GEAR TALK | Why I (Finally) Switched to Nikon
Since I started in photography about 15 years ago, I’ve used Canon. I have always loved Canon’s color science (still the best IMO), flash system, lens lineup, and the intuitive, user-friendly ergonomics and interface. I’ve enjoyed a nice, occasional working relationship with Canon throughout the years too. My images have been used on product boxes and in numerous promotional campaigns, they featured me years ago in a big promotional video campaign, and Canon has invited me to be a keynote speaker at conferences in Europe, which made for great exposure and nice family vacations as well. I have always been proud to use and represent Canon photo equipment.
Canon’s chronic stagnation in the sensor department, however, ultimately became too much to bear. With Nikon and then Sony continuing to make strides in high ISO and dynamic range performance in their full-frame sensors, I decided about a year and a half ago to flirt with other options. Upon hearing this, my wife immediately said, “Wait, does that mean we don’t get to go to Europe anymore?!” Well, probably so, but I made my move anyway :-)
Since, as shown above, I do a bit of everything in my nature photography — landscapes, macro, birds, wildlife, camera traps, remote wide angle setups, aerials — I wanted a high-resolution body like my beloved Canon 5DsR but with improved dynamic range and high ISO performance for landscapes and wildlife and better AF and frame rate capabilities for action. The Sony a7RIII seemed to fit the bill and, I thought, would allow me to ease into the mirrorless world by letting me transition over while using my Canon lenses. B and H Photo Video loaned me a Sony a7RIII body to review, and I even ended up buying it, thinking that I would grow into it eventually. You can read my thoughts on the Sony a7RIII during this transition but, in the end, I found that I did not like mirrorless for the kind of work I do, and I particularly was not a fan of Sony’s implementation of mirrorless.
Mirrorless restricted me in many ways (battery life, durability, the EVF lag, use of flash). I also quickly tired of always having to concentrate on where to find things in the giant Sony menus. In sum, I found mirrorless to be inefficient and less enjoyable for my style of shooting. I realize mirrorless is the future, and many people love it. Many people love Sony mirrorless cameras. That’s fine with me as Sony is really pushing the technology, and it’s great that we have lots of options. Mirrorless simply isn’t the right choice for me and my photography right now.
So, after my flirtation with mirrorless, I decided I wanted to stick with DSLRs for as long as I could. That left me with two options.
First, I could wait for Canon to come out with a new DSLR that would combine the best features of the 5DsR (high megapixel count) and the 5DIV (good high ISO and dynamic ranger, faster frame rate). But that did not seem likely to happen. Even if it did, it seemed likely that the sensor performance would still lag behind that of Nikon and Sony.
Second, I could switch systems to Nikon and use the already existing Nikon D850 as my camera body of choice. That body offered exactly what I wanted for everything I do in my nature photography, and I’m quite familiar with Nikon camera bodies. So, switching would not entail a steep learning curve. Plus, Nikon appears to be committed to putting out a successor to both the D850 and the D5 next year. So, switching to Nikon would put me in a position to be able to use great, cutting-edge DSLR bodies for quite some time into the future.
The amazing dynamic range of the Nikon D850 allowed me to capture both highlight and shadow detail in one shot in this incredibly high contrast scene as the sun rose over Lake Sarmiento in Chile’s Patagonia region.
Despite my reservations about the complexity of switching systems while residing overseas (you can read more here), I decided to leave things to fate. Late last year, a friend in Costa Rica expressed interest in buying my backup body, the Canon 7DII. He really needed it, so I chose to sell it to him for a really good price and then to go with the flow, selling off Canon gear as the opportunities presented themselves. I knew that this would entail a multiple-month period where I would be without a full kit but I opted to take the risk. Things kept selling, and in May of this year I found myself without a camera and lens, save for my phone and my drone!
As I prepared to leave for Chile to lead my annual photo workshop there, I negotiated with my good friend and Chilean photographer Rodrigo Moraga to buy his lightly used Nikon D850 and his Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary lens for Nikon. Rodrigo is very into his Fuji mirrorless system and was ready to sell his DSLR gear. It worked out for both of us, and I was back in business and on my way with Nikon.
