The switch from Canon to Nikon, One Year Later: An Assessment

As many people familiar with me (and/or my blog) may remember, last fall I switched from Canon to Nikon. It was a decision nearly a year in the making, and based mainly off of some frustrating autofocusing issues I was experiencing with the Canon 7D. To quickly recap those: inconsistent results; some days razor sharp, other days I couldn’t get a sharp photo to save my life. I also owned the 5DM2 and while there were not focusing problems with that, it’s autofocus system was a bit outmoded. I was therefore drawn to Nikon’s reputation for autofocus prowess, as well as its wireless flash reputation.

So in October 2010 I made the (logistically agonizing) switch from Canon to Nikon. One thing I accepted was that I was going to own less gear for my money. Part of that was because I was selling my Canon gear used, obviously, part of it was eBay/Pay Pal and shipping fees eating into my profits, and part of it was, while the camera bodies are fairly equal in price, Nikon’s lenses are generally more expensive. And I was fine with that.

Now having shot with Nikon for the past year (after shooting with Canon the previous six), I do feel pretty qualified to lay out the differences between the two and which provides a better value.

Let me just say that, if I had to do it over again, I’m not sure I would have made the switch.

That’s not a comment on Nikon or Canon; simply a statement that neither is clearly superior to the other.

At the time I was very excited to make the switch, and I can’t say I really regret doing it, and in any case I can confidently say I went down that road and I know for sure. But lay me lay down my observations:

Nikon’s flash system is superior to Canon’s
This one isn’t in doubt. The user interface in wireless controlling off-camera flashes is awesome. You can also individually set each individual flash group to either manual or ETTL (or any of the other settings Nikon offers that I never use) separately from the others; with Canon I believe all must be set to ETTL or Manual. Also, switching on the fly from Commander mode to Remote mode or regular mode is conveniently done by switch on the SB-900. Which suits me great because when I’m shooting events I’ll often have some off camera flashes set up, but may want to take a party pic with just the SB-900 so it’s really convenient to switch over. With Canon, on the 580EX II you have to press and hold down a button for a few seconds to be able to do the same thing, which is not as convenient.

Also, the SB-900 comes with a diffuser and filters in order to match the color balance of the scene. The filters include a chip which tells the camera (if it’s a newer model from the D700 or D300s onward) to match the white balance accordingly. This is awesome. The newer mid-range SB-700 improved on this by providing plastic snap on filters which are more convenient than the flimsy filters that can be difficult to fasten on the SB-900. Canon’s flashes don’t currently offer this feature so you have to manually tape or velcro the filters on, and set the white balance manually. You also have to buy a diffuser (Sto-fen OmniBounce) separately. Not a deal breaker by any means, but just a couple extra steps for Canon, but it’s a great feature to have if you’re a Nikon shooter.

Nikon is far more consistent in delivering sharp photos than Canon
At least the copy of the 7D that I owned, which I had to send to Canon’s repair center twice to fix a horrible back/front focusing issue. They eventually got it fixed, but that still didn’t stop me from having “off nights” with it, which, while it’s possible it may be user error on my part, I could never tell anything I was doing differently on an off night that I wasn’t doing on a good night. I always felt my copy was “tainted” somehow, lol, which didn’t inspire confidence during the time I owned it.

Again, I’m sure many people will question my shooting technique, etc, and there are times I have out of focus pics with the Nikon, but my experience has been better with Nikon.

Another point I should add is that I did not find Nikon’s ability to lock in focus to be any superior to Canon’s, however. Remember, a Nikon D700 or D7000 only has crosspoints in the middle section of the mirror/sensor, not the sides. Even in daylight I find difficulty in locking in focus using those, the same as I had with the 5DM2. The 7D did have cross points everywhere which was great and locked in fast no matter which focal point was used (inconsistent results notwithstanding).

Nikon has better, more customizable features
First and foremost, one or two Function buttons (depending not the model) on the front of the camera. This is a useful feature to have, one which I use to activate the off-camera wireless settings from the camera, instead of having to go through their menu. Nikon also offers the ability to switch out which wheel controls the shutter, aperture, etc.

