Oh God...not another debate of Canon vs. Nikon and Nikon vs. Canon. Does't the internet have enough of this drivel? Yes, yes it does. But the internet forums and Flickr comments are unyielding on this topic and I still get a lot of questions from students about which one is better. It seems it's up to me, Ken Rockwell, and just a few other no-BS bloggers to fight off the hoards of Canon and Nikon fanboys.
If you're a regular reader here, you know that I don't buy in to marketing hype and I often disagree with the masses out there on the interwebs when it comes to topics like how many megapixels you really need and whether or not you should get a full-frame camera. So I'm hoping you'll trust my words here in the Canon vs. Nikon debate.
So then, which is it? Nikon or Canon?
My short answer is this: it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. Neither is better, neither is worse. You'd be happy with either of them. I've used almost every model on the market from both manufacturers, I've taught students on just about every model available, I am very, very familiar with the differences between each, and I'm telling you that it's 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. It's Toyota or Honda, Coke or Pepsi, Duracell or Energizer. It's whatever you prefer.
I've even heard stupid things like "If you're into landscapes, you go with Nikon, but if you're into sports and wildlife, you go with Canon." Where that nonsense came from, I have no idea. Neither system is better for one type of photography or another. Certain camera models might be better for certain types of photography than others, but even then it's not often a big deal.
What do pros use more? Probably Canon. More people use Canon - amateurs, pros, whatever. Not because Canon is better but because they have a bigger market share. They have for 10 years running. Simple as that. Maybe it's better cameras, or maybe it's marketing, the color scheme, cunning executives...I don't know.
My biggest idol in photography, Galen Rowell, was a Nikon man. But I shoot Canon, Mamiya, Shen-Hao, Nikon, even Polaroid. So it doesn't even matter what your idolized pro of choice uses. Many of the most iconic and respectable photographers out there don't even make a big deal out of the equipment they use unless they are sponsored by that manufacturer. I use Canon DSLRs, but if Nikon came knocking with a big paycheck and a box full of cameras, I'd be an instant convert.
But really, you should be very suspicious of anyone who is a huge fan of either. There's nothing wrong with loving your equipment, but no one should really have any major loyalty to either brand unless they are getting compensated for that loyalty. Wearing a wristband that resembles a coveted Canon lens or sporting a shirt that proudly states "I shoot Nikon"...might as well wear a shirt that says "I'm new to photography and I'm really just into it for the equipment."
All that being said, I tend to recommend Canon over Nikon when students are shopping for their very first camera. But if they already have their eye on a Nikon or they already have some Nikon gear, I tell them to go with Nikon. But either way, let me break down my viewpoint on this matter into more specific categories:
It's quite simple, neither has a leg up in image quality. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. I admit that some of Canon's cameras may have better image quality than some of Nikon's cameras and vica versa, but on the whole, neither manufacturer is consistently better in the image quality department than the other. And besides, this is hugely subjective. You may favor a camera with richer blues and greens whereas I may favor one with stronger yellows and reds. Canon and Nikon both create excellent image quality. Even the worst, bottom-of-the-line, entry-level camera from either manufacturer will kick the you-know-what out of the top of the line cameras from 5 years ago.
Trust me, you don't need as many megapixels as you think. 18 megapixels is way more than enough for prints probably 6 feet long. Anything more than that, like Nikon's ridiculous 36-megapixel D800, will cause more trouble than it's worth. Both manufacturers should knock it off with the megapixel battles. They're forcing us all to get faster computers, bigger hard drives, and more memory cards all for what? So we can share our pictures on Flickr and Facebook, maybe print a 16x24 now and then? You could use an 8-megapixel camera for that. Click here to read an article I wrote about how many megapixels you really need.
