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Gear Talk

Canon VS Nikon VS Sony: The Best And The Worst Things | PT 1

By Matthew Saville on August 5th 2019

If you’re tired of hearing photographers fight over which camera is better, don’t worry, you’re in the right place! Today, we’re going to give a fair and balanced assessment of the biggest strengths and weaknesses of each one of these brands.

Canon EOS R, Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 L | 1/2500 sec, f/2, ISO 6400
6-month Reviews: Canon EOS R, RF 28-70mm f/2 L

As a gear reviewer who loves testing all kinds of cameras and lenses, I get called a “fanboy” every now and then. The funny thing is, I get called a fanboy of Canon, Nikon and/or Sony pretty equally, depending on whatever gear I’m reviewing at the time!

The truth is, I’m just a camera geek, and I love to shoot with new gear. If I had tons of money, I’d own the latest camera bodies from all three brands, plus also Pentax, Olympus, Fuji, you get the idea…

Familiarity breeds (a Little) contempt

Sony A7R3 menu warning (Read Our Full Review Here)

When you become extremely familiar with all the different camera systems, you do begin to notice the good and bad, and you see it in a way that most photographers won’t if they’ve only ever experienced their one favorite brand.

If you’re a camera geek like me, though, do you ever feel like you need to know for certain how green the grass is, on every side of every fence, just out of curiosity?

If you find out the truth for yourself, you could stop caring about all the wild claims and arguments that transpire on the internet. Or, you might realize that there’s a better system out there which suits your personal needs and preferences a lot better.

A Ca-Nik-Son Roast?

Today we’re going to do something a little different. I started off calling it a “roast”, but that sounded a little too clickbait-y. We’re simply going to talk about some honest truths, and expose some of the best and worst things about these three camera systems.

If you have your own pet peeves about your own camera system, please add a comment below! Just don’t go trashing a camera system that you’ve never actually used extensively. The internet already has enough armchair gear reviewers.

[Related: Here’s the biggest problem with full-frame mirrorless that nobody is talking about!]

Disclaimer: Bad Pictures Are Usually Your Own Fault

Yosemite National Park | Sony A7R3, Sony FE 70-300mm G

Before we dive in, it must be disclaimed that pretty much every medium-to-high-end camera made in the last 5-10 years is capable of stunning results. Even the worst camera that we’d never recommend to most photographers is still capable of truly amazing images, and it still has a specialized purpose that some will find essential.

The bottom line is that digital cameras are just that good now. So, if you’re struggling to improve your photography, especially from a creative standpoint and not a technical one, then chances are you’re not going to find any revelations in this article.

(For those of you who do struggle with creative or technical challenges, I’d like to point you to our vast library of photography education, which has workshops on almost every subject from photography basics to advanced portrait lighting, and even business management!)

This article is for those who are simply curious about which brands excel in which areas, and where they might fall short or fail. Because, as you begin to push the envelope with certain advanced photography techniques, you may find that one system suits you better than another, even though both could “get the job done”.

I’m only going to list one or two of the best and worst things, but I have a very, very long list of favorite things and pet peeves. So, if you like the idea, please share this, leave a comment below, and maybe we’ll do it again!

Nikon – The “Love-Hate Relationship”

That’s flagship weather sealing, folks! Landscape photographers, take note!
Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S | Read our full Nikon Z7 review here

First, full disclosure: For 15+ years, I’ve mostly been a Nikon owner. As such, I have the longest list of both pros and cons for Nikon.  (That is, if you count Sony’s entire user interface as just one big drawback, and not 30-40 different little ones.)

[Related Reading: Nikon Z6 Review – Does Sony Have Serious Competition?]

Clearing Winter Storm On El Capitan, Yosemite National Park
Nikon Z7, Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4 S | 1/20 sec, f/11, ISO 64

Nikon’s Strengths

Nikon has always made some of the most well-rounded camera system of all. They make sure they deliver great value and good performance at all levels, from the basic beginner to the intermediate, advanced, and professional markets. Instead of having a slightly frustrating and/or confusing gap between different tiers of products, from flagships to baseline beginner products, Nikon works hard to deliver lineups of bodies and lenses that suit every range of need.

This will be a huge advantage to anyone who is on a modest budget yet has lofty goals for their photography, either professionally or just as a serious hobbyist. In fact, if you’re an aspiring wedding photographer on a tight budget, a Nikon D750 is still hands-down the best semi-professional investment you can make, since it’s one of the cheapest cameras to offer dual card slots, pro autofocus, and great image quality. (The D750 is under $1000 used! Beat that, A7 III!)

The other thing I always appreciate about Nikon is their cameras’ customizability and special features. For everything from wedding photography and action sports to landscape and nightscape photography, I feel like Nikon’s custom functions are perfectly suited to my shooting style.

For example, for portrait and wedding photography I absolutely love that they have face detection built into image playback, so even after you click a photo you can zoom in to 100% and scroll from face to face just by turning the front command dial. This is one thing I REALLY miss whenever shooting portraits on Canon or Sony.

Nikon’s Weaknesses

If ever there was a Tortoise VS Hare situation in the camera market, Nikon is the quintessential tortoise, and basically, every other brand (except maybe Pentax) is a hare.

Sony certainly is THE hare in the current market, and they’re not taking any naps any time soon; they’re working hard to stay one generation ahead of everybody.

Nikon D850 (review here), Sigma 14mm f/1.8 Art (review here)

Nikon really does take a while to bring something to market. When they do bring something to market it is almost always amazing, and well worth the wait. However, nobody can have a perfect track record, and if you’re ever slow to market and you also drop the ball, you can be in big trouble.

For the record, I don’t think Nikon’s Z-series cameras were a “ball-drop”. The D600, that was was a ball-drop. The Z-series cameras just represent the steady, calculated pace that Nikon has always moved at. Want a truly flagship Z-mount camera? It’ll get here, just wait. And it will be incredible.

If you’re an impatient person, though, Nikon may be a bit of a frustrating experience. I think it’s worth the wait, but I’m just warning you. The number one thing anyone should know about Nikon when considering them is that they make great products, but they don’t do it at the same pace as the other corporate giants whose photography branches are just one of many.

Oh, and good grief, I spent a lot of money on grip rubber replacement over the years. That Nikon SLR/DSLR grip rubber was the best stuff, when it stayed on. I loved the grippy feel compared to the almost slippery feel of Canon’s older 5D and 5D2. But, the downside was that Nikon grip rubber, (actually, all the rubber on the entire body) would peel off like clockwork every 6-12 months, especially living and working in a hot climate. Never leave your Nikon DSLR in a hot car in July, even if its out of sight from potential thieves.

I’m so glad that era is (apparently) over, and without sacrificing the amazing grippy feel of their camera bodies. Now, its a similar rubber, but it’s literally screwed onto the Z cameras. Or maybe I’m speaking too soon? Any Z-series grip rubber falling off already, folks?

Canon – “You Wouldn’t Understand”

Canon EOS R (review here), Canon RF 50mm f/1.2 L (review here)

Canon is the champion of that “je ne sais quoi” that photographers, creators, or artists of all types just can’t seem to explain, but when you see it, you know. Hint: it’s the images. It’s the glass.

Canon’s Strengths

The images from Canon lenses and cameras are just gorgeous. There’s a very good reason that “L glass” has the highest sense of prestige among these three iconic camera brands, and it’s not just the red ring. (Rokinon lenses have red rings now, for crying out loud!)

Canon EOS R, Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro

I’m actually really interested in seeing where the RF lens system goes. I’m more interested in the RF lineup than either of the other two lens mounts, and I firmly believe that their next RF mirrorless camera body will be more than good enough for professional workhorse duty as a wedding photographer. (Not just dual card slots, but great autofocus? Those two things are all I need and I’m sold…)

If their new RF 70-200mm f/2.8 is as portable as it looked in their sneak-peek from February 2019, I might just make Canon my go-to system for wedding and portrait photography.

There’s no denying that Canon has always had a lot going for them if you’re any type of portrait photographer, from weddings to editorial & fashion work. Actually, if you’re any type of artist who likes to say, “the camera is just a tool” …then you might have the right blend of creative inspiration and technical appreciation to make Canon the best system for you. If you can afford their L glass, that is.

