Lets get one thing really clear at the outset. This post is not a Canon verses Nikon post. I am a Canon user and this post will go some way to explaining why, but right from the beginning lets be clear, If image quality is the most important factor to you in camera choice right now, as a DSLR buyer then go right ahead and get yourself a Nikon D800. It is amazing. What you read in the reviews is right about the quality of the files it produces. Here, at last is a DSLR which produces files very (very) close to medium format quality. You will not be disappointed by the images you get from it as regards the way it handles colour, contrast or detail. You will be able to crop into images heavily and still be able to produce wonderful prints. It is a ‘game changer’.
Would I buy one? No.
Is that because I am biased? No.
Is that because I am heavily invested in Canon EOS lenses? No.
Is it because, in reality, I like blurry, soft, images and, in fact love analogue images more than digital? No.
One word. Usability.
I work with workshop participants weekly. I work with every make of camera on the market they bring along. Every model. Without exception, Canon DSLR’s are the most user friendly cameras on the market today.
Let me give you some examples of issues I have with Nikon’s in particular which make them unusable FOR ME (but you might be fine with).
1. Exposure simulation in Live View. In both Canon and Nikon systems as you adjust the aperture or shutter speed while in Live View the monitor will get brighter or darker to simulate this for you, just as a helpful approximation, the affect of those changes on your image. Slow down the shutter speed and the screen gets brighter. Speed it up and it gets darker and so on. Except, and it baffles me as to why, but the Nikon designers decided tht this really useful feature should stop working when the shutter speed exceeds 2 seconds (6 seconds on some models). Yup, thats right. Do they think it is of no help to see what’s happening when light levels are so low that we need exposures longer than 2 seconds? What on earth possessed them to BUILD THIS IN? Canons on the other hand simulate the exposure right up to 30 seconds. Usability.
2. I would love a Nikon designer to explain to me why they decided you can’t see the light meter gauge superimposed on the Live View screen. You have to turn Live View OFF, and either put your eye to the eyepiece or switch on the “Quick Info” menu to see the Light Meter gauge. Baffling. Needless to say on the Canon it is viewable in Live View.(UPDATE: apparently, you can see some sort of light meter gauge by pressing the OK button in LV on some Nikon bodies, high end it seems, but not all. I will have to see exactly what this looks like next time I have a Nikon in my hands to assess)
3. Another completely unforgivable omission on a Nikon that I find unacceptable is that while you can focus in Live View mode, manually or automatically, you cannot use the depth of field preview button in Liew View to check you have focused on the correct point and have everything you require in sharp focus. Whereas, of course, you can on the Canons, even the most basic models.(UPDATE; I have, since writing this, found out that on the D3 and D800 models depth of field is simulated constantly in Live View. This seems to me to be a great feature. The only thing I would say is, in using D3’s and D800’s, the graniness of the monitor compared to those used by Canons is so bad that I hadn’t noticed that this was, in fact the case. So although I applaud the ‘feature’ It would be good, now, to improve the sharpness of the monitors on these cameras to make the feature useable)
By the time I get to point three I find that a Nikon is so frustrating to use I just refuse to consider buying one, no matter how good the image quality is over a Canon. I know that at some point Canon will release a full frame body which will rival or exceed the D800 in image quality. In the meantime I also know the 5D mk2 and 3 still exceeds any requirements for image quality my customers have ever required already, so they are not poor cameras. I can wait. I am baffled by those who have sold their (in my opinion) superior L EOS lenses and bodies to jump on the D800 bandwagon, seduced simply by image quality.
They certainly do have amazing, stunning image quality. No doubt about that whatsoever. But I wonder how many are secretly fuming and regretting the move. Furious that they didn’t realise how poorly designed the Nikon’s are and how frustrating they are to use to to those who are used to the amazing usability and functionality of Canons EOS range? I wonder how many stand behind the D800 in low light in turmoil wondering if they have the depth of field they need? Remembering how easy it was to check on a Canon? Annoyed about yet again having to turn off Live View and turn on another screen just to make exposure adjustments, while reminiscing at how easy it was back in the day when they had a Canon? And more money in their bank account?
If you are a Nikon owner, please don’t get me wrong. They are superb cameras that will give you years of great service. If you have never owned a Canon you probably haven’t even noticed these issues and have no problems using your camera. My comments are aimed more at Nikon themselves or these design flaws and at Canon users, especially high end 1ds and 5d users who are being seduced away from Canon by the IQ of the D800. It is these I am urging to think again.
