Canon vs Nikon

CanonVsNikonSteven Christenson is a long time Canon user who recently also added a Nikon D600 to his stable of camera bodies. The thought behind adding a Nikon was to get a higher performing body than his Canon 5D Mark II *and* subject himself to Nikonology so that he can be more effective at teaching workshops. Workshop participants tote many brands of cameras, the dominant brands being Canon and Nikon. As an additional side benefit Steven can now tease himself about owning a lesser camera.  🙂

Steven does NOT believe that a Nikon is automatically a lesser camera nor that a Macintosh is a computer substitute – these are things he says just to spark friendly conversation.

Previously Steven – a Canonite, and Eric Harness – a Nikonian have swapped cameras for a spell to encourage cross-education. It seemed time to bite the sensor – so to speak – and not rely on using Eric’s equipment. Steven is using the Nikon D600 with (and without) a Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 manual focus lens for night photography and astrophotography. Steven took both the Nikon D600 and the Canon 5D Mark II on a 3-week tour of Europe which provided plenty of time to form conclusions about the operational differences between the cameras. As a result of his experiences learning and using the Nikon he presents his top issues and keeps score to decide which brand is better from an ease of use point of view.

fEE – An Aggravating Error

Right out of the bag, literally, things went poorly for the new Nikon.  With the new lens mounted backward* on the Nikon body all of Steven’s attempts to take pictures were met with fEE. You may be thinking, yeah, but didn’t you just say he mounted it backward?  Well, no, Since childhood he’s learned that “righty-tighty, and lefty-loosey” define how one tightens and loosens things. But the Nikon is reversed. To attach the lens you rotate it LEFT, not right.  Ok, so if the problem wasn’t the backward rotation of the lens to mount it, what was it? It turns out, that the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens *is* able to have the camera control the aperture BUT you *must* set the lens to f/22 or the fEE error results. It’s not optional. This seems ludicrous. When he puts a manual focus / manually controlled aperture lens on a Canon it all works just fine, that is, in the Canon metering works just fine.  Why Nikon insists on messing with the aperture on a manual lens is troublesome. This behavior sabotages one trick that time-lapse photographers use to prevent the camera from random fluctuations of the iris (and coincidentally needless mechanical wear). Left to the camera slight changes in the aperture result in visible flicker. Timelapsers, therefore, use the “depth of field” preview button and then slightly twist the lens to disconnect the electrical contacts thus preventing the camera from monkeying with the aperture. Since the Nikon control of the lens is mechanical, not electrical, it’s not clear if there is a clean way to keep the Nikon from messing with the manual aperture control on the lens. We are adding a point to Canon’s score for more sensible behavior.

Score : Canon 1, Nikon 0

Can’t Focus

OutOfFocusThere was another problem, too. After mounting the Rokinon on the Nikon, it was impossible to focus at infinity.  Checking the diopter controls, the security of the lens mount, etc. resulted in no joy. Since both lens and camera were a gift, Steven worried that he’d have to tell his wife that something was broken. Indeed, something is “broken” but exactly what is not clear BECAUSE when he turned ON the Nikon, it suddenly became possible to manually focus the lens at infinity.  Remember this is a MANUAL focus lens! Steven regularly sets up his Canon and pre-focuses with the camera turned off. His initial thought was that the Nikon hadn’t pulled the aperture open… but the view didn’t become brighter when the camera was turned on so something else odd is going on. What? Don’t know, and it’s an intermittent issue. Canon gets another point for not having this bizarre behavior.

Score: Canon 2, Nikon 0

Viewfinder = Confusion

The next headbanger came when Steven tried to actually shoot with the camera.  The viewfinder was filled with all the content intended but the shot was far different from the view in the viewfinder. How different? Well there was about 30% more in the view than appeared in the shot.  Unfortunately this unexpected twist meant that Steven’s first night shots of the sky over Santorini were unstitchable due to insufficient overlap. Do you know what the problem is?

Steven couldn’t figure this one out, though weeks later he pleaded with Eric for help and Eric resolved the problem!  Here is a clue: the image size was also much smaller than expected: 3936×2624 pixels rather than 6016×4016.  Apparently the camera either came preset to or was somehow accidentally put into “DX” mode where only the center of the sensor is used. This behavior is readily noticeable when using Live View. In a warped way, I guess this is what allows Nikon users to mount any lens to any Nikon body – cropped or not – and get a result.  Canon’s approach is to not permit mounting of a crop factor lens on a full frame body.  The Nikon center crop mode results in smaller files. If that also achieved faster frame rates a full point advantage would be awarded to Nikon, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Nikon scores 0.5 points for versatility (though we are sorely tempted to subtract points for unexpected behavior).

