Nikon vs. Canon
NEW: D800 vs. 5D Mk III 27 June 2012
En Français aussi.
Nikon and Canon are as good as each other overall. Each makes equally excellent lenses at the same price points, and each makes DSLRs with the same technical quality in each format. The differences lie in ergonomics and how well each camera handles, which is what allows you to get your photo — or miss it forever. Anyone who tries to tell you that one brand or the other is significantly better than the other in basic quality is either an idiot, or a retail salesman who's getting a bigger spiff from one or the other that week.
Each are multi-billion dollar optical companies who have been making some of the world's best optics for numerous consumer, industrial and military applications for decades and decades and decades. Unlike other large corporations like Sony and Panasonic that only make consumer and commercial products, Nikon and Canon each make multi-million-dollar optical products used in semiconductor manufacturing and space exploration.
Nikon and Canon each are unique in having the nearly limitless resources and experience needed to develop the "secret sauce" that lets each make consumer cameras that render colors, highlights and shadows subtly better than all the other mere consumer electronics makers out there. Canon and Nikon can and do invest the effort to fine-tune the "look" from each camera in the trade-secret color matrices and algorithms that let each of their cameras deliver results that just have a certain polish to them that I can't get from Sony, Panasonic, Casio and all the rest of the companies lacking Nikon and Canon's resources. With the huge corporate scope and the huge camera sales volume, only Canon and Nikon can invest the heavy resources that result in subtly better pictures from each of their cameras, regardless of how inexpensive it may be.
I'm going to go on and on below about personal experience, so feel free to skip ahead to the real differences between Nikon and Canon.
Each makes lenses as parts of multi-million-dollar steppers used in making electronic chips with more precision than anything needed for photography, and each makes other optics that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in other applications. They each make our cameras and lenses out of the same stuff from which they create these other products.
Did you know that Nikon is one of the world's leading makers of professional laboratory microscopes, often beating out Zeiss and Leitz? Nikon also makes the million-dollar lenses and mechanical steppers used in semiconductor manufacture. They have a 37% market share. These lenses and mechanics resolve at 45 nanometers, or less than one-tenth of a wavelength of visible light. That's over 10,000 lines per millimeter! See Nikon Precision.
Canon may make their own ICs and image sensors, but for all we know, Canon may use Nikon lenses and steppers to do it! Probably not: Canon also makes steppers and semiconductor photolithography equipment, with a 20% market share. (Thanks to Bates Marshall for those figures.)
Making $20,000, $2,000 or $200 lenses for either Canon or Nikon is child's play. Their big stuff sells in the $200,000 to $2,000,000 range. We photographers get to benefit from all of it.
Nikon and Canon are optical companies first and camera, electronic or software companies second. It's sad to see people buy good Nikon or Canon cameras and then put off-brand lenses on them.
Nikon and Canon are different, but just as good overall, although of course we all have our personal preferences. Anyone who tries to tell you that one or the other is garbage isn't paying attention, and most likely doesn't have the other to sell you. Nikon and Canon compete so heavily against each other that if one really were better or worse they would have gone out of business long ago.
Year to year one usually has an edge on the other. They tend to leapfrog each other back and forth, slowly. LEICA was king from the 1930s through 1950s, Nikon took over from the 1960s through 1980s, Canon was the top pro SLR in the 1990s and 2000s, and with the Nikon D3 of 2007, Canon and Nikon now run neck-and-neck in the pro market. As of 2012, I prefer Canon's full-frame DSLRs over Nikon, but that will change as the years roll on.
Contrary to some beliefs, I get paid nothing by and have no allegiance to Nikon or Canon or any other camera maker, other than having used their great products for many decades depending on the brand.
Shooting all these systems for a living every day makes one very familiar with what each does well — or not, so let me share how they really compare from actual long-term experience
System Compatibility top
Most Nikon SLR camera and lenses made since 1959 are compatible with each other.
Any two items from about the same 10-20 year technology window will work well with each other.
Today's newest 2013 D610 works great with most updated Nikon lenses made since 1959. With Nikon, investing in great lenses always had paid off.
The Nikon system is so renowned for its multi-decade interoperability that I have a Nikon System Compatibility page discussing it.
