So, about a year ago, the Canon 40D I had been borrowing got reclaimed by its owner and I needed to make a choice about which DSLR platform I would commit to. Boy, what a lot of variables in that decision!
For this comparison, the cameras I considered were:
- Nikon D700
- Nikon D300s
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Canon 7D
Here are the elements of my discussion, in (my subjective) order of importance:
- Low-Light Performance
- Auto-Focus and Image Stabilization
- Resolving Power and Available Lenses
- White Balance
- Built-in Extras (Flash, Video)
So… a few words on each, and then my conclusion one year after I made the decision…
In studio photography this matters less, but I work almost exclusively in the field, and I find that the accessibility of key functions often makes the difference between catching an opportunity and missing it.
On the Nikon line, for instance, the power switch is right by the shutter button, and if my camera is off I can flip the switch without taking my eye away from the viewfinder. Canon puts it on the back face of the camera, in a location that requires taking my right hand off the grip. They fixed this defect on the 7D, but the 5DmarkII still has the problem. As silly as it may sound, that one issue bothered me a lot. Nikon also puts the switch to illuminate the auxiliary LCD right next to the power switch (this is the external display that shows ISO, white balance, remaining memory, etc… not the big color LCD for live-view, picture preview, etc.) Advantage: Nikon
White Balance, ISO, Image Quality, over-under expose, flash over-under expose
Nikon has dedicated buttons for WB/ISO/Quality, accessible on the top-left of the body, and places the flash-exposure compensation near the built-in flash (with the regular exposure compensation on a dedicated button near the right-hand controls). Canon, in contrast has a row of four buttons which toggle between these various functions. If my eye is looking through the viewfinder, I found it impossible to quickly feel which of the four buttons was for which function on the Canon… and then I had to look carefully at the little row of settings on bottom of the viewfinder to confirm whether I was using “function 1″ or “function 2″ on each of those buttons. So, the net result is that, once again, I need to take the Canon away from my face in order to look at the body to figure out which button I’m pressing, and what mode it’s in. Yuck! Advantage: Nikon
Customization of UI
Both platforms offer extensive customization menus, so that you can quickly switch between different “modes” of your own design for instance, I use one group of settings for “Nature”, a different set for “Extreme Low-Light”, a third for “Studio Portraits”, and yet another for “Architecture”. Configuring these can take a while to think through, and I found both Canon and Nikon to be relatively flexible about it. On the Canon platform, there is an external knob for switching between custom setting banks, while the Nikon requires digging through the menus a bit. Advantage: Canon
f8 and be there
In case you don’t remember manual cameras, or they were before your time, “Sunny 16″ is a mnemonic for calculating correct exposure without a light meter. If it’s a sunny day, then set the aperture to f16 and set the shutter speed to 1/ISO (for instance, if shooting ISO100, then use 1/100s exposure; if shooting ISO400 film, then use 1/400s). If you prefer a different aperture, then every stop you move the aperture dial, the shutter speed needs to move a stop in the other direction.
When I was in college, I asked my photo professor for a clarification of the Sunny 16 rule… and he countered with a more important rule. I was trying to learn about compensating for shadows and backlighting, and he said “Don’t worry about all that stuff, kid, it’ll come naturally with time… Instead of Sunny 16, use the Journalist’s Rule: f8 and be there!“ Of course I had to ask… and he explained, “Just pay attention to getting the damn shot, because if you’re not in the right place at the right time, it doesn’t matter how good your settings are.”
He meant that f8 has a reasonable depth-of-field and a reasonable amount of light; if you set the camera’s shutter speed to match the ISO and be fast enough for no hand shake, erring towards overexposed, then you’ll be fine just picking up the camera and going for it, in case there isn’t time to mess with settings.
Of course journalists are doing different work than studio photographers… a badly-exposed and grainy picture of a unique moment in history can be fine; an imperfect studio shot is an expensive disaster. Personally, I tend towards capturing irreplaceable moments, so this is a long way of saying the ergonomics are super-important to me, even on simple stuff like the power switch.
