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Which is Better: Canon vs Nikon

Canon vs NikonOh God...not another debate of Canon vs Nikon and Nikon vs Canon. Does't the internet have enough of this drivel? Yes, yes it does. But the internet forums and Flickr comments are unyielding on this topic and I still get a lot of questions from students about which one is better. It seems it's up to me, Ken Rockwell, and just a few other no-BS bloggers to fight off the hoards of Canon and Nikon fanboys.

If you're a regular reader here, you know that I don't buy in to marketing hype and I often disagree with the masses out there on the interwebs when it comes to topics like how many megapixels you really need and whether or not you should get a full-frame camera. So I'm hoping you'll trust my words here in the Canon vs Nikon debate.

So then, which is it? Nikon or Canon?

My short answer is this: it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. Neither is better, neither is worse. You'd be happy with either of them. I've used almost every model on the market from both manufacturers, I've taught students on just about every model available, I am very, very familiar with the differences between each, and I'm telling you that it's 6 of one, half a dozen of the other. It's Toyota or Honda, Coke or Pepsi, Duracell or Energizer. It's whatever you prefer.

I've even heard stupid things like "If you're into landscapes, you go with Nikon, but if you're into sports and wildlife, you go with Canon." Where that nonsense came from, I have no idea. Neither system is better for one type of photography or another. Certain camera models might be better for certain types of photography than others, but even then it's not often a big deal.

What do pros use more? Probably Canon. More people use Canon - amateurs, pros, whatever. Not because Canon is better but because they have a bigger market share. They have for 10 years running. Simple as that. Maybe it's better cameras, or maybe it's marketing, the color scheme, cunning executives...I don't know.

My biggest idol in photography, Galen Rowell, was a Nikon man. But I shoot Canon, Mamiya, Shen-Hao, Nikon, even Polaroid. So it doesn't even matter what your idolized pro of choice uses. Many of the most iconic and respectable photographers out there don't even make a big deal out of the equipment they use unless they are sponsored by that manufacturer. I use Canon DSLRs, but if Nikon came knocking with a big paycheck and a box full of cameras, I'd be an instant convert.

But really, you should be very suspicious of anyone who is a huge fan of either. There's nothing wrong with loving your equipment, but no one should really have any major loyalty to either brand unless they are getting compensated for that loyalty. Wearing a wristband that resembles a coveted Canon lens or sporting a shirt that proudly states "I shoot Nikon"...might as well wear a shirt that says "I'm new to photography and I'm really just into it for the equipment."

All that being said, I tend to recommend Canon over Nikon when students are shopping for their very first camera. But if they already have their eye on a Nikon or they already have some Nikon gear, I tell them to go with Nikon. But either way, let me break down my viewpoint on this matter into more specific categories:

Image Quality:
It's quite simple, neither has a leg up in image quality. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. I admit that some of Canon's cameras may have better image quality than some of Nikon's cameras and vica versa, but on the whole, neither manufacturer is consistently better in the image quality department than the other. And besides, this is hugely subjective. You may favor a camera with richer blues and greens whereas I may favor one with stronger yellows and reds. Canon and Nikon both create excellent image quality. Even the worst, bottom-of-the-line, entry-level camera from either manufacturer will kick the you-know-what out of the top of the line cameras from 5 years ago.

Megapixels:
Trust me, you don't need as many megapixels as you think. 18 megapixels is way more than enough for prints probably 6 feet long. Anything more than that, like Nikon's ridiculous 36-megapixel D800, will cause more trouble than it's worth. Both manufacturers should knock it off with the megapixel battles. They're forcing us all to get faster computers, bigger hard drives, and more memory cards all for what? So we can share our pictures on Flickr and Facebook, maybe print a 16x24 now and then? You could use an 8-megapixel camera for that. Click here to read an article I wrote about how many megapixels you really need.