The problem with Nikon's compatibility is that today its lenses still use more primitive mechanical communication with the camera for some functions that date back to the 1950s, making some functions like depth of field preview nowhere near as smooth as it is on Canon.
On the other hand, Canon flushed compatibility down the toilet in 1987 when it created a new and completely incompatible system of AF cameras and lenses called EOS. Nothing works together before or after the great autofocus divide of 1987.
To Canon's credit, the new EOS system is a much better design than the old mechanical mount still used today by Nikon, but old Canon FD manual focus lenses, once promoted as "timeless" by Canon, are useless on any modern Canon camera.
Contrast this to Nikon, where just about every lens ever made works swell, with few limitations, on every brand new camera.
While I shoot both of the Canon systems (FD and today's EOS systems), most people are only concerned with Canon's EOS cameras today, and that's where the good news starts.
Because Canon wiped the slate clean and created a completely new electronic lens mount system for autofocus in 1987, every camera and lens Canon has made from 1987 through today is completely 100% compatible with everything else made since 1987. Every Canon EF lens works perfectly with every Canon EOS 35mm or digital camera ever made. Their oldest EF lenses work perfectly on the newest EOS digital cameras, and the newest EF and Image Stabilization lenses work perfectly on the very first EOS650 camera from 1987. (Flash is a different story, and the smaller EF-s lenses won't work on full frame cameras.)
Nikon can't come close to this; many Nikon autofocus lenses still sold new today use old technology that won't autofocus on some of Nikon's newest cameras and vice versa! Nikon's old lenses from the 1950s often work on today's Nikons, but likewise Nikon's lens mount also carries a lot of mechanical baggage from the 1950s.
Canon cameras can use Nikon lenses, but Nikon cameras can't use Canon lenses.
One big difference between Nikon and Canon is delivery of new products.
A good thing about Nikon is that they announce products a couple of months before they become available. You never feel like an idiot having bought a camera that goes obsolete the next day. Canon, on the other hand, usually has cameras available when they announce them, so you can get caught off guard.
Unfortunately Nikon does this to a fault. It's good to announce something a couple of months before it comes out, but bad to take orders and not be able to deliver.
Nikon has been doing this at least since 2000. They announced the 80-400mm VR in January, 2000. It was a year and a half later before you could buy them easily!
Nikon Announced the D100 in February of 2002 and it was a year until you could get them easily. I had bought a D1H the week before, but didn't worry even though I would have preferred the D100, because I didn't have 9 months to wait for one.
Nikon announced the 12-24mm in February 2003 and took a year until they were easy to find.
Nikon announced the D70 in February of 2004. That only took a couple of months to get.
The 18-200mm VR was announced on November 1st, 2005, and Nikon had them on back-order until 2007!
Canon usually ships its hot new products quickly, while Nikon often strings us out for months or more.
You have to know the history behind the Nikon versus Canon race to understand it. Here's my personal experience, which spans most of five or six decades.
Canon was founded in 1934 to sell cheap knock-offs of the new LEICA camera. It was sold with a lens made by Nikon, since Nikon has been making lenses for military applications forever, and Canon had just started in a garage.
Canon started by making consumer products, and branched out into industrial equipment much later.
Nikon had been making military instruments for mass destruction long before World War II. Nikon made bomb sights used to murder innocent Americans in the Japanese terrorist attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as well as huge rangefinders for battleship and field artillery in World War II.
Nikon made no cameras before World War II! After Nikon's warmongering activities were closed-down after World War II, Nikon had to figure out what to do for peaceful purposes for the first time. Their idea was to make rangefinder cameras for consumers in the late 1940s, and then SLRs in 1959.
Nikon started out making military products and was forced into making consumer products after Japan started and then lost World War II.
Canon and Nikon have only been competing with each other in cameras since World War II.
1960s and 1970s
Nikon's military background led to it making extremely high quality and expensive professional cameras, and only later in the late 1970s starting to make cheaper consumer cameras, while Canon started out making consumer cameras, growing later into the pro market in the late 1970s.
Nikon was exclusively an expensive camera for professionals, and Canon made cameras popular with consumers. They didn't compete much, although as the decade wore on, Nikon started making cheaper cameras and Canon made some more expensive pro cameras, although pros didn't buy Canon's "pro" cameras.