I photographed this pair of smooth-billed ani in amazing Rembrandt light at the end of the day in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I stopped down to f/9 for added depth of field, and the D850 allowed me to capture a remarkably clean 46 megapixel image at ISO 4000. This is the full-frame image.
I’ve taken the opportunity to downsize my kit somewhat to make it easier to travel. I’ve also chosen lenses that have the 77 mm filter thread diameter that I’ve used so that I didn’t have to buy new filters and filter holder systems. And by using Godox flashes, I saved myself the hassle of having to buy new flashes.
How’s that? Godox flashes will work with any camera system out there, even in TTL with full high-speed sync capability. I simply bought a Godox wireless flash transmitter for Nikon, and I was ready to flash again with the Godox flash units I already owned. How cool is that?!
All in all, I actually made about $200 on the switch from Canon to Nikon by choosing my gear carefully, by buying lightly used or refurbished when possible, and by foregoing the replacement of my 300 mm f/2.8 lens. I love that lens but telephoto work is not a huge priority for me in the projects I have coming up in the next couple of years. I may add a telephoto prime in the future but not at present.
I chose my new Nikon kit with careful consideration to filter size, performance, weight/size for travel, and budget. I wanted a small, relatively lightweight kit that would let me do it all. Here is a list of the gear I’m currently using along with some quick notes to illustrate my thinking in choosing these pieces of gear.
Nikon D850 — Quite simply, the king of cameras for nature photography. I truly believe it’s the best camera ever made for the nature photographer who shoots a variety of subjects and styles and does creative work in challenging environments.
Nikon D500 — A great action camera in APS-C format, but I haven’t bought it yet. For the moment, I will wait and see what happens with the D750 DSLR successor, the to be announced follow-up to the D850, and even the rumored mirrorless APS-C body that Nikon is developing. Yes, I could live with mirrorless for a second body dedicated to natural light action/bird portraits. If I needed a backup today, however, the D500 would be a great choice that boasts fantastic AF performance and frame rate.
Tamron 17-35 mm f/2.8-4 zoom lens — Nikon doesn’t have the best offerings for wide angle zooms. The 14-24 mm is fantastic but it’s a beast and a pain for using filters (which I almost always do for daytime landscape photos). Nikon’s 16-35 mm f/4 zoom is just OK, not great like the Canon version. And Nikon doesn’t have a 16-35 mm f/2.8 lens. So, the new Tamron fit the bill for very good sharpness, light weight and compact size, the 77 mm filter thread, and a great price. I do wish it had image stabilization though.
Tamron 35-150 mm f/2.8-4 zoom — The companion to the above lens, this Tamron zoom also sports the 77 mm filter size important to me and boasts great performance in a do it all focal length for everything from landscapes to portraits. It focuses quite closely too, which makes it a good lens for butterflies and lizards. It does have VC, Tamron’s image stabilization technology. And it’s also light, compact, and pretty inexpensive. It should prove to be a great one lens solution for aerial photography!
Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 macro — This has been my macro lens of choice for years with my Canon cameras, and I wanted it again for Nikon. For some reason, it’s now discontinued (most likely Sigma is now focusing on mirrorless mounts), but I was able to find a good used copy for a great price. The 150 mm focal length is the sweet spot for macro in my opinion as it’s light enough to handhold but also has a tripod collar for more static work, all while providing superb performance at a comfortable working distance. If you can’t find a used copy of the Sigma 150 mm macro, their 105 mm macro version is available and is also a great performer. I’m not a big fan of the Nikon 105 mm f/2.8 macro because it becomes an f/4 lens at closer focusing distances. That’s not a big deal for many, but I sometimes like to shoot tight macro at f/2.8 for a creative look.
Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom — Years after Sigma lent me a copy for a review (see the full blog post here), this lens continues to impress. It’s not the fastest telephoto for autofocus nor is the image stabilization stellar, but the ability to take tack sharp images in a wide zoom range, even wide open, and in a fairly small, light, and sub-$1000 package is amazing. I love animals in the environment so a telephoto zoom is the perfect lens for me. And, when I need the occasional tight standard portrait of a bird or mammal, this lens performs very well at that holy grail focal length of 600 mm.
