Nikon vs Canon showdown!

There’s a lot said about about the deficiencies of the Z range, hey I’m one of those people not afraid to say when something doesn’t shine as being the best. I make no apologies for being disappointed with the Nikon Z range, the Z6 on launch was awful, the autofocus was slow, didn’t work in anything but good light, and would miss so much it was pretty much unusable. It got better quickly with FW updates and the last of those, the V3.0 update, was much much better, but I still felt it was behind my old DSLR’s. I’ve shot Nikon DSLR’s for many many years, my first being a D200, then a D2x, D300 then D3 and D700, and then finally D750’s. From weddings to motorsports the Nikon system has always done me proud, so the Z was a real let down. Not the lenses, every single one of those beats anything I’ve had before on F mount, but the autofocus has never really compared for me. Even the Z6ii and Z7ii have caused more than a few curses as they refuse to focus where I’m telling them, Nikon have started well on the lenses, but just not there yet on the bodies. Youtube is littered with videos saying how much better Sony or Canon are. So when Canon got in the R5 as part of the test drive program I put in my order to loan one and some lenses. It was time to see what all the fuss was about in person.

I will preface this by saying this is purely my opinion based on using the Z range since launch, and the R5 for a weekend loan. My views may differ from yours, and that’s ok. If everyone thought the same there would only be one manufacturer making one range of cameras.

So on with my thoughts, I’ve broken this down into sections to make things a bit easier.


So starting with the most important part of any camera body, the feel and usage. It’s generally the most personal and subjective of parts to any system as well. Having said that lets dive in…

The R5 looks and feels more chunky and certainly in the hand the grip is noticably bigger. It feels really good and fits my hands near perfectly. Better than the Z bodies actually. This makes it a little more comfotable on first pick up as it feels larger and more comfortable in the hand, with a caveat which I will get to in a moment.

As many will know, the zoom rings work in opposite directions between Canon and Nikon, an annoyance if you’re switching between the two but if you only use one system it will obviously become second nature quickly enough.

Both brands have liberally sprinkled programmable function buttons on the body, and in Nikons case the higher end f2.8 lenses as well. This allows a multitude of configuration options to set up the system to suit you, the Canon system does seem to have more options you can select but even on the Nikon system there’s a reasonably extensive set of configuration options here. The Nikon function buttons on the front of the body have caused a fair amount of debate and some find them unusable while others find them perfectly fine. For me they work fine, just a stretch of the fingers to hit the button, and they don’t ever get accidentally triggered. What I do find annoying about them is when adding the MB-N11 grip they are then in the wrong place when  shooting the camera portrait. Which means they are only useful if you shoot more landscape than portrait ( if you use the grip ) Why Nikon did you not add the buttons on the grip to use in portrait too?!

I just want to mention two things on the Canon that really did confuse me as to why things are the way they are, as they are huge differences. Both of these I found slightly annoying, sure you could get used to them, but slightly bad design on the Canon.

Firstly the on/off button. On Nikons this is a rotary switch around the shutter release button, on Canon it’s a rotary switch on the left hand side of the pentaprism. No big deal you may think, but it means you have to use two hands to turn on the R5, whereas with the Z cameras you can turn on the camera one handed. A small difference you might consider on a DSLR since battery life is measured in days, but given the shorter battery life of mirrorless it’s much more convenient and faster to get to a shooting readiness to turn the camera on one handed. 

The second is the AF-On button. The R5 has a recessed feeling to the AF-On button due to the body shape and the button quite low profile, where the Nikon AF-On protrudes more. When holding the camera what this means is you need to use the the tip of your thumb to press in the AF-On button on the R5, which means keeping your thumb bent and putting more pressure on that fleshy part of your hand at the bottom of your thumb to grip the camera. The Z cameras your thumb is in a much more relaxed position I find and you can use the fleshy pad of your thumb to press down on the button. 