Controls and User-Friendliness:
This is the one and only category where I feel Canon edges out Nikon. Canon cameras are more user-friendly in almost all respects and their control layout is more logical. Ah...You feel that? That's the feeling of Nikon fanboys trembling with dissent to that statement. But I stand by it. I don't say this is a personal preference kind of thing. I don't mean that I prefer Canon's control layout, I'm saying that Canon cameras are more intuitive and I can prove it. Read this article for my proof. I've taught hundreds and hundreds of students on both Canon and Nikon through group classes, one-on-one lessons, and online photography courses. It's based off this experience that I say many of Canon's controls are easier to learn, they are more intuitive, they require less explanation, and they leave less opportunity for confusion. Of course, not all of the controls are better on a Canon - Nikon does have a leg up on some things like the white balance control and flash options, but Canon cameras are just a bit more user-friendly. But whatever the case, you can get used to whatever control system you want. Once you do, the other camera's controls will seem ridiculous and backwards.
Some Nikons feel really nice and solid, built like a tank. Some Canons do, too. Those are their higher-end, more expensive weather-sealed cameras. They also each produce some cameras and lenses that feel like they'd break if you sneezed in their general direction. Bottom line is you gotta feel it in your hands to know which one you want. And remember that better build quality usually equates to more weight and cost. Also, I know it seems like you're really punishing your camera with the conditions you shoot in, but you're not. Even the cheapest DSLR can withstand very rough weather and even rougher handling. The high-end built-like-a-tank models are designed to withstand the tortures of real-life combat, 100% humidity, driving rain, mud, rocks, and whatever else a National Geographic photographer can throw at it. The rest of us don't need such protection.
Again, both manufacturers make some cameras that feel like they were built for your hands. They also each make some cameras that feel like you need a second thumb just to hold it right. Find the camera that fits your hands best, regardless of manufacturer.
Both companies have huge R&D departments for new lenses, both offer top-of-the-line optics, and both are on the cutting edge of lens design. Each manufacturer has equivalent lens options, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a lens by either manufacturer that doesn't have a suitable counterpart in the other. I will point out, though, that Nikon cameras are often compatible with Nikon lenses from as far back as the 1970's, which is kind of cool. But let's be realistic...with how insane everybody is today about getting the best quality lens, how many shooters are really going to opt for an old manual-focus lens from an era of lower-quality glass?
Don't get caught up in the Canon vs. Nikon debate. It's all a bunch of hot air. Great photos come from great photographers, not great cameras. Some of the most iconic photos in our history came from equipment that makes a camera phone look like professional gear. What matters is technique, composition, knowing how to use your equipment, and an ability to capture the right moment under the right light. Camera gear are just tools. Nothing more.
(NOTE: I originally posted this article on my blog back in September 2011. I'm posting it again now because the misconceptions about full-frame cameras continue to rage on, and I've received a lot of positive emails from readers saying this blog post helped them immensely in choosing the right camera for them. Enjoy!)
I've had many students approach me and say something along these lines: "I'm trying to decide whether or not to upgrade to a full-frame camera" or "once I upgrade to a full-frame camera..." or anything like this that seems to hint at a full-frame camera somehow being better than a standard digital format (APS-C) sensor. So the real question is, do you need a full frame camera?
The answer is simple: No. No you don't.
"But what if I want to-"
No. Still no.
Regardless of what kind of photography you are doing, you don't need to upgrade to a full-frame camera. In fact, even using the word "upgrade" when you talk about full-frame is not quite accurate. "Upgrade" implies that a full-frame camera would naturally be better than an APS-C camera. Well they are more expensive after all...
^ A full-frame sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of 35mm film:
24mm tall by 36mm wide.
^ An APS-C or "digital crop" sensor has the same
dimensions as a piece of the short-lived APS-C:
size film: 16.7mm tall by 25.1mm wide.
^ Overlay the APS-C on top of the full-frame sensor
and you can see how much a digital crop sensor
will crop the image. But does that mean
it's inferior to a full-frame?
The thing is, though, that a full-frame camera is not necessarily any better than a digital format camera. Take the Canon EOS 7D and EOS 5D Mark II cameras for example - two cameras that were on the market at the same time. The 5D is a full-frame camera and cost about $2500 when it was new. The 7D, on the other hand, has a digital crop sensor and cost about $1700 new. In my opinion, the 7D is a far better camera than the 5D Mark II for several reasons.
First, the 5D's auto focus system pales in comparison to the 7D's. The 7D also has an electronic viewfinder that can pull up a grid on demand. The 7D has an electronic level, a much faster frame rate and a more advanced metering system. The list goes on. And that's not even addressing the $5000 Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. That camera isn't full frame, but it has many advantages over the 5D including one of the fastest frame rates of any camera, a longer-lasting shutter, weather sealing, a better AF system and dual memory card slots. Again, the list goes on.
So a full frame camera is not an "upgrade" necessarily.
But then what's all this talk about getting a full-frame camera? Well, first things first: look at who makes a big deal about getting a full-frame camera. That mentality usually comes from beginner photographers, gear reviewers, and internet forums. (Which, by the way, you might want to stay out of internet photography forums. They are absolutely saturated with false information. In fact, read this blog post titled "5 Quick Bits of Advice for Beginning Photographers.")
So don't listen to what beginners have to say about camera recommendations. That's the blind leading the blind. Any professional worth his salt will tell you that it really doesn't matter that much what camera you have. And not coincidentally, the first question out of a real pro's mouth will never be "what camera do you use?" Why? Because pros don't care and pros know it ain't the camera. It'd be like asking a painter what brushes he uses.
As a professional with tons of experience, let me tell you why I use a full-frame camera and why they get a reputation of being better.
I use a full frame camera for 2 reasons that actually really boil down to just one: I used to shoot film. I shot film for about 5-6 years before switching completely to digital. In that 5 or 6 years, I got used to certain focal lengths looking a certain way. In other words, 16mm looked a certain way to me because I was used to the "full-frame" film view of it. Had I put that 16mm on a digital crop sensor (which I could have), suddenly 16mm on my lens wouldn't match up with 16mm in my mind. It would have been more "zoomed in" than I'm used to.
So if you shot extensively with film before getting your DSLR, then you might want to look at a full-frame camera. But if you started your photography adventure on a digital crop DSLR, then all is fine in your world. 16mm looks a certain way to you and that's all that matters. Your 16mm won't match my 16mm, but who cares? We're not going to compare mental image pictures to see who's is more zoomed in. But for me, I didn't want to have to "re-learn" my focal lengths. That would be a lot of habits to break and I didn't want to throw that kind of wrench in my gears, so I went with a full-frame.
Then there's the argument that full-frame cameras are better for wide-angle shots (like landscapes) because the sensor doesn't crop the image and, therefore, you get a wider view. Well, that is technically true that you get a wider angle image on a full-frame camera with the same lens. For instance, if you put a 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, you get a field of view measuring about 108 degrees wide. Put that same 16mm on a digital crop camera and that angle shrinks to somewhere around 84 degrees. That's a pretty big difference.
^ The blue border indicates the image as it would appear on
a full-frame sensor with a 16mm lens. The green border indicates
the image on a digital crop sensor with the same 16mm focal length.
^ This is the image at 16mm on a full-frame.
^ This is the image at 16mm on a digital crop sensor.
This used to be a problem in the early, early days of DSLR cameras because the widest lens available was about 16mm (before getting in to fisheye). So if you wanted that full 108-degree angle of view, you couldn't get it on a digital crop sensor. But the thing is, that doesn't matter anymore. It doesn't matter because Canon and Nikon were smart enough to come out with wide angle lenses compatible only with digital crop sensors that now go all the way to 10mm. And, wouldn't you know it, 10mm on a digital crop sensor gives you a field of view measuring (drumroll please) 108 degrees wide.
That's right. A 10mm lens on your digital crop DSLR will give you the exact same view as 16mm on my full-frame camera. So the "wide angle argument" is null and void.
^ 16mm on a full-frame will give you the same angle of view as a
10mm on an APS-C sensor (or 11mm on a Nikon digital format).
^ 16mm on a full-frame or 10mm on a digital crop sensor
- either would give you this same image.
Another argument for full-frame is that full-frame cameras perform better at higher ISO's. That is true with all things being equal. If you try to cram 21 megapixels into a digital crop sensor, noise will be a bigger problem than on a full-frame camera where the pixels have more room to "breathe." But I still call folly on this argument because camera companies are getting so good at noise reduction that high ISO noise really isn't that big of an issue on the latest cameras. And every time they release a new camera, the noise reduction gets better. So the noise on your new 18 megapixel digital crop sensor may very well be better than my 7-year-old 12 megapixel full-frame camera (I use an "ancient" first-generation Canon 5D). Besides, I could write an entire post about digital noise and how people make way too big of a deal about it. Unless you're printing gallery-quality billboards, stop worrying about noise. Most people's pictures end up about 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall on Facebook. And if you want to feel real good about your camera's noise performance at ISO 3200, try shooting ISO 3200 film for a week.
The last argument for full-frame that has any validity to it is that full-frame cameras give you a smaller depth of field. This isn't because a bigger sensor creates a smaller DOF. In fact, the size of the sensor has no bearing whatsoever on DOF. But the reason full-frame cameras create a smaller DOF is that with a full-frame camera, you have to use a longer lens to get the same shot. In other words, if you and I are both going to take the same picture and you're going to use a 50mm lens, well then I'll have to use an 80mm lens. Since your sensor is cropping the image, I have to use a lens with more magnification in order to match you. And since longer lenses have smaller depths of field, my lens will blur the background more than yours at the same aperture. So for portrait photographers who want real blurry backgrounds, that's a good thing. But for landscape photographers, that's not so great.
Also, look at the other side of the coin here. With a full-frame camera, you'll need a longer lens to get the same shot as with a digital crop sensor. For instance, if you need 300mm to get a shot of a bird on your small-frame camera, I'll need 480mm on my full-frame. A 300mm f/4 lens costs about $1400. A 500mm f/4 costs about $7000. I'll have to spend an extra $5600 to get the same magnification as you! This is why sports and wildlife shooters tend to prefer small-sensor cameras.
So don't feel like you need to get a full-frame camera. Your current DSLR is great. You can do amazing things with it. Instead of buying that new camera, spend some time learning the camera you have. Become a better photographer. Take classes, read books, practice like crazy and always remember that it's the photographer, not the camera.
Parts of this article including the example images and graphics are from the "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes" online course.
If you know me, you know that I really don't care about the Nikon vs. Canon debate. As I've said before, that rivalry is about as useful as the "my dad can beat up your dad" argument. The bottom line is that both manufacturers make fantastic cameras, both have their strengths and, most importantly, it's the photographer, not the camera. A great photographer can get great shots with either system.
There is something I want to point out about these 2 systems that no one ever seems to address. It's something so simple and so basic that while everyone is arguing about megapixels, color reproduction and ISO performance, this point just never comes up.
The point I speak of is that Nikon is backwards. That's right! I said it! Nikon is backwards! Despite my Switzerland-like neutrality between the two systems, I can confidently say that Nikon is backwards. And I can prove it.
Let's look at 4 undeniable, undebatable, and - dare I say - astonishing bits of evidence that prove Nikon is backwards. Allow me to remove the shroud from over your eyes...
The light meter/exposure compensation scale
When you look at the exposure compensation scale or the light meter scale (both use the same exact scale) of a Canon camera, you see something like this:
Positive on the right, negative on the left. Makes sense. That's how we were taught in school and that's how pretty much every other meter on the planet is designed - positive to the right, negative to the left. That's how society is set up - to have higher numbers to the right and lower numbers to the left.
When you look at a ruler, the higher numbers are to the right, the lower numbers are to the left. And if a ruler had negative values on it, they would be on the left side of zero. Same deal for a radio dial, a speedometer, and book pages.
But now picture a ruler where zero is off to the right and then as you move left, the numbers progress up 1, 2, 3... Or picture your speedometer with 0 mph on the right and as you accelerate, the dial sweeps to the left. Doesn't feel right, does it?
Well, here's your Nikon scale:
It's backwards. Plain and simple. It just doesn't jive with how we think of numbers. We think of positive numbers on the right, negative on the left. Nikon decided to throw caution to the wind and flip the positive and negative. I don't know why, but they did.
So, there you go. Nikon's exposure compensation and light meter scale is backwards.
Strike one, Nikon.
The lens mount
What's the old rule for fastening a screw, nut, bottle cap, or jar lid? "Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey." You rotate to the right (clockwise) to secure something tighter, you rotate left (counter-clockwise) to loosen it.
So now instead of a bottle cap or screw, let's attach your lens to your camera. With your Canon lens, you line up the dots and rotate right (clockwise) until the lens clicks into place. Fasten it on just like a jar lid.
