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I'm considering purchasing a DSLR for the first time here in the next couple of months. The two "big boys" seem to be Canon and Nikon. I've looked at both companies, and I can't really see significant differences between the two.

Are there any?

(Please don't go into a flame war here -- I'm looking for factual differences between the cameras, not "I enjoy X because of Y...")


Also see What do Pentax, Sony, and Olympus DSLRs offer that differs from Canon and Nikon? for another important part of the story.

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See also How much do lens lineups vary across platforms? –  mattdm Jun 5 '11 at 22:43
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Here's an oldie but goodie on the subject: kenrockwell.com/tech/nikon-vs-canon.htm –  BMitch Jun 6 '11 at 0:02
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@B Mitch: I've not seen anybody who thinks Ken Rockwell actually knows what he's doing. Much the opposite, actually -> photo.stackexchange.com/questions/10980/… –  Billy ONeal Jun 6 '11 at 0:38
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I think the key word is "significant". I don't honestly think there are any significant differences, although as a Canon user I do find the sound of the Nikon shutter rather more attractive... –  Mike Woodhouse Jun 6 '11 at 13:44
    
Have to agree with Mike about shutter sound...Canon's do "clack" a bit, where as Nikon's seem to have more of a dampened "thud", which is less jarring. This may just be an aspect of cheaper Canon cameras though, and higher end (i.e. 5D, 7D) bodies may have a better damped mirror. –  jrista Jun 9 '11 at 2:26

13 Answers 13

up vote 53 down vote accepted

There's very few minor differences between those two.

Nikon has a consistent mount throughout its current generation of amateur and pro DSLR cameras. If a lens mounts on one, it should mount on the other. On some entry-level cameras with older lenses, you may not get autofocus and/or metering — but the lens is still functional. Nikon used to have only autofocus in the body. Some previous generation lenses require a camera with a focus motor in the body to autofocus. Nikon's recent mirrorless CX-mount differs from it's DSLR F-Mount because CX lenses are not intended for use on DSLRs - but official Nikon adapters do exist to mount F lenses on the CX mount.

Canon current has two mounts: EF and EF-S, and an EF-S lens is made for a APS-C sized sensor and physically won't mount to a full frame camera. (Based on Matt's comment below, it may be possible to mount a EF-S lens on a fullframe camera with some modification to the lenses and a limited zoom range.) EF lenses will work on either APS-C or full frame cameras. All autofocus Canon lenses have focus motors in the lens.

The off-camera flash system is very different between the two as well.

They each have a few lenses in their arsenal that the other is lacking — extreme macro or adjustable soft focus lenses for example. But those are really niche cases.

Canon is making their own sensors and Nikon has started to use some Sony sensors that are shared among several cameras (Nikon D7000, Pentax K-5, and Sony A580 all use the same sensor - or very close to it). The current generation of Sony sensors in these cameras appear to be superior to the current Canon sensors. Most of the technology advantages between the "big two" tends to switch back and forth as they each introduce new generations of cameras - so a sensor advantage today may not exist tomorrow.

Realistically, either would take good pics.

Don't forget about Pentax and Sony as well — they're competing for market share instead of against their own lines and look to be feature packing even their lower level cameras. Canon and Nikon (especially) leave off obvious (sometimes even basic) software enhancements from their lower lines in order to encourage mid-to-top tier purchase.

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+1 for not flame-war-ing. –  Billy ONeal Jun 5 '11 at 22:37
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Just to expand more. The biggest difference is the lens lineup each brand gives you access to. The lens offerings of one brand may simply fit more with your needs. –  Itai Jun 6 '11 at 0:15
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Also - Canon and Nikon tend to leap-frog each other every few months. It may come down to which camera is best for your needs when you're ready to buy. When you buy, you're impacting your future purchase of lenses which, in turn, encourages you to stay with the brand for years to come due to the investment in glass. Canons tend to be a bit cheaper for the same specs, but I know plenty of Nikon die-hards who claim that Nikon glass is a hair better quality. I ended up going with the Nikon D90 when I switched to DSLR after delightful years of Canon point-and-shoots. I'm happy with my choice. –  jaxxon Jun 6 '11 at 6:28
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Remember, good glass is expensive. Camera bodies are more subject to technology creep than lenses. Once you pick a brand and start to buy lenses, you will have a substantial investment locking you into that brand when you are ready to upgrade or replace the body you buy today. –  RBerteig Jun 6 '11 at 6:59
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It's also worth pointing out that if you pop a bit of plastic out the back of an EF-S lens you can mount it on an EF body, just don't zoom all the way out or you'll get vignetting / hit the lens with the mirror. The EF-s 10-22 works great on my 1DmkIV from 11mm onwards, at 10mm the mirror hit the lens but did no lasting damage. –  Matt Grum Jun 6 '11 at 23:52