(UPDATE:Since writing this, I have have had others raise issues to do with Nikons being difficult to operate with gloves on, compared to Canons, issues to do with how complex and baffling their menu systems are, that in Live View the D800 drops to just 4 frames per second, the inexplicable AF/MF switch on Nikons etc, etc, etc. I am sure there are many more. For me the functions I have mentioned are just those that would affect the way I use a camera the most. All cameras have their foibles and I know Canons have some of their own too. I also wanted to add that if you don’t use a camera in the way I do, maybe the features I have discussed may have no impact on your choice of body manufacturer, which is fine. I just felt I had to flag up certain things about Nikons which most users do not become aware of until after they have spent a huge amount of money buying into a system of bodies and lenses and are pretty much tied into for the foreseeable future. I just wanted you to go in with your eyes open).
So if you are thinking of switching systems, think long and hard. Don’t just consider IQ. Think about usability and functionality. If you are thinking about buying a DSLR for the first time, think about the same things too. The decision you make now will tie you in to a system, potentially for many years to come.
It’s not all about megapixels. It’s about usability, so that operating the camera becomes simple and invisible. Thus your mind is free to concentrate on what is really important. Composition. Timing. Light. Art. Not faffing about with a bit of kit that just frustrates you.
Really couldn’t agree more. One other thing. Why no mirror lock up on the lower end Nikons? Almost as if its not a very important feature. Quite awkward to sort out on some of the enthusiast bodies as well.
Following our light-hearted banter on twitter, I thought it might be interesting for some of your readers to see what motivated the odd lunatic to switch over to the dark side… 😉 so – my blog from last year:
Just for the record, I am still happy I made the switch. The only frustration I really have with the interface/usability of the Nikon D800e is the drop off in live view quality in low light. For me it’s a price worth paying for the things I enjoy about it.
As a former Canon 1DS3 users, I have to say I find it far more intuitive to use than I did when I borrowed a 5D2 on occasion – I like having all those buttons and switches rather than everything being menu driven. But that’s just personal choice.
I know you agree with me that the most important thing is for people to enjoy using their gear and to get the best out of it they can.
Photographer Mark Voce added this comment to my Facebook page so I have copied it here as he makes some very good points which balance both sides of this debate
Interesting reading Doug, I have actually just sold my beloved 5D2 and jumped on on the Nikon wagon with the D800E. I agree with some of the points you have made especially about the live view, the 5D2 can see though a big stopper where as the D800E cannot but ok.
Also one failing on the Nikon is that it doesn’t display a timer in bulb mode like the Canon does, but on the plus the Nikon has a little door to cover the viewfinder which is so much better than Canon’s idea of a rubber flap to stop stay light when using 10 stop + filters.
Regarding lenses I will have to disagree with your comment about L glass being so good, in my experience having owned 16-35mm f2.8, 17-40mm f4 and 24-70mm f2.8 L lenses for my 5D2 over the years my new Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 and 24-70mm f2.8 are in a different league, much sharper wide open even into the corners, less fall off (although I usually add more vignetting anyway) and much better resistance to flare and strange effects when pointed at point light sources like street lamps (this probably only applies to nocturnal nutters like me).
A few bits on the Nikon that I have found superior to the Canon are …
* Live view has a toggle switch for photo and video mode, this was pain on the Canon as it was buried in the menus. Useful if you shoot both.
* Bracketing, the Canon could only do 3 frames, the Nikon can do 7 useful for HDR. It’s also quicker to setup on the Nikon.
* Mirror lock up, on a dial rather than buried in the menus.
* Built in intervalometer, saves the need for an external controller for simple time lapse.
One thing I still dont understand whether Canon or Nikon, is why on earth the maximum shutter speed is limited at 30 seconds, surely in these days of clean digital sensors this is pointless.
Your comments about usability seem to be limited only to Live View. Is there anything else about Nikon cameras that you find unusable? I did shoot with Nikon for a long time and I originally went for Nikon because of the usability and how it felt in the hand. I simply found no other camera as easy to use, as obvious and as logical. That said, I never used or felt the need to use Live View but if you’re condemning Nikon only because of its inferior Live View, that seems a little bit of a stretch to call the camera unusable.
I only shoot large format film now so my Live View functionality, while far bigger, is even more limited 🙂
The features affect the way I work with a DSLR in a major way. In such a major way they make the bodies unusable FOR ME. But many people love them and get awesome results from them. I’m not saying they are bad cameras, just that some design features drive me mad. Since writing the blog I have had a chance to check the OK button and this does bring the light meter gauge up on the live view screen, so that removes this issue I described. Thank you to those who pointed it out. I have looked at the continuous depth of field and can honestly say having worked with two D800 bodies this weekend that the screen is so grainy and poor (and it Flickers visibly), especially in low light, that despite the fact it shows the DOF continuously it is of zero use. It is unusable. Frankly, the monitor on the Nikon’s is unacceptably poor, compared to the amazing screens on the Canons, especially in low light.