In 1980 Nikon was the undisputed king of professional 35mm cameras. For the same price as Canon lenses, in Nikon I got much better mechanical quality and better access to rental gear.
LEICA invented autofocus, and knowing that its customers know how to focus, sold the patent to Minolta, who introduced the world's first autofocus SLR in 1985. A few years later Canon and Nikon had them, too. Professionals laughed at the idea — they knew how to focus, and autofocus was still too slow for sports. Even if AF was fast, sports shooters know where the ball is going before it gets there, which cameras can't know.
Nikon AF cameras and lenses were completely compatible with older lenses and cameras. This was good because pros all had many thousands of dollars invested in their manual-focus lenses. It was a no-brainer to buy a new Nikon AF camera since it was compatible with everything. New AF lenses were compatible with manual focus cameras. They still are! Nikon solidified the reason to shoot Nikon as a pro: no one had to start out from scratch again. Going to AF in Nikon was easy.
Nikon AF cameras had motors in the body to focus the lenses mechanically through a small screw in the lens mount. They still do.
Canon designed their AF system from scratch, and used a completely new and incompatible lens mount. The lenses each had their own motors inside them. If you shot Canon you had to throw away all your manual-focus FD lenses and bodies and start from scratch. Not good! To go to Canon AF you had to rebuy your entire system with new AF gear.
Pros eventually started using autofocus cameras around 1990 and liked them. One teensy-weensy problem around was that Nikon AF cameras couldn't focus fast enough for sports. The Canon cameras worked great. Pros who shot sports dumped their Nikon gear and moved to Canon in droves. Sports shooters still predominantly use Canon for this reason. I was kidding about slow AF being a teeny problem: it's huge, and why Nikon lost it's twenty-year lock on the pro journalism market and has never won it back!
Unlike 1980, in the 1990s Canon cameras evolved to be as professional as Nikon. They have competed neck and neck for the same customers ever since.
Nikon's AF speed is as good as Canon today, but no pro is going to sell all his lenses and cameras and start from scratch without a very good reason.
As a pro you own a lot of gear, all bought at different times. It all needs to work together as a system. Amateurs buy bodies and lenses together, while pros add and delete each body and lens from their systems as it makes sense. Except in the case of a fire or theft, you never get the chance to start over from scratch.
Better AF performance was why sports pros left Nikon in the 1990s. There's never been anything compelling enough since then to get them all to switch back, so it's been a slow road back for Nikon. That's why you see so many white lenses at sports events, in addition to the fact that Canon Pro Services loans them out for free. Remember, sporting is only part of the photo picture. Landscape photographers have been using 4x5" film for over 100 years and don't show any signs of changing soon. The best ones rarely use Canon or Nikon.
Nikon invents the professional D1, the world's first practical digital SLR. It was $5,000 and had 2.7MP. Nikon became the leader in professional digital.
Canon introduced their own first DSLR, the consumer D30. It had the same image quality as Nikon's metal D1, but for only $3,000 in plastic. It also had 3MP.
Canon announces their first professional DSLR, the EOS-1D on 25 September 2001. Canon moves ahead of Nikon in the digital arena.
2002 - 2004
Nikon doesn't introduce much, while Canon is very busy. Every time Nikon announces a new DSLR, Canon outdoes them the next week. This goes on through 2012!
2005 - 2006
Nikon's D70 was my favorite over the better-built Canon 20D. I preferred the D70's faster operation, specifically, the D70's immediate access to white balance trims, needed for every shot, over having to go into menus on the 20D.
In 2006 Canon tweaked the firmware in the 20D and called it a 30D, which I found uncompetitive with the D200. What were they thinking? Nikon leapfrogged them with the D200. The D200 eclipsed everything Canon had done, including the Canon 5D which cost three times as much.
Canon introduced the 5D Mark III, which has so many little improvements that it for the first time has much better ergonomics, as well as image color accuracy, that anything from Nikon. After 28 years, I switched to Canon as my main SLR brand. Nikon has sat on its laurels; the D800 has the same iffy ergonomics as the 2007 D300, while Canon has moved ahead.
Nikons now have poorer power switches than Canons.
