A Former Nikon User (Film), Now Canon User (digital)
Looks At Nikon's Latest
Let's start with a clarification. I'm a photographer, writer and teacher, not a product reviewer. Yes, I do write field reports from time to time, but these are from the perspective of a working photographer, and they are not technical reviews but rather hands-on reports. They come complete with my personal biases and opinions.
As a photographer I need to settle on certain cameras as my working tools. Today my 35mm outfit is Canon, with a 1Ds MKIII and 5D, along with about a dozen Canon lenses. My medium format gear consists of a Hasselbald H1 and H2 with Phase One P45 back, and four lenses. I also have a Leica M8 with several lenses, and a variety of rarely used older film gear, including a range of wide aspect ratio camera – Hasselblad X-Pan, Linhof 617 and Seitz Roundshot.
That's today's arsenal. But I've been a photographer for more than 40 years, and in the past I worked with Hasselblad V, Minolta, Mamiya, Pentax and Olympus cameras, and that's just to name a few. But what about Nikon? Yes, Nikon as well. In fact, from about 1975 to 1997, more than 20 years, Nikon F cameras were my bread and butter. I would say that I've probably done more photography for more years with Nikon gear than with any other system.
But in 1997 I made a big switch, and that was to Canon. The main reason was because of lenses. Canon had a range of Tilt/ Shift lenses that I was very interested in, and then they brought out their then new line of Image Stabilized super telephoto lenses. Nikon had nothing like either of these at the time and so with greener fields in view I made the big switch, exchanging a Nikon F4 for a Canon 1V and a variety of new glass.
In 1999 when Nikon brought out the D1 I was concerned, because Canon seemed to have fallen behind the digital curve, but then a year later the Canon D30 came out, followed in fairly short order by the 1D and then the ground-breaking full-frame 1Ds, and Nikon's bright lights no longer bekoned.
So since 2000 I have been a Canon shooter. Since I report on cameras and lenses that appeal to me personally, and feel under no obligation (nor have the time) to review everything else on the market, a great many worthy cameras have simply never crossed my desk nor taken up residence in my camera bag.
I have "played" with various Nikon DSLRs in recent years, and have always been impressed with their features and handling. But, at the risk of being pilloried by the Nikon faithful, I also found that in terms of image quality, especially at high ISO, my Canons always seemed to have an edge, and so I wasn't really tempted to find out more.
But Nikon is the other major professional brand of 35mm format cameras besides Canon. By my not covering Nikon cameras I was somehow seen by some as have a pro-Canon and therefore anti-Nikon bias. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canon was what I was working with and therefore what I chose to cover in my writing. There are some very fine writers covering the Nikon beat, such as Tom Hogan, Moose Peterson, and Bjørn Rørslett, so it isn't as if the brand is being neglected by online reporters.
Then in mid-2007 Nikon announced two new pro-grade cameras, the D300 and the D3, with the D3 being their first full-frame DSLR. Looking at pre-production samples and reading about them in detail I was very impressed. It seemed to me that Nikon had started to roar back with a vengence, and that for me to not be covering Nikon gear was doing a disservice to the brand and to its followers. And being interested in camera technology I also was very keen to have an up-close-and-personal look at how the new Nikon cameras would stack up.
Since I find that it really takes some time to come to terms with a new camera, especially one that's part of a system I'm not that familar with any longer, I decided rather than request a loaner for a few weeks I would buy a Nikon D300 and several lenses. This was to be a major long term committment to the brand.
Was I abandoning Canon and switching to Nikon? No, not at all. But I felt that only by actually owning and using the new camera, and others to come over the long term, would I be able to fully understand what they had to offer and how the two major brands compared.
And, yes, just like every other camera and lens that I own and use, I purchased the D300 and lenses at retail, locally in Toronto from Vistek.
So with the D300 I am launching into coverage on this site of the Nikon DSLR world. It would be natural to ask, why not the new D3? The main reason is that the D3 is a camera, like the 1D MKIII, which is aimed more at the PJ and sports contingent than at the type of shooting that I do. And, it is highly likely that a higher resolution version (D3?) will appear sooner rather than later, maybe even as soon as PMA in late January '08. When that camera is available, I'll purchase one. In the meantime the D300 provides entre to Nikon's latest camera technology (though not full frame) but in a package and a price point that aims directly at Canon's center.
It should be an interesting journey.
Starting a lens collection for a new camera system is always a tough call. There are so many choices that it's often difficut to know when one is making the right selection, and buyer's remourse is often just around the corner.
When buying a new camera system my first choice in 35mm format is always a 50mm f/1.4. This is typically a reasonably priced lens, and very often has top-notch optical performance. And, at f/1.4 it's as fast as one can get short of specialty super-speed lenses. With most zooms at f/4 to f/6.3, and even top rated pro zooms at f/2.8, an f/1.4 lens is between two and five stops faster. That can be a serious advantage in available light shooting, even with today's DSLRs and their relatively clean ISO 1600 and higher capabilities.
