Why I am a Nikon user

November 11, 2012  •  4 Comments


In general, I’ve tended to steer clear of ‘Nikon vs Canon’ fanboy punch-ups. Like most other forms of brand-loyalty competitiveness, it usually tells you more about the fanboys themselves than about the true merits of their preferred brands. 

By the way, am I being sexist? It does seem to me that the overwhelming majority of those who get off on this sort of thing, especially in relation to cameras, are guys. And I can say with certainty that… wait, let me roll back to the very beginning.

My first SLR, way back in the mists of time and long before digital was even dreamed of, was a Zenith, product of a Russian tractor factory. When I wanted to move up to something more sophisticated, I ended up with a Yashica. This in turn gave way to a Contax 139. Contax cameras were beautifully made and the Zeiss lenses were fantastic, but I can’t help thinking I also liked them because they were something of a niche brand and had a bit of snob value. And those lenses were expensive; I’m sure I could have afforded more of them if I’d plumped for a mainstream brand like Pentax, whose K-mount was shared with several brands back then.

And then in 1990 I went on an expedition to the Karakoram. I had big plans for this, even sometimes imagining I could write a book or something (naive, I know). I certainly intended to do a bang-up job photographing the trip. I mortgaged my parents and my dog to buy a second 139 body and off I went. 

I learned a lot of things on this trip, including a few things about lenses that I won’t go into here. But it got a bit traumatic near the end when both cameras’ batteries started to run down. I had spares, of course, but I found the hard way that unless you had exactly the right size of coin (yes, coin) the battery compartments were really hard to get into. And spare change was a bit hard to come by on the Hispar glacier.

When I got home I decided that the sensible thing for a budding outdoor photographer to do was to go for a camera that didn’t need batteries at all. Looking around, I settled on the NIkon FM2. It needed a battery to make its meter operate but otherwise would keep right on shooting with no battery at all. Nikon also had a lot of prestige as they seemed to be the choice of the majority of the world’s pro photographers. Galen Rowell, whom I admired particularly, was a Nikon user.

Nikon FM2_D7K0332

The trusty FM2

So I traded in my once-beloved Contaxes and lenses and started again as a Nikon user. Over the next decade and a bit I also used several medium-format cameras (ending up with a Mamiya 7), but for 35mm work, the FM2 just kept on trucking.

And this brings me back to the fanboys because, as my professional career began to take off, there was a phase when I did quite a lot of exhibitions and craft fairs, and at these events people would often march up to me and ask (‘demand’ was more like it in many cases) what camera I used. And, yes, to the best of my recollection every one of these was male – and many of them would be wearing a camera and a big lens around their neck like some sort of pumped-up Medallion Man.

These questions used to annoy me, partly because they seemed to assume that the camera you used was more important than any skill or effort you put in, and partly because, even at the techy level, they weren’t the right question anyway.

Remember, these were the days of film. A camera was a much simpler thing than it is now. And any camera, if its bits were all assembled and aligned correctly, and its shutter timing was accurate, would do the job. That Nikon FM2 was brilliant because it was both light and incredibly rugged, because it would shrug off all sorts of testing conditions and because it would go for a year on one little battery and then not much care if the battery died. But it didn’t actually take better pictures than a Canon or a Pentax. The things that really mattered for image quality were lenses and film (for a decade I shot almost exclusively on Fuji Velvia, which was great for landscapes but often a dumb choice for action photography). On the very rare occasions when someone asked me what film I used, instead of what camera, I felt like cheering.

Everything changes

And then the world changed. I bought my first digital camera, a Nikon D70, in 2004. I was already delivering a lot of work in digital form, which meant it all had to be scanned first. I could see that for many jobs it would be more convenient to shoot on digital, but I wasn’t immediately convinced that it would measure up for image quality. Somewhat to my surprise, I was soon won over.

The D70 was an obvious choice; it was one of the first digital SLRs worth having at an ‘enthusiast’ price, and so made a lot of sense when I was just dipping my toe into the water. The fact that I could use my existing Nikon-fit lenses made it far more affordable than buying a Canon or any other make.

It turned out well. I kept that camera for five years. I moved on: after a brief, unhappy flirtation with a Fuji S3 (nice images, but horribly slow, and abysmal software), I acquired a Nikon D2x as my main camera, until this in turn gave way to a D700, and the joys of a full-frame sensor. But I was still using the D70 regularly when I wanted to travel light; its last major outing was when I biked the West Highland Way with my nephew Tom in summer 2008.

On the West Highland WayWest Highland Way

On the West Highland Way with a D70

By then I’d started writing the Expanded Guides to Nikon’s SLRs – the first was the D300, in 2007. This meant that I got to try every new Nikon as it came out, shooting a wider range of subjects than I ever had before. This, and other work writing about cameras, also obliged me to pay closer attention to the marketplace than I had before.

Backtracking slightly, I said earlier, “the things that really mattered for image quality were lenses and film”. Lenses are as important as ever, but the sensor in the camera has replaced film. Sensors are not all the same and therefore the choice of camera can make a real difference to image quality. 

That’s not the only reason why the choice of camera matters more than it did with film. Digital cameras are far more complicated than their film predecessors, with far more functions and options, and therefore far more control dials, buttons and/or menu choices. Therefore, design and ergonomics make a massive difference to the user experience, particularly if you actually mess around with settings and don’t just leave the camera on Auto. Traditional things like build quality and weather-sealing are still important too.

One implication is that, in the digital era, you can have a conversation about whether ‘Nikon is better than Canon’ and it will actually mean far more than it did before – at least when it’s based on something more important than whose latest model has more megapixels.

Playing leapfrog

I think the best thing I can do here is quote a couple of paragraphs from my own Expanded Guide to the Nikon DSLR System, written in 2009 (published 2010):

As ever, Nikon’s primary rival was Canon. Canon’s EOS 1D was a match for the D2h with 4mp and 8fps, but in September 2002 the EOS 1Ds was released, mustering 11 million pixels on a full-frame sensor (developed in-house at Canon), 45-point autofocus system and superb build quality with excellent environmental sealing. Right then and there, Nikon lost its lead and, as the release date for the D2x indicates, it took two full years even to draw close to level, never mind regaining the advantage. 

As the release of the D2x approached, many Nikon followers were hoping for a full-frame camera to match Canon, but they were to be disappointed. The D2x did have a theoretical resolution advantage, with 12 megapixels against 11 for the EOS 1Ds, but in practical terms that’s insignificant. The Canon’s larger sensor, and therefore larger pixel pitch, would be expected to deliver lower noise and higher dynamic range, and did. It also enabled DSLR users to get the most out of their wide-angle lenses for the first time. Perhaps Nikon was back in the game, but they weren’t back in the lead. And then, only days after the release of the D2x, Canon revealed the EOS 1Ds Mark II, with over 16 megapixels.

Don’t get me wrong, I was very happy with my D2x, and got many successful images with it. However, its smaller sensor was a bit of a handicap for someone who loves wide-angle landscapes.  Also, while image quality was excellent at base ISO, noise levels increase dramatically as soon as you increase the ISO setting; I hesitated to set ISO 800 and rarely ever went above that. (We’re all a bit spoiled now; ISO 800 seemed ridiculously fast in film days, especially for shooting in colour).

However, if I’d been a brand-new buyer in, say, 2007–08, not constrained by being lumbered with a lot of Nikon lenses or a commitment to writing NIkon guides, then the best camera I could have bought would almost certainly have been an EOS 1Ds Mark II (assuming I could have afforded it!) At that point full-frame DSLRs were few and far between, so the choice was relatively simple.

But then Nikon came roaring back, with the launch of the D3. Quoting the System Guide again:

The D3 and D300 were crucial launches for Nikon, which had seen steady erosion of the leadership it had enjoyed with the D1. Its main rival, Canon, had gradually crept ahead across all sectors of the DSLR market. In the professional sector, hard-headed buyers were finding solid reasons to prefer Canon (…) While the pro sector might be relatively small in sales volume and contribution to overall company profits (though pros also change cameras often and buy more lenses and other accessories), it’s hugely important in terms of prestige and brand image. The fact that more pros were choosing Canon undoubtedly had an influence on SLR buyers lower down the price scale, especially in the hotly contested ‘enthusiast’ category. The significance of the D3–and to a lesser degree the D300 also–went far beyond its impact in terms of sales. It said to the world that Nikon were back.

Using the D3 was a revelation for me; image quality even at base ISO was a big step up from the D2x, and at higher ISOs it was a quantum leap ahead. The extra wide-angle reach of the full-frame sensor was fantastic too. I hated sending that camera back, and if I’d had the funds I’d have bought one like a shot. But I didn’t, and perhaps it was fortunate as it wasn’t long before I could get all those benefits in a lighter and more affordable form with the D700.


Great low-light performance from the D700 at ISO 6400

Since then, Nikon and Canon have played leapfrog with camera specifications, and there’s never been a time when one make has had a really clear advantage. Obviously the megapixel fetishists have rushed to embrace Nikon’s 36-megapixel D800. This is a brilliant camera but I can’t say it too often: most people don’t need 36mp, and unless you have really good lenses and excellent technique you won’t get the benefits anyway. It’s long past time we stopped treating pixel numbers as the be-all and end-all and started focusing more attention on a few other metrics, such as dynamic range.

Dynamic trio

And this is where things get rather interesting. DXO labs produces independent tests of camera sensors. The link goes directly to the dynamic range scores; for 99% of photographers this is actually far more important than the ability to resolve ridiculously fine detail. And just to summarise, here are the scores (in Ev), for the top 5 cameras.

Nikon D800: 14.4
Nikon D800E: 14.3
Nikon D600: 14.2
Pentax K-5: 14.1
Nikon D7000: 13.9.

My well-loved D700 looks well off the pace now at 12.2 Evs, but the dear old D2x is way down at 10.9. But I suppose that’s progress. 

However, let’s just look at where Canon’s current models are on the same rating:

EOS 1DS Mk III and Mk IV: both 12 Evs
5D Mark II: 11.9
5D Mark III: 11.7 (hmmm, Mk III actually worse than Mk II?)
7D: 11.7

At the other end of the price range the differential is also clear, with the Nikon D3200 scoring 13.2 Evs while the EOS 1100D is at 11 Ev.

Of course, dynamic range isn’t the only measure of image quality, and image quality isn’t the only thing to look at when choosing a camera – but it’s darned important. And I can’t see anything in the image quality metrics, ergonomics, build quality, or any other area, that compensates for Canon’s current lag in this area. 

For as long as people have been asking, I’ve generally avoided giving definite answers to the ‘Nikon or Canon?’ question. I’ve always said, I use Nikon because of a choice I made over 20 years ago. I’ve always been happy with Nikon but that doesn’t mean it’s better than Canon.

However, right now, looking at the dynamic range scores, as well all the other factors, I’d have no hesitation about recommending a brand-new SLR buyer to choose Nikon; if they wanted a real choice they could take a look at Pentax too.

But that’s today. Things don’t stand still. In a years’ time it might be different again, and Canon might be competitive again. If you make a choice today, you can guarantee that in a year’s time something will have come along to knock it off its pedestal; but if a camera takes great pictures now it’ll still be taking great pictures in a year, two years, even five years time.

And who knows if I’ll still be using Nikon. Heck, will I even be using SLRs? Now there’s an interesting question...


High dynamic range, handled with ease by a Nikon D600


Jon Sparks
Thanks Richard. All very fair comment. For anyone who has a few lenses and other bits and pieces, switching systems is a big and expensive decision, and technology is a game of leapfrog. Canon have had the lead before and probably will again one day. But all I would say is that anyone buying an SLR right now, without any legacy issues, probably should be looking at Nikon first.
Richard Gibbens(non-registered)
Thank you, Jon, for a well-reasoned, balanced post. I agree with everything you say, though from a standpoint of less technical knowledge. I happen to have landed with Canon, not because it's a 'better' brand, but (rather similarly to your reason for ending up with Nikon) for 'system history' reasons. My cameras for decades were Pentax Spotmatic with SMC Takumar lenses, which were apparently indestructible and served perfectly for remote landscape photography, as your Nikon FM2 served you. My subsequent mechanical K-mount cameras and lenses brought the same advantages plus more up-to-date lens choices. So when digital came on the horizon, for many months I thought I'd get a K10 - for complete compatibility with my collection of manual focus K lenses. That was until I heard of full-frame, and the Canon 5D ('Mark 1', or 'Classic'). I read about and saw the superior performance of the sensor, for which Nikon at that time had no competitor, and though I couldn't afford one, decided that my new lenses must be compatible with it for the future. So I bought a second hand Canon 20D (£249) and couple of full-frame film-era EF lenses. Many lenses have come and gone since, and I eventually got my used 5D, then a used 5D Mk II, but the die was cast once I started investing in Canon glass. So any superiority of one system over another became academic - I'm thoroughly stuck, and happy, with what I've got. As you say, equipment has got to the point where the critical factor is the photographer's skill, vision and attention to detail, and that's where - not on laboratory tests - I should concentrate my efforts.
Tony Hobbs(non-registered)
The NEX 7 scores very well. Certainly holds its own.
I started with Konica. Shifted to Nikon, straight in to the F801. The focusing imo on that was rubbish. At an air show I saw someone using an F4! It looked amazing. No way could I afford / justify it. When the F5 came out I had to have it! That was, for me lol, a work horse. I still have it. On loan to mum. She's used it a few times. I think it's a mum thing. Access to something that was her sons and at one time I didn't let out of my sight! But that was a travelled camera.
A tardis would be nice.
I didn't go digital until D200, sold for D300 and 700. I have never taken a digital camera abroad. My F5 went from America / Canada to Africa to Cambodia and Jersey. Not sure what year it was released. I missed that big sized camera and always fitted a grip to my digitals. But they don't go backpacking ;-)
Chris Townsend(non-registered)
Interesting post Jon. If I was recommending a DSLR today it would be a Nikon for the same reasons. As I decided I wanted a smaller camera I moved from Canon DSLRs to Sony NEX because the NEX had the best dynamic range of the compact systems camera. I see that the NEX 7 at 13.4EVs is better than any of the Canon DSLRs. I had 3 Canon DSLRs - 300D, 350D and 450D. All are given as 10.8 EVs, only a smidgeon less than the current 1100D.

I also had a Nikon FM2 in film days after a couple of failures with Pentax cameras. Like you I wanted something simple and tough and not battery dependent. I still managed to break it though - one switch or button (can't remember which) ended up being held on by blue tack! I had various other Nikon bodies too, including an F801 - bought because it had a 30 second self-timer which was great for shots of myself in a sleeping bag or lighting a stove. As you say though it was film that made the difference not the camera. I started with Kodakchrome 64 and ended with Fujichrome 50 and 100 - I tried Velvia but never really felt happy with the results.
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