Although discussing the topic of Nikon vs Canon can lead to unnecessarily long and emotional debates between photographers and I personally find such discussions silly, there are some distinct differences between the two systems that might be worth pointing out for those who consider investing into either system. Some of the differences are related to current technology and it might be a matter of time before either company catches up. For example, Nikon and Sony shooters often brag about the amazing dynamic range their cameras are capable of capturing, pointing out how bad Canon DSLRs look in comparison. And it is currently holds true – Canon has not done well in direct comparisons with other brands on the market, scoring consistently lower in dynamic range performance on each new iteration of its modern DSLRs. However, this is something that Canon could potentially address in the future with newer sensor technologies that provide greater dynamic range performance. On the other hand, other differences might not be possible to address. One such difference is the lens mount – both companies use mounts of different sizes. Which one is better and why? Let’s talk about the differences between the Nikon F and Canon EF mounts in detail.
I have personally been a Nikon shooter for a number of years now and I have never looked back, or regretted my decision to stick with Nikon. Despite some of the recent issues with Nikon’s quality control, I love my Nikon DSLRs and Nikkor lenses for their superb performance and I have been continuously upgrading my gear when significant updates are released. At the same time, there have been times when I was not sure about Nikon as my system of choice, particularly early on when I discovered some of the weaknesses of the Nikon F mount. So what’s the deal? There are several advantages and disadvantages of the Nikon F mount when compared to the Canon EF, so I want to explain these in detail for our readers.
Table of Contents
Nikon F – Mechanical Diaphragm Lever
One of the biggest disadvantages of the Nikon F mount is the mechanical diaphragm / aperture lever that is present on most Nikon lenses. Whether you are looking at a classic manual focus Nikkor, an older “D” or the newer “G” type lenses, all of them require Nikon camera bodies to physically change aperture on every shot if it is set to anything other than maximum aperture. That’s because all such Nikon lenses contain a mechanical lever on the rear side of the lens, which must be engaged to adjust the aperture. When a lens is dismounted, the spring-loaded lever on the lens is pushed back to its standard position, which basically stops the lens down to its minimum aperture. Once you start attaching the lens to a camera body, the corresponding lever inside the camera chamber forces the lens to open up the diaphragm, as illustrated below:
Lenses typically stay wide open at maximum aperture when mounted to cameras, for maximum amount of light to reach the viewfinder and the phase detection autofocus system. Hence, aperture on DSLRs only changes right before the exposure. Once a picture is taken, the lever goes back and the diaphragm mechanism returns to its wide open state to continue providing maximum amount of light to the camera. This means that when shooting with lenses that feature such mechanical levers, the lens must physically stop down and open up every time the camera fires. Since the mechanical lever is physically triggered by the camera, this mechanism must be extremely precise and accurate in order to yield consistently accurate brightness and desired depth of field. However, when shooting continuously in high speed, it is often impossible to yield consistent results, since the mechanical lever might not have enough time to go back and forth quick enough. And if the lever is not precisely calibrated, or potentially wears off / malfunctions overtime, each shot might yield incorrect aperture and brightness.
In addition to the above, lenses with mechanical levers are hard to adapt with other systems via third party adapters. If you have been wondering why adapters for Nikon lenses are hard to use and do not give complete and precise aperture control, now you know why – other manufacturers simply would not have the same lever control mechanism in their camera bodies. An adapter capable of mechanically moving a lever would require a motor with an electronic chip, which would make the solution quite cost-prohibitive.
In contrast, lenses that feature electromagnetic diaphragms do not have any mechanical levers – changes in aperture are communicated electronically by the camera through lens contacts. Such method of aperture control is much more preferred, because lenses can set their apertures consistently and accurately, with no shot-to-shot variation.
