Why Nikon Trumps Canon

The Nikon vs Canon debate has been raging for decades. Both companies make high-end digital SLRs and lenses. There are strict followers of both brands, and for some reason, there are many who cling to their Canon’s in spite of compelling evidence as to their defects.

Nikon’s flagship camera is the D3. The D3 has a 12.1 MP full frame sensor. It is capable of 9 frames per second and is extremely low noise even at high ISO speeds. It has a self-diagnostic shutter that is tested to 300,000 cycles. It uses Nikon’s 51 point autofocus sytem with 3D tracking, and is compatible with all Nikon lens families.

Canon’s flagship camera is the EOS-5D Mark II. It has a 21.1 full frame sensor. It is capable of 3.9 frames per second, but it’s high ISO performance is notably poor. It can capture HD videos up to 4 GB each, something no Nikon camera prior to the D700 could do. The EOS has a self-cleaning sensor.

Both cameras use alloy construction and are ruggedized for extreme conditions. Canon has more than 50 lens choices, and Nikon has 60 lenses that are compatible with the D3.

Your first thought might be – HEY, Canon’s camera has 9 more MP than the Nikon! And you would be correct. So that means we should discuss what exactly that means. Professional photographers regularly shoot at high ISO speeds. There are many reasons: stopping action, shooting in low light, exposing for depth of field, etc. For me, the most common is shooting in low light.

Canon has focused on adding bells and whistles to their bodies, while basically ignoring the basic need of high ISO performance. Nikon has SLOWLY followed on the bells and whistles, but has put most of their effort into two areas: ISO performance and optics.

For professional photographers, the combination of superb optics and high ISO performance mean that, for example, wedding photos shot in a dimly lit church without flash will still be suitable for enlargement. This is important, as many churches, particularly Catholic churches, do not allow the use of flash, even during a wedding. What good does it do you to have a 21.1 MP file that looks like crap?

Canon recognized this need but approached it in a different manner. They developed their IS lens series, which stands for Image Stabilization and uses gyroscopic technology to prevent lens shake. They felt that allowing the photographer to shoot handheld at slower shutter speeds would be a good solution. On surface, this sounds like a good idea. In fact, in some situations, this is preferable to Nikon’s approach, particularly with sports photography. When shooting sports, it is usually shot at greater distances, and the action is fast, but it is also usually well lit.

The problem with stabilizing a lens instead of improving ISO performance is that as shutter speeds increase in low light, so does digital noise. Remember back to the film days? If you shot photos and forgot to use your flash, you usually ended up with a bunch of grainy photos with a strange color cast. That’s the film equivalent to poor ISO performance. In film, it was caused by reciprocity failure, and in digital photography it’s caused by limitations of the sensor.

A couple of years ago, Nikon introduced their own image stabilization system, dubbed VR – vibration reduction. The VR lens system basically duplicates Canon’s IS system, but sadly for Canon, Nikon trumps their lenses in every other optical category.

Nikon lenses have noticeably less distortion, less chromatic aberration, and slightly better sharpness. Of course, I am generalizing – comparing Nikon’s entire line to Canon’s entire line. There are a couple of notable examples where Canon’s lens outperforms Nikon’s. The most noticeable are Canon’s consumer high-power zoom lenses, which are definitely sharper than Nikon’s. However, if you compare Canon’s L series (pro) to Nikon’s Pro series, there are no exceptions. Nikon wins.

There are even a few lenses from Nikon that are arguably better than Carl Zeiss and Hasselblad – for example, the Nikon 85mm 1.4 is probably the best portrait lens ever manufactured, followed by the 105mm PC. The Nikon 80-200 2.8 VR is, in my opinion, the best pro zoom ever made, and the Nikon 17-55mm 2.8 is the best wide zoom. Nikon’s 50mm 1.4 is so sharp you could put someone’s eye out with it.

And that brings us to the reason Nikon trumps Canon. You don’t buy a digital camera body for the long term. The technology changes so quickly, most professionals replace their camera bodies every 2-3 years. However, lenses are a lifetime investment. You buy the best glass you can buy because they last virtually forever. Nikon and Canon bodies have tradeoffs depending on what you shoot. Nikon lenses clearly win the battle, pushing the decision into Nikon’s favor.