Nikons use a rotary switch concentric with the shutter button, and no longer have a lock button as they did when introduced on the Nikon F5 in 1996. Therefore Nikon power switches are now easy to turn ON accidentally while in your bag, or knock OFF while you're shooting and miss your photos.
Canon has improved its power switches, which are now usually a lever on the top left of the camera where they never get knocked. They are detented deeply enough that they don't need a lock, and are easy to to turn ON and OFF when we want them, and they don't move by themselves.
Canon's mode dials usually have stops at either end, so we can select positions without looking at them by counting clicks. Nikon's mode dials often spin 360º, which means we have to stop and look to set them.
Canon's LCDs are more color accurate. As of 2012, Nikon started using LCDs, even on their top pro cameras, that tend to be too yellow-green. This seems to get better with time. All my Canons have bang-on accuracy from day one, while my new Nikons don't look as good as they should on their rear LCDs.
My Personal Preferences top
Nikon and Canon all give the same quality images within the same price class or format. See my Noise and Resolution comparison. These differences are so small I have to strain to see them with test charts. In the dynamics of the real world they are invisible. I ran those tests, and discovered that whatever differences entertain chat-room participants don't exist.
As you ought to know, I'm just a guy who loves to take pictures and today just happens to have literally millions of people reading this site, which are my personal opinions, each month. I don't get any free gear, money, sponsorships, hats or anything from any camera companies, in spite of what people may think.
I prefer Canon point-and-shoots. I love their color rendition, and I can't for the life of me figure out the menus of the Nikon Coolpix cameras.
As of 2012, the Canon 5D Mark III is the world's best DSLR. As you can read at D800 vs. 5D Mark III, Canon addressed and improved a zillion little things, while Nikon with the D800 is just spewing out the same camera as 2007, just with more pixels we don't need.
I prefer Canon for full-frame DSLRs, but for DX, I prefer Nikon.
Specific Feature Comparisons top
Here are the feature-by-feature breakdowns. Depending on what's important to you, this will help you pick one brand over the other.
Canon never used to have consistent flash performance. Specifically, flash exposure would vary from frame to frame, meaning pros pulled their hair out trying to shoot flash with Canon. Nikon has always had a flash exposure system that gave perfect flash exposure every time, and apparently patented whatever was the secret first, so Canon never caught up — until 2012.
As of 2012, my Canon 5D Mark III finally gives perfect flash exposure all the time, just as Nikon has done for decades. Older models of Canon aren't that great and all of Nikon's older models are great for flash exposure, but since Canon finally got flash exposure correct, as of 2012 I wouldn't worry about it.
My Nikons give me far more flash sync options. They are well labeled and easy to set without menus. Canon hides them inside other modes deep inside menus, for instance, your Canon's exposure mode changes the flash sync mode, and it's not marked.
For instance, the important Rear Curtain option is hidden in the 30D's Custom Function 15, while even a cheap Nikon D50 has its own flash sync button. Likewise in 2012, Canon still hides most of its flash controls inside the camera's menu system. At least Canon cameras with C1 C2 C3 modes save and recall the flash sync modes you've programmed.
Slow sync isn't selectable separately on most Canons. Program mode always uses a faster speed of about 1/60 as its lower limit. Tv, Av or M modes use slow sync by default. See p.92 of Canon's 20D manual for details, for example.
This is too bad: I always shoot my Nikons in Program, and set the slowest flash shutter speed to whatever I want, usually 1/30 or 1/15 to let in enough ambient light. This is easy to change on Nikon, and almost fixed in stone on most Canons.
I have no idea how to set manual flash mode on the Canons, while on the Nikons it's easy to set up wireless remote flash control.
My Nikon DSLRs let me know if the flash may have underexposed (the bolt in the finder blinks rapidly). I've never seen that on the Canons. The Nikon flash units often even tell me, in stops, by how much they have underexposed.
C1 C2 C3 Modes
Most Canons have "C" modes on their control dials. Each of these is a complete memory for everything about the camera. Every time you select that position, everything about the camera is recalled from when you saved it!
Nikons, except for the D7000 and D600, have no easily recalled total-camera-state recall functions. Every time you want to shoot anything different on a Nikon, you have to reset many different things in many different menus. Nikons often have idiotic "settings banks," but there are many of them, and they still don't save and recall everything, so they don't help much. Even if they did, there is no way to lock them; as you change settings, there is no way to recall what had been set before, so they are useless. Nikon's settings banks cannot be locked, they change as you set the camera!
