choosing the camera brand

If you ask someone about his or her first camera, most likely you will hear: “I got it from my father.” Indeed most people entered photography already when they were teenagers with a camera in hand that they got from parents, older brother, or as a birthday gift. In times of film photography, the equipment choice of amateur photographers was often predetermined by this, and the cameras were used until they got broken. When it happened the photographer had already a couple of lenses and hence an additional reason to stick to that brand and to get another compatible camera. Usually only those people who were meaning it serious with photography sooner or later landed in a situation when they had to choose a new camera according to their needs and plans. Nowadays, this moment comes much sooner, because the lifecycle of digital cameras is much shorter than of mechanical. The technology advancement is so rapid that even people with no professional ambitions update their cameras every couple of years.

For a typical digital camera user who has only one compact or bridge camera with a non-exchangeable lens and a built-in flash radical updates are very easy: A new camera that also has it all, is being purchased or received as a gift. The so-called “megapixel race” of the manufacturers appears to be the main driving force for such purchases: A camera owner wants a new camera as soon as it gets about twice as many megapixels as the old. Other factors that influence the choice are size and weight, zoom lens power, ability to capture good looking images automatically, prestige of the particular model.

For professionals and serious amateurs (to be short, I'll call both “photographers” in this article) choosing the initial camera brand and changing brands are complex decisions, with long lasting practical and financial consequences.

Just like in times of mechanical film cameras a good starting point is the acknowledging that we are choosing not just a single piece of gear but a whole equipment system that may in many aspects determine the success of our photographic work and that we will have to stay with for many years.

important aspects to remember

  • What we are choosing is not just a camera but a technical platform.
    Unfortunately there are very few brands whose lenses and camera accessories are interchangeable. Typically the camera manufacturers have developed and continue developing proprietary gear that won't fit that of other brands. Therefore when we are considering a camera of a certain manufacturer we should look at it as at a system with a whole spectrum of items that we may need for our photographic work. Comparing various brands is comparing equipment systems — not just cameras.
  • It may be a choice for life.
    ... okay, it is a bit exaggerated, though not very far from truth if we are talking about someone with limited finances. Certainly, you can change the equipment platform any time but, you would need to get rid of your previous camera gear. Even if you manage to sell it, you will loose a lot of money. Buying the whole set of cameras, lenses, flashes and other accessories will demand again a huge investment. Not everyone can afford such radical measures. Changing the brand makes only sense, if the current equipment is absolutely unsatisfying or outdated. Therefore, most photographers usually stay in good and in bad times with the camera brand that they have once chosen.

As with the rest of this site, I assume that the reader of this article is a nature photographer, or someone who would like to know more about nature photography. Although many aspects that I am going to discuss below are applicable to any area of photography, the scope of this article is only equipment for nature, or wildlife photography. Specialists in other photography areas and genres should excuse me, if my judgements appear wrong or incomplete. I photograph only nature subjects and am not claiming to have expert knowledge in all areas of photography.


As with any choosing process, when we are considering a camera system, we need to be clear about our criteria. Among them, our preferred photography genre, style and subjects are certainly the most important. You should always look at the equipment from the perspective of your specialization as a photographer. Obviously, for landscape photography a different equipment is necessary than for birds, for insects other than for safari... Not only different subjects play a role but also how you show them. For instance, cameras and lenses for animal portraits can be quite different from those that are used for photographing an animal in action.

Photographers usually have certain aesthetic preferences and personal style of imaging that, on one hand, have grown from use of certain equipment, but on the other, the equipment has been chosen accordingly. For instance, I heard from some photographers who use Canon equipment that they don't like colour rendering in Nikon. To me this sounds odd because the images are normally recorded in raw format, and colour, contrast, white balance, saturation and other parameters are set and adjusted in postprocessing. However, some people want already the image that comes out of the camera to be as close as possible to their personal aesthetic expectations.