Okay, let's do the same thing with your Nikon. Take your lens and line up the white marks, now rotate clockwi-NOT SO FAST, AMIGO!
You're going to have to throw out everything you've ever learned about fastening things to other things because on a Nikon, you rotate the lens counter-clockwise to attach it to your camera. So instead of righty-tighty, lefty-loosey, you'll have to remember "righty-removy-the-lensy, lefty-attachy-the-lensy." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, though.
So, there you have it. Nikon's lens mount is backwards.
Strike two, Nikon.
The rear lens cap
As a result of the lens mount being backwards for a Nikon, the rear lens cap also fastens on backwards. Rotate right to loosen it and remove it, rotate left to attach and tighten.
But just like the lens attaching the camera in a seemingly backwards way, I'm sure this clockwise to loosen and counter-clockwise to tighten thing only seems backwards to us. Surely only us Americans with our crazy imperial measuring system are on this page. I'm sure this "backwards" tightening/loosing business makes complete sense to the rest of the world.
What's that? It doesn't? It's backwards everywhere?
Damn. Strike three, Nikon.
The zoom ring
Let's look at the zoom ring for a Canon lens:
Ah, yes. Lower focal length numbers on the left, higher focal length numbers on the right - just like inches on a ruler and mph on a speedometer.
Now here's Nikon's zoom ring:
Hmm...okay. Lower focal length numbers on the right, higher focal length numbers on the left. Backwards from every other scale we're familiar with in the rest of our lives...alright. Makes sense, I guess, when everything else on the camera is already backwards. I mean, if I have to think backwards when attaching the lens and using the light meter, why stop there? Better to go 100% backwards than only partially. Right?
Strike 4, Nikon. You were out one strike ago.
I have no idea why these things are backwards on a Nikon. My guess is that they just had to be different than Canon. Too bad being different makes everything backwards in this case.
So, in summary, this backwards business is the main reason I recommend Canon over Nikon. Now some of you gear heads out there may be thinking "that's ridiculous to recommend Canon over Nikon based solely on these trivial matters. Nikon is clearly better in image quality/ISO performance/auto-focus/blah, blah, blah."
Well let me respond to this imaginary devil's advocate with 2 statements:
First, these "trivial" matters actually play a huge role in the usability of the camera. If you're constantly fighting decades of training on what's considered forwards or backwards, then you're fighting an unnecessary battle. A camera's controls should get out of your way. They should be so easy and intuitive to use that you never have to think about using them - you just use them.
And secondly, Nikon doesn't have better image quality, ISO performance, auto-focus or blah, blah, blah. Canon doesn't either. Sure, you can compare MTF charts and side-by-side sample images. You can do an in-depth analysis of noise performance and color reproduction. But most of that stuff has no practical application in photography. Plus, Nikon and Canon are always out-doing each other. Canon may be the top today, but Nikon will be back on top on a few months. It's a never-ending seesaw of who has the latest technology, best image quality, and better auto-focus system.
So don't worry about Nikon vs Canon. Concentrate on learning how to use your equipment to the very fullest. Concentrate on becoming a better photographer, not a better gear reviewer.
But all that being said...let the angry letters begin!
You know me, I'm not a gear junkie. I've been shooting with a first generation Canon 5D for the past 6 years and I'm the first to say it's the photographer, not the camera. But nevertheless, I thought I'd share the news on a new camera from Canon and create a 1-stop shop for you here on where to get all the details.
So in case you haven't already heard, Canon has announced the long-awaited next-generation Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and it has quite an impressive spec list. The new sensor is 22.3 megapixels, which isn't a huge jump over the previous 21 megapixels, but the improvements that shout out to me are the vastly-improved 61-point auto focus system, much-higher 6 fps shooting rate, 100% viewfinder coverage and upgraded weather sealing. Oh, the ISO also goes up to 102,400. Check out the links to follow for more details.
- 22.3 Megapixels
- 61-point AF system
- 100% viewfinder coverage
- ISO up to 102,400
- 6.0 fps continuous shooting
- 3.2" LCD
- $3,499 (body only)
Hands On Previews: