Canon vs Nikon: which DSLR system is best? A question that has frustrated many of the world’s greatest philosophers and may even have troubled the UN… Our in-depth comparison examines each system’s cameras, lenses, key features and much more.
Who makes the best DSLRs, Canon or Nikon? It’s the impossible question. If it wasn’t, one of these giants of the camera industry would be out of business by now.
The fact is, Canon and Nikon offer some of the best cameras, lenses, flash systems and accessories – and they have done for years.
Whichever line you choose, you’re investing in an extensive, well-supported system that caters for everyone, from beginners to experts, from wedding photographers to wildlife pros.
Has that stopped forums descending into flame wars over whether Canon or Nikon is best? Has it nuts.
In fact, it’s quite common to find photographers swapping systems, moving from Canon to Nikon or from Nikon to Canon.
This is largely dependant on which manufacturer has just leapfrogged the other in technology, whether that’s a new lens the other lacks or a camera body that set the new benchmark in autofocus or high ISO performance.
Nikon user and Photoshop guru Scott Kelby’s switch to Canon has been widely publicised, but there have been plenty of others – British landscape pro, Adam Burton (Canon to Nikon) and wildlife photographer Andy Rouse (Canon to Nikon and back to Canon) to name but two.
Back in the real world, the majority of us can’t afford to dance between systems. We generally stay locked in for years. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look over the fence slightly enviously every now and then.
With that in mind, here’s our appraisal of how Canon and Nikon DSLR systems currently compare.
Canon vs Nikon: the key features you’ll only find on each system (for now)
Canon vs Nikon: high-megapixel sensor
The Nikon D810 is a full-frame (FX format) DSLR that offers an impressive 36.3 megapixel sensor, although this is the same resolution as offered by its predecessors, the Nikon D800 and Nikon D800E.
Canon’s highest resolution camera cost considerably more than Nikon’s high-res DSLR, but the extra cash buys you the world’s first DSLR(s) to feature 50MP sensors. The Canon 5DS and 5DS R offer a resolution of 50.6 megapixels, with the more expensive EOS 5DS R featuring a low-pass cancellation filter to boost sharpness.
Not content with 50MP – and why would they be? – Canon is developing a 120MP sensor, which it’s already demonstrated working in a DSLR.
Canon vs Nikon: vari-angle touchscreen LCD
Swivelling vari-angle LCD screens make it easier to compose shots at awkward angles and improves handling when shooting movies. Adding a touchscreen increases the convenience tenfold.
The Nikon D5000 benefited from a swivelling vari-angle monitor way back in 2009, followed by the D5100, D5200, D5300 and the D5500 in January 2015, which introduced touchscreen functionality to Nikon’s D5000-series.
Meanwhile, Canon introduced the first vari-angle screen to the EOS range in 2010’s EOS 60D, followed by the Canon EOS 600D in 2011.
However, the first DSLR to combine a vari-angle LCD and touchscreen technology was the Canon EOS 650D, released in 2012. The Canon EOS 650D’s successor, the 700D also featured a vari-angle touch-sensitive screen, followed by the 70D, the 750D and the 760D.
Canon vs Nikon: no anti-aliasing filter
The majority of digital cameras have an anti-aliasing or low-pass filter positioned in front of their imaging sensors. This filter is there to reduce the effect of moiré, the ‘shimmering’ lines or colours that are sometimes noticeable in surfaces with fine, repeating patterns – typically clothes and other material. The anti-aliasing filter reduces the effect by essentially softening the digital image.
The Nikon D800E – a special edition of the D800 released in 2012 – included a new type of filter that didn’t have anti-aliasing properties. Subsequently, the Nikon D810, D7100, D7200, D5300, D5500 and even the entry-level D3300 have had no low-pass filters.
All of these Nikon DSLRs have the potential to record sharper images than those with low-pass filters, with instances of moiré able to be fixed in Lightroom or similar editing software.
Canon has taken a while to catch up in this area, with the release of the EOS 5DS R in 2015. The Canon 5DS R uses a secondary filter that cancels out the effects of a low-pass filter, rather than removing the OLPF altogether.