The Nikon D300s was definitely the worst of the bunch. Regardless of what settings are on the dial, the reality is that ISO1600 is all you get; 3200 is pretty sloppy. Canon’s 7D came surprisingly close to the 5DmarkII, and is respectable at ISO3200, but I thought neither could keep up with the Nikon D700. It uses the same sensor as Nikon’s flagship D3, and even though the technology is from 2008 (while Canon’s are 2010 releases), the Nikon D700 is the only camera that produced solid ISO6400 photos.
Since I often shoot candid portraits in extreme low-light, and I often use a compact telephoto zoom (f5.6 300mm), I am constantly fighting an intense battle to get the shutter speed fast enough to catch a moving subject without hand shake. Each extra stop of ISO comes in very handy. Even in circumstances where I can carry the giant f2.8 70-200mm lens, those extra two stops still go further with the ISO power of the D700. Advantage: Nikon (if full-frame), Canon (if crop-sensor).
Right-click the image and choose “Open Link in New Tab” to see it at full resolution.
Auto-Focus and Image Stabilization
Without a doubt, Canon has the fastest focusing system. With additional assistance from ultrasonic technology, it just snaps into place with lightning speed. Even on continuous-focus settings, when the target is moving I can feel the faintest tremor, like a vibrating “bip bip bip” each time it refocuses. Extremely cool. Nikon’s focusing algorithm is purely optical, which takes a bit longer. Advantage: Canon
Focal Point Options
On this one, I’m a bit mystified. Nikon offers a choice of a 17-point grid or a 52-point grid, and you can “steer” the little rectangle around the viewfinder with a 4-direction controller on the camera back. This makes sense to me. Canon, for some reason, only offers a 9-point grid (in a diamond shape, three points per side plus one in the center). Using one of the right-hand wheels, you can roll the wheel through the autofocus point choices (one of which is “auto-detect; use any or all”). If you train your hand to remember which of the non-ergonomic four little buttons puts the camera into “AF point select mode”, then you can choose targets faster on the Canon platform than the Nikon. Nikon has back-of-the-camera settings to switch between single-point and multi-point, which is a bit more annoying than Canon.
Despite the awesome speed of the Canon auto-focus, Nikon’s AF continuous-focus mode is pretty cool. This is where they start to win using their purely-optical algorithms… Once you have a lock on a subject, if it moves then 3D software actually interprets the scene and will move the focal point to retain focus on the target initially selected. For instance, the headlight of a car driving past you will remain in focus while you’re tracking it, even if it moves across the frame. This blows Canon away. Because of this, and the limited number of points offered by the Canon (sometimes I want to focus on a point other than one of their 9 choices), I have to call this one as Advantage: Nikon.
The image stabilization is strong on both platforms, but I found that Canon would let me “get away with” about 2 stops, while Nikon’s “VRII” technology would solidly erase my hand shake from 3 stops+. For instance, I took this photo handheld at 1/10sec, with a 300mm lens (!)
The usual guideline for hand shake and shutter speeds is that shutter speed should be 1/x seconds, where x is the focal length in millimeters. So, for a 28mm lens, 1/28s shutter speed (probably 1/30 on a normal camera)… for a 120mm lens, 1/125s, for a 300mm lens, 1/250s or 1/500s to be safe. If you right-click the sample image I provided, choose “Open in New Window”, and zoom in all the way in your browser, you will find a bit of hand shake but only if you look closely at full resolution.
But bear in mind, I should have had to take that picture at 1/300s I actually shot it at 1/10s, a handheld exposure 50x as long as “recommended”. I squeezed 5 stops out of the image stabilizer! Granted, there’s a bit of shake, but at 3 or 4 it would have been more solid. I had trouble getting Canon past 2 stops of IS.