The requirements of image quality are the next important criterion. They come from two sides — from quality standards that are established in our photography area or genre, and from our personal standards. They don't necessarily match. Often hobbyists tend to set lower standards for themselves while they admire the work of professionals. This is silly. I don't see any reason why an amateur should set the upper limits for the quality of his work and to refuse professionalism. Strangely, the predicate “professional” as such seems to scare some beginners. Objectively, there is no such thing as “professional equipment”. It is only a label on the best products that manufacturers are offering at higher price level. This doesn't mean, however, that amateurs are automatically excluded from buyers. The prices of professional equipment look scary for beginners and for professionals likewise. Nature photography professionals rarely earn their living with photographs. In that sense they aren't different from amateurs. Not all professionals can afford high-end equipment while many hobbyists can. So if you are a lucky guy who can afford the newest and best camera model, just go and get it!

In the box below, I have put the main criteria in the order how I would apply them if I were looking for my first camera system or for replacement of the current.

main criteria in order of validity

  1. main area of usage: landscapes, wildlife, macro, underwater, studio, etc.
  2. main subjects: birds, "safari" animals, flora, insects, herps, etc.
  3. genre: portrait, action, still life, panoramas, etc.
  4. your personal style and aesthetic preferences:
  5. image quality requirements: colour and contrast rendering, dynamic range, low noise, resolution.
  6. special requirements: low light, serial shooting, autofocus, weather protection, weight and size, lens preferences.
  7. cost
  8. comfort: size, weight, ergonomics, etc.
  9. prestige

In fact, my own list of criteria goes only to 6. I never considered the last two — prestige and comfort — seriously but I assume that some people would do. As to cost, I regard it more as obstacle than as a choice criterion. I have never made my preference only according to the price tag and am not recommending anyone to do it. For me, choosing means determining that something meets my requirements. If I need a certain piece of equipment, it doesn't automatically mean that I can or even will ever get it. Like most people, I have my financial limits that are the main obstacle on the way to the equipment that I need or would like to have. However, these limits don't keep me away from specifying my requirements and preferences — and goals. If you know, what you want, you will be looking for a chance to get it and this chance may come some day. You will be searching for opportunities to get the necessary money and thus approaching the chance. Indeed, there may be many such opportunities. Sometimes a revision of your daily expenses and priorities may already do wonders. A good thing with photo equipment is that it can be purchased in parts: You start with purchase of a lens that you want and use it with a cheap camera first. Meanwhile, you gather money for a better camera... Obtaining good equipment is a continuos process. If you are serious about photography, the cost shouldn't matter for you. Have a vision and work towards it!

Certainly, the goals have to be realistic. If you want to specialize in bird photography, but your longest lens is 200 mm and you know that you will never be able to pay another $5.000 - 10.000 for a suitable super tele, it is better either to rethink your ambitions and to specialize in other subjects or to work on your photographic style and methods that would allow you to successfully utilize the available equipment. Even in this case, the cost will be not a criterion but an obstacle that doesn't allow you to get the equipment that you have chosen.

Like with the cost of equipment that not everyone may afford, physical size and weight of cameras and lenses may be a limitation for some people. A super telephoto lens with a professional camera may weigh 6 kg or more. Not all people will be able to hand hold it. Together with other lenses, tripod and accessories the weight of photo gear that a nature photographer has to carry in the field can exceed 15 kg. It could be a serious obstacle for some people. When choosing your camera system and later — when purchasing additional equipment — you should be aware of this issue. Again, I don't mean that you should purchase your equipment per kilogramme or inch. However, it is wise to always remember that you will be using it in the field. You should have a plan how you are going to do this.

A photographer choosing the equipment shouldn't be guided by considerations of weight, size or even cost. However, I can imagine that there are people who would. Since such criteria may exist, I am mentioning them here.

