Switching from Canon to Nikon
When you buy a DSLR you aren’t just buying a camera. You’re buying into a camera system full of lenses, flashes, batteries, and accessories. It’s a costly investment for which the camera is only the tip of the financial iceberg.
I started my investment in Canon 15 years ago
I gathered an impressive collection of Canon gear well suited to my needs. Eventually I was able to cover everything from an ultra wide 14mm to a crazily zoomed in 400mm.
I also had a number of high performance primes and a handful of top of the line Canon “L” lenses. Early last year I was even able to buy my favorite lens of all time, the rare and exceptionally beautiful 50mm f1.0L lens.
It took a decade and a half to collect this stuff; it took barely a week to sell it all on ebay. I’m a Nikon shooter now through and through, and I have no regrets.
Why I switched
I switched for three reasons:
1. Canon was not producing the results I was looking for
No Canon camera matches my photographic needs nearly as well as the Nikon D810. Nikon has higher image quality, better dynamic range, and is more customizable. After shooting for so many years with Canon, I’m shocked at all the settings I can adjust on my D810.
2. Canon’s customer service sucks
Canon’s service is abysmal. I’ve had repeatedly poor, sometimes even insulting experiences with Canon. Canon treats every customer as though it’s the first time they’ve ever used a camera. They refuse to see and fix problems because you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.
Nikon availability is also far better. Nikon has Authorized Service Centers all over the USA including one near me in Chicago. Canon has just three – this means expensive shipping unless you happen to live near Costa Mesa CA, Jamesburg NJ, or Newport News VA. I live in Chicago (note to Canon: this is America’s third largest city), equidistantly far from pretty much all of Canon’s USA locations.
3. Switching is fun
A Canon camera feels like an extension of my own hand. With Canon there is no more learning, only doing. While I enjoy the confidence, I miss the learning. With Nikon, everything is new and fun all over again.
Canon image quality
Every photographer develops a style as experience is gained. Personally I’ve grown very fond of long exposures of scenes with water. Getting to a location, setting up my gear, shooting the scene, and editing afterwards is supremely relaxing for me, almost meditative. While I greatly enjoy the process, I also expect results.
This shot from Thailand shows it best:
This is one of my favorite pictures from Thailand, but the quality is poor. This picture would have worked well if I had shot it with a Nikon D810. To understand why, you need to know one of the key points of how a digital camera works.
Digital cameras don’t really take pictures, they gather data. Digital cameras do a great job except when something is too bright. When something is too bright the digital camera records the object as pure white, and the information is lost forever. This is called clipping.
Clipping in real world photography means that you need to darken your overall exposure so that you can capture important detail in the bright parts. Correctly exposed digital landscape photographs therefore end up looking to look dark and require editing to bring out all the fine details:
This scene was a very high contrast one, where the bright sky would have clipped if I had used a longer shutter speed. Unfortunately that means everything else is quite dark.
I always check the histogram on my camera to ensure I captured as much information as possible. The histogram shows how much data was collected in the bright parts and in the dark parts. More on histograms.
Here’s what my histogram looked like after shooting this scene:
It’s slightly dark – darker than it probably should have been – but shooting long exposures in fading light is not an exact science and you don’t get a second chance. The next step is to attempt to bring out the shadows in editing to balance the overall scene. This is where Canon cameras are at their weakest, and it’s the main reason why I no longer own a Canon camera:
This is ugly! Digital noise is everywhere. Sure, you can try to get rid of the noise by editing, but noise reduction software works primarily by blurring the image:
The point of all of this is that Canon cameras are in a bind when it comes to landscape photography. You can’t expose for the shadows (take a brighter picture) because then you’ll clip the highlights. You also can’t expose for the highlights (take a dark picture) because the shadows produce too much noise even at the highest quality ISO setting of 100.
The flat light where a landscape might be successful with a Canon 5D Mark III is so narrow that even though an overall image might look great, it’s nearly impossible to take a picture where everything is noise free, sharp, and beautiful.
Nikon and Sony (who makes the D810 sensor) have proved that the technology exists for in excess of 14 stops of dynamic range. Keep in mind that a stop represents a doubling of light for each numerical value; thus it increases exponentially as you move higher along the scale. Fourteen stops of dynamic range from the D810 is EIGHT times the amount of light data as the Canon 5D III’s paltry eleven stops.
Unfortunately for photographers everywhere, Canon has been anything but innovative in recent memory. Instead of innovation, they continually “derate” their products to keep their obscene pricing model in check. The Canon 6D, a $2000 camera, has a pathetic 9 autofocus points which is obsolete in every possible way. Canon has an obscene pricing model because it supports sales of their more expensive products. Why buy a 9 point autofocus camera when for “just” a thousand more dollars you can get the 61 autofocus point 5D III?
Even Canon’s old EOS-3 film camera had 41 autofocus points plus Eye Control where the camera knew where you were looking and would autofocus based on your own vision (how futuristic is THAT!) But the revolutionary autofocus system died with the camera in 2007. Get with the times Canon!
Comparing the Canon 5D Mark III to the Nikon D810
First of all, thank you to my girlfriend who stood there patiently while I dorked out with not one but TWO cameras.
