Which Brand Does Full Frame Cameras Best?

One of the most expensive mistakes you can make as a photographer is to change brands after being fully invested in another brand. This article explores pros and cons of each brand offering a full frame option.

As photographers, we seem especially vulnerable to GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) over the Christmas season. For those of you wanting to make the jump from compact/phone to full frame camera, this article is for you. Spoiler alert: there isn’t really a bad option.

Background

My first DSLR was the Canon 20D in 2004. At the time, there was not an affordable full frame option, but I knew I would be heading that direction, so I bought lenses that would work on full frame cameras. That 20D ended with a water housing malfunction, but this coincided with the release of the Canon 5D, the first affordable full frame camera. I gratefully took my insurance pay-out and entered the world of full frame.

An image from my early days taken with the original Canon 5D.

Over 14 years, I’ve collected a sizable number of lenses and camera accessories designed to work with Canon cameras. This makes changing systems a prohibitively expensive decision. Even so, I tried to change systems in 2016 with the Sony a7R II. As it was possible to adapt Canon lenses to the Sony camera, it meant I could experiment without having to replace my lens collection.

The guide that follows is based on my 13 years’ experience with Canon, 1 year with Sony, and 14 years of peeking over the fence at Nikon. It is full of personal bias and opinion, but hopefully contains enough useful information to inform your next purchase. 

As you may have gathered, three brands offer a sustainable full frame, mainstream (which excludes Pentax and Leica) option:

1. Canon

Canon was the first brand to offer full frame. They were first to use CMOS sensors, giving Canon a significant image quality advantage over competitors at the time. They were also first to provide a usable video option with the Canon 5D Mark II. Considering how strong Canon’s position was, it’s hard to believe that any brand was able to catch up.

In my opinion, Canon chose to cash in on this position, continually offering incremental improvements on their cameras without any major innovations. In terms of image quality, Canon is no longer leading.

Pros

  • Massive lens lineup, including some important specialist lenses 
  • An excellent flash system
  • An established service center network
  • Pleasing colors (subjective)

Cons

  • Behind Sony and Nikon in image quality
  • 4K video capture is hampered
  • Recent history shows a reluctance to innovate

2. Sony

I've heard it said that the iPod should have been Sony’s achievement. Instead, it proved to be the catalyst for Apple’s domination of handheld devices. It seems Sony has taken that lesson and applied it to the camera industry. The mirrorless camera should have been Canon or Nikon’s triumph. Instead, Sony led with the first full frame mirrorless camera, which made them a real player in the industry.

When I switched to the Sony a7R II in 2016, I was blown away by the increase in image quality over my Canon 5D Mark III. The jump in resolution from 22.3 to 42.4 megapixels was significant, but the most dramatic improvement was noise performance, both in shadow detail and high ISO. Canon closed the gap with the 5D Mark IV and 1D X Mark II, but not fully, as both cameras still lag behind Sony.

This was one of the first images I created with the Sony a7R II. The above image is the original raw file with no changes. I've increased the exposure by 3 stops for the image below. Look at the trees and underpass. There is next to no noise.

Crucially, the Sony also shot 4K using the entire width of the sensor, making the Sony mirrorless cameras a real hit among video enthusiasts. At this point, Sony vindicated my decision to change over. It took a few months for the weaknesses of the system to show up.

Firstly, in a race to innovate, I had the feeling that Sony had shipped a camera that wasn't fully tested and ready. Mine would overheat numerous times a day, forcing me to stop shooting. For astrophotographers, there were also reports of Sony "star eating." Sony addressed these issues in later models like the a7R III, but it was a stark reminder that they are still new to the camera industry.

The dealbreaker came when I damaged my camera. I needed it repaired quickly for a job, and there was no repair center available in London. I had to send it away for repairs, and it was a slow process. Coming from Canon’s professional services, I found the lack of support inadequate for working photographers.