I don’t have a side-by-side comparison, for this, but my subjective opinion is that the Nikon system is better. Advantage: Nikon
Resolving Power and Available Lenses
DP Review has a fantastic library of A/B comparisons on resolving power and ISO performance, which is part of why I’m not seeking to replicate it here. But I will touch on a few important points I observed. One is to do with the pixel count:
So, for super-sharp images, how many pixels do you need? It depends on a few things most important is the final destination for the photo… A billboard showing jewelry or cosmetics, for instance, might require an an extreme pixel count. (Although in that case, a larger-format camera like Mamiya or Hasselblad might be more appropriate, in the 50MP and $25k-$50k range.) Anything viewed on the web will probably be less than one megapixel, so it’s less important. Even in print, at 300dpi, a letter-sized page is only 2,550 x 3,300 = 8.4MP.
So, for my purposes at least, it’s not really about the pixel count… it’s how clear each pixel can be. This means the price of the body, and the quality of lenses you can afford plays a larger role. Not to mention the physical size of lens you can carry, if you’re doing telephoto work.
Looking up and down the price range, it’s noteworthy that Canon offers very high resolution starting with its best crop-sensor camera ($1350 for the body-only), while Nikon stays at 12MP unless you go all the way up to a nearly $7k body. The reason? Well, a lower pixel count means that each pixel has a larger area on the sensor. If you want images to become more sharp, it’s great to have lots of pixels, but each pixel needs to be large enough on the sensor to capture enough photons for a precise light-reading.
$600 Nikon D300s – 12MP (crop sensor)
$2400 Nikon D700 – 12MP (full-frame)
$4700 Nikon D3 – 12MP (full-frame)
$6750 Nikon D3x – 24.5MP (full-frame)
$1000 Canon 40D – 10MP (crop sensor)
$1350 Canon 7D – 18MP (crop sensor)
$2600 Canon 5D markII – 21MP (full-frame)
$4600 Canon 1D mark IV – 16MP (full-frame)
$6000 Canon 1Ds mark III – 21MP (full-frame)
The most accurate sampling comes from using the largest sensor area on the smallest number of pixels. So, the Nikon platform makes the jump to full-frame before making the jump to high pixel count. This is why the light-sensitivity rocks! Advantage: Nikon
Canon definitely has a much larger line-up of lenses, and they’re great. Advantage: Canon
Unfortunately for me, one of my most important lenses is the compact zoom. I use a 70-300 f4.5-5.6, although Nikon recently came out with a 28-300 f3.5-5.6 which looks nicer if its optics are as good. Canon makes a 70-300, but its optics, stabilizer, and focusing elements are really junky while that particular Nikon lens is great. Most professionals would scoff at such a slow lens, perhaps even saying “why use such a good camera without a pro lens f2.8 or faster?”, and perhaps they’d be right I do love my 85mm f1.4… But I often can’t carry a fast telephoto zoom where I’m going, due to the size, so the compact happens to be really important to me. Advantage: Nikon
Once I saw the difference in ISO performance on the Nikon platform, and the preferable ergonomics while shooting, Canon was swimming upstream… but it definitely didn’t help that the 5D Mark II is almost impossible to buy without Canon’s f4 24-100mm zoom… and I found that f4 is just not okay for an everyday lens… I bought my Nikon with the f2.8 24-70mm. It’s slightly more expensive, but far more flexible in terms of depth-of-field, and the optics are enough superior to compensate for Canon’s higher pixel count, even at normal ISO ranges. Canon’s high count will produce a sharper picture at ISO100 with a high-end prime lens in the studio, but that’s not where I shoot my pictures. Advantage: Nikon (although maybe not if you do studio photography.)
For architectural photos and product shots, both platforms offer the essential shift/tilt lenses (Nikon calls them “PC-E” for perspective control, and Canon calls them “TS-E” for tilt & shift.) Both are similarly priced around $2k, and I have only used the Nikon so I can’t offer a comparison.
For me, it doesn’t matter which brand has more lenses, it matters which brand has the lenses I need. Somehow, Canon’s giant line-up is missing the ones I wanted.
