From Canon to Nikon

On September 2, 2008, in Photo, by peterb

Several years ago I entered the digital photography age and bought a DSLR. The other principal at Tea Leaves, psu, is a dedicated Nikon shooter and lent me his Nikon D70 to play with, and another friend of mine lent me a Canon D350 (“Rebel XT”). Both were fine cameras, but I liked the “out of the camera” JPEGs from the Canon a little more, so I went with that. Since that time, Pete and I have developed a friendly rivalry where he has been “the Nikon shooter” and I have been “the Canon shooter.”

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a new camera purchase. I’ve abused my faithful Rebel quite a bit, and although it still works fine, I’ve sometimes chafed at some of the tradeoffs I made. For example, it’s wonderfully small, but the viewfinder is unusable. I was, of course, considering trading up to one of the higher end Canon models, but then I sat back and surveyed what I actually own and I realized my investment is pretty small. My favorite lens is the 50mm f1.8, which was a mere $70. I have a $400 28-135 IS lens which has been dropped on the ground, repaired, and which doesn’t focus so well anymore. And I have a low-end flash unit. With no huge investment in quality glass, why shouldn’t I at least look at Nikon?

“It’ll never work”, said Pete. “You’ve spent three years living, breathing, and thinking Canon. You can’t rewire your brain to a completely different user interface. You’ll hate it.” But I was curious to try the experiment anyway. I contacted Nikon, and they graciously agreed to loan Tea Leaves a Nikon D300 and a very nice lens. I’d like to tell you a bit about my experience.

Before we begin, let me talk about my intention here. My goal is to compare the Nikon user experience to my Canon experience. I’m not, therefore, going to bombard you with zoomed-in crops of photos from cameras by each manufacturer and compare them. The most important determinant of a successful photograph is the photographer. A great photographer can take great photos with a Nikon, a Canon, an Olympus, or a disposable Kodak camera. Higher end cameras open up more options, but don’t change the nature of the activity.

For those of you who are interested, clicking on any of the images here will bring you to a full size version of the image: each is around 10 Mb, so be warned. Or, you can just go to my Flickr page and look at them there.

First Impressions

The D300 is solidly built, heavy, and large. It has a weight and heft that will require positive attention when carrying it. Furthermore, it’s conspicuous: I literally can’t count the number of comments people made about the camera, whereas I’ve never had anyone say anything about a D70 or a Rebel. If you’re looking to fake your way into a press conference without shelling out $5,000 for a Nikon D3, the D300 might be a good choice.

Despite being heavy, it’s an easy camera to one-hand. The shape of the right half of the body combined with the texturing of the external plastic is just about perfect. It fits in your hand like it was meant to be there.

Some “prosumer” photographers seem to have a bee in their bonnet about camera sizes. Lots of people, for example, complain about SLRs that are too small. This has never made sense to me, and it still doesn’t today. The argument seems to go something like this: “I am really, really manly. I have big hands, and if I pick up a little girly camera, my overwhelming masculinity might cause me to accidentally crush it like a bug.” A lot of the people who make this claim will even go out of their way to pay extra for a “vertical grip” that makes their camera even bigger and heavier.

Here’s the thing: I have huge hands. And I’ve never had any problem holding even the most delicate camera. I think this entire topic is one where insecurity issues predominate, and that some people are, shall we say, overcompensating.

I have, however, held cameras that were too big. “Big” in this case doesn’t generally refer to size, but to weight, and to the amount of space it takes to pack it. The D300 with the 17-55 f/2.8 lens was almost too large to fit in my compact Domke F-5XB camera bag, but it just made it in. Although it has a noticeable heft, it was not at all unmanageable. You can wear it around your neck. You can carry it around with you. You can quickly swivel and take surprising shots of passers-by while they’re still reacting:

Jill F

Jill. f/2.8, 1/3200, ISO 800

The other aspect of the D300 that hits you in the face, literally, is the superb viewfinder. Both Canon and Nikon have been guilty of creating cameras with viewfinders that were so bad that you were better off just vaguely pointing the camera in the direction you wanted to shoot and firing blindly. The D300 has a real viewfinder. You can compose with it, you can tell what is in focus and what is not, and you can do all of this without killing your eyesight. I suspect that for some people, the viewfinder by itself is enough reason to get one of these.

Imagined in Your Philosophy

The most frustrating thing about switching, for a Canon shooter, is this: everything is backwards. Everything. The lenses thread the wrong way onto the body. The exposure compensation controls are reversed, with plus being to the left, and minus being to the right. The first day I used the camera was spent (mostly) cursing, because I kept rotating every control the wrong way.

But you know what? By the third day, I had mostly forgotten about this issue. For the most common tasks (taking photos, and setting aperture and shutter speed) both cameras are essentially identical: both provide a simple shutter release button, and both have small scroll wheels to adjust the settings along with an LCD display on the top of the camera as an indicator. Likewise, both cameras have exotic custom functions which are tucked away deep inside the menus, accessible through the rear display. Like learning to drive a new car, you quickly adjust to the differences.

The car analogy, however, isn’t quite right. The modern SLR is more like a small home computer. There are tasks you do all the time, every time you pick up the camera; there are things you only do a few times a shoot; and then there are things you might do only once in a blue moon. The difference in philosophy between Nikon and Canon shows up in how they divide up these tasks.

Nikon, however, seems to offer more options via semi-direct means. To take one example, if you want to turn on auto-exposure bracketing on a Canon 40D, to the best of my knowledge you have to go into the menu system to do it. On the D300 you can use the menu, or you can press the practically invisible button on the lower-right of the body while spinning the quick control wheel. The D300 makes heavy use of this sort of “chording” throughout the UI. It’s both good and bad: once you know it’s there and devote the brain cells to remembering it, you can set things like this very quickly. On the other hand, it means the body is studded with mysterious buttons that are enigmatically labelled.

Perhaps because of this ability to rely on the semi-direct access, I found that even after a month of shooting, I still don’t like the menu system on the D300: it gives equal priority to everything, meaning that finding the really important settings (such as auto-ISO mode) is inevitably a chore. So you can avoid going to the menus as much with the D300, but when you have to go there, it’s not quite as nicely organized as on the low to midrange Canon bodies.

Although I’m skeptical of the “large cameras are easier to hold” philosophy, I cannot deny that the sheer physical presence of the D300 made it noticeably easier for me to convince complete strangers to (a) pose for photos and (b) sign a model release.


Christina the Astonishing. f/5, 1/60th, ISO 560

Our next section focuses on lighting.


4 Responses to “From Canon to Nikon”

  1. Jon T says:

    Canon – perfectly engineered by engineers – for perfect technical photography.

    Nikon – perfectly designed by photographic engineers – for creative photographers.

    The bottom line, from someone who went Nikon – Canon – Nikon, is that Nikon’s have souls and Canons haven’t.

  2. Roy says:

    Why would you post an OOF picture to demonstrate what your D300 is capable of? Also, that kind a noise at’ve got to be kiddin me right?

  3. peterb says:


    I literally have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about with regards to noise. I can’t tell from your words if you’re amazed that there’s so little noise, or so much.

    As I said on the article on focusing, I posted the out-of-focus picture to demonstrate what happens when you bump the small focus knob to the ‘m’ position without realizing it, which is a fairly common problem.

    Thanks for reading,


  4. great objective review, thanks (of course I have always been a Nikon photog and can’t imagine moving to Canon :) ….)