Each industry has rivalries, from Microsoft vs Apple to Marvel vs DC. In the photography world, often Canon and Nikon are pitted against each other. Where do they stand this year? Let’s explore some of the differences between the two brands and the top Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras to buy in 2019.
What brand to commit to will depend on personal preference, ergonomics, availability of lenses (especially for your particular subject matter), and other small features that more advanced users care about, like flash sync speeds, actuation lifespans, buffers, and more.
This list is designed to help narrow down your choices, making the shopping (or renting) process less daunting. It is designed mainly for beginners and will help you see at a glance what your options are within the Canon and Nikon brands.
Canon vs Nikon
Canon and Nikon each have a wide line of cameras that target different segments of the market. It’s unfair to compare a professional camera from one brand to a beginner camera of the other.
You may prioritize certain characteristics over others, like low light capabilities, more frames per second when shooting in burst mode, or a longer battery life.
Let’s break down the Canon vs Nikon debate by comparing similar models in each level of photography.
Canon vs Nikon: Beginner Cameras
While neither Canon’s T7i nor Nikon’s D5600 are their absolute lowest-tier cameras (both can be purchased for around $700), they are probably the best options for those looking for their first DSLR. They both offer better autofocus, resolution, and overall performance from less expensive DSLRs for a relatively small increase in price.
While the Nikon is slightly lighter and will give you a marginally better battery life, the biggest benefit will come from the sensor. Nikon’s APS-C cameras have a slightly larger sensor than Canon’s APS-C cameras. They boast significantly better dynamic range and high ISO performance. This can result in better pictures in challenging or low light situations.
On the other hand, the Canon T7i has more autofocus points and a higher maximum frames per second shooting speed (6 FPS vs 5 FPS for the Nikon D5600). In good lighting conditions, this allows you to capture fast moving subjects.
Which should you choose?
Honestly, it’s hard to give either camera a strong win. If you often shoot in the evening or indoors, you may want to opt for the Nikon. If you’re wanting to capture higher-action candids, then the Canon may be the better choice at this price point. Both have similar lens selections, with collections specifically designed for cropped sensors (denoted as EF-S for Canon and DX for Nikon).
Canon vs Nikon: Enthusiast Cameras
Canon 80D ($54 for a 3 Day Rental – See More) vs Canon 7D Mark II ($54 for a 3 Day Rental – See More) vs Nikon D7500 ($49 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
As you start getting into more enthusiast-level cameras, things start to get a little bit trickier. The Canon 80D, Canon 7D Mark II, and Nikon D7500 can all be purchased for around $1,000 to $1,200 (at the time of this writing), so they are good options for upgrading from your beginner camera.
Being Canon’s top APS-C camera, the 7D series is going to give you the most robust build quality, highest frames per second, and dual memory card slots. But it’s also older than either the 80D or D7500. Many of its specs will be somewhat outdated, including having the lowest resolution out of the bunch. Many of the 80D’s features will actually be a step up, despite being a so-called “lower tier” camera.
Nikon’s dynamic range and low light performance are going to give you a massive advantage and Nikon’s autofocus for still images when looking through the viewfinder will likely also outperform these particular Canon cameras.
On the other hand, both the 80D and the 7D Mark II get the benefit of Canon’s Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus when shooting in Live View, including when shooting video. If you’re shooting exclusively stills, it’s hard to argue that the Nikon D7500 doesn’t outperform both Canon models. If you’re looking to shoot some video, though, the Dual Pixel AF pushes Canon ahead.
With the 7D Mark II’s age, one would expect for an updated Mark III version with stronger specs to be announced before long, though the new model’s price would likely bump it into the next category.
Canon vs Nikon: Semi-Pro Cameras
Canon 6D Mark II ($83 for a 3 Day Rental – See More) vs Nikon D500 ($83 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
This is another difficult match up in that these cameras have some significant differences. Most notable is that the D500 has an APS-C sensor while the 6D Mark II has a full frame sensor. However, they both come in at a little under $2,000 and are primarily targeted toward semi-professionals or “prosumer” photographers, though there are certainly pros that use both.
Among APS-C cameras, Nikon’s D500 stands apart. Even compared to Canon’s top APS-C camera (the 7D Mark II), the D500 wins on almost every metric. Perhaps the next generation of 7D will be more competitive, but currently the D500 will offer better image quality, dynamic range, and high ISO performance while matching (or beating) resolution, frames per second, and autofocus system.
Canon’s 6D line fills an interesting gap that Nikon doesn’t really have an equivalent for, which is a (relatively) low-cost, prosumer full frame body. On paper, the 6D Mark II is not an exciting camera. It has good specs across the board, but nothing that jumps out as being truly extraordinary. It has a higher resolution than the D500, but both are going to be enough for most people. It has a decent but not great frames per second shooting speed. All around, it’s a solid camera that, while not being flashy, just works for what most people will need.
