Canon is the number one camera company in the world and it’s really easy to just default to them when deciding on a system to use. They have a huge range of camera bodies for beginners, enthusiasts, and pros. They also have a huge selection of lenses. But then the Nikon D800 was announced and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Pitting Canon vs Nikon is cliché, I know. But the D800 has forced my hand on the issue.
Two of my idols, David Hobby and Joe McNally, both shoot Nikon. Nikon’s CLS (Creative Lighting System) for their external flashes is world-renowned and is a traditional area of strength for that brand. As someone who uses lighting a lot these days, I had seen what all the fuss was about and wanted to put it through its paces for my own shoots.
As I mentioned, I really wanted to try D800. Why not the D4? Because I don’t need the high frame rates and I don’t like the big bodies (ditto for the 1D X on the Canon side) unless I’m out shooting birds (which doesn’t happen as often). I also wanted the pop-up flash on the D800, as I planned to use it to trigger SB-910 Speedlights. Nikon has a unique system where you can pair CLS-compatible cameras with Speedlights to optically trigger multiple flashes using the camera’s pop-up flash. The D800 has a built-in Speedlight Command Mode where you can control the power of your flashes right from the camera without a remote or anything!
Beyond this, I just wanted to see what all the hoopla was all about. DxOMark – your Canon vs Nikon playground – has given this sensor some pretty impressive ratings.
So here’s the gear list of gear I worked with.
- Nikon D800
- Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR Lens
- Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II Lens
- Nikon 105mm f/2.8 VR Micro
- 2 Nikon SB-910 Speedlights
So I basically have a range from 24mm to 200mm with a macro (Nikon calls them micro) lens, and a couple of flashes. I’ll also have a few rotating lenses like the 16-35mm f/4 and the 24mm PC-E tilt-shift lens for other assignments during this time. I think I’m going to have a pretty thorough experience shooting Nikon after this!
What I Hope to Find in My Canon vs Nikon Experiment
I’m looking for what the user experience is like for a big switch like this. Moving from Canon to Nikon is a bit like moving from Mac to PC (or vice versa). There are a lot of things that need getting used to and I’ll be talking about those pains.
I’ll also be looking for areas where I can draw a clearly-defined line between Canon and Nikon. Each system has some strengths and opportunities; Canon has traditionally been strong in the video realm, whereas Nikon has had the edge in high-ISO performance and off-camera flash. Yet these lines are blurring now, as Nikon’s latest crop of cameras is pretty stronger in the video department, whereas Canon has been making some great strides in high-ISO performance with the 5D Mark III and the 1D X.
Isn’t Switching Platforms Really Expensive?
As a long-time renter, I didn’t build up a lot of Canon gear – and what I did, I can easily sell off. Camera gear holds its value remarkably well. If there are some clear reasons for switching for my kind of photography, then yeah, I’ll absolutely do it.
The D800 is really the impetus for this experiment. I’m morphing from being an assignment shooter who’ll take on anything from wildlife to portraiture to becoming a more fine art photographer, shooting more B&W film, and narrowing down my subject matter. For the kind of work I want to do, I considered looking into medium format gear, which is what I shoot when I use film. The D800, with its touted dynamic range and resolution, is a very tempting proposition as it checks a lot of those boxes without the extreme expense of digital medium format systems.
When I started this, I really didn’t know which way I was going to go. Will I ditch really Canon for Nikon? Will I stay with what’s worked for me so far? Or will I devolve into a hairless, hunched, crazy creature, cradling a D800 in one arm and a 5D Mark III in the other, forever undecided and hissing, “Precccioooouussss! Myyyy preccciooouusssss!”?
I have no idea. But we’ll have some fun finding out along the way.
My First D800 Shoot
I jumped into the studio to work on a quick lighting test. The subject was a violin positioned on a tall chair and I was moving in and out, shooting the whole thing, then switching to some detail work. I had two SB-910’s on stands, with gels and (occasionally) a Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe on one of them.
The shot below was taken with the D800 and a Nikon 105mm f/2.8G Micro lens.
The SB-910 shining on it has the aforementioned Lastolite softbox on it, as well as a chocolate gel. There is absolutely no post-production on the shot.
I am really, really liking the tones coming off that Nikon. They are, in a word, luscious.
What blew me away was when I zoomed in at 100% to look at the object in focus.