Score: Canon 2, Nikon 0.5, Steven -1, Eric +1

Chameleon Lenses

ChameleonSteven intentionally got the Nikon G-Mount Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 for it’s speed and because it’s a form factor that he didn’t already have. But a nice little side benefit came with it. Because of the lens mounting schemes used, it is possible via a cheap little adapter to use pretty much ANY Nikon lens on a Canon body (but NOT vice versa). Nikon gets a full point for this benefit.

Score: Canon 2, Nikon 1.5, Steven -1, Eric 1

Finding Your Way Around

ConfusedObviously the menu systems are different on a Nikon and Canon. Mostly its a matter of taste. Both Canon and Nikon camera models regularly and needlessly re-arrange the names and locations for settings.  There is no clear winner here. Likewise the locations of buttons and the features on those buttons move around as bodies change – sometimes maddeningly so.  Steven doesn’t have enough experience with Nikon to form an opinion about this, but every one of his 3 Canon bodies has buttons “needlessly moved”.  For example the top-deck light button moved from the innermost to the outermost button. Why? Canon must have been bored. Steven does find it annoying that the top deck light on the Nikon D600 is built into the on-off switch… and the light doesn’t stay on long!  In fact, locating the Nikon on-off switch just above the settings wheel has resulted in several unintentional turn-offs of his Nikon.  Accidental power off is happening less over time though.

One example of a difference in philosophy between the Nikon and the Canon is in the ISO setting. On Canons you press the ISO button (top deck), then spin the wheel. You can change the ISO one-handed.  On the Nikon, you must hold a button (lower left) on the back and spin the control with the other hand – two-handed control. I prefer one-handed control it’s easier in the dark. On the other hand, you must wade through several menu settings to format a card in the Canon. A double, double-button press (plus a selection) allows you to format one of the two cards in the Nikon. It’s a little SCARY that I can accidentally format one or both cards by accidentally holding the wrong buttons on the camera.

An example of a Nikon gaff is in image delete. Press delete then press delete again and poof, image shredded.  If Steven fumbles (and he’s known to do that) it means an image can go up in smoke by accident. The Canon method is to press delete then require a scroll and a third operation for confirmation.  It’s a little more tedious, but safer.  It is clear, however that the Nikon has more buttons and more controls available with less total fumbling. So we award Nikon another 0.5 points. And now the score is tied (except that Eric is leading Steven significantly).

Score: Canon 2, Nikon 2, Steven -1, Eric 1

Light Leakage

Light leak through the viewfinder.  ISO 4000, 30 seconds

Nikon D600 Light leak through the viewfinder. ISO 4000, 30 seconds

In astrophotography and landscape astrophotography it is very useful to collect dark frames. A dark frame is a normal shot but with the lens cap on and the goal is to capture an image with stuck pixels or black level offset to fix other images taken with the same settings and at the same temperature.  Much can be learned about this in our BLOG.  Anyway, while shooting dark frames indoors with a capped lens, Steven was very distraught to discover that significant amounts of light can leak in through the eyepiece of the Nikon D600 and render the dark frame (or any high ISO night shot for that matter) unusable. Above is an actual shot. While it is true that light entering the viewfinder of a Canon 5D Mark II (and other cameras) can fool the metering system, Steven has never observed light leakage of the severity that the Nikon D600 displays.  Both Canon and Nikon offer eyepiece covers to solve this problem., but in truth, the cap doesn’t seem necessary on a Canon except when metering. Canon wins another point here.

Final Score

BoxingGloveCanon 3, Nikon 2, Steven -1, Eric 1

At a final score of 3 to 2 in favor of Canon does this contest feel like it has been rigged? Have you used both types of cameras? What is YOUR favorite feature or biggest pet peeve? Leave a comment!

18 thoughts on “Canon vs Nikon

  1. Enrico

    Nice article and interesting issues you had. But you can’t quite compare a D600 with a 5D Mark II as the 5DM II is older and the D600 is in another class than the 5DM II . Having used a D600 and D800 there are differences and D800 is more designed for professionals. The D600 is somewhere between the D7100 and the D800. The D600 has more the features/setup like the D7100. And Yes Nikon has also this button move around between camera models. Most annoying the zoom in and out button is swapped between the D600 and D800 , when having both cameras that can be really annoying.