Pros

  • Class-leading image quality
  • Great value for money
  • Adaptable to other manufacturer’s lenses
  • Innovative
  • Great video performance

Cons

  • Colors take a bit more work than Canon before looking natural
  • Cameras are rushed to market, which could be costly on a job
  • Does not have a well-developed network for maintenance/repairs

3. Nikon

DSLR versus mirrorless hasn't always been the dominant discussion. Once upon a time, you couldn't put two photographers in a room together without the Canon versus Nikon discussion being thoroughly hammered out. In the early days of Canon superiority, I honestly don’t know how Nikon managed to hang on — something good to be said about brand loyalty I suppose.

Today, Nikon fits somewhere between the reliability of Canon and the innovation of Sony. In my opinion, Nikon’s most recent full frame DSLR, the D850, is the best DSLR ever made. Image quality is superb. Nikon has a long history in photography, so their cameras are well designed. They also have a well-established network of service centers for when things go wrong. Honestly, if I lost all my Canon gear and could start over, I would go with the Nikon D850 and Nikon’s excellent lens and flash system.

It would seem clear cut then that Nikon is the best system to invest in if you’re wanting a full frame camera. There is one thing that nags me about Nikon however, and this is totally subjective. Unlike Sony and Canon, Nikon is only invested in the camera industry. It does not have a stockpile of capital from printers, Playstations, and the like to call on if things go badly. Therefore, I get the feeling that every new camera that Nikon releases is the final throw of the dice for the company. So far, they have been releasing hit after hit, but what happens when their offering falls flat? Will Nikon still be around in the next decade?

Pros

  • Image quality on par with Sony
  • Reliability on par with Canon
  • Long history in the industry
  • Large support network

Cons

  • Less options than Sony and Canon
  • Comparatively, a much smaller company than Sony and Canon

Conclusion

Each of the three brands have excellent full frame options, all capable of delivering high quality, professional results. If you’re about to invest in a full frame system, my advice would be the following:

As a Canon user, I get around their limitations by using the Canon 5DS for architectural photography and the Canon 1D X Mark II for travel photography and video work. It frustrates me that I need to use two bodies to do what a Nikon or Sony can do with one.
  • If you’re certain you will never need video and you’re going to be photographing in a genre that requires high volume, like wedding or sports photography, go with the Canon system.
  • If video is an important consideration, go with a true hybrid system: Sony’s full frame mirrorless.
  • If you’re unsure what type of photography you’ll be doing in the future, but you want one of the best performers, Nikon’s system is hard to beat. 
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73 Comments

Terrence Taylor's picture

As a lifetime Nikon user (though I have other cameras), I'm an eclectic shooter so I can somewhat agree with Jonathan's conclusion.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Seems to be the best all round system with no obvious weaknesses. I’ve met specialists (architecture) who use the Nikon system and they’re perfectly happy. I could have written, “if in doubt, get a Nikon”

Deleted Account's picture

What do you mean Nikon has "Less (fewer) options?" Options in what? Nikon has been going for longer than most of us have been alive, and they're only as good as their last camera release? That's like saying Ferrari only makes cars, so if they release a dud, their whole future is in question. Which is ridiculous.

Many people take their commitment to photography as a plus, rather than a minus. It's no wonder that their cameras typically dominate quality metrics.

Don't get me wrong - any camera maker can make good cameras. It just seems like you're reaching for cons there.

Oh yeah, Nikon actually makes a bunch of other stuff too:

https://www.nikon.com/products/

And, before I forget, it's "fewer options", not "less options." As in "More research, fewer mistakes. Less research, more mistakes".

Terrence Taylor's picture

Yes, Nikon is an optics company. Hunting scopes to optical inspection equipment.

Jonathan Reid's picture

You’re right, I was reaching for cons. For Sony and Canon I listed more cons that were arguably objective. For Nikon, I had to scratch to find cons.

Referring to the options, this article is specifically about full frame systems. Canon has been making full frame for the longest so they have the most amount to choose from, especially in the second hand market. Sony have been racing to get legitimacy, so they have many more options in the full frame mirrorless lineup.

I too regard Nikon’s commitment to photography as a plus. I almost feel like I owe them something because of it, but here is where I was going with that thought. If Nikon have a mediocre few years in camera sales, they don’t have much to fall back on. Sony and Canom are both major electronic companies, they can afford to operate at a loss whilst they do R&D. They could even afford a price war if it came to that. Before the D810 came out, many people believed Nikon were in trouble. I’m not saying it’s a major cause for concern, but Nikon’s position seems less secure than the other two.