With most Canons, its fast and easy to get back to all the settings you want, and if you have more than one C on your dial, I set C1 for my landscape, and C2 for my people shots, and if a C3, for sports.
Every time I wake up my Canon in a C mode, it resets to all my personal favorite settings, which is far better than Nikon's one factory-default green-button reset that neither resets everything, and certainly doesn't reset to my settings.
If I don't use Canon's "C" modes, I'll often have left the camera at a deep tungsten white balance and ISO 1,600, which of course ruins all shots made that way the next morning until I notice and reset them all by hand:
White Balance left set at last night's custom setting.
Nikon's Green Reset
I used to use Nikon's Green Reset (two-green-button reset) of my earlier Nikon DSLRs. They reset all the shot-to-shot stuff, like WB and ISO and selected AF sensor and exposure compensations and image and file sizes, and leave alone the rarely set items like file numbering, custom functions and beeps.
Sadly as of 2012 as cameras have gotten far more complex, Nikon's Green Reset modes don't work for me, since there is too much to remember to have to reset from Nikon's default reset settings.
Playback Held Hostage
My biggest complaint about my Canons, DSLR and compact, used to be that they held all my playback controls, like zooming, hostage until after I've pressed the PLAY button. With my Nikons, as soon as my photo shows on the back after I shot it, I have full access to zooming and selecting other images. (I usually have to enable this in Nikon's menu.)
Nikons play fast. Canon DSLRs take time when you try to display pages of 9 playback images and flip though them.
Canon for over ten years of DSLRs still can't flip through images and keep them all sharp instantly on playback. Every Canon DSLR, even the Canon 1D X, still takes a fraction of a second to redraw the playback image sharply after its been selected.
As of 2012, Canon has seen the light, and as I program my Canon 5D Mark III, I now have full one-handed playback control, while my Nikons still demand two hands to have full playback control.
As of 2012, Canon has pulled way ahead of Nikon for playback. Nikon still usually demands two hands to control playback, while on my 2012 Canons, it's easy to control playback zoom, scroll and file selection all with one hand.
Each shows different data differently in many screens during playback.
Nikon shows a lot of things with a lot of screens. There is never anything missing, but I often have to sort through a lot of screens (usually three) to find what I want.
Canon tends to show just what I need and show it more clearly, but oddly, never will tell me the millimeter setting of the lens I used. To read that, I have to use a computer later.
Nikon allows me to zoom into a small area and see a color YRGB histogram just for that small section of image, while hitting the ZOOM button while in the histogram section of Canon simply zooms the image to full screen, eliminating the histogram.
Thus I can read histograms precisely for small image segments on Nikon, ideal for investigating highlights, shadows or color in small areas, while on Canon, I can't — but at least on Canon the image zooms to full screen from the histogram page.
Seven versus eight-bladed diaphragms
Nikon always uses superior 7- or 9-bladed lens diaphragms, while another core incompetency of Canon was often using 6-or 8-bladed diaphragms.
Odd-numbers of diaphragm blades lead to superior sunstars (14- or 18-points from Nikon vs. 6- or 8- points from Canon) and less disruptive shapes of out-of-focus highlight blobs (bokeh), heptagons or nonagons from Nikon versus obnoxious hexagons or octagons from Canon. When we see hexagons or octagons, we thing snowflakes or stop signs, while heptagons or nonagons are so low-key that you probably don't even recognize the names of the shapes!
As of 2012, Canon again is seeing the light. Canon's newest 24-70mm f/2.8 II uses a 9-bladed diaphragm, which makes better sunstars than the rounded thing in the Nikon 24-70/2.8G. Canon's wide lenses now usually use 7 blades (yay), but Canon's teles still only use 8-bladed diaphragms.
On my Nikons, one dial always sets aperture and the other always sets the shutter.
On my Canons, what dial does what depends on your mode. That drives me crazy — I need to have the same dial change the same thing every time I spin it, regardless of the shooting mode.
Nikon turns off the exposure compensation indication if you haven't set it. Canon leaves it on, even in the finder, even if it's set at zero.