    With you having used all your life a Canon it is confusing and weird to move to a different camera system that offers similar features but in a different way. I didn’t have the DX mode when I used my D600 the 1st time maybe it was on auto detect and thought your manual lens is a DX lens? But here is also a good thing about Nikon that you can use all Nikon lenses produced since 1975 (or somewhere around that time).
    Yes usually you wouldn’t use a DX lens on a full frame body but why restrict/force people to use only a certain type of lens?
    I’m not sure why you had so many issues with the Rokinon lens. I also use manual focus lens and there is nothing preventing me to change the focus when the camera is turned off.

    I noticed the light leaking myself with the D800 and D600 which is annoying as I sometimes forget about it and I didn’t have that issue with the D700.

    Just sell the Canon and get familiar with the D600 menus and features. I’m certain you won’t regret it. 🙂

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Of course I can compare the Nikon D600 and the Canon 5D II on ergonomic issues… And in truth, the D600 doesn’t seem to be “head and shoulders” better at high ISO. But the Nikon is clearly superior in low light. Some of those Nikon idiosyncrasies are very irritating to a guy like me who started with and still heavily uses Canon. But as I noted in the review, I see where some of those Nikon creatures (features?) are potentially good things. One thing I just realized… my experiment trying to use the EyeFi card in a CF adapter in my Canon’s was a failure. But I can now dust it of and use it in the Nikon.

  2. Bill Caid

    I generally agree with your assessments. I have owned both brands, but some years ago sold all the Nikon gear. Recently, with the hoopla about the D800, I purchased one with a new “G” lens and did a bake-off between my Canon 1DsM3 (21mp), D800 (36mp) and an Olympus OM-D E-M5 (16mp). My conclusion on non-astro photos was that the Nikon glass was not as good as the Canon (despite the Canon being 9 years older). My order of merit was Canon, Oly, Nikon, but again it was not a scientific test. By weight and convenience, the Oly was way ahead. By cost as well since there was a 10:1 ratio of system cost comparing the Canon to the Oly.

    Light leakage through the VF is not an issue in either the Canon or Oly. On the Canon, there is a mechanical shutter to prevent the leakage (also on high-end Nikon cameras). On the Oly, not an issue as there is no light path since the VF is electronic.

    I do agree that from an ergonomic standpoint the Nikon is the best. I further agree that arbitrary restructuring of the menu tree is frustrating and is likely done so the product manager can claim that they have “improved the product” under their leadership.

    Best regards,


  3. Steve J.

    Totally with you on the light leakage…D800 has a switch instead of a cover that can get lost in the middle of the night, and Nikon does mention in their manuals that there is light leakage when your eye is off of the eyepiece. I think they have had that issue since F days. They really need to address it better.

    Regarding the basic design with the buttons and switches and dials , Nikons especially the D800, but even the lesser D600, are designed for people that…are not morons…there I said it…if you need more than a two step, two handed, process to keep from formatting a card…then maybe you need to stick with a Canon. Everything on the Nikon camera body is put there so that all the basic settings can be easily changed, adjusted, selected, etc., without having to navigate to a menu, to adjust a setting like ISO, or activate a feature like bracketing.

    The problem with focusing may just be a D600 thing to save the battery from draining…the D800 and earlier D300 do not have that issue…unless the battery is dead or removed…it could even be that the camera has to be turned on to set the battery then works on or off.

    The fEE thing is so that the aperture of any F mount lens from any decade can work on that camera…as to why the Rokinon didn’t work right away…probably because of a cost down savings on Rokinon’s part more than a Nikon issue.

    I think that if Steve had used the Nikon a week or so during the day to get himself used to it…read the manual, and not lost the eyepiece cap, then he probably wouldn’t have had the issues he had…at least it would have been a 2 2 draw with Steve not being at a -1 ;-).

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      fEE is an unjustified hack by an engineer who is a moron. 🙂 Nikon could have created an option to “use lens fully manual”, i.e. disable the fEE error, but didn’t. (Oh wait, they did allow a way on at least 3 Nikon models – see below).

      Steven may be a moron, too! For the record he did spend two weeks with the camera in daylight, downloaded the manual and read through it after having spent an additional two weeks with a different Nikon model. But he continued using his Canon so it was a bit like trying to speak two languages simultaneously. Oh, and he has really smart Nikonian buddies who can come to his aid.

  4. Enrico

    Steven maybe your lens is just broken. But asking Nikon to create an option to disable camera-lens communication does not make sense.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Having Nikon allow attachment of a lens with *manual* aperture control that CANNOT be controlled manually is what makes no sense to me. It’s like putting a crank handle on your car window but only allowing the window to be raised and lowered with an electric motor AND making your car refuse to start unless the windows are fully closed. Wait, it’s worse. If you roll down your window at all, the car shuts off.

      The closest I’ve ever seen Canon come to this kind of insanity is with the 1.4x Tele-extender. If you connect it to the camera but don’t connect a lens to the teleextender it refuses to take a photo. To work around that you have to tape down the contacts of the TX, or introduce another extension that doesn’t have electrical contacts.

      1. Enrico

        It is up to the lens manufacturer to provide a lens that works with the camera or simply NOT provide any contacts like other manual lenses. I have no problem taking a picture with my telescope and the D600, the telescope being a completely manual lens with no contacts.

        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          Good point. I feel a bit sorry for the lens designers. If they provide contacts so that some automated control is permitted, then they simultaneously rule out fully manual use on a Nikon.

          Apparently being able to use a manual lens manually is important to a lot of people as some searches on the web will reveal:, DigiLloyd, PetaPixel, and more.

          However after finding the terse response “see page 327” on DPReview, I found to my delight that Nikon DOES have a setting to eliminate the fEE error at least on D600, D700 and D800. On the 700 and 800 it says once you use the Aperture Setting, Live View is disabled. But on my D600 LiveView is fine. AND the Camera also reports the approximate f/stop on the display.

          D600 Aperture Setting (f5) - it's f9 on D700 and D800

          Note that this is not listed anywhere that I’ve found in relation to the fEE error, or that this will make the fEE error go away.

  5. Garrett Winslow

    Personally I’m pretty tired of the Nikon vs Canon debate, the Mac vs PC debate, or even the Ford vs Chevy debate. Use what ever tool floats your boat.

    IMHO a celebrated educator would simply have a work around for what ever tool they were using, and display their knowledge and professionalism with out all the debate.

    Steven is widely known for his awesome photography. Better to stick with that than possibly turn someone off as a possible paying client because they enjoy a certain tool over another.

    Choices and competition is what drives all manufactures to compete with one another resulting in product development for all of us.

    Any one of us can find something we don’t like about an image… Or a camera. Use what ever tool you might enjoy, and just be kind to one another.

    Ultimately photography is about light manipulation. It’s not the pots and pans… It’s the cook.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Well said, Garrett. But I do believe we can make better cameras better pictures and better pots and pans and sometimes the best way to find out what makes a better something is to observe what makes a “less better” something else. There are some attributes of the Nikon that I favor and some areas where Canon wins. Part of the point of this article (besides being a bit tongue in cheek), is to illuminate one of those areas that doesn’t get much press: usability comparisons.

  6. Greg S

    Hi Steven
    As a student and fan of yours I offer my 2 cents worth. I have BOTH the D600 and D800 with a Tokina AT-X 16-28mm F2.8 Pro FX and a AF-S Nikkor 24mm F1.4 lenses. I used the D600 on the Alabama Hills expedition. I agonized long about so many issues before deciding on the D600 bc DXO Mark gave it the highest low light level performance score – 2980. I have dedicated it to star photography. Ended up buying a D800 for general use. All the differences/issues I have found I just wrote off as to being new to Nikon and accepted the learning curve. I wish I could weigh in here and drill down on some of the technicals for a .25 tour but I haven’t got enough activations to provide any meaningful thoughts. I will say this the D600 was a VAST improvement for low light level and noise compared to my Sony A77. I have no regrets as to this decision. No matter what camera, I aspire to be the photographers you and eric are and look forward to the next expedition.

  7. Jeff B

    The point for “Chameleon Lenses’ should go to Canon for being able to accept ANY lenses out there. And I do love those little adapters.
    After all, this is rating the bodies…

  8. Derek S.

    My 2 cents (all in good fun)…

    Former Samys Camera Hollywood employee here… I’ve tested and used all of the cameras mentioned over and over, taken each out for several days at a time, etc… it was part of my job at the camera store, and while I really loved the image I got on the back of the Nikon D800 screen, when I pitted it against the Canon 5D3, ran the RAWS from both cameras through my Lightroom workflow, and printed them on photographic paper at roughly 13×19, I was not able to pick a winner. They looked similar enough to each other (both amazing), that I will say the end result performance of these cameras was about equal. Control wise, for me, the Nikon did seem a bit more “fiddly” if you will.

  9. Andrew Devlin@Binoculars Sydney

    Choices and competition is what drives all manufactures to compete with one another resulting in product development for all of us. Any one of us can find something we don’t like about an image… Or a camera. Use what ever tool you might enjoy, and just be kind to one another.


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