Canon vs Nikon – Which DSLR Camera Should I Buy

Fight! Fight! Fight! Nothing draws rubberneckers and raises tensions like a public brawl, and the old Canon vs Nikon debate is one that never seems to go away. Here we let the two heavyweights of the DSLR world slug it out once and for all: firstly by taking a look at examples of their products at three different price-points, and then by considering the pros and cons from a more philosophical point of view.

Canon vs Nikon - A Technical Approach

Canon vs Nikon - Entry Level Cameras

Camera manufacturers fight hard to win you over at the entry level, as hooking you in here - even at an initial loss - is likely to pay them dividends in the long run. The thinking behind this is that once you've bought into their system of lenses and accessories, you will be in too deep to want to switch allegiances later down the line. So when the time comes for you to move up to a mid-range or semi-pro camera, you will probably stick with their brand come what may.

Canon EOS 100D/Rebel SL1

Key Specs

  • 18 MP APS-C CMOS sensor
  • 4 FPS cont. shooting
  • 9 pt AF system.
  • ISO 100 to12,800 (exp to 25,600)
  • 1080 (30, 25, 24 fps) and 720 (60, 50 fps) HD
  • 3" touch panel LCD 

Features

  • Small and light weight
  • Noise levels are reasonable at high ISO
  • Responsive, intuitive touchscreen
  • Mic jack (stereo) and full HD video

Value

Canon EOS 100D/Rebel SL1

Canon's pared-back, lightweight and bargain-priced 100D offers an affordable and convenient route into DSLR photography that may well appeal to those who might otherwise have been happy to stick with a compact camera for a little while longer. Indeed, it is currently the smallest and lightest DSLR on the market.

Although, if size and weight are top priority, you'll probably want to forego the bulky kit lens in favor of a smaller 40mm /2.8.At 18 megapixels, the 100D's CMOS AF II sensor certainly pulls it's own, however it should be noted that there are other options available at a comparable price that outdo this pixel-count (Nikon's D3300 being the most obvious example).

Color rendition is nice and punchy however, and ISO ranges from 100 to 12,800. Impressively, the 100D comes with a responsive touch-screen for easy and intuitive control.

Sadly though, the optical viewfinder's coverage is only about 95% (although this is fairly standard on entry-level DSLRs, no matter the brand).

Autofocus is fine but not likely to win any awards: on a top of the range DSLR you might expect to find over 60 autofocus points, on the 100D you get a sum total of 9. But then again you pay several thousand dollars less.

Likewise, at only 4fps, the 100D's burst shooting rate is not especially fast either.

Nikon D3300

Key Specs

  • 24.2 MP DX-format 
  • 5 FPS cont.
  • 11 AF pts - 3D tracking
  • ISO 100 to12,800 (exp to 25,600)
  • 1080 video (60, 50, 30, 25, 24 FPS) HD

Features

  • Excellent sensor
  • Small, well balanced
  • Very good HD video 1080/60p 
  • Easy to use rear command dial
  • Battery life is excellent

Value

Nikon D3300

It's got to be said that, even if the D3300 wasn't such an affordable path into the world of DSLR photography, there'd still be a lot to like about this camera.

First and foremost its 24.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. This, coupled with the fact that Nikon took the innovative step of doing away with the anti-aliasing filter (a move manufacturers previously only risked on much more expensive models, due to the increased likelihood of moiré patterning), means that the bestselling D3300 produces fantastic pin-sharp images of a quality more normally associated with cameras costing many times this price.

Naturally, there'd be no reason for pro-photographers to fork out thousands of dollars for a high-end Nikon if the D3300 did absolutely everything a top-of-the-range DSLR can do. So while there's little compromise on image quality, the sensor is of course not full-frame and the camera lacks many of the handy shortcuts and intuitive controls that make using a more expensive camera such a pleasure.

Missing too are many now standard features - such as Wi-Fi, GPS and touch-sensitive screens - that can be found on most mid-range DSLRs. Here Canon's touch-screen-sporting 100D (above) has the clear advantage.

As with the Canon, the D3300's optical viewfinder displays only 95% of the true image area.

Still, if you're just getting to grips with the technical challenges of DSLR photography, the D3300 is without doubt one of the best learning tools available right now.

Indeed, on this front, the simple, stripped-back nature of the camera is likely more of an asset than a hindrance: in practice, extra features often just mean extra distraction.