Size & Weight

Much has been talked about on the ‘tiny’ 70-200 f2.8 canon lens. Using the telescopic barrel design has enabled Canon to make a much shorter lens than previous. The f4 version of the lens is smaller still and not much bigger than a coke can in length. The f2.8 Canon L lens is really girthy though, and with the lens hood it takes up a lot of space still in the bag, just in a different way. The Canon lens is light though too, maybe close to around 200g lighter than the Nikon equivalent.

But lets hold up a little here, yes it’s a smaller lens, it’s lighter, but do you carry other lenses with you as well? Because here is where you might find things seem to even up here. The R5 body is heavier than say the Z7ii by 25g, then if you carry a 24-70/2.8 you’ll find the Canon is 130g heavier than the Nikon version. So all up with the body and two lenses, you’re then at the Nikon being just 20g or so heavier. Add the 14-24 2.8 Nikon and the 15-30 Canon and then the Canon kit is the heaviest of the bunch. 

So don’t get hung up about the size and weight of the lenses, depending on the lens range you like to carry it may not be that significant when one lens is smaller and lighter, look at the whole system.


OK let me get this out of the way first off. The Canon dual pixel autofocus system blows the Nikon system completely out of the water right now. Even with the newer V1.1.0 firmware on the Nikon Z6/7ii models, they simply cannot compete with the Canon for human or animal AF. The Canon AF system can pick up the shape of a bird, and then predict where the eye is, at an astonishing distance, human eye AF is similarly spectacularly accurate.

One thing everyone needs to understand about AF on mirrorless is that it’s easy to talk of autofocus as one thing, when it has some fairly distinct parts behind it. Firstly there is the AI that detects a subject in the view, and can determine where the eyes may be for an animal or human, and selects a focus point area to be used. Then there is the overlay on top of the view you see yourself in the EVF or rear screen. And then you have the autofocus system that then can focus on the selected AF point. The first of these matters to perform selection for the camera in an auto mode, the second is important to give you confidence you know what the camera is doing, and the final of these matters to get the image actually sharp. That’s probably a simplification but you get the idea.

Both systems now, as of the Nikon V1.1.0 update, seem to have near the same level of detection and EVF overlay for human eye-af. The R5 is faster, and doesn’t jump about between eyes as much, but both get the job done for human eye-af tracking. The real difference is if you stress the AF part of the equation. The Canon autofocus once an eye is selected has an amazing hit rate. Even with the 85mm 1.2, which is quite slow to focus and a tiny DoF, it’s still spot on in maybe 90-95% of images on a high speed burst in servo mode. When I’m talking about hit rate here I’m talking about the iris of the eye being tack sharp as the centre of the focal plane. In fact it’s so good you get to the point very quickly where you forget about focusing completely, you only have composition and exposure to think about, or just interact with your subject and the camera deals with focus. Did we have this on DSLR? No. Did we live without it? Yes. But why would you not want something that takes the load off you to focus, pun intended, on more important things about the image? The Nikon in AF-C will miss focus on the eye getting confused by multiple other things in the focus point such as a tiny stray hair you can’t even see until you look at the image, even if it’s not actually over the eye. Certainly the Canon wins even more obviously on animals. When I say wins on animals, I mean the Nikon just can’t do it in anything but perfect conditions with only cats and dogs. The R5 you just point at a bird and it detects it’s a bird, you see the focus points on the bird light up, then you see the focus point zero in on the eye. I found this a lot with animals, you see the multitude of focus points light up on a whole bird, or the head of a squirrel etc, then they are replaced by just the point(s) over the eye. So it seems like the AI used here detects the shape of an animal first, then detects the eye afterwards. It works fantastically well. The Nikon will find cats eyes ( after all if you look on Facebook that’s all we take photos of other than kit boxes right? ) and some dogs ( but not my Black lab puppy ) but only if they are static. Any movement and it can’t find the eyes, can’t find the body, and rarely seems to get it close to right.