On a DX format camera like the D300 this lens become the equivalent of a 75mm, and this a very nice focal length for portraits. Add to this the very limited DOF when shooting wide open, and some lovely OOF backgrounds are possible.
My second choice was the Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8. This is almost universally reputed to be one of the finest wide angle zooms ever made. On a DX camera it becomes about a 24 to 50mm, and the relatively fast and constant f/2.8 aperture makes it a versatile all-round lens.
My third choice was the somewhat controversial 24-120mm. I say controversial because when the lens for came out in 2003 it received a number of poor reviews. Apparently there were some early manufactruing problems, but subsequently the lens was corrected and current users typically have good things to say about it. The wide end seems to be less good than the medium or long end, but that's to be expected with a lens covering such a broad range. Even though not one of the top lenses in Nikon's line-up I still thought it worth purchasing as a general walk-around lens.
All three of these lenses are full frame, not DX optics. There are some appealing lenses in the DX catagory, such as the 12-200 VR and the 17-55 f/2.8. But, I see no point in buying DX lenses when I expect to have a full-frame Nikon within 6-8 months.
Update: A few days after wriing the above I found that I had to do a shoot that required very wide coverage. This meant a DX lens, and I ended up purchasing the relatibely inexpensive though high quality Sigma 10-x20 f/4-5.6. If and when I switch to a full frame Nikon my investment in this one DX lens will not have been that high, and the 17--35mm Nikkor will come into its own.
None of us can escape from our biases and personal perspectives. So, since I've been living and working with Canon cameras in my hands for the past 10 years or so (1V, D30, D60, 20D, 5D, 1Ds, 1Ds MKII and now 1Ds MKIII) it's impossible for me to evaluate the Nikon D300 with any form of objectivity. I see the world though a Canon filter (for better or worse); and as will be seen sometimes not to Canon's benefit. So, rather then pretend some form of objectivity I've decided to do this report as a view of the D300 (and Nikon's current DSLR implementation in general) from the point of view of someone who is completely familar with canon and is curious about what Nikon has to offer. IE: me.
When people first begin to do photography seriously trhey become infatuated with image quality above all else, and don't pay all that much attention to a cameras egonomics. in ther words, how it comes to hand, how it feels, where the controls are placed and how easy or hand it is to accomplish basic and sometime not so basic tasks. Part of the reason for this is that the web forums are filled with opinions about IQ (much of it ill informed) but little about handling, likely because few people have the experience to really do in depth comparisons.
But as Pros know all to well, great image quality, while important, does not trump handling dificiencies. Sure, if your shooting snaps of your cat on the livingroom couch and your summer vacation, poor camera design may not be too big an issue. But if you shoot 50,000+ frames a year, and live with a camera in your hand, every bad design ascpect becomes like a thorn, and become hard to ignore.
Canon and Nikon take quite different approaches to user interface. This may come in part from Canon's major switch in the 90's to a new lens mount. This was done with an eye to the future, and though at the time is angered many photographers with decades of FD mount lenses who found themselves abandoned, it proved to be a smart move on Canon's part. Though the new high-tech lens mount came a few years later, the last FD mount pro Canon camera was the T90 of 1986. It was a complete break with the mechnical interface of previous Canons, and it pioneered the entire Canon gestalt which we still see today.
The concept of modal buttons, which when pressed individually and in combination with each other, or with a control wheel, essentially began with the now 20+ year old T90 and is little changed in basic principal today. The T90 also was the first camera of its type with a moulded grip and soft rounded contours. It was the camera equivalent of the Ford Taurus.
Nikon, on the other hand, was much slower in embrasing modal buttons and jellybean body moulding. This wasn't reactionary, but rather based on a strict adhenrace to a design principal that seemed to say – what photographers need in terms of controls and interface takes precidence over styling.
Nikon also was loath to change its lens mount, and indeed essentially hasn't since the late 1950s. Lenses designed for the Nikon F of a half century ago can still be used today on a Nikon D300. This shows a huge respect for their installed base, and also speaks well of Nikon's original lens design, as well as the company's engineering expertise. Though there have been as many as a half dozen lens mount advances from Nikon over the decades, with new lenses having built in ROM chips and fully electronic interfaces, being able to mount virtually any Nikon lens ever made on a current model camera is a huge advantage for many photographers.
Nikon camras today have evolved into an ergnomic form that is similar in some ways to not just canon, but almost every other camera maker as well. The moulded hand grip, finger indentations, and soft rubber covering materials are all there. But Nikon has stuck with the use of a large number of mechnical controls, rather than button-and-wheel based controls. Yes, they have those too, but nowehere near as many as does Canon.
For example, the control on the front of the camera that selects AF or manual focus; the