Canon or Nikon – Which DSLR Camera Should I Buy?

What camera should I buy?

I am asked this by friends, family, strangers, and parents of budding photographers on a fairly regular basis. Knowing that the real question usually is, “what is the cheapest camera I can get away with?”, I typically tell them to stick to the main companies, buy what feels good in their hands, and wait for a major holiday to make the purchase – this is when you will get the best bang for your buck.

I should also confess that while I buy a lot of cameras, I don’t really care that much about the specs. I didn’t even know how many megapixels my cameras had until I gathered the data together for this article. Whatever camera I buy next will be better, stronger, and faster than the ones I currently use; that’s all that I need to know. But the number of  megapixels is one of the easiest ways for companies to market their cameras and hook you in. More is better right? Not really, actually. It probably matters very little in the end, so don’t get to caught up in the hype.

Here I have collected data on five cameras from each of the two major companies on the market – Canon and Nikon. Both companies make great tools and whichever side you choose is a good decision. Most cameras do all the same things and have all the same features, but the more you spend, the more features, speed, and durability you get. I will try to keep the technical noise to a minimum while helping you decide which camera is right for you or the person you are buying for.

What should I be looking for?

For the most part, all modern cameras have similar set of features. With a few exceptions, they will have 20+ megapixels, shoot in a RAW format, have various automatic modes, record 1080p HD video, have an HD display screen on the back, shoot at least 5 frames per second continuously, have very high ISO settings, and have built-in Wi-Fi connectivity.

The biggest difference between the entry level cameras (groups 1 & 2 below) and the more elite cameras (groups 3-5 below) is the sensor – this is what gathers the light your camera turns into a photo. The lower group options have a Nikon DX or Canon APS-C sized sensor. This sensor is about 2/3rds the size of a full frame sensor. Without getting too technical, a smaller sensor means that everything else in the camera can also be smaller, and thus less expensive to produce. The last three options all have Nikon FX or Canon Full-Frame sensors, which are the same size as a piece of 35 mm film. Larger sensors mean larger technology, bigger cameras, and a higher production cost. There are pros and cons to both, but my money has always been on the full frame sensor.

The least sexy thing to talk about in digital cameras, but the most important to me, are the algorithms that run them. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated functions. The more money you spend, the better the camera. The better the camera, the better the algorithms. The better the algorithms, the better your camera does at converting light into photographs. Algorithms run everything from auto focus to white balance to high-ISO noise reduction.

So, Canon or Nikon?

Choosing a brand is a big deal, because you are probably going to stick with that brand for a very long time. There is no right or wrong answer, no company is really any better than the other at a functional and technological level – they just keep leap-frogging over each other year after year. How you choose which brand to go with is totally up to you; and is sometimes completely arbitrary. Is the price right? Does it feel good in your hands? Does the button layout seem to make sense? Do you have a friend or family member that you can trade lens and accessories with? Does one come with a free tripod or camera bag? I originally shot Nikon because that is what my dad shot with. I later switched to Canon because the newspaper I worked for was all Canon and I wanted a seamless transition between personal-work and work-work. Now my dad shoots Canon as well. Very little of our decisions had anything to do with functional or technical qualifications.

Note on pricing: These prices reflect the standard offerings from Canon or Nikon. They do not take into account any seasonal sales. The prices on Amazon will be cheaper leading up to Christmas.

Group 1

This is where we start. If you are buying on a budget, going on a nice vacation and need something serviceable, or someone in your life wants to start dabbling with DSLR cameras then begin with this group. These are small, simple, light, and affordable. For casual users, this is a good fit. Don’t be afraid to buy a cheaper camera if that is what you need! The most important thing about taking quality photos is the photographer – not the camera.

Canon Rebel T5i – $620

18.0MP APS-C CMOS Sensor

3.0″ Vari-Angle Touchscreen LCD

9-Point All Cross-Type AF System

5.0 fps Continuous Shooting

ISO 100-12800, Expandable to 25600

1080p HD Video Recording with Continuous AF

Nikon D5300 – $700

24.2MP DX-Format CMOS Sensor

3.2″ Vari-Angle LCD Monitor

39-Point AF Sensor

Continuous Shooting up to 5 fps

Expandable Sensitivity to ISO 25,600

1080p HD Video Recording

Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity

Group 2

Both of these cameras bring the quality up a notch. While still maintaining a small size and affordability, their features increase in quality. The Canon 70D also has some fantastic video recording upgrades, like a cinema-style auto focus and a touchscreen to aid with auto focus while recording.