The last part of the chain in the system, the actual autofocus part, is where Nikon is really behind. I can’t be 100% certain, but my belief is that the autofocus point size on the Nikons cause most of the issue, to me anyway. The Z7ii in single point seems much better and I have less issues than on the Z6ii, but it has more points, and they are much smaller. In eye-af on a Z6 this is definitely an issue. To see for yourself on a Nikon use eye-af with someone at head and top of torso in frame distance, and then switch to single point and see how much area the single point covers. It’s likely mostly a good chunk of the persons face on the Z6ii, so what you are saying there is that in that box, focus on the thing that is closest to the camera. Even in eye-af the camera can’t select a much smaller area than this, that’s the size of the autofocus point. When Nikon say 273 or 493 and you compare it to 5,940 on the R5 you see that there is a significant difference. Whats worse is that if you are in AF-C mode, even if the camera has acquired focus, it will jump about focusing in that box so the focus plane moves from image to image. It’s micro adjustments but it feels like they’re much bigger and you can’t see it in the viewfinder. Now you can nearly always work around this issue by selecting an aperture that enables everything in that box to be in focus, no matter which part of it the camera catches, but that’s reducing your creativeness in taking the photo. It’s forcing you to compensate for a deficiency. The Nikon fanboys will proclaim you should switch to manual focus as that’s how all Pros must work. No, that’s how we worked in the 70’s, with ground glass split screens, not with reletively low resolution pixelated digital images in an EVF

Canon have got all three of these parts of the system right, and it shows. Now many people will be screaming into their screens right now something like “But the Canon costs so much more than the Nikon, you can’t compare!” but lets just hold that thought a moment. If you use that logic, the Z7ii should have better autofocus than the Canon R6, but it doesn’t. What we should be saying here is that Canon were faster to produce a true second gen mirrorless range with the R5 and R6, where Nikons Z6ii and Zii are just incremental updates on the previous models. And I think this is a fair statement. Let’s face it, the Canon R and RP weren’t that much better than the original Z bodies. Canon leapfrogged. For anyone that’s been in photography for long enough will know this is normal. Until the D3, Nikon were behind Canon in the game for many years, then the D3 came along and Nikon leapfrogged Canon, and stayed there for quite some time. It’s how this industry works. The Z6ii and Z7ii do actually show big step ups in autofocus performance over the originals, but it’s an incremental change non the less. For now we have to accept as Nikon users, that the Nikon mirrorless autofocus system is behind. We either find that important enough to cause us to switch, or we hold fast and work around it until Nikon catch up. My view is they will catch up, the question is how long it takes. 

So now we’ve got the fact that Canons AF is superior out of the way lets take a deeper dive into some differences in the system as a whole though.

The Canons allow you to have dual AF-On buttons, something you don’t have the option for on Nikon. What this means is that you can assign the AF-On button to any autofocus mode you wish, lets say single point, and then assign the * button to activate eye-af. The * button can only be assigned to eye-af in this setup, you can’t have single point on one and dynamic on another for example. This means you can switch between these two modes as you wish to by just pressing a different ‘AF-On’ button. It’s pretty nice, but there is one slight flaw that makes it less than perfect. When you activate eye-af in this way, because it is only active when you press the * button, you cannot select the eye you actually would like to be in focus. The camera just picks the eye it likes. In a single person portrait this isnt too much of an issue, but it’s not always ideal. [ Edit – I have since been told that it is possible to use the single point selection to place over the eye you would like to select, using AF-On and then afterwards press the * button to actually detect the eye at that point and then focus. I no longer had the camera to try this but it could go some way to address the situation. ]

The shear tiny size of the autofocus points on the Canons do mean you can be really acurate on where you would like to focus in single point as well. The Nikons here do struggle at times, the focus areas, even in single point on the Zii, are quite large and so sometimes even in this mode it is difficult to get the focus where you want it.

