Gear Photo Proventure

Nikon vs Canon | It’s all about Control(s)

February 5, 2015
Nikon vs Canon | It's all about Control(s) | Matt Korinek - Photographer
Read the whole series:

In this second installment of the Nikon vs Canon argument, I’m going to talk about controls and ergonomics. I believe this is the most important comparison when looking at which brand to choose.

If you’re wondering what makes my perspective of Canon vs Nikon different, then have a look at my introductory post outlining how I have shot both Canon and Nikon systems over the past three years.

My general philosophy around ergonomics and controls is that the exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are the most important.

These three should be accessible one-handed with your right hand so that you can keep your left hand stabilising the lens as you change settings. Less used controls can get away with requiring the left hand or both hands.

Here’s what I’ve found working with both brands of camera:


This is probably where your experience with a DSLR starts (otherwise it’s hard to take a photo).

Nikon vs Canon | On/Off Button on Nikon

Nikon’s On/Off switch is under the shutter release.

Nikon is the clear winner here, as the on/off switch is right under the shutter release in all the models I’ve seen. I can quickly and easily turn the camera on and off using one hand. Perfect for turning the camera on as you bring it to your eye to capture a candid moment.

It is very intuitive and quick. I never have to think twice to make sure I’ve turned on the camera.

Nikon vs Canon | On/Off Button on Canon

Canon’s On/Off switch is on the left hand side.

Canon on the other hand has a couple different placements, with the stupidest being on a range of cameras including my Canon 5D Mark III.

The on/off switch is on the left hand side of my camera under the mode dial and must be accessed with a second hand. There are times when I bring the camera up to my eye and the power is off.

Sure I could just leave the camera on all the time since it will go to sleep to save power, but since Nikon’s button is so well designed and placed, this is something that I feel Canon should address.

Winner: Nikon

Scrolly wheels (a.k.a. command/control dials)

The command/control dials are one that you will use most often, as they will change your aperture and shutter speed (if you take you camera off automatic mode, and please take your camera off automatic mode).

This round is a lot closer. Both Canon and Nikon have their front command dials place near the shutter release. Nikon’s is below the shutter and Canon’s is above but in everyday shooting this difference is minimal.

Nikon vs Canon | Rear Command Dial

Nikon’s rear command dial is right under my thumb.

Where you start to see a difference is in the rear command dial. Nikon has placed its rear command dials right above where my thumb is naturally placed to hold the camera. This makes it easy to reach.

The rear command dial on the Canon is placed further away from where my thumb rests and so I have to stretch to use it. This was actually one of the main reasons I chose to go with Nikon back in 2008 – I thought that the stretch might strain my hand and be a pain (literally).

Now that I’ve shot regularly with my Canon, I’m convinced that it’s a better design than the Nikon. I’ve let go of any issues I may have had with placement because it’s an absolute joy to use. In fact I know of at least one photographer who loves this feature so much that he jumped ship from Nikon to Canon.

Nikon vs Canon | Canon Rear Command Dial - Scroll Wheel

The scroll wheel on the back of the Canon may be further from my thumb, but is a joy to use.

The rear command dial can be scrolled through very quickly allowing for quick changes of settings on the fly. The scrolling really shines during image review. Due to the design and interface, I can quickly scroll through an entire shoot and see an almost stop-motion like overview of the shoot. I can quickly stop at any particular picture to have a closer look.

Seriously, it’s awesome. It is especially good for my sports/fitness work as I can quickly see if I captured the most compelling moment of physical expression.

Winner: Canon

ISO Buttons

This is probably the toughest comparison of Nikon vs Canon. Straight out of the box, I find Nikon’s easier to use even though it doesn’t jive with my general philosophy of ergonomics.

Nikon vs Canon | Nikon's ISO button placement on the D600

Nikon’s ISO button placement on the D600

Nikon actually has at least two different placements depending on what model, and in both cases you need to use your left hand to use the button. Ideally I still think they should have a button that’s on the right hand side to change this setting (perhaps the “OK” button).

