Canon vs Nikon: Which DSLR to Buy in 2020
Each industry has rivalries, from Microsoft vs Apple to Marvel vs DC. In the photography world, often Canon and Nikon are pitted against each other. Where do they stand this year? Let’s explore some of the differences between the two brands and the top Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras to buy in 2020.
What brand to commit to will depend on personal preference, ergonomics, availability of lenses (especially for your particular subject matter), and other small features that more advanced users care about, like flash sync speeds, actuation lifespans, buffers, and more.
Canon vs Nikon
Canon and Nikon have long histories making both cameras and lenses, although their beginnings were somewhat mirrored. Nikon was founded in 1917 as a manufacturer of lenses not just for cameras, but also binoculars, microscopes, and more. Their first camera, the Nikon I, was released in 1948, and Nikon has continued to focus on imaging devices ranging from cameras and lenses to medical devices.
Canon, on the other hand, was founded as a camera manufacturer in 1934 (with some of its earliest lenses made by Nikon) and later manufacturing its own lens lines. Canon has gone on to diversify across more electronics categories including printers, projectors, small devices (such as calculators), manufacturing equipment, and more.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Canon and Nikon were firmly competing with each other, with both having popular rangefinder and film SLR cameras.
Throughout the decades, there have been periods where each brand has seen success over the other and both of them have eclipsed their other competitors, with the recent exception of Sony’s entrance into the fray.
Generally speaking, in recent years the question of whether Canon or Nikon is the better camera brand can best be answered with “that depends”. Both brands have fantastic lines of cameras, with each having certain advantages over the other. Which one is best will largely depend on your own specific needs and priorities.
That said, if you’re trying to decide between the two, it’s perhaps best to look at specific, comparable models in a few different price levels and see what each of their strengths and weaknesses are.
With the popularity that mirrorless cameras have seen in recent years, it’s perhaps fitting that we start off by looking at these cameras.
Entry-Level Mirrorless: Canon EOS RP vs Nikon Z50
There are a lot of similarities between the Canon EOS RP and the Nikon Z50, but a few important differences as well. Both are entry-level mirrorless options that come in at less than $1,000 and feature the newest lens mount from each manufacturer. They are both very small and portable with similar body sizes, though the Z50 is a bit lighter. Both limit your image stabilization to either optical (in-lens) or electronic stabilization (only in video mode).
The RP offers a full frame sensor with 26MP while the Z50 is an APS-C sensor with 21MP. Full frame sensors offer some specific benefits, particularly if you want to get the most background blur possible, but there can also be some benefits to APS-C (smaller overall camera, the crop factor gives you more perceived reach – handy for telephoto shooters). Generally, full frame has better low light performance than crop frame sensors, but Nikon generally is superior to Canon in that regard. Between these two cameras, those two factors end up splitting the difference and low light performance is very comparable.
Image quality is reported to be slightly better with the Canon RP. If you’re a sports or wildlife shooter, the Z50 is significantly faster with 11 FPS burst shooting compared to 5 FPS. Both cameras have articulating screens, but the Z50’s only tilts while the RP’s is fully articulating.
In terms of video, both will shoot 4K footage, with the Z50 giving 30 FPS but the RP giving 24 FPS. For FHD footage, the Z50 can go up to 120 FPS while the RP will only shoot up to 60 FPS. Autofocus has long been Nikon’s achilles heel when it comes to video, but the Z50 is markedly improved, making it competitive with the RP.
Both cameras have a lot of compelling features for entry-level shooters. If you already had Nikon or Canon lenses, there’s probably not enough in either of these cameras to justify changing ecosystems (each of these has adapters to convert Z or RF mount to F or EF, respectively). If not, perhaps the best deciding factor would be if you wanted the higher resolution and full frame sensor of the RP or the faster burst shooting of the Z50.
Advanced Mirrorless: Canon EOS R vs Nikon Z6 vs Nikon Z7
The first mirrorless models released by Canon and Nikon in 2019 were the Canon EOS R, the Nikon Z6, and the Nikon Z7. All three models are full frame mirrorless cameras with relatively-to-very-high resolution sensors (30.4MP, 24.5MP, and 45.7MP respectively). There are a couple different price points being targeted, making for some inexact comparisons. Both the EOS R and the Z6 at the time of this writing are available at around $1,800, while the Z7 is $2,800. The EOS R is, for all practical purposes, a mirrorless version of the 5D Mark IV, making it essentially a four year old camera (albeit with a new, larger mount system) while the Zs are both completely new.
Looking at image quality, the Z7 will have the potential for the sharpest shots due to the absence of a low-pass filter. While the EOS R has very capable low light performance, Nikon still delivers even better dynamic range. The other area where the Nikons will have a significant benefit over the Canon is image stabilization. Both Zs have IBIS, whereas the EOS R is limited to lens-based stabilization.
There are two areas where Canon steps forward, though. While both systems boast new lens mounts and impressive new lenses, Canon’s RF lenses are gaining massive acclaim thanks to unique offerings (like the RF 28-70mm f/2 L) and stunning performance, albeit with a huge price tag. If budget isn’t a concern and you’re looking for the long term (i.e., looking for continuity with your next camera purchase), it’s hard to not be attracted to the RF lenses.
The second is video. Nikon has made huge strides with the Z6 and Z7, offering powerful video autofocus and finally becoming competitive, but Canon’s Dual Pixel AF with Eye AF still outperforms it. That being said, Nikon’s IBIS is a strong counterpoint to that argument. And if 4K video is an absolute must, only the Z6 (out of these three cameras) offers uncropped 4K video.
Between these three cameras, if you need the best photo performance you can get right now whatever the cost, the Z7 is probably the choice for you, but both the Z6 and EOS R are strong competitors. If video is most important, either the Z6 or the EOS R would be your best choice depending on the importance you place in IBIS and uncropped 4K versus stellar autofocus.
If you’re patient, Canon will have two new offerings (the EOS R5 and EOS R6) being released soon that are likely to change the discussion. Update: The Canon EOS R5 and Canon EOS R6 are now available for rent.
Beginner Cameras: Canon T8i vs Nikon D5600
Previously, we had compared the Canon T7i and the Nikon D5600 and concluded that there wasn’t a clear winner. The takeaway was that the D5600 was a little better for low light conditions while the T7i was a better option for high action shots thanks to a faster burst rate. Since then, Canon has released a new version, the T8i and the results are…pretty much the same.
The upgrades made from the T7i to T8i are largely incremental, with no remarkable improvements. The sensor is a little better, but still won’t perform quite as well at high ISO settings as the Nikon. The burst has been increased even more, from 6 FPS to 7 FPS, maintaining that advantage, but there isn’t much else that would turn heads.
The one other noticeable improvement is increasing the video resolution to 4K up to 25 FPS, but the T8i still lacks the Dual Pixel AF found on Canon’s higher-end cameras. Without a strong AF function it’s hard to really recommend either camera for video, but the Canon would nevertheless edge out the Nikon here.
Bottom line is that both cameras are good options for entry-level DSLRs, with the capability of getting good pictures, especially if paired with nice lenses, but that neither really stands out from the other in terms of being a clear winner.
Enthusiast Cameras: Canon 90D vs Nikon D7500
Last time we compared, we put the Canon 80D and 7D Mark II up against the D7500. This year we needed to mix it up a little bit. The D7500 hasn’t yet been updated (though a D7600 is rumored for later in 2020) while Canon’s 90D has pretty much replaced both the 80D and the now 6-year-old 7D Mark II. The conclusion before was that, while the Canons were the better choices if you wanted to shoot video, the D7500 was clearly better for still photography. So how does the 90D compare now?
Overall, it’s a tighter competition.
The 90D brings a number of noticeable improvements over the previously-discussed models. Resolution has been significantly improved, up to 32.5MP. The benefit of a few years’ worth of improvements give it better low light performance, but still not enough to really compete with the D7500, which is leagues ahead of the Canon.
In other specs, the D90 has faster burst shooting (11 FPS vs 8 FPS), better battery life, a lighter body, a fully articulating LCD, and much better video capabilities thanks to Dual Pixel AF.
With the current matchup, the question changes from still or video to low light or not. If you often shoot in challenging lighting, the Nikon is still probably the better choice, but the other improvements of the 90D make it extremely compelling. For a more hands-on approach, many photographers and videographers opt to rent a DSLR before buying to help make the right choice.
Semi-Pro Cameras: Canon 6D Mark II vs Nikon D500
The match-up of semi-pro cameras like the Canon 6D Mark II and the Nikon D500 is difficult because it’s comparing cameras that have some significant overall differences. Most notable is that the D500 has an APS-C sensor while the 6D Mark II has a full frame sensor. However, they both come in at around $1,500 and are primarily targeted toward semi-professionals or “prosumer” photographers, though there are certainly pros that use these too.
Among APS-C cameras, Nikon’s D500 stands apart. Compared to Canon’s top APS-C cameras, the D500 wins on almost every metric, offering better image quality, dynamic range, and high ISO performance while matching (or beating) resolution, frames per second, and autofocus.
Like the mirrorless EOS RP, Canon’s 6D line fills an interesting gap that Nikon doesn’t really have an equivalent for, which is a (relatively) low-cost full frame body. On paper, the 6D Mark II is not an exciting camera. It has good specs across the board, but nothing that jumps out as being truly extraordinary. It has a higher resolution than the D500, but both are going to be enough for most people. It has a decent – but not great – frames per second shooting speed. All around, it’s a solid camera that, while not being flashy, just works for what most people will need.
Generally speaking, full frame sensors offer a host of benefits over APS-C, such as improved low light performance and image quality. However, Nikon’s APS-C sensors are so good in these regards that the D500 can match or beat the 6D Mark II. You can still get certain benefits from the 6D Mark II’s full frame sensor, such as a thinner apparent depth of field, but you won’t see most of the other benefits you might expect.
If there’s one area where the 6D Mark II does stand out compared to the D500 it’s thanks to its video capability. With Canon’s Dual Pixel AF, the 6D Mark II is more capable if you need video autofocus, such as when vlogging, though it’s disappointing that the 6D Mark II doesn’t offer 4K shooting (which the D500 does).
Professional Cameras: Canon 5D Mark IV vs Nikon D850
Once you move above the intermediate camera levels, it’s a little easier to identify directly competing models. For small-body professional cameras, this means looking at Canon’s 5D Mark IV and the Nikon D850.
With both of these models being targeted towards professionals, they are both extremely capable cameras. Once again, Nikon’s dynamic range and low light capability is extremely impressive and definitively better than Canon’s. The D850 also offers significantly higher resolution (45.7MP vs 30.4MP), higher frames per second (up to 9 vs 7), a better autofocus system (when shooting through the optical viewfinder), and wins in most other specs.
The 5D Mark IV is somewhat smaller and lighter, which can make it more comfortable to use in a variety of situations. The biggest advantage for the 5D Mark IV is, like with the other models discussed, the video (and Live View shooting) capabilities helped by Dual Pixel AF, though it would have been far more convenient had Canon offered an articulating LCD screen such as the D850 (or even the 6D Mark II) has.
Flagship Cameras: Canon 1D X Mark III vs Nikon D6
Both Canon and Nikon have introduced new flagship cameras this year, but like years past the reality is the choice between flagships typically comes down to factors aside from the actual camera. By the time you’re looking at the Canon 1D X Mark III or the Nikon D6, you are probably going to be so heavily invested into one brand’s ecosystem, and the difference between the cameras will be so minimal, that there probably won’t be a compelling reason to change from one to the other.
Generally speaking, flagships are aimed squarely at professional sports and wildlife photographers, so it’s no surprise to see features targeting these markets. Both have extensive weather proofing, robust build quality, extremely durable shutters, and fast shooting. The Canon does edge out the Nikon in extreme bursts with a maximum shooting speed of 16 FPS (or 20 FPS when shooting in Live View) and a 1,000 shot buffer compared to Nikon’s 14 FPS (10.5 FPS in Live View) and 200 shot buffer.