The above said also applies to considerations of prestige, or vogue. In my hierarchy of requirements, prestige is on the last place. In fact, I have put it on the list because it may be an issue for some people, though a serious photographer typically wouldn't admit that he is paying attention to prestige even if he does. Particularly this may be true for professionals. A pro simply has to meet certain stereotypes and expectations of the clients. One of them is that a pro has a “professional” camera and a big lens. Some customers even may know something about photography and thus have their picture of what is professional and what not. Often this picture is based on manufacturer statements and less on performance or technical features. I have heard from commercial photographers that they needed the most up to date gear in order to impress their customers. Not being a commercial photographer, I am lucky not to have such urge, but I can think of situations when it would be an important issue even for me.

options and alternatives

When photographic cameras were mechanical, it was not only the camera and the lens that were capturing images. The film was the third part of this process. The quality of the film was not less important for achieving a good image than the quality of the photographic equipment. In the 20th century, a good photographer could achieve an excellent image using a decent camera with a very good film. Technical features and quality of the camera were not influencing that much the image quality: If the lens and film were good, the image quality could be good, too. With digital photography, the influence of the camera has increased so that a poor quality camera even with a good lens will much more likely deliver a poor quality image.

Image quality is a result of combined work of several components, such as lenses, imaging sensor, and processor in the camera. The use and availability of lenses depends very much on camera viewfinder system, i.e. if it is a mirrorless or DSLR system. When I was choosing the camera brand I was looking first of all at lenses and imaging sensor. In general, there are three main parameters that are to be compared in alternative camera systems:

choice parameters for a digital camera system

  • Image sensor size and quality
  • Viewfinder construction: mirrorless or mirror
  • Quality and availability of specific lenses and accessories

These and other options and alternatives I am going to discuss in the next sections.

digital or film

In the last decade of the 20th century after the invention of of digital photography, its benefits were highly disputed and even the future perspectives were questioned. Like any technological revolution digital photography was met by traditionalists with a lot of suspiciousness and skepticism. The discussion of pros and cons continued well into the beginning of this millenium. Even now there are some enthusiasts who defend the film and criticize the digital even though they realize that the digital technology has won and will dominate the 21st century.

Just like magnetic tapes and venyl disks in sound recording, the use of film for capturing photographic images remained in the past: This page in history of technology is turned. The advantages of digital imaging over film are for me out of the question. Therefore, I am mentioning the film here and opposing it to digital photography only for completeness, and not because such dilemma really exists — especially for someone who is choosing the camera brand nowadays. Today, a photo camera has certainly to be digital! All camera manufacturers have ceased to develop and produce film cameras long time ago. Films are still available on the market, but it is to expect that they will gradually become more rare and disappear within the next decade.

There are still some fans of film photography around who are claiming that images captured on film have artistic qualities superior to those of images captured on digital media. Since digital technology gives us a complete freedom to process and manipulate any recorded image, there is no objective reason for such claims. People who have them either don't understand the new technology completely or aren't able to master it and thus feel uncomfortable.

I never regretted and won't regret that film photography became history, and I don't have that romantic attitude and nostalgic feelings about the film that some photographers who belong to older generation than mine still appear to have. The digital technology gives almost unlimited means for creativity. Just like it used to be with the film, modern digital cameras only record images. The rest is done in the lab which is now a computer. Thus, if someone wants an image to look like made on film — blurry, grainy and with odd colours — it can easily be achieved with image processing software. But I don't see any reason to do that because even inexpensive amateur equipment today outshines professional cameras and labs of the past in quality of image recording and processing.

Below I am giving some key advantages of digital over film cameras.

advantages of digital photography over film

  • Much higher light sensitivity (so-called speed): While the light sensitivity of consumer films was usually in the ISO 100 to ISO 800 range, some modern DSLR cameras are capable of capturing images with speeds up to ISO 204,800.
  • Much higher spacial resolution: Thus, capability to capture more detail.
  • Overall better image quality: Better contrast, sharpness, less grain... As a result, the images can be enlarged for output on much larger media with less loss of quality.
  • Flexibility of image processing due to use of computer.
  • Convenience: Digital images are easy to store, to archive, to present, to transport, to re-use...
  • Cost: The digital photography workflow is more affordable, first of all, because no expendable materials are used in it.
  • Simplicity: Since images can be immediately previewed and re-shot, better results can be achieved just through trial and error. For beginners, this this allows a more steep learning curve.
  • Better integration in publishing process: Since digital devices are also used for display of images and publishing, film would always have to be converted into digital data (scanned). This step isn't necessary when the original image is already digital.