Dass Ala's picture

Sony has many different types of business where they secure money to invest on the Camera segment, Canon almost same on the video segment, but Nikon make different type of business too like Semiconductor Lithography Systems, Healthcare Products & Solutions (Microscope Solutions) and Industrial Metrology just this segments produce more money to continue with the camera segment, Nikon is way beyond to disappear just his Semiconductor segment is used by Intel on the production of the processors, in Healthcare the microscope are one of the best on the industry use worldwide, you need to research more Jonathan.

Michael Dougherty's picture

Nikon has been in trouble and it wasn't from its camera business.
https://petapixel.com/2017/02/14/nikon-stock-plummets-15-extraordinary-l...

terry mckenna's picture

Just want to add, Nikon is gold standard for company brand lenses. Canon is close. But Sony is an engineering company and the mirrorless type of camera was really improved with their involvement.

If you are a painter rather than a commercial photographer, you may find, as I do, that I prefer Sony''s colors, harsh as they seem to others.

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

Nikon "only" makes 50% of it's revenue with it's "imaging products" department and only 1/3 of its operating profit.

Yeah the revenue of non photography branches is not as big as from Canon (30%revenue) or let alone Sony (7%), but they actually make the majority of their money in other business fields.

They would be stupid if they wouldn't as their revenue from camera equipment goes down every year with a massive low in profit in 2017.

Rob Davis's picture

About as accurate a breakdown as one can do. I've owned cameras from all of the major brands and use different ones at different times. I could find a reason to be happy with any of them.

Nikon is a conservative brand in a good way. Canon has become a conservative brand in some bad ways. Sony is innovative with things people don't know they want yet. Fuji is innovative with things people know they want.

Sorry Pentax and Olympus, I don't know what you do. I think it has something to do with weather sealing.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks Rob. I’m glad I was able to write this before Panasonic release their full frame offering because on paper, that looks to be another solid system.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I'm glad you gave some thought to the service from each company in this article! Like you, I dipped a toe into mirrorless waters, albeit with Panasonic and the GH3. While I love, love, love that camera, when one of the dials broke after a couple of years, It was a nightmare and a half to get proper service from Panasonic. I couldn't get a hold of their service people at all and had to resort to Twitter a couple of times (you can see me tweet about it Dec. 2016-Feb. 2017, and they'd always email me directly when they saw that, but couldn't help me since their social team was not connected to service).

Canon and Nikon have much better support on all levels, and it's not hard to get status updates or talk to someone if you need service with either company. Now that Panasonic will be going full frame, this could become a make-or-break factor for them.

Irma Prunesquallor's picture

Regarding mirrorless, I have had to use Olympus' repair service twice in the last year - both times because of damage I inflicted on the equipment - not reliability issues. I fell heavily onto my PEN-F with a 12-40 Pro lens attached - the flange was pulled off the lens and the body was battered but still working (I was quite bruised from the impact with the camera!) then I severely dropped my four-year-old E-M1 body and deranged the shutter.

On both occasions, I was ready to write the gear off. With nothing to lose, I sent it off to Olympus. Both times, I had the gear back within 10 days, fixed, in immaculate condition, and for very reasonable cost.

OK, it is not the 3-day turnaround that Canon or Nikon may offer to pros, but my experience of Olympus service is very good indeed.

Bhupesh Patel's picture

1dx mkII for travel photography??? This has to be joke.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Why? It’s tough as nails, a manageable resolution for volume, versatile enough to cover a range of subjects and crucially, in the canon lineup(which I’m locked into), it has the smallest crop factor for 4K video.

Matthew Saville's picture

If by "travel" you mean sitting in the back of a luxury African safari tour vehicle all day, then sure, the 1DXII is great.

In literally every other instance, The 1DXII makes a less wise choice. It's expensive, and therefore attractive to thieves. It's ridiculously heavy, and therefore last to be picked for any long hikes/walks with gear on your back/shoulders/neck. For almost everything, I'd rather have a different camera.