Further cementing the D3300's credentials as a great beginner's camera is the fact that Nikon have included a helpful Guide Mode, that offers the user prompts and step-by-step instructions on how to achieve various photographic effects - which can be pretty handy for anyone who accidentally leaves the manual at home.

Video recording with the D3300 is full HD 1080p up to 60 fps., and an external mic port is included.

As with Canon's 100D above, ISO is selectable from 100 up to 12,800 and the camera will produce noise-free images in low light up to and beyond 800 ISO without any problem.

While Canon's 100D could only manage 9 focus points, the D330 is only marginally more generous with 11. At 5fps, the D3300's burst-shooting rate is a good deal more convincing than the 100D's though.

What Did We Learn?

Canon's 100D offers a great solution for anyone wanting a high-performance, grab-and-shoot DSLR that will produce stunning images straight out of the camera with no need for any further action.

The Nikon D3300 is also capable of producing fantastic photos right off the bat, however Canon's offering perhaps beats it on color rendition, whereas the D3300's photos can often benefit from some additional tweaking in this department.

Furthermore, with the anti-aliasing filter removed, the D3300 carries a slight risk of moiré. Again, this can easily be fixed in post-production, however not everyone at this user-level will want to be bothered.

The upside (and it's a considerable upside in my opinion) is that, without the antialiasing filter, Nikon's camera is capable of producing sharper images. In short, if you just want something that makes pretty pictures without need for further adjustment, the Canon 100D is probably the safer bet.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for maximum image quality for the price, and are prepared to put in the hard work, I'd say that Nikon's D3300 is the clear winner here.

On the other hand, some commentators - including the ever-reliable Ken Rockwell - suggest that if you're just joining the world of DSLRs now then you're better off going with Canon, if only for the vastly superior customer support they offer.

Whichever brand you go for though, at this level you won't get Wi-Fi. However, there are a number of add-on solutions available, perhaps the most economical being the CamRanger, which will work with either Canon or Nikon DSLRs.

Canon vs Nikon - Mid-Range Cameras

Whereas entry-level cameras are often fairly basic in their functions - but are instead designed to hook new users in by offering maximum image quality for a minimum initial investment - the mid-range is all about dangling the bait of Wi-FI, GPS, touch-screens and other tantalizing extra features in the hope that we'll eventually give in to the pull of the line and upgrade.

This means that, whether you opt for either Nikon or Canon in the mid-range, you probably wont see a huge increase in image resolution in return for you extra investment.

But then again, you'll likely be too busy happily playing with all the shiny new functions on your camera to worry too much about minor details such as image quality anyway.Having said this, the offerings from Canon and Nikon we look at here certainly aren't shoddy on the image front.

However, it's worth baring in mind that any improvement in quality that they may offer over cheaper models is at a rate far lower than the increase in asking price. I.e. paying twice as much money does not get you twice the resolution.

Canon EOS 750D/Rebel T6i

Key Specs

  • Quality 24MP CMOS Censor
  • 19 pt AF system. Excellent autofocus
  • ISO 100 to12,800 (exp to 25,600)
  • EOS full HD Movie mode 
  • 5 FPS cont Shooting

Features

  • Solid censor matches it's peers.
  • Wifi with NFC for easy photo sharing
  • Rotating touchscreen, important for video.
  • Good low light performance.

Value

Canon EOS 750D/Rebel T6i

Canon's EOS 750D sports a top quality 24.2 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and is capable of producing noise-free photos even in relatively low lighting conditions with an ISO range from 100 through to 12,800 (expandable to 25,600).

Not only is image quality excellent, but, as one might expect from a camera in this price bracket, the 750D comes Wi-Fi-enabled for remote-shooting and direct uploading. Also, like the 100D above, the 750D features a fold-out, 3-inch touch-sensitive screen - allowing for easy focusing (and even shooting) at the touch of a finger.

On top of which, the 750D offers 19-focus points, so is likely to be a good deal snappier than its younger siblings.

Furthermore, Canon have also upped the burst shooting rate to 5 fps here, which goes some small way towards justifying the extra investment when compared with the 100D.

On the downside, this is quite a bulky camera, at least when compared to other DSLRs within the same category. And although the 750D captures full HD 1080p., with a maximum frame rate of 30 fps. this particular model is not the ideal choice for anyone wanting to shoot top-quality slow-motion video sequences.