I prefer Nikon's easy-to-find-in-the-dark LCD illuminator button. It's concentric with the shutter; just twist. On the Canons you need to feel around for a dedicated button.
When you hit the LCD illuminator on a Nikon, either on camera or on flash, everything lights up. On a Canon Rebel XT and EX-550, each button only lights one of them!
Nikon has more flexibility in programming Auto ISO. Canon is still a step behind; as of 2012, while both brands let me set Auto ISO to select the slowest shutter speed before it starts to increase the ISO automatically based on lens focal length, only Nikon lets me shift that value by a fixed amount. For instance, I use this feature, and shift the shutter speed one stop faster for sports, and one stop slower if my lens has Image Stabilization. With Canon as of 2012, we can't set an offset to the automatically selected slowest shutter speed.
Color and Tone
Nikon and Canon each use different "secret sauce" that defines the colors and tones captured by their cameras, especially when you start adjusting the color, contrast, saturation and the zillion other controls on cameras today.
Images will look different from either brand of camera. Most Nikons or most Canons will match other models of camera from the same maker set to the same color settings (contrast, saturation etc.) but images shot on one brand will never match the colors, highlights, shadows and grays of images shot on the other brand.
In this case, there is no right and wrong. Photography is an art, and in art, it's about what looks best to you, the artist.
Look carefully at the color rendition you get from either camera, and shoot which you prefer.
Auto White Balance (AWB) works very differently in different cameras. If you shoot in AWB as I do, one brand or the other may work better under the unique conditions under which you shoot. Pay attention and you'll probably prefer one over the other.
Nikon and Canon each do a much better job of giving me great colors direct from the camera, something I can't get from other brands. For instance, LEICA is awful!
Both Nikon and Canon cameras give awesome colors if you know what you're doing and how to set them.
1.) Nikon's LCDs tend to be a bit too yellow when new, and more seriously,
2.) Nikon's Auto White Balance errs on the side of being too green, so the photos look poor by critical standards. To correct Nikon's color problems as of 2012, I have to set a white balance trim of one unit magenta (M1) in a menu. Sadly, 1 unit is a little too much, and there's no way to set 2/3 of one unit of magenta, so my Nikon images tend to be a little too magenta. That's better than too green, but still not acceptable. That's one of the big reasons I prefer my Canons as of 2012 — as well as Canon's superior LCDs.
As of 2012, most Canon and Nikon DSLRs offer electronic lens corrections for darkened corners, lateral color fringes and distortion.
Each works with almost all lenses since about 1993.
With Nikon, all lenses are already loaded in your camera automatically.
With Canon, you often have to screw around with software and pick and choose the lenses for which you want to load correction data into your camera.
Nikon wins here, it's already in your camera.
Nikon wins again: Nikon cameras usually can correct images as you shoot them. Done.
Canon can't correct distortion in-camera as shot. The only way to do it in Canon is to shoot in NEF, then process each file one-by-one in the camera later, while Nikons will just record images already corrected.
Light Falloff (corner darkening)
Each does as good a job as the other here, presuming you have the right data in your camera, which often for Canon, you won't unless you go connect your camera to a computer and screw around.
Lateral Color Fringes
If you have lens data in your Canon, each works as well as the other.
Here's where Nikon wins: Nikon needs no lens data loaded into the camera! Nikon uses secret algorithms, and corrects lateral color automatically for anything you can attach to your camera, regardless of brand or lens type!
This gives Nikon a huge advantage here.
As of 2012, Nikon's four new full-frame DSLRs (D600, D800, D800E and D4) share a problem new to DSLRs: they tend to be a bit too yellow when new! We have to depend on the accuracy of our LCDs, and Nikon has taken a step back in 2012.
Another subtle but important advantage of Canon is that their LCDs have the same 3:2 aspect ratio as their images, so the images fill the entire LCD. Nikons use a different aspect ratio for their LCDs, so while two cameras may have the same diagonal size rating for the LCD, the actual image size is bigger on the Canon DSLRs! Another reason as of 2012 I've switched to Canon.
