Nikon is Better Than Canon, or is it the Other Way Around?
Of all the major debates in the world of photography, the question of Canon versus Nikon ranks near the top. Both brands are good, but which is better?
First, a disclaimer: I've been a Nikon shooter for close to 30 years now, although my first SLR camera was a Canon. More about this later in the article.
Both companies have been around for some time now. Nikon started out back in 1917. Canon's predecessor, Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory got its start in 1937. Canon is a considerably larger company than is Nikon. Both are huge conglomerates with tentacles into a lot more than just consumer cameras and lenses, but Canon has a total net income of roughly 3 times that of Nikon. If Canon really wanted to, it probably could outspend Nikon enough to decisively come out on top, but that's unlikely to happen. Once you factor in the percentage of each actually dedicated to imaging, Nikon isn't quite as far behind Canon in size as their total incomes indicate.
Regardless of how their balance sheets work out, both companies are big enough and have enough resources that capital isn't generally the limiting factor in what either does. Each one is limited primarily by their own ingenuity and skills in executing on what they come up with. And both have come up with quite a lot over the years, to the benefit of us all.
But each company does have a different attitude and approach to doing things. Others are free to dispute the way I describe the differences here, but I'll tell you the way I see it.
Canon is a great marketing company. This sometimes leads though to marketing based decision making as it did with the focusing system that purported to follow where your eyes were looking. Enough time has passed that I think it's safe for all of us to agree this was an idea that sounded cooler than it actually was. Nikon is a pathetic marketing company on the whole, although there have been exceptions over the years. Whereas Canon is primarily marketing driven, Nikon tends to more driven by the engineering, almost like their engineers labored away as mad scientist somewhere with little outside world contact. They tend to not release anything until they are good and ready no matter what Canon does, even if we Nikon shooters wish they would. Canon also comes out with new models more frequently than Nikon does. The current models from each tend maintain reasonable parity though so it's somewhat like Canon takes two half-steps to each of Nikon's more gradual steps. The two companies may take different routes to get there, but both do get there in the end.
The usability of each system shows differences too. I think Nikon spends more effort sculpting their camera body designs before committing them to manufacturing than does Canon. Admittedly perhaps I'm more used to Nikon, but their cameras feel better in my hand than to Canon bodies. Then again then there seems to be no logical reason why Nikon metering scales read right to left and Nikon lenses fasten to Nikon bodies by rotating the wrong way. In this modern digital age, some of these directional choices can be reversed through custom user settings. Once you get used to it, either way round works of course, but Nikon decided years ago to do some things backward for some reason.
Few photographers can afford or justify a significant investment in both systems. Camera gear isn't cheap. Most of us made a decision at some point to go with one or the other and generally never look back. By definition, a camera with an interchangeable lens mount forms the basis of a system. Few photographers who own an SLR body have just a single lens. Many of us have quite a few. I'd have to go upstairs and start counting to tell you how many lenses I own. And once you start investing in a system, you have to have a serious reason to switch to a different system.
In my case, my first SLR camera was a Canon, but it was a cheap one that I actually won in a contest so I didn't pay for it. My only lenses where equally cheap, third party zoom lenses. So I didn't have any sort of serious commitment to the Canon brand. When it came time to buy an SLR body, I did a lot of research and eventually landed in the Nikon camp. Back in the day, two of my favorite nature photographers, John Shaw and Galen Rowell were both Nikon shooters, so perhaps I didn't really do that much research.
Another thing though that drove me to Nikon was the fact that Canon ticked off a huge percentage of their user base when they introduced the EF lens mount in 1987 to replace the original FD mount. The current EOS system is still based on the EF mount, but every lens with an FD mount was suddenly rendered useless. The two systems were not compatible. And yes, my original Canon body had an FD mount.
Over time, the EF mount has been a boon to Canon. With the largest mount diameter of any 35mm SLR system. I'm not clear why they chose to do this at the time, but it proved fortuitous when the time came to add more and more electronics to the camera world. Canon had room to put as many contacts as they wanted to between camera and lens. For a long time, the smaller diameter of the Nikon F mount made it difficult physically to fit everything in. Nikon used to tell us they couldn't fit both Silent Wave motors for quick focusing and VR for vibration reduction in the same lens. Of course they eventually did, but it took them longer than it did Canon for their equivalents. The size difference initially benefitted Canon again at the beginning of the digital era. Digital camera sensors need the light rays to strike them as close to straight on as possible since the photosite sensors are effectively at the bottom of wells. Computer lens design and Nikon's perseverance won out in the end of course, but Canon got to skip this challenge.
But this change in lens mount made a lot of Canon users upset. Suddenly, they were forced to sell and replace every lens they owned if they wanted to benefit from the new EF mount. Many did so, but some but many at least seriously considered jumping ship and switching to Nikon. In my case, this was at least a factor in my move to Nikon way back when. Nikon had never abandoned their user base the same way, with virtually every F-mount lens Nikon ever made still fitting on virtually every body Nikon makes even today, even if it may no longer be your best choice for that focal length. Of course, during those later years when Nikon was struggling with the smaller lens mount diameter I did have at least a few second thoughts whether I should have stuck with Canon. Nowadays, if you judge by the scores at DxOMark.com, the majority of the highest rated DSLR lenses are from Nikon.
So which should you chose? If you're already a Nikon or Canon shooter, you've already chosen. There's really very little reason to switch today. Yes, every time a noted photographer decides to switch everyone wonders if they should take it as an auspicious sign they should pay attention to. But most of these shifts in brand have more to do with the needs and circumstances of the individuals involved and rarely have any general relevance for the rest of us. If there were indeed a clear winner between Nikon and Canon, this would be well known by now. Instead, one company may appear to be ahead for a time, and then the other one perhaps will be. Again, all this competition between the two benefits all of us greatly. As much as I am committed to the Nikon brand at this point, I'm glad there's a Canon out there to keep Nikon on its toes. I have friends who shoot Canon who feel the same way in reverse.
If you're just starting out with little or no investment in either system, try both out and see what you think. But if you want to be able to get help from your friends, or perhaps borrow lenses from them, you might want to consider getting whatever they have.
The bottom line is that while Nikon and Canon have some differences, but create great products. I wouldn't have any reservations in recommending either. I'd be wary of camera brands other than Canon and Nikon since none I've seen over the years have the means to compete with the big two. Since an interchangeable lens SLR system is a system, whatever you decide will probably be what you shoot with for some time to come. You may upgrade camera bodies, or sell one lens and buy a new one, but you are unlikely to want to trade in everything all at once.