Nikon D5500

Key Specs

  • 24 MP DX Format  CMOS sensor
  • 5 FPS cont. shooting
  • 39 pt AF system.
  • ISO 100 to 25,600
  • 1080/60p HD Video

Features

  • Excellent image quality
  • Wi-fi
  • Fully articulated touchscreen
  • Strong battery life
  • Low pass filter removed

Value

Nikon D5500


If Nikon's D3300 (above) was a little miserly with its features, its older sibling, the D5500, is keen to make amends.

Once again Nikon tempt us with an impressive 24 megapixel CMOS sensor - sans antialiasing filter - that produces consistently excellent quality images. However this time they've also thrown in a fully-articulating touch-screen (Nikon's first) and on-board Wi-Fi to match Canon's offering.

ISO goes from 100 up to 25,600 and the camera offers several different white balance modes, most of which can be fine-tuned manually.

As with all other models we've seen so far, the D5500's optical viewfinder only displays 95% of the actual image area.

The D5500 beats Canon's 750D when it comes to video, as not only can it capture full HD 1080 at up to 60 fps., but with their update from the D5300 Nikon have also added a Flat Picture Profile that allows videographers to retain greater information in highlight and shadow areas.

Oddly though, in upgrading from the D5300 to the D5500, Nikon removed GPS from this line. As it turns out though, this may not be such a bad thing in the end, as it has considerably improved battery-life.

Although generally a great all-round camera, the D5500's single major fault is its terrible Live-View focusing.

What Did We Learn?

As we move up the price-scale, there appears to be less and less to help us differentiate between one brand and the other.

Whereas stiff-competition at entry-level keeps both Canon and Nikon primarily focused on image quality as a selling point - with optional extras varying somewhat between each brand - by the time we get up to the mid-range, consumers are expecting to receive the full works.

And for the most part both brands deliver, leaving us with little clear way of deciding between the two manufacturers.Having said this though, if we really need to choose an outright victor, then Nikon's D5500 might just pip Canon to the post for its superior video capabilities.

But I'd be the first to admit that we're somewhat clutching at straws here, especially as the D5500's LV focusing is so poor.

Canon vs Nikon - Upper Range Cameras

So, the final showdown.

Canon and Nikon bring out their heavyweights for one last bout, and as they enter the ring the spotlight falls on image quality once again.

Of course, at the top-of-the-line you can expect to see many of the same shiny trinkets that are offered on mid-range models, but as we move into the pro and pro-sumer camp, talk tends to be less about showiness and more about a camera's ability to swiftly deliver knock-out imagery and to endure the frequent and heavy blows inflicted by a grueling physical regime of daily use.

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Key Specs

  • 20 MP CMOS sensor
  • 10 FPS cont. shooting
  • 65 pt AF system.
  • ISO 100 to16,000
  • Full HD video with Custom Movie Servo AF
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF

Features

  • Solid Build
  • Fast autofocus
  • Face detection
  • Very Good image quality
  • Smooth focus for video

Value

Canon EOS 7D Mark II

Constructed from magnesium alloy, the 7D mark II is a camera built to take the frequent knocks of pro-sports and action photography and will not let you down on the job.

And if speed is of the essence, then the 7D is likely to be your best option at this price level, as focusing is quicker than anything else around (the 65 focus points no doubt help), and this is the case even in extremely low lighting conditions or when focusing in Live-View mode.

If that wasn't enough, the camera's burst-rate is a staggering 10 fps - which gives but a glimpse of just how much processing power this beast is packing.

As you might have hoped at this price-level, the optical viewfinder shows 100% of the image area.

OK, so this is top-of-the-range, consequently it's going to have the highest megapixel-count of any of the cameras we've looked at here so far, right?

Wrong.

In fact the 7D's sensor is only 20 megapixels.

This doesn't mean it produces inferior quality images to cheaper cameras with higher pixel-rates (image quality is influenced by a lot more than just pixels) but it does mean that the 7D Mark II is not necessarily the DSLR of choice for photographers looking to produce enormous art prints.

You may also be surprised to learn that the 7D Mark II does not have Wi-Fi (although it is equipped with GPS).This camera is about speed and performance, if you're looking for a Canon DSLR that wipes the floor for image quality, then you'll need to check out the 5DS or 5DSR: currently the world's highest resolution DSLRs.