Canon's LCDs are usually behind anti-reflection coated glass or plastic, so we can see bright, contrasty images with great blacks while outdoors, while Nikons usually use uncoated screens on which we see reflections of the world around us. On Nikons therefore, it's much more difficult to see our images in daylight.
Canon's screens are often coated with magic stuff that resists grease and smudges. Nikons are not.
Auto LCD Brightness Control
As of 2012, Nikon's auto LCD brightness control doesn't work well, and lets the LCD get too dim indoors, so I don't use Auto LCD Brightness Control on my Nikons.
As of 2012, it's a toss-up. Both offer fast and accurate AF.
Nikons often have more clairvoyant ability to recognize faces and magically select exactly the correct AF sensor right over the subject's nearest eye. As of 2012, only the Canon 1D X does this well, while even Nikon's D600 does this well for less than one-third the price.
I used to get more consistent results on my Nikons, but as of 2012, I get great results with each. Older models of Canon often could think that the were in perfect focus, but give complexly defocused images every 30 shots or so.
My Canons tend to be a little faster with cheap lenses, and about the same with the expensive ones. In other words, Nikon lets the AF of their cheap lenses ($80 - 500) get slower, both both brands of pro lenses (c. $1,500 range) are equally fast.
If you have a lens that has a focus offset, both brands today allow you to adjust this offset, called "AF Fine Tune." As of 2012, only Canon lets you adjust this differently for each end of a zoom range and have the camera compute the correct value as you shoot. With Nikon, you only get one value that is applied equally at every focal length, which is too bad because the required adjustment varies as zoomed.
AF Assist Illuminators
If you have a flash with an AF illuminator, you're fine with either brand.
Most Nikon SLRs have a small white incandescent light to help the camera focus in the dark. They work fine.
Something extremely annoying about most Canon SLRs is that they instead use multiple bursts of the flash to help focus in the dark. Have you any idea how annoying it is to try to photograph and have your flash fire off ten bursts in the dark at someone as the camera attempts to focus? Not acceptable.
Nikon makes a 28-300mm VR for full frame, and an 18-200mm VR and 18-300mm VR for DX cameras. Any of these lenses offers every focal length any reasonable person needs, offers image stabilization, and instant manual-focus override. Any of these three lenses can be the only lens you'll ever need, and each is reasonably priced and sized.
Canon, and no one else, makes anything that can do what these life-changing Nikon lenses do. There are loads of off-brand and Canon ultra-broad range zooms, but they usually have no VR or IS (critical at 200~300mm) and only have primitive focus control with no instant manual override.
Canon's 18-200 IS is inferior: it demands you move a switch to get between auto and manual focus, while on the Nikon 18-200 VR, all you do is grab the focus ring.
Canon made a crappy, mostly plastic 28-200mm for full frame from 2000-2010, but again, you have to move a switch to get from auto to manual focus. Nikon's crappy plastic 28-200G (2003-2006) on the other hand was a very sharp, close-focusing and sharp lens.
Canon has made and makes some lenses like the EF 28-300mm IS that look good on paper, except that in reality they cost $2,600 and weigh four pounds! That doesn't count; no one is going to carry that around all day, which is the whole point of a freedom lens.
If you want a do-everything lens for full-frame or for DX, only Nikon offers these.
Each is about as good as each other for the same price class of camera.
Made in China?
Canon wins here: most everything you can buy from Canon from professional cameras and lenses all the way down to point-and-shoots are made at home in Japan. Only Canon's very cheapest stuff is offshored, and then to Taiwan, which has a very high standard. The only Chinese items from Canon seem to be the occasional printed manual.
Nikon on the other hand offshores everything it can. It makes only a few flagship products in Japan, and offshores most of its gear to Thailand, and the other half is all made in China. For instance all of Nikon's professional 50mm f/1.4 and f/1.8 lenses are made in China!
Most digital Nikons have magic, selectable viewfinder grids, free!
The Canon DSLRs don't. You can buy an optional screen for the 5D, and manually jam it in the camera's viewfinder.
Most point and shoots from Canon and Casio have these, too, just not the Canon DSLRs.
I use these grids to help me get level photos. It's one of the first things I turn on when I get a new camera.
My Nikons let me embed my ©, name and phone number into the EXIF data of every one of the 75,000 shots I've made, no computer required.
