Five Year Retrospective: Switching to Nikon from Canon

Five Year Retrospective: Switching to Nikon from Canon

After a lot of thought and contemplation, I switched from Canon to Nikon five years ago. Each camera system has a lot of pros and cons, but the real question is do I regret the switch?

To get a full picture of my needs, you need some background on my usage. I have been a full-time photographer since 2006, but my income spans several different avenues of photography. My photography then and now is split between corporate work for portraits and events, photographing the main US sports, and weddings and families. I also enjoy shooting landscapes. I shoot everything with dual slots, with raw to slot 1 and JPEG to slot 2 for an immediate backup.

I owned a really broad range of Canon gear, and would need a broad array of Nikon gear to replace it. However, as I decided to buy new Nikon gear and was selling my well loved, I would not be able to afford to replace everything right away. In this chart, you can see all the Canon gear I sold and what purchased to replace it. The items in italics were not purchased initially, but purchased later on. 

Canon gear I owned and the Nikon gear I purchased. Italics on things I purchased after the initial switch.

Having fewer toys was sad, but a lot of lenses like the 24mm f/1.4L and the 45mm f/2.8 TS-E were just rarely used. Not that they weren't great lenses, but rather they didn't fit my style as much as other lenses. 

What Drove Me To Switch

Canon was and is a very good camera system. I had used Canon cameras from a young age with point and shoots to my first film SLR, the Canon Rebel Xs, to my first digital camera the Canon 10D that I used started my business. But a few things bothered me about Canon.

The first issue I had with Canon at the time was with the Canon 5D Mark III. The upgrade in the auto-focus system from the previous generation with only one real usable point was tremendous and it finally had dual card slots. I pre-ordered two as soon as they were announced. However, Canon inexplicably put outdated hardware in the camera for the SD slot, limiting the camera's maximum possible writing speed to 22MB/s no matter how fast your memory card was. So to clear the buffer on these 22-28MB raw files, you had to wait over a second PER file.

The next issue was buffer size. RAW+JPEG shooting like I always do gave me a 6 frame buffer in the Canon 5D Mark III. In the flagship Canon 1D X, I could get 17 frames. The significantly larger file size in the D800 didn't matter, because Nikon gives me 15 frames in the D800 and 53 frames in the Nikon D4. Those numbers are higher for the newer Nikon D4s and D5. Going from 6 and 17 frame buffers to 15 and 53 frames was completely eye-opening. 

The dynamic range was a huge issue for me. If you underexposed a little on the 5D Mark III such as you would to expose for highlights and bring back the shadows, you could have major problems with green and magenta streaking noise as you can see in this Fred Miranda comparison. After using and editing files from friends, I really loved the ability in Nikons to expose for highlights and bring back the shadows without blowing out the sky. Just not possible for Canon cameras. I felt like Canon was focusing more on their video work than their professional photographer work. With the success of the Canon 5D Mark II and all the hype around the video with it, Canon was investing heavily in video for their cinema lineup to the detriment of their stills lineup. The Canon 1D C, C100, C300, and C500 all seem like really capable video cameras that did not serve my needs whatsoever. 

Finally, Canon's service policies bothered me. I paid for the platinum level of CPS service, which I believe was around $500/year, but you received clean and checks for cameras and sometimes other things like a backpack. I sent a Canon 5D Mark III in for a clean and check (free with $500 platinum CPS service) and without asking, they replaced the shutter and charged me for it. I questioned them and they said there was nothing wrong with the shutter, but it was approaching the end of its estimated service life. Getting charged to replace something that was not broken, and that I did not authorize does not sit well with me.

What I Miss About Canon

This is where everyone expects me to say "OMG Canon colors" but I am not going to do it  — sorry. Everything I shoot goes through Lightroom or Photoshop or both, so all images get a custom profile applied to them anyway. I don't find that getting colors how I want them in an image takes me any longer in Nikon than Canon. I do feel like the light and airy trend that many photographers replicate looks a little better in Canon, but that isn't my style. 

What I do miss is two lenses. The Canon 100mm 2.8L IS Macro and the Canon 135mm f/2.0L. These were two of my favorite lenses with Canon. I replaced the Nikon 105mm f/2.8G VR Micro, which is a solid lens, but I felt like the Canon model was a bit sharper, quicker to focus and more accurate. The Nikon is still a good lens, but I prefer the Canon. 

When I switched to Nikon, Nikon only offered the 135mm f2.0D, which is very long in the tooth and not anywhere near as good as the Canon model so I chose not to purchase it. Since I switched, Nikon released the 105mm 1.4G portrait lens and I adore the lens, but it is significantly more expensive than the lighter-weight Canon 135mm f/2.0L. Since that new lens wasn't out yet I decided to go with the Nikon 200mm f/2.0G VR lens rather than the 135mm f/2.0L and the 300mm f/2.8L. The 200mm lens is not great for candids at events, which was my main use for the 135mm focal length, but for portraits, I absolutely adore it. 

Finally, the thing I miss the most was that wheel on the back of my Canon cameras. Reviewing photos or finding a single photo is much easier with Canon than Nikon. Now with the touch screen cameras such as the D500 or D850, this is less of a problem, but I still feel like Canon's system is superior there.

Portrait of a little girl in a football uniform

Portrait of my daughter, Clara, with my Nikon 200mm f/2.0G VR on Nikon D800.

How Difficult Was the Switch Physically 

A lot of things about Canon and Nikon are different. Which direction the camera zooms, how to put on the lenses, body caps, and lens caps and even the shutter speed and aperture controls are just a few examples of what is different physically. The thing that has given me the most difficulty for some reason is how to mount the lens to the body. Everything else seems to adjust really quickly, even when I go back to Canon, but I still find myself having to think about attaching the lens to the camera for some reason. 

Top view of the Nikon D850 camera

Nikon D850 top view with On/Off switch at shutter

I was ready for an ergonomic fight with my muscle memory, but it never really happened, and I found that the Nikon felt much better in my hands. I shoot with two and sometimes even three cameras, so I like to turn the camera off every time I switch bodies so I don't take a million pictures of the floor as it hangs to my side. The Nikon power switch is right on the shutter release, so flipping it on and off with my hand that is already there is quick and easy. Canon, on the other hand, had the power button on the top left of the body, where I am not touching the camera at all, so turning the camera off is not as seamless.

Top view of Canon 5D Mark IV

Canon 5D Mark IV with on-off switch on top left of the camera.

Also, I feel like the buttons and dials are in a more natural place for Nikon than Canon. The front wheel near the shutter release just fits better for me. With Canon, that front wheel is on top of the camera, but with Nikon, it is just in front below the shutter release. The Nikon's feels much more natural for my index finger to spin. Same with the rear wheel. The location on the Nikon means my thumb has to travel less distance than the wheel on the Canon. Still prefer that wheel for reviewing pics, but Nikon's for changing shutter speed/aperture.

Would I Switch From Canon Today

It would take me a lot less reflection to decide than it did five years ago and the answer is yes. I feel like the Canon 5D Mark IV was disappointing compared to the Nikon D850, which might be the most perfect DSLR ever created. The problems I had five years ago still exist. Raw and JPEG shooting in the 5D Mark IV still doesn't give you a buffer over 20. The max burst on the 1D X Mark II is much improved over the 1D X, however Canon used the CFast card in that camera, which is already a dead technology as CF Express — compatible with the current Nikon XQD cards — has been adopted. I would not want to buy into a flagship camera knowing that the memory card I had to buy would not be used in any future camera.

Canon has made huge improvements in noise and dynamic range, but I still feel like Nikon holds the edge here. I don't know what the DXO Mark ratings are for any cameras, but when I sit down and edit the files, I feel like the noise in a Nikon file looks more like natural grain while the noise in a Canon file has a lot more green and magenta in it and has a decidedly more digital look. 

Biggest Positives of the Switch

Switching changed a lot about how I could shoot. I found that I liked to expose for the highlights because I had actual usable shadow detail. This was huge and was probably the biggest adjustment to my shooting style.Not clogging the buffers on a big play was also huge for me. This allowed me to get more emotion and reactions in my shooting without having to worry about laying off the shutter in fear of my buffer clogging and slowly clearing. 

I assumed that the AF would be pretty similar, but was surprised. I feel like Canon's 1D X could achieve initial focus slightly quicker than the Nikon D4, but the Nikon D4 did a much better job tracking a moving object. That has remained true with the D500 and D5 in my experience, though the gap on initial focus is razor thin. I also feel like the Nikons do a better job acquiring focus in extreme low light, such as a wedding reception.

I loved my Canon 85mm 1.2L II and thought I would miss that by switching, but I didn't. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G is more usable by being lighter and focusing better. I never really used the Canon at f/1.2, so only going down to f/1.4 is not really a big deal. 

What System I Would Buy Today

That is harder. When I switched 5 years ago, mirrorless technology wasn't ready for prime time of the professional shooters. Now, we are getting close, but I do not think it has everything I need right now.

What I would buy now, would look similar to what I bought five years ago. However, there would be a few changes. Since newer cameras are out, I would do things a little differently. My four cameras would be the Nikon D5 (dual XQD), two Nikon D850s, and a Nikon D500. I loathe CF cards and love that with this set up, I won't have to deal with them anymore. The D850 and D500 use XQD+SD and the D5 uses dual XQD. I have the card of the future in the XQD and the readily available SD card.

One cool thing with Nikon that I like is that with the battery grip on the D500 and D850, I can use the same batteries as in my D5. So if I am traveling, I can take just one type of battery and one charger rather than packing several of each. That is huge for me.

I would be tempted to get two Nikon D750s for my wedding work, but I just love the D850 so much, it would be hard to downgrade despite the weight savings. Mirrorless still isn't there for me, and I am not willing to give up my beloved 200mm f/2 lens.

My lenses would be the same, except for a few small changes. I would likely save some money by getting the 85mm f/1.8G and 60mm f/2.8 micro rather than the 85mm f/1.4G and the 105mm f/2.8G micro so that I could also afford to buy the spectacular 105mm 1.4G portrait lens. I would also likely get the 24-70mm f/2.8E VR over the 24-120mm f/4 and the newer version of the 70-200mm f/2.8E that did not exist when I bought into Nikon.

I'm often asked if I made more money by switching to Nikon than I did by shooting Canon, and I really have no way to quantify that. I do know I landed some jobs using my D800 where the corporate client was seeking 30+ megapixel files, which I wouldn't have had with Canon at the time. But I have received better service through NPS than I received with Canon CPS, and most importantly, I have enjoyed shooting my Nikons more than I did my Canons. Everything feels much more natural and I am more pleased with the results.

I have absolutely no regrets about the switch, except that I wish I had switched when the D3 came out and my 1D Mark III then 1D Mark IV were giving me so many problems.

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25 Comments

I still shoot with the 5DIII and have no "major problems" with streaking noise. Not even minor problems.

Johnny Rico's picture

Fixed Pattern Noise is one of the main reason's why I left Canon 2 years ago. It's a thing, and It's well documented. The sensors really struggle w/ a shadow lift.

The same for me + absence of spot metering on focus point (it existed on 1D only).

Really depends on the sensor tho, 6D for example is still considered one of the best cameras for "serious" astrophotography (and by that I mean the one with eq mount, stacking etc) because its RAW file output is extremely clean and "unadulterated" with weird noise reductions etc.

I was kinda shocked when I read Canon doesn't have spot metering, my D90 which is a non professional model from 2008 has it!

nikon with sigma art series lens is perfect.

any camera with sigma art lenses is perfect

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

LOL - until you try an Otus! - Zeiss wins at 28mm (vs the ART 24mm), and at 55mm (vs the ART 50mm). They're pretty level at 85m, with the ART slightly ahead.
The ARTs of course have AF - but I don't care about that, I only really use AF with one of my zooms on action stuff.

youre right, I should try the otus lenses on the dance floor at weddings when there is little light.

I sold my 85 1.4 AIS because I just had so many unfocused images. it was a waste of time to use it.

making otus have a HUGE flaw.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I was a Canon shooter to start (5D2 and 1DMK4) and switched to Nikon when they supported the school I worked at with a large consignment of equipment. There were really good people there at Nikon and the service and educational support from them (not just in equipment, but sending people to hold workshops for students) was amazing. The cameras were a little lacking in video, but when I worked with still files out of the Nikon D700/D300 and later a D600 that I bought to replace my Canons I was blown away. The D700 still holds its own even today. I switched back to Canon when I went to work for them and while the 5D3/1DX/6D/80D I bought all had positive points for video and handling, I lost a lot of ability to work with files in post compared to Nikon. DR just wasn't there in that generation. I came back to Nikon again when I left, and the D700/750 combo is great for stills. The second time around I bought the 1.8G versions of the 50 and 85 rather than the 1.4Gs and I don't feel like I really gave up anything. The new Nikon 1.8G series primes are really quite excellent. Interesting to read about your experience doing the same!

You know you can use the shutter speed wheel on Nikon to review images, you just have to enable it during playback and review.

Thomas Campbell's picture

Yes, I have that enabled, but I still prefer Canon's wheel for reviewing photos.

However, for adjusting shutter speed and aperture, I much prefer Nikon's two wheels. So it is what it is. Both are great systems, but overall, I much prefer Nikon's layout and ergonomics, even if I do like this about Canon.

William Howell's picture

Okay, cool, I’m not the only one who has trouble swapping out lenses on the Nikon’s body, it’s counter intuitive. Lefty tighty, righty loosey.

Johnny Rico's picture

I still have that issue to this day, mainly when my mind is elsewhere.Then I have an oh shit moment and hope that I wasnt tweaking on it too hard the wrong way.

I'm glad you pointed this out. I've always been a Nikon shooter and, as such, changing lenses is obviously just instinctive for me. My initial thoughts were 'it's just change that people don't like', but as you point out, it goes against everything from DIY to opening jam jars and bottles!

I've never owned anything other then Nikon and despite I'm used to it it's kind of weird ;)

Edward Blake's picture

There was nothing objectively wrong with this article (I made myself read it before commenting), but it bothers me that consumer behaviour demands the production of such a thing; you made a personal choice, yeah, cool. It equally bothers me that the Internet is saturated with gear reviews, and yet we see very little about art.

It would be fair to say that marketers have caused the majority of people to become fundamentally blind to the point.

Would be great to see some of your art, so we all start to complain less about its absence and can discuss at least something apart from gear?

Edward Blake's picture

I removed my account after I had a run in with three separate trolls, on three separate occasions. These trolls are a permanent fixture around here (although to be fair, two have now been banned.
William Howell remains. ). I have not yet decided whether I want to be a part of this community. However, my photography is quite acceptable.

Edit: all that said, for all you know, my work could be garbage, or I could be brand new and shy. Not having work on display does not invalidate my comment.

Errick Jackson's picture

I would argue that across all forms of vocation, the internet focus a lot on the related gear as opposed to process. But also, the internet is massive and there's a lot of people speaking to the art side of things. You just have to look for it. Art being such a subjective and contemplative endeavor means it's harder to discuss and engage in confidently and often than with gear reviews. And since gear reviews subsequently get more clicks, they are the first things that appear in your Google search which leads to sites engaging in that more. So I get that it bothers you, but I don't know if you're considering why that it is. Also why is it such a bad thing to be heavily interested in the gear side of the equation?