Because of the above, using a mechanical lever to change aperture is prone to inconsistency in exposure and potential mechanical issues both in camera and in lenses. Canon realized this and fully moved to electronic aperture control on both EF and EF-S mounts a while ago, and Nikon has only recently started updating its lenses to “E” type lenses with electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism. Unfortunately, such lenses have been limited to mostly super telephoto and higher-end zoom lenses, so despite the obvious disadvantages, Nikon has still been releasing many modern “G” type lenses with mechanical levers.
Nikon F and Canon EF Mount Size Differences
Another key difference is the physical mount size – Nikon F mount’s “throat” diameter is 44mm, whereas the Canon EF mount is larger at 54mm. That 10mm difference might seem small, but it is actually quite important when it comes to lens design. If you have been wondering why Nikon does not release fast f/1.2 primes with autofocus, while Canon has the excellent 50mm f/1.2L and 85mm f/1.2L II lenses in its stable, the answer is primarily in the limitation of the physical diameter of the Nikon F mount. It would be very cost prohibitive for Nikon to try to design f/1.2 lenses with autofocus capabilities, because of space limitations on the rear side of lenses. Such designs would have to be limited to under 60mm focal length range and even then, the CPU contacts would probably have to be put right on the rear element. Anyone who has tried to make the classic Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 CPU-capable knows that it requires grinding the rear element to fit the contacts – there is no other way to do it. And forget about longer focal lengths, because it would never fit. In fact, if you look at the rear of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, which appears significantly larger than the rear element of any Nikkor, that lens required Canon engineers to put the CPU contacts right on top of the rear glass surface. Take a look at the below image comparing the the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G:
The size differences are obvious. Hence, Nikon would not be able to make such a lens due to the smaller diameter of the Nikon F mount. Shorter focal length f/1.2 lenses would be possible to engineer, but they might require cutting into the glass as described above, which would complicate both the design and the manufacturing process of such a lens, making it very expensive and potentially impractical to sell. Nikon would have to charge thousands of dollars for a 50mm f/1.2 AF-S lens, which would be extremely tough to market. Such a lens would have to be made to order in limited quantities, similar to some of the exotic super telephoto lenses.
In contrast, Canon has an advantage here – shorter focal length f/1.2 lenses in the 50mm+ range can be designed easier, since the mount diameter is large enough to accommodate such optical designs. In fact, the Canon EF mount allows for a 50mm f/1.0 and 200mm f/1.8 lens designs (and we have seen such lenses in the past), which would be close to impossible to achieve on the Nikon F. Having a large diameter lens mount is not just needed for super fast primes though – it can potentially simplify the overall lens design too.
Another advantage that some people point out is durability – since the Canon EF mount is physically larger, some people argue that it is also more durable. I personally dismiss this claim, because the Nikon F mount is big enough to be quite durable and I doubt the Canon EF mount would have a noticeable advantage here…
Nikon F vs Canon EF Mounting Options
Due to the above-mentioned physical differences in lens mounts, along with differences in flange distance, Canon EF lenses cannot be used with adapters on Nikon DSLRs (since the rear element is too large and the flange distance is shorter at 44mm vs 46.5mm on Nikon F), while Nikon lenses can be used with adapters on Canon DSLRs. This is another disadvantage of the Nikon F mount, because it limits Nikon shooters from being able to use Canon glass, while Canon shooters can enjoy Nikon glass on their cameras. In fact, until Canon released its excellent but pricey EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, many Canon shooters loved the results they were getting with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G coupled with an adapter.
Nikon F vs Canon EF Lens Mounting
When mounting Nikon lenses, you move lenses clockwise when looking from the back of the camera. Canon lenses are always mounted in the opposite, counter-clockwise direction. Not a big deal, but it certainly does take time to get used to this change when changing brands.