Controls and User-Friendliness:
This is the one and only category where I feel Canon edges out Nikon. Canon cameras are more user-friendly in almost all respects and their control layout is more logical. Ah...You feel that? That's the feeling of Nikon fanboys trembling with dissent to that statement. But I stand by it. I don't say this is a personal preference kind of thing. I don't mean that prefer Canon's control layout, I'm saying that Canon cameras are more intuitive and I can prove it. Read this article for my proof. I've taught hundreds and hundreds of students on both Canon and Nikon through group classes, one-on-one lessons, and online photography courses. It's based off this experience that I say many of Canon's controls are easier to learn, they are more intuitive, they require less explanation, and they leave less opportunity for confusion. Of course, not all of the controls are better on a Canon - Nikon does have a leg up on some things like the white balance control and flash options, but Canon cameras are just a bit more user-friendly. But whatever the case, you can get used to whatever control system you want. Once you do, the other camera's controls will seem ridiculous and backwards.

Build Quality:
Some Nikons feel really nice and solid, built like a tank. Some Canons do, too. Those are their higher-end, more expensive weather-sealed cameras. They also each produce some cameras and lenses that feel like they'd break if you sneezed in their general direction. Bottom line is you gotta feel it in your hands to know which one you want. And remember that better build quality usually equates to more weight and cost. Also, I know it seems like you're really punishing your camera with the conditions you shoot in, but you're not. Even the cheapest DSLR can withstand very rough weather and even rougher handling. The high-end built-like-a-tank models are designed to withstand the tortures of real-life combat, 100% humidity, driving rain, mud, rocks, and whatever else a National Geographic photographer can throw at it. The rest of us don't need such protection.

Ergonomics:
Again, both manufacturers make some cameras that feel like they were built for your hands. They also each make some cameras that feel like you need a second thumb just to hold it right. Find the camera that fits your hands best, regardless of manufacturer.

Lenses:
Both companies have huge R&D departments for new lenses, both offer top-of-the-line optics, and both are on the cutting edge of lens design. Each manufacturer has equivalent lens options, too. You'd be hard-pressed to find a lens by either manufacturer that doesn't have a suitable counterpart in the other. I will point out, though, that Nikon cameras are often compatible with Nikon lenses from as far back as the 1970's, which is kind of cool. But let's be realistic...with how insane everybody is today about getting the best quality lens, how many shooters are really going to opt for an old manual-focus lens from an era of lower-quality glass?

Conclusion:
Don't get caught up in the Canon vs Nikon debate. It's all a bunch of hot air. Great photos come from great photographers, not great cameras. Some of the most iconic photos in our history came from equipment that makes a camera phone look like professional gear. What matters is technique, composition, knowing how to use your equipment, and an ability to capture the right moment under the right light. Camera gear are just tools. Nothing more.

The Virtues of Film: Tangibility

This is the first in my new series of posts under the heading of "The Virtues of Film." With my recent venture back in to film, I often get asked "why'd you go back?" I usually respond with "I could write a book on why I've gone back to film." So here it is, the first chapter in said book. 

The Virtues of Analog PhotographyThese are photographs, not 1's and 0's

Those of you who are close to me know that I'm "old timey" at heart. I like the whole vibe of the turn of the century - late 1800's to early 1900's. The fashion, the technology (or lack thereof), the fact that things were built in America, the robust cast iron construction of old machinery and the way things were designed back then, the muted colors, the music...I just dig it. The way I designed my website is a perfect reflection of my affinity for the old timey style. I even dress old timey when I'm in the mood.

But it goes beyond simply the look and feel of these old times. There's something else to this period in history that speaks to me. And the best way I can describe it is in one word: tangibility.

It was a time when dialing a phone meant rotating a wheel that had some resistance to it instead of tapping intangible pixels representing faux-3D buttons on a glass screen. We wrote letters on paper with ink and dropped them in a mailbox. Now we shift pixels around on a computer screen, sending a bunch of 1's and 0's out into the ether that we trust will be reconstituted into a matching arrangement of pixels at the recipient's end.

Pixels have replaced tangible maps, books, calculators, phones, notepads, record players, phonebooks, and even money. Yes, money. Think about it. You get your direct deposit, you see the pixels change in your online bank statement, you pay bills electronically, the pixels change again. How much of your money do you actually get to hold and touch?

Pixels have replaced things. The tangibility of our daily lives isn't what it used to be.

I know, I know. I love my iPhone, too. The digital revolution is awesome and it amazes me every day what we can do with it. Information is always at our fingertips and everything is accessible now. It's great.

But I feel like this degradation of tangibility is unhealthy for society. We need tangibility. It's gratifying. We all know it's gratifying. That's why it feels so good to build something yourself instead of buying it or hiring someone to make it. It's why a long day of spring cleaning is ultimately so rewarding. You accomplished a goal or you created something. You did it, you can look at the finished product, you can touch it, everyone else can see it and touch it, and it ain't going anywhere just because you turn the power button off on your computer.

This is a big factor in why I shoot film. I like the tangibility of it. It's rewarding.

One thing I've always hated with digital is that it leaves me feeling like something's missing. There was always a small void in me at the end of a shoot. After all the effort, time, and planning I put in to creating a photo, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. Sure, I had pixels on a screen that represented what I captured, but nothing more than that. All it took was a power outage for my pictures to be unreachable.

Digital photos don't exist on their own. They only exist in the presence of electricity and a computer screen.

I don't like that about digital photography. I can't touch my digital photos or hold them in my hand. I could only look at them on a powered up computer screen or phone. Sure, I could touch a print, but that's not the original. A print is just a facsimile of the original creation. I want to touch and feel the original. And the original digital photo is just a bunch of 1's and 0's on a hard drive that looks like nothing more than a clump of metal.

With analog photography, I have a roll or sheet of film that I can touch. I physically put that film in my camera, made an exposure, then I put it in chemicals I could smell and that I mixed in a jug with weight and heft to it. I clipped that film to a clothesline to dry. Then I looked at those images on a light table that I could touch before storing them in binders that I have to open and close and store on shelves in my office. And even if I have a lab develop the film for me (like I do with color film), I have exposed film that I hand off to another human being who will then return it to me in a box that I can open and touch. It's all tangible. It's all actually really there. It's all there for me to touch and see. And I don't even need electricity to do it. I just need a window with some sunlight behind it.

35m film slide in front of windowLook, ma! No electricity!

For me, this tangibility with film puts it on a completely different level than digital. It's the difference between the tactile experience of driving a car versus playing a racing video game. And for all you digital fanboys out there thinking "That's ridiculous. I now it's not that different. The instant gratification of digital, the freedom to take as many photos as you want, and the fact that it's really all just photography anyway - there are a million reasons why digital is better and more rewarding."

Well, maybe "to each his own." But I wouldn't go waving the flag for digital until you've used both extensively. Who knows? Maybe there is a big void in your photography that you don't even know is there. Maybe your photography could be a thousand times more rewarding than it already is. And with how rewarding digital photography already is, imagine how much greater it could be with film.

But don't get me wrong. Film isn't for everybody. Digital is much better for many subjects like sports, family photos, wildlife in many cases... Besides, film never fails to weed out the real photographers from the fair-weather pixel jockeys of the digital revolution.

How Many Megapixels Do You Really Need?

With the recent announcement of the 36.3 megapixel Nikon D800 and D800E, I figured it was high-time I write a blog post about megapixels and how many you really need.

First things first: You should understand that I'm not a gear head. I love my equipment as much as the next guy, but to me, these are just tools in the hands of someone who knows how to use them or not. I don't care about Nikon vs. Canon, I don't need a coffee mug shaped like my favorite lens, I don't want a wrist-band that looks like the lens barrel of my 24-70mm and I'm not about to wear a t-shirt that announces my brand-loyalty to the world.

So when I talk about gear and camera specs, I'm looking at it from a realistic, practical application type viewpoint. No MTF charts, no side-by-side images, no bias towards one brand - I'm giving it to you straight. I'm also trying to talk you out of spending more money, so listen up 😀

Alright, so let's get down to the nitty gritty: How many megapixels do you really need?

To put it simply, it all boils down to how big you want to print. Or better yet, how big you will print. That's a more realistic way to look at it. Because I would love to print gallery-quality billboards, but let's be honest, I'm not going to.

Let's look at some common print sizes and see how many megapixels you'd need to print that size natively (meaning straight out of the camera with no "blowing up" the image). These calculations are done with a 300 DPI print quality for all prints below 20" in the long edge and at 200 DPI for anything above 20" in the long edge. Why? Because that's how photo labs work.

But really, where do most people's images end up? Facebook, email, Flickr, etc. Not many people print very many of their images. It's almost all digital sharing now. So let's look at the megapixels required for some common digital sharing avenues.

So think about all your pictures and where they all end up. How often do you print 24x36? What about 16x24? How about anything above 8x12?

The truth of the matter is most people's pictures rarely end up larger than 8x12. Even fewer go above 16x24. Hardly any print at 20x30 or larger. Of course I'm not talking about professional photographers, but even then, anything above 16x24 isn't the lion's share of their work.

But let's say you do want the ability to print all the way up to 30x45. Does that mean you need a 54 megapixel camera? No! Of course not! 54 megapixels is what you'd need to print straight out of the camera at 30x45 with loupe-worthy detail. You don't need that. With just a little blowing up of the file using software like Alien Skin Software's Blow Up (that's what I use) or Photoshop's built-in resizing tool, you can get great results from 18 megapixels. I know that sounds hard to believe, but I've printed at 30x45 from my 12.8 megapixel camera with results that were good enough to sell as fine art pieces to an art buyer.

The quality of a blown-up file definitely isn't as good as a native 54 megapixel file, but trust me, the difference in quality isn't worth the $31,000 price tag. Plus, you have to realize that larger prints are always viewed from further away. A huge 30x45 print isn't meant to be viewed from 3 inches away. People will look at it from whatever distance allows them to see the entire image. The bigger the image, the further back they need to be. And the further back the viewer is, the better the quality will look.

I print gallery-quality 20x30 prints all the time from my 12.8 megapixel files. That means I blow my files up to nearly double the original size and the results are great!

But if you have the money, why not buy the highest-megapixel camera you can? Well, there are a couple drawbacks to having a ton of megapixels. The first is measurable and obvious: more megapixels means bigger files. Bigger files means more memory cards and more hard drive space. For instance, my 12.8 megapixel camera produces RAW files in the neighborhood of 13 MB. So, I can fit around 79 photos in 1 GB. A 21.1 megapixel RAW file is around 25 MB. So, you could fit 41 images in 1 GB. And the Nikon D800 with its 36.3 megapixel sensor will produce RAW files around 40 MB. That will give you a mere 26 images in 1 gigabyte. That's less than a roll of film!

Given that memory cards and hard drives are pretty cheap nowadays, that might not be a big deal to you. But the other thing that people fail to acknowledge is the extra strain on your computer. Processing 36 megapixel RAW files will take quite a bit more computer power than processing 12 megapixel RAW files. Your computer will act sluggish when you work and you'll have a harder time running multiple programs at once. You may have to get a new computer altogether.

Another drawback to ultra-high megapixels is a little less measurable but, ultimately, much more expensive.

An ultra-high resolution sensor will create ultra-high resolution images that, when viewed 100% on the computer, will reveal every single little flaw in your lenses, subjects and your technique. Your 18-135mm lens that looked great on your 18 megapixel camera suddenly looks a little soft at 36 megapixels. Also, all those little blemishes that make us all human now look like huge blemishes!

This will lead to new, more expensive lenses in that never-ending quest for perfect sharpness and lots of extra Photoshop time removing blemishes. And it will all be for nothing, because although now your 36 megapixel images look great at 100% on your computer, all of your money spent on top-notch lenses and Photoshop plugins will be lost on the 0.7 megapixel file you sized-down for email and Facebook.

So really, don't put down a deposit on the D800 just yet. You probably only need about 18 megapixels at most. No reason shelling out $3000-$4000 so you can throw away half your megapixels with every image you take.