What Happens When A Canon Shooter Uses A Nikon?

John Edgar is an internationally renowned wedding and portrait photographer who travels the globe documenting moments and creating art of his discerning clients. He is based out of the beautiful city of Toronto, Canada.

I’ve been take pictures for over 10 years, and worked as a full time photographer for 6 of those. I don’t feel that any topic has been more discussed than Nikon vs. Canon. In fact, the number one question I always get as a photographer is just that. Until last weekend, Canon was the only system I have ever shot. I started with a Canon 300D post college, picked up a 30D shortly after, and the day the 5D came out, I had one. I shot the 5D for many, many years until I recently switched to the 5D mkII and 1Series bodies.

I’ve been a prime shooter since day one, originally with the plastic fantastic (50mm 1.8), upgrading from the 1.8 to the 1.4, and more recently the 1.2. My daily drivers are the 35 1.4, 50 1.2, 85 1.2 and 135 2.0.

After much conversation at the Mystic 6 convention I came to the conclusion that I should at minimum play around with a Nikon setup to see what I think. It would be quite ignorant of me to stand behind my Canon love having never given Nikon a fair run, right? My friend Steve Sager agreed to let me come out and shoot a wedding with him, and bestie Tara McMullen agreed to lend me her Nikon gear for the day.

Full disclosure: I was sure I wasn’t going to like the system, but I resigned myself to the fact that I would indeed give it a fair shot, and leave my bias at home. I’m not an overly techie person. I understand camera and imaging technology but I don’t obsess over custom functions and AF point placement algorithms. I like taking pictures, and hope my camera for the most part “just works”. I guess as a result, my commentary won’t be particularly technical.

Armed with a D3s, 35, 50, 85 and 135mm lenses, I left my beloved Canon bodies at home and ventured off to shoot a wedding.

The Preparation

I arrived in the morning at the groom’s house to shoot preps. The family was Portuguese and everything was moving along quite quickly. This wasn’t anything usual for me, but I felt it was definitely a great opportunity to put the D3s through it’s paces. I like the 35 1.4 in the morning, for preps. It gives a great sense of place and as a result it’s almost always my go-to lens for that portion of the day. I stuck it on the D3s and started snapping. We were upstairs and the bedroom was quite dark. I didn’t have a flash on (mostly because I like to shoot available light) so I was pushing the ISO into the 1200+ range.

My first immediate and extremely frustrating observation was that the autofocus was slow to acquire a focal lock and to allow me to fully depress the shutter button. With my 5D mkII, it almost never hunts around for focus. With the D3s, I felt like it was just sitting there thinking about what to do next, while I was missing some great moments. To be honest, it really, really annoyed me. However, when it did finally acquire AF lock and I made an image, the focus was spot on. This wasn’t really something I had ever thought about before, and sparked an internal conversation of “would I rather have the image, but out of focus, or miss a few for something sharp” (more on that later). Generally, a pretty high proportion of my images shot with my Canon system are out of focus, mostly because it just can’t seem to focus on the right thing. This has been a frustration for a while and definitely my main friction point with the Canon system.

Nevertheless, I pushed on shooting. I was tweeting as I went and Paul Johnson offered some insight into a change I could make in the camera settings that would allow for faster autofocus. I made some quick changes, tested it out a bit and found the “continuous” mode to be quicker in low light. After making this change, I did notice a much higher percentage of out of focus images, but still plenty of usable frames coming from the camera.

My next realization about the Nikon system came as I moved from inside the house to the yard out back. I’m a manual shooter so I’m used to changing my exposure on the fly as I move around and the lighting conditions change. Over the years you become accustomed to knowing the settings you need by judging the light and your hands automatically find the settings and plug them in. For me this is something that happens almost subconsciously as I’m shooting. As I quickly ran outside and started shooting my fingers did the usual wheel turns and something struck me. I realized that in less than 30 minutes of using the camera, it felt second nature to me. Believe it or not, after 10 years of shooting on the Canon system I still sometimes get lost and turn things the wrong way or forget where a setting is. I was very, very impressed with how quickly I was able to adapt and learn the Nikon layout, and found it extremely natural and ergonomic. Hours in I said to a guest who asked me about the camera, “it really is a joy to shoot with.”