Nikon F – Older and Backwards-Compatible
So far I have pointed out the disadvantages of the Nikon F mount, but it does not mean that it does not have its advantages. One of the biggest advantages of Nikon F, is backwards compatibility due to its age – Nikon first designed its F mount back in 1957 and since then, pretty much every F mount lens has been compatible with newly released Nikon cameras. This means that you can grab some really old manual focus classics and still use them natively on modern DSLRs – something you cannot do with pre-EF Canon lenses. Canon basically ditched its previous mounts in 1987 when the EF mount was launched, without caring for backwards-compatibility. This made many Canon shooters unhappy, because they found themselves having to get rid of their old lenses and start from scratch with new lenses, whereas Nikon shooters did not go through the same pains. Therefore, while Canon provides more lens options for photographers today than Nikon, the total number of lenses one could mount natively on Nikon cameras exceeds that of Canon’s.
Some of the really old Nikon lens designs had to go through conversion to allow proper mounting and for metering to work on some modern cameras, but Nikon offered conversion services for a long time during the transition period. And autofocus compatibility issues with lower-end DSLRs that do not have built-in focus motors have also been addressed for the most part by Nikon, since all modern AF-S lenses will autofocus on any modern Nikon DSLR. Nikon has essentially moved away from screw-type lenses to lenses with built-in focus motors. But these issues do not have much to do with the actual F mount, which has been Nikon’s standard for many years now.
Canon EF and EF-S Lens Compatibility
Although both EF and EF-S lenses have the same rear diameter to fit all Canon DSLR cameras, Canon limited EF-S lenses from working on full-frame cameras. This means that if one were to move up from a lower-end APS-C camera to a full-frame camera, they would have to upgrade all EF-S lenses to EF versions first. Nikon does not have such limitation – DX lenses will work on all full-frame cameras, but if the image circle is not big enough, it will simply have very dark corners in images. One can enable an option in full-frame cameras to automatically reduce image size to 1.5x crop when DX cameras are mounted to avoid darkening of the corners. In some cases, DX lenses at different focal lengths or focusing distances can actually cover the whole image circle of full-frame cameras and those could be used in full-frame mode without issues, as detailed in Francois Malan’s article. This might be of a great advantage to those who want to move up to full-frame cameras in the Nikon world, since they can first start shooting in crop mode, then upgrade lenses at a later point of time.
At the end of the day, both Nikon and Canon systems offer very strong lens choices for practically any need. While some Nikon shooters would love to see super fast f/1.2 lenses with AF capabilities, one could argue that such lenses would be hard to use in terms of autofocus accuracy (ask any Canon 50mm f/1.2L shooter) and designing a lens with solid performance at maximum aperture would be extremely difficult and very cost prohibitive. And speaking of cost, I don’t think there would be much demand for a $2K+ 50mm f/1.2 prime when one could get a superb Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art at a fraction of the cost…
The purpose of this article was not to start another Nikon vs Canon debate, but rather point out the differences between the two mounts. I know that one could argue about each of the pros and cons I pointed out above and I am sure more points could be added by experienced photographers that have used both systems. If you have something to add, please let me know in the comments section below.
I was one of those people who was thoroughly annoyed with Canon for abandoning the manual focus FD mount for the all electronic EF mount. I had built up a collection of bodies (a couple of F-1s and an A-1) and lenses, which meant a considerable investment in Canon equipment. Since then I have never given Canon a single penny more. I have bought second hand FD lenses to add to my collection but when deciding which digital SLR to buy I had no option but to start from scratch so I moved over to Nikon. That’s when I realised how wonderful Nikon film cameras were so I now have quite a collection of those too! My all time favourite? The Nikon FM2n. It’s built like a Swiss watch inside, a Chieftain tank outside and it will work without a battery if you’re happy to estimate the exposure.
Maybe its the time for you to move to Sony…. Personally I never r use the video on all my 5 nikon cameras, for me its a no issue, but I can understand that it is for you.
Hope you make the right decision
My issue is that NIkon’s period of ‘quality control issues’ was actually several years, and they continue to drag behind Sony and others in terms of video quality, which has, good or bad, become the mainstay of needed features in modern camera gear. It seems like Nikon is always a year behind in terms of what their cameras will do, like it’s almost too ahrd for them, instead of getting it together and leading the pack again, as in, EVER.
