are called "FX" (or have no specific designation).

  9. APS-C lenses on Full Frame bodies: Nikon allows the use of APS-C lenses on full frame bodies. The bodies will crop automatically. APS-C lenses can't be used on Canon full frame bodies.  The mirror will hit the lens.

  10. High-end lenses: Canon's high end lenses are usually given the "L" designation and a red ring, they usually have very high quality glass, fast ring USM focusing and most of them are weatherproof. The 70-200 series and super telephotos are white. Canon's EF-S lenses for crop sensors are never given the "L" designation although there are some lenses that can match and beat "L" lenses in image and build quality.  Nikon uses black lenses (a few limited edition lenses are white or gray) with high-end lenses having gold rings.  High-end Nikon lenses include lens cases.

  11. Aperture ring (for manual aperture control): Older Nikon lenses have aperture rings but the newest Nikon lenses (G) don't have an aperture ring. All EF Canon lenses don't have aperture rings either.

  12. Telephoto: It is said that Canon has better super telephoto lenses. One of the great lenses people are eagerly waiting for is the new 200-400 f/4 L 1.4 extender. The party trick of this lens is the specially designed built-in extender which transforms the lens' focal length to 280-560mm, so you have one relatively small lens with a 200-560mm range, expected price is ~ $11,000.


  1. Spot metering: With Nikon, the camera will spot meter the chosen AF point. With Canon, the camera will spot meter the AF point only on high-end bodies. In other bodies, the camera will spot meter from the middle regardless of which AF point is selected.

  2. Auto DOF calculator: Canon has auto DOF calculator (A-DEP). Nikon doesn't.

  3. Color information: all Nikon DSLRs use color information in the exposure metering and autofocus. Canon does not use color information except the 5D Mark III which can tell cool/warm (but not actual color).

  4. Autofocus - historically, photographers who've used both say that Nikon has more accurate autofocus. However, the most advanced AF system right now is arguably that of the 5DIII (most number of AF points, has diagonal AF points). It all depends on your usage, if you are used to shooting static subjects with the center point only, then you will be satisfied with even the old focusing systems.


  1. Canon calls their flashes speedlites. Nikon calls theirs speedlights.

  2. Remote control of external flash: Canon allows full control of the built-in and external flashes (including wireless groups) using the menus on the back LCD. Nikon doesn't. This feature is useful when you have one of the cameras with a wireless master flash (600D, 60D and 7D) or a long TTL cord. With a Canon you have full control over the flashes. With a Nikon you have to walk over to the flash to change some settings.

  3. Radio TTL flash: Canon now has radio-based wireless TTL, Nikon doesn't.

  4. Multiple wireless flash control: Canon uses ratios between each slave group. The ratios control the flash output (not the flash exposure), with the new radio sppedlites, you have more meaningful control other than the ratios, and you can have up to 5 different groups. Nikon uses independent FEC (or specific manual flash settings) to adjust flash exposure for each TTL slave group.

  5. External flash swivel: SB-910, SB-900 and SB-700 can rotate 180 degrees both ways. Previous Nikon flashes could rotate 180 degrees to the left, but only 90 degrees to the right. Only the high end Canon flash can swivel 180 degrees both ways (580EX, 580EXII, 600EX), other ones rotate 180 degrees to one side, and 90 degrees to the other side.

  6. Flash exposure compensation: with Canon, exposure compensation does not affect flash exposure. With Nikon, exposure compensation affects flash exposure (except the D4, where you have an option to select whether exposure compensation affects flash exposure or not). So with Canon, if you wanted to underexpose the ambient, you simply dial in the exposure compensation and leave the flash exposure compensation alone. With Nikon you would reduce exposure compensation then have to offset it with a corresponding increase in flash exposure compensation.

  7. Commander mode: Historically, Nikon had camera bodies that had a built-in commander flash, while Canon did not do so until the Canon 7D in 2009. The trend has reversed, because now even mid-level Canons (600D) have them while some mid-level Nikon cameras (D5000, D5100) don't.

  8. High-speed sync. In Nikon, it's called "Auto FP". When it's activated in the camera body, you don't need to do change any setting in the flash. In Canon, it's called "HSS", there is a direct button on the flash to activate it.

  9. Remote HSS: Nikon allows HSS in wireless mode. Canon allows it in wireless mode only if you are using a speedlite as a master, i.e it can't be activated by the built-in flash commander.

  10. Rear curtain sync: In Nikon, it's a function of the body only. When a camera has it, it works with all flashes (even non-Nikon), with Canon, it can work with all cameras.

  11. Sync speed. Low-end Nikons have a sync speed of 1/200, high-end bodies sync at 1/250. Some high end bodies (D300, D300S, D700, D7000) can boost sync speed from 1/250 to 1/320 with a slight decrease in flash exposure. Full frame Canons have a sync speed of 1/200, mid to high-end bodies have 1/250 sync speed, low end xxxD series have 1/200 sync speed.


  1. The potential image quality between the two is the same, especially if you will post-process your images. However, if you're not going to post-process the photo (i.e. just straight out of the camera JPEG), in my opinion Canon's images look more "punchy" and saturated. However, Nikon's SOOC JPEGs can be made to look similar. mshafik here: I have a Canon, and despite trying all sorts of built-in picture settings, I was never satisfied with the JPEGs (especially noise/details treatment) my DSLRs produced, but they say the 5D Mark III has a much better JPEG engine.