I don’t mind using both hands to access controls, however the more I can do with my right hand, the more I can leave my left cradling the lens and providing stability to capture a sharp image.

Canon on the other hand is more consistent with its ISO button placement. My 5D has a very small ISO button beside a few other small buttons on the top right of the camera.

I don’t like their implementation on the 5D mark III because I’m not confident of the placement of the button even with the little dimple for tactile feedback. In fact I’d likely prefer how lower end Canons only have a single somewhat larger ISO button in a similar place so that it is easy to find.

Canon vs Nikon | Canon's default ISO button placement

Canon’s default ISO button placement is on top of the camera. I much prefer using custom settings that allow me to use “set” button in the middle of the command dial instead (see scroll wheel image above)

Luckily, my Canon 5D let’s you change which button controls ISO in one of the settings menus. You can make the back “SET” button that’s in the middle of the rear command dial so that you can just press it and scroll the front command dial to change ISO. I find this much more intuitive and quick than the other methods.

Winner: Canon by a slight margin if you change your custom settings, Nikon wins otherwise

Nikon vs Canon | The rest

It’s a bit harder to talk about the other controls as these can even differ between cameras within a particular manufacturer. Here’s a quick overview of what I like/dislike about the two cameras I’ve had the most experience with:

Click on the “+” to expand more on each heading.

Zoom Direction
 The lenses of each system zoom the opposite way. This can be slightly annoying when you switch between the two, however since you can clearly see if you’re zooming in/out, so it’s easy to quickly change the direction you’re turning the barrel.
Rear AF-ON
I use this function all the time, so it is very important to me. Luckily both systems have either specific AF-ON buttons, or buttons you can customize to the AF-ON function in about the same place. It makes it easy to switch between systems.

The only problem with the rear AF-ON function is that when you give your camera to a non-photographer to take a picture, you’re likely to get out of focus results.

Autofocus settings
Nikon has a much more intuitive placement than Canon on this one.

Canon has two AF settings buttons (AF drive and AF area) plus more settings hidden in the menus. One of these two buttons is alongside the other small buttons on top like ISO. The same button controls motor drive (see below) while the second AF settings button is near the AF-ON button and allows you tho pick what focus zone.

Nikon's AF settings button | Nikon vs Canon | It's all about control(s)

Nikon’s AF settings button is near the lens mount on the bottom left where your hand stabilises the lens for quick an easy access with my thumb.

Nikon has one button that allows you to change both of these functions (it just depends on which command dial you use to scroll). It is placed near the lens mount on the bottom left of the camera body (when holding the camera).

This is great because my left hand is already there to stabilize the lens and so it’s a two-handed control where I don’t have to move my left hand to access the settings. I change between Single AF and Continuous AF, as well as my AF areas quite often.

Canon Depth of Field Preview Button | Canon vs Nikon

Canon Depth of Field Preview Button

Canon does redeem itself by allow me to assign the function of quickly changing between AI Servo and One Shot modes to the depth-of-field preview button on the right hand side of the lens mount. 

Motor drive
Nikon's locking collar for continuous drive mode | Nikon vs Canon

Nikon’s locking collar for continuous drive mode

I don’t generally change this setting “on the fly.” I like that the D600 has a locking collar around the mode dial where you can change the setting with your left hand. You can clearly see what setting you’re at when there’s good light, but since that info isn’t on the LCD it’s not as great in the dark.

The 5D allows you to make these changes using only the right hand, with the button being the same as the AF mode (see above). Since I don’t change this much, I often forget which command dial to use to change it and so it feels like it takes me longer to get to where I want to go. 

White balance
Since I shoot RAW, some might think I never change my white balance, but that’s not the case. Much like metering and motor drive, I will usually set the white balance at the beginning of the shoot and won’t really touch it after that unless I have a very good reason (even when a sunny day may become cloudy).