Nikon D810

Key Specs

  • 36 MP FX CMOS sensor
  • 5 FPS cont. shooting
  • 51 pt AF system.
  • ISO 64 to12,800 (exp. to 51,200)
  • 1080 HD Pro video and audio

Features

  • New RAW small size option
  • No Low Pass Filter (sharp images)
  • Face detection
  • Large buffer fast response times

Value

Nikon D810

Not only is the D810 fast, smooth, silent and versatile, but it also boasts an amazing 36-megapixel sensor (i.e. resolution is almost double that of Canon's 7D Mark II).

There's no anti-aliasing filter either, so the level of detail contained in the files this thing produces is astounding. Indeed, it's pretty much the perfect camera for photojournalists dabbling in a little art photography - as it's fast on its feet, but images will stand up to serious enlargement.

The D810's exceptionally wide ISO range will also be of benefit on this front, as it is selectable from ISO 32 through to 12,800 (expandable to 51,200).

With 51 AF-points, autofocus performance has been vastly improved over previous Nikon models (perhaps even over Canon's) and there is none of the sluggish, jerky to-ing and fro-ing that is so often encountered with cheaper DSLRs when called upon to find focus in low lighting conditions.

Likewise, the D810 produces smooth noise-free photos even at high ISOs in gloomy situations.

As with the 7D Mark II, the D810's optical viewfinder provides a true, 100% view of the image area.

When it comes to sports and action photography though, the D810 poses little threat to the 7D mark II, as it offers the same pedestrian burst rate as an entry-level Nikon: a mere 5 fps.

There's no GPS or Wi-Fi either.

What Did We Learn?

At 36 megapixels, the D810 is currently Nikon's highest resolution DSLR.

However, it is important to note that it is not the world's highest:

this position goes to Canon's 5DS and 5DSR (one with, and one without, anti-aliasing filter).

In some respects, then, matching the D810 with Canon's 7D Mark II is an apples and oranges comparison.

For starters, there's an enormous price difference between the two cameras. Secondly, the D810 is full frame, whereas the 7D is not.

Would it have been a fairer fight if we'd have paired the Nikon D810 up with Canon's 5DS?

Sure, perhaps it would have been. And as the 5DS produces images that weigh in at a staggering 50 megapixels - compared with the D810's 36 megapixels - it's pretty clear which side would have emerged victorious from that particular skirmish.

But then we'd only have looked at top-end cameras geared towards maximum image resolution and therefore most suited to producing fine-art photographs.

Meanwhile we would have learned nothing about the incredible capacity for capturing action photography to be found in other top-end models such as the 7D Mark II.

And this is really the crux of the matter: every photographer's needs are different.

Consequently there will never be a "best camera" or "best brand", only ever a "best camera for me, for this particular use, at this particular time".

And, as Jared Polin points out in this youtube comparison of the two brands, it may not even come down to the camera itself, so much as the availability of the lenses you need to do your thing.

Canon vs Nikon - A Philosophical Approach

The Best You Can Afford

Nikon have dominated the entry-level arena for some time now, largely due to the fact that they consistently offer cameras with a high pixel-count at a relatively low price.

So, lets say that you're just starting out in DSLR photography and you know you need to get access to the best image quality you can afford.

A 24 megapixel camera like the Nikon D3300 is extremely appealing, as it offers the very same level of image quality offered by cameras costing thousands, but for a much more accessible price.

So you follow that well-known bit of advice that you should always buy the best optics that you can afford, you grab yourself a D3300 body, and you're good to go...

There's certainly nothing wrong with this decision - in fact, I believe it's probably the wisest choice anyone starting out in DSLR photography could make right now.

However, the trade-off is that with the D3300 you only get the simplest of camera features and the interface and controls have been stripped back to the bare minimum - making it a bit of a chore to get deep into tweaking and personalizing your camera's set-up once you've got to grips with the basics.

Brand Loyalty...

Over time, as you become more accustomed to using the camera, and come to have a much clearer idea of your own particular needs and shooting style, you might begin to yearn for some of those missing features.

However, the day you decide that you absolutely must have, say, integrated Wi-Fi and GPS on your camera, Nikon can be pretty confident you're not going to ditch that nice expensive lens you bought and jump ship to Canon, but instead they're counting on you trading in your D3300 in order to move up the range to one of their own more expensive models, such as the D5500 or D810.

It's a reasonable assumption to make.

And judging by the numerous partisan - if not downright fanatical - debates over the merits of Canon and Nikon that can be found online, it would seem that many people do indeed make a decision to go with one brand over the other and then stick with it at all costs.

But is this really the right way to go?

...vs Pragmatism

Sure, you'd inevitably lose some money if you were to switch over to 'the other side' once already committed to one brand or the other, as you'd have to sell not only your camera body, but also the lens.