John Edgar - Wedding with Nikon D3s

The Ceremony

After the preps we headed to the church. It was very dark and I wasn’t about to use the flash during a ceremony. This was the perfect time to test the higher ISO ranges. I sent a quick message to my friend Ryan Brenizer to confirm that the files are pretty clean around 6400 ISO before I went trigger-happy. He gave me the nod and with a smile I set the camera there and went to town. I shot for a bit and then zoomed in to 100% and checked the shadows. Just as Ryan had mentioned: very, very clean. I kept my exposures solid if not slightly to the right and shot the rest of the ceremony 3200/6400.

I had decided to shoot the whole ceremony with 135mm lens. Having had a morning filled with slow AF I was a little worried about it, but plunged in never the less. I switched out of continuous focus back to single focus because my morning tests had left me with a feeling that S was slightly more accurate, and I could afford to slow down a little during the ceremony. As I shot the ceremony, I noticed almost none of the AF lock lag I had observed in the morning. The quality of the light in the church, while dim, was quite a bit better. The shadows were more even, and had less contrast. Without knowing the in-depth technical aspects of AF, my gut feeling is this helped. After shooting I went through the frames on the back of the camera at 100% zoom checking the focus. I noticed that about 85% of them were sharp and focused as I expected. This is about 30-40% better than what I generally experience off of my Canon bodies.

The Photo Session

In “Canonland” I shoot 90% of the photo session with the 50 1.2 so I decided to shoot with the Nikon 50 1.4 I had. I immediately noticed that the bokeh was totally different. At first I thought I had my aperture set wrong, I wanted to be wide open but what I was seeing looked like I was at f2/2.8. (I’m not going to debate the merits of bokeh here, that would be stupid. It’s all personal preference.) Going back over the images and looking at my Canon work, I personally like the look of the out of focus areas on my Canon glass much much better. I switched over to the 35 1.4, and set it to 1.4, again I really didn’t like the way the glass rendered out of focus light. It was also during the photo session that I noticed the general hue of the image was drastically different than what I was used to seeing on the back of the camera. At that point I didn’t know if that was the RAW rendered jpg, the screen, the light I was in, my eyes or what. Having now looked at the files side by side in ACR I definitely feel that a CR2 file has more of a magenta hue to it than a NEF. Nikon raw files generally seem warmer/orange. This is also to my mind a hue difference, not simply white balance related. I don’t really have a clear opinion on that either way at this point, so I’m merely making the observation. Do as you will with it.

John Edgar - Wedding with Nikon D3s

The Reception

After the photo session we headed to Liberty Grand where the reception was held. Anyone local to Toronto knows how brutal shooting in this hall can be. The ceilings are dark wood and a good 30 feet high. Bouncing isn’t much fun in there, but if you aim for the walls and get the angle right it’s doable. I’ve shot the venue 20+ times so I’m used to it, but I wasn’t used to the SB900. I was told to keep it in manual mode because it sometimes overheats and shuts down in TTL. This initially put me off a bit, but I compensated for it manually and it was fine.

As I shot, I found that my ability to pull in a lot of ambient light was great! The high ISO I used gave me much more flexibility with the flash than I usually afford myself with my 580EXII. I really liked the exposures I was getting. At one point during the evening the flash batteries died and before I had a chance to replace them, the father of the groom pulled me over and demanded a quick shot with some of the groomsmen. I didn’t have batteries in my pocket so I thought “to hell with it” and cranked the ISO into H1. It was almost pitch black and the (very) intoxicated groomsmen wouldn’t stay still. I grabbed a few frames and I was pleasantly surprised with them. The final image will have to be presented in black and white, however it was sharp and fairly well exposed.

As I finished out the night, I felt the strain in my arm. The camera is more weight than I’m used to for a 13 hour day and my wrist was starting to ache a little. If I’m to do this for another 10-15 years I feel heavy bodies are going to cause some long term damage to my right hand. Many of my professors from school now have bad carpal tunnel and arthritis from shooting for 20+ years. I guess the alternative is to shoot a D700/D3s combo, as it’s a much lighter body.