Generally speaking, full frame sensors offer a host of benefits over APS-C, such as improved low light performance and image quality. However, Nikon’s APS-C sensors are so good in these regards that the D500 can match or beat the 6D Mark II. You can still get certain benefits from the 6D Mark II’s full frame sensor, such as a thinner apparent depth of field, but you won’t see most of the other benefits you might expect.
If there’s one area where the 6D Mark II does stand out compared to the D500 it’s thanks to its video capability. With Canon’s Dual Pixel AF, the 6D Mark II is more capable if you need video autofocus, such as when vlogging. It’s disappointing that the 6D Mark II doesn’t offer 4K shooting (which the D500 does).
Canon vs Nikon: Professional Cameras
Canon 5D Mark IV ($117 for a 3 Day Rental – See More) vs Nikon D850 ($125 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
Once you move above the intermediate camera levels, it’s a little easier to identify directly competing models. For small-body professional cameras, this means looking at Canon’s 5D Mark IV and the Nikon D850.
With both of these models being targeted towards professionals, they are both extremely capable cameras. Once again, Nikon’s dynamic range and low light capability is extremely impressive and definitively better than Canon’s. The D850 also offers significantly higher resolution (45.7MP vs 30.4MP), higher frames per second (up to 9 vs 7), a better autofocus system (when shooting through the optical viewfinder), and wins in most other specs.
The 5D Mark IV is somewhat smaller and lighter, which can make it more comfortable to use in a variety of situations. The biggest advantage for the 5D Mark IV is, like with the other models discussed, the video (and Live View shooting) capabilities helped by Dual Pixel AF, though it would have been far more convenient had Canon offered an articulating LCD screen such as the D850 (or even the 6D Mark II) has.
Canon vs Nikon: Flagship Cameras
Canon 1D X Mark II ($228 for a 3 Day Rental – See More) vs Nikon D5 ($246 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
In reality, anybody looking at buying a flagship camera is going to have very specific (and often niche) needs that are going to dictate what they buy.
Many of the specs between the two cameras are going to be highly competitive. They have almost the same resolution and usable ISO range. Somewhat surprisingly, the 1D X Mark II actually has a better dynamic range at low ISOs while the Nikon wins when you have to push the ISO up. In dark conditions, the Canon does very well but the D5 is exceptional. Overall, the Canon might have the edge in bright light while Nikon moves ahead in low light.
Both cameras have exceptionally fast frames per second shooting speeds. Canon’s is a little bit faster (16 vs. 14), but the biggest advantage is that the 1D X Mark II allows you to see the image between shots in the burst while the D5 doesn’t. This makes it easier to maintain composition in the middle of a burst. On the other hand, while the Canon’s autofocus is extremely good, the Nikon’s is even better, able to track even the fastest moving subjects.
The only area where there is a clear-cut winner between these two cameras comes if you need to shoot video. The 1D X Mark II not only has Dual Pixel AF, it also offers faster frame rates at both 4K and 1080p (60 and 120 respectively vs. 30 and 60 from the D5) and less cropping in 4k mode.
Canon or Nikon: Which is Right for You?
Which brand works better is, in many cases, going to come down to you as a photographer. There are definitely areas where one brand is going to offer advantages over the other. Across the board, Nikon’s sensors offer incredible dynamic range and low light performance. Photography is all about capturing light and Nikon truly can allow you to do that better in challenging conditions.
On the other hand, if you’re wanting your DSLR to offer the capability to also take great video without having to manually focus, especially if you want to vlog or record on the fly, Canon’s Dual Pixel AF is leagues ahead of anything Nikon offers. However, many vloggers (and photographers, for that matter) are migrating to mirrorless camera systems that have their own advantages. Sony is currently leading in mirrorless, but Nikon and Canon have both released their own mirrorless systems very recently. See Canon’s full frame mirrorless collection here and Nikon’s here.
And if you’re at the point of looking into flagship cameras, odds are that you have an extensive number of lenses and other equipment for a specific mount. Outside of video, it’s debatable if either flagship offers enough benefit to justify spending potentially tens of thousands of dollars to switch entire systems. If you already have lenses for F mount or EF mount, then that quickly narrows your decision.
Everything here is also only looking at the capabilities of the camera bodies, which are arguably the least important part of a camera system. Ansel Adams famously said “the single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” Many photographers would further argue that the next most important component is the lens. Ergonomics and the layout of a camera’s menus and controls can also impact one’s preferences. With a good eye for composition, good light, and a good lens, you can get phenomenal images with just about any camera body.
*As of this writing. Pricing subject to change.