The arguments against the digital photography and in favour of film are too often hate motivated and have little to do with reality. After the already mentioned biased opinion about the aesthetic side of film photography that the digital should be missing, the next such argument is that with digital photography the work of a photographer is becoming less creative and more casual. The critics believe that a digital photographer would achieve the desired image rather through tweaking it in a computer than through careful shooting. This, of course, isn't true. A serious photographer would always prefer photographing to processing not only because it is more fun but because the quality that was missed during shooting can never be restored in postprocessing completely. That computer software allows us to go beyond the limits of analog film processing is a progress and not an evil — as some film fans are claiming.

However, in early years of digital photography, there was one objective criticism that most photographers including me were taking seriously: The dynamic range of films was generally believed to be greater than of image capturing and processing electronics. This situation changed completely with the advancement of digital imaging in the last decade. Both, in film and in digital photography, the dynamic range is a complex issue that results from quality of several members of the imaging workflow and of their capability to record, to process and to display the image information. In film photography that were lenses, films, chemicals, paper, scanner, etc. In digital photography the dynamic range depends on the quality of the lenses, the sensor and digital processor in the camera, and of other equipment that is used for processing and display of images. Modern large image sensors, such as in DSLR and medium format cameras, are capable of recording the luminance range that is close to that of human eyes and hence adequate for representing all the tones perceivable by humans. In film and digital photography alike the biggest limitation is, however, not in recording but in display of dynamic range. Currently, neither the photographic paper, nor the printers, nor the displays of consumer electronic devices can cover the entire dynamic range that is being provided by the imaging process.

cropped, full-frame or medium format

The image sensor is the key element in a digital camera that is responsible for capturing the light and thus is of crucial importance for image quality. In current photo cameras sensor of two kinds can be found CCD and CMOS. Neither of these technologies has clear advantages or disadvantages. Brands and camera models that are currently preferred by nature photographers have CMOS sensors, but this may change in future.

most important image sensor parameters

  • Size, i.e. surface area: The larger — the better.
  • Pixel density: The higher — the better.
  • Dynamic range: The wider — the better.
  • Signal-to-noise ratio: The lower — the better.
  • Light sensitivity: The higher — the better.

The performance of image sensors varies from one manufacturer to another and also between models of a single manufacturer. It improves very quickly, and every year new cameras appear on the market that outperform all previous. Therefore no one can give recommendations in favour of a concrete model or brand. When your are choosing your camera brand, you should evaluate and compare such parameters as signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, light sensitivity, etc. Typically these parameters improve with the size of the sensor. There is a rule of thumb: The larger is the sensor — the higher the image quality. Therefore, I would recommend always to look for a camera with the largest sensor that you can afford. Unfortunately, also the other rule is always true: The larger the sensor — the more expensive it is.

In digital photo cameras three groups of image sensor formats are being distinguished: medium format, full frame, and reduced (so-called, “cropped”).

preferred use areas of different sensor formats in nature photography

  • medium format: landscapes, flora, static and slow-moving macro subjects
  • full frame: all subjects
  • cropped: wildlife, less suitable for macro and landscape photography

The cropped sensors have a vast variety of sizes ranging from 1.28 x 0.96mm to 27.9 x 18.6mm. Obviously, cameras with sensors of reduced size are less expensive. This is one reason why they are the most common on the mass market. The second reason is that the devices that have small image sensors can also be built small. Thus, the smallest sensors are in mobile phones and digital compact cameras. In photo cameras with exchangeable lenses sensors are not so small: 23.4 x 15.6mm (Sony NEX C) and larger. For quality photography, especially for nature subjects, cameras with larger sensors should be preferred. This is one of the reasons why nature photographers prefer to use either Canon or Nikon DSLR cameras. (See more about this below.)

The so-called “full frame” has the size of approx. 36 x 24mm which corresponds to a frame of a photographic film. Actually, such cameras were called in times of the film “small format” as the opposite to medium and large format films and cameras. The focal length of lenses is always expressed in millimeters relatively to full frame. When lenses are used with smaller or larger sensors, the view field increases or decreases respectively. Even if the lens can't be used on full-frame cameras, its focal length is indicated for full-frame. To know the view field on a given camera, we have either to multiply (if the sensor is smaller than full frame) or to devide (if the sensor is larger) it by so-called “crop factor” — the ratio between the sizes of full and of current frame. If the sensor is smaller than full frame, the focal length of a lens increases, i.e. its field of view gets narrower. This is one of practical disadvantages of cameras with reduced sensor size. However, if the pixel density of the sensor is higher than of a full frame sensor, the reach of a lens would increase. A money-savvy wildlife photographer often would regard this effect as an advantage of cropped sensors. Personally, I would rather use a full-frame camera with a telephoto lens and a 1.5x teleconverter than a 1.5x cropped sensor camera and a telephoto lens combo. Of course, the first would be more expensive than the second but improved image quality will be my reward.

Cameras with larger sensors than full frame are now called “medium-format”. They are built by Hasselblad, Leaf, Sinar, Phase One, Mamiya, Leica, Pentax Ricoh. The size of their sensors ranges from 45 x 30mm to 53.9 x 40.4mm. Calling them “medium format” is not completely correct because the “true” medium format of film cameras was different, and the former “large format” doesn't now have an equivalent in digital photography.

A drawback of the huge image recording surface of a medium format sensor is the speed. The extremely low frame rate and typically slow shutter speed of such cameras makes their use for most subjects in nature photography a problem. Another problem is that the view field of lenses on such cameras gets wider when the sensor size increases, as a consequence, a 150 mm lens would compose a frame as if it were only 75 mm, if the surface of the sensor doubles. There are very few lenses for medium-format cameras with focal length longer than 100 mm but in fact they are even shorter. In practice, this makes the medium-format cameras unusable for wildlife photography, although they are unmatched when used for large and more static subjects, such as landscapes.

If you are a specialist for landscape photography and can afford it, I would strongly recommend you to consider a medium format. Even not being a landscape photographer, if I had enough money, I would have got a medium format camera, such as Phase One, to use it for my landscape shots. The digital backs of Phase One currently not only have the largest sensors but are better protected from harsh environment and therefore more suitable for use outdoors.

mirrorless or mirror

The construction of digital single-lens cameras (DSLR) has derived from predecessors in the times of film photography. For a viewfinder of such cameras a mirror is used that allows the photographer to look through the lens when he is composing the image and focusing on the subject. While looking through the lens, the photographer can also define areas in the scenery where the camera measures the light.

I think, the advantages of this technology are quite obvious:

advantages of dslr cameras

  • Long-focus lenses can be used
  • More convenient and exact image composing
  • Easier and more precise focusing
  • More precise light metering
  • Better visibility of the scenery in the viewfinder

A Canon DSLR camera.

DSLR are standard in nature photography, and at least for wildlife photography no real alternatives exist.

Currently there is no mirrorless camera model on the market that could be a perfect tool for nature photography. However, this technology develops very quickly, and it is to expect that mirrorless cameras would compete with DSLR or even replace them in many situations in near future.

There are two categories of mirrorless small-format cameras that can be used in some areas of nature photography — though with limitations: mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILC) and bridge cameras.

The MILC, or system cameras, typically have a digital viewfinder. Then they are called electronic viewfinder with interchangeable lens (EVIL) cameras. This group includes “micro four thirds” cameras — such as Samsung NX, Pentax Q, Panasonic DMC-G, Olympus PEN, cameras with proprietary mount — Nikon 1, Sony NEX. The EVIL cameras are the least usable for serious photography: They can't be used under bride sunshine, manual focusing is difficult, stable handholding is almost impossible...

Some system cameras have optional optical viewfinder as accessory (e.g. Sony NEX), a hybrid viewfinder — as in Fujifilm FinePix X series, or purely optical — as in Leica M. The most important drawback of the optical viewfinder (also called — rangefinder) is lack of through-the-lens (TTL) viewing and exposure measuring. The photographer sees only a marked area that represents the view field of the lens — not what the lens actually sees. This may work with most wide-angle lenses, with standard and even with short telephoto lenses, but not with long teles. As a consequence, no lenses with focal distance greater than 100-150 mm can be used. Therefore, the use of rangefinder cameras for wildlife photography is very limited.

advantages of mirrorless cameras

  • Compact size
  • Little weight
  • Very silent shutter release

The electronic viewfinder technology is more promising. If the resolution of viewfinder picture would approach the quality of real life picture some day, the mirrorless cameras may win the competition with DSLR.