Nikon has long had wireless flash control from pop-up flash
As referred to above, it’s great to be able to remotely control a flash without needing a master flash mounted on camera. The D700 has an advantage here over the 5DM2 because the 5DM2 doesn’t even have a pop-up flash. Canon finally added this feature with the 7D (and later 60D), so it’s less relevant now. I would note, however, that on the 7D, accessing the menu to get to the control features was more cumbersome, while as stated above, I was able to set it as a custom button on Nikon.

Auto-ISO is better with Nikon
You can preset the ISO range as well as the settings at which the ISO will increase with the Nikon. For example, if you were shooting aperture-priority with the ISO at 200, you could set the auto-ISO to kick in and increase at a specified shutter speed. Canon’s auto-ISO was far more convoluted, although they began to make improvements with the 7D (though not as good as Nikon).

Now for some things in Canon’s favor…

Canon has better and more responsive customer service
This is a feature that I don’t think gets enough attention when people are making a decision on what brand to buy. But believe me, when you have a problem with your gear and need it fixed, it becomes critical. Especially if you’re a paid photographer as opposed to a hobbyist.

In my time with Canon, I perhaps sent gear in to be fixed/cleaned about five times at least. And each time I received the gear back within two weeks of the day I shipped it out. And I didn’t even have a pro membership that offers expedited service.

The first time was when I had my original Digital Rebel’s sensor cleaned in 2004. And they got that sensor cleaned with no problems.

The second and third times was when I sent a Canon 430 EX to be fixed because it got blown over on its stand outdoors and landed on concrete and stopped working. There were scratches and even a nasty little chunk that was clearly visible to even the most cursory glance. Even though it was still under warranty both times it was clearly impact damage, but both times Canon fixed it without charging.

The fourth and fifth times was with the aforementioned 7D. Now the first time they did not fix the back focusing problem, but they did get it right (to my satisfaction) the second time. What is worthy of note about this instance was when I was on the phone with their customer service rep. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the repair process and explained clearly and concisely what was going to happen and was incredibly helpful. The second time I sent it back I called and got a different person, but while this conversation didn’t involved specifics, she was very helpful in informing me that the camera was in shop being fixed right then. So even though it took them two times to get it right, I felt my concerns were addressed forthrightly.

Now with Nikon, my experience is not as extensive, but illuminating nonetheless. One of my SB-600s was dropped — though still in its case — onto concrete and stopped flashing, even though it would still power on. I didn’t see any scratches or other “impact” evidence, and the flash was still under warranty, but Nikon apparently could tell it was impact and declared it was therefore out of warranty and charged me $144 to fix it (the flash cost $220 brand new when I bought it). Contrast that with Canon fixing the 430 EX for free TWICE when it was clear there was impact damage. At this point I am still waiting for it to be fixed and sent back, and I shipped it 13 days ago from the time of this blog post (remember with Canon I always got my gear back within 14 days). UPDATE 11.10.11: I checked the status of this repair online just now, and it now records the SB-600 as having been shipped, retro to 11.07.11. In other words, it took three days for them to update this fact online.

Also, at the same time I sent the SB-600 in, I also sent a factory demo Nikkor 80-200 2.8 EF-D lens that I was experiencing some poor results from at the long end at 2.8. Some softness is to be expected for this lens at 200mm and 2.8, but after referring some pics to other 80-200 owners online I decided to send it in. This repair is under warranty, but like the SB-600 I am still waiting for it to be completed 13 days after shipping it. Their online repair status page has listed it being “In Shop” since last Thursday. I’m not sure about you, but when I read “in shop” I assume that means it’s on the table being fixed right then, but apparently it really means just that it’s in the “repair process”…whatever that means. Last night I called their customer service, and while their guy wasn’t rude, he didn’t seem to have any more specific info and didn’t exactly seem approachable to being prodded for such info.

Canon’s higher range cameras offer a joystick on the back to easily move the focal point around by thumb
Nikon has a flat pad on the back which is not as easy to use; this might be the one feature I miss the most from Canon.

Canon’s white balance and ISO buttons are more conveniently located
You can set these with your right hand, while on the Nikon you have to use both hands since those buttons are on the left side. For me that means I was able to make changes without taking my eye out of the view finder, while I always have to do so with Nikon.

Canon has better video
I’ve dabbled in video, although it’s dropped off since I switched, mainly because the D700 doesn’t offer video and the D90 (when I owned it) wasn’t very impressive. The D7000 does offer improved video, although I can’t vouch for it, so for this I’m going mainly from my experience shooting video on the Canon alone. The fact of the matter is, most aspiring videographers shoot with Canon when they are using a dSLR for their work.

