Canon vs Nikon vs Sony for Photographers and Filmmakers

The Canon vs Nikon debate has been ongoing ever since these camera companies were created and even today there are loyalists that swear by their preferred camera brand. Sony has now been added to the list and the debates have gotten even more heated. In this post I want to share my thoughts on these 3 popular camera brands and what the pros and cons are for each of them.

Personally, I’ve been a Nikon shooter since 2009 and it has been my brand of choice ever since I started photography. Does this mean I don’t like Canon or Sony and do I feel they are inferior to Nikon? Not really. Read on to know some of the key differences between Canon, Nikon & Sony.

Canon

Canon is a very popular brand among professional photographers and filmmakers and is known for excellent image quality, sharpness and colour rendition in its lenses. Canon’s L Series lenses in particular are known worldwide for their beautiful contrast and colours. The iconic red ring around the “L glass” is a sign of the highest standards in the industry. Many of the EOS bodies also use the Dual Pixel AutoFocus system. DPAF involves using 2 halves of each pixel working together during autofocus and this system works well with both stills and video.

Canon’s DSLRs have been popular among professionals over the years, especially sports and wildlife photographers. This is a testament to the incredible autofocus performance and reliability of this system. With the EOS R series of cameras, Canon has now ventured into the full-frame mirrorless world. The EOS R5 and R6 offer all the superior quality and features expected from Canon while adding the benefits of mirrorless like a smaller and lighter body, in-body image stabilization, electronic viewfinder, etc.

Canon has placed a lot of emphasis on video starting with the 5D series and this has continued into their current generation of cameras as well. The R6 is specifically geared towards filmmakers and is an excellent choice for hybrid shooters that want to shoot both photo and video and want a strong and versatile camera. One thing to keep in mind while shooting slow motion video on Canon cameras is that the camera will not record audio. So if you need audio in your footage later, it’s better to use the regular video recording modes or record your audio separately.

On the flip side, Canon’s cameras are not perfect. A common complaint has been the dynamic range which doesn’t quite match up to the likes of Nikon and Sony. The shadow detail and recovery from Canon’s RAW files leaves much to be desired but it makes up for it in the highlight recovery department. If you’re a Canon shooter, a good way to get the most out of your camera is to shoot while maintaining good detail and exposure in the shadows. If your highlights are overexposed, they are easier to recover.  

Another con is Canon’s stubborn attitude towards including features in the entry and mid level cameras making you buy the flagship models even if you only need 1 or 2 features from them. They are very strategic about which features they put into which models and it always makes photographers and filmmakers feel like they want to upgrade to the next-best option.

In summary:

Canon pros
• Excellent choice of professional lenses with the L series
• Beautiful colours right out of camera
• Fast and reliable autofocus in both photo and video with very good subject tracking
• High quality video features for even the most demanding filmmakers
• New mirrorless cameras like the R6 are very good all-rounders for hybrid shooters

Canon cons
• Dynamic range and shadow detail not as good as Nikon and Sony
• Canon are very selective about including features in their different models so it’s hard to find one perfect model that does everything unless you buy the high end cameras

Nikon

Just like Canon, Nikon also has a long history of making cameras and lenses. This means that you will always have a wide choice when it comes to which lenses you want to buy and use. Nikon has also maintained their F-mount since it was first introduced in 1958 and you can use any lens even on modern cameras going all the way back 60 odd years. This is quite interesting and you can pick up cheap old film lenses and try them as well. 

Nikon cameras also have amazing sensors and build quality with the dynamic range of Nikon’s RAW files being among the best out there. You can easily recover 3 to 5 stops in the shadows depending on the situation you have shot in. If you are a Nikon shooter, it is advisable to shoot while maintaining highlight detail and not worry so much about the shadows. If you get the exposure of the highlights correct, you can easily recover the shadows in post. I am also a fan of Nikon’s menu system and find it the most easy to use among all the 3 camera brands. Nikon also has the best ergonomically designed bodies and weather sealing compared to Canon and Sony which are important features for photographers and filmmakers that shoot a lot outdoors. When I hold a Nikon camera, my hands and fingers just naturally wrap around it and all the buttons seem to be placed in the perfect position. 

When it comes to video, Nikon has been the slowest to adopt video features and this has led most filmmakers to switch to Sony or Canon. Nikon has made some progress in the video department recently but it still lags behind its competitors. If you are a filmmaker or a hybrid shooter, you’re still better off going with Sony or Canon. Having said that, with its mirrorless range, Nikon has tried to please filmmakers by adding features like 10-bit video recording and Nikon N-log which provide significantly higher image quality and colour range, You will, however, need to use an external recorder like the Atomos Ninja V to use these additional features.

Taking a cue from their DSLR range, Nikon finally launched their mirrorless line of Z series cameras with the Z6 and the Z7 in 2018. The Z series cameras feature all the favourite features of the DSLR range while also adding things like in-body image stabilization, face detection auto-focus, etc. But this is where we come to the con with Nikon. In the world of photography, Nikon is the slowest when it comes to innovation. Nikon always takes a while to bring anything to the market but when they do, it’s usually pretty amazing. But in today’s fast changing world, they’re not the fastest when it comes to the latest generation technology. This can be seen in the first generation Z series camera which included only 1 card slot. As professionals, 2 card slots have become a norm with all camera brands, but Nikon chose to go with just 1 slot which I feel was a big mistake on their part. Thankfully they addressed this mistake and included 2 card slots in their 2nd generation Z cameras.

Another common complaint with Nikon cameras over the years has been the rubber grip which tends to get loose and come off after 1 to 1.5 years of use. I have had to get the rubber grip replaced on all my Nikon cameras on more than one occasion. With the mirrorless Z series cameras, the grip seems a lot better so it will be interesting to see how long they survive.

In summary:

Nikon pros
• Largest collection of lenses and the ability to use old vintage lenses as well
• Amazing sensors and dynamic range that provide super high quality photos and videos
• The ability to recover a lot of details in the shadows gives a lot of flexibility when shooting in challenging lighting situations
• Superior ergonomics and weather sealing compared to Canon and Sony

Nikon cons
• Nikon is extremely slow when it comes to innovation. It always lags behind new technology while Canon and Sony are a lot faster
• Rubber grip on Nikon cameras tends to come out very fast after only 1 or 1.5 years of use
• Not so great with highlights recovery 

Sony

Sony is the new kid on the block. And what an entry it has made! Sony took the photography world by storm when it released the first mirrorless full-frame camera with the Alpha series. Since then the A7 and A9 series have evolved with a long list of features and updates. Sony has always been on the forefront of innovation and R&D and this shows how far ahead of Canon and Nikon it is when it comes to mirrorless technology. Sony is already on their 3rd generation of mirrorless cameras with the 4th generation coming out soon while Canon and Nikon are just about on the 2nd generation. 

Sony’s impressive image quality and the fast and accurate autofocus performance has led to many Canon and Nikon shooters migrating to this new system. Sony cameras have the best autofocus performance among all the other options and you are sure to get sharp photos even in low light and challenging situations. The subject face and eye tracking is so good that sometimes you don’t even have to look at the screen when shooting. This has the risk of making photographers lazy so it’s important to keep this in mind and not let the camera turn you into a point and shoot photographer.

Sony’s S-Log also provided filmmakers with the ability to shoot cinema quality video with a small and portable camera. This was a game changer and propelled Sony miles ahead of the competition. For this reason Sony is a great choice for hybrid shooters. You get the best of both worlds with Sony’s amazing autofocus in both photo and video and beautiful colours and a cinematic look with video.

It’s no secret, however, that Sony has trouble designing camera bodies. When holding a Sony mirrorless camera, I feel it is the least professional feeling of them all. It almost feels like I’m holding a point and shoot camera. The ergonomics and buttons have been a point of debate for years now and the menu system on Sony cameras is the most confusing thing ever. I have used the menu on all camera systems and I found the Sony menu to be the most difficult to use. An example is the “beep” option for autofocus sound that is called “Audio Signals” in the Sony menu.

I have also found the LCD screen on Sony cameras to be the most inferior of the lot. The colours look terrible on the back screen and the first time I shot with a Sony A72, I began wondering what I was doing wrong. The photo just didn’t look right. It was only when I copied the photos to the computer did I notice that the photos were perfect but it was the LCD screen that was making the photos look bad. After spending a lot of money on a camera body, I would have expected Sony to include a better quality screen at the back. Being a newer camera brand, Sony also has a more limited lens option compared to Canon and Nikon, but we should see that improve in the near future.

In summary:

Sony pros
• Fast pace of innovation and always bringing out cameras with the latest technology
• Impressive image quality and autofocus performance, among the best in its class
• Excellent features for filmmakers making it a great choice for cinema quality video

Sony cons
• Ergonomics, button layout and menu interface is the worst compared to Canon and Nikon
• Poor LCD quality that makes it difficult to judge how the photos and videos are actually looking

Conclusion

So which camera system should you choose in 2021? If you are a serious professional that relies on your camera system for a living, it is very important to think carefully about which system you pick. Buying a camera also involves buying lenses, flashes, memory cards, etc. and there are many purchases that are closely tied together. Once you pick a system, it can be difficult and expensive to switch later. A good way to decide is to find out which camera system others around you are using. Using the same system as your colleagues will enable you to exchange lenses and cameras and make it flexible to shoot together as a team. It will also reduce your financial burden as you will not have to buy all the lenses and can decide and buy lenses as a group and exchange them between yourselves. 

Another good thing to do if you are a freelancer is to check what system the company you regularly shoot for uses. They may have preferences for which system they prefer and using the same system will mean you are more likely to get hired regularly by these companies.

If choosing between DSLR and Mirrorless cameras in 2021, I would definitely lean towards mirrorless. Mirrorless cameras are the future and Canon, Nikon and Sony are working in a big way towards the development of their mirrorless cameras so it makes sense to stay with the latest technology.

Canon, Nikon & Sony all have their quirks but they all make excellent camera systems. The best part of this competition is that it encourages each of them to push the limits of innovation and launch their best cameras which can only be a great thing for us as consumers. 

Finally, If you place photos taken by all 3 cameras side-by-side, it can be very hard to point out which photo was taken with a Canon, Nikon or Sony. At the end of the day, the camera is just a tool and it is the photographer or filmmaker that controls what can be done with it.


Royd Tauro
Founder of Royd Tauro Photography

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