I’m primarily a Canon shooter. I use a Canon 6D as my primary camera, with several other bodies for backup or other shooting situations. I’ve currently got 5 working Canon DSLRs, as well as three film bodies, and I’ve amassed quite a large collection of lenses, flashes, and other gear as well. And I’ve been very happy with all of it. But sometimes you start to doubt your choices when you start reading articles online about how Nikon’s and Sony’s cameras are capable of producing images with more detail, greater dynamic range of bright vs. dark, and a wider range of colors. Did I choose the wrong brand? Am I making a mistake by sticking with what I’ve got? Or should I sell it all and switch?
So I’ve spent a bit of time reading up on what the advantages and disadvantages of the different brands are. I even bought a Nikon camera and couple of lenses so I could see what they offer. I’ll save my conclusion for the end, so bear with me for a bit.
I’m making all comparisons between similar models… so, for example when I make a statement about a feature, I’m referring to competing models between brands… I won’t compare features on high-end models of one brand to low-end models of another brand. I’m trying to be as objective and honest as I can be.
BodiesIf I were to go by specifications alone, both Nikon and Sony produce camera bodies that have more detail in terms of resolution, dynamics, and breadth of colors. The numbers are pretty clear on that. As far as Nikon goes, they’ve stuck with the more traditional SLR design, with an optical viewfinder and reflex mirror that moves out of the way of the sensor when shooting an image, whereas Sony is producing basically all mirrorless designs, relying on electronic viewfinders. I won’t really get much into the reflex vs. mirrorless debate here, but I do prefer the optical viewfinder because of its significantly higher resolution and lack of delay. Someday mirrorless designs may make up for those issues, but as someone who usually shoots with manual focus, the highest resolution viewfinder is essentially a must-have for me.
In terms of autofocus ability, each brand has standout models. I don’t really believe that any brand has an inherent advantage over another. Having used both Canon and Nikon bodies, I prefer the way that the Canon models work. Especially in low-light situations.
VideoAs of today, Sony probably has the advantage of the best looking video when comparing models with similar feature sets. Canon is the other standout here, with its pretty amazing DualPixel autofocus on the 70D. Both Nikon and Sony produce images with more detail. Nikon still seems to have trouble with the “Jello” effect more than the other two brands, though they have gotten better. Certain Canon models have more moiré issues than the others, so that needs to be considered as well.
LensesHere’s the make-or-break for me… whatever brand I go with has to have good quality lenses, and a wide variety of them, at affordable prices. I’ve found that sticking with OEM lenses usually gets you the best results when compatibility, affordability, and autofocus are taken into consideration.
So here’s the bottom line… Sony’s selection of lenses pales in comparison to both Canon and Nikon. The difference is huge. There are less than a dozen lenses for the Sony “A” series, which is really the only line I’d potentially be interested in. So, for me, Sony is out. They have some amazing lenses, but being limited to just a few (especially considering their cost) isn’t viable for me. For people without sophisticated lens needs, and significant budgets, Sony could be a great choice. I use a really wide variety of lenses, especially primes. I really don’t think I’d be able to give that up.
So I’m back to the traditional Canon vs. Nikon debate. What I’ve found, though, when researching this (primarily on dxomark.com, though many YouTube review videos are being taken into consideration) is that unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money on Nikon lenses, that Nikon’s image quality really suffers relative to equivalent Canon lenses. Nikon produces just a handful of lenses that autofocus on the less expensive bodies under $1000 that are rated to give more than about 10 megapixels of resolution, whereas Canon has a lot to choose from. Comparing Canon to Nikon lenses, in almost every case the Canons do better in terms of sharpness. Which for me is the most important thing. I don’t want to spend time taking images only to come home and find out that they are always soft. It is especially true with prime lenses, where Canon has a huge advantage. Canon’s lenses often resolve nearly twice as much detail as the Nikon equivalents.
Take the Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8D vs. the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. The Nikon gets a 8 MP score for its sharpness, whereas the Canon gets 14MP. And the Canon is cheaper. And it autofocuses on all bodies, not just the high-end models like the Nikon (Nikon “AF” lenses do not autofocus on the D3xxx or D5xxx series of cameras – you have to step up to “AF-S’' lenses or a more expensive body for that). The difference in performance between these two lenses isn’t at all atypical comparing equivalent models.
To be fair, Nikon also offers a 50mm AF-S f/1.8G lens, which does autofocus on all bodies, and gets a 15 MP score, but it is more than twice as expensive as Canon’s ($220 vs. $100). And it is the only one of a few primes in Nikon’s lineup under $1000 that gets a score over 10 MP. Every one of Canon’s prime lenses scores 14 MP or higher. Performance with kit lenses included with camera bodies is similar… Canon’s are all better. For all of the love that Nikon gets from its owners, I was shocked at the difference. And choices on the Nikon side become much more scarce if having autofocus on a lower-end body is a requirement. I think there are only two AF-S Nikon primes under $1000 able to resolve 14 MP of detail or better. Canon has over a dozen.
One could argue that you don’t have to go with OEM lenses. And that is true. My own experience with third-party lenses, though, has been disappointing. Not necessarily in terms of image quality (though they do often lag behind), but of build quality. Every third-party lens I’ve ever bought has broken on me. Every single one. But I’ve never had anything go wrong with any of my OEM lenses.
ConclusionSo what does it boil down to for me? I’m sticking with Canon. Having cameras with the best available sensors would be awesome, but if the options for the glass to put in front of it aren’t as good, I’m afraid I just couldn’t make a switch. It would be nice if you could put Canon glass on front of a Nikon, but without complicated adapters which inherently have to reduce image quality that just isn’t possible. Or if I was insanely rich and could afford boutique lenses, the story would probably be different. But I’m very much on a budget, so I’ve got to stick with more affordable choices for now. And for today, that still means Canon.
So it boils down to this: Nikon’s choices for someone who likes to shoot prime lenses with the highest quality image are weak compared to Canon. And Sony doesn’t even show up for that contest. Those are the deciding factors for me.
I know that there are going to be a lot of people upset with my conclusion. And they’ll even use DxOMark’s data to try to make their point. Keep in mind that I’m making my decision based solely on achieving the best quality image while keeping lenses affordable. If budget goes out the window, then the decision very likely could be different.