Canon has better lenses at better prices
And now we come to the biggest reason I’ve come to reconsider switching. Lenses. I can tell you from direct experience that Canon’s offerings of the 50mm 1.4 and the 85mm 1.8 are far, FAR superior to Nikon’s versions…and they are cheaper. I literally just looked online and the 85mm 1.8 is $65 cheaper for Canon, and the 50mm 1.4 is $90 cheaper for Canon. I found the Canon versions to be much sharper wide open with superior bokeh.

Across the whole range, Canon’s offerings are significantly cheaper and while the 17-55 2.8 was more or less equal between the two, the Canon 17-55 2.8 is about three to four hundred dollars cheaper and features image stabilization.

As for the telezoom range, I mainly owned the Tamron 70-200 2.8 when I owned Canon, although I did briefly own the Canon 70-200 4.0 non-IS (I sold it to get the Tamron because I wanted 2.8). I also owned the Tamron 70-200 on the Nikon side too, until I recently switched to the aforementioned 80-200 that is current “in shop” (ahem). I have rented the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR (both versions I and 2) and was very satisfied with those lenses; in fact, the Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR II might be the single best lens I’ve ever used (though I’ve never used Canon’s, to be sure). However, while Canon’s current 70-200 2.8 IS II is the same retail price currently as Nikon’s, they offer a non-IS version that is a full grand cheaper, and Nikon doesn’t currently have a model to compare (except, arguably, the 80-200, which is still in production but was designed for film back in the 90s before digital broke; that or a used Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR 1, but even used that lens is still a few hundred dollars more expensive than the Canon non-IS 2.8). Canon offers four 70-200 models, f4.0 and f2.8 models, with or without IS. Those are a lot of options at a great range of prices (if one can live with f4.0 without IS, the 70-200 f4 lens at about $650 may be the single best value in ANY lens out there). Nikon doesn’t offer a 70-200 f4 model currently, although they recently submitted a patent for one (but that doesn’t guarantee an eventual release of such).

So there you have it; my (very) objective assessment of the two camera makers. I should also add, that when it comes to image quality there really is no significant difference between direct camera lines (ie, D700 vs 5DM2)–although I think the Canon 7D is probably superior to the Nikon D300s, but not the lower-range Nikon D7000). At high ISO settings, which I shoot concerts and party pics at least at ISO 1600, again both camera makers produce quality images. Naturally the full frame cameras outclass the crop frame cameras there, but again neither camera maker is overwhelmingly superior to the other.

The Verdict

Would I switch back? I hate the thought of going through the process of selling all my Nikon gear and (re)purchasing Canon. The thought makes me groan. I guess that’s another way of saying I’m not sure it’d be worth it to go through the effort. Would I have switched from Canon in the first place knowing what I know now? Now that’s another question. Based mainly on my experience with their customer service versus Nikon and what I feel are Canon’s superior lenses…probably not.

What would I recommend to newbies who (often) ask me what camera they should buy? What I already tell people is that both camera makers entry-level cameras and consumer lenses are basically equal (I always recommend that newbies start out entry-level until they gain skill and to make sure they get into it enough to justify spending the money on more expensive gear), so having said that I tell them to choose based on what some might call frivolous reasons: Which feels more comfortable to hold in hand, and, honestly, which they feel looks cooler. Honestly. All other things being equal at that level (except Nikon’s entry-level cameras’ inability to use non-motor lenses), what else is there to come down to? Except perhaps customer service, which in my experience falls squarely into the Canon camp.

Does this mean I regret switching? Not actually. It’s something I think I would have felt curious enough and compelled enough to try eventually, so now I know. And let’s face it, the D700 is a great camera no matter how you cut it, even today, as is the 24-70 2.8 I use most of the time. And as someone who often uses Nikon’s wireless flash system, I benefit from that all the time. But I figure that most photographers will never use wireless flash extensively (newbies are not experienced enough and pros will inevitably prefer strobes to hot shoe flashes), so that’s a benefit mainly to me (though I recently acquired my first Alien Bee 800).

Update 11.10.11: So yeah, the same night after I post this blog initially, I end up doubling down and buying a Nikon D7000 as my backup/second camera 😉

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