As of 2012, Canons now also allow us to do this right in the camera, too. Older Canons required screwing in an computer and connecting the computer to the camera to do this, but no longer.
Automatic Zone System
Nikon DSLRs have always had an AUTO CONTRAST mode (previously called Tone Compensation under Optimize Image) which uses the Zone System to optimize the camera's contrast to the subject. It was awful in the D1H, and in the D70, D80 and D200 it works great to match conditions.
In 2012, Nikon's Adaptive Dynamic Range options work wonders automatically on every image from every Nikon DSLR.
Canons had no such modes: you had to set them manually. As of 2012, Canons now have a simpler system that can optimize highlights (Highlight Tone Priority) or optimize shadows (Auto Lighting Optimizer), but can't do both at once.
in spite of this analytical silliness on my part, both Canons and Nikons make splendid images automatically under lighting so horrible that with 35mm film the images would have been worthless.
Each system works about as well as the other today. Both brand can make spectacular images.
They are about the same size, clarity and brightness, depending on which you compare.
I find the in-finder data a little bit sparser in Canon than in my Nikons. I also find the Canon's digital in-finder displays thinner and harder to see than in my Nikon DSLRs.
All of them do a great job of automatically varying the brightness of the display to match ambient conditions.
They all are usually optimized for lenses of f/2.5, no differences here.
Canon used to curse us with three incompatible sensor sizes, but today in 2012, both Canon and Nikon make both full-frame and half-frame cameras.
Yes, Canon's half-frame cameras use a slightly smaller 1.6x crop factor versus Nikon's 1.5x, but that's nothing worth worrying about.
My Nikons show up as external hard drives on my computers as soon as I plug them in. I drag and drop files either way, no software required. I create folders in-camera, and download sorted photos directly from my Nikons!
Data from the Canon cameras can only be read via installing special software first.
Nikons have a "?" button for explaining most of the menu functions. Canons don't.
Nikon USA's free live tech help line, (800) NIKON-UX, is open all the time, 24/7/365.
Canon USA's free help line, (800) OK-CANON, lets its very good people go home late and on Sundays.
Both help lines are very good. I've always gotten someone who knows the answer on the first try.
This is about even, although my Canons are stupid and stop at 999, while Nikons are smart enough to show "2.7k" if they need to. They each only have three digits with which to display this.
Trick Custom Image Settings and Tweaks
Nikon makes you buy their buggy $100 Nikon Capture software to create and load crazy curves and settings into your camera. You need to buy this to tweak curves, colors and contrasts other than what you can do in the menus.
Canon makes this available for free here, and includes all sorts of fun presets, too.
I've never used any of this.
JPG File Size and Quality Optimization
Busy, detailed, contrasty subjects need more JPG bits to look good than do images with flat backgrounds, low contrasts and blank spaces.
Canon does a better job here. Canon's JPG file sizes vary to maintain constant quality. It's not unusual to see a fat file three times the size of a small one, with the only difference being the complexity and contrast of the subject. Nikons are stupider and tend to keep JPG files sizes very similar, wasting bits when not needed and lowering quality when they are.
Depth-of-Field Preview Button
Canon's buttons work instantly and silently. I wish everything worked this well.
Nikon's buttons are bogus: they clatter all around as if the camera took a picture. This is annoying, but was handy back in film days when I could hit it to satisfy people pestering me to take their pictures. Today, at least Nikon always has these buttons on the correct side of the camera.
Canon used to put their depth-of-field preview buttons on the wrong side of the camera so you needed a second hand to hit them, and thankfully as of 2012 Canon has been putting this button on the correct side of the camera.
Front Lens Caps
Canon's front caps are crappy little flat things. They only have tabs for release from the side, not the front.
Nikon has much, much better and beefier caps. You can grab them from the front or from the sides.
For my Canon lenses, I actually buy and use Nikon front lens caps!
As you've seen, both Canon and Nikon make superior products.
As of 2012 I prefer Canon DSLRs mostly because of their C1 C2 C3 modes, better color rendition, better LCDs and better access to playback functions with one hand, but if you find you prefer a Nikon for different reasons more important to you, by all means, go Nikon.
Either is an excellent choice, and only you can determine which is best for you. I hope I've clarified the differences so you can make a great choice.
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