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.
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.
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:
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.
- Massive lens lineup, including some important specialist lenses
- An excellent flash system
- An established service center network
- Pleasing colors (subjective)
- Behind Sony and Nikon in image quality
- 4K video capture is hampered
- Recent history shows a reluctance to innovate
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.
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.
- Class-leading image quality
- Great value for money
- Adaptable to other manufacturer’s lenses
- Great video performance
- 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
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?
- Image quality on par with Sony
- Reliability on par with Canon
- Long history in the industry
- Large support network
- Less options than Sony and Canon
- Comparatively, a much smaller company than Sony and Canon
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:
- 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.