Both cameras have native ISOs of 100-102,400, but Nikon offers boosted ISO all the way to 3,280,000, giving it the edge in extremely dark conditions.
While some people will choose a flagship for shooting video (looking at you, Peter McKinnon), that’s not a primary consideration for most flagship shooters. Nikon offers some video capabilities, but if you really wanted to shoot video with a flagship, Canon is a far better option with resolutions up to 5.5K at 60P, 10-bit HDMI output, raw video recording, and fantastic autofocus (Dual Pixel). The Nikon will give you 4K/30 FPS, but lackluster video AF and not much else to write home about.
But again, at the end of the day, if you’re spending the price of a flagship (about $6,500), you likely have an extensive kit of lenses and accessories or will be part of an organization invested into one of the ecosystems that will determine which camera you choose. Either way, you won’t be disappointed with your camera’s offerings.
Canon vs Nikon: Which is Right for You?
There is no clear-cut winner in the debate between Canon and Nikon. Both have their strengths, and both have their weaknesses. There are some common refrains across their models (Nikon tends to have better high ISO performance while Canon’s video capabilities are almost always superior), but it’s hard to claim that you can’t get a capable camera at any price point from either brand. And, of course, if you’re completely brand agnostic and want to give a comprehensive look at what’s out there, Sony is challenging both of them and there are a number of enticing cameras from other brands like Fuji, Panasonic, and more.
*As of this writing. Pricing subject to change.
Is the model good for astro-photography withe clear views of the night sky.
CANON 5D Mark iii is good and is very dependable.
Informative. Thanks for a balanced review.
What a wonderful, comprehensive post! I have a sony a7iii and love it. thanks for sharing.
Honestly this only used to be true. In the past 3-4 years phone cameras have continually deteriorated, to the point where my new iphone gets the angles wrong 100% of the time now. I swear my 10 year old nokia did a better job back in the day. So, one needs a real camera these days. I agree though, that going basic is better than spending too much money on something you have no idea how to use properly.
I want the Camera
Those high ISO’s you reference are basically marketing hype and unusable
I agree and thank you . I like equipment but my phone is great but I keep thinking I need something better. What do you use to produce POV
Course on the imphone
Although, I have used enthusiast category Nikon gears for years, some of my best shots were taken by a point and shoot Canon camera years ago. Just a hobby. No competition.
Thanks for saying this, I’m struggling to purchase a camera and am super overwhelmed by options. I agree with just take pictures, which yes I do regularly, but I want to go further just because why the hell not. What would you both recommend for a quasi new beginner? I primarily take night shots and scenery, but am wanting to do night portraits. I would love for someone to just say… buy this one!
I fully agree, have been shooting for 45 years, its not the gear….
omg I totally love your opinion I totally want to start a photography business and I dont want to go out and buy a 3,000 and not know how to use it . what camara do you recommened ?
I think if you want to take photography seriously I strongly recommend the CANON 5D Mark IV is an easy upgrade if you are a professional Canon photographer. it gives you practically every upgrade you could possibly hope for in terms of image quality and performance.
Ok! Everyone please wake up! Learn how to take a photo first. Before even thinking about what brand of camera to buy. Go out and just start taking photos of anything. Learn by experience. I am sure the photography business can’t stand me. I brake all the rules. No trainning no schooling. Not even close to great camera gear. But! My work is in the Smithsonian, 4 music magazines, 2 books, published many times, a major film, and a lot more. In fact now I been using a basic cell phone and still getting a lot of great photos. Trust your eye and try to sense and feel the photo your taking. Don’t worry about thinking you have to have certain equipment for great photos. Good luck on you photo journey. And never compare yourself too others! Who’s to say what makes a great photo!
I used to work for Canon. The products are amazing. I just wish some of the lenses were lighter.
Well thank you for this, I have a Nikon D3300, would love to up grade ad keep my lenses since everywhere want to buy my camera for cheap cheap. I take pictures mainly for instagram, any recommendation on Nikon camera that will still use my lens