Nikon vs. Canon Cameras, Why Nikon SLRs are Best

Before I begin, know this: (1) My favorite manual-focus film camera of all time is the Canon AE-1, and (2) I consider the Canon 5D — the original, not the 5D Mark II — sensor to be a perfect replica of Fuji 35mm negative film. So anybody expecting an anti-Canon hate article will likely be disappointed.

My preference for Nikon isn’t a recent development, and it wasn’t a one-time decision. For almost two decades, I’ve continually re-evaluated my needs every 2-3 years, each time verifying that Nikon makes the best tools for my photography style.

As a freelance photojournalist, I’ve covered everything from sports to kids to politics to animals. Whether it’s an intense college baseball game or kids on a daycare playground, my gear needs to work quickly and have settings that can be completely changed before the moment is gone. I can’t spent time fiddling with knobs and digging in LCD menus — time waits for no one. Moments pass, with or without your photo. Do you want to miss an image? I sure don’t.

While it’s true that a good cameras does not make a good photographer, a good photographer does need a good camera. If your gear holds you back, your talent is being artificially limited by the tool. And that’s a frustrating place for an artist of any ilk.

Before I Get Too Deep into the Editorial…

If you’re simply looking for the quick advice on which Nikon camera is all-around “best” (including price value), then go buy the Nikon D7000. You’ll love the camera, it won’t hold you back, and it’s only $1,200 for body only or $1,500 with a kit lens.

Too expensive? Well, the Nikon D3100 is still pretty decent (better than the Canon Rebel), and available for a very cheap $600, and comes with a lens.

With that out of the way, let’s look at why I find Nikon is better than Canon…

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Why do I use Nikon?

My reasoning is simple: Nikon gear does not hinder my work. Canon does.

From my observations, the strongest supporters of Canon gear tend to be nature photographers. These are folks who mount their camera on a tripod, and their subject matter isn’t going anywhere. Those mountains will be there in 10 seconds, 10 minutes or even 10 days. There’s ample time to “play with” the camera, to dig in the menus and dials, to get all the settings perfected to take the shot.

When you have kids, however, time is fleeting. That funny face or cute moment is gone almost as quickly as it began. You don’t have time to “play with” the camera. It needs to work, and it needs to work NOW! The same is true of sports and animals, or even people in general. Nikon puts everything on easy buttons and dials — nothing is hidden or buried.

– Need more light? The ISO control has its own button.
– White balance isn’t right? Again, just a button and dial swoosh away.
– Throw it into manual, and separately adjust aperture and shutter? No problem.

Inevitably, I know some readers will think “Well, I don’t plan to use my camera professionally … blah blah blah.” — but this advice applies to you, too! Do you want your lens to twist off before great-grandma’s 89th birthday? What happens if it starts to rain at that little league game?

When it comes to the camera build quality, Canon’s consumer gear tends to break — I’ve seen it too many times. My camera isn’t like the car owned by the little old lady who only drives to church on Sundays. My SLR doesn’t sit in a bag, only removed for birthdays and holidays. It’s used weekly, sometimes daily. Lenses are changed, and it sees weather of all conditions — Alaskan snow, Seattle rain, and scorching Texas heat. It’s my tool for photography, it goes where I go, and I expect it to be like the Ford slogan — “built tough”..

Using Nikon’s photography tools, I can create the impressive and impacting images that are needed/wanted to tell a story. So it’s not so much that I “like” Nikon gear, as much as I don’t like the gear from Canon (or Minolta/Sony, Pentax, etc). And that’s not a recent development, either — Canon has, by my observations and experiences, been habitually user-unfriendly and/or poorly made for all-around use for many years.

Nikon vs. Canon, 1990s to 2010s

Let’s briefly go back about 20 years, and review Canon vs Nikon through the 1990s and 2000s, and then into the 2010s.

Early 1990s:

My earliest decision to “go Nikon” was partially influenced by the newspaper where I worked — they had a huge stock of expensive Nikon lenses that could be borrowed for assignments. For example, primes like the Nikkor AF 300mm f/2.8 or Nikkor AF 180mm f/2.8. They even had some great zoom lenses, similar to today’s modern Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 or Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8 lenses.

My first Nikon was the then-new Nikon N6006 35mm SLR, and it solved the limitations I was experiencing with my manual focus Canon SLR and autofocus Minolta SLR. Canon AF bodies and lenses were, at this time, more expensive and harder to find in the local shops, therefore not a real option.

Mid / Late 1990s:

Canon gear was suddenly easier to find, and that fast EOS focusing was really enticing. But the bodies and lens sharpness were a problem. It’s not that Canon glass was fuzzy as much as it was simply duller than less-costly Nikkors available at the time — a situation Canon later fixed with its L series glass.

During this time, Canon also seemed to be sidetracked by a psychological condition known as “measurebating” (a term that I credit to Ken Rockwell). Rather than develop the photographic abilities of the body, Canon was seemingly more interested in cramming more focal points into the viewfinder, or playing around with that ridiculous eye-controlled focus system. New cameras were almost more for bragging rights than as a tool for photography. It was in this era that Canon also began to bury more and more controls into LCD menus and awkward rear vertical dials, both in pro and consumer models.