  2. Software - Nikon: Nikon offers a free raw converter called ViewNX.  Unfortunately it borders on being unusable because it is extremely slow.  There is also a program called Capture NX produced by Nik Software for Nikon.  It has a unique selective adjustment tool called "U-Point" which is simple although not necessarily more powerful than Lightroom.  Capture NX is also quite slow.

  3. Software - Canon: The two important free pieces of software you get with all Canon DSLRs are, Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) and EOS Utility. The DPP is Canon's free RAW conversion software, it is quick, flexible and offers great control over the picture, however, I find that I like Adobe's Lightroom controls and workflow, especially for noise reduction, but there are people that depend 100% on DPP for their RAW conversion. EOS Utility is very important for people shooting tethered, you get complete remote control over the camera and live view shooting, you also use it to upload picture styles, lens correction profiles and change the copyright information embedded in your pictures.

  4. Multiple exposure: some Nikon DSLRs have multiple exposure and image overlay mode.  With multiple exposure mode, you can take several shots that will be superimposed on top of each other.  In some Nikons, you can take up to 3 shots (e.g. D90), while in others you can take as many as 10 (e.g. D3).  In image overlay mode, you can take two separate raw files and superimpose them over each other after the fact.

  5. Custom file names: higher-end Nikon bodies allow you to customize the file name (for example, instead of DSC1234, it could be MIC1234). Canons don't allow that.

  6. Intervalometer: More advanced Nikon bodies have built-in intervalometer function, which automatically takes photos at specific time intervals, allowing you to capture a series of slow movements such as the movement of clouds or even the growth of plants.  The new D800 and D4 take this one step further and have a built-in time lapse mode which automatically creates a movie out of the photos taken by the intervalometer. Canon doesn't have that, you have to use an external intervalometer, and by the way, Canon -stupidly- has two types of intervalometer connections, one for the xxxD and xxD series, and a different one for the xD series, I wish someone can tell me why!

  7. Video.  Nikon produced the first DSLR with video (the D90) but if you care about video, Canon is generally ahead of the game. Some Nikon users switched to Canon because of this (or bought a separate Canon DSLR for video). However, the new Nikon D4, D800 and D800E all have advanced video features.  On the other hand, some comparisons give a slight edge to the 5DIII over the D800 for video.

  8. Better point and shoot cameras. The Canon G series is better than Nikon's equivalent. This is relevant if you want to use the same equipment for both e.g. flash and TTL cord.

  9. Remote Control: There is an amazing Android app called DSLR Controller, which allows complete remote control with a smartphone via the built-in USB cable. It allows real-time live view with all the controls imaginable (ex. Auto focus with fine tuning, focus peaking, 10x magnification, taking pictures and videos and viewing them from your phone, time lapse mode, intervalometer, the new version even has a focus pulling mode where you set two focus positions and the camera switches between them during video recording), it is an excellent app which is very well executed, currently it's in beta at version 0.94, once it hits version 1 it will be out of beta and the price will jump, so get it now. Currently there is no such app for Nikon (but the Nikon D4 and D3200 have accessories that allow wireless remote control with live-view).


mshafik: of course, provided that I can sell my equipment and get similar ones in Nikon without a great loss. I am fascinated with Nikon's amazing shadow dynamic range, and fine grain high ISO noise. Until recently I was not really fond of their cameras, but with the D800 I find it a very good offering (especially that it's $500 cheaper than the 5D3), but I don't like the expensive lens prices. I love to try new things all the time, and switching to an all Nikon system would be a refreshing change, I am sure I can be content with any system.

Mic:  Like mshafik, the main deterrent for me would be the financial loss in the sale of my equipment and buying new ones.  However, if that is not an issue, then yes I would consider switching to Canon.  I seriously thought about doing so at the time I was looking for a full-frame camera.  Even now I am interested in Canon.  The main attractions for me are: (i) the lens selection and cost, (ii) the fact that exposure compensation doesn't affect flash exposure compensation, and (iii) the ability to control external flashes using the menus.  My biggest concern is the autofocus.  The times I used a Canon DSLR (I've tried a 50D and 7D), it didn't seem any different from Nikon, but some of my Canon friends mention it from time to time, and I have a friend who switched to Nikon because of that particular issue.


mshafik: For beginners and entry level DSLRs, I would absolutely recommend the Canon xxxD/Rebel series (don't even give a second thought to the 1100D), the main reason would be that you'd get auto focus no matter what lens you buy, while the Nikon D3100 or even the D5100 doesn't have a built-in focus motor. Canon has very good cheap lenses for beginners. For pros, I can't give a recommendation, a pro knows what he wants and would be able to get excellent pictures with any camera or lens.

Mic:  What I always tell my friends is to choose between Canon or Nikon.  I tell them that the main advantage of Canon in my opinion is the lower cost of some of their lenses (with the same quality).  Nikon's advantage may be the autofocus.  I used to say that Nikon had an advantage in terms of their flash technology but now they are about even, or Canon may even be ahead (they have radio TTL whereas Nikon doesn't).  An even more important factor for me, however, is the handling of each brand.  That's something that you will deal with constantly.  Some people are fine with either Canon or Nikon's control system.  Others have a strong preference for one or the other.  Therefore I would strongly suggest trying out both in a store to see which one you prefer.  Honestly, you really can't go wrong either way.


Nikon vs. Canon by Ken Rockwell (he uses both)
Canon and Nikon durability test by DigitalRev - Part 1 and Part 2