The year 2018 will be known as the year Canon and Nikon introduced their first mirrorless full-frame camera. It was their first step into a world that has been dominated by Sony for years. The cameras of Canon and Nikon have been mocked and laughed at, but how do they compare in real life? I got a chance to find out.
When I was reviewing the Canon EOS R I was asked to make a comparison with the brand new Nikon Z 7 and the Sony a7R III also. Soon after that I held three wonderful cameras in my hand and got a few weeks to get familiar with them, and shoot a lot of photos. I used the EOS R already for some time and found out how it felt to shoot a wedding with it, and I got a chance to do a love shoot with both the Z 7 and the a7R III. I also used these cameras for night and astronomy photography, and of course landscapes, which is also one of my passions.
First of all I like to point out that I think a camera is just a tool. It allows me to take the photo I want. It has to work flawlessly and I have to be able to trust it. It must be easy to operate and handle. What I don’t find that important is sensor resolution. Most of the times a resolution of 16 megapixels is more than enough for all sorts of photography. Although more pixels allows you to crop a bit, or to correct a tilted horizon without losing too much resolution, it is just nice to have. These three cameras have more than enough resolution.
Another thing that is not worth bothering is battery life. It does not really matter if you can shoot 100 or 200 photos more than the other camera. I shot more than 800 photos during the wedding with the EOS R and left with 29 percent battery life, while I took 100 shots only during a day of landscape photography with approximately the same juice left. The battery life of each of these cameras is good, as good as a mirrorless can be regarding the mandatory use of a digital screen. But I would always advise to have a spare on hand, or two, depending on your needs.
As I already mentioned, I find handling of a camera the most important feature. If a camera doesn't handle well it can become a misery to use it. The only way this can be tested is in real life and not in a laboratory. My intention of this article is not to advise one or the other camera, but to tell how I experienced photographing with these beautiful tools. It might help to make a choice of your own if you are planning to buy one. But please keep in mind, what I find a drawback, someone else might find it to be an advantage. It all depends on your personal preferences and even the type of photography performed.
Whatever the pros and cons of these cameras are, I could take the photo I wanted or needed regardless of it being a Sony, Canon, or Nikon. They all get the job done and the quality of the images are good regardless which camera you use.
Size and Design
Due to the lack of a mirror and pentaprism, the mirrorless camera can be a lot smaller and thinner. That is what Sony has done. The a7R III is a really small camera, just like its predecessors. That has come with a price in that the body is so small that all buttons are close to each other. Nevertheless all the necessary buttons and wheels are there, just like that all-important joystick. Unfortunately, Sony did leave the top plate half empty and did not place that nice dial like on the a9. I do like the dedicated exposure compensation dial though, which I find one of the most important dials on any camera.
The Canon EOS R is a much larger camera, but it’s still smaller than most DSLRs. The larger size gives more room for buttons and ergonomics, something the Sony does lack. Unfortunately, just like the Sony, the left side of the top plate is empty, except for a large power switch. The biggest innovation, if it can be called like that, is the introduction of the Touch Bar, which made a couple of big changes in button layout necessary. Thanks to that the placing of some buttons is not really convenient anymore.
The Nikon Z 7 is also bigger than the Sony, but just like the EOS R it is still smaller than the average DSLR. Fortunately, Nikon has made the decision to keep the button layout close to all its DSLR cameras, and thus the handling of the camera is very familiar to anyone who is used to a Nikon camera. The modest size of the camera gives enough room for all its buttons, and there is even room for two custom buttons between the lens and the grip. The ergonomics of the Nikon is very good, almost on par with the Canon and in some cases even better when it comes to button layout.
Although all these cameras differ in sizes, it is surprising they all have almost the same weight. The Sony is 657 grams, the Canon 660 grams, and the Nikon weighs 675 grams, all with memory card and battery included. But you should always be aware that these cameras need the best of lenses, which have the same weight and size as the lenses made for DSLR cameras. I think the weight of a camera body should not be an argument to choose a mirrorless full-frame camera for that part.
