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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.