Nikon 20 mm f/1.8 — I decided on this lens to do double duty for night work and wide angle macro. It’s sharp, fast, and has a very close minimum focus distance. And yes, it also has the 77 mm filter thread so I can easily use a polarizing or ND filter with this lens.
Godox V860 II — I have three of these. They work well in the hotshoe, on a flash bracket, or as wireless radio frequency slaves or masters. And they work with any camera system; just buy the appropriate transmitter from Godox for around $60. They do everything that a Canon 600-RT or Nikon SB-5000 will do but for a fraction of the price and with a great flash interface (copied from Canon!). The custom lithium battery by Godox is also great as it recycles quickly and holds a charge for an extended period compared to rechargeable NiMh AA options.
Godox AD200 — This amazing flash gives me about 2-3 stops more power than a standard hotshoe flash but in a small form factor. It’s basically a studio strobe that’s not much bigger than a standard flash, and it works seamlessly with Godox’s wireless flash transmission system for any camera brand. I use this flash when I need to add light on a subject in bright tropical daylight conditions. The AD200 sports a similar custom lithium battery pack.
Godox XPro transmitters — At a cost of around $60, these are the units that allow us to use any Godox flash off-camera and with full capabilities for any camera system. I have one for Nikon of course but also others for Canon and for Sony, just in case I borrow gear or I want to plug a client into a setup during a workshop.
DJI Mavic 2 Pro — I love aerial photography (in fact I’m starting a new coffee table book project on the theme this year), and the Mavic 2 Pro is awesome. It’s small enough to always include with my gear for any trip, and the image quality, flight time, and features are great. I use mine with Freewell polarizing and ND filters for most of my still work. While nothing can substitute for the opportunity to get up in an ultralight plane, a helicopter, or a gyrocopter with my DSLR camera, drones open up a whole new world for aerial photography.
Huawei P30 Pro — Yep, we’ve arrived at that point where a photographer’s smartphone is a key piece of gear. Because Apple products are crazy expensive and service is limited in Costa Rica, I use Windows and Android. Huawei has made great strides in camera technology for phones. I use my phone for dual-camera video recording for new blog and e-book projects, for workshop candid photos, for behind the scenes photos, and for high-quality travel photos for advertising and social media. The P30 Pro boasted night photo mode before the iPhone 11 and is a great all-around performer with its ultra-wide angle and zoom capability. This phone was released before the Trump trade wars so it is fully vetted for Android updates and Google services.
Huawei Matebook Pro — This laptop is the Macbook Pro for Windows users and, in some ways, even better, especially for the price. It’s light, fast, feature-packed and looks great. It’s a clone for sure but it’s what I’ve always wanted as a Windows user, and Huawei did it very well.
Photographing endangered Giant River Otters in a dark, blackwater stream in Ecuador’s Amazon region is amazing but tough. My confidence in using the high megapixel D850 at ISO 3200 and in the camera’s autofocus performance let me concentrate on the action. This is a full-frame image. My keeper rate went way up vs. my previous attempts with Canon due to the finer grain in high ISO noise and the more reliable and quicker autofocus of the Nikon D850.
NIKON SO FAR — THE PROS
After using the camera in Chile and Ecuador, I’m happy with my decision to switch. With Canon, I would always be thinking about which body would best for each situation. With the Nikon D850, I don’t think about that at all. It’s the body for every situation from high contrast landscape scenes to action to night shooting. Knowing that the D850 will perform well for every scenario is incredibly liberating.
Here are some highlights that stand out to me with the Nikon D850 relative to my previous experiences shooting the Canon 5DsR:
High ISO performance is easily one to two stops better, and noise is finer and more easily dealt with in post.
Dynamic range and the ability to pull detail from the shadows in landscape scenes is amazing. With Canon I would often need to use grad filters or blend exposures. I’ve not yet had to do that with the D850, and it frees me up to worry about light and composition.
The autofocus performance has been the biggest surprise. While I knew Nikon’s AF was better, I’m still surprised at just how much better it is. With Canon, a major challenge for shooting wildlife was acquiring focus, particularly in the low light and chaotic settings of the rainforest. While Nikon’s AF isn’t perfect all the time, I rarely worry about whether I’m getting focus or not. As long as I do my job and place the focus point where it should be, the camera rarely hunts for focus, and my shots are sharp. That simply isn’t the case with Canon where interminable hunting and hit or miss sharpness even when focus seems to have been acquired was not uncommon.
