Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony?

Which brand of full-frame digital camera should you buy now you can pick one up for less than a fixed-lens point-n-shoot?

I n 1987 Canon released the EOS 650, launching what was to become the world’s most popular 135 camera system with a body that cost $660 dollars (equivalent to $1,458 in 2016). The idea of anyone releasing not just a camera, but a flagship, at such a price today seems ridiculous–while to those outside photography the idea that $1,500 is a good deal seems ludicrous.

Even expensive cameras used to be cheap considering they could be handed down to your children and used–without undue compromise–for generations. A Leica M3 cost $288 in 1955 ($2,646 in 2016), and with good film and lenses can still challenge or exceed the best you can buy today. Assuming you bought it new and used it through 2005 you’d have spent $53 a year, or just over a dollar a week, to own one of the best cameras ever made.

Sadly, since silicon replaced celluloid, the cost of a serious camera has soared.

It’s not hard to justify. Big sensors are hard to make and a tiny number of imperfections renders them useless. We have grown accustomed to paying for manufacturing inefficiencies in a market too small to justify the R&D necessary to fix them.

With that we’ve been trained to accept a different set of pricing assumptions. In 2002 the Canon 1Ds, that company’s first full-frame body, cost $7,999 ($10,940 in 2016). Completely out of reach for normal humans and even more expensive given that you’d be unable to use it professionally today and that investment is lost.We got used to replacing cameras every five years and pretended to forget the money we wasted.

Since the turn of the century things have improved and prices have fallen slowly without ever returning us to the relative affordability of the film era. As recently as a year ago, $2,000 would barely cover a cheap, compromised, full-frame body; $3,500 was the price of adequacy and truly professional gear came in at $6,000. Then–finally–in 2016 prices have begun to tumble.

Traditional digital cameras, piggybacking on the billions of dollars poured into digital camera technology in the service of smartphones, are benefiting from economies of scale the photographic industry alone could never generate. If you pay close attention to sales online, and are quick with a click, it’s possible to buy a new full-frame digital body for $1,000.

In April 2015 the Sony A7, a full frame 35mm mirrorless digital camera, was available for under $1,000 for the first time.

Pentax are selling their flagship, weather sealed, full-frame body with 5 axis image stabilization, GPS, Wi-Fi, and the third best sensor performance ever tested for $1,950. High resolution screens, improved optical stabilization and fast processors designed for phones are being used to improve our cameras and slash prices simultaneously.


Cameras are to photos as knives are to food. Experts can use skill to compensate for failings in substandard equipment and still work magic, amateurs need more help. If I’m going to stand any chance of beating Lewis Hamilton around the Nürburgring stick him in a Smart Fortwo and give me a Bugatti. He may still win but I’ll have a shot. He can make a slow car fast in ways I can’t.

Applying the same logic to cameras today, if someone tells me they want to take good looking photos but don’t want to take up photography as a hobby, I point them towards a cheap full-frame body and suggest they get a nifty 50 to compliment whatever comes in the kit. A 35mm DSLR shooting full auto is a much better point-and-shoot than a point-and-shoot. You get faster autofocus, real bokeh, dramatically better low-light performance and the ability to upgrade without starting over if you decide photography is fun. Ignore anyone who tries to patronize you, bad photographers love to conflate technicalities with talent.

On top of that the age of the $200 compact camera is over.

A new iPhone 7 Plus costs $1,000. To get usefully better image quality you’ll need something with a noticably bigger image sensor like a Sony RX100 Mk V, the Canon M5 or the Nikon 1 V3–all of which cost $1,000 or more–enough to buy you a 35mm digital camera today. The only reason not to make the leap is to save size, and even that is arguable if you’re looking at Sony’s E-mount line.

A decade ago every professional photographer I knew carried a Canon Elph, then the smallest, fastest, photographic pocket-knife you could buy. Today they all have iPhones and if that’s not going to do the job, will grab a compact 35mm digital camera with a fixed lens, like a Leica Q or Sony RX1, before thinking about picking up anything with an interchangeable lens.

It’s not that cheaper compacts aren’t good, they’re just now redundant for anyone who owns a phone. Compacts give you a better lens, a nicer physical interface, and a marginally better flash than your phone tied to a sensor of the same size. You lose internet connectivity, the ability to process and share your images instantly, and have one more thing to carry. Overall the picture quality is worse because your phone has much more processing power and gives you a thousand apps to tweak things with. They have ceased making sense.

Buying a camera today means you’ve decided it’s worth carrying something extra in order to get better pictures than your phone can manage, and more importantly, are prepared to sacrifice a huge amount of convienience to do so. That means the quality has to be clearly better than your phone, especially when the person behind the shutter doesn’t know what they’re doing (because good photographers can work wonders with a phone). The less capable the camera the more effort required to do great things with it.

Full-frame cameras are the fastest route to good photos for most people and there are very few cameras under $1,000 which are better than a phone when used thoughtlessly.


Unless you’re a lunatic you’ll spend considerably more on lenses than bodies in your journey as a photographer. You’ll also likely stick with the brand you buy first, because a growing library of lenses is hard to walk away from. The best value camera system is therefore the one with the best deal on lenses. Eventually that’s where most of your money goes.

The best value camera system is the one with the best deal on lenses.

If you know people with cameras start there. If you’re surrounded by friends who have invested in a brand seriously consider sheepishly following them. Being able to borrow, rather than rent or buy, some weird-but-occasionally-useful lens is priceless. The best camera is one you don’t have to pay for and it’s much easier to borrow from, and collaborate with, people who use the same kit you do.

Image quality

Whatever the field, rabid enthusiasts are fond of pretending there is a huge difference between brands. The truth is that cameras today range from perfectly adequate to outstanding and anyone who isn’t pushing what’s possible technically, or working at the extreme right edge of the ability bell-curve, won’t be limited by whatever they choose at random. Performance is tightly grouped and with each generation of new bodies things shift enough to make old assumptions questionable. Arguments over which brand is “best” in 2016 are more about prejudice and opinion than fact.

Are some lenses better than others? Yes. Are some cameras better than others? Yes. Is the quality of the hardware what determines the quality of your photos? Certainly not.

The significant differences between brands are subtle enough that time spent in a store, or a weekend rental, won’t reveal them unless you’ve shot enough to have developed habits. It’s the feel of a grip, the placement of a button and whether a lens rotates to the left or right–as much learned preference as informed discrimination.

Modern cameras are astounding. Consumer level bodies and lenses exceed the best hardware available a generation ago in everything except build quality and user interface. Claims to the contrary are akin to looking at a Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche parked side-by-side and then explaining why one of them is too slow to commute in.

It’s not always been this way. Ten years ago the amount of noise a camera produced mattered because the worst were terrible and the best were just okay. Today the worst performing full-frame camera you can still find new in stores is the Canon 5D Mk. III. A camera which when launched in 2012 performed just slightly better than it’s forebear from 2009. A camera so bad people have shot magazine covers and feature films with it.

There are simply no bad choices.

So if every brand is equally competent then performance measurements can be ignored and we can judge systems purely on price. Forum-boy hype about German names, white plastic, and gold rings doesn’t matter and we simply have to decide which lenses to compare and work out what they cost in order to make a decision.

It’s less ridiculous than it sounds. Take a look a the photos below:

iPhone vs. 36MP DSLR? To make the comparison fair the DSLR shot is taken from an in-camera JPEG which was pushed a couple of stops to make the exposures more equal. It’s the worst-case for the DSLR , representative of the average amateur photographer. ʇɟǝl ǝɥʇ uo ǝuo ǝɥʇ ʇou sᴉ ɐɹǝɯɐɔ ǝɥʇ

Which one was taken on an iPhone 6S, which on a 36MP DSLR with a $1,500 lens? (the color differences above are easy to remove during editing but have been left here to keep things honest.) It’s surprisingly easy to guess wrong despite a huge difference in sensor and lens size, thanks almost entirely to the iPhone’s excellent JPEG processing. If you’re curious the answer is in the caption.

The visible difference between full-frame cameras with identically sized sensors and similar lenses is much harder to spot than this. Onscreen and in print you’ll never be able to tell which brand of camera produced a photo with any reliability, assuming the sensors are in the same class and generation. If you don’t believe me drop me a line and we’ll arrange a double-blind test, it’d make for a fascinating article.

Lenses

It’s possible to be a world-class photographer with nothing more than a single lens but, even if that’s your intent, buying into a system is enormously risky if you don’t have options.

Most people favor either zooms or primes and the basics of a do-anything kit has been the same for decades. We’ll compare the minimum necessary to approach any situation professionally, to ensure you never feel forced to change systems because you mount the lens you need on the brand of camera you’ve chosen.

Zoomar 36mm — 82mm f/2.8, the first varifocal lens. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

For zoom lenses the “holy trinity” is three f2.8 lenses covering a range from about 16–200mm. With two bodies you can cover everything from wide to medium telephoto instantly, which makes this the favored kit of press and papparazzi worldwide (who tend to leave their wide-zooms at home).

For primes a basic kit consists of lenses covering a similar range and no slower than a professional zoom in the same range. Pound-for-pound primes are faster and sharper than the equivalent zooms and, as you don’t want to give either of those advantages up, anything slower than f2 is irrelevant. Ten years ago most fast primes were soft when used wide open, and fast zooms were something you tolerated as much as chose. Nowadays zooms and fast primes are so good that it’s hard to justify a slow prime for any reason other that weight and size.

We’ll compare 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm, 200mm and Macro prime lenses. You can manage with (much) less but which 2–3 primes make up your basic kit varies by application.

We’re also going to define a professional Macro lens as one of around 100mm. Any shorter than that and it’s hard to shoot in natural light without your own shadow getting in the way and ruining the shot. No one wants to have to remember to carry lights, so short macros are decidedly non-pro and best left in the studio.

Methodology

There are only four major brands in the full-frame digital camera market, Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax. That covers five ranges of lenses because Sony still supports the A-mount it inherited from Minolta, and now promotes the E-mount at the heart of its mirrorless system.

We’re only going to consider native lenses. No third-party manufacturers, no adaptors. Third-party lenses can’t guarantee compatibility with each new round of firmware updates and go against the spirit of the comparison. If you’re going to use them the only factor to consider when it comes to value is the cost of bodies which we’re not looking at here. Adaptors can have a negative effect on quality and are one more thing to lose.

We’re not going to consider bodies at all. That’s a much more time sensitive question and has less impact on long-term value. A $6,000 body you use for a decade is cheaper than a $2,000 you upgrade each time an update arrives. Given how far digital cameras have come, using a 2016 vintage camera in 2026 doesn’t seem as ridiculous as saying the same thing in 2006 would have.

The best value professional full frame zoom lens

1. Pentax — $4549.85

2. Canon —$6,197.00

3. Nikon — $7099.85

4. Sony A-mount — $7,349.97

Pentax win by a huge margin, a complete kit is $1,650 cheaper than the equivalent lenses for Canon. That’s most of what you need to pay for Pentax’s flagship K-1 body.

Canon beats Nikon. Both companies are constantly offering rebates on lenses and so, depending on your timing and whether you’re paying local taxes, the gap may shrink. Both Nikon zooms are newly updated and newer lenses tend to be better, and more expensive, than older ones.

The same cannot be said of Sony. A-mount zooms come in at $1,200 more than Canon, and a staggering $2,850 more than Pentax. Given the question mark over Sony’s long term commitment to A-mount, that makes their premium pricing an even bigger risk for anyone who’s not already invested in the system.

Sony’s E-mount lacks a fast-wide zoom and doesn’t yet make the cut.

The best value professional full frame prime lens system

1. Canon — $13,343.99

2. Sony A-mount*

3. Nikon — $13,764.65

As before Canon and Nikon’s pricing is extremely close. The primary culprit is Nikon’s wonderful, venerable, 135mm lens with its exotic defocus-control which gives you the ability to control the character of the foreground and background bokeh by turning a dial. It is significantly more expensive than Canon’s normal equivalent.

Canon win on price however you slice it but, as before, on the ‘street’ the difference between them can disappear depending on rebates and local taxes.

Sony win a surprisingly reasonable second place here but as they don’t offer a 200mm prime lens for A-mount they aren’t capable of meeting our specifications. However if you’re a prime shooter, and don’t need longer lengths, A-mount is far better value for primes than zooms. Given the relative exoticism of a 200mm prime they get a provisional second place.

Nikon are in third thanks to that fancy 135mm but even so the gap between first than third is small. If that length’s not going to be part of your arsenal then the difference between Nikon and Canon evaporates and you can make your choices based on other factors.

Sony’s E-mount does-not-finish again here. There are only two native lenses available of the seven lengths we’re comparing.

Pentax has a similarly poor showing with only two lenses that meet our specifications. They do offer a range of quirky LTD lenses which come close but they’re defiantly out of the mainstream, slower than their competition, and date from the film era.

Conclusion

Sony’s mirrorless E-mount system has excited a huge number of camera buyers. Exploiting an ultra-shallow mount to push the limits of what’s possible in terms of adaptability, and knowing they would launch with a paucity of lenses, they cleverly designed their system to work as a ‘universal back’. Anyone could mate almost any lens, from any era, to world-class sensors for the price of putting up with manual focus and a little hassle.

