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Canon vs Nikon: who makes the best cameras in 2021? Two big makers fight it out

Canon vs Nikon
(Image credit: Canon, Nikon)

The Canon vs Nikon duel has been going on for decades. These two companies have produced cameras for professionals, beginners and everyone in between, moving from film SLRs to digital SLRs, and then to mirrorless. So who is better? Canon or Nikon?

The camera industry is going through rapid change, both in camera technology and the way people take pictures. The DSLR versus mirrorless camera debate still rages, though most would now agree the DSLR design faces a steady decline and mirrorless is the technology of the future. 

DSLRs aren't done yet, though. In 2020 Canon introduced its EOS-1D X Mark III pro sports camera which is a real glimpse of the future, while Nikon unveiled its impressive, mirrorless-influenced D780, as well as its own pro sports camera, the Nikon D6. In terms of mirrorless, Canon grabbed many headlines (and not all positive) with the EOS R5 and its sibling the EOS R6, while Nikon rounded out its entry-level full-frame offering with the Z5 and has since gone on to launch refreshed Nikon Z6 II and Nikon Z7 II models.

Canon is winning the full frame market for DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, but is it paying enough attention to beginners?

To make it easier to sort through all the cameras on offer, we've split up this guide into simple, easy-to-understand categories. Whatever kind of photographer you are, you’ll find a comparison below which will help you understand how Canon and Nikon compare for the kind of camera you’re looking for, and which specific models you should pick in each category.

Nikon faces a tough fight in the full frame arena, but its APS-C cameras still look strong.

We’ve split our guide into the following sections: APS-C DSLRs, APS-C mirrorless cameras, full frame DSLRs and full frame mirrorless. You can use the buttons at the top of this page to go straight to the section you’re interested in, or just scroll down to browse. We’ve also put in sub-headings for different camera types and price points to help clarify the choices and make your final decision simpler. At least, we hope so!

Canon vs Nikon: who makes the best cameras in 2021?

APS-C DSLRs

Cheap as heck DSLRs

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon has no competition here. In the Canon EOS Rebel T100 (sold in Europe as the EOS 4000D), it makes the world’s cheapest DSLR – a camera so cheap it only uses one paint color, has an 18MP sensor we thought we’d seen the last of, and usually comes with a very poor non-stabilized Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 III kit lens. This is the cheapest DSLR kit you can get but we think the compromises aren’t worth the saving – you should just spend a bit more and get the far superior Nikon D3500 (below) with its 18-55mm AF-P VR kit lens. Indeed, the Rebel T100 is becoming quite hard to find now, and we suspect it's being quietly retired.

Good starter DSLRs

(Image credit: Nikon)

This is what we consider the baseline for a decent DSLR worth buying, and it’s an interesting choice between the Canon EOS Rebel T7/2000D and Nikon D3500. The Nikon is typically cheaper and, we think, the better camera. We don’t much like the way Canon has chosen to remove the Dual Pixel CMOS AF (is that a strategic or a price decision?) and it’s often sold with the rather poor EF-S 18-55mm DC III kit lens, so be prepared to shop around and pay a little more to get the better EF-S 18-55mm IS II lens. Likewise with the D3500 – definitely pay a little more to make sure you get the VR version of the Nikon AF-P 18-55mm kit lens. We're not sure how long the D3500 will carry on – we hear conflicting stories about its retirement and continued availability, so it might be one of those cameras to buy while you still can!

DSLRs for advanced beginners

(Image credit: Canon)

If you want an easy to use camera that’s a little more advanced, Canon has this area pretty much sewn up with three different models to choose from. Our favorite is the EOS Rebel SL3/250D, which is small, responsive and shoots 4K video. The older Rebel T7i/EOS 800D costs more, doesn’t shoot 4K and hardly seems worth the extra, and its replacement, the EOS 850D looks expensive and only a modest improvement. The EOS 77D is designed with more advanced users in mind, but we think you’re better off stepping straight up to the Canon EOS 90D if you’ve reached that stage. The Nikon D5600 is cheaper than all of them and does have a fully articulating rear screen, but it lacks 4K video and only has sluggish contrast AF in Live View – but it’s definitely a good buy if neither of those things matter to you and it matches the Canons for image quality and lens choice.

DSLRs for enthusiasts and experts

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon and Nikon take very different approaches in this sector of the market. The new Canon EOS 90D is like the Leonardo da Vinci of cameras – there’s almost nothing it can’t do. It has the highest resolution APS-C sensor yet, shoots 4K video, has a continuous shooting speed of 10fps and has a fully articulating rear screen and fast Dual Pixel CMOS AF for Live View and video. 

