Which Brand Does Full Frame Cameras Best?

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.

Canon 5D

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 Camera

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

Sony Camera

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.

Sony Noise Comparison

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

Nikon Camera

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:

Canon limitations

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”

user-206386'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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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

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