Nikon and Canon Differences

As part of my research into the D750 last year I looked for as many “Nikon vs Canon” articles I could find. While some were religious debates, a few were very useful. As an owner of both systems I can say they are both good; one is always ahead of the other in at least one category and those differences are what influence purchasing decisions. Learning the new system has given me a new appreciation for what is different. Here’s what I know so far.

Terminology

Both companies provide similar technologies, with different names of course. The table below translates the terminology between the two.

Nikon Canon Explanation
Nikkor Canon Nikon lenses use the “Nikkor” branding while Canon lenses simply use the Canon branding. Nikkor = Nikon.
VR IS “Vibration Reduction” or “Image Stabilized” lens that reduces hand-held blurring resulting from slow shutter speeds. Both companies’ technology allows 2-4 stops of reduction and support multiple modes and panning detection.
AF-S USM Autofocus lens with a “silent” or “ultrasonic” motor inside the lens. They are fast-focusing, quiet, and allow instant manual override. All of Canon’s focus motors are inside the lens, but cheaper lenses use slower and louder micro-motors. Some of its newer lenses use STM (stepper) motors which are in between micro-motors and USM. Nikon’s non AF-S lenses use screw-type autofocus where the focus motor actually lives in the camera body and turns a screw in the lens to focus. This is louder and usually slower than an AF-S setup. To make matters even more confusing some of Nikon’s lower-end models don’t even have an internal motor and cannot use non AF-S lenses. Also, different bodies have different strengths of screw-type motors; higher-end bodies can turn the screw with more force at a faster rate. Nikon also has a couple of STM lenses.
DX EF-S Neither company directly labels their cameras based on sensor size, but these lens designations can technically apply. Denotes a crop sensor camera or lens whose sensor is physically smaller than a frame of 35mm film. Crop sensor cameras magnify the focal length of the lens (i.e. the size of the subject) based on their size relative to 35mm film. A DX Nikon multiplies by 1.5 while an EF-S Canon multiplies by 1.6. As a result of this magnification crop sensor cameras offer more “zoom” than full frame cameras while sacrificing ultra ultra wide angles.
FX EF Neither company directly labels their cameras based on sensor size, but these lens designations can technically apply. Denotes a full frame camera or lens whose sensor is the same size as a frame of 35mm film.
None L Canon applies the “L” or “luxury” designation to its highest quality and most expensive lenses. Canon L lenses are either cream colored or black with a red ring around them. Nikon doesn’t brand its best differently than its other lenses, instead designating them by their price and combination of features. Generally Nikon has a match for every one of Canon’s major L lenses.
Micro  Macro  Nikon designates lenses that can reproduce a subject up to a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio as Micro (for microscope) whereas Canon (and everyone else in the industry) designates them Macro. Functionally and optically they are equivalent.
 Speedlite  Speedlite?  Nikon calls their flashes “Speedlites” whereas I thought Canon called them “flashes”, but apparently I’m wrong and just haven’t been paying attention.
CLS None Nikon has something called the Creative Lighting System which provides fine grained control over a group of wireless flashes. Canon does not have a similar system and instead requires the photographer to determine output ratios and set them.
 NEF CR2  The respective RAW formats of each brand. Both offer various sizes and compression levels.

Lenses

In general both brands have a similar selection of quality and economy zooms and primes. Overall performance and image quality are usually similar between the two but at certain times one company may have a better combination of features, quality, and price for a given focal range than another. Canon appears to offer a few more fast zooms and also offers a couple of faster primes in the f/1.2 and f/1.0 range. Nikon has made lenses at those speeds, but none that have autofocus. Many lenses from Canon’s L series still have metal housings while many of Nikon’s lenses have moved to sturdy plastic.

Nikon’s lens mount is forwards-compatible with nearly all of its cameras. You can use very lenses from the seventies and earlier (with modification) on brand new DSLRs. As a result, Nikon’s lenses use a combination of various technologies – aperture levers, screw autofocus, internal focusing motors, and distance information. Canon created a brand new, incompatible mount in 1987. All focus and aperture control is electronic; there are no levers or screws. Canon’s autofocus lenses have never included aperture rings while some Nikon lenses still include them. Nikon also still manufactures manual-only lenses.

Nikon includes more accessories than Canon. Generally all Nikon lenses include a bag (not such a big deal) and a lens hood (far more important). Non-L series Canon lenses require a separate purchase for each of those items at around $30 a piece. Nikon also offers a substantially longer 5 year warranty on its lenses than Canon’s 1 year.

Pricing

As far as I’ve seen, both companies’ lenses are very similar in optical quality and feature sets. Nikon’s lenses are more expensive than Canon’s and are harder to find refurbished. This applies to other accessories as well. Below is a table of equivalent products that I have researched along with their prices. In nearly every case, Canon’s products cost 10 – 25% less and are often offered refurbished.

  Canon Nikon  
24 – 105mm f/4 VR Lens EF 24 – 105mm f/4L IS USM AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR The EF 24 – 105mm L is incredibly sharp for its range… if you get a good copy. Mine was bad and I didn’t realize it until after the 90 day refurbished warranty was up. As a result Nikon version is far more impressive to me. I’ve owned it for more than a year and continue to be impressed.
New / Refurbished $1000 / $600 $1100 / $900
70 – 200mm f/4 VR Lens EF 70 – 200mm f/4L IS USM AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR Both have excellent image quality, inner focus, non-extending barrels, image stabilization, and weather sealing. I feel like the Canon had amazing contrast but that may have been because I was just so excited to have it in the first place.
New / Refurbished $1150 / $959 $1400 / NA
85mm f/1.8 Prime Lens EF 85mm f/1.8 USM AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G Both have similar optical quality, focus motors, and focus speed. I’ve never owned the Canon version; info based on reviews.
New / Refurbished $370 / $336 $480 / NA
50mm f/1.8 Prime Lens EF 50mm 1.8 STM AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G Both have similar optical qualities; Nikon has a faster, quieter motor. Canon focuses more closely and has less distortion. I had the older version of this Canon lens. It was built like crap but produced better photos than I thought it did, looking back now.
New / Refurbished $125 / $90 $220 / NA
Mid-Range Flash Speedlite 430EX III-RT SB-700 AF Similar power and features; Canon is newer and features radio wireless; Nikon includes color filters and diffuser
New / Refurbished $300 / NA $330 / $230 The 430EX III is too new to be refurbished; the prior model is available for $260
Battery Grip BG-E11 MB-D16 Battery grip for 5D Mark III and D750. Third parties make battery grips for both that cost significantly less than the OEM versions, usually under $100.
New / Refurbished $260 / NA $350 / NA

 

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