John Edgar - Wedding with Nikon D3s

John Edgar - Wedding with Nikon D3s
The Post

When I got home I went over some of the files: zoomed, cropped, pushed, pulled, starred and un-stared. I spent a good few hours figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t. So here is what I’ll say:

The AF focus system is, at worst, much better than anything I’ve experienced with Canon. In continuous focus mode, while a lot of the AF lag is gone, so is a lot of the accuracy. That being said, I still found more of the images to be in than out or at least acceptability soft. During the photo session, shooting with good light in AF-S, the focusing was almost always spot on.

The flash system is good. I know some people hail it as the second coming of Christ, but I truly believe the 580EXII is just as good as the SB900. Feature wise, it does have some nice fancy do-das that the 580 doesn’t, but in terms of just taking a good solid exposure the systems are very, very comparable.

The high ISO noise tolerance on the D3s is unreal. That’s all I need to say about that.
I personally find the layout of the D3s to be fantastic. A lot of the button arrangement and menu options make much more sense to me than the Canon design. For example, where Canon will use a 3 finger strain voodoo dance menu wheel scroll push setting change, Nikon simply has a toggle switch.

Now I realize this is just my personal opinion, but I do not like the bokeh. And as an artist/photographer/whatever, I rely heavily on depth of field as a pivotal element of the work I produce. This will be the main reason I wouldn’t switch systems. Canon has great glass. The colour clarity, the way it renders flair, the out of focus areas, the contrast and general “look” of the images from my Canon are what I fell in love with, and continue to love.

In the wedding space I feel that if those “artistic” elements of photography (that transcendental feel and quality of the image that you just can’t quite put your finger on) are important to you as a Canon shooter, you might find a switch frustrating. If you are a photographer who is very methodical, photo journalistic, technical or moment driven then you should without a doubt be shooting Nikon right now. However I am truly in love with the look of my Canon glass. I’m willing to over shoot and deal with weird white balance and a total inability to focus to have that.

Call me stupid, and maybe I am.

“Popularity does not dictate quality,” says this one Mashable article which coincidentally compares Canon v. Nikon. Check out the infographic. What are your thoughts? Have you given both systems an honest, unbiased try? Tell us your experiences with that “other” system. Go!

UPDATE: John wanted me to let you know that the images presented here are SOOC – Straight Out Of Camera – with the only exceptions being that they were scaled down and sharpened a tiny bit.

  • http://twitter.com/roteague Robert Teague

    Interesting article. I don’t do this type of photography, however, I have been a Nikon user for almost 30 years. I have no hatred or bad feelings about Canon; when I started photography, professional photographers shot Nikon. Canon wasn’t even a consideration.

    Currently, I shoot with a Nikon F6 (when I use a small camera). Concerning focusing, I’ve found the issue isn’t so much the body you are using, but the lens itself.

  • http://twitter.com/1kwphoto Carl Reid

     Such a great post.  We are a husband and wife wedding photography team and my wife has been thinking of switching to Nikon for sometime now.  I think your post convinced her.  To shoot both Canon and Nikon will make the wedding session more interesting…I hope…any other advice?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mphotographyottawa Melanie Romanoski-Rebane

    Great post John! I have been wondering whether the focussing system was worth switching for, but like you love the canon glass…so glad you took the time to write this!

  • http://twitter.com/abbygracephoto Abby Grace

    I actually just switched from Nikon to Canon, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Strangely enough, my Nikon was causing me issues with focusing when I had my 24-70 on a D700. The only time I’ve ever had focusing issues with Canon was when I was shooting on AF where the camera determines where to focus. As long as I have AF locked to one point, it’s usually fine. When I was shooting Nikon, I was shooting with the D300s, and it’s low-light capabilities were for CRAP. You’d get horrible noise with anything about 1200. When I shot with a 700, it was a lot better, but still not amazing.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the “loving Canon for the glass” notion. That’s actually what encouraged me to switch in the first place- that and Canon’s colour. I was disappoint that Nikon didn’t have the 50 1.2 equivalent, so I started looking into Canon. I also started noticing how Canon’s colours are incredibly superior to Nikons. After a weekend rental with Canon, I was hooked. I sold my Nikon stuff within two weeks, and I haven’t looked back one. Granted, this was all less than a month ago, but I couldn’t be more pleased with my 5Dmkii and 50 1.2 combo.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisaramphotog Chris Aram

    These are exactly the kind of posts I wish I could read more of when it comes to the “great gear debates.” I love my Nikon but to be fair I bought into the system simply because my friends had Nikon and I could borrow their stuff. Four years later, here I am and I still really like it.

    One small note I would add – Nikkor just doesn’t make a great 50mm f/1.4. It’s decent, it’s even good enough but it isn’t even approaching the class of their 85mm for example. It doesn’t touch the Canon’s 50mm. Its bokeh is jittery and it’s “sharp enough” but again not top of the line. It’s been a frustration and a gripe of mine for a little while but it is what it is. I’ve also tweaked the AF settings on the D3 additionally because AF-C mode will give you screwy results out of the box.

    Having said that, thanks for taking the time to write this. I wish I had the balls (or the money) to give Canon a serious test drive but in the meanwhile I appreciate well written pieces like this. :)

  • http://twitter.com/chrisaramphotog Chris Aram

    These are exactly the kind of posts I wish I could read more of when it comes to the “great gear debates.” I love my Nikon but to be fair I bought into the system simply because my friends had Nikon and I could borrow their stuff. Four years later, here I am and I still really like it.

    One small note I would add – Nikkor just doesn’t make a great 50mm f/1.4. It’s decent, it’s even good enough but it isn’t even approaching the class of their 85mm for example. It doesn’t touch the Canon’s 50mm. Its bokeh is jittery and it’s “sharp enough” but again not top of the line. It’s been a frustration and a gripe of mine for a little while but it is what it is. I’ve also tweaked the AF settings on the D3 additionally because AF-C mode will give you screwy results out of the box.

    Having said that, thanks for taking the time to write this. I wish I had the balls (or the money) to give Canon a serious test drive but in the meanwhile I appreciate well written pieces like this. :)

  • http://twitter.com/chrisaramphotog Chris Aram

    These are exactly the kind of posts I wish I could read more of when it comes to the “great gear debates.” I love my Nikon but to be fair I bought into the system simply because my friends had Nikon and I could borrow their stuff. Four years later, here I am and I still really like it.

    One small note I would add – Nikkor just doesn’t make a great 50mm f/1.4. It’s decent, it’s even good enough but it isn’t even approaching the class of their 85mm for example. It doesn’t touch the Canon’s 50mm. Its bokeh is jittery and it’s “sharp enough” but again not top of the line. It’s been a frustration and a gripe of mine for a little while but it is what it is. I’ve also tweaked the AF settings on the D3 additionally because AF-C mode will give you screwy results out of the box.

    Having said that, thanks for taking the time to write this. I wish I had the balls (or the money) to give Canon a serious test drive but in the meanwhile I appreciate well written pieces like this. :)

  • http://twitter.com/catnguyenphoto Catherine Nguyen

    I absolutely agree about the ergonomics of the Nikon vs. the Canon and am glad you pointed it out. Your findings on the AF quality were really helpful. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/catnguyenphoto Catherine Nguyen

    I absolutely agree about the ergonomics of the Nikon vs. the Canon and am glad you pointed it out. Your findings on the AF quality were really helpful. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/photographydept Tyson

    This is one of the most thorough critiques of both systems I have seen in a long time.  I completely agree with your color information.  Nikon seems to be a little warmer and Canon more Magenta.  Great information.  Thanks for the great post

  • http://www.williamgood.com William Good Photography

    Great post – thanks so much.

    So… does anyone out there shoot with both Canon and Nikon to take advantage of all the pros of both systems?

    I wonder if there is another lens manufacturer that could solve the bokeh challenge? I picked up an ancient Nikon 50mm 1.4 and I love the bokeh and artistic effect.  Then again… I’ve never compared to what a Canon 50 1.4 could produce.

    Cheers!

  • http://twitter.com/benmargolin Ben Margolin

    I realize it’s DX and the from the sounds of things, the shooters involved in this writeup all use full-size sensors exclusively, but the D7000 has even less noise at high ISO than the D3s. The next generation of FX sensors (D4s/D400?) will likely be pretty amazing, and let you confidently shoot at 6400 if needed, which is just nutty (but cool!). (And I’m sure Canon will have something comparable, I don’t mean this as a knock on them, I have no experience with Canon DSLRs.)

  • http://weddingphotographer.ph/ Wedding Photographer

    Helpful post John! I commend your open mindedness on trying out Nikon despite being a Canon user for 10 years. Anyway I liked your post and your description for each sides. Very informative indeed. Hope to read more soon. Keep up the good work!

  • http://www.stevennoreyko.com/ Steven Noreyko

    Nice analysis.  I would suggest looking at other lenses in the Nikon lineup to see if they give you the bokeh you are looking for. As @twitter-94081557:disqus  noted, the Nikon 50 f/1.4 is okay, but not awesome.  Nikon’s 85 f/1.4 is wildly different.  The 105 f/2 DC is also a really interesting lens as well.

    On color – I agree that right out of the camera, Canon has nicer color. My Nikons have always been too red/orange and it’s something I need to adjust in post.

  • http://twitter.com/douglevy Doug Levy

    One thing to add re: the flash system. Yes the SB-900 is prone to overheating. But it’s a function you can disable (and I have) and I have yet to burn a flash out. I shoot with a D3 and D3s with SB-900s on both, and have used the 900s for probably 40 weddings. They’re far more accurate at high ISOs (TTL wise) than their predecessor, the SB-800, or from what I’ve seen from 5D2 + 580II shooters. The SB-800’s TTL system is only optimized up to 1600 ISO (as you really couldn’t shoot much higher than that with the previous generation D2 bodies it went with). 

    The manual vs. TTL overheating thing is a bit misleading. The flash is no more prone to overheat by the mode you use it in. The types of batteries you use and the ISO you shoot at play a far bigger role. The thing with TTL is – you have no idea what TTL with zero exposure compensation is. It could be full power, it could be 1/128 power. So sure, if you’re shooting manual at 1/8 and I’m shooting TTL, my flash COULD overheat faster, but it could just as likely not. 

  • http://twitter.com/kirktuckphoto kirk tuck

    You lost me when you said you were tweeting as you went along.  Can’t imagine not having my head 100% in the game while shooting.  Either set of cameras is easy to operate as long as you’re focused on them.  Tweeting while shooting a wedding?  I sure wouldn’t mention that to a real client….

  • http://www.seshu.net/saffron admin

    Doug – I appreciate your feedback and comment here. We all have so much to learn from each other.

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  • http://toshalobsinger.zenfolio.com Tosha Lobsinger

    Thanks so much for sharing. I certainly learned a lot and you were able to put into words some of the differences I have noticed!

  • Pablo Ruelas

    Nobody seems to comment on the ergonomics and button layout. Overall canon has a better feel to the hands. Nikon is very unpractical placing buttons on the left side, especially ISO (D7100), with canon I can change ISO, Aperture, and Shutter speed without looking at the camera very easily. Also the metering indicator is not viewable on the ton panel of nikons, often when in from of certain light situation, i hold the camera to my stomach, autofocus anything and regulate a close exposure looking at the metering panel on top of my 60D, then when i get the camera to my face I can shoot in an instant without having to adjust (or just slightly adjust) most of the time. With Nikon its very annoying to look through the viewfinder and to be turning the dials in the face. I hate that.

    Also one thing with the d7100 that i found and that nobody seems to talk about is that when you aim towards a strong light source, you see a ghosting effect in the viewfinder on the nikon and not on the canon. It doesn’t show in the picture but it can distract and is annoying.
    Also something I haven’t found anything about is that when I review an image on nikon, you see a pixelated version of the image, it goes away if you zoom in, but it makes no sense that you would see that on a high end camera.
    I agree that Nikon is crazy when focusing in low light, I have overcome canon´s poor focusing with TTL infrared flash light (without shooting flash if intended), using that, I´ve never had real focusing issues.

    Ive been a canon user for 4 years and tried nikon for 3 months, sold my d7100 (with loss) and I went back to canon in a snap. I bought a d7100 mainly because other photographers rave about nikon. I wanted to see for myself.