Since I don’t regularly change it, I don’t mind the Nikon puts their White Balance button on the left hand side. In fact since I usually will change white balance based on my first test shot which I look at, the left hand orientation makes sense like the play/zoom/delete above.

My 5D had it’s white balance on top, the furthest small button away from the shutter. Although it may seem to be more efficient since you can change it one-handed, I find that I usually take my eye off the viewfinder to look at the top LCD as I scroll through the options.

They both work for me, but the Nikon is a bit more natural (maybe because I’ve been shooting with that longer).

Although located differently, both brands have these controls on the left hand side for two-handed operation. In this case it makes sense, as when you’re reviewing image, your left hand doesn’t have to be stabilizing the lens and is free to press buttons.

Nikon image review buttons | Nikon vs Canon

Nikon image review buttons

Canon image review buttons | Canon vs Nikon

Canon image review buttons

Mode, picture styles, quality, size
 I always shoot manual and capture images in RAW format (if you aren’t shooting RAW, you’re missing out on a lot of possibilities). Since I shoot RAW, picture styles and quality settings are a moot point. I barely use any of these buttons unless I’m shooting video.
Format Cards
Canon makes you go through menus to do this while Nikon has a neat two-button shortcut that makes this common command faster.

Nikon should win this by default, except for some reason I can only format the card in slot 1 on my D600. There may be a way around this; I just haven’t looked into it yet. 

The command dials of the Canon make their menus quick and easy to navigate whereas Nikon menus are harder to move through quickly to find what you’re looking for. Canon is a clear winner here. 

Final Thoughts on choosing Nikon or Canon based on controls

If I were choosing a camera based on what I know now, I would consider what I’m shooting and how the controls/ergonomics of potential cameras relates to that. I would go into the camera store and pick up every model of a particular brand (if I was ever going to move upwards in a particular system).

Overall Winner: It depends on what you shoot and what settings you’re going to use the most

In my next post I’ll be talking about differences in performance between Canon and Nikon.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment area below. Hope you find this post helpful!



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  • Reply Uwe February 5, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Hello Matt,

    If it’s all about controls, you have a look at the Fuji X-Pro1 🙂

    Forget the heavy DSLR Bodies and have fun with leight weight and easy controlling.


    • Reply Matt Korinek February 5, 2015 at 8:14 am

      Hi Uwe,

      Thanks for reading this post and taking the time to comment.

      Next time I am in a camera shop I will have a look at the Fuji X-Pro1 and see how it handles.

      I do believe the controls are most important when comparing Canon vs Nikon because they are so closely matched in most of the other aspects that are important to me (image quality, focus speed and accuracy, etc.). If I were to seriously consider the Fuji, I would have to bring those things into consideration as well.

      Due to the type and style of shooting I do, I need very fast an accurate continuous autofocus. It also helps me to have a full frame sensor that can be used at high ISOs with as little noise as possible. I don’t love the weight but I love the results I get out of my cameras.

      How do you find the image quality, autofocus and ISO of the X-Pro1? I would love to hear your thoughts.



      • Reply Uwe February 22, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        Hello Matt,
        If you need a fast continious AF …. Forget about the Fuji X-Pro 🙂

        The IQ is absolutely great … Also HighISO performance is great.

        And, as I wrote, the controls are wonderful.
        Aperture ring on the lens, shutter speed control dial on top of the body, fn-button near the shutter button, which you can use as a “ISO Button” … Wonderful EVF and OVF.

        But in fact the X-Pro1 is made to calm down 🙂

        Fell in love with handling and image quality … Calm down, take,a seet, have a coffee, talk with models as a friend …. And take great shots!


        • Reply Matt Korinek February 23, 2015 at 9:10 pm

          Hi Uwe,

          Thanks for sharing your experience with the Fuji X-Pro. Sounds like it’s not right for most of the work that I do, but I do appreciate how a camera that slows you down can be a refreshing change. In fact I have two film cameras that I use for just that.

          If I was looking to do the same with my digital work, I would seriously look at it.



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