Up until then, only the EOS 20Da and its successor, the EOS 60Da came close.
Canon’s ‘a-series DSLRs are designed for astrophotography, as they include a modified low-pass filter that lets more infrared light through to the sensor, allowing the red colour of nebulae to be recorded. The Nikon D810A does a similar thing, albeit with a full-frame sensor.
Canon vs Nikon: hybrid autofocus
The majority of DSLRs use two types of autofocus: fast ‘phase detection’ AF for viewfinder shooting and a more accurate but very slow ‘contrast detection’ for Live View autofocus.
The two aren’t compatible as in order to activate Live View the mirror has to be locked up out of the way – and that means that no light can be diverted to the dedicated phase detection AF sensor.
Canon addressed this problem with its hybrid autofocus system for Live View still and movie shooting. Found in all its entry-level DSLRs apart from the EOS 1200D, ‘Hybrid CMOS AF’ combines both systems – with phase detection AF embedded in the sensor to quickly put the focus in the zone before fine-tuning it with contrast detection.
Canon has progressively improved this technology, with the EOS 100D featuring Hybrid CMOS AF II and the EOS 750D/760D featuring Hybrid CMOS AF III.
The Canon 70D features a more advanced ‘Dual Pixel CMOS AF’ system. This enables 80% of the sensor area to be used for phase detection AF before reverting back to image recording when you take a picture. It’s with movie recording that this system excels, offering smooth, continuous autofocus.
Nikon’s hybrid AF system is currently restricted to its Nikon 1 series of compact system cameras, for which it boasts ‘the world’s fastest autofocus’.
Canon is the best choice, for now.
Canon vs Nikon: video
Although it wasn’t the first camera manufacturer to release a DSLR capable of shooting high definition video – Nikon scooped that honour when it announced the Nikon D90 in August 2008 – Canon was the first to market with a DSLR capable of recording 1080p Full HD video in the shape of the 5D Mark II.
The Canon 5D Mark II went on to dominate the indie filmmaking market, as well as being used to shoot footage for major Hollywood action movies such as Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers.
Nikon made inroads into the professional broadcast market following the launch of the D800. This Nikon ‘HD-SLR’ found a home on the set of everything from Dexter to horror short Broken Night to new 24-hour TV station London Live.
In the right hands, both Canon and Nikon DSLRs are capable of capturing high-quality high-def footage. Both systems offer models with Full HD recording at a range of frame rates, manual exposure controls, jacks for stereo sound recording and headphone audio monitoring.
Canon vs Nikon: handling
It’s the subtle differences in handling between Canon and Nikon camera bodies that invariably have the biggest impact in helping you decide which system is right for you.
The most obvious difference comes in the mid-range ‘enthusiast’ DSLRs and the professional cameras.
Here, Canon opts for a large Quick Control Dial on the rear of the camera, combined with a command dial near the shutter release and, in the majority of cases, a multi-controller ‘nipple’ for quickly moving the active AF point.
Nikon’s DSLRs have two command dials – one on the front of the grip and one on the back, plus a multi-selector D-pad on the rear of the camera.
Nikon’s lens mounting, focusing, zooming and exposure compensation are all carried out in the opposite direction to Canon’s and it can take time to grow accustomed to this change in handling if you decide to jump ship to the ‘rival’ camera system.
Canon and Nikon are equal.
Canon vs Nikon: the key features you’ll only find on each system (for now)
Canon vs Nikon lens choices: Canon-only lenses
Canon vs Nikon lens choices: Nikon-only lenses
Canon vs Nikon: compact system cameras
Canon vs Nikon: beginner level DSLRs
Canon vs Nikon: mid-level enthusiast DSLRs
Canon vs Nikon: high-end DSLRs
Canon vs Nikon: professional DSLRs
49 seriously good Canon DSLR tips, tricks, shortcuts and time savers
Canon metering modes: how to get perfectly exposed images with your EOS
Nikon accessories: a complete guide to your DSLR’s ports, sockets and connectors
99 common photography problems (and how to solve them)