To anyone frustrated by Canon’s decade long stay at the bottom of the performance league table Sony presented a way of getting cutting edge performance, particularly in video, which didn’t require switching teams to Nikon. The clunky hack of using adaptors appealed directly to the kind of camera geeks who don’t mind clunky hacks. Often people who are happy to spend significant amounts of money.

They capped it off by applying everything they know about miniaturization to make the camera bodies small, and the prospect of using the elegantly sized cameras without paying Leica prices helped open a lot of wallets.

As smartphones made cheap cameras irrelevant, the compromises necessary to make them cheap have fallen away. Sony recognized this early and delivered lenses with market-leading performance by ignoring well established practical constraints. If you don’t fret over price and size you can build the photographic equivalent of a sports car and deliver better performance at the cost of convenience. Doing this has allowed Sony to release a string of expensive, excellent, lenses which make the old-guard look a little off the ball.

That’s left Sony with the best sensors bar none, the smallest bodies, an annoyingly menu-driven design (thanks to a lack of physical controls and less experience in camera design than their peers) and a handful of great lenses. It’s a camera system you buy because it’s small and compact–but which isn’t the moment you try to use it with professional lenses.

Across the industry the shift from small, cheap and good-enough to big, expensive and bleeding edge is challenging a lot of old assumptions. Brands like Sigma and Tamron, once known for making lenses for those who couldn’t afford the best, are now releasing lenses that are better than anything available two years ago.

The future of Sony is E-mount, which only dates to 2013 as a full-frame system, and is currently unable to offer a complete set of professional lenses. Their, A-mount system which dates to their purchase of Minolta, is relatively complete, but poorly supported and showing symptoms of being slowly phased out. E-mount is a bet on a future that’s not quite here, A-mount is a bet on the past. Take your pick.

Pentax released their first full-frame digital body in 2016 and their lens selection is dismal even when compared to Sony. Since moving to full-frame they’ve pushed out a new trio of professional zooms, working with Tamron, which are both cheap and high quality.

The only body Pentax offer for full-frame shooters is the K-1. Released in early 2016 it’s their first digital body with a 35mm sensor. They’ve taken everything they know about cameras, loaded it with every imaginable feature and a few the competition don’t have, and priced it under $2,000–putting their flagship where the competition’s entry level bodies begin.

Testing shows the K-1 has the third best performance ever measured for a full-frame camera at any price which, for perspective, puts it above any body Canon have ever made and on the same tier as Nikon and Sony bodies costing twice as much. If you shoot zooms and aren’t committed to another system Pentax now should be on your shortlist.

Prime shooters who want to choose Pentax have a much tougher decision to make. Most Pentax primes are 20 years old and though perfectly useable, totally uncompetitive in terms of features and performance. If you have them you’ll love to use them but buying them new today marks you as either an eccentric or an enthusiast.

Like Sony they’re scrambling to release the lenses professionals want and, unlike Sony, they’re likely to be priced competitively. Buying a system to use with lenses that don’t yet exist is always going to be unwise though so, unless you have old Pentax lenses on-hand, they’re hard to recommend to prime shooters yet. If you do have K-mount lenses the K-1 comes with 5-axis in-body image stabilization which means your old lenses get upgraded with cutting edge stabilization for free.

Surprisingly in 2016, with old hands like Pentax and newcomers like Sony out of the picture (I’m sorry), we still only have two truly uncompromised, professional-level, full frame systems to choose between. Canon and Nikon.

Less surprisingly there’s almost nothing to choose between them on price. Though both have their own unique lenses which may be enough to pull you one way or the other, it really comes down to what you know and personal preference. Want to shoot architecture and need the best tilt-shift lenses? Canon’s the way to go. Want to shoot portraits with the fastest 105mm lens ever made? Nikon can’t be beaten.

Nikon have always cared more about design and handling, employing Giugiaro to beautify their bodies. The Nikon F-mount is the oldest still in production, and gives you over 400 lenses and 50 years of legacy to choose from.

Canon are the biggest camera company in the world and their EOS lens mount is both newer and easier to work with than Nikon’s venerable, and small, F-mount. They now dominate the professional space and you’re never going to be in a group of photographers with a Canon and find yourself without someone to borrow a battery from.

Ultimately the choice between full-frame camera brands remains a coin flip. Heads you win. Tails you win.