Nikon has two enthusiast/expert cameras, and while neither can match the EOS 90D’s all-round abilities, they have strengths of their own. The Nikon D7500 is sturdy, powerful and affordable, and even when bundled with Nikon’s longer-range 18-140mm kit lens, it’s a lot cheaper. The Nikon D500 has only 20 megapixels to the Canon’s 32.5MP, but it does shoot 4K video and also shoots at 10fps. It’s actually a very different sort of camera, though, designed with professional levels of robustness, Nikon’s best-ever 153-point AF system and a 200-shot continuous shooting buffer capacity that the EOS 90D can’t even approach.

APS-C mirrorless

Easy APS-C mirrorless cameras

(Image credit: Canon)

This used to be an easy open goal for Canon, as Nikon had nothing in this area of the market at all... until the Nikon Z50. The Canon EOS M200 is the cheapest option, but we find it quite simplistic and tiresome to use, so we’d recommend the older EOS M50 instead. This combines cute mini-DSLR styling (it has a viewfinder where the EOS M200 doesn’t) with 4K video capability and a fully articulating rear screen. In reality, though, the Nikon Z50 (below) makes the EOS M50 look pretty sick (in a bad way) and the EOS M200 positively primitive – though the Nikon is more expensive.

Advanced APS-C mirrorless

(Image credit: Nikon)

The balance swings Nikon’s way for more advanced APS-C mirrorless cameras. The new Canon EOS M6 Mark II seems to be pitched heavily at videographers and vloggers and doesn’t even have a viewfinder – though it’s often bundled with an optional EVF at a good overall price. The new Nikon Z50, however, has a viewfinder built in, also shoots 4K video, comes with a space-saving retracting 16-50mm kit lens, has more traditional ‘camera’ styling and it’s cheaper. The Z50 does have a drawback. Even now, there are only two native DX format Nikkor Z lenses for this camera. You can use full frame Nikkor Z lenses, but these are larger and more expensive, and you can fit Nikon DSLR lenses via an optional Nikon FTZ adaptor. Both solutions are OK, but we still want to see a bigger choice of 'native' lenses for the Z50. 

Full frame DSLR

Entry level full frame DSLR

Canon vs Nikon: Canon EOS 6D Mark II

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon held the lead in the entry-level full frame DSLR market for quite some time thanks to the EOS 6D Mark II, an exceptionally versatile camera. Nikon, however, has finally replaced its capable but ageing  D750, which was launched back in 2014, with the new Nikon D780.

The D780 is an exceptional machine that proves there's life in the DSLR yet. It easily outguns the EOS 6D Mark II with uncropped 4K video and much faster continuous shooting speeds. Dual UHS-II card slots and exceptionally good live view autofocus make the D780 a camera that suits even real power users, so as long as you're prepared to spend the extra cash, we think the balance of power in the entry-level full frame DSLR category has shifted slightly Nikon's way, but prices have stayed high, and this is an expensive camera compared to the EOS 6D II.

Pro full frame DSLR

(Image credit: Canon)

Professional users are extremely important to both Canon and Nikon, and both companies have taken a similar line with their high-speed sports cameras. However, at the top of the range one model emerges the clear winner, and that is the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. This hugely impressive DSLR is packed with futuristic tech photographers once might have dreamed of, like deep-learning AF that gets better as you use it, and a Smart Controller that replaces the traditional joystick. It also finds room for uncropped 4K, something Canon has dragged its feet on, and with CFexpress support also included, it really feels like the camera of the future. The Nikon D6, meanwhile, is a perfectly fine professional camera, and it makes sense to upgrade if you're already invested in the system, but it's disappointingly unambitious and nowhere near the same class as its rival.

Canon and Nikon also make everyday workhorse pro cameras, and these are very different. On paper, the Nikon D850 just blows the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV away. It has 45.7MP to the Canon’s 30.4MP, it matches its frame rate and beats it with the optional Nikon battery grip, it shoots full width 4K video compared to the Canon’s cropped 4K mode AND the Nikon is typically cheaper. It's basically the reverse of the situation with the 1DX III and the D6 – if you’ve already invested in the Canon system, the EOS 5D Mark IV will do a fine job, but if you’re comparing these two cameras directly, the D850 wins by a mile.