Mirrorless cameras typically have small sensors. Don't ask me, why. For the time of writing, only Leica M had a full-frame sensor. Not just due to this fact but much more because it was a Leica, it was extremely overpriced and more a stylish accessory than a photographer's tool. Unfortunately, among other brands that have only models with tiny sensors none can be regarded as serious photography equipment.

Like digital MILC, bridge cameras fill the niche between compact, pocket-sized digital cameras (also called "point-and-shot" cameras) and digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR). This is why they are called “bridge”. Other than in mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, the lens in a bridge camera is fixed. Typically it is a super zoom lens that covers a large span of focal lengths — often from ultra wide to telephoto. Exceptions are some specialized models such as Minox DCC or Fujifilm FinePix X that mock classic cameras and are more lifestyle objects than photography tools. They have a fixed focal length wide-angle lens. Since bridge cameras are intended for use by non-professionals, the characteristics of their lenses are described not through focal length but through magnification ratio. For a photographer this can be confusing. For example, a lens with focal length 6 - 72mm may be labeled just as “12x” zoom. Even more confusing is that such cameras often have additionally a so-called “digital zoom”, i.e. the in-camera software can enlarge the captured image.

A Panasonic Lumix bridge camera.

All bridge cameras have truly tiny sensors — even smaller than in MILC. Due to this they are made extremely light weight and very compact. With such small sensors also the lenses don't need to be big. Since the lens isn't removable, the user of a bridge camera usually doesn't need to carry anything else than only this one small device. Bridge cameras are very convenient but their image quality doesn't get even close to the standards that photographers have already set using DSLR cameras. They are very popular with various professionals who use them for documentation photography where the content of an image is more important than perfect quality and aesthetics. Certainly, I would recommend current bridge cameras for such tasks and not the bulky and heavy DSLR.

I have no doubts that in very near future mirrorless small-format cameras will get larger sensors, thus becoming a serious alternative to DSLR. Maybe they even will replace the mirror cameras some day. But today DSLR remain the only choice for the majority of nature photographers.

choosing a dslr camera

Currently only six companies produce digital single lens cameras (DSLR): Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax Ricoh, Sigma. Fujifilm had also been making quite nice DSLR cameras for awhile but discontinued all models a couple of years ago and now appears to have concentrated all efforts on development and production of mirrorless cameras.

Only three manufacturers — Canon, Nikon and Sony — currently offer full-frame cameras. In the past, also Kodak had DSLR models with full-frame sensors (Kodak DSC Pro) but ceased their production in 2005. In 2012 the company went bankrupt. All current models of Olympus, Pentax and Sigma have cropped sensors.

strategy for acquiring dslr equipment

  • Think full-frame: Even if you can't afford a full-frame camera at the beginning, make all purchases with it in mind. Do not buy lenses that are incompatible with full-frame cameras: Full-frame lenses can be used with cameras that have cropped sensors but not vice versa. Get a full-frame camera body later and use it with the lenses that you have already purchased.
  • Lenses have priority: Start with lenses if you are short of money and can't buy at once all equipment that you need. Get the best lenses you can afford. If you can't purchase at once the whole set of lenses that you need, get fewer but better. Prefer lenses of the same manufacturer as your camera (Canon EF, Nikkor, etc.) or of a renowned third-party, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach. Lenses are essential for photography. Never save money on them!
  • Prefer full frame to cropped: Do not believe if someone is praising cropped cameras. Cameras with small sensors are good only for interim use. Do not spend too much money for it. If you can't afford a full-frame camera, get an older model of cropped one and use it temporarily with your full-frame lenses.
  • Megapixels do matter: Do not listen to people who are proclaiming that high megapixel numbers are nonsense. Of course, the higher is the sensor resolution, the higher should be the resolution of the lenses that are used with it. However, many lenses are good enough for use with sensors that have up to 30 Mp or even more.
  • Choose from Canon or Nikon: The DSLR cameras of these two manufacturers are currently the first choice for nature photographers. Almost all nature images that you see in books and magazines, on posters and postcards, on websites of honoured photographers, among winners of photography contests have been made either with a Canon or with a Nikon camera. Unless you have a strong personal reason to prefer Sony Alpha, Canon and Nikon cameras should be better choice.
  • None of two brands is better than the other: Listen neither to Canon nor to Nikon fanboys claiming that their brand is the best. Look at concrete lenses and cameras that you are interested in.

