Inspired by reading this article, I asked my friend and fellow photographer Stephen Elliot of Mud Productions if he'd be interested in conducting a similar experiment with me: swapping camera gear and giving Nikon (for me) and Canon (for him) a fair shake.
(Although that sounds polite enough, in reality I just wanted him to stop bragging about Nikon. I mean, it can't be that good... right?)
I've been using Canon professional dSLR equipment ever since 2003, when I first bought the Canon 10D. A pretty revolutionary camera in its day! I attribute this camera to really developing and fine-tuning my interest and knowledge of photography. I've cycled through about 5 camera models since then, and I've never not felt the Canon love.
As I started thinking about it, I wondered where, exactly, my opinion that Nikons are inferior developed. Aside from picking up a friend's camera here and there and playing around with it, and things I read from other people online, I have virtually nothing with which to back this theory up. I could be wrong, but I assume Stephen's anti-Canon experience is similar.
With all that in mind, I set off to settle this great debate once and for all.
So last Friday night, Stephen and I met up in Annapolis for The Great Swap. I reluctantly handed over my 5D Mark II (that Stephen could barely wait to get his hands on) and he happily offered me his D300 and we set off. (Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite like that, but I like to imagine it that way.)
Stephen's girlfriend, Lacey, volunteered to be our model for the evening. Fortunately for us, she was MORE than patient and her previous modeling experience meant that we didn't have to think about posing her.
EVERYTHING IS BACKWARDS! The learning curve was much larger than I ever thought it would be. Everything moves/turns/adjusts in the opposite direction. Even the exposure meter went like this: +......|...... - whereas mine looks like this: - ......|......+ However, to Nikon's credit, that was able to be switched around in camera. I mean, it was all backwards to the point that I wondered if the camera designers had done it on purpose, just to make photographers less inclined to ever switch. Despite my initial confusion and floundering, I will concede that the Nikon navigation is a little bit more natural and intuitive than my Canon's. There are definitely some items so far buried within the Canon menus that I either a) never use because I forget they exist or can't remember how to access them or b) never use because I never knew they existed in the first place!
The noise/grain on the D300 was much higher than the levels I'm used to seeing on my 5D Mark II. But, we were not exactly comparing apples to apples in this regard, as my camera is nearly $1000 more expensive than Stephen's. Had I been borrowing a D3s, I think the results would have been different. With that said, one of the reasons I LOVE my camera is the way it handles low light and I wouldn't want to give that up. I hardly think twice about bumping my ISO up to 3200 for a reception, but in anything over 1600 ISO on the D300 I noticed a significant loss of detail in the blacks and a lot of extra noise.
As far as focusing goes, Nikon wins this point. That's the one complaint I've always heard from Canon users (and probably my main complaint as well) - it's just not as sharp as it should be all the time. However, despite the fact I really liked how it focused, I didn't think it did a good job focusing in low light at all. It seemed to be painfully slow, and in fact I missed a couple of shots when Lacey did something unexpected because the camera couldn't quite focus itself in time. But for daytime, all-purpose shooting, Nikon focusing rocks.
The Nikon flash system also wins my vote over Canon's. It is absolutely easier to control and recycle time seemed to be faster. (Again, not apples to apples on the recycle time, since I was using Stephen's rechargeable batteries and he was using my regular ones.) On my 580 EX II, I get extremely frustrated at having to press the "zoom" button four times just to do one simple function, or pressing a button and turning a wheel to adjust the manual power. Nikon has the upper hand here, in my opinion.
LCD screen - I like the Canon display much, much better. Although they are about the same size, mine automatically brightens up in sunlight, or dims at night, so you can see an accurate picture at any time of day. The Nikon screen wasn't as bad as I was expecting it to be (from what I've used in the past) but I still prefer Canon's version. I like knowing that what I see on the screen is pretty much what I'm going to get.
Radio Poppers are better than Pocket Wizards. In addition to swapping camera bodies and lenses, we also swapped our radio transmitters. I am used to using Radio Poppers, and Stephen uses Pocket Wizards (neither of which are brand-specific.) I love the minimalistic approach of the Radio Poppers! There is one tiny transmitter that velcros onto an on-camera flash, and then the receiver is nice and cleanly bracketed next to my remote flash on a lightstand. Using Pocket Wizards for the first time, it was difficult for me to keep track of the receiver as it just kept dangling from the flash, or the cord kept unattaching from the camera. I dropped it at least once. After Friday's experiment, I was extremely happy with my Radio Popper purchase.
This is extremely minor and hardly worth mentioning, but I kinda sorta prefer the sound of the Nikon shutter. Maybe it just sounded cool to me because it was different.
After downloading the files, I noticed a couple things. Nikon's color, especially as it relates to skin tones, is a tad different. I'm used to seeing more red/magenta hues in my skin tones, and with Nikon I noticed more yellow-toned ones. I might even venture to say skin looked more washed out. I suppose this is a matter of personal preference. And personally, I prefer sunburn to jaundice. :)
Then there's the matter of overall image quality. I don't know what it is, but I just prefer the look of a Canon image. And I'm willing to concede that possibly this stems from my background and bias (as much as I tried to lay it aside for this experiment) but I do think there's just something that makes Canon photos a little prettier. Maybe the shallow depth of field is more pronounced? Clearly, it doesn't seem to be any one thing I can put my finger on, but I do believe it's there.
It was a little sad how helpless I felt as I fumbled about just to change the shutter speed and aperture. I was so focused on adjusting my settings and my lighting that I could hardly think how to give any direction to Lacey. Fortunately for us, she didn't need any direction at all and could pretty much pose herself so our directions consisted of "Um, can you go over there and do something cool?" If you want great photos, it always helps to hire a great model! (Or get someone's girlfriend to model for free.)
After Friday night, I came home and read my camera manual. One thing (of many) I respect about Stephen as a photographer is how he really maximizes his camera to its full potential. That's one thing I'm often guilty of. Sure, I shoot on manual and set some custom settings, but there is LOT I'm not doing that I could be doing. It was a good reminder to me of how important it is to know your camera. It doesn't matter how much camera theory you retain, or how many "sunny 16" rules you memorize, you've got to know how to make it happen.
I can't say I fell in love with the Nikon D300, but I can say my distaste for it was lessened and a new understanding (maybe even appreciation) was formed. I won't be selling off my Canon gear to switch to Nikon (there are still too many things I prefer about Canon, not to mention I have waaay too much money invested to do that) but I will say Nikon makes a heck of a camera, especially for the $$.
Finally, and I think Stephen will agree with this... what camera you have is not nearly as important as how you use it.
**If you want to read Stephen's assessment, you can find it here. Note: I wrote and published this prior to reading anything he wrote so I could be as un-biased and un-influenced as possible.