The ongoing epic battle between Nikon and Canon for technological superiority, brand image and market share has been going on for so long—nearly 70 years and counting—that it seems to be a permanent feature of the imaging industry.
Indeed, when either of these worthy competitors gains the upper hand for a time and seems poised for a decisive victory, the other inevitably responds with a salvo of brilliant new products that evens the playing field. To say this remarkable seesaw battle has been a key factor in moving the entire industry forward is an understatement.
It has spurred technological advancement at a furious pace and inspired other imaging companies to enter the fray. Additionally, it has been of enormous benefit to consumers. The competition helped deliver cameras with performance parameters and feature sets that were previously unimaginable.
Obviously, it’s not possible to include every detail of this glorious struggle in one article. So we’ll touch on the highlights to give you the broad outlines of what is perhaps the most significant and enduring rivalry in the 178-year history of photography.
The Battle Begins
The roots of Nikon and Canon go back further than many realize; both companies were well established prior to World War II. Nikon Corporation, the older of the two, was established in 1917 with the merger of three leading Japanese optical manufacturers into a comprehensive, fully integrated optical company known as Nippon Kogaku Tokyo K.K.
Over the next 60 years, the company became a manufacturer of optical lenses used in cameras, binoculars, microscopes, etc. During World War II, they manufactured binoculars, lenses, bombsights and periscopes for the Japanese Navy.
Canon was originally named Seikikogaku kenkyusho (Precision Optical Industry Co. Ltd.). In 1934 the company produced the Kwanon, a prototype for Japan’s first-ever 35mm camera with a focal plane shutter. The company name was changed to Canon Camera Co., Inc., in 1947 and shortened to Canon Inc. in 1969.
Canon’s First Camera—With an Optical Assist from Nikon
Ironically, Canon’s first production model (and Japan’s first high-quality 35mm camera) was the Hansa Canon of 1936. An improved version of the Kwanon, it had a collapsible Nikkor 5cm f/3.5 lens, rangefinder optics and a focusing mount made by Nippon Kogaku. (Canon had no optical
manufacturing capability at that time.) The viewfinder was nicknamed the “surprise box” because it popped up when you pressed a button. Its focusing wheel is reminiscent of the Contax-style focusing arrangement used on subsequent Nikon S-series rangefinder cameras. And the distinctive circular frame counter is on the front.
For the record, the Hansa Canon sold for 275 yen in 1936, complete with a Nikkor 50mm f/3.5 lens and lens hood, two film magazines, a film take-up spool and a leather case.
That translates to $79.71 in U.S. dollars at the then-current exchange rate. That may seem cheap, but it equates to $1,398.69 in 2017 dollars. The current value of a Hansa Canon is $5,000 to $8,000, depending on condition, serial numbers and provenance.
The Rangefinder 35mm Era
Shortly after World War II, when Japan was still occupied and under U.S. administration, both Nikon and Canon began producing innovative, high-quality, interchangeable-lens rangefinder cameras—the Nikon 1 and the Canon IIB.
All Nikon rangefinder cameras up to the sophisticated Nikon SP of 1957 were clearly inspired by the Zeiss Contax. They used a similar bayonet mount and finger wheel focusing system. However, Nikon wisely adopted a Leica-type horizontal cloth focal-plane shutter instead of the much more complex and less reliable vertical roller-bind shutter built into contemporary Contax cameras.
The Canon IIB and all subsequent Canon rangefinders used the classic 39mm Leica screw mount and horizontal-travel focal plane shutters. It’s significant that both Nikon and Canon rangefinder 35s of the mid-1940s through the early 1960s incorporated a more convenient combined range/viewfinder instead of the separate rangefinder and viewfinder windows found in classic screw-mount Leicas. Leica didn’t really catch up until the landmark Leica M3 of 1954. And that camera inspired Nikon and Canon to add multiple parallax compensating frame lines into the viewfinders of their latest rangefinder cameras—the Nikon SP and Canon 7/7S.