Handling and Operating
This part is in close connection with the button layout, camera size, and ergonomics. But the ease of use is also dependent of the size of your hands. Even the length of your fingers can influence how easily you can operate a camera.
My hands are average, I think. Not particularly small nor large. I find the Sony too small for my hands. The grip isn’t that comfortable and I need to replace my hand to use some buttons or the dial on the back of the camera, otherwise I get cramped fingers. The buttons don't have a very good relief and sometimes it is hard to find the right button using only touch. I cursed the many times I pressed the dial on the back without intention when rotating it, activating a function I did not want to. With gloves it is nearly impossible to feel any button and I sometimes had to remove my eye from the viewfinder to see if I had my thumb on the right button.
I love using my Canon DSLRs, and I find the button layout overall very well thought through. Except for the EOS R. I really think it is all because of the Touch Bar. It made the good button layout that is the characteristic Canon layout impossible. Another real downside is the sensitivity of that Touch Bar. When holding the camera in the normal position you automatically place your thumb on the Touch Bar, and thus activating it without intent. It is also too difficult to operate accurately. I would rather have this Touch Bar removed and replaced by the AF-On button and a decent operating wheel like the modern Canon DSLRs have. But the EOS R is not all that bad. The buttons that are present have a good feel to it and can be found very easily, even while wearing gloves. Except for the AF-On button, but that is because of its unusable position on the camera body.
I find the Nikon the best concerning ergonomics and handling. The grip is large enough, well-formed, and the buttons have a good feel to it; You know when you have one under your thumb. The camera can be operated with gloves without problem and all the buttons are in the right place. But it is too bad Nikon has not placed a double function dial on the camera, like their DSLRs. Now drive modes have to be activated by a button and on screen. I do really like the two custom buttons next to the lens mount and I really enjoyed using and operating this camera. The only downsides are the quality of the ISO and exposure compensation buttons.
The menu structure has to be easy and well organized. You should find all functions quickly and it should be clear what it is for, without the need of scrutinizing the manual. I find the menu of Canon one of the best organized and most easy to use. It has menu tabs with multiple pages and you can switch between them very easily and quickly. There is a My Menu tab that can contain more than one page, and you can name every page to your liking.
Nikon is less easy, with the need of scrolling through a lot of options before finding what you need. After some thought I think it is because of the vertical tab layout, which makes maneuvering through the menu less simple. But it also is a matter of getting used to. Nikon provides a My Menu where most used menu functions can be programed in. But if you place a lot of function in there, you end up scrolling again.
It is well known how cumbersome the menu of Sony is. You need to search a lot before finding the right menu option. Sony also has tabs but with way too many underlying pages that are not well grouped. It is difficult to scroll quickly between the different pages. Fortunately there is also a My Menu tab, but it is limited to only six options per page. You could program some of the menu functions into the quick menu, or assign one of the buttons to it, so you don’t have to use the menu that much.
The best way to learn the menu is to use it over and over again. That way you know where to find the most used options. And this way you learn to operate the camera. So no matter what camera you have, you will get used to the menu eventually. Some brands may take longer to learn, though.
The EVF and the LCD Screen
All three cameras have a screen that can be titled in some way or another. The Sony and Nikon can only be tilted up or down, and the Canon can move in all ways. I find the screen of the Nikon and Canon very crisp and bright. The screen of the Sony is opposite to that; it rather look dull.
The touchscreen functionality is very well implemented in the Nikon and Canon. You can use it not only for placing the AF point, but also to operate the menu. Everything can be activated by touchscreen. The Canon has a small advantage with the possibility of swiping the AF point while looking through the viewfinder. Both Nikon as Canon have a very responsive touchscreen that is a pleasure to use.
Strangely, the Sony has only a rudimentary touchscreen which renders it almost useless. You cannot use it for operating the menu, and the only practical use is swiping the AF point, fortunately also while looking through the viewfinder. But the touchscreen is not that responsive and the AF point was following my thumb with a significant lag.
