It’s near impossible to talk about Canon (see my thoughts about the EOS 50D) without mentioning Nikon. I was a longtime Nikon user during the film age (up to 2003), but switched to Canon. Canon’s revolutionary EOS SLR system, introduced in 1987, is more modern and well-suited for electronics-integrated cameras. Canon realized early on that electronics was going to be more important in cameras. They also put the AF motor in the lens rather than in the camera body, making it much more efficient and faster.
Nikon’s SLR system is based on a system from the 1950s when cameras were mainly mechanical and electronics was largely limited to metering systems. They’ve done pretty well in developing work-around technologies for their DSLRs, but their SLR system was not originally designed to integrate sophisticated electronics, so it has its limits.
After the Canon EOS system came out, Nikon should have done the same by developing a totally new and modern SLR foundation geared for the camera electronics age. But they understandably did not want to shut out longtime and loyal users who would not be able to use their old lenses with an electronic lens mount. This strategy has proved to be a hindrance in the long term. Nikon has also been a very conservative company, taking a wait-and-see attitude and mimicking Canon innovations (reminding me of Windows always copying the Mac). We have seldom seen any bold, groundbreaking steps taken by Nikon in the digital age (except for the D1x).
On the other hand, Canon has forged ahead, building on a solid electronic foundation for SLRs. Time and again, I’ve been impressed by Canon innovations, especially the CMOS sensor which they adopted early on and refined it to the point that made it superior to CCD sensors. They develop and manufacture their own CMOS sensors (Nikon probably uses Sony sensors). By doing so, they can better integrate their camera system with sensor technologies. The imaging sensor is the heart of the DSLR and such an important component. It’s comforting to know that Canon makes the sensors in their DSLRs. (When a camera maker works with a third-party sensor maker, they do not fully share their propriety technologies with each other for fear of the other stealing the technology and developing its own sensor or camera. So they cannot fully integrate their technologies as much as Canon can seamlessly in-house.)
Canon also developed and popularized lens-based AF motors, Image Stabilizer lenses, and affordable IS lenses. They were the first to produce the entry-level DSLR in 2003 at groundbreaking prices. Meanwhile, Nikon has always played catch-up. In the digital age, Nikon has never had the image of being an innovator except for their D1x which existed while Canon still had no professional DSLR. Canon has always been a constant innovator and groundbreaker.
In recent years, Nikon’s behavior or strategy has dumbfounded me. Remember when they declared that they would never produce a full-frame DSLR? That their DX system would be adequate forever? I thought it was foolish to say something like that, which no doubt made many people hoping for a full-frame Nikon switch to Canon. Well, not long after telling us this lie, they came out with a full-frame model. Why did they have to lie about it? Why not say the opposite instead and maintain the hopes of their fans? I thought it was a major PR blunder. That’s why it created a major sensation (in the Nikon world) when Nikon finally introduced a full-frame camera. To Canon fans, it was “been there, done that (years ago).”
In Oct. 2008, the Nikon D90 made a big splash as being the world’s first DSLR to have a movie mode. However, it cannot autofocus and you can’t shoot longer than 5 min. at top resolution so this movie mode is of little practical use. It’s just a gimmick right now, and something the marketing dept. probably wanted just so they could say the “World’s first DLSR with movie mode.” Over-hyped for sure. (The EOS 5D Mark II’s movie mode has AF and shoots 12 min. continuously, but the movie mode in DSLRs is still in its infancy.) And their latest DSLRs having 51 AF points only to exceed Canon’s 45 AF points is obviously a marketing ploy rather than a technology breakthrough. Nine AF points is enough.
What else… Oh yeah, Nikon does not provide image-processing software with their cameras. It is sold separately. And in the US, they can’t even pronounce “Nikon” correctly.
Another major factor in favor of Canon is its sheer size, scale, and prominence. Canon Inc. is a behemoth corporation that dwarfs Nikon. Canon’s capital, number of employees (over 130,000 vs. Nikon’s less than 5,000), and annual revenue are several times larger than Nikon’s. Canon has a much stronger and diverse product lineup with office equipment and other products besides cameras. The Canon brand is more prominent, we see it more often than the Nikon brand, on copying machines, printers, etc. Canon’s CEO is also the current head of the prominent Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). Canon’s social status in Japan’s corporate world is higher than Nikon’s. It’s more prestigious to be working for Canon than for Nikon. Canon is in fact one of the most admired and respected companies in Japan.
I can easily surmise that Canon has a much larger R&D budget, more resources, and more engineering talent than Nikon. I would imagine that the brightest engineers would rather work for Canon than for Nikon. The natural result is more innovations and superior products in the short and long term. Canon simply has a firmer and broader foundation technology-wise, a stronger and richer business backbone, more people, and vision. Canon is also probably less vulnerable to economic downturns than Nikon.
If you happen to be a Nikon fan, stick with Nikon by all means. They need your support. (Either that or you have too many Nikkor lenses to switch over.) But if you want to switch to Canon, there would be many logical and good reasons to do so.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter what brand your camera is. (But if you still want to debate over it, I present you the argument above.) It’s the photographer which matters the most. He or she is the one who takes and creates the pictures, and if you’re happy with the results, then that’s all that matters.