Yes, the 1DXII is a sturdy, reliable, "good at everything" pro camera. But if it's not actually being used for its specific forte, you're wasting your money.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I do commercial travel photography for the likes of Expedia/Visit London/Tripadvisor - 80% of it is based in cities. A day of shooting may involve covering some sort of sports activity, an architectural shoot, a gallery shoot, general street scenes and a scenic overview. I find the 1DX does a pretty good job of all of these subjects. When I used a Sony for the same job, it was great for the architecture and landscape scenes, but not good for the sports/fast paced scenes. In the Canon range, there is not a more suitable option as the crop factor for 4K video is too severe on the 5DIV or the mirrorless model. If I were not heavily invested in Canon glass, I’d be using a Sony for travel.

Ryan Luna's picture

I know this is a full frame article, but if you're getting into a camera system, I'd say Fuji APS-C is a viable option for serious hobbyists and semi-pros. The X-T3 may be the best all around stills/video performer. Actually, may be one of the best consumer video cameras.. Fuji has all focal lengths covered in APS-C, and with the exception of 1-2 lenses, they are all excellent!

Jonathan Reid's picture

It was difficult to leave Fuji out of this discussion as they have excellent products, but I felt I needed some sort of limitation or this would have been too heavy a read.

Eric Salas's picture

You’d definitely be using a Kodak disposable.

Terrence Taylor's picture

😆

Jason Levine's picture

I’ll bite.

Canon #1
lowest dr + cropped 4K + no ibis + worst colors (when bias is removed) = winner 🤔

Meanwhile...
Best FF DSLR - Nikon D850
Best APS-C DSLR - Nikon D500
Best Mirrorless Camera - Sony A7X (3rd gen)

When will people wake up. I understand if you have multiple thousands invested in glass, you require super telephoto primes or your just very comfortable with Canon. These are all 100% understandable reasons.

Just stop writing nonsense articles, forum posts, comments, etc... about how Canon beats any of the other 2 brands in any measurable field not related to nostalgia or feelings.

Jonathan Reid's picture

If I’ve ever written in a forum about gear, I normally bash Canon, even though I use their system. Currently, I agree with your assement, but in the long run, the brand with the best camera goes in cycles. In 5 years time, it’s possible that Canon will have “the best” system. Part of the reason for writing this article was to get people to think about the entire system (including servicing and reparis) before buying a camera.

Kurt Hummel's picture

So why not include Pentax in the discussion?

Jonathan Reid's picture

I limited the discussion to mainstream brands.

Matt Williams's picture

Pentax also only has one FF option - well, two, if you consider the K1 Mark II, which is more like version 1.5.

Pentax does probably win on weather-sealing and astrophotography, though, with their built-in astrotracker (why no one else has implemented this is beyond me).

Jonathan Reid's picture

I hadn't even heard of that - sounds facinating!

Brian Cover's picture

If there were 15 brands, that would be a valid excuse. But considering at present that there are only 5 brands with FF, that is a pretty lame excuse. Sounds more like a fanboy type of review when you leave out Pentax and Leica; the 2 brands that are doing it differently than the others. Especially since you start out the article saying the biggest and most costly mistake is to be fully invested in one brand and then to switch to another brand. That warning is true and is the best reason to review all the options and for the buyer to proceed with a long term goal in mind.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Pentax and Leica only have 1 full frame body as an option which is why I said it isn’t a mainstream option. This was written for photographers upgrading from a point a shoot. A tiny fraction, if any would go to Leica.

Brian Cover's picture

Leica has THREE FF bodies, plus two APS-c bodies that share the same lens mount. The main reason most don't consider Leica is due to lack of information. The fanboys brag about Canon and Nikon and ignore Leica. Most consumers are not aware of how inexpensively they can own Leica equipment if they are willing to buy demo units or mint condition used units. Leica even offers point and shoot cameras

Jonathan Reid's picture

Fair enough, but I still wouldn't refer to Leica as a mainstream brand. I don't think Leica would refer to themselves as a mainstream brand. They don't want to be in that market segment.

Brian Cover's picture

Why is the Leica SL left out?

