Horses for courses, or Canon vs. Nikon

I have used a lot of Canon and Nikon cameras over the years. My Canon line-up was T60 (yuck!), Elan and 620 on the film side, followed by 30D, 10D, 5D and 5D2. I also used other people’s 1Dmk2, 1DSmk2 and 300D. I was not a fan of Canon manual focus line, liked their AF film cameras reasonably well, and was a big fan of the DSLRs mainly because the alternatives were all much inferior.

My Nikon line-up was F, F2, with occasional use of borrowed FM, FM2, F3, F4, N90S. In digital, I played with D1, D80, D100, D200 — none of which impressed me favorably. D200 AF was rather imprecise, and the build quality was actually worse than Canon despite better initial impression.

I have since come to really dislike Canon bodies. 5Dmk2, my current camera, is a good studio body. It is a real pain to use for action because its AF seems very poor at any kind of focus tracking, and the interface is much too menu-oriented. Vertical grip doesn’t duplicate AF selector. Newer Canon bodies, 7D and 5Dmk3 don’t seem to be much of an improvement. I have not played with D1X but it seems to have the same interface issues. I am sorely tempted to dump my whole kit and get a Nikon D800. I could actually use the extra pixels in my work. Nikon viewfinders seem sharper to me and I like the LCD overlay availability. However, the switch-over would cost at least $7000, if not more.

Since I lack recent experience with Nikon bodies and lenses, I’d like the input of those who have that. Would I be just trading one set of annoyances for another, or the current Nikon offerings actually improve on Canon? I would be looking for 24-70/2.8, 70-200/2.8VR, 100/2.8 micro, 90TSE and 45TSE initially.

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15 Responses to Horses for courses, or Canon vs. Nikon

  1. Jason says:

    I’ve really enjoyed my Nikon D300 – the DLighting feature is great for mixed contrast situations. Considering the upgrade to a D800 myself, though I’ve read that unless you want the video capabilities, the d700 is probably a smarter investment.

  2. Edwin Herdman says:

    Hey there, noticed your comment over at TTAG. When I bought into the Canon system (in 2009), part of the motivation was the excellent line of TS-E lenses. There is still no equivalent to most of these lenses in Nikon’s PC-E lineup. I am not sure all of them do tilts and shifts. I am fairly sure that Nikon has nothing like the 45mm and 90mm variants, and they do not have the TS-E 17mm. You can also buy an adapter for the film-era TS 35mm f/2.8, which I have but have not tested out yet.

    I haven’t used the 5D Mark II, but Roger Cicala has a nice piece up about the improvements in the recent Canon AF improvements, which bode well for the future:

    Part of your take-away from that article should be that even cheapo consumer cameras are getting some significant AF improvements. If the long-rumored “entry-level full frame” camera is released, it will still have some AF improvements over the 5D. The Mark II’s reputation for crummy autofocus in challenging situations isn’t surprising, as it uses an outdated consumer-spec AF system earlier seen in the 40D.

    I moved from the T1i to the 7D, and I found the AF was amazingly improved in some critical situations, especially when shooting relatively dark (f/5.6) long zoom lenses through tree cover. I haven’t even had to MA my EF 2X III + Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS combination. It still occasionally pumps focus but not with the depressing regularity of the T1i.

    I haven’t shot much with Nikon cameras – I briefly had a D90 and I have also shot with a cheap D3000 a few times. Neither camera made me feel like I was missing out on anything. Unfortunately, I did not get to use anything other than a kit lens (from the D3000). The D90 RAWs, when I look at them through the Nikon viewer, seem to have some kind of odd pixel pattern that I don’t like. However, the overall images were nice.

    D-Lighting has a rough equivalent on Canon cameras in the Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO). I probably have it on by default on my camera. There is no substitute for carefully set ISO and exposure settings, though. I hope some of this is helpful!

  3. Edwin Herdman says:

    Another side comment: The 7D doesn’t strike me as very menu-oriented at all. I got along fine with the T1i, partly because the sort of shooting its AF restricted me to made it more convenient just to ape the back screen while changing settings. The 7D, on the other hand, makes it easy to do everything with your eye to the viewfinder. You’ve got two wheels to vary either component of exposure independently, and the ISO button and AF selections are easy to trigger and manipulate. There’s really not much about its handling that I can find fault with.

  4. Tango says:

    With the Canon’s AF switch not duplicated to the vertical position, isn’t that built on the lens and not the body? Couldn’t you find a lens with it or am I just talking out of my rear here? Probably the latter.

  5. Jeff Zanooda says:

    At the moment Nikon is better. For example, Canon appears to have made a marketing-driven decision to only put good autofocus in 1D line, and even that wasn’t always perfect (Mk. III was hit and miss). All modern Nikon bodies have good autofocus.

    That said, it is not better enough to warrant switching. A 1D body, possibly used, is probably a better choice.

  6. pegmonkey says:

    I’ve currently got a D300. It seems to be better quality than the D200 was, and is way better at tracking action and staying focused. I don’t have any experience with Canon DSLRs so can’t compare the two. I’ve been real happy with the D300 for action shooting. It tracks everything well for me. Hummingbirds and barn swallows are a bit hard to track, but they don’t even cover the focus sensor most of the time. As long as your subject is large enough in the viewfinder to cover a focus sensor, it seems to do well.