I have many nikon lenses I like, but they don’t work on anyone else’s gear, without difficult adapters that may or not may not render all the camera is capable of.
Nikon has become a rut one gets stuck in.
A very very very nice comparison of the mounts, thanks for that.
THANK YOU! -You Just (indirectly) answered a question that has been on a lot of people’s minds as to why Nikon cameras can’t adjust aperture in realtime when shooting video. -The mechanical aperture of F-mount lenses! It’s nice to see Nikon coming out with new “E” designation lenses, like the new 24-70mm 2.8 VR which use an electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism. -Thus joining the ranks of Canon EF, Fuji, MFT, etc. My guess/hope is that Nikon will come out with a new range of E series prime lenses to compliment a new series of cameras that can adjust aperture in real-time.
Many of Nikon’s cameras allow the aperture to be changed while shooting video. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the mechanical aperture lever; it has all to do with the purchaser not asking the right questions before making their purchases.
How do you think cinematographers managed to change the aperture while shooting, using equipment that was designed long before the invention of electronic cameras and electronically-controlled lenses?
The lower-end Nikon DSLRs combined with G lenses have limited functionality (hence costing a small fraction of the high-end equipment), which is properly explained in Nikon’s sales literature and downloadable user manuals.
Laz, despite what I’ve just written above, I really do understand why anyone who’s considering the purchase of a modern DSLR that records video would more than reasonably expect it to be able to change aperture while recording — irrespective of its price. I have always refused to recommend a make/model of camera on each of the many occasions I’ve been asked for advice because manufacturers do some really stupid things that seriously annoy (at least some of) their buyers.
You mentioned the smaller diameter of the Nikon F mount as a reason for certain lenses, particularly f/1.2 telephotos, not being feasible on Nikon.
Since DX lenses are smaller, that same F mount would appear relatively larger on DX lenses. Why don’t we see more f/1.2 DX telephoto lenses for Nikon?
Nikon did design the Nikon 1 Nikkor 32mm f1.2 lens for the image circle needed for the one inch sensors in the Nikon 1 family.
So a larger aperture lens for a dx sensor should be possible if Nikon wanted to design it.
The f-stop value is a unitless number relating the focal length to the image size produced. The mount that the light must pass through is a constraint limiting the maximum possible aperture.
The 1 Nikkor 32mm lens has a list price of $900. Nikon seems to see dx as consumer level so what price point could they hit?
The 58mm f1.4 fx lens list price is $1700. On dx this is 87mm field of view equivalent. What would Nikon price this at if they had designed it to support a dx image circle? $1200?
How many D3x00 or D5x00 buyers would spring for that?
Neither Nikon or Canon have created a full set of lenses for crop sensor cameras. Both expect users to step up to full-frame lenses if needed.
From the metabone speed booster case, people realized that you can sacrifice the image circle size and then increase the lens speed by One stop. Is there any possibility to design a condenser type of lens near the mount and then increase the speed of the lens. For example, a medium format 80mm f/2.8 can be converted to 35mm full frame format of f/2.0.
Just some of my wild thoughts. Thank you always for your article!
I might be wrong, but isn’t the Leica M Mount similar in size to Nikon’s F-Mount?
Leica still has lenses up to f/0.95. If the size is the same, and AF is not important, is it still possible to make a real fast lens?
I believe Nikon has created f/0.95 lenses in the past for their Range finder series.
The lens on a rangefinder camera doesn’t have to clear a reflex mirror, which allows it to be closer to the film/sensor hence allowing a wider f-stop for the same throat diameter.
I have a question. Is the m4/3 mount physically larger than the Nikon F mount? I mean how can they produce lenses at f/0.95 for the m4/3 and they can’t produce an f1.2 for the Nikon F?