This is a single shot from the mountains above Quito in Ecuador at nearly 14,000 feet. It´s not my best photo but it´s a photo that would have very likely meant an exposure blend or the use of a grad filter with the Canon 5DsR. With the D850, I was able to expose for the bright sky and then raise the shadows in Lightroom with no image quality penalty in terms of color noise artifacts. I very much look forward to using the D850 for more landscapes here in Costa Rica as part of the second edition of my coffee table book National Parks of Costa Rica.
The articulating screen on the D850 is great for framing landscapes in live view when the camera is too low or too high for me to comfortably see the viewfinder.
Nikon’s timelapse function is better explained and much easier to use than Canon’s. A win for Nikon in the interface department is a welcome surprise :-)
The frame rate of 9 frames per second is plenty fast for action. I have the battery grip for the D850 and use the D5 style battery.
When removing the grip on the D850, the camera body is ready to use with the regular small battery right in its slot and with the battery door in place. This is great if I want to save weight on a hike and don’t need the grip. When putting a grip on a Canon body, you have to remove the cover and the battery. If you want to use the camera without the grip, you have to go search for that battery and the battery cover door.
I panned and used a shutter speed of 1/13th to render these playful juvenile guanaco as a blur in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Despite the slow shutter speed, the D850 nailed the focus, and the guanaco are recognizably sharp.
NIKON SO FAR — THE CONS
The absence of an interactive menu like Canon’s Q menu is an absolutely huge and chronic fail. Being able to change settings directly from the back LCD screen (either through the joystick or by touch) is something I loved on Canon cameras for landscape and strange angle shooting and for instruction with workshop clients. With Nikon’s Info screen, you still have to find the actual button related to the function you want to change. I’m all about knowing how to set my camera without looking, but the Q menu from Canon is awesome and so obvious. Nikon really needs to address this! Yes, I'm getting a bit worked up just writing this :-)
The Nikon interface, while worlds better than Sony’s, is still inefficient and inelegant compared to Canon’s. It works but it always kind of hurts to look at the cheesy 80s style icons and fonts on a Nikon camera. Canon’s menus look great and are filled with little popup explanations too.
The lack of a built-in bulb timer for long exposures is lame as it’s been a standard feature on Canon cameras for quite a while. It’s annoying to have to set a timer on my watch or phone.
Nikon’s color science, while much better than Sony’s, still isn’t quite as good as Canon’s color science in my opinion. With Canon, I rarely think about colors when processing a file because they just look so rich and natural. Nikon files look good but they never look quite as good straight out of the camera as Canon files do. It’s not a huge issue and colors are easily tweaked when necessary, but for someone switching from Canon, it is noticeable.
The D850´s autofocus and good detail at ISO 2000 allowed me to capture this nice portrait of a puma eating a freshly killed guanaco at the very end of the day in Patagonian Chile and in very low, flat light.
When I’ve discussed switching to Nikon in the past, many readers have rightly pointed out that the gear does not make the photographer. I certainly don’t feel like I’m a better photographer since I switched to Nikon. Any improvement I make will be due to my own continued learning and creativity, and that’s up to me. After switching to the Nikon D850, however, I do feel that I always have the right camera body for whatever I’m currently shooting. I have greater confidence in the dynamic range, high ISO performance, and autofocus capability of the D850 than I did with my Canon 5DsR. And that confidence is important. We all get too caught up in gear at times, and it can play with our psyche to think that we’re somehow missing out or playing at a disadvantage. When you have that confidence and the resulting images back it up, it frees us to continue shooting and being creative without having to worry too much about technical issues.
So, should you switch to Nikon from Canon? There’s no right answer to that question, and there’s nothing I hate more than pro photographers who claim that their gear choices are absolutely correct. Switching to Nikon made sense for me and my particular situation, but Canon cameras and lenses are fantastic. If you feel dissatisfied with Canon, then you might explore a switch. If not, I advise you to continue practicing, learning, and improving while enjoying the awesome images that your Canon gear will help you capture!