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How to Choose Between Canon and Nikon DSLRs

Jose Fermoso/ArtBistro

The Impact of Consumerism

The industry’s emphasis on selling cameras based on the latest features has transformed the buying experience. Our research suggests that the overall change has been for the better as it pushes companies to continually raise the bar on their products. But it also leads to superficial upgrades, making it harder to figure out what’s really important.

Consider the marketing focus on megapixels, instead of ISO levels, image sensor size, and noise reduction. All four features work together to translate light accurately into a digital image. ISO levels determine how much light hits the camera’s sensor, which works with a converter chip to transfer the light to pixels. It’s the heat generated by light that contaminates nearby pixels, creating noise. The solution? Large sensors, which allow more space between pixels, minimize heat contamination. It also allows for larger pixels, which better pick up the light. So for cameras with a comparable number of megapixels, it’s the sensor size that will largely determine picture clarity. Now, consider how often companies advertise the size of the sensor — never. Instead, they heavily promote how many megapixels this year’s model has. A greater number of megapixels allows for larger final images but it’s by no means the be-all end-all of picture quality. “I can make great 12″×18″ prints from a 3MP camera and 40″×60″ prints from a 6MP camera,” Rockwell said.

Calculated feature staggering is also easy to see over time. Fresh rigs usually come every 18 months and few offer huge technical leaps over their immediate predecessors. (Exceptions: the Canon 5D Mark II, with 1080p video and a 2x resolution jump and Nikon’s d3 with full-frame sensor). Differences between, say, the Rebel XS and Rebel XSi, are too minimal to see in finished pictures or productivity gains. What’s more, the compulsion to continually revisit each feature does not guarantee better performance. Take the Canon Mark III, whose problematic new autofocus struggled with multi-frame bursts as well as non-moving subjects even in ideal light conditions, causing many professionals to reject it outright. Clearly, buying the latest and greatest DSLR isn’t always a slam-dunk.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Canon is “more adept at marketing than Nikon," says Chute. Canon effectively highlights features (such as HD video) that “anyone, from an advanced amateur to professionals, can easily recognize and use.” And of course, ”“>Andre Agassi helped. Canon’s long-term marketing advantage translates directly to ”">sales: It dominates the sub-$1,000 category, though Nikon increasingly closes the gap as cameras get more expensive. Last year, Canon sold 4.4 million DSLRs to Nikon’s 3.4 million.

The Choice

What’s the next distinguishing feature that users should look for? HD video is one. Last week Nikon announced the addition of full HD video to its new d3100 camera. Data shows HD video has already buoyed Canon: “Nikon had the DSLR lead from 2007-08 but when Canon released the full HD video Canon 5D Mark II, it increased its market share, going from 38% in 2008 to 45% in 2009,” Chute said. InfoTrends’ Lee also adds that image sensors might finally, rightly, take command of the stage, possibly tipping the scale in Nikon’s favor.

So with the perpetual race to upgrade in full swing and less-than-reliable marketing, how do people choose the right DSLR?

For those starting out in their photography careers, Canons may ultimately be the best option, offering a more streamlined shooting process. For the mid-career to mature pro, any new high-end camera with a top quality lens will do, but if you’re looking for the most accurate reproduction, Nikon is probably best, unless frame rates or video are especially important to you.

Just don’t get caught up in every upgrade, and know both Canon and Nikon offer quality cameras. If you love photography, you’ll get years out of any rig.

– Follow Jose Fermoso and ArtBistro on Twitter at and

Head illustration: Kevin L. Cole and U-g-g-B-o-y-(-Photograph-World-Sense-)/Flickr (CC). Second image: Kirstea/Flickr (CC). Camera photos courtesy of Nikon and Canon.

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