Canon vs Nikon: which DSLR should you buy?

31st Mar 2011 | 09:01

Canon vs Nikon: which DSLR should you buy?

The best from the current Nikon and Canon DSLRs

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs Sub-£500

The two biggest players in the DSLR market have launched a feast of new cameras over the last few months, updating and adding to an already excellent range of models.

But in the Nikon vs Canon DSLR battle, which one is best for your needs?

We've rounded up the main Canon and Nikon cameras from each manufacturer's beginner, intermediate and advanced DSRL lineups and undertaken an in-depth comparison of the key specs and features on offer.

Using this information, we've analysed what you get for your money from the current Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras in the three main price brackets of sub-£500, £500-£1000 and £1000 or above.

Ultimately, we hope by the end of this article you will be better placed to answer the question: Nikon or Canon?

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs under £500

Canon 1100D - £420
Nikon D3100 - £400

Despite being Europe's best selling DSLR for the first half of 2010, the Nikon D3000 was already looking a bit long in the tooth, with a fairly low-res 10.2Mp sensor and a complete lack of Live View or video capture facilities.

The updated Nikon D3100 puts that to rights, with a new 14.2Mp sensor and EXPEED 2 image processor, putting most of advanced Nikon DSLR cameras to shame, at least at the time of its launch.

Canon vs nikon

Canon has fought back with its new EOS 1100D, the long-awaited Canon 1000D replacement. New features in this Canon DSLR include a higher-res 12.2Mp image sensor feeding a DIGIC IV image processor, video capture and Canon's advanced iFCL (intelligent Focus Colour Luminance) metering system which is more in line with Nikon's 3D Colour Matrix II metering system featured on the D3100.

Both the Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras do a good job of keeping things simple for beginners, with a range of full-auto and dedicated shooting modes for the likes of landscapes, portraits and sports.

Canon has added a 'Basic+' facility to its previously somewhat hamstrung scene modes, enabling basic adjustments like exposure compensation. The Creative Auto mode featured on most other current Canon DSLR cameras is also added, simplifying settings for the likes of controlling depth of field.

The Nikon D3100's Guide shooting mode goes one better, offering a handy in-camera guide to freezing the action, blurring the background and more besides. It's great for beginners who want to experiment with taking their photography to the next level.

Canon vs nikon

Image quality is a little more punchy from the Nikon DSLR, and its Active D-Lighting system is excellent for reigning in highlights while also boosting detail in dark shadows, working a little more effectively than the Auto Lighting Optimizer on the Canon DSLR.

The Canon 1100D moves up to a 9-point autofocus system, whereas the older EOS 1000D only had 7-point autofocus, but the Nikon D3100 still wins out with its 11-point AF.

The Canon 1100D's sensitivity range is ISO 100-6400 and the Nikon D3100's standard range is ISO 100-3200, but the Nikon DSLR also features expanded settings of ISO 6400 and 12800.

Video capture is a new addition to both Canon and Nikon beginner DSLRs, but the Canon 1100D only offers 720p at 25/30fps (frames per second), whereas the Nikon D3100 boasts Full HD 1080p at 24fps and 720p at 24/25/30fps. Neither Nikon or Canon camera has a socket for attaching an external microphone for video recording.

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs £500-£1000

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs £500-£1000

Canon 550D - £520
Canon 600D - £660
Canon 60D - £780
Nikon D90 - £530
Nikon D7000 - £890

Canon redefined the 'intermediate' DSLR market with the EOS 550D. This Canon DSLR inherited many of the major attractions of the much more expensive Canon 7D, including a class-leading 18Mp-resolution CMOS sensor, new iFCL (intelligent Focus Colour Luminance) exposure metering, high-res 1040k 3.0-inch LCD and Full HD 1080p video capture complete with an external microphone socket for high-quality sound recording.

Everything's wrapped up in a very compact and lightweight polycarbonate resin shell, but this ultimately makes the Canon camera feel a bit plasticky and occasional corners have been cut in build quality.

For example, the viewfinder is of the cheaper pentamirror variety, rather than being a proper pentaprism viewfinder.

