Is it Time You Purchased a New Camera?

Gull preparing to land on iceberg in Ilulissat Ice Fjord, Greenland
Gull preparing to land on iceberg in Ilulissat Ice Fjord, Greenland

I made this image at the end of a return journey from the Egi Glacier to my base in the town of Ilulissat in western Greenland. The light was overcast and, as a result, very soft. The fact that the light was so non directional ensured that the gull did not silhouette against what would otherwise have been a much brighter background.

I photographed the bird as it was employing its wings to slow down its velocity just prior to landing on a small iceberg. The orange color of the gull's beak and feet introduce a nice contrast against the monochromatic bluish light associated with rain-bearing clouds. It was a very quick moment made just as the tour boat was passing by.

Why Canon?

My main, workhorse camera over the years was the Canon 5D Mark II. I upgraded to it from the original Canon 5D. Why Canon? I've owned more than 20 cameras over the years, including models from Canon and Nikon. As a consequence I'm not emotionally tied to either brand. They are tools that incorporate pretty amazing technology. But, being rarely seduced by technology, I'm more interested in achieving an acceptable mix of features, ease of use, image quality, camera weatherproofing and robustness.

I purchased the original Canon 5D because, back then, Canon was the only camera manufacturer producing full frame DSLR cameras. I do quite a bit of wide-angle photography and, for that type of work, am not prepared for the image to be cropped, in camera, as it is when recorded onto a camera with a smaller sensor.

As well as the advantages offered by the Canon full frame sensor the overall design and relative ease of menu navigation (compared to Nikon) determined my choice. But, as they say, different strokes for different folks. And, again, back then Nikon and Sony just didn't produce a full frame DSLR camera.

By the time I had purchased my 5D Mark II I'd filled my bag with 4 high quality Canon lenses. Changing brands at that stage becomes very expensive due to the fact that I'd also have to replace my lenses, flash, etc.

At the time I purchased the original Canon 5D Canon were well and truly in ascendance. Being a much larger company than Nikon they'd upgraded and/or released loads of lenses over previous years. And the free advertising they achieved with all those (near) white telephoto zoom lenses at major sporting events around the world really put the Canon brand in the mind of the consumer.

What's more Canon used their greater war chest to, amongst other things, design and build their own sensors. Nikon do not make their own sensors. Word on the street is that they have them made for them, to spec, by Sony. Is that relevant to the average photographer? Maybe not but, after recouping the significant infrastructure costs associated with building their own sensors the cost, per unit, of a sensor for Canon must be cheaper than for a similarly sized (i.e., physical and pixel count) sensor for a Nikon camera. That should mean more profit, per unit sold, for Canon which only makes it harder for Nikon to stay competitive.

Well, that's the theory. Over following years Nikon really bridged the perceived gap between the two brands. In particular the ability for newer models to make decent quality photographs at extremely high ISO's achieved a great deal of attention.

My near camera was the Nikon D800e.

Sadly, over recent years the success of mirrorless cameras and the seemingly lack of significant advancements on both the Canon and Nikon platform have, to my mind, weakened these two brands place in the marketplace. The world of photography is changing and Canon and Nikon simply aren't keeping up with those changes.

Canon or Nikon, That is the Question

Is it worth changing brands? Well, that would depend on how often you'd be likely to employ the particular feature or improvement touted by the manufacturer. Around the time I upgraded to the Canon 5D Mark II I would have appreciated Nikon's advancements in high ISO in my Canon camera, but not enough to change brands. So I didn't. I figured Canon would likely catch up with the next model (5D Mark III) and, it appears, that they have. But it was a long time coming.

Beware of Marketing Hype

The lesson is to beware of marketing hype. Changing brands based on a particular technological improvement may not represent great value when the manufacturer of your current camera brings out their own version of that technology, which may in fact be better, a little while later. Take, for example, Canon's Image Stabilization (i.e., IS) and Nikon's Vibration Reduction (i.e., VR). The obvious course of action would be to wait and let the hype die down before making the purchase. That way your decision is less likely to be emotionally based.

To be sure one brand will represent better value at a specific price range. That assumption is based on the usual features/benefits comparison that, depending on your needs, might include sensor size, high ISO performance, frame rate, buffer, flash technology, ergonomics and easy of menu navigation.

Over the years I've done very little action photography. That began to change when I co-ran a photography tour to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula. Photographing sea birds from the deck of the ship was a fun, but troublesome experience. It became clear to me that, by my standards, the Canon 5D Mark II camera loses significant quality at ISO 1000 and above. What I needed to achieve critical sharpness when photographing those fast moving sea birds was a significantly higher ISO. But that would have produced noise. A difficult compromise to be sure. Likewise the camera's relatively low frame rate simply wasn't enough to obtain the right shape in the bird's wings, given the tremendous rate at which they were flapping.

I missed a number of great images due to these constraints. It's a compromise associated with the full frame sensor on all but a few cameras. The greater real-estate associated with the bigger sensor allows for the inclusion of more pixels, ideally of a larger size compared to those on a APS-C sensor. But higher resolution (i.e., the ability to resolve fine details) and the ability to make larger prints goes along with a larger file size and longer time to write the image to the memory card in camera. As a result less frames per second, particularly when the camera is set to RAW, are recorded.

Now this was never an issue for me, until I tried photographing the fast moving sea birds off the deck of the ship in the Southern Ocean. During July 2011 my trip to Iceland included whale watching and zodiac tours. Once again better quality files when photographing at higher ISO's would have been appreciated.

I'm at the stage where I really should be thinking of upgrading my camera. I really to go to a lot of trouble to protect my camera equipment from damage, both in the field and in transit. But after 3 1/2 years its time for an upgrade. Technology is well and truly calling and I've begun some preliminary testing on the Nikon D800e and Canon 5D Mark III cameras. I'm likely to be purchasing one of them and will keep you up to date with posts over the next few weeks..As far as my current Canon 5D Mark II is concerned I really don't have any complaints. Its been to all 7 continents, although I've only worked with it in 6. Along the way I've employed it to make some of my best photos and, in so doing, its well and truly paid its way. But there comes a time, does there not.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru