Canon vs. Nikon

It’s near impossible to talk about Canon (see my thoughts about the EOS 50D) without mentioning Nikon. I was a longtime Nikon user during the film age (up to 2003), but switched to Canon. Canon’s revolutionary EOS SLR system, introduced in 1987, is more modern and well-suited for electronics-integrated cameras. Canon realized early on that electronics was going to be more important in cameras. They also put the AF motor in the lens rather than in the camera body, making it much more efficient and faster.

Nikon’s SLR system is based on a system from the 1950s when cameras were mainly mechanical and electronics was largely limited to metering systems. They’ve done pretty well in developing work-around technologies for their DSLRs, but their SLR system was not originally designed to integrate sophisticated electronics, so it has its limits.

After the Canon EOS system came out, Nikon should have done the same by developing a totally new and modern SLR foundation geared for the camera electronics age. But they understandably did not want to shut out longtime and loyal users who would not be able to use their old lenses with an electronic lens mount. This strategy has proved to be a hindrance in the long term. Nikon has also been a very conservative company, taking a wait-and-see attitude and mimicking Canon innovations (reminding me of Windows always copying the Mac). We have seldom seen any bold, groundbreaking steps taken by Nikon in the digital age (except for the D1x).

On the other hand, Canon has forged ahead, building on a solid electronic foundation for SLRs. Time and again, I’ve been impressed by Canon innovations, especially the CMOS sensor which they adopted early on and refined it to the point that made it superior to CCD sensors. They develop and manufacture their own CMOS sensors (Nikon probably uses Sony sensors). By doing so, they can better integrate their camera system with sensor technologies. The imaging sensor is the heart of the DSLR and such an important component. It’s comforting to know that Canon makes the sensors in their DSLRs. (When a camera maker works with a third-party sensor maker, they do not fully share their propriety technologies with each other for fear of the other stealing the technology and developing its own sensor or camera. So they cannot fully integrate their technologies as much as Canon can seamlessly in-house.)

Canon also developed and popularized lens-based AF motors, Image Stabilizer lenses, and affordable IS lenses. They were the first to produce the entry-level DSLR in 2003 at groundbreaking prices. Meanwhile, Nikon has always played catch-up. In the digital age, Nikon has never had the image of being an innovator except for their D1x which existed while Canon still had no professional DSLR. Canon has always been a constant innovator and groundbreaker.

In recent years, Nikon’s behavior or strategy has dumbfounded me. Remember when they declared that they would never produce a full-frame DSLR? That their DX system would be adequate forever? I thought it was foolish to say something like that, which no doubt made many people hoping for a full-frame Nikon switch to Canon. Well, not long after telling us this lie, they came out with a full-frame model. Why did they have to lie about it? Why not say the opposite instead and maintain the hopes of their fans? I thought it was a major PR blunder. That’s why it created a major sensation (in the Nikon world) when Nikon finally introduced a full-frame camera. To Canon fans, it was “been there, done that (years ago).”

In Oct. 2008, the Nikon D90 made a big splash as being the world’s first DSLR to have a movie mode. However, it cannot autofocus and you can’t shoot longer than 5 min. at top resolution so this movie mode is of little practical use. It’s just a gimmick right now, and something the marketing dept. probably wanted just so they could say the “World’s first DLSR with movie mode.” Over-hyped for sure. (The EOS 5D Mark II’s movie mode has AF and shoots 12 min. continuously, but the movie mode in DSLRs is still in its infancy.) And their latest DSLRs having 51 AF points only to exceed Canon’s 45 AF points is obviously a marketing ploy rather than a technology breakthrough. Nine AF points is enough.
What else… Oh yeah, Nikon does not provide image-processing software with their cameras. It is sold separately. And in the US, they can’t even pronounce “Nikon” correctly.

Another major factor in favor of Canon is its sheer size, scale, and prominence. Canon Inc. is a behemoth corporation that dwarfs Nikon. Canon’s capital, number of employees (over 130,000 vs. Nikon’s less than 5,000), and annual revenue are several times larger than Nikon’s. Canon has a much stronger and diverse product lineup with office equipment and other products besides cameras. The Canon brand is more prominent, we see it more often than the Nikon brand, on copying machines, printers, etc. Canon’s CEO is also the current head of the prominent Keidanren (Japan Business Federation). Canon’s social status in Japan’s corporate world is higher than Nikon’s. It’s more prestigious to be working for Canon than for Nikon. Canon is in fact one of the most admired and respected companies in Japan.

I can easily surmise that Canon has a much larger R&D budget, more resources, and more engineering talent than Nikon. I would imagine that the brightest engineers would rather work for Canon than for Nikon. The natural result is more innovations and superior products in the short and long term. Canon simply has a firmer and broader foundation technology-wise, a stronger and richer business backbone, more people, and vision. Canon is also probably less vulnerable to economic downturns than Nikon.

If you happen to be a Nikon fan, stick with Nikon by all means. They need your support. (Either that or you have too many Nikkor lenses to switch over.) But if you want to switch to Canon, there would be many logical and good reasons to do so.

Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter what brand your camera is. (But if you still want to debate over it, I present you the argument above.) It’s the photographer which matters the most. He or she is the one who takes and creates the pictures, and if you’re happy with the results, then that’s all that matters.

My new Canon EOS 50D

Prices of Canon’s midrange D-SLRs have finally come down enough for me to see a very good price-to-performance ratio. The price of the 50D body is now about the same as the price of the body of the EOS 300D/Kiss Digital five years ago (about 100,000 yen). I’m pleased to see this development even though it was predictable.

Furthermore, I was happy to see that Canon finally offered an 18-200mm IS kit lens for the camera. This lens was the deal clincher for me, and I bought the 50D lens kit last month. There were countless times while shooting when I wished I had such a lens.

My first impression of this impressive camera is that it’s significantly heavier and larger than the 400D/Kiss Digital X which I was using, but not excessively so like the 1D series. I think it’s a good compromise between high performance and size/weight considerations. Meaning that I would still be willing to carry it with me almost everywhere all day long. I’m mainly a travel and outdoor photographer so size/weight is a major issue for me. The 18-200mm lens is also significantly heavier than the 400D kit lens, but still worth carrying around since I no longer have to carry two lenses to cover the wide angle and telephoto shots. Since I won’t change lenses often, there is less chance of dust entering the camera.

Another major difference is the camera controls. The entry-level EOS D-SLRs do not have the rear dial like the midrange models always had. So if you’re stepping up from the Rebel/400D series to the 40D/50D, the first thing you have to learn and get used to is the rear dial.

At first, I kept turning the wrong dial. When you press a button, you have to remember which dial (top or rear) to turn to set something. The top buttons have a dual function settable with the top or rear dial. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it soon.

Another thing is that there are two display panels, top and rear. The 400D has only one panel on the rear, so you just look at one place for viewing images and camera settings. After you take a picture, you can view the image on the LCD monitor, then look at camera settings on the same display panel. If necessary, you can change any setting while still looking at the LCD monitor.

On the 50D, you can view camera settings on the top LCD panel as well and it displays everything that the rear LCD monitor can display. So it seems superfluous, but it will come in handy if you shoot at a low angle and cannot view the rear LCD monitor.

If you’re used to looking at a large LCD panel always clearly displaying the camera settings in large type, you will squint when looking at the 50D’s top LCD panel. I can hardly bear to look at the 50D’s top display panel for anything. It’s just too small and drab-looking. The ISO speed and exposure compensation scale are legible, but the white balance icons other than “AWB” are just too tiny, like a pinhead. It’s also hard to see in low light and pressing the illumination button (while your fingernail scratches the flash head) is troublesome. I need to clearly and quickly see the camera settings at all times, under all ambient light levels.

Only the rear LCD monitor enables me to do this, so what I do is, press the INFO button to display the camera settings on the glorious, 3-inch rear LCD monitor in full color (see image at bottom). Whenever I turn on the camera or press the shutter button, this INFO screen is displayed. And when you get used to that, you don’t ever want to look at the top LCD panel again unless you really have to.

My only concern is the battery power feeding the rear LCD monitor. With the camera settings display always on, I’m sure it drains the battery faster. In which case, you have the option to turn it off. Well I definitely want the nice big screen to display the ISO speed, exposure compensation, etc., whenever I shoot, so I will be purchasing at least 2 spare batteries to feed this desire.

Another thing about the camera is that it provides multiple ways of doing things (like setting the ISO or exposure compensation) and you have to figure out which way is best for you. The only way to figure out which is the best is to try the different methods while shooting. Sooner or later you’ll find one way that you like the best. I’m finding it easier to use the joystick to select an option on the Quick Control screen and turning either dial to set it. Easier than pressing a dual-function button on the top and trying to remember which dial to turn to set something.