Canon vs nikon

The closest priced Nikon DSLR equivalent is the D90, which is something of a classic. Sturdy build quality includes an excellent pentaprism viewfinder, highly accurate 3D Colour Matrix II exposure metering system and 11-point autofocus.

The Nikon D90 can certainly match the Canon 550D for outright image quality when making a D90 vs 550D comparison but, in other respects, the Nikon D90 looks rather outdated.

Canon vs nikon

Sensor resolution is comparatively low at 12.3Mp and video recording is limited to 720p at 24fps, with only mono sound. The sensitivity range of ISO 200-3200 (ISO 6400 expanded) also loses out against the Canon 550D's ISO 100-6400 (ISO 12800 expanded). We've found the D90's images tend to look a little grainier than the 550D's at high ISO settings.

The next big contest is between the Canon 60D vs Nikon D7000. Both of these new DSLR cameras are at the top end of the intermediate level, bordering on advanced, semi-pro territory.

The Canon 60D shares the same 18Mp sensor resolution as the EOS 550D, 600D and 7D Canon cameras, while upgrading the EOS 550D/600D's pentamirror viewfinder to a more advanced pentaprism unit.

As the direct successor to the venerable EOS 50D Canon DSLR, the Canon 60D adds video capture with a complete range of 24/25/30fps options for Full HD 1080p shooting.

There's also a neat range of in-camera image processing options, with new creative filters, plus a facility for rating your images while reviewing them on the excellent 3.0-inch 1040k resolution LCD.

Canon vs nikon

The Canon 60D's LCD has a fully articulating or pivoting function, which is great for shooting from awkwardly high or low angles, and even for taking self-portraits.

Nikon actually featured this arrangement in its older D5000 camera but has dropped it on subsequent Nikon DSLRs, such as the D7000, which features a fixed 3-inch 920k LCD.

In some respects, the Nikon D7000 outclasses the Canon 60D in a Nikon vs Canon comparison. The D7000 has a 39-point rather than 9-point autofocus system, a faster 6fps vs 5.3fps continuous shooting rate, dual media card slots instead of a single slot, and a tougher magnesium alloy vs plastic body.

Canon vs nikon

The standard ISO range is ISO 100-6400 in both cases, although the Nikon D7000 is expandable to ISO 25600 whereas the Canon 60D's maximum is ISO 12800.

Like the Nikon D3100, there's Nikon's new-generation EXPEED 2 image processing engine. In-camera image editing and RAW conversion is also particularly good.

The Canon 60D fights back vs the Nikon D7000 with a better range of HD video shooting, offering Full HD 1080p at 24/25/50fps and 720p at 50/60fps, whereas the Nikon D7000 can only shoot 1080p at 24fps, and 720p at 24/25fps.

The Canon 60D also has a higher-resolution 18Mp sensor but, then again, the Nikon D7000's new 16.2Mp sensor comes very close.

As with other Nikon vs Canon models throughout the range, the D7000 tends to produce punchier images straight off the camera, whereas the Canon 60D is a little more restrained and true-to-life in most of its various colour modes and picture styles.

Images from the EOS 60D can therefore more often benefit from a little post-processing, but at least Canon DSLRs are supplied with the excellent Digital Photo Professional program for RAW editing and conversion, whereas Nikon Capture costs an additional £130.

Bridging the price gap between the Canon 550D vs Nikon D90 and Canon 60D vs Nikon D7000 battles is the new Canon 600D. We've come to this new Canon DSLR last, as it sits between the two camps.

Canon vs nikon

In essence, there are very few changes from the Canon 550D in this new Canon camera, as it has the same resolution sensor and image processing engine.

The only major differences are that this latest Canon DSLR inherits the Canon 60D's articulating LCD, the new Basic+ adjustment of shooting parameters in Basic Zone shooting modes, and an on-screen feature guide, somewhat similar to that featured on the Nikon D3100.

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs £1,000 and above

Canon vs Nikon: DSLRs £1,000 and above

Canon 7D - £1,145
Canon 5D Mk II - £1,650
Nikon D300s - £1,020
Nikon D700 - £1,735

Once you pass the £1,000 barrier for a Canon or Nikon DSLR body, the main choice is whether to stick with an APS-C (Advanced Photographic System-Classic) sensor or to go for a full-frame sensor. The latter is rather larger, the same size as a frame of 35mm film.