Keep in mind that these are RAW files. A RAW file is not a picture – they are files, data straight off the sensor that is interpreted by whatever software happens to be reading the file. In this case I used Lightroom software without any adjustment. Since a lot of us use Lightroom, it seems a fair comparison.
These two unedited exposures tell us plenty right off the bat. The Canon is too dark and a touch too blue, and the Nikon is nearly cartoonish in how bright and yellow/green it is. Time to edit:
Canon’s metering system tries to prevent clipping and thus tens to slightly underexpose pictures. I’ve often shot with the Canon at +1/3EV (1/3rd of a stop) to compensate for this. Of course, this means some of my Canon pictures had clipped highlights. The Nikon tends naturally to overexpose pictures when shot at 0EV. This helps bring out the shadows at increased risk of clipping. I’ve already started shooting the Nikon at -1/6 EV to counteract this because I really do not want clipping (*note: This was posted in Apr 2015. As of Feb 2016, I use -1/2 to -5/6EV depending on the lens because the Nikon handles underexposure exceptionally well, and now I NEVER blow the highlights). Although you have to go deep into the settings to really fine tune the adjustment, it’s nice that the Nikon allows exposure bias in 1/6th increments where the Canon only allows bias in 1/3rd increments.
The Nikon has the ability to recognizes faces while the Canon does not. In this instance the Nikon realized there was a face, and it brightened the shot to give exposure preference to the face. This is a really nice feature to have, and there’s no reason why Canon can’t do something similar. But for the time being Canon has left that feature only to their absolute top 1DX model, which costs as much as a car and is used exclusively by sports photographers who don’t need that feature anyways. Meanwhile the wedding photographers who use the 5DIII and actually do shoot faces have no such option. Even point and shoots and cell phones have face detection these days; why can’t Canon’s expensive DSLRs? It’s yet another example of Canon’s derating features and lack of innovation.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. To simulate the shadows which I’ve frequently encountered in landscapes, I seat each camera to -3EV (1/8th the correct amount of light) and reshot the scene.
Again the Canon looks slightly darker than the Nikon. For the purposes of this test, that probably gives Nikon a bit of a head start when trying to brighten each exposure. But that’s what each camera selected as a -3EV eposure, so let’s go with it.
Here’s a close in 100% crop:
I’ve always thought Canon and Nikon were pretty close competitors, and that it didn’t really matter which brand you went with. But having used both the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DIII, the Nikon is so plainly better it’s astounding – especially given the D810 costs about the same as a 5D Mark III! For the same price you get more detail, more resolution, AND massive shadow recovery ability. That is just amazing, and it’s going to make a world of difference in the kinds of photography I like to do.
What about resolution?
The Canon 5D Mark III shoots at 22.3 megapixels, the Nikon D810 shoots 36.3 megapixels, and the new Canon 5Ds shoots at 50.6 megapixels. None of this matters, and it didn’t play a role in deciding to dump Canon.
When talking resolution, there are two questions that need to be asked:
1. At what quality is the resolution being offered?
2. What are you going to do with the resolution?
Let’s first take a look at quality. The percentage improvement of the new 5DS over the Canon 5DIII is 225%, and over the Nikon D810 it’s a 40% improvement – not as much, but still quite nice. But at what cost? The new camera will achieve such high resolution by squeezing more light gathering photodiodes into the same space, sacrificing low light capability and dynamic range. This means low dynamic range, poor low light performance, and overall poor image quality in demanding landscape scenes. Initial reports are that the new camera’s dynamic range is on par with the old 5DIII and that its low light capabilities are worse. Certainly Canon thinks so, having already limited the 5DS’s ISO to 6400, expandable to 12800 (the 5DIII’s ISO range is expandable to 102,400).
Then there is the question of what you’ll do with all that resolution. The answer is nothing, and I’ll show you why. The 5DIII can produce a 19.2″x12.8″ print at 300dpi. The D810 does 24.5″x16.3″, and the Canon 5DS will put out a 28.9″x19.3″ print. Each of these cameras put out more than enough resolution for prints of any size at normal viewing distances. That’s because the larger the print, the less necessary 300dpi becomes because viewing distances increase.
I personally like to print at 30″x20″ and the 5DIII will do it at 190dpi (great at 3 feet viewing distance), the D810 puts out a respectable 245dpi (great at 2.5 feet), and the 5DS will do the print at 290dpi (great at 2 feet). But it’s all wasted resolution because everybody looks at large prints from far away. Practically speaking, each camera offers more than enough resolution to produce sharp looking prints at any reasonable size and viewing distance.
Printing is also not an exact science. If you start with a sharp, high quality shot, you can easily get away with doubling or even tripling the original size. And the Nikon D810 starts with much sharper images than the Canon because it lacks an anti aliasing filter which tends to blur images in an attempt to prevent moire (digital repeating patterns). Well, the Canon doesn’t always prevent moire, but the presence of the anti aliasing filter always blurs the image. With the Nikon, images are always as sharp as they can be.
I took the best pictures of my life with the 5D III. Although Canon may be lacking as of late, the 5DIII is a phenomenal camera. But even at this early point in using Nikon, I’m convinced that the D810 is a better camera. And since the two cameras cost pretty much the same amount of money, it’s a no brainer.