But the Canon doesn’t have it all it’s way, because the interface to the AF system on the Nikon has some tricks up it’s sleave. Just like the Z6 and Z7, the Canon requires you to jump into a the menu system to be able to switch from animal to human autofocus. The Z6ii and Z7ii add this as actual focus mode settings so you can switch in the ‘i’ menu or with a custom button fuction and the command dial between Auto-area, Auto-area-People, or Auto-area-Animal. The other great thing the Nikon menu system has the option to use People or Animal detect in Wide area L modes too. This allows you to have a smaller area within the frame where eye detect is active. This is really useful to narrow down your selection area if you have multiple people in the frame, a bride walking down an aisle etc. Equally I honestly think the focus speed itself is just as fast on the Nikon as it is on the Canon, in fact I found the Canon seemed to ‘hunt’ more on stationary subjects in servo mode, than the Nikon does in AF-C. The difference is you know when the Canon is in focus, and it nearly always is when it’s not hunting about. But that hunting about can be annoying at times, although it was mainly the 85/1.2 I saw it with which is a lot of glass to move about.


So for the Canon I had on loan the RF 70-200/2.8, RF 24-70/2.8, RF 85/1.2, and the RF 600/11. To compare I have the Nikon 70-200/2.8s, 24-70/2.8s, and 85/1.8s, I also own the 50/1.8s and 35/1.8s.

The 85/1.2L is a BEAST of a lens. It’s huge, heavy, and you and everyone you point it at knows it’s a serious piece of glass. The images it produces are superb, but you start to wonder if these 1.2 lenses are really just for bragging rights. I mean, I shot with the 85L at f1.8 and the 85s at f1.8 and the difference was pretty minimal. Yes you can see slight differences if you pixel peep, but view the image as a whole, and I doubt anyone would genuinely be able to tell you which was which without guessing. The native S line F1.8 primes are stunning, and so good that they hold thier own against even something like the 85/1.2L which is something to take advantage of. Similarly the RF 24-70 is around the same size as the S line equivalent, it’s just heavier. The 70-200’s obviously offer a different experience between the two. The Canon is wider and shorter and in that familiar Canon white. The Nikon is a fixed length so similar in length to the Canon at 200mm but obviously the Canon shortens at shorter focal lengths. The Nikon feels faster to focus and the balance feels better to me. The main huge difference between these two lenses though is focus breathing. Looking through the viewfinder of the R5 with this attached the focus breathing is really noticeable, and for those who care about video this might be an issue. As I mentioned earlier, the RF lens is shorter when at 70mm than the Nikon, but it’s wider with it. I found the reality of the more compact sizing, was negated by the extra width when you went to pack it in a backpack. But if you are going to fit just the body and this lens in a shoulder bag, then the canon is clearly easier to lug around. With the Canon you are stuck at 200mm maximum with this lens, as it will not work with the 1.4x or 2x teleconvertors, something the Nikon will take no problems if you need more reach. Thats a shame.

Then we get to the seemingly strangest lens of all, the 600mm f11. Truth be told I wasn’t expecting much here, it’s an F11 so everything will be in darkness and everything will be in focus I heard people say. hmmm well, not quite. Yes f11 is a real issue as far as light goes, you do have to compromise with lower shutter speeds or higher ISO, but it isn’t necassarily a problem in all situations. At f11 you have to be a little careful if you can with the backgrounds, anything at a reasonable distance away from the subject will be far enough out of focus though. The real beauty of this lens is just how small and light it is. I was able to carry the R5 with 70-200 mounted, and the 600/11 in a small billingham shoulder bag securely and in comfort. There’s just no other combination right now that gives that. Focusing was never an issue despite the slow aperture and the focus was fast and accurate.

EVF and Screen

The R5 has a fully articulating LCD allowing you to position it in nearly any angle you need where-as the Z screens are only adjustable to tilt up or down. Both have a similar resolution and are bright and sharp and have a great touch screen experience. One thing the R5 does allow is to have the top right portion configured to act as a touch pad for moving focus points with your thumb while your eye is up to the viewfinder. I’m in too minds about this feature, I think after a while it would become second nature rather than just a gimmick, but it’s not something I miss as the joystick on both cameras can achieve the same function just as quickly.