And perhaps, if you were sticking with the same brand, you wouldn't even have sold the body anyway, but instead have kept it as a back-up?

But as you become more serious about your photography, you may find that these considerations become less and less important and that what really matters is just having the right tools to get the job done.

So, if at some point in the future you find yourself stuck with a camera that is holding you back in some way, then the loss of a few hundred dollars may seem a small price to pay in order to remedy that situation.

At which point, irrational brand loyalty makes very little sense.

None of this is intended to suggest that you should just buy the first camera you come across without considering possible future expansions and upgrades.

And, by carefully planning-ahead and researching now, you can certainly go some way towards avoiding making wasteful and unnecessary purchases.

However, not only will your needs likely change in the future, but so too will the available technologies - and neither of these two eventualities can very easily be planned for in advance with any real success.

For example, perhaps over time you will develop new photographic interests and become frustrated with your Nikon outfit because it does not allow you to do what you want to do.

What if Canon were to then come out with precisely the tool you need?

Would it really make sense for you to wait another year or whatever it takes for Nikon to release a similar product?

If for you photography is just an occasional pastime and you're looking to get into photography as a hobby, then the answer is likely 'yes, absolutely, I' can wait'.

If, on the other hand, photography has become a real passion, one that occupies most of your free time, then don't even think twice.

There's little to be gained from either brand-sentimentality or penny-pinching.

That's one way of looking at it at least.

Does Any Of This Actually Matter?

Another would be to stick by the old adage that it's the photographer, not the camera, that makes the picture, and therefore to just go for whichever particular camera (and therefore whichever of the two brands) most meets your requirements at that moment, and then stick with that brand whatever.

No matter the limitations that may arise - because in the long run it really doesn't make all that much difference either way (or at least not until you get to the top of the range, where resolution can start to jump astronomically, as we've seen).

Indeed, probably the only thing you can be absolutely sure of in this debate is that by opting for either Canon or Nikon you're buying into an excellent system that will allow you to produce top quality images.

At the end of the day, whichever of these two you choose to go with, the quality of your photos will be dictated by your own hard-work, talent and skills, not by the logo that's stamped on the front of your camera.

A Friend In Need

Finally, one other issue we haven't touched upon so far, is to consider the compatibility of your equipment with the other photographic resources you have around you.

For example, if three of your close friends or family members all own Canon systems, you might want to think twice before opting for Nikon.

Need some advice getting your new Nikon up and running out of the box?

Don't ask your Canon-shooter friends.

Want to try out a new idea but will need to borrow the appropriate type of lens in order for it to work?

Don't ask your Canon-shooter friends.

It should go without saying, but having a support-network of same-system users that you can call upon for help can make a huge difference - no matter what stage of photographic development you're at.

CONCLUSIONS

To end then, it's worth repeating that both Canon and Nikon make excellent photographic equipment and at consumer level there's not actually much difference in quality between one and the other: if your photos suck you should probably be looking to correct problems closer to home rather than laying the blame at the door of either of these high quality brands.

Deciding on which of the two to go with is such a difficult decision to make precisely because the differences between them are in fact so minimal in the long run.

Where you very definitely will notice a difference in quality, however, is between the different levels of cameras (Entry, Mid, and Top) that both of these manufacturers provide.

What this means is that that you will need to base your decision largely upon factors other than those directly concerning the brand itself.

The most important questions to ask yourself, then, are firstly what your exact expertise level and technical needs are; how much money do you have to spend; and lastly, if you personally know any other photography enthusiasts, what equipment do they use?

As a final note, I feel like it might be beneficial to recount my own experiences.

Some years ago I started out by investing in a modest Nikon system.

Although I had no complaints about the Nikon whatsoever, soon after buying it I met a few Canon-shooters and discovered that they had comparably specced Canon cameras that (at that time) cost almost half of what I'd paid for my Nikon.

I promptly sold the Nikon, bought two Canon bodies, and never had any regrets.

Since then I've largely quit using either Nikon or Canon at all, in favor of medium format cameras.

On the rare occasions that I need to shoot on a 35mm system today, I either rent it or borrow one from someone I know.

It makes absolutely no difference to me whatsoever whether it's a Canon or a Nikon.

Have any of you had similar experiences with switching from one brand to the other?

What were your reasons for doing so?

Are you happy with your decision?

I'd be interested to learn about your experiences.

by John Bennett

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