As you may have noticed, the majority of nature photographers use either Nikon or Canon equipment. Of course, there are reasons for this.

advantages of canon and nikon dslr systems

  • The largest variety of lenses: Not only the two companies themselves but many other lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon mounts, but less for other brands.
  • Special lenses: Lenses of some types — such as tilt-shift, extreme super teles, some wide-angle lenses — aren't available for other DSLR brands or are optically and technically inferior.
  • More advanced lens technology: Canon and Nikon develop lenses and optimize their performance for their own cameras only. Their lenses aren't compatible with other camera brands. Though it is a disadvantage for a money-savvy buyer, it ensures the best possible lens performance.
  • Best image stabilization: In Nikon and Canon equipment, the image stabilizer is in lenses — not in camera bodies, like in other brands. Image stabilization is helpful only in some cases — usually with telephoto lenses, when they are hand held. For the majority of photography tasks the IS is either not necessary or even disturbing, for it may degrade the sharpness. Canon and Nikon wisely provide image stabilization only where it indeed makes sense — with long telephoto lenses — and it works better than the in-camera IS of other manufacturers.
  • Full-frame sensors: Current full-frame sensors and cameras of Canon and Nikon are better than those of Sony.

A separate word needs to be said about Sony Alpha. It has its origin in Minolta system that Sony acquired in 2006. Minolta cameras had been serious competitors for Nikon and Canon in the past. Now, it still appears that for Sony professional photographers and DSLR videographers are a not that important target group, and the company is more concerned with development of consumer grade digital cameras — such as NEX system. The line-up of their DSLR lenses (even including Carl Zeiss ZA) is still much smaller than of Nikon and Canon. Many Minolta lenses are compatible with Sony DSLR cameras that have the same mount but in practice this means nothing because film lenses are not optimal for digital photography. Since Sony's Alpha DSLR cameras are also not cheap, there is no reason for a nature photographer to prefer them over Canon and Nikon.

Canon and Nikon have the widest range of lenses combined with the most advanced camera technologies. Most third-party lens manufacturers produce lenses for Nikon and Canon. Among them only Sigma and Tamron offer lenses for all DSLR brands mentioned above. Carl Zeiss, Voigtländer, Schneider Kreuznach, Tokina have lenses either for Canon, or for Nikon, or for both, but less or not at all for other brands. Choosing the camera brand, it is worth to check how good also the third-party lenses are. I can compare Sigma lenses for Canon mount with proprietary Canon lenses because I have both: The majority of Sigma lenses are not as good as Canon's own. Tamron lenses are even less expensive than Sigma but have a not so good reputation. However, there are some excellent Tamron lenses too that are worth to take a look at if you are searching for a budget alternative.

Only Canon, Nikon and Sigma have own super telephoto lenses, i.e. longer than 300 mm. For other brands, such lenses are made by Sigma — up to 800 mm — but they are not as good as Canon's and Nikon's. This is one of main reasons why Canon and Nikon are preferred for wildlife photography. Also tilt-shift lenses exist only for Canon and Nikon DSLR (otherwise, for medium format). Canon's current TS-E lenses are better than Nikon's counterparts. But Nikon has probably the world's best ultra wide zoom lens — 14-24 mm f/2.8 — that is so popular that some Canon photographers use it with an adapter.

Of course, the relatively high cost of Nikon and Canon equipment may be an obstacle for some people — especially for beginners. Cameras and lenses of Pentax, Olympus and Sigma usually cost at least 20