[Related Reading: Living With The Canon EOS R: A 6-Month Hands-On Review]

Canon’s Weaknesses

Let’s face it, Canon has some gorgeous lenses, but they can be a little stubborn when it comes to listening to customers’ cries for improvements in other areas.

To put it nicely, Canon is the brand to avoid if you can’t stand the feeling of always wanting to upgrade to the next-best option. They are very strategic about exactly which features they put in which cameras. They always manage to find a way to make most types of photographers, from casual beginners to aspiring professionals, wish they had the flagship option.

Canon EOS RP, Canon RF 35mm f/1.8 IS Macro

Seriously, why on earth do so many “famous Youtubers” need a 1DX mk2? They’re not all action sports or wildlife photographers. They just want one or two video specs. But, paying an extra thousand dollars (or two or three) just for one or two features is indeed something a lot of Canon shooters do. Just ask the wedding photographers who paid $8,000 for a 1Ds III back in the day because it was the only full-frame camera with pro autofocus.

For those of you who are Canon-shooting landscape photographers, the graduated neutral density filter industry just called to say thank you, again. Thanks for keeping their business afloat, 5+ years after almost every Nikon and Sony shooter tossed their GNDs in the trash while simultaneously reducing their reliance on bracketing by 80-90%.

I’m joking, of course, because again just as a reminder- if your pictures stink, it’s probably not your camera, it’s you. Still, the dynamic range debate has got to be one of the most heavily beaten dead horses in the history of digital photography. Indeed, Canon truly was stubborn about making their own sensors, and we saw an entire decade of nearly zero improvement to ISO 100 dynamic range.

Thankfully, Canon’s latest digital cameras have taken great strides to close the gap, and personally, I’ve gone back to ignoring the tiresome arguments about shadow recovery. The fact is, 90-95% of (non-landscape) photographers should ignore it, too. Just know that if for whatever reason you’re looking to push the recovery of single raw files to great extremes, you’ll want to check out Nikon and Sony first. For the rest of you portrait, wedding, fashion, etc. photographers, just focus on learning to shoot correctly, and enjoy that fantastic.

Sony – “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Sony A7R3 (review here), Sony FE 24mm f/1.4 GM (review here)

Sony is like that genius business executive who knows exactly where to invest for maximum ROI, but makes cold-hearted decisions in order to achieve that goal as quickly as possible. “Give ’em what we know they actually want, not what they say they want!” (Hmm, that sounds like something Steve Jobs probably said a few times in his career.)

Sony’s Strengths

It’s no secret that Sony has been absolutely killing it with their latest cameras. Specifically, their sensors’ impressive image quality, and their latest bodies’ amazing autofocus performance. It’s truly spectacular, and a generation ahead of the competition.

Sony A7R3, (nice Face/Eye-AF tracking!) FE 135mm f/1.8 GM (review here)

Oh, and they’ve also put all the right additional features into their current generation of cameras, things like IBIS and dual card slots, that are more than just bells and whistles, they’re actually extremely useful for amateurs and pros alike. This, of course, makes such features the hottest topics at all the photographer online fight clubs forums and FB groups.

Sony’s Weaknesses

It’s also no secret, however, that Sony, how should I say this, has had some trouble actually designing a camera body. That’s putting it nicely, compared to some of the rants I’ve heard from people who called their ergonomics and menus “abysmal”, or worse.

Sony menus – “Welcome to the machine”…

Having experienced the user interface of pretty much every major camera system on the market, (not just Ca-Nik-Son) I can honestly say that Sony does in fact have the dubious honor of being the most confusing and difficult interface of them all.

If you haven’t memorized where everything you need is in the menu, then shooting can come to a screeching halt while you dig through each page/tab looking for that one thing you can’t seem to remember.

[Related Reading: Sony A7RIII Review: Officially The Best Pro Full-Frame Mirrorless Camera On The Market]

Some menu items are just completely redundant. Why do I need a menu option to change my focus point, or even my ISO? Oh, because it’s possible to reprogram the camera’s buttons so completely that there are actually no buttons left dedicated to those settings. In fact, quite a few of the critical functions aren’t even associated with physical buttons by default; you’ll have to go into the quick menu, or even the deeper menu, to find them.