Wow. I mean, yeah, I’m going to have to repeat this experiment with a Canon 5D Mark III and the famed 100mm f/2.8L macro as well, but, well, wow. I’ve always known that this would be a rough experiment. I knew I’d have my preconceptions challenged. I guess I was hoping it wouldn’t be this hard.
Not Sure If I Like Nikon’s Ergonomics
I spent two more days in the studio, working through lighting setups. The idea was to see if I could replicate the lighting setup I have when I use my Canon gear, but with the Nikon stuff instead.
My setup on the Canon side is simple. I use two Paul C. Buff Einstein monolights, a 580EX and a 580EX II. I use PocketWizards to trigger everything – PowerMC2 modules for the Einsteins and FlexTT5s for the Speedlights. On-camera, I use a PocketWizard MiniTT1 and an AC3 ZoneController. Fortunately, this exact same setup is available for Nikon. The SB-910’s go onto the Nikon version of the FlexTT5, and I actually used one FlexTT5 on-camera instead of the MiniTT1. There’s also a Nikon version of the AC3 Zone Controller,
The goal this time around was to try some selective lighting techniques to get a silhouette portrait and to have the option of selectively lighting a section of it. Here’s what the setup looked like.
What you’re seeing there are two collapsible black backdrops being used as flags to cut the light spill and a Wesctott Scrim Jim (which is quickly becoming one of my favorite modifiers) in the background. I have two Einstein lights blasting into the white cyclorama behind the Scrim Jim (which prevents hot spots from forming on the scrim) and one SB-910 with a Rogue Grid to focus the light.
And then a wild thing happened: I bruised my hand on the dang Nikon!
See that? On the middle finger? It’s not as dark in this image because of the flash on my smartphone, but look, take my word for it. Where that finger rests on the D800, the grip is a bit angled and sharp, and my delicate digit obviously didn’t take kindly to grabbing it as hard as I did.
On the Canon, the grip is more rounded and doesn’t dig into my hand as much. A minor issue but it kind of speaks to the adjustment period any Canonista will have to endure if/when they switch to Nikon. For long event shooters, this could be a big problem.
And speaking of ergonomics, what on earth is up with that reverse threading on Nikons? I’m used to righty-tighty/lefty-loosey. On the Nikon, it’s backwards. The focus threading is the same way (it’s backwards from the Canon). I’m going to go into the office at some point and see how Sony, Olympus, and Fuji focus; I suspect all three are the same as Canon’s focusing direction, but don’t hold me to it. Regardless, Nikon, what the heck?
Ergonomics are a big deal, and if I can’t get used to the Nikon, it’ll be a deal breaker. I’m hoping 4-6 weeks with this gear will help me overcome that hurdle.
Buttons! All these buttons!
The D800 has more buttons than I expected. There is a physical switch for so many functions, from drive mode to metering mode to custom functions for the two front-facing buttons. On the Canon, I’m used to using the menu system and the LCDs on the top and back of the body; so much of that is relegated to buttons on the D800 body.
In all honesty, the difference in number of buttons that are on the D800 vs the 5D Mark III may be small, but it’s the use philosophy that makes a difference here. Having physical toggles for things like drive and metering mode felt strange; these are a button press, followed by a flick of the dials on the Canon.
Honestly? I totally dig it. Even though I am used to the Canon way, and can tell with a glance at the top LCD what metering mode I’m in, or what drive mode the body is using, having the physical buttons is a bit more… reassuring, perhaps. I’m finding myself really liking the Nikon philosophy in this case. If I don’t end up switching, I’m going to miss those buttons.
Nikon’s Amazing Off-Camera Flash Capabilities
I use PocketWizard gear a lot and, on the Canon side, there’s this really, really annoying sock that has to go on your 580EX and EX II flashes that helps cut down on interference that otherwise inhibits the radio’s range and reliability. Shooting with the Nikon versions of the the PocketWizard gear was like breath of fresh air. Not one misfire, not one incorrectly set exposure, AND NO SOCKS!
Nikon’s CLS, or Creative Lighting System, is pretty well-known for its simplicity and reliability. On the Canon side, I’m used to working in ratios to set exposure between groups. This is a tad…unwieldy, to say the least.