I find the EVF of the Sony is the worst of all modern mirrorless cameras I have seen (and I have seen quite a lot). It is perfectly usable, but it is not like looking through an optical viewfinder. The Canon and Nikon are much better, and I find the Canon almost as good as the best I have seen, which can be found on the Leica SL.
Autofocus and Speed
I haven’t really looked into this and can only tell you what I experienced. I found these cameras to perform very well. The Canon has quick autofocus and doesn't need much light. The Sony has an amazing Eye AF and face recognition that almost always focuses spot on. The Nikon focuses quickly and accurately, but has some difficulties with tracking moving objects.
I find none of these cameras suitable for real action photography, no matter how many frames per second they can shoot. The Sony has a big disadvantage with action photography. Its buffer may be large, but it takes ages to write the images to its memory card. And be aware, when the Sony is writing, many menu functions cannot be used or adjusted. You have to wait until all those frames are out of the buffer and onto the memory card.
Use in Real Life and Dynamic Range
How I experienced the use in practice can be deducted from the things I already said. There is no clear winner is this. But then again, it is not a contest. All three of these cameras have their strengths and their weaknesses. I like the handling of the Nikon and I dislike the Sony. The Canon feels good in my hand but I don’t like the Touch Bar. The menu of the Sony is a disaster but it is usable when most used functions are programed into the quick menu. Still, the customization of the Nikon is similar to the Sony and the menu is much easier to use. Canon wins concerning the menu, and I love the feel of the buttons on the Nikon. The Canon also has the best screen and EVF, closely followed by the Nikon. Sony lost on quality of the LCD screen and EVF, but when it comes to autofocus, I think the Sony wins over both Nikon and Canon.
What about the results and the dynamic range? Well, I think all of these cameras perform very well and the photos are full of detail and full of rich colors. I shoot raw and don’t look at the JPEG produced by these cameras, so any color that could be related to one brand is non existing for me. You can get any color you like in post. Also the dynamic range is very good with each of these cameras. It is easy to lighten up an underexposed image with at least three stops. But when you are in search for the limit, the Sony clearly wins.
These three images of a sunset show the limit of what I find possible. All of these extreme processed images are acceptable, but the Sony produces the best result. But even with the Sony the image shows a large degradation in quality. In these situation you would be better off with a gradient neutral density filter, or with a bracketing, or with both, as shown in the example below. But if you shoot under conditions that would not allow filters or bracketing, like during weddings, you can benefit from the possibilities these cameras have, with Sony as the one that goes the furthest in recovering shadows.
One last complaint and compliment. My complaint for Canon and Nikon is the lack of a double card slot. I did shoot a wedding with the EOS R, and all went well, but I felt not happy having no backup on the spot. I would like to compliment Sony on having two card slots.
What I Like and Don't Like
I am not going to mention all the likes and dislikes of these cameras. I'll limit myself to what I find to be the most important things. If you are in search of a mirrorless camera, perhaps my findings can help you make the best choice for you.
Canon EOS R
- Ergonomics and size
- Tilted screen
- Very good and functional touchscreen
- Use swipe to move AF point while looking through the EVF
- A good menu structure
- Very good EVF
- Bright and clear LCD
- Touch Bar
- AF-On button in the wrong position
- No joystick
- Not enough buttons on the camera body
- One card slot
- AF and light meter doesn't work at maximum frames per second
Sony a7R III
- Very good Eye AF
- Large dynamic range
- In-body image stabilization
- Two card slots
- Too small of size and ergonomics are not that good
- Buttons are too flimsy
- EVF is not that good
- Touchscreen is not that responsive
- Touchscreen is very rudimental and not really usable
- Menu structure is not good
- Writing from buffer to card takes ages
Nikon Z 7
- Ergonomics and size
- Enough buttons that have a good feel to it
- Very good touchscreen functionality
- EVF is good
- Bright and clear LCD
- In-body image stabilization
- AF tracking not that good
- ISO and EV button are difficult to find without looking
- Cannot swipe AF point while using EVF
- One card slot
Which of these cameras would you prefer and why? I'd love to see your answer in the comments below.