The Canon Nikon rivalry

As an undergrad, I decided to replace my old Pentax SLR, with its dodgy light meter, with a modern camera body. At the Lens & Shutter store on Broadway in Vancouver, I ended up buying a Canon Rebel G and a 50mm f/1.8 lens (because had informed me that prime lenses were superior to zooms, especially kit zooms). I don’t recall the purchase in detail – or even whether I went in with a solid sense of which camera I wanted – but that choice locked me into the Canon system I still use today.

Given all the money I have spent on Canon-compatible photo gear since, it was a remarkably casual choice to go with that system rather than Nikon’s offering. To be sure, both manufacturers make great gear, and each has the edge on the other in a few areas. That being said, whereas my choices of Macs rather than PCs, UBC rather than SFU, and Oxford rather than Cambridge were all reasoned and intentional, I think the Canon selection was largely accidental.

The relatively few times I have handled Nikon gear have been odd experiences; the functions are the same with both sorts of equipment – ranging from commonly altered settings like aperture and ISO to less frequently used options like depth of field preview and mirror lockup. What differs is the design, and the precise mechanism through which a desired change is achieved. I imagine the difference is a bit like dancing with a man, rather than a woman, would be: the same general kinds of motion, but with surprising differences to contend with. The nomenclature differs as well. Whereas I have some kind of opinion on virtually every Canon camera produced during the last ten years or so, I have trouble remembering which Nikon dSLRs are full frame and which use crop sensors.

My aesthetic sense is that there used to be a strong presumption among professionals that Nikon was the superior brand, but that this has faded significantly in the last couple of decades. As with Windows and Mac OS, it certainly seems to be the case that the existence of a rivalry spurs innovations that are beneficial for consumers – from image stabilization to sensors with lower noise at high ISO settings. Similarly, the existence of additional brands that sometimes challenge the duopoly with innovative features is useful. If only that competition could help to drive down the exploitative prices of accessories like batteries, lens hoods, and cables…

In the long run, I expect that I will eventually dabble in a few other kinds of photography. When they become a bit older and richer, most photographers seem to try some kind of medium or large format camera system. Given the nature of such cameras, the resulting photos tend to have a high level of beauty and technical quality, but little spontaneity or energy. The other probable avenue is some kind of serious small camera: either something relatively mainstream and inexpensive like Canon’s G9/10/11 series, or some kind of expensive film camera like a Leica M-series rangefinder.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “The Canon Nikon rivalry”

  1. My film gear was all Canon now I own a Nikon dslr. It takes a while to get used to a new camera and a bit longer to a completely new system… but at the end, a camera is a camera and most have the same basic functionalities.

    As for “serious small camera”, the micro 4/3 cameras seem quite interesting.

  2. As of 2008, DSLR sales are dominated by Canon’s and Nikon’s offerings. For 2007, Canon edged out Nikon with 41% of worldwide sales to the latter’s 40%, followed by Sony and Olympus each with approximately 6% market share. In the Japanese domestic market, Nikon captured 43.3% to Canon’s 39.9%, with Pentax a distant third at 6.3%.[27]

    The duopoly of Canon and Nikon is sometimes referred to as “Canikon” or “Nikanon” in online forums in skeptical challenge to the presumptive acceptance of these manufacturer’s cameras as always “the best”. Nevertheless, Canon and Nikon have used their professional market presence especially persuasively in the sale of entry level offerings. Online contributors often challenge the “Canikon/Nikanon” supposed superiority when they believe there are superior innovations from the smaller DSLR manufacturers.

    The DSLR market is dominated by Japanese companies, including all of the top five manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony), as well as Fujifilm, Mamiya, Panasonic, and Sigma. Leica is German, Hasselblad is Swedish, and Samsung is Korean, while the American company Kodak formerly produced DSLRs as well.

  3. In general, I think the camera contributes little to good photos, most of the time. The principle way it does contribute is through limiting the depth of field – and on this count, any sensor smaller than DX (although FX is strongly preferable) is really behind in the count. I’m quite skeptical of the 4/3rds system – especially given how small the current entry level DX camera bodies are.

  4. One important thing that distinguishes the Micro Four Thirds system is the small size of the lenses. Apparently, the combination of not focusing on telecentricity and not having a mirror allows them to be much smaller and lighter.

    People definitely respond differently to a small camera – like a Leica rangefinder – than they do to a hulking one like a 5D or D700 with a big lens on it.

  5. That said, I love what the large sensors in bodies like the 5D let you do in low light.

    There is little reason now to keep pushing resolution upward; that said, there are huge additional advantages from adding stop after stop of low-noise exposure capability.

  6. I don’t see why full frame bodies can’t continue to become smaller – the Nikon F75 is tiny, and that’s a full-feature, full frame body.

    What I like most about Nikon (and nikon is superior to Canon in this sense) is the interchangeability of lenses across generations. Lenses as old as 1977 (or ’59 with AI conversion) work better on a nikon D90 or D700 than they ever did on most manuel focus cameras. I hope their next line of mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras preserves F-mount compatibility. Very large aperture lenses (i.e. F2 or F1.4) will continue to achieve good subject isolation even with a sensor smaller than DX size – whereas F4 will be the new F8.

  7. “That said, I love what the large sensors in bodies like the 5D let you do in low light.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if pro and prosumer cameras go in two different directions for this reason – i.e. the successor to the D3x would have even more resolution with the same noise capability, and the D3s would have even higher sensitivity to low light, with the same resolution.

    Personally, I’m happy with the only slightly grainy ISO 1600 of the D50. I see no reason to spend even more of my money on improved cameras while the world remains in a state of constant and projected catastrophe.

  8. I feel like this should descend into a “Canon vs Nikon” argument, given the title of the post. But, actually, I couldn’t care less about that question.

    The only reason I shoot nikon is my father shot nikon, so I had access to an entire supply of lenses upon buying my first camera (50 1.4 AF, 35-70 AF, 28 2.8 MF, 80-200 F4 MF).

  9. It is sensible enough to compare Canon and Nikon. It could help those who haven’t committed yet make a choice. Also, if the firms monitor discussion of themselves online, pointing out features in the other system that look especially nice could drive development in useful ways.

  10. Well, nikon’s 7 and 9 blade diaphragms give much better sun stars than Canon’s 8 blade units. How about you fix that, Canon?

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