Historically, full-frame sensors often had higher resolutions and gave better signal-to-noise performance, so images looked less grainy especially when taken at high ISOs. But these issues have been greatly minimised, so let's start with the APS-C choices.

The Canon 7D is a super-fast camera ideally suited to sports and action photography, while also being sufficiently versatile to take practically anything else in its stride.

Canon vs nikon

The 8fps continuous shooting rate is backed up by dual DIGIC IV processors and there's a full complement of Canon's latest iFCL metering, 18Mp CMOS sensor, 19-point autofocus and Full HD 1080p movie recording at 24/25/30fps. It's suitably rugged too, with a magnesium alloy body complete with environmental weather seals.

The Nikon D300s is a rather older design, which is itself only a fairly minor revamp of the original D300. As such, its 12.3Mp resolution is outclassed by newer, relatively down-market DSLR cameras even in Nikon's own stable, like the D7000 and entry-level D3100.

Canon vs nikon

Similarly, high-definition video capture is limited to just 720p at 24fps. Even so, there's still a lot to like about the D300s, including an unerringly accurate 51-point autofocus system and remarkably consistent 3D Colour Matrix II exposure metering.

The D300s is no slouch either, with a maximum 7fps in continuous shooting mode, which you can boost to 8fps by adding the MB-D10 battery grip.

In this Nikon vs Canon epic, the Canon 7D wins out in the sensitivity stakes, with a range of ISO 100-6400 (ISO 12800 expanded) compared with the Nikon D300s's ISO 200-3200 (ISO 100-6400 expanded).

At sensitivity settings of around ISO 1600-3200, the Canon tends to deliver slightly smoother, noise-free images. Both cameras offer a good range of direct-access controls to important shooting parameters like ISO, white balance and exposure compensation, but the Nikon D300s's controls are a little more intuitive.

Typical for Nikon DSLRs, the D300s also offers an enormous range of customisation options for setting up the camera to your most exacting requirements and preferences.

Moving up to full-frame cameras, the Canon 5D Mark II really revolutionised the genre, offering a host of features and up-market specifications usually reserved for fully-professional bodies with price tags of around £5,000.

Canon vs nikon

At the time of its launch, the resolution of its sensor caused quite a stir, at 21.1Mp, although Canon's latest APS-C bodies like the EOS 550D, 600D, 60D and 7D have almost caught up with their 18Mp sensors.

By comparison, the Nikon D700 looks a poor relation, with its 12.1Mp sensor. Indeed, it's a sign of the times that while APS-C cameras are updated with new models appearing very frequently, most full-frame bodies have gone for years without being updated.

One thing that counts in the Nikon D700's favour is that the relatively modest resolution enables silky-smooth image quality even at the highest standard sensitivity in its ISO 200-6400 range (ISO 100-25600 expanded).

The Canon 5D Mark II offers ISO 100-6400 in its standard range (ISO 25600 expanded) but noise at high ISO settings is rather more noticeable.

Unlike the newer Canon 7D, the EOS 5D Mark II only features a single DIGIC IV processor, a slower continuous drive rate of 3.9fps and a 9-point AF system, as well as Canon's older generation of exposure metering system.

Canon vs nikon

By comparison, the Nikon D700 has a faster 5fps continuous shooting rate (8fps with MB-10 battery grip), a 51-point autofocus system and the latest 3D Colour Matrix II exposure metering.

If you're upgrading from an APS-C camera, another bonus is that you can use Nikon DX-format lenses on the D700 in 'crop' mode, whereas Canon EF-S lenses designed for APS-C cameras are incompatible with the Canon 5D Mark II.

Like all the Canon or Nikon cameras in this price group, bodies are based on a sturdy magnesium alloy construction. Overall build quality is very good in both the Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D700.

A key difference, however, is that the Nikon D700 has no video recording facility, whereas the Canon 5D Mark II offers Full HD 1080p recording, albeit without the multiple frame rate options of newer Canon DSLRs.

Canon Nikon
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