30 August 2009

Nikon Envy

As I've said before, I'm committed to Canon DSLRs because that happens to be the gear I own from film days. But if I were starting out fresh today, I would probably buy Nikon.

One reason is Nikon's flash metering system. It is simply better than Canon's and there is no sign that Canon will be turning this around. Their exposure metering is a bit better too.

The other reason is lenses. Both companies make great DSLRs, but over the long term, camera bodies are disposable items. They become outdated or simply break, and most consumer DSLRs are not designed or priced to be repaired. And camera bodies are the cheap bit in a camera system anyway. One good zoom lens for an entry-level DSLR will cost you as much as the camera. A great lens will cost you much more. So once you've purchased several good lenses for a particular system, you are really committed.

This is why photographers feel their chosen manufacturer should be committed to them. That means producing the gear they need and want. Both Canon and Nikon are of course committed to doing this, and they put their best resources into taking care of the professionals committed to them. And their pro gear is correspondingly great.

Where I think Nikon is distinguishing itself from Canon is in their consumer and prosumer DSLRs, which all use small-format sensors. They have pushed hard into these lower tiers, both in price and features. They have kept down pixel counts and put image quality first. At this level (my level), I think they are pulling ahead.

Nikon was slower than Canon to roll out larger full-frame sensors for their pro cameras, which put them at a competitive disadvantage. But the upside of this is that they have been more committed to the small-sensor (DX) format. That's a very good thing for us non-pros.

And this shows in their lenses. They have a broader range of 18-XXmm zooms for DX cameras than Canon, including a DX 16-85mm that is equivalent to Canon's new EF-S 15-85mm, but has preceded it by more than a year. It's a very good lens and less than $650 new (match it, Canon!).

As I mentioned yesterday, in price for optical performance, the best lenses are primes (i.e., non-zooms). As well as cheaper, they are usually much faster than zooms (= take in more light) and have less optical distortion. Unfortunately, both Canon and Nikon put most of their resources into developing zooms, since most people value their convenience over image quality. Plus they can charge more for them.

Most Canon primes are older models, and most of their new primes are professional L-series. All but one (a specialized macro) are made for full-frame cameras. This means they are larger and more expensive than they need to be for small-sensor cameras. I think this is meant to encourage consumers to move up both their camera and lens lines.

Nikon was no different, though, until this year. And then in February they introduced the first small-sensor prime, the AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX. It does everything right. It's very fast, taking in 4x the light of the typical standard zoom. Optical quality, though not perfect, is very good. And since it is scaled down for smaller sensors, it's cheap ($200). Best of all, Nikon has signaled that more DX primes are coming. Since this lens has proved very popular, I'm sure there are.

And I hope Canon is taking notes.

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