By the late ’40s, Nikon and Canon were also producing first-class lenses for their posh rangefinder 35s. They were often based on tweaks of Zeiss and (to a lesser extent) Leica designs that could give the German originals a run for the money—at about half the price!
Nikon Surges Ahead on Serendipity & Marketing Genius
Nikon lenses (and the Nikon brand) got a big boost when they were popularized by acclaimed American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Duncan was working in Tokyo when the Korean War began and he met a young Japanese photographer, Jun Miki. Miki introduced him to Nikon lenses. During 1950 and 1951, Duncan covered the war with Nikon lenses fitted to his Leicas. Notably, he favored the 85mm f/2 Nikkor in screw mount. He proclaimed their excellent performance to the world. Other journalists soon followed suit, and Nikon lenses were highly praised by the influential photojournalist community.
By the mid-1950s, Canon rangefinder cameras and lenses had acquired a reputation for quality and performance among journalists and enthusiasts, but Nikon clearly had the edge. Then during 1953–1958, Nikon brought forth the S2, their first model with a rapid-advance lever on top.
As soon as marketing genius and longtime Nikon guru Joe Ehrenreich saw the S2, he created a brilliant ad campaign around it. The ad showed a right hand poised over the wind lever, shutter release and focusing wheel, all within easy reach, and he coined the immortal tagline, “Advance, Focus, Shoot.” It was in perfect sync with an era when many enthusiasts were aspiring photojournalists. Thus, the Nikon S2, a true classic, was transformed into a precious object and a status symbol.
Landmark Nikon SLR
The era of Nikon dominance vastly accelerated with the introduction of the landmark Nikon F of 1959, the company’s first SLR. Echoing the basic hard-edged body contours of the Nikon rangefinder series, the Nikon F was the heart of what was arguably the first truly professional 35mm SLR system. A huge arsenal of high-performance Nikkor lenses and a host of accessories, including motor drives and interchangeable meter prisms, complemented the SLR.
Nikon designers realized that metering was likely to be the most significant area of technical advancement going forward. As a result, Nikon F users were able to upgrade their cameras by adding the latest meter prism. Another area of non-obsolescence was the redoubtable Nikon F mount, which is still with us today (albeit with a number of functional upgrades). The Nikon F soon became the professional standard of the 1960s, and many pros remained loyal to the brand through its successive iterations—the F2 of 1971 through the F5 (1996).
Canon’s Early SLRs Strive for Supremacy
Canon also realized the era of the interchangeable-lens rangefinder camera was coming to a close. They announced their first SLR, the original Canonflex, in May 1959—one month earlier than the Nikon F. A robust, well-made camera with a line of fine R-series Canon lenses, it had an externally coupled selenium exposure meter, but it was technically outclassed by the brilliantly promoted Nikon F. Not surprisingly it didn’t fare too well on the U.S. market.
Canon followed up in 1960 with the Canonflex R2000 with a top shutter speed of 1/2,000 sec and with the Canonflex RM in 1962. This upgraded SLR had a built-in meter and a recessed lever film advance. But neither the Canonflex R2000 nor RM did much to advance the company’s SLR fortunes.
Canon announced the FL series of lenses in 1964 and then enhanced their technical creds in 1965 with the Pellix. It was the first SLR with a fixed (stationary) pellicle mirror and partial area TTL metering, which was also featured in the moderately successful Canon FT-QL of 1965.
However, Canon really didn’t make a serious dent in Nikon’s SLR supremacy until 1971. That was the year they launched the FD breech-lock mount, the superb high-end pro Canon F1 and successors. It was also the year the robust, middle level, open-aperture metering Canon FTb debuted.
These cameras competed very successfully with the TTL-metering and autoexposure Nikkormats of the day.
The F1 and the excellence of Canon lenses certainly burnished Canon’s image among pros. However, the Nikon F/F2 was still the top dog.
Consolation prize: a series of ever more sophisticated Canonet non-interchangeable-lens, compact rangefinder cameras were top sellers during this period.