Edward Blake's picture

"I I would argue that across all forms of vocation, the internet focus a lot on the related gear as opposed to process."

Although true, this is a fallacy of relative privation, and in no way negates the point.

"But also, the internet is massive and there's a lot of people speaking to the art side of things. You just have to look for it. Art being such a subjective and contemplative endeavor means it's harder to discuss and engage in confidently and often than with gear reviews."

Yes.

"And since gear reviews subsequently get more clicks, they are the first things that appear in your Google search which leads to sites engaging in that more."

You're repeating what I said in my OP.

However, more interestingly, this is largely a consequence of psychologically trained marketers/advertisers, who have convinced the consumer that they NEED to constantly upgrade to be any good (again, not constrained to photography).

"Also why is it such a bad thing to be heavily interested in the gear side of the equation?"

This question is poorly defined, indeed the word "bad" is subjective, and would first have to be defined. However, objectively, more consumption results in greater externalisations; which is fine, if the only thing you care about is yourself.

D R's picture

What are you on about? The internet is full of art, you're looking at the wrong websites.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

because art cannot be objectively reviewed like hardware, making it more difficult to review in a way that collects internet currency: likes. only a fool argues against established facts. you'd have to be a masochist to choose to review art consistently on youtube, or be arrogant enough to think your opinion on art should be universally accepted. plus, Amazon sells stuff, but not much art, when it comes to monetizing via an affiliate account. monetization is also difficult if you're universally unliked.

besides, reviewing something subjective only opens oneself up to argument as there's obviously little objectivity to fall back on, and in our current day and age where more people value timed reaction rather than measured contemplation, expecting thoughtful and insightful conversation over a subject is often a bridge too far. society has seemingly become too emotionally fragile, yet lack any desire to treat others with respect and consideration when users believe they're anonymous. social media is just one, big "yo momma joke" competition, replying with immature, reductive crap to either induce tears from a target or laughter from others.

generally, when people think they're anonymous they'll say the petty, immature things they're too cowardly to say in real life. the act of doing so online, anonymously, ironically means they're too emotionally stunted to handle it when it's thrown back in their faces.

let's be real: just how well can some troll know you to where a comment they make would hurt you personally? if someone manages to do so, maybe it's not them. some people just have to have the last word, even going so far as to SWAT the other. but expecting everyone online to agree with your opinion is equally silly... but if one party can't disagree respectfully, ignore them; crying oneself to sleep over a comment from some anon online is not something a mentally stable adult does. it's a fool's errand to expect others to suddenly grow up and show common respect and decency. we have to accept that all we have control over is ourselves and how we react.

a 90's internet proverb goes, "arguing on the internet is like competing in the special olympics: even if you win, you're still retarded" still applies. there's just an overabundance of retards since the advent of the smartphone, with more and more becoming one every day.

Andy Luten's picture

How dare you post such reasoned and well-thought commentary instead of reactionary nonsense!

This is timely because I am considering the same switch. The things that are keeping me are 1) inertia; 2) the OOC JPEG colors; 3) all my glass; 4) the interface and its consistency for YEARS over so many models; 5) battery compatibility; and 6) other miscellaneous intangibles. The thing that will get me to switch will be the fact that its IQ just can't keep up with Nikon or Sony, and that the last Oh Wow from Canon was the 5D2 which was over 10 years ago.

Meanwhile the reality is that my shots are fine and with ever-improving software I can clean my 5DS images to almost match the D850. So I may just lumber along with what I have.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

All this stuff is "personal choice". I shoot mainly Nik, but I have one Canon, and I've had a huge amount of fun (and success) with it.
One thing I found seriously difficult with the Canon is the manual - OK so it's electronic and that is NO use out in the field. But apart from that, it's almost illegible, when you get down to deciphering the various symbols, and it's very hard to follow in places even after you decode them. The camera is fine, though.