While Canon was sidetracked, Nikon developed the D1, furthering photography into the digital era. Nikon also kept most controls on dedicated buttons or dials, for bodies of all ranges — consumer through professional, film or digital.

I swapped from N6006 to N90s to F5 during these years. (And I still have the N6006 and F5.)

Early 2000s:

The newspaper I was with wanted to enter the “digital age”, as a means of saving money (by minimizing the costly film budget). Management decided the organization would “go Canon” and all photographers would use the new in-house gear. Now, at this point in time, you basically had three kinds of digital SLR — the Nikon D1/D1x/D1h, the Canon D30, and some high-dollar Kodaks. (No, not the Canon 30D — the D30.) The D30 had horrible shutter lag, making it nearly unusable.

After my first assignment with a D30 ended, I drove directly to the camera store and purchased a used Nikon D1. I may have been a couple thousand dollars poorer for a few months, but at least I didn’t have to put up with that crap D30 anymore — unlike my coworkers, who would often bemoan how “the digital” ruined their shots. The D30 was also made from cheap plastic and broke easily — a hallmark of the late 1990s Rebel film cameras, and later Rebel digital cameras. I remember one D30 being sent to the shop at least 2-3 times that first year.

Mid / Late 2000s:

For a few years, Canon did have some better DSLR bodies and lenses (L series glass), but at this point in time I owned so many expensive Nikon-mount lenses and flash/lighting accessories that it would have been foolish to “change sides”. (A number of photographers did, however, make that costly switch!) While maybe not as good as the Canon 5D, the Nikon D200 was an exceptional camera, and I upgraded to it.

In 2007, Nikon struck back with a “death blow” that Canon is still recovering from — the release of the Nikon D3, followed by the Nikon D3s in 2009. While the Canon 5D was able to finally match the quality of 35mm negative film, the D3/D3s was able to now surpass it, with detail and low-light performance that truly made film an obsolete format for the working photographer.

At a time when Canon was getting distracted by adding video recording to its SLRs, Nikon had again been advancing the art and science of still photography. Canon could no longer resort to simply bamboozling buyers with megapixel counts and frilly features — image quality suddenly mattered again.

Although still my favorite camera for daylight photography, I retired my D200 in favor of a D3. And when the D3s came out, I traded up yet again. These were truly tools that would not hold me back. And given the incredible low-light abilities, opened up a whole new world of photography that I could only imagine in years past.

These same abilities trickled down into the lower-end bodies.

Amusingly, a lot of photographers switched back to Nikon because of the D3/D3s — and they lost a lot of money flipflopping between Nikon and Canon during this brief 5-year period.

Early 2010s:

Canon has a number of very nice cameras out there these days, like the Canon 5D MkII, Canon 7D or Canon 60D. But the Nikon cameras are simply better for still photography, be it the Nikon D7000, Nikon D700, Nikon D300s or Nikon D3s.

Even the lowly Nikon D3100 and Nikon D5000 systems are better than the Canon Rebel series bodies, in terms of the balance between features, image quality, build quality and costs.

Once funding becomes available, I’ll be buying a D7000 as a crop-sensor backup body, as well as for it’s 20-minute burst 1080p HD recording abilities. The D7000 has better video than the flagship D3s, and a great sensor for detail and low-light abilities similar to its big brother.

Nikon seems to have learned a hard lesson from Canon in the late 2000s, finally rectifying it in the early 2010s — quantity matters. Rather than concentrate on 1-2 bodies every 2-3 years, Nikon now understands it needs to make bodies for all price ranges, and as of the date of this post, there are no fewer than 7 bodies readily available for all needs, from the D3100 to the D3x. They’ve mastered the rare skill of having both quality and quantity.

Parting Thoughts

Cameras are my tools. I don’t have loyalty to them, and I don’t much care for the “fanboys” of the world either. I have work to do, and personifying gear is both silly and ridiculous. Aside from fond memories of my Canon AE-1, and the years of my life it represents, I have no emotional attachment for or against Canon. It’s simply a company that makes cameras that conflict with my workflow and shooting style. As such, Nikon is a “better” camera.

There are many photographers who surely feel the opposite, and do quite well at their work. Whether you want a Nikon or a Canon — or even the gear now made by Sony/Minolta, Pentax, Panasonic or others — is a decision that can only be determined by your own needs and use. I gave you my reasons, and I hope this helps you in your camera buying/upgrading decisions.

Mostly important, when it comes to buying a new camera, do it from a reliable known-trusted store. Don’t find the cheapest company on Google or a price-matching site, and don’t use eBay — you’ll be sorry. There are lots of camera scammers out there, including seemingly “legitimate” businesses based in New York. I suggest you buy your gear from one of these these known-reliable stores, which generally also have the best possible prices:

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