Full frame mirrorless

Entry level full frame mirrorless

(Image credit: Canon)

You don’t need us to tell you that full frame mirrorless cameras are the hottest topic in photography right now, and Canon and Nikon offer intriguingly different entry-level cameras. The Canon EOS RP is designed to be simple, compact and affordable and we especially like its fully vari-angle rear screen.

Nikon, meanwhile, originally had just the Nikon Z6 – a rugged, powerful camera for more advanced users, experts and pros. It has in-body stabilization (the Canon doesn’t), full width oversampled 6K-to-4K video, continuous shooting up to 12fps and more. The firm has recently updated this with the Nikon Z5, however we have some reservations about this release, which combines relatively modest technological advancements with a rather aggressive asking price. 

Nikon has also updated its existing full frame mirrorless cameras. The Nikon Z6 II and Nikon Z7 II benefit from dual card slots, beefier processors and faster frame rates, but are otherwise very similar to the original models.

If you want an easy and cheap introduction to full frame mirrorless, get the Canon. If you want more features and a more solid feel, the Nikon Z5 just edges it.

Pro full frame mirrorless

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon entered the full-frame mirrorless market with the interesting but slightly odd Canon EOS R, and Nikon sailed past it with the 45.7MP Nikon Z7, which boasted a higher burst rate, full width uncropped 4K video, in-body image stabilization and rugged build quality.

HOWEVER! Canon sailed back into action with the much-discussed EOS R5 in 2020, a pro-grade full-frame mirrorless camera that generated almost as much online discussion as it did excess heat when shooting more than 20 minutes of video. We joke. But seriously, the Canon EOS R5 is probably the most impressive stills-shooting machine the firm has ever made, with superb image quality and the best autofocus on the market right now (borrowed from the EOS-1D X Mark III and fine-tuned). However, as a video machine, its recording limitations hold it back, even with firmware patches coming along to fix matters. For those looking for something a little more slimmed-down, the firm also released the EOS R6, which offers many of the same features but fewer pixels in both stills and video.

Here, you would have to say that the Nikon contenders –  the Z6 II and Z7 II are solid, good value performers, but that the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6 have nailed this market with their cutting edge video and autofocus technologies... but at a price.

Canon vs Nikon

(Image credit: Canon, Nikon)

Canon vs Nikon: the conclusion

Canon largely dominates the APS-C DSLR and mirrorless market for beginners and hobbyists, if only because of its sheer number of cameras and the fact these keep on coming – though often with last year's tech at knock-down prices. Nikon’s DSLR range is competent but hasn’t seen much development. Both make among the best DSLRs you can get because (apart from Pentax) nobody else makes them.

The Nikon D3500 stills stands out as the best cheap DSLR, however, and current prices make the D5600 attractive against superior but more expensive Canon alternatives. But while the D7500 is a solid value proposition and the D500 is a blisteringly fast pro sports camera, both have only 20 megapixels compared to the headline-grabbing 32.5MP EOS 90D.

If you want a mirrorless camera rather than a DSLR, Canon has this won at the lower end of the market, but for more advanced users the new Nikon Z50 could prove both cheaper and better than its closest Canon rival, the EOS M6 Mark II, provided Nikon starts rolling out more DX format lenses for it. 

Both Canon and Nikon have a tougher time of it in the mirrorless market, however, because many of the best mirrorless cameras come from Fujifilm, Sony and Panasonic.

Canon and Nikon still dominate the best cameras for professionals, but most enthusiasts and pros will go for cameras slightly lower down the range. With entry-level full frame DSLRs, Canon once had the edge for newness (EOS 6D Mark II) but Nikon has changed all that with the Nikon D780. In the pro DSLR market, the mighty 45.7MP Nikon D850 trounces the much weaker EOS 5D Mark IV, while the EOS-1D X Mark III stomps all over the Nikon D6.

It’s a similar story with full frame mirrorless cameras. The EOS RP was always intended to be cheap and simple, but it’s having to compete on price against the more powerful Nikon Z 6 and the newer Z 5. The EOS R5, however, dominates the Nikon Z 7, even with its much-publicised video issues taken into account.

We don’t have any bias towards one brand or another, but we think Nikon needs to get its eye back on the general consumer market, but the Z50 and the D780 have brought it right back into contention in other areas. And while Canon has created a technological tour de force with the EOS-1D X Mark III, it should actually be worrying about how its pro workhorse the EOS 5D Mark IV stacks up in today's world. 

Read more:

• These are the best Canon cameras today
• We pick the best Nikon cameras to buy
• The best mirrorless cameras right now
• These are the best cameras for professionals