Keep up the good work
The original Four Thirds System specification was for a mount flange diameter of 44 mm (Nikon F is 44.6 mm) — twice the size of the 4/3 sensor diagonal — to cater for apertures wider than f/1, which are required in order for the system to attempt to compete with the light gathering and shallow DoF capabilities of larger sensors and their corresponding lenses.
The Micro Four Thirds System specification has a reduced flange diameter of 38 mm to shed some weight from the system, which for this camera format has been demonstrated to be more important than the original attempt to compete optically with FF cameras.
Note: The Four Thirds System is optimised for image-space telecentric lenses, which greatly eases the design requirements of its digital sensors and it maximizes their potential photon efficiency. However, this increases the cost of producing fully compatible lenses. Horses for courses!
Pete, I have been incredibly busy during the past few weeks. After I logged in today and saw this article again, I realized that you have been answering all the questions. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. Great to hear from someone who is very knowledgeable about camera systems. Hope to host you one day for a guest post at Photography Life!
Thank you very much indeed for your kind words, Nasim. I try my very best to support all evidence- and science-based endeavours; and to thoroughly debunk both the pseudoscience and anti-science that invariably dominates the top results provided by Web search engines, which all rank by popularity of opinion [thereby appealing to the genetic fallacy: argumentum ad populum] rather than ranking by factual accuracy.
I am deeply humbled by your invitation to write a guest post at Photography Life. Having read (nearly) all of your wonderfully educational articles on Photography Life (and on your previous website), plus the articles of the other excellent contributors to PL, I currently think it might be best for me to carry on with what I’m doing, rather than to write a guest post. Although I’m a vehement advocate of science and critical thinking skills, I’m a total recluse when it comes to the subject of my personal photography and art.
My very sincerest best wishes to you and your family,
I am not sure this entire premise of no available f/1.2 lenses above a certain focal length due to the smaller diameter of the F-mount is true. Unfortunately no one seems to be challenging this notion and are blindly accepting this internet opinion repeated a little blindly. One person (Matsu) from dpreview.com forum challenges this – as well as points to someone using lenses with apertures bigger than f/1 at focal lengths more than 58mm:
The original post by Matsu:
The f mount is almost certainly not limiting the maximum aperture of the lens. Bigger apertures than even f/1 have gone through it, and with longer focal lengths than 58mm
Now none of these are AF, and all are converted, fixed aperture designs, but the mount isn’t restricting the aperture.
A big aperture doesn’t necessarily have to have a directly proportional rear element depending the design.
With both AF and aperture controls being though electronic contacts, there are no physical limitations, but that doesn’t make it necessarily practical to do.
Please research this topic a bit more before perpetuating this opinion.
Abhijit, if you read the article one more time, you will see that I specifically said that it would not be economically viable to make fast f/1.2 lenses for Nikon. And making such lenses with AF would be extremely difficult – just take a look at the rear element of Noct Nikkor and you will see why. Refer to some people who have tried to put a chip on the 58mm f/1.2 Noct and you will see that they had to physically grind the rear element to fit lens contacts. See Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L with contacts on top of the lens to understand challenges with designing longer telephoto lenses and think where those contacts would be on the smaller Nikon F. Yes, you can adapt some fast glass on Nikon F, but none of that glass is AF-capable. Even with manual focus, are you sure you would be able to focus at infinity with such lenses? Just take a look at the images provided by Matsu – those are huge lenses designed for MF cameras! To fit a smaller throat, a lens would have to be huge in the front and some serious design considerations would have to be put in place to accommodate a smaller mount. I cannot imagine what a 50mm f/1.2 AF-S would look like in comparison to the Canon 50mm f/1.2L and I won’t even mention anything longer, because I cannot imagine how such a lens would look like. If an 85mm f/1.2 Nikkor has to have the weight of a 70-200mm and a gigantic front element, costing $5K+, nobody would buy it. So it is just easier to say that it is impossible to design such a lens. It is not worth the effort and the smaller throat is the limitation, as pointed out in the article…
If throat size had nothing to do with lens design, we would have had fast f/1.0 glass with AF capabilities today.