After using the 50D for a while and then going back to the 400D, the 400D feels almost like a toy camera.

Here are my other positive and negative thoughts about my 50D so far:

Positive stuff

    – The camera is fast. Lot more snappier than any entry-level DSLR. Continuous shooting at 6 fps and large buffer (with UDMA card) were the main reasons why I bought this camera.
    – The camera feels ergonomic, grippy, solid, rugged, and weather-resistant. It certainly boosts your confidence as a photographer.
    – The high ISO noise level is much better than the 400D. Even at ISO 1600, noise is very noticeable with the 400D, whereas it’s almost non-existent with the 50D. I’m very impressed with the noise level. Another good reason to upgrade from an entry-level camera. Although there have been reports that the 50D’s noise level is slightly worse than the 40D’s, in real-world shooting, the difference is not noticeable.
    – The 18-200mm lens suits the 50D very well. But on the 400D, it makes the camera off-balance and front-heavy.
    – Quick Control screen displays all the camera settings on one screen and you can easily select and set any of the settings with the joystick control and dial. (Quick Control screen is not provided on the 40D.)
    – A focusing screen with grid is available.
    – AF speed is faster than the Nikon D300 + 18-200mm. I tried focusing with both cameras in a camera store and AF was noticeably snappier with the 50D.
    – Customizing the camera is great. We can assign the desired function to the SET and FUNC buttons. Also set My Menu and Custom Functions. Also add the photographer’s name to the image’s Exif info.
    – Big and high-res 3-inch rear LCD monitor.
    – Camera price is now very reasonable. In Japan, it is less than 150,000 yen as of this writing, including the 18-200mm lens.

Negative stuff

    – When you use the built-in flash with the EF-S 18-200mm IS lens, a dark, semi-circle shadow sometimes appears at the bottom edge of the image (usually for close-range or when the lens is extended). This problem is worse when you attach a hood to the lens.
    – You can’t really tell from looking at pictures of it, but the vertical grip is excessively bulky and certainly adds to the weight. Wish they could make it slimmer. After all, it’s the same grip for no less than four EOS cameras.
    – The auto white balance and tungsten white balance settings do a poor job under tungsten lighting. The orange color cast is still very prominent under both settings. This is a common problem among EOS DSLRs. You have to set a custom white balance for tungsten lighting.
    – The 400D’s wireless Remote Controller which enables you to trigger the shutter when you’re in a group shot does not work with the 50D. The 50D does not have any cheap, wireless Remote Controller. With the self-timer, you have only 10 sec. to run back to the group, tell everyone to smile, and hope for the best. And to take another shot, you have to go back to the camera to press the shutter button. Wish there was continuous self-timer shooting as with the 450D or a Remote Controller. The entry-level DSLRs as well as the 5D Mark II has the cheap wireless Remote Controller so it’s puzzling why it’s not in the 50D.
    – The 18-200mm lens does not have the quieter and faster ring USM. I would be willing to pay extra for USM.
    – No movie mode. This is not a major complaint since I use a video camera for movies, but it is a major feature that will be found on the 60D I’m sure. Can’t wait another year though.
    – The viewfinder eyepiece cover (attached to the camera strap) is too troublesome to use. You have to first remove the eyecup to attach the eyepiece cover. There’s no built-in eyepiece cover. It’s a minor problem though, and applies to other EOS D-SLRs.
    – An insecure feeling that the camera will be replaced in one year or so. Even so, I think this baby will last me until the price of the 5D Mark III gets low enough for the next step up.

Camera settings display look better here on the 3-in. LCD color monitor than on the drab-gray top LCD panel.

I think midrange cameras will get more popular since prices have come down to affordable levels while the features and performance keep improving. More people among the millions who bought an entry-level DSLR during the past 5 years will want to upgrade to a midrange camera. Camera marketing departments have hitherto targeted compact camera users to upgrade to entry-level DSLRs. From now, I think they had better also target entry-level users to upgrade to midrange models. It’s a viable market segment which now know what an SLR can do and might want to go further.

And those people who bought a midrange camera during the past 5 years will want to migrate to full-frame models. The 5D is steadily on its way to reaching the ideal price point of 200,000 yen or less for the body.

Update: I sold this 50D body in Feb. 2010 and bought the EOS 7D a day later.

Also see my take on “Canon vs. Nikon.”

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