It might seem strange I put White Balance so low on the list, when it’s so important to how a photo looks and feels… but the fact is that the best white balance will come from shooting RAW and calibrating with a neutral-grey card, or from manual settings.
On the Canon line, I found that “auto white balance” produced images much closer to what I saw with my eye. It was definitely superior. Advantage: Canon
However, when I manually set the Nikon white balance to a pre-set (outdoor, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten, flash), it produced a better result than when I manually set the Canon. Furthermore, the Nikon WB button is in a very convenient location I can access without taking my face away from the camera… unlike the Canon which once again required that I take my eye away from the viewfinder to make adjustments. So, if using the Canon as a point-and-shoot, or if working with unlimited time in a studio, the Canon is better.
But I’m not; I’m in a hurry, on-the-go, and wanting to get the best picture I can while adjusting settings really fast. Advantage: Nikon
Caveat: Both platforms offer the ability to customize and fine-tune the WB settings. Looking at the two pictures above, which is “better”? The one on top is warmer and more yellow, while the colors seem truer on the bottom… but I might like the color on the top picture more. Regardless, if it’s just warmth that’s making my impression, I could probably custom-adjust the hue on either camera to be more to my liking. And if I use photo software to calibrate the above picture to the pure-white on the patterned blanket, the image above looks a lot closer to the image below. This stuff is really subjective; part of why I put it lower on the list of priorities.
Built-in Extras (Flash, Video)
The crop-sensor cameras in both line-ups have built-in flash and built-in video. Personally, I think if it’s important enough to use a flash or to shoot a video, then get a good flash or get a good video camera…
Once I saw the difference in image-quality offered by full-frame cameras, I stopped considering crop sensors. That meant that I was really only seriously considering the Nikon D700 vs. the Canon 5D mark II. Of those, the Nikon has a built-in flash, but no video. The Canon has built-in Full-HD video, but no flash. For me, it’s possible that I’m sometimes in an “emergency” where I unexpectedly need a flash… but I really don’t care about video. So for me, this one is Advantage: Nikon.
But many photographers are finding it’s sometimes to their advantage to offer clients video clips instead of only still images. The Canon 5D mark II’s video is absolutely amazing! Some network television shows have actually switched from the $25-50k video gear, to the cheap little 5D mark II! There’s nothing amateur about this camera; its flexibility and beautiful performance, including detailed control over ‘shutter speed’, ISO, and all the other settings you would expect, make it a serious rival to equipment many times the price. If there’s even a small chance you will shoot video, then the Canon is too good to ignore. Advantage: Canon.
After using the 40D for a year, I bought the 5D mark II, thinking the 21MP would be godly, and I might make some extra money shooting video. And even though I couldn’t get the range of zoom lenses I wanted, I said, “Well, Canon is a major brand, and maybe if they don’t offer certain lenses, it’s because I should learn to shoot differently.”
But I hated it.
I almost never got to take advantage of the awesome 21MP power, because of the trouble I had with getting enough light or something else. Or missing a photo because of the awkward power switch. And the fact is that I don’t shoot video. But I do sometimes find myself without a flash after the sun starts to set, and I would much rather have the crappy light from a built-in, than nothing at all.
The faster focusing on the Canon is great, but I found that the Nikon’s auto-subject-detection is smarter than Canon’s, and its ability to track moving subjects is far superior.
So I returned it.
One year and 15,000 photos later, I absolutely love my Nikon D700. Currently I shoot with Nikkor lenses: a 24-70mm f2.8 (wide-angle to slight close-up), a 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 (like a sniper scope with the image stabilizer), a PC-E 24mm f3.5 (for amazing perspective correction), and an 85mm f1.4 AF-S (the ultimate for extreme low-light, razor-sharp portraits, and beautiful bokeh!). When not using available light, I rely on a Quantum flash and power pack: T5D-R with Turbo SC battery. But at f1.4 and ISO6400, I can shoot handheld in the dark and still get the images I want without firing a flash. Ooh-rah.