Thanks for your reply and for clarifying you did not mean it is impossible to have an f/1.2 AF lens but rather not economically viable. I had read the article a while earlier and had seen Matsu’s comments couple of days later and posted this message a bit later – so I likely may have missed/forgotten this point from your article (not impossible – but not economically viable).
Not sure I understand the difficulty of 1.2 AF lenses with the Nikon mount.
First of all: AF lenses – I’m talking modern AFS ones – don’t move the rear element to focus. None of them do, it’s easy to verify that.
Second: the reason why the MF Nikkor 50/1.2 is hard to get encoded is the location of the contacts in the F-mount. Nothing to do with its size, but all to do with their location. Canon has the contacts in the ring facing out while Nikon has them on the inside, facing inwards. That means for a manual focus lens like the 1.2 it’ll be virtually impossible to get contacts without grinding the rear element for clearance. That is all because that rear element moves with MF and the contacts face the wrong way for clearance. Not because the opening is too narrow.
AFS lenses don’t move the rear element so the problem wouldn’t be as hard.
As well, a comment about m4/3 being limited to f1 is a bit strange: I have the Voigtlander 25/0.95 in my EM5 and that has never had the slightest clearance problem?
Anyways, thanks for a great post: always good to see so many different points of view discussed.
Noons, The rear element of my AF-S 50 mm f/1.4 moves a considerable distance throughout its range of focus.
That may be the case. What can I say except:
I have quite a few AF and AFS lenses – Nikkor zooms mostly but also a Sigma macro – and not one moves the rear element at all.
I’m not being deliberately argumentative, but you made the claim:
“First of all: AF lenses – I’m talking modern AFS ones – don’t move the rear element to focus. None of them do, it’s easy to verify that.”
The AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300 mm is another AF-S lens that moves its rear element while focussing. No offence intended, but your statement is verifiably false.
Regarding 1.0 glass with AF capabilities, if I recall Canon has a variant for their EF mount (not economically viable by all means), but it does exist.
Canon EF 50mm f/1.0L USM (1989–2000):
Abhijit, Those fast f/0.75 and f/1 lenses to which you linked are macro lenses. If they were specified at infinity focus distance, instead of at a macro distance, then they would all be slower than f/1. The maximum aperture of Nikon and Canon lenses is specified at infinity.
The theoretical limit of the Nikon F mount is very close to f/1 (irrespective of the lens design). The theoretical limit of the AI and later F-mount specification is further restricted by the space required for the AI “Automatic Maximum-Aperture Indexing” mechanism, which is clearly visible in Nasim’s image of the Canon and Nikon 85 mm lenses. The optical path diameter for AI and all later *compatible* lenses is limited to circa 35 mm. The rear element of the lens must leave clearance for the mirror. Therefore, the theoretical maximum aperture of the lens, when focussed at infinity, is its diameter of 35 mm divided by its imaging-side focal length, which must be greater than the distance required for the rear element to clear the mirror. A reasonable practical limit is in the region of f/1.2 to f/1.4. For the Canon EF mount it is in the region of f/0.9 to f/1.2.
Note1: Having the exit pupil located as close as possible to the film/sensor causes natural vignetting to occur (which is not reduced by stopping down the lens); and it may induce pixel vignetting and/or other unwanted effects in the digital sensors. This is why most Nikon and Canon lenses that are designed for their digital cameras have their exit pupils located at least 60 mm away from the sensor: hence the practical limit for the Nikon F is f/1.4; the Canon EF is f/1.2.
Note2: The above limits are irrespective of the actual focal length of the complete camera lens. These limits are imposed by imaging space (or image-side) parameters, not by object space parameters.
I hope the above has clarified who has, and who has not, adequately researched this topic before writing about it.