From Canon to Nikon: Lighting and Exposure

On September 2, 2008, in Photo, by peterb

(Part 1 of this article explains my rationale for answering the question “How hard is it for a Canon shooter to go Nikon?” After a month with a D300, I’m ready to answer that question. If you buy equipment from Amazon via links on this page, or click on the ads, we get a little cash, which helps us maintain this site.)


When I first began shooting, I didn’t have any interest in flash photography whatsoever. Now I do, and that’s one of the things motivating me to look at switching. Nikon has a reputation for having a superior flash system. After shooting with the Nikon D300, I believe it.

The D300′s built-in flash can be used, out of the box, as a remote trigger for Nikon’s speedlites. This is life-changing. It means that without any additional hardware beyond the camera and the flash, you can create interesting and dramatic lighting effects using an off-camera flash, such as the Nikon SB-800:


Long Live the Indissolute Union of the Working Class, the Peasantry, and the Intelligentsia! f/8, 1/250, ISO 200. KatKat B was standing just out of frame to the left pointing the snooted SB-800 at Katie’s face.

The flash compensation also seemed to work a bit better on the D300 than I’ve experienced with other cameras. Generally speaking, I’ve found the flash on my Canon to be a bit too aggressive, even when applying negative flash exposure compensation. The shots I took with the Nikon seemed to be balanced a bit more conservatively. This may simply indicate that I’m using the Canon flash wrongly, but from my perspective it boils down to “I got better results while doing less work using the Nikon.” That matters.

I should observe that one can do wireless off-camera flash in the Canon universe too by buying the STE2 Speedlite Transmitter which presumably contains about $5 worth of circuitry and an IR transmitter, for a mere $200. Buying this device has never been an option for me, because its very existence is too insulting. If you intend to use a vendor-supplied flash unit, it’s very hard to argue with the Nikon value proposition.

The maximum flash sync speed of the D300 is 1/250th of a second, compared to 1/500th on the D70, which seems to me an odd change. The minimum ISO is an ASA 200 equivalent. There is an “ISO extension” mode on the low end that you can use in bright sunlight to get down to about ISO 155, but the classification of this as an “extension” mode confused me, and always made me feel like I was perhaps doing something that Man Was Not Meant To Do. Thus, when shooting with large apertures in bright light with fill flash, I often wished I had either a lower ISO available, or a higher sync speed. I still got decent results without them, though.

Sun Salutation

With off-camera flash, f/4.5, 1/80, ISO 200

If you’ve been wanting to get into a little bit of Strobist-style off-camera photography without shelling out cash for a few Pocket Wizards, then this is a no-brainer: you want to go Nikon. You can still do this sort of work with Canon, of course, but you’ll have to spend more on equipment than you would if you went Nikon.


The D300′s “scene recognition system” is a set of technologies that is intended to improve the camera’s auto-focus, auto-exposure, and auto-white balance behaviors. The D300 nails the proper exposure in most unchallenging (and mildly challenging) situations. I began using the camera with my standard “underexpose by a few stops, for when the camera gets it wrong” technique, but after a couple of days of shooting found that this was usually unnecessary. That was a refreshing change.


f/8, 1/500, ISO 200

When things get really tricky, I didn’t find the D300 to be significantly better or worse than my Canon. Nikon and Canon seem to have slightly differing philosophies with what to do when confronted with a scene that is impossible to expose correctly. Let’s take this photo — which was taken with a Rebel XT, not with a D300 — as an example.


The subject was terribly backlit, but there was plenty of detail in the glass behind her. I didn’t do any special metering for this shot, but just used the evaluative “whole picture” metering mode. In this situations, the Rebel chose to meter for the foreground subject. The D300 in the same situation, using the equivalent Nikon metering mode, would have chosen to avoid losing the highlights in the background, and left the subject underexposed:


Aimee. f/2.8, 1/5000, ISO 200

Neither camera’s predilections are “right” or “wrong” in this situation: sometimes the camera is going to need you to tell it what to do, through spot metering or exposure compensation. But I wanted to call out this difference in exposure philosophy as just one of the things you’ll have to get used to if you decide to switch one way or the other.

The next section of this article discusses autofocus.


3 Responses to “From Canon to Nikon: Lighting and Exposure”

  1. J says:

    On this is though your comparing the XT to D300 wouldn’t a fairer comparison be 40D/50D to D300?

  2. colu says:

    Nice review, but your website with the frames is stupid. It’s hard to read the article on a laptop screen and not all of us have super high rez monitors. The frame doesn’t even allow us to open the content in another window – to read each sentence means i have to scroll ever so slightly left or right just to read the last character. Why not just make it easy for everyone and put a decent margin on both sides of the text ?

  3. psu says:

    Random note: the change in flash sync speed vs. the D70 has to do with the fact that the D70 uses an “electronic” shutter for speeds above 1/125 or something. Essentially all they do is turn the CCD on and then off really quickly. This means that the D70 can sync with flash at any speed, they just cap it at 1/500th arbitrarily. This makes the D70 arguably Nikon’s best body for doing outdoor flash work, assuming you can live with the older sensor.

    The D40 also has this feature.