John Dawson's picture

Ha! Seriously?

Brian Cover's picture

Why laugh? The reviewer's job is to provide unbiased comparisons of all the options available. By leaving out what is considered to be the premier brand, the reviewer is short changing the reader.
There are lightly used Leica SL's available for the same or less money than the top of the line Nikon and Canon offerings. Almost new Leica lenses are also available for 40% off of MSRP. That makes owning an SL system very affordable for some. An unbiased comparison of Leica's large pixel design sensor to a Nikon small pixel design sensor would be very educational and informative.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Too high end to be considered a mainstream option.

Brian Cover's picture

Not too high end for Sigma and Panasonic to form an alliance with and bring new equipment to market next spring. Many Canon/ Nikon users spend as much money as Leica owners, but they don't get the same IQ. Sometimes it costs less to buy the more expensive, better product initially than to waste money on mediocre tools than need to be upgraded.

Xander Cesari's picture

I think they're high end *enough* for Panasonic to partner with; they didn't expect to ever directly compete.

Paul Scharff's picture

I would want a D850 in a Canon 5D interface.

Matthew Saville's picture

Canon for portraits, Nikon for landscapes, and Sony for video. The End!

F K's picture

So what we need is a camera made by the brand SoCaNik, called the Chimera.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Could you continue your advice for the following?
- weddings
- architecture
- journalism
- wildlife
- still life
- sports
- all rounder

Matt Williams's picture

I'd say:

-weddings (Sony - eye AF, silent shutter)
-architecture (Nikon or Canon depending on what your T/S needs are)
-journalism (Nikon or Sony)
-wildlife (Nikon or Canon - a wash)
-still life (Nikon or Sony w/ adapted lenses)
-sports (Nikon/Canon or Sony a9, though Nikon/Canon wins on lenses)
-all rounder (Nikon D850 or Sony a7Riii)

Jonathan Reid's picture

I agree with all of that except for sports and weddings. I think Canon have great lens options for sports. With weddings, I think that whilst Sony has the best image quality, it takes a lot of work to get natural looking colour. With the volume involved with wedding photography, I would want the colour of Canon.

Matt Williams's picture

Yeah Nikon and Canon are pretty much a wash there for sports, neither is really better than the other, I should have included Canon there.

Sony for me, color aside, has too many advantages over Canon when it comes to weddings - completely silent shutter in the newer gen bodies, eye-AF which is beyond amazing for weddings, and much better low-light than Canon. Color can be profiled to match, though I agree it takes a lot more work to get a good Sony color profile than others - but once you have a profile, you don't really need to do it ever again.

There's also the lighter weight - carrying an a9 and an a7III around is much lighter than two Canon FF bodies (or Nikon).

(oh, and IBIS)

Matthew Saville's picture

Sorry for the late reply, Jonathan.

WEDDINGS
honestly it all comes down to reliability. Dual card slots, great AF, and a body that just works and lasts for years without any hiccups. The image quality from all FF bodies has been "good enough" for weddings for a decade or so. Personally, I'd go with a Canon or Nikon DSLR, but the Sony mk3's with great battery life and dual card slots are solid choices, too.

ARCHITECTURE
Ehh, most people in this industry are doing web-res delivery these days, not making huge prints, so literally any camera on a tripod with a "ridiculously wide" lens will work. For perspective control, just get a wider lens and shoot perfectly level, then crop in post. No need for a TS/PC lens, unless you're just obsessed with image quality and resolving power. Maybe a few of the most high-end pros actually need super high-res images, for big commercial contracts, but if you're just shooting real estate interiors, you're probably just shooting for an online listing. A good tripod and the right focal length is all you need.

JOURNALISM
Again, reliability is key. When "the decisive moment" is your bread and butter, a camera that you're very familiar with, and that you can truly rely on. And Canon and Nikon have more cameras under their belt that can be truly relied upon, while Sony only has a few of its recent cameras that are beginning to live up to a solid reputation. However, it could go either way. IBIS is great, but honestly, an OVF is still a great way to never miss a moment due to the quirks and nuances of an EVF, despite the advantages of WYSIWYG.

