Like many emerging photographers, I find often find myself wondering which camera brand will best suit my needs and vision. I’m not sure if this is typical for everyone, but I have lost many night’s sleep over the debate in which each person seems to have a steadfast opinion: Nikon or Canon?
I know! Who needs to read another blog post about this debate?! They are both great brands! Well, I will forewarn you, sweet reader, that this post is long and will not get into the technicalities of each brand or camera model. It will be entirely subjective. If you are looking for a good starting point for an all-encompassing, technical review, I suggest reading Gizmodo’s review of the Canon 5D Mark III and the Nikon D800. Also, just it case it isn't readily apparent, everything below is purely my own opinion. I am not being endorsed nor sponsored by either brand in any manner.
First, a little background. Throughout college, I worked as a photographer for my college newspaper, college athletics department, local minor league teams (baseball and hockey), and for a few freelance projects with a local paper. After my first season as team photographer of the Norfolk Tides (then the AAA affiliate for the New York Mets) I took the lump sum of my earnings from the summer and purchased a Canon Rebel (whichever model was current in August 2005). It was a kit that came with an 18-55mm lens and 70-300 mm lens. If you are also a photographer, you are probably grinding your teeth thinking about the word “kit” and those lenses. Not to worry – I am too! It took many more years for me to start to understand and appreciate the different qualities of lenses.
I shot with that camera for almost two years, mostly in shutter priority and auto modes, until the spring of 2007, when, at the very last hockey game of the Norfolk Admirals' season, someone accidentally knocked the camera onto the ground as I was reaching in my bag for a fresh memory card. The shutter was broken and I didn’t have the money to have it fixed. That camera body is still sitting in my closet at my parent’s house – I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.
In the spring of 2010, after a year of happily blogging my way through pastry school with a point-and-shoot, I decided it was time to invest again in a DSLR. I purchased a Nikon D90 with a 50mm f/1.8 lens. What made me switch to Nikon, you ask? I’m not exactly sure. I hadn’t had any complaints with my Canon Rebel. But I really liked my point-and-shoot (which was a Nikon) and one of my favorite bloggers used a Nikon. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I secretly hoped that if I had the same camera, it would help me take pictures just as good as hers.
Okay! I’m going to assume I only have non-photographers reading at this point, because I’ve just referenced low-end lenses, kits, admitted that I used to shoot in auto mode, and thought a camera was responsible for taking great photos. Let’s move on to the good stuff!
I’ve shot with the Nikon D90 for almost three years now, using a variety of lenses. The best lens I own, which is almost always on my camera, is the 50 mm f/1.4. I’ve spent the last three years teaching myself to shoot exclusively in manual mode, learning to meter my subjects correctly, and how to shoot in a variety of lighting situations. I’ve studied my camera manual cover to cover; I’m at a place where I feel I have learned everything I can about my camera and, while I still have tons to learn about photography, I am now ready for the next level: a full-frame camera.
To be clear, that purchase is still in the very distant future, but I decided it would be worthwhile to try both brands to figure out which would fit me the best. Having shot a few times with a Nikon D700 and D800, I had been itching to try the Canon 5D Mark III. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, a local store sent out an email with the offer I had been waiting for: a five day rental for the price of just one day AND 25% off for first-time renters. That was me! I picked-up the Mark III, along with a 50mm f/1.2 lens and flew to South Carolina for the holiday. The trip gave me all the time I wanted to start learning about the camera and practice shooting with these new lenses. All of the photos in this post were shot with the Canon.
Between the camera body and that magical 50mm f/1.2 lens, I fell HARD! Mike was sweet enough to let me snap some photos (I’m lucky to be marrying someone so photogenic!) in the South Carolina sunset and was patient when I would stop and say, “Hold on! Don’t move! Where is that feature on this camera?!” Now, that lens is super expensive, but the scrumptious bokeh and crystal-clear sharpness that it provides is unmatched to anything I’ve ever shot with.
Here’s the thing that sold me the most – the color I got SOOC (straight out of camera) was exactly what I wanted! With just a quick increase in the brightness and contract during post-production, I had EXACTLY the image I had visualized. On my Nikon, I constantly feel as though I am fighting with almost every single image SOOC. That’s not only frustrating, but also a waste of time. The sharpness and clarity of the images from the Canon were so impressive that I let out a little squeal when I could clearly read the words on Ish’s dog tag.
Sadly, I had to return the camera and lenses after our trip. I held out hope that by giving up my subway seat to a sweet elderly woman that the universe just might repay me by somehow letting me keep all of the equipment. No such luck. I photographed the CrossFit Holiday Throwdown last Saturday with my Nikon D90 and my 35mm f/1.8 lens and was shocked by how accustom I had become to the buttons on the Canon. I missed the weight of the camera and lens in my hands. I missed that f/1.2 aperture (Nikon only makes autofocus/manual lenses up to a f/1.4, which makes, surprisingly, a big difference). And I REALLY missed that 61-point focus system on the Canon.
So, you can probably tell where I am leaning in terms of where I will invest my money in the future on better equipment. It was so worthwhile for me to rent that equipment so I could make an educated decision on which brand fit my vision and my hands (button placement is quite important) the best. I’m not yet at a point where I can invest in the equipment, but not only do I know confidently know which I prefer, but I also know to make no investments in lenses or accessories for my current camera.
I realize this quite long review is entirely subjective (I warned you!). So here is my advice: rent the camera bodies and lenses you are debating between. Shoot with them in non-pressure situations (i.e. not on a paid shoot) and determine which feels better in your hands, which has the button placement that feels most natural for you. Spend time going through your images SOOC – which sharpness do you prefer? Which gives you the exact color you saw while shooting?
Don’t blindly invest thousands and thousands of dollars into a top-end camera body and lenses without knowing which brand you prefer and why you prefer it. Do not be satisfied with basing your decision on what your photographer friends or favorite photographers use for equipment; YOU are the only one who can determine which brand feels like an extension of what you are seeing. The cost of renting equipment for a few days to make that decision is far more cost-effective than potentially needing to reinvest that money into another brand’s equipment down the line.