Oh, and they changed the names of a lot of menu items, too. In case you’re wondering, “Beep” (for AF confirmation) is called “Audio Signals” on Sony. Which is the worst possible thing you could call it, on a camera that excels at both photo and video.

Here’s the twist of irony, though: the joke is on those who can’t get behind the whole early adopter, beta tester thing, because once you do get used to the cameras’ extremely complex control layouts and menu customizations, you get all the benefits of an incredible system, with more total features than any other camera system currently offers. Which is partly why the menus are so overflowing with options. In other words, it is indeed a bit of a catch-22, and if you want ALL the bells and whistles, the crazy menu is what you get.

After years of testing each Sony camera when it came out, I still feel like it’s a massive undertaking to set up a new camera, and I still wish I could just get the amazing performance and feature set, but with a Nikon or Canon user experience.

So, it’s not you, Sony, it’s me. You’re like the significant other that is trying so hard to do everything right, but still misses the little things that add up to a truly smooth (or frustrating) relationship.

Having said that, I still want an A9 for wedding photography, action sports, and wildlife photography. In fact, the day they announce an A9 mk2, I’m going on eBay and buying an A9 “classic” for dirt-cheap, I just know it. Because, good grief, that camera can track focus like magic.

Conclusion | Stop Fighting; Go Take Pictures

Canon EOS R, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 (Dollar Store Portrait Challenge!)

It’s time to stop arguing about which camera or lens is better. Let’s just admit that nobody’s perfect, and as long as we’re happy with what we’ve got, we shouldn’t listen to any hype.

The only time we should get curious about a “heated debate” over features, performance, or whatever, is if our photography experience is actually being held back, and we can identify that problem. If you can actually feel your progression bumping into that wall, then it’s time to see what’s out there.

Until then, if we put just half the energy we spend obsessing over camera gear into actually pursuing our creative passion, we’re all going to be much better photographers very soon, regardless of what gear we own.

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Trey Mortensen

    Your conclusion is about where I’m at. I have a 6D with a couple of very good lenses, but the Sony a7iii (and 24 1.4) have been very tempting. However, I don’t do photography for a living and more a paid hobby, I’ve had to remind myself that yes, I can get great photos out of the 6D. 

    The things that made me not upgrade to the EOS R (rented it for a week) were no joystick — since I’m a left-eye shooter, my nose would false positive the touch and drag AF way too much– and no IBIS. I take a lot of low light shots handheld (running and gunning) and although I’ve learned to breathe softer for more consistent shots, I could still use that extra help. By the time I do upgrade (whatever that camera will be), every camera will have WAY better AF than my camera (not hard), dynamic range, and low light performance. So that’s a positive, knowing it will be a decent jump in performance :D 

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    • Matthew Saville

      I found the “nose AF point movement” problem was avoidable by sequestering the AF point control to just one of the lower corners. Although I do think it would have been awesome if the “swipe bar” that nobody seemed to like were a 2-D touchpad instead, for AF point control, because I gotta say, a the more I use a touchscreen to move my AF points around, the more I feel like a physical joystick is really really slow. Either they need to re-engineer how the physical joystick moves the AF points, or they need to make those joysticks touch-sensitive too or something. I dunno how to solve the problem. Maybe I should just learn to shoot with my right eye haha…

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    • Trey Mortensen

      Interesting. I put the swipe thing to the bottom right-hand corner and still had problems. I was at a car show and every now and then, my focus point would jump to the top right-hand corner. It was infuriating. 

      I’ve never really noticed the lag with the joystick, but I don’t get to use them very much (rental 5Dmk4 and a7iii). My 6D doesn’t really need anything like that since it has 11 (OH MAN!) points. I’ve always been more a physical button kind of guy, so the joystick just appeals to me so much more too. I’d gladly trade that touch bar for a joystick every day of the week. 

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    • Matthew Saville

      It’s not a lag in being able to move the focus point around, it’s just a general inefficient-ness that is the case when you’re trying to control AF points that number in the hundreds on a mirrorless camera. In other words, physical joysticks might have worked great for DSLRS, but with mirrorless cameras they definitely need to be re-thought…

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