Canon 70D – $1,050

20.2MP APS-C CMOS Sensor

3.0″ Vari-Angle Touchscreen

19-Point All Cross-Type AF System

ISO 100-12,800 (Expandable to ISO 25,600)

Continuous Shooting Rate up to 7 fps

1080p HD Video Recording with Movie Servo AF

Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity

Nikon D7100 – $1,000

24.1MP DX-format CMOS Sensor

3.2″ LCD Monitor

51-point AF with 15 Cross-type Sensors

6 fps up to 100 Shots at Full Resolution

1080p HD Video Recording

Built-In Flash with Commander Function

Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity

Group 3

This is where things start to get interesting for more experienced photographers. With a larger investment in equipment, the benefits really start to emerge. Both of these cameras feature full-frame camera sensors, more precise auto focus, stronger housing, and improved algorithms.

Canon 6D – $1,700

20.2MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor

3.0″ High Resolution LCD

11-Point AF with Center Cross-Type Point

Up to 4.5 Full Resolution fps

Extended ISO Range of 50-102,400

1080p HD Video Recording with Manual Controls

Built-In HDR and Multiple Exposure Modes

Built-In Wi-Fi and GPS Connectivity

Nikon D750 – $2,500

24.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor

3.2″ Tilting LCD Monitor

51-Point AF Sensor

Continuous Shooting up to 6.5 fps

ISO 12,800, Extended to ISO 51,200

1080p HD Video Recording

Built-In Wi-Fi Connectivity

Time Lapse Shooting & Exposure Smoothing

Group 4

These are the cameras for people that are really serious about photography – shooters that are either semi-pro or fully professional will tend to start at this level for their gear. These cameras have full-frame sensors, larger/more durable bodies, and faster auto focus. The dual memory card slots are great for increased photo/video storage and you can also write to them simultaneously – hedging your bets against corrupt cards.

Canon 5D Mk III – $3,400

22.3MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor

3.2″ High Resolution LCD

61-Point High Density AF

Up to 6.0 FPS Continuous Mode

Extended ISO Range of 50-102,400

1080/30p and 720/60p HD Recording

Dual CF and SD Memory Card Slots

Built-In HDR and Multiple Exposure Modes

Durable Magnesium-Alloy Construction

Nikon D810 – $3,500

36.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor

3.2″ LCD Monitor

Continuous Shooting to 5 fps in FX Mode

51 Point AF Sensor

Expandable Sensitivity to ISO 51,200

1080p HD Video Recording

Dual CF and SD Memory Card Slots

External Mic and Headphone Inputs

Group 5

These cameras are the best DSLR cameras on the market. They are big, heavy, durable, and full of the best technology that is available. They are the workhorses of the photo-world. Some of the smaller cameras might have specific features that are more refined, but these cameras are not designed to be everything to everyone, they are designed to be the best DSLR cameras for working professional photographers.

Canon 1DX – $7,000

18.1Mp Full Frame CMOS Sensor

3.2″ LCD Screen

61-Point High Density Auto Focus

Eye-Level Pentaprism Viewfinder

Dual CF Card Recording Media

Magnesium Alloy Body

1920 x 1080p HD Video Capture

Live View Still and Video Recording

Nikon D4s – $7,000

16.2MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor

3.2″ LCD Monitor

51-Point AF Sensor

11 fps Shooting for 200 Shots with AE/AF

Native ISO 25,600, Extended to ISO 409,600

1080p HD Video Recording

Companies like Sony, Pentax, and Sigma also make reasonably good DSLRs, but lack in product diversity, availability, accessories, etc. They aren’t better or worse, just not as proven in the DSLR field as Canon or Nikon. If they feel better in your hands, then they are the right choice for you.

Blair shot with Nikon F401, F90, F5, D1, D200, and D2H cameras for the first part of his career, but switched to Canon in 2006 and has used 5D, 5D Mk II, 5D Mk III, 1D Mk III, and 1D Mk IV cameras since then. Currently, he shoots with a paid of Canon 5D Mk IIIs and a 1D Mk IV – a 1DX and/or a 7D Mk II may be added to the family in the near future.

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