    I thought briefly about getting the D800. But after seeing the results of it’s low light capabilities, I’ve decided to wait and see if the D600 will have fewer pixels (rumored to be 24MP) and bigger photon buckets and thus better sensitivity. I don’t need the extra pixels the D800 offers for the stuff I shoot. I need better light collecting ability and faster shutter speeds. Ideally, the D4 would suit me, but my budget isn’t that large.

    I will add that at least on the D300 the external controls cover most of my needs. I rarely have to dive into the menu. And when I do, I’ve got the custom menu set up so I only have go to the top level and don’t have to drill down to change things. It is a quick camera. From what I’ve read the D800 is very similar.

  7. Nikon is mostly caught up in the TS lenses (except the 17) (the PC-E lenses do tilt as well as shift); there are 24, 45, and 85mm models. They appear to have fixed the left-side AF problem in the D800 (I’ve seen multiple reports of successful repairs under warranty; presumably new production comes without the problem).

    It’s a lot of money to switch. I’m very happy with my D700, and the resolution of the D800 would clearly be great for you, but the odds are that Canon will have the next killer body (while I think they’ve lost out badly the last couple of rounds, I see no reason to think they’re on the ropes, so they’ll presumably make a great leap forward soon). And then Nikon will leapfrog them again after that. Still, if the Canons annoy you every time you have to use them, which it kind of sounds like, it might be worth it.

  8. Nik says:

    I spent 14 years as a staff photographer at the Trenton Times, shooting mostly sports. For action, in the Canon line up you really want a 1 series body — there’s just no getting around that. The pro bodies have better AF. I do find that all of their cameras, 1 series included, work better with back button AF. There just seems to be something about separating the AF and shutter functions. Other upside there, is that with a USM lens Manual Focus is just a thumb lift away.

  9. David says:

    Oleg, the problem with doing that is the huge hit you take $$ wise. The companies are constantly leapfrogging each other, and unless you are really wealthy it’s just not worth the hassle to switch back and forth once you’re invested.

  10. brian says:

    Why don’t you borrow someone’s nikon kit and test drive it?

  11. Rolf says:

    I’m strictly amateur, but about two years ago I got tired of the camera being the limiting factor in my pictures, so I looked seriously at some good stuff, with the two primary requirement being good low light performance and good weather-proofing / rugged. I didn’t realize how much that would limit things! It limited it to a small handful of cameras. I wound up getting a Nikon D700 and a couple of lenses (16-35 f/4, 28-300 f/3.5-5.6, 50mm f/1.8). Two years and something like 20k pics later, I am still happy with the choice. Action (kids & dogs), scenery, explosions, deep woods “still life” items, birds, drivers blowing past the stopped bus (picking up aforementioned kids), I’ve tried a lot of things, and it can get them all if I remember my part. With the battery grip to bump it to 8 FPS, I got some great mortar and fireball images at boomershoot, as well as some really nice ones of shooters doing high-intensity. The controls are not quite perfect, but after I learned them, the things I use most often I can use quickly and easily (few important things are buried menu-only) and most times I can use it one-handed if I have to. The one thing it’s missing is a C1/C2 or U1/U2 sort of custom pre-sets, BUT, rumor has it that the upcoming D600 (which is looking more like the successor to the D700 than he D800 was) will have those. The D800 is outstanding for landscape and still/studio stuff, but marginal for action. The Nikon D4 is great for action and low light, but is a LOT of $$ for the body. FWIW, I found that the Ken Rockwell D700 Users Guide helped a lot in getting up to speed while learning to use it; much more clear and shorter than the phone-book-thick Nikon guide.

    In summary: find a D700 to borrow and try out. But also keep your eye on the upcoming D600, which should have something like 21-24 MP.

  12. Judd Fancher says:

    I have the D700 and the 24-70 and 70-200 VRII. I mostly shoot portraits and people, with some landscape and flying. I am very happy with the quality of the lenses and images, and like the control interface and focus accuracy. I can’t speak to the tilt/shift lenses, but you might also look at the Zeiss lenses. They are very good, and on my wish list. I agree that changing is painful, and the lenses are both very good. I feel the Nikon bodies and interface were designed by photographers, and the Canon’s were designed by engineers. That was why I ultimately picked Nikon. Nikon was behind on lenses for a while compared to Canon, but I feel they have caught up in some areas. They are both good systems, I feel I can get past the camera and concentrate more on the light and the image with the Nikon.

  13. Duncan Brennan says:

    I have a D1x if you really want to play with one. The autofocus engine is not as fast as newer cameras, and the buffer is crazy small, especially if you’re shooting raw or TIFF. What the camera exceeds at is speed. Even for a body that was released back in 2001 has a shutter lag of 0.25 sec and a power-on-to-first-shot time of 0.76 sec.

    I have one if you ever want to play with one. I love mine and need to use it more often to get back to paying more attention to the art of taking photos rather than the tech.

  14. Duncan Brennan says:

    clarification on my last comment:
    with full autofocus shutter lag is 0.26 sec in manual shutter lag is 0.07 sec.

  15. Gewehr98 says:

    Can’t help you much, Oleg. I still love my old D200 and even older D70, just wish I could afford a D800 or D800E. (I’m also using older, solid FX film lenses for most of my work…) It appears Ken Rockwell, who plays with all things Canon, Nikon, and Leica, is rather fond of his D800E. Ken, however, can also be a bit of an opinionated schmuck…

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