WILDLIFE
Bottom line, Canon and Nikon have a huge arsenal of lenses, while Sonly has a couple "big guns" so far. I think I tallied it up before, and either Canon or Nikon (or both?) have over $50K worth of "big gun" lenses on the market. So, it depends what you need in your system. And for many wildlife shooters, the lens arsenal is king. Killer AF is great, but if the camera has random quirks (looking at you, A9) ...then serious pros can't rely on it.

STILL LIFE
Usually, resolution is king. A7R3, Z7, D850, 5DsR, ....if none of the features of a particular camera truly stand out to you, just flip a coin and then buy a solid tripod!

SPORTS
Same as wildlife. If an arsenal of big gun lenses is required, Canon and Nikon are it. Sony's A9 and 70-200, 300, and 400 are great, and if that's all you need then go for it, but it definitely depends on what you need.

ALL ROUNDER
Flip a coin. Honestly, cameras have been more than good enough to be an "all-rounder" for many years. Certain system perks will stand out to certain people. IBIS, dual card slots, great AF, solid lens arsenal... Yeah, the A7III is sounding like a very solid all-around choice, and for a truly serious photographer with professional aspirations, I'd say that the A7III would be at the top of my recommendation list, but with the caveat that you gotta hold the camera and get familiar + comfortable with it first, because honestly I still think that Canon and Nikon are a bit more user-friendly, and that counts for something when considering the type of photographer who may just be more of a beginner, and looking for an all-rounder...

Jonathan Reid's picture

I reckon you've covered all the bases mate, thanks for the detailed reply. Regarding architecture, I'd seperate real estate and architecture. For my architectural clients, web output is the most common use, but they also use the images in their print advertisements/photo books/competition entries and usually have a high image quality expectation. Certainly with high rises and larger buildings, perspective corrective lenses are crucial.

Matthew Saville's picture

I'd agree for the most high-end clients, however you can still make most print sizes with "just" 6-12 megapixels, and with focal lengths being as wide as they are now, you can just shoot a 36-50 megapixel image at 11-14mm, shoot perfectly level, and still have 12-20+ megapixels left to deliver.

But, every working pro still likes to have the best tools for the job, even if they're not absolutely critical. I was just pointing out that it /could/ be done, and most on-a-budget shooters who are just barely getting into the business can make-do without a TS/PC lens.

Having said that....because it is such a manual craft, it still doesn't matter that much which /overall/ system you go for, because you can just adapt most lenses to most bodies. (Aside from going from Canon to Nikon; can't do that...) If you need 17mm and tilt-shift, you gotta go with Canon, or adapt the 17mm TS to Sony if you want the dynamic range. But on Nikon you're "stuck" with the 19mm PC, which I can personally attest is kinda mediocre when using lots of shift/rise/fall. Although personally, I'd probably just get a lens like the Irix 11mm or the Sigma 12-24, then shoot level and crop, especially if I had 45 megapixels at my disposal.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I use the 17 TS a lot (its almost my walk around lens). I used it for a year with the Sony and Metabones adaptor. I found that using it with the adaptor softened the edges quite badly at extreme shifts. On the 5DS, it is better, but still not great. Oddly, the lower resolution cameras were best for this as the soft edges were not as noticeable.

Matthew Saville's picture

That's a good point about the Sony adaptation. I've heard it repeated a few times that the wider you go, the more a non-native lenses have issues with the corners.

Yeah, the Canon 17 TS and Nikon 19 PC were designed in an era when 12-20 megapixel cameras were all we had. Now we're at 45-50, and these lenses are falling apart in the corners when shifting etc. very much.

On the other hand, unless you're making absolutely massive prints, you can take 45-50 megapixels, shoot at 11-14mm perfectly level, get insane sharpness corner-to-corner, and crop to "shift" your shots in post-production.

Again, it really just depends on your personal preference and specific needs. More than one way to get the job done.

Brian Cover's picture

"That's a good point about the Sony adaptation. I've heard it repeated a few times that the wider you go, the more a non-native lenses have issues with the corners."
That is a falsehood started by buyers of cheap lenses.
Zeiss lenses are renowned for sharpness and they are non-native...

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