One thing to consider is do any of your friends have DSLRs and what do they have. This is useful for 2 reasons; you can try using their cameras and seeing how you get on with them before you buy, and you can share accessories. I've ended up with a Nikon and through a couple of friends have access to ~7 different lenses and a couple of external flashes, whereas if I'd gone Canon then I wouldn't have that.

I'm not saying this should be the only thing you consider but it is something worth bearing in mind.

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This is true of buying any product. More importantly though, you've not talked about the differences between the actual cameras, which is what I'm specifically asking about. –  Billy ONeal Jun 6 '11 at 3:36
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+1. Having access to current users will be important when getting started. Being able to occasionally borrow an unusual lens or merely ask questions that can be answered in the jargon used by your camera's maker can be very helpful. All else being equal, this could be the deciding factor. (It was for me, I already had friends and relatives with Nikon, and knew no Canon users well enough to borrow equipment. After much shopping, I had no concrete reason other than that to pick Nikon over Canon.) –  RBerteig Jun 6 '11 at 6:56
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You said you were trying to decide which make of camera to buy, and as you pointed out and others have confirmed there aren't any major differences between the cameras so it is important to consider other factors that will influence your decision. –  Phil Jun 6 '11 at 9:55
    
Ahh, I wished it were so. Most of my friends and acquaintances bought Canon DSLR years ago already, but none of them are as interested in photography as I am. I went with Nikon, because the D90 offered the me my extra perks at an adequate price. The best I'm missing from their setups is a Tamron 18-270. (And the people I met using equipment I'd like to borrow ... live some hundred km off my place.) –  Leonidas Jun 7 '11 at 1:06

Another thing to consider is design philosophy. The ergonomics of the two brands (sizing, control layout, body shapes) are quite different. One or the other may work far better for you, making the choice obvious after actually handling a few cameras rather than just looking at pictures and specsheets on a website.

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I agree. Significant difference will mostly probably be subjectively perceived. –  Leonidas Jun 7 '11 at 1:10
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Ergonomics also have objective differences - like how well and fast you can finetune your fully manual shot, in a chaotic situation. –  Michael Nielsen Dec 8 '12 at 13:23
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which is a personal thing, at least in part. If I can't reach the buttons or can't manipulate them properly because the control layout is too cramped or spread out for the size of my hands and fingers, it might be perfect for someone else but for me is useless. –  jwenting Jan 7 '13 at 12:22

Will hackability be a factor? Canon's CHDK gallery looks intriguing.

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This doesn't apply to DSLRs as specified in the question. –  fmark Jun 6 '11 at 8:40
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@fmark: While I agree with your sentiment (that CHDK doesn't really apply to DSLRs), it's worth pointing out that there do exist ports of CHDK to some DSLRs; e.g. a port for Canon's 350D apparently provides expanded exposure bracketing, flash compensation, etc. –  Conor Boyd Jun 6 '11 at 22:49
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For completeness, the Magic Lantern firmware which adds mostly video related features is targetted at Canon DSLRs. –  fmark Jun 7 '11 at 4:25

Canon DSLRs (and EF mount film bodies) have a shorter registration distance (distance from the film/sensor plane and lens mount) than Nikon. This means you can mount any Nikon F mount lens on a Canon with a simple adaptor. If you mount a Canon lens on a Nikon body it will be too far from the sensor and you wont be able to focus to infinity.

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Back in the (pre-autofocus) day, the direction you moved the focusing ring on a Nikon was opposite that of many other brands. Some people bought (or did not buy) Nikon largely on that ergonomic factor. If you like to manually focus your shots, that is something worth investigating.

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Lol -- I suppose this would matter if one has multiple cameras. it's going to be quite some time before I end up there; though I can see how that might be a problem. Was it common to have cameras from several brands in those days? –  Billy ONeal Nov 19 '11 at 19:14
    
Back then it was more common than now to have both a 35mm and a medium-format system (I had a Nikon F and a Hasselblad). Anything larger than a 35mm is pretty much a niche product now (saw a review recently of a 40 megapixel medium-format system for $41,000!) Some photojournalists would carry both Leica rangefinders and Nikon SLRs, the Leica for fast, street photos and the Nikon for long-lens or specialty lens (e.g., fisheye) use. –  Warren Keuffel Nov 20 '11 at 23:39
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FWIW, the difference in direction is still the case. –  mattdm Jan 3 '12 at 0:49

The only fundamental difference between all bodies of both brands is the registration distance (between lens mount and sensor). Nikon lenses sit slightly closer to the sensor, which means that you can mount a Nikon lens on a Canon with a spacer to get the correct distance, but if you try and mount a Canon lens on a Nikon there is nothing you can do to get it close enough to focus to infinity.

For a long time Canon was the only player offering "full frame" 35mm sensors (if you ignore the Contax N digital flop and 35mm MF backs) starting with the 1Ds in 2002, but in 2008 Nikon joined them with the D3. Sony entered the market the same year with the A900.

Part of this is due to the fact that Canon manufactures their own sensors whereas Nikon buys them in from other suppliers (e.g. Sony). This partially explains their delay in getting a FF offering.

The following are general trends so there will be counter examples:

  • Nikon bodies tend to offer more customisation at a comparable level. You often have to get the top of the range Canon to get more than 3 shot exposure bracketing, for example.

  • Likewise Nikon tend to offer better autofocus and build quality in the mid range models. Canon you have to upgrade to get the best.

  • Nikon bodies tend to offer extra features such as an intervalometer built in; you have to buy a wired remote to get this with a Canon body.

  • Historically Canon were much better for noise due to their in-house CMOS sensors, which is presumably why Nikon had to compete on features. However with the latest Sony sensors the ball is in Nikon's court for now.

  • Certain Nikon bodies have the autofocus motor built in and move the lens via a screw drive.

  • Canon don't include a pop-up flash with any of their full frame bodies.

  • Canon bodies tend to be more curved whereas Nikon follow a more angular form-follows-function approach

  • Canon were first to introduce HD video features for DSLRs. Nikon followed but the Canon video implementation was superior to Nikon's. The latest Nikon announcements D4/D800 should redress this however.

To retain perspective, these differences are relatively minor, and both companies produce superb cameras, as do other DSLR manufacturers.

Compared to other brands the most obvious difference is the presence of full frame sensors which is only shared with Sony [currently], and Leica [in a rangefinder form factor].

It's also worth noting that neither have in body stabilisation, whereas other manufacturers do. But that's a whole different question, see: What is the difference between in-lens image stabilizing and in-sensor image stabilizing?

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An excellently detailed and objective answer, Matt. The best compliment I can pay it is that, having read it I have no idea whether your own preference is for Canon, Nikon or something else. The kind of answer we should all aspire to. :) –  Mark Whitaker Feb 11 '12 at 10:00
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Good list. I would add that Nikon has cornered the high-sensitivity market because they are the only one who chose to make a full-frame DSLR with a relatively low pixels count (12 MP). Even though astronomical ISO sensitivities 102,400+ are possible with both brands, the larger photosites on the D3S is a seriously important difference for certain types of photography. –  Itai Feb 13 '12 at 3:29
    
Every recent Canon DSLR has 3-shot auto-exposure bracketing. hdr-photography.com/aeb.html –  Nick Bedford Feb 13 '12 at 4:34
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@Nick Bedford exactly, I said that you need the top of the range Canon to get more than three shot bracketing - the 1 series does up to 7. –  Matt Grum Feb 13 '12 at 12:06
    
@mattdm no problem I removed that paragraph –  Matt Grum Feb 13 '12 at 15:00

Thouh I am an avid Canon user (own a 550d and a 5D mark II) but I must agree that there are other differences between canon and nikons.

  1. Canon is more liberal in choosing from it's lens line up. Canon lenses are more portable than Nikon.

  2. Nikon is better in handling high iso

  3. Canon's control panel is much easier to use than Nikon's

  4. Canon usually costs less than Nikon :)

  5. Canon offers higher megapixel per photo, but Nikon offers a better pixel density.

That's what I can say for now :)

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1) is utterly false. 2) depends completely on the body. 3) is personal preference (my experience is the polar opposite) 4) debatable, depends on the specific item 5) utter bs, you're comparing non-comparable cameras –  jwenting Feb 12 '12 at 8:20
    
which factors helped you to conclude with #1 is utterly false? –  Hasin Hayder Feb 12 '12 at 15:03
    
Don't know about "utterly false", "utterly meaningless" certainly. First sentence doesn't even make sense, neither does the second unless you are claiming that any Canon lens is more portable than any Nikon lens (which would be false) –  epo Feb 12 '12 at 17:42
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@HasinHayder: #1 doesn't make any sense. #2 is only true for a time, and who is better flip flops every couple years. #3 preferential. #4 subjective...depends on how you look at it (Nikon tends to pack in more features...so you could say you get what you pay for.) #5 doesn't make any sense...both Canon and Nikon offer high and low density sensors in high and low resolutions, and thats a moot point anyway...the variety is high enough in both brands that you can easily get what you want...used or new. –  jrista Feb 12 '12 at 18:48
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@Mike: Nikon and Canon have very comparable lens lineups, the total number of lenses available for each is off only by a few (if you only count modern lenses, Nikon's F mount is universal, so you literally have decades upon decades of lenses available for use without any adaptation.) As for menus...thats entirely subjective...YOU find them hard to use...others would probably say the same thing about Canon menus. As for ISO, take a look at some of the 1D X sample photos...blows everything on the market out of the water, including the D700, D800, etc. Its ALL SUBJECTIVE, hence the problem. –  jrista Feb 13 '12 at 18:39

@matt grum covered the technical aspects, but for me the biggest difference is the ergonomics. Canon and Nikon have a very different approach to control layout, and you'll probably prefer one over the other.

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only correct answer. And of course if you like grey/white lenses, Canon has a larger lineup (though a bit of paint can get you the same effect with any brand) :) –  jwenting Feb 12 '12 at 8:23
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Ergonomics is the big difference for me too, I had assumed this was just down to familiarity. Also Nikon are said, possibly mainly by Nikonistas, to have a much superior and more integrated lighting system in CLS. –  epo Feb 12 '12 at 14:12
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+1 This is one of the key differences I hear people talking about in general conversation, and often the deciding factor when people chose one brand over the other. –  jrista Feb 12 '12 at 18:44
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And Amen to that. As a Canon user, everything is in the wrong bloody direction on a Nikon. Everything! Want to zoom the lens? You must turn it the opposite way from your Canon. Focus? Opposite. Light-meter? Opposite. Lens release? Opposite. Aperture and shutter speed? Opposite (as far as I remember). I mean, seriously, they could not have been more contrary if they had tried to on purpose. We can blame the Germans for this one though - Nikon copied Zeiss, Canon copied Leica... –  Staale S Feb 12 '12 at 20:18
    
@StaaleS - Wonderful remark, you just made my day with that one. Moreover, it's true. –  ldigas Dec 20 '13 at 21:57

Your question is What are the striking differences between Canon and Nikon?. Striking differences? None at all. If there actually were striking differences, it wouldn't be so hard to decide between a Canon and a Nikon in the first place, and that is certainly not the case. You see, when you notice people are arguing about two different positions over and over again without reaching an agreement, it is very likely that both of them are equally probable, and this is one very good example of this. Another one would be, for instance, which brand makes better shoes, Adidas or Nike? There's no point arguing that.

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I started with Nikon film cameras, switched to Canon for a DSLR, and eventually switched back to Nikon. After several years with each I have come to my own conclusions about what makes Nikon "better" (at least, for me).

  • Nikon places the on/off switch near the shutter release. For quite a few generations of cameras now, it's been a ring around the shutter release button, but before that it was a slide switch near it. In either case, I think this is a fantastic thing because I can grab the camera, turn it on, and bring it to my eye to start shooting is a smooth motion. Canon cameras place the on/off switch elsewhere -- basically requiring two hands (one to hold the camera's grip, one to turn it on), which may also necessitate taking your eye off the subject to find the on/off switch. It's not as fluid and there's an interruption with the subject by having to look at the camera to get ready to shoot.

  • The rubber on Nikon's grips is a little more "sticky." I can keep a loose grip on the camera -- with as little as just my index and middle finger -- and still feel like I'm solidly holding it. Canon's rubber requires a firmer grip. To some extent this is also a matter of ergonomics, but the difference in rubber is what really stands out to me now.

  • Lens focus direction. I know, this is dumb and I should be able to get over this, but I can't: turn a Nikon lens clockwise to focus at infinity; turn a Canon lens counter-clockwise to focus at infinity. While I know this, my brain just can't remember how Canon lenses work when "in the moment."

These types of little details are really what separate the brands, not megapixels, metering, etc.

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I had never realized that lens focus one, but all of a sudden it makes so much sense why I always got confused and frustrated trying to manually focus a Nikon. –  cabbey Feb 13 '12 at 5:43
    
Sigma also focuses "backwards" (counter-clockwise to infinity) and I'm constantly getting mixed up with that. Happily, AF works well most of the time! –  Dan Wolfgang Feb 13 '12 at 12:59
    
Re: the on/off switch. With my Canons I just leave them on. Once they go into 'stand-by' they use very little battery. I've gone back a week later and the battery was still at 80%. A half press of the shutter is all it takes to wake them back up and you are shooting. I can feel your pain on the reverse focus/zoom/mount, though. I started with Canon and so Nikon seems totally backwards to me, as does my EF mount Tamron lens (focus & zoom, but not mount thank goodness)! –  Michael Clark Dec 20 '13 at 5:40

Canon and Nikon have been the 2 leading DSLR manufacturers for quite a few years now and primarily compete with each other, especially in terms of DSLR models. Hence, at a given price point, the models from both these manufacturers are very similar to each other in terms of actual performance and output. Both are also pretty much on par in terms of lens availability for their respective systems.

Don't base your decision on which brand has better image quality, performance etc. In practical terms, there would hardly be any perceptible difference in competing models from both brands. Instead, I would suggest you base your decision on factors like:

  1. Price: The price of Nikon and Canon bodies would vary from region to region. Fix a budget for yourself, then see the models available from both manufacturers in that price range. Do a feature comparison (you'll find plenty of websites for that), and select the one with the features most relevant to you.
  2. Lens: Don't try and compare which system has more lenses available. Instead, make a list of lenses you're currently looking to purchase with the system and the ones which you're likely to purchase in the near future. Then compare the prices of these lenses, because as with bodies, the prices of lenses also vary from region to region. For example, here in India, Canon lenses are generally more expensive than equivalent Nikon models. This was one of the primary factors I had considered while purchasing my first DSLR (FYI I brought a D5100).
  3. Friends: If your friends are already using a DSLR from a particular brand, it will be advantageous to go for that brand. As DSLRs have a reasonbly steep learning curve to take full advantage of the available features, your friends would be able to help you out in this regard. If its an option, you can also borrow and try out lenses from your friends.

Hope this helps!

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You are correct in stating that there are no significant differences between the two. But a huge heap of minor differences do add up to two different characters of cameras--either one of which could easily suit your needs. Any statements about how different the two makes are as broad generalizations will typically be wrong--there are going to be exceptions on either side. Which system might be a better does come down to individual usage, gear needs, and feel-in-the-hands.

But here goes.

Lenses

When it comes to wide angle shooting, Nikon typically offers more lens choices, particularly for a crop shooter. Canon has no 10.5mm fisheye for crop, nor a cheap fast "normal-on-crop" prime, like the Nikon 35/1.8. And the Nikon full-frame pro-quality 14-24/2.8 is without peer. When it comes to supertelephoto (>300mm lenses), Canon offers a few more mid-grade and lower-priced choices. For example, Canon has a 400/5.6, 400/4, and 400/2.8 at $1400, $6500, and $11,500 price points, while Nikon only offers 400/2.8 primes a the $9000, and $12,000 price points (OTOH, Canon's 100-400 zoom and Nikon's 80-400 zoom are both around the same price). Canon has more tilt-shift lenses.

So, there is a lens give-and-take between the systems, and which one will suit you better depends on which lenses you actually need. IF you don't need a 400/4 prime or a 17mm tilt-shift (and few people do), then the absence or presence of one hardly matters. And, of course, there are often 3rd-party lenses to fill the gaps.

Low-end body "crippling"

Nikon's low-end bodies (D3x00 and D5x00 lines), arguably, suffer more from "dumbing down" than Canon's low-end bodies (XXXXD and XXXD lines). Again, whether or not you need these "gracenote" features will determine whether it matters. Low-end Nikon bodies do not have a DoF preview button, cannot do true mirror lock-up, do not do high-speed sync flash, and may not have autobracketing as a feature. All of these features exist in the lowest-end Canon dSLR bodies, but they are more expensive.

Where there is a larger "missed" feature, however, is that Nikon low-end bodies do not have focus motors in them, and Nikon does not put focus motors in all of its lenses. And you need one focus motor somewhere to perform autofocusing. The practical upshot of this is that if you purchase a D3x00 or D5x00 body, and use an AF (not AF-S) lens on it, that lens will not autofocus. Nikon is the only brand with this specific issue. Most Nikon zoom lenses are now AF-S, and the primes are slowly being updated from AF to AF-S, so this is less of an issue than it was, say, five years ago. And, of course, not all subjects require autofocus.

Backwards Compatibility

On the flip side, all the film-era Nikon F-mount lenses can still be used on a Nikon body, while Canon's FD/FL manual focus lenses cannot be used on an EOS mount directly.

As with the lenses, Nikon tends to engineer for backwards compatibility, while Canon tends to go more bleeding edge and makes its older gear non-compatible. Another pithy way it's been put is that Nikons are designed by photographers while Canons are designed by engineers. Which one will be a closer design aesthetic to your personal tastes is up to you. But depending on the age of gear you might have inherited or that you can borrow, this might make a difference.

Left-to-Right vs. Right-to-Left

A minor note: Nikon tends to go widdershins while Canon doesn't. Lenses mount counter-clockwise, and the exposure scale/meter (unless you change a setting in the camera) by default puts -EV on the right, and +EV on the left. Canons, otoh, do the lefty-loosy, righty-tighty thing with the lens mount, and puts -EV on the left and +EV on the right.

Hacking

Canons seem to disproportionately have a larger number of engineers using them. And many of those engineers happen to write firmware in their day jobs, with the result that some very talented people looked at the CHDK, looked at their dSLRS, rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Magic Lantern exists for some Canon dSLR models, and works quite well to add some frankly astounding features that Canon hasn't seen fit to add, such as focus-peaking, a built-in intervalometer, single-shot HDR, auto-ETTR, video HDR, trap focus, etc.

Nikon hacking is undergoing, but has not reached the level of ML in terms of code maturity.

Flash Differences

For a while, Nikon's CLS wireless flash system was more convenient than Canon's, because Nikon built CLS masters into the pop-up flashes of its prosumer camera bodies, and Canon didn't. From 2012 onwards, however, Canon has begun to add this feature into its bodies, and even down into the XXXD dRebel models (600D forward all have this feature). The lowest-end model Nikon has this in is the D90/D7x00 tier.

However, the Nikon mid-grade flash, the SB-700 is arguably a higher-end model than Canon's mid-grade flash, the 430EXII, as it can do 360º swivel (vs. 270º), has master capability for wireless control of another flash, and includes SU-4 mode ("dumb" optical slave capability). Neither model, however, has a PC sync port.

And in 2012, Canon added built-in radio control to its line of speedlights with the 600EX-RT (although there are no built-in radio masters in the camera bodies--you need another 600EX-RT or an ST-E3-RT to perform that role). Nikon has yet to introduce radio triggering, or the type of advanced features such as Groups mode, five-group control, or ID Codes (digital channel encoding, expanding a handful of channels to thousands). But I wouldn't doubt that it's coming.

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At what level would you consider a "lower level" body "dumbed down"? D3XXX level? D5XXXX level? My D7000 certainly does have a DoF preview button... –  Billy ONeal Jun 13 at 11:53
    
Yes. D5xxx and D3xxx are the "low-end" (entry-level) bodies I'm talking about vs. the Canon XXXD and XXXXD lines. In other words—the bodies that don't have dual-wheel controls and are typically <US$1000 when introduced as a new model. The D7XXX line is mid-range/prosumer like the Canon XXD line. –  inkista Jun 13 at 22:15

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