When you come to the EVF’s there is a very defined difference. The R5 EVF is beautiful, a stunningly high resolution display which is so good you feel like you’re back in the days of looking through a mirror and an optical viewfinder. The Nikon is also very good, absolutely nothing wrong with it at all, and if you never look through the higher resolution R5 EVF you will never want for more. But once you’ve seen it, it cannot be unseen and then you realise you can see the individual pixels in the Nikon EVF. So please, Nikon PLEASE, give us a high resolution EVF like that.

Files, colours, and IQ

Here we get very subjective. For me both the R5 and Z7ii produce stunning images. Both are amazingly sharp, even more so with thier respective native lenses giving near edge to edge sharpness, and have fantastic contrast although I think the Nikon cameras generally have a higher contrast level straight out of the sensor. I had no worries about noise in either, I’ve printed photos on my Z6 at ISO25600 and although I didn’t get to try anything that dark with the Z7ii or R5, I’m sure after downscaling to a similar resolution the files would be just as good. 

Colour though is one place where I could see a real difference, and it’s the skin tones. For whatever reason, the Canon cameras produce very different skin tones to the Nikons. To be fair they always have, I’ve always found Canon skin tones to be a little cooler and less saturated, and on mirrorless this just continues. So for me I don’t get on with Canon colours, and most Nikon portrait photographers probably wouldn’t, but Canon users will likely see it the other way. So here this isn’t one being better than the other, it’s more which you prefer most. 


So the fact that you’ve made it this far can mean one of three things, you really really can’t sleep, you’re so bored of lockdowns you will read anything, or you’re crazy enough to want to know my thoughts. If it’s the latter then I’ll continue just for you…

You hear a lot on the internet, this is better than that, the religious wars between diehard fanboys of each brand. The only way to truely find out, is to try them yourself. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but is it?

Lets first say no setup is perfect, and a lot of the perceived benefits of a system are often offset by something else. Now all this is my opinion. Again you might agree, you might not, either way I’m good with that.

So the Canon AF is hugely ahead, but then the colours out of the files aren’t as good. Overall I gravitated to the Nikon files, when the focus was right. I prefer the Nikon lenses, as good as the Canon ones are, I really do think Nikon makes the best lenses of all the manufacturers. I wasn’t sold on the telescopic nature of the zooming on the 70-200, it sounds like a great idea to have a short lens, then you find out it’s taken away again by being much thicker, I also worry about the dust and sealing in general of a lens like that, or knocking it on something. And the Canon lenses are white, never been a fan of that.

The 85/1.2L is a beast, but the weight penalty for me means I’d never take it anywhere, the 85/1.8s suits me much more here.

The ergonomics of the R5 feel great at first, and then you find bending your thumb just isn’t as comfortable. I think I’d get used to that though. The weight of the system carrying the holy trinity of lenses is about the same, no benefit to either there, but the Nikon system does have the stellar f4 14-30 and 24-70 should you want a low weight setup.

The R5 EVF is… Well its gorgeous. Simply fantastic. I have to wonder what the Nikon optics in the EVF would make that look like.

So in the end for me, it comes down to is the EVF and autofocus worth switching for? For me it would be a case of trading the colours I know and love, for autofocus. Do these things justify the cost of selling all my Nikon kit and buying the Canon? This would be a lot of cash to have to spend for the transition. And it might well be worth waiting and spend that cash on whatever Nikon brings out next to compete with the R5 or R1 later. So for now I’ll wait it out a bit longer, Nikon are rumoured to be releasing a pro level camera this year, perhaps we will see a competitor to the R5.

If anyone at Nikon is listening I have some suggestions for a Gen3, or just a FW update in some.

  • Please give us the autofocus performance of the R5, or go better 😉 As part of this, how about a few more focus points.
  • Allow us to configure a button to toggle between two focus modes. We have the ability to program a button to toggle in and out of subject tracking, let us configure what mode we want in that toggle. Let me toggle between single point and auto area, or dynamic and auto area too.
  • Don’t you dare take away the selection of animal/human detection you added in the Zii bodies, thats so good, and the ability to use the wide area L as well for eye-af.
  • Give us a high res EVF, it so nice it feels like the OVF we are used to.
  • Keep doing what you’re doing on the lenses.

And that’s it.

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