Canon: The Sleeping Giant
Despite Canon’s excellent reputation for building high-quality lenses and cameras, and a capacity for innovation, the company was widely regarded by the industry as the “sleeping giant” among camera manufacturers. Canon was considered a company whose formidable capabilities were not quite matched by its performance in the marketplace. That all changed dramatically with the introduction of the autoexposure Canon AE-1 and AT-1 in 1976 and the middle tier, enthusiast-aimed A-1 in 1978.
All three models incorporated many common parts, which enhanced production efficiency and kept the prices very competitive. Indeed, the Canon AE-1 was the most successful 35mm SLR of all time. It sold more than five million units during its production run (!) and dominating the sophisticated entry-level category.
At the same time, Canon announced the New F1, an upgraded pro model, to lure professionals into the Canon camp. The company also began a program of making Canon lenses available to professional sports shooters, which finally bore fruit in the coming autofocus SLR era.
Speaking of autofocus, the award-winning Canon AF-35M (aka Sure Shot) of 1980 was the first 35mm point-and-shoot camera with autofocus, auto wind, auto rewind and auto flash. Not surprisingly it was a runaway success.
By the early 1980s it was pretty clear that autofocus SLRs were going to be the next big thing. Nikon dipped a toe into the water in 1983 with the ponderous, limited production Nikon F3AF in 1983. However, the camera was clunky and slow and only worked with a couple of special AF lenses.
Spurred by Minolta Innovation
Then in 1985, Minolta dropped the hammer, bringing forth the Maxxum 7000. It debuted the first fully integrated AF SLR system, and suddenly it was a new ball game.
The first Nikon AF SLR, the plain vanilla N2020, was announced in 1986. And in 1987, the first Canon AF SLR was unveiled, the EOS 650. It was followed a few months later by the middle tier EOS 620.
EOS stands for Electro-Optical System, and it marked the debut of the EF lens mount used in the EF (and EF-S configuration on APS-C-format cameras) lenses found on all current Canon DSLRs. EF stands for Electro-Focus; the autofocus system on EF lenses is handled by an electric motor built into the lens.
Mechanically, it’s a bayonet mount, and all communication between camera and lens takes place through electrical contacts. There are no mechanical levers or plungers. Twenty years ago, Canon was clearly planning for the future.
However, at Nikon, they weren’t exactly sitting on their hands in the AF SLR arena. The formidable pro Nikon F4 was released in 1988 and in 1996 the cutting-edge Nikon F5. The F5 featured a cross-ranged, five-area AF system, a choice of dynamic and single-area AF, high-speed focus tracking at up to 8 fps and 3D color matrix metering.
Canon countered with the flagship EOS-1V in 2000. It had a continuous shooting speed of up to 10 fps, a 45-point AF system, 100% viewfinder coverage and a top shutter speed of 1/8,000 sec. And that was all housed in a weatherproof, magnesium alloy body.
Heralding the Digital Era
By 1999, the digital era was clearly upon us. Nikon released a secret weapon, the 2.7 megapixel Nikon D1, arguably the first DSLR aimed at professional shooters. In 2002 they unveiled the Nikon D100.
It was a 6MP DSLR designed for professionals and advanced enthusiasts—and a direct competitor to the Canon EOS D60. Priced at $1,999 body only, it was, after the D60, only the second 6MP DSLR to break the $2,000 barrier.
Today, Nikon and Canon are still battling it out in the DSLR arena. At the present time, Canon is in the lead in terms of overall DSLR market share.
Canon now offers such stellar cameras as the new EOS 5D Mark IV. And there is the flagship Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, 4K DCI video recording, a full-res burst rate of 14 fps and ISOs expandable to ISO 409,600.
Happily, Nikon is right up there with such brilliant cameras as the top-of-the-line Nikon D5 DSLR.
It boasts a 20.8MP, FX-format CMOS sensor, 4K UHD video capture, a 12-fps burst rate with AE/AF, and ISOs expandable to a remarkable sensitivity of 3,280,000(!).
In addition, there is the Nikon D500, also announced in 2016, which offers much of the same specs for under $2,000.
As they used to say back in the day, the struggle continues—and this is one where everyone wins!