For example, if I want three groups for my Canon Speedlites, I have to jump through some…convolutions. First, I have to have my friend Syl Arena’s book The Speedliter’s Handbook on hand because Canon’s manual doesn’t really do even a halfway decent job of explaining this. I have to set the ratio for my first two groups (A and B) then go into the master Speedlite’s menu to set FEC (Flash Exposure Compensation) for my third light. Uh… wha? For a better explanation, go to page 144 of Syl’s Speedliter’s Handbook.
With Nikon, on the other hand, you get this:
This is if you’re using the built-in flash to control your remote Speedlights (which are in two other groups, A and B). But you can, of course, control external Speedlights with a master flash on the hot shoe. Here’s what that menu looks like…
The simplicity is enough to make any Canonista drool. The ability to set your remote flashes with such incredible efficiency is, well, awesome. It’s part of the reason I went with the PocketWizard setup for my Canon flashes in the first place; I was tired of having to do the ratio conversion math in my head.
So, yeah. CLS For The Win. Here’s a quick sample image from some closeups I was making as a test.
Now, here’s the thing. I’m a PocketWizard addict. I love that I can control not only Speedlites but also my Einsteins straight from my camera with a MiniTT1 and an AC3 Zone Controller. So I rarely, if ever, use my small flash gear without those handy radios.
As a result, the CLS benefits are slightly lost on me. Which is not to say that I’d never use small flash without my radios, but I’ve rarely had occasion to use them optically. But would I be more inclined to do more on-location work with just the Nikon system and leave my Einsteins behind? I think so, yeah. There are some inherent issues with PocketWizards and the 580 series of flashes which are annoying, but they’re mitigable.
So, for pure flash goodness, I do think Nikon has the edge. Of course, Canon hasn’t been sitting on its hands, as my friend Syl was quick to point out:
“All of the six functions in Nikon’s CLS are also found in Canon’s system. It’s been this way for years. Canon was never smart enough to market the functionality like Nikon was.
Nikon’s Exposure Compensation and Flash Exposure Compensation are not independent like they are in Canonlandia. If you have FEC applied and then you make an EC move, Nikon cameras also adjust the FEC proportionately. McNally told me recently that the D4 has the option to separate them. I think this is a huge difference for amateurs who often shoot in Av/ETTL. Having the ability to control the ambient exposure through an EC move and the flash power through an FEC move is nice.
One bit to try, if you have not already, it so use the 600EX-RT system with your Einsteins. I’m now totally addicted to the radio and the 600EX control UI on the 5DM3 – especially the new Group mode. BTW, Group mode makes Canon’s ratio scheme obsolete (finally!). The ST-E3-RT is small, light, and my new BFF.
As you may know, with the radio, there is no pre-flash (unless you are in ETTL). So the Einsteins fire perfectly from their slaves. I’ve not used my PW gear in many months. I hate the fact the PW disables the on-camera menu system. The big difference is that you can’t dial the power of the Einsteins up/down from the camera. I’ve grown to accept that as a fair trade.”
There’s lots more Canon flash goodness available at Syl’s blog, so be sure to check that out. I haven’t played with the 600 series flashes yet, but that’s next on the to-do…
If I do end up switching, I can see myself relying more on CLS, if for no other reason than it gives me one more point of redundancy. Canon kinda lags on this issue – there isn’t a single full-frame-sensor Canon that has an on-board flash that can control external speedlites. That’s kind of a big deal; Nikon got this right with the D800 and the D600, so you have to wonder just what the heck Canon is thinking here.
Ultimately, this will play into my decision in a moderate way. Yes, I like the additional redundancy of being able to go with CLS for lighting if my radios fail, for example. But I don’t think I’m going to base my entire decision on this one point, since more and more of my work with lights is happening in-studio with strobes and radios anyway, rather than on-location with optical triggering.
Going Back to Canon
At this point in the experiment, I’d been using Nikon gear for weeks now, longer than the original 4 weeks slated for this experiment. I’d gotten used to the Nikon, and was expecting the process of going back to Canon to be a bit jarring.
Going back to the Canon, I expected to fumble with the body a bit before muscle memory took over. I thought I’d be reaching for buttons that weren’t there, pushing the wrong buttons, etc. To my immense delight, there was none of that. The Canon fit right into my hand, like an old glove. At one point, during a rush shot, I reached up and changed ISO, then flipped the shutter speed up to compensate, both without moving my eye from the viewfinder. The back wheel on the Canon hit my thumb perfectly as I used it in concert with the top-mounted dial to change shutter and aperture settings, and the back-button focus and AE-Lock buttons were exactly where I reached for them.
In the cold, brisk wind buffeting Grizly Peak Road in the hills above Oakland, I stopped and took a few shots, resulting in this 2-exposure image.
Coming back to the Canon was…strange. On the one hand, it was familiar. On the other hand, it was a bit…wrong, I think. There are definitive differences between Canon and Nikon. The 5D Mark III is all sculpted curves, small buttons, and a bald top (there’s no built-in flash). The D800 is sharp corners, big knobs and buttons, pointed top. One of the reasons I advise people to hold both cameras in their hands before they buy one is because the feel of a camera can make a substantive difference in your choice. If your hands are too small for the camera, or you can’t reach a particular button, or you have to cramp down on it, it’s not going to work as well for you.
In my hand, the Canon has always felt more natural. I’ve always liked the curve of the body and the smooth feel it evokes. It always has felt more “right” to me.
That is, until now.
Going back to it was at once familiar and alien. Shooting with the Canon just didn’t feel right anymore – like what I was holding wasn’t substantial enough. I got into it and shot for an hour or two and by the end, learned to ignore that “lack” of something, but there it was again when I pulled it back out of my bag later that night to get the memory card out. I’ve always said that ergonomics will make a difference in my decision. This return back to Canon would, I thought, simplify that part of my decision. Now? Not so much.
A Word on Image Quality
This is where the Canon vs Nikon discussion can get heated. Not to be too diplomatic but, frankly, both the D800 and the 5D Mark III are amazing cameras. Pixel peepers (I use this term with a sense of endearment, not derision) will look at the image above and point out that the blacks have more color noise in them than the D800 (it was shot at ISO 100), as you can see below.
Pixel peeping these images to that extent is kind of pointless. I ruled image quality out as a major reason for any potential switch. After all, it’s photographers that tend to quibble over things like color noise in the shadow, not clients. Clients tend not to see the tiny differences that we do; it’s in our nature as photographers, I think, to quibble over that stuff.
But that being said, there’s an important point here. As photographers, we are making art, and that’s an intensely personal thing. Yes, a client will look at an image and not care that there’s this weird color speckling and some banding in the image above at ISO 100. But I can see it. And I didn’t have to zoom the image to 100%. It was evident in both Lightroom and Aperture in thumbnail view.
Our art and craft is something that’s personal to us, and whether or not a client can see something that’s obvious to us shouldn’t necessarily dictate our creation process. If I can find a tool that resolves an issue that I can see in an image and that leaves me feeling better about what I created without any issues for the client, then I am darn well going to use that tool.
Take a look at the image below.
This was made with the D800 and, to my eye, the shadows are richer, denser, creamier than they are in the image made with the 5D Mark III.
Now, software can most likely cover the gap between the 5D image and the one made with the D800. I may be lacking the post-production chops to achieve what I want. And as I get even better, I may be able to resolve what I didn’t like about the 5D image. Any difference in perceived image quality can eventually be overcome by advances in software technology – and given the big jumps I’ve seen in one version of Lightroom to the other, I believe it.
I guess the big question on everyone’s mind is, “Did you switch or not?” Well, read on, gentle reader.
Lenses Are an Important Factor in the Canon vs Nikon Question
I’ve been a Canon user for the majority of my life – starting at age 8 with a tiny Canon film point-and-shoot, then to an AE-1 Program, then an A2 film body, followed by a G3 P&S, a Rebel XTi, a 7D, and then a 5D Mark II. I love Canon gear. The glass is varied and plentiful, from a crazy 1:5 Macro (the MP-E 65mm) to a swift, fast – yet affordable – 400mm f/5.6 lens for wildlife, to a fantastic 135mm f/2 portrait lens, Canon has glass for practically every occasion.
Nikon, on the other hand, kind of falls behind in terms of having glass that I really do need/use from time to time. The lack of a solid 400mm-range lightweight telephoto is a real bummer, as is the lack of an ultra wide angle (17mm) tilt-shift lens.
