Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nikon vs. Canon DSLRs (or a review of the 5D Mark II vs the D7000 and D3)

Photography is my oldest continuous hobby, and although I've embraced the digital revolution up until recently all of my more serious cameras were film cameras.  Paired with my Nikon LS-9000, the image quality of a scanned 6x6 or 6x7 trounces any DSLR in my opinion.  So for digital, I've been on a quest for a small yet good compact.  Most recently I've been using a Ricoh GXR which has very nice image quality and I'm happy I don't have to carry around a huge camera.

But recently I fell off the wagon and bought a DSLR.  I was saddled with a lot of legacy Nikon gear, so I bought a Nikon.  I had a D3 for a while and I love ultra-wide angle lenses, so I wanted a D700, but the scarce availability and high cost of the D700 was a bit much for me especially when I believe its replacement will be announced this year.  So I got the D7000 and figured it would tide me over until the D700 replacement came out.

After having used the D7000 for a little while, I can say I really like it.  The camera is a joy to use.  The ergonomics are very good and you can shoot fast with it as the autofocus and exposure are generally spot-on.  Even the higher ISO shots look good on this new sensor.  And with my fast Nikon 2.8 tele zoom, my sports and action shots look awesome.  But, I couldn't get over my wide and mid length lenses being focal length multiplied and I couldn't justify spending hundreds of dollars on a new DX-only ultra-wide lens when I have perfectly capable wide-angles in my kit already.

Anyway, an opportunity presented itself and I picked up a Canon 5D Mark II with a few prime lenses.  Most of the working pros that I know use the 5Dii and love it, so I thought what the heck let me try it out.

Well after using it for a while, I can see why everyone likes it so much - it's a great camera.  The resolution and image quality are excellent.  If I were to use this exclusively in the studio, I would be thrilled.  But as a fast shooting camera, it's not anywhere near as good as the Nikon.  I was surprised at how poor it was actually.

The 5D's exposure meter does not compare to the Nikon's.  I read that the Nikon meter was a color meter, etc. etc. and the Canon is monochrome.  I don't know the technical reasons, but the exposures out of the 5D are pretty off compared to the Nikon's.  With the Nikon I will happily shoot at Aperture priority (or Shutter priority or Manual with Auto ISO with action shots) and be very pleased with the results.  All of the exposures are dead-on.  But with the 5D, I have to remind myself to chimp and see what the meter is doing (or shoot a bracket).  Instead of firing away, I have to slow down and take myself back to the days of using center-weighted metering only cameras, really looking at the contrast in a scene and thinking about what the camera meter is thinking.  Hey, this isn't a bad thing.  It's good to slow down and think about these things, and maybe I've gotten lazy while shooting with the Nikon (or the Ricoh, the meter on that camera is great).  But when you want to shoot fast and don't have time to think through the exposure or when the light is changing fast, I feel like the 5D will let you down.

People talk about how the autofocus on the 5D is not as good as on the Nikons.  That may be true, but I don't find it to be a big deal.  But then again, I haven't shot sports with the 5D yet, and I don't intend to.  Mostly because I don't have the right lenses for that and I know that the Nikon will outperform it.  So for still life and slow moving things, I think the autofocus on the 5D is totally fine. But hey, my last SLR was a Nikon F4 and I found its autofocus adequate too.

There are some other nits though.  Like, how come I can't select the range of ISO values for the Auto ISO setting?  Or what the heck is up with the fact that in manual mode, the Auto ISO setting gets locked to 400?  That is bullshit.  When I want to shoot action, I love using the D7000 in manual mode, dial in an appropriately high shutter speed to freeze fast stuff, like 1/800 or 1/1000, and an aperture I want, like f/4, and shoot away (like the TAv mode on Pentax SLRs).  The camera changes the ISO automatically, within my preferred range, and bangs the exposure perfectly every time.  There is just no way I can do that with the Canon.

Also, when the ISO is not on auto, there's no way I've figured out on the 5D to change it quickly.  I always need to hit the small ISO button and then spin the dial with my trigger finger.  It would be great if I could shoot in Aperture priority, set the Aperture with the front dial and set the ISO with the back dial.  If this is possible on the 5D, could someone please let me know!

Also, I find the soft rubber coated dials on the Nikon (especially the front dial) to be a lot nicer to use than the Canon.  Maybe I'm a wimp, but the 5D makes my fingers hurt after a lot of shooting.  And why couldn't the front dial be below the shutter release like on the Nikon?  That way I can spin it with my middle finger and not have to take my trigger finger off the shutter release.  Oh and the on/off button sucks, I have to use two hands to turn the darn thing on and off.

OK, enough with the gripes, the 5D is a remarkable camera if you know what you're doing with it.  The Nikon is the same, but you can also just "point and shoot" it and get great results too.  The 5D's resolution is way better than the Nikon's.  I thought my D3 was awesome and I read all the reviews about how with the proper handling, the D3 files can be printed very large, etc. etc.  I'm sure that's all true, and the Nikon is a fantastic camera, but having 21 native megapixels with some really nice glass with good lighting and exposure and the 5D blows the Nikon away.  Also, I griped about the front dial, but I absolutely love the big dial on the back of the 5D.  I've always liked that about the Canons, I remember that from my EOS-1n from back in the day.  And the really light touch set button in the middle of the dial has excellent tactility.  I wish Nikon had such a dial, and I also wish Canon's dial was a bit more functional (see my point above about wanting to change the ISO with the back dial).

Anyway, when Nikon finally replaces the D700, I'm sure it will blow the current 5D Mark II away.  If that's true and they're able to put a 21+ megapixel sensor into it while retaining the clean image quality at low and high ISO, I'll definitely buy it and sell my 5D.  But for now, the 5D is king of the hill in terms of image quality as far as I'm concerned.  Just be sure to put some really nice glass in front of it otherwise you're just wasting its capabilities.  Happy shooting!

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