Speaking of the tilt-shift lenses, Nikon really does need to update their PC-E lenses to match Canon’s 17mm and 24mm lenses. The 24mm PC-E lens from Nikon doesn’t do independent rotation of the tilt/shift elements and the newer 24mm TS-E f/3.5L II lens from Canon is perhaps the sharpest 24mm optic they make.
Of course, Nikon has its share of lenses that Canon users covet, too, like the 14-24mm f/2.8 lens.
How I Ultimately Chose Nikon
On the camera side, this was essentially a contest between the 5D Mark III and the D800. I’ll say this right off the bat: the 5D is the more versatile camera to me. From it’s snappy autofocus to its 6 FPS shooting speed to its admirable low-light performance, this is going to be the camera for many photojournalists, wedding photographers, and general shooters – and with good reason.
The D800 is no slouch, but it feels more specialized to me. If you need the detail, say, for landscape or studio work then this is going to be the camera for you, in my opinion. That’s not to say that wedding photographers can’t use this camera. Famed wedding photographer Cliff Mautner uses one, as do many others. To me, it just doesn’t come off as the best option for that kind of photography; the D600 or the D700 are better options on the Nikon side (again, in my personal opinion). Fine, fine. But did I switch?
In a word? Yes.
I’m now a Nikon shooter.
I love the images coming off that D800 and the Nikon off-camera flash system is just plain sweet. After weeks of shooting the Nikon, the camera flows into my hand like a comfortable, if rugged, glove and the various dials and switches positioned all over the body seem to fit me almost perfectly.
I don’t much care that the D800 is a 36MP camera, but I do prefer the way that Nikon treats shadows and I love the dynamic range of the D800’s sensor. Working with that D800 raw file is a delight – it holds up really well in post, as is shown by the before/after shot below.
Moreover, the Nikon’s off-camera flash system is really, really cool. Canon’s new 600-series flashes do kinda even the score with built-in radio receivers and 5 groups instead of 3 – but those aren’t backwards-compatible. I can snag
an old SB-28 any SB-xx0-series flash (thanks to Chris Aldridge for pointing my mistake out) and it’ll work with the CLS system just fine; the reverse isn’t true for the new Canon flash features.
The thing to remember here is that my decision was based on a combination of factors. The Nikon D800 felt more comfortable in my hand (after a while), the flash system is awesome, and I preferred the look and feel of the images from that D800 sensor. That means that if Canon comes out with something tomorrow that produces an image I prefer to the D800’s, it won’t be enough to trigger a switch back. The ergonomics, the way the camera functions, the flash system and the fact that a lot of Nikon glass works really well with other bodies will more than likely keep me on the Nikon platform for the foreseeable future. After this, the only switch I intend to make is to medium format digital.
There will be times when I’ll take a brief sojourn back to the Canon world. The combination of the 7D and the 400mm f/5.6 is fantastic for mid/short-length wildlife photography, and that 17mm TS-E might prompt me to rent a 5D Mark III for an architectural project. But that’s the beauty of a service like BorrowLenses.com – you can reach across the aisle, as it were, and play with the toys on “the other side.”
I’ll also miss Canon’s live view feature. Live view on the Nikon is greatly improved from the D700, but it still is kind of bad compared to Canon’s live view. As I understand it, the live view in Nikon is pixel interpolation, rather than a pixel-level magnification, which makes using live view for manual focusing really difficult. Canon also has a higher bit rate video recording mode (up to 95Mbps in the ALL-i mode) than Nikon and the addition of log color features like Technicolor’s Cinestyles gives Canon a pretty big edge in the video arena. Once again, however, that’s the beauty of having a service like BorrowLenses.com. When I get to the point where the D800’s video features start to fall short, I can always go rent a Canon 5D Mark III – or, if I need to go big, a RED Epic.
To be honest, I didn’t start this project with the presumption that this is where I’d end up. I was honestly curious about the Nikon D800 and that universe of gear in general, but in my heart of hearts, I didn’t think I’d really switch. Ultimately, I feel like I made the right decision. After all the pros and cons I weighed, all the analysis and thought I put into this experiment, the Nikon emerged as the camera that was right for me. Ignore the Canon vs Nikon wars you see online – you simply must go with the system that speaks to you.Tags: Best Low Light Camera, Canon vs Nikon, Creative Lighting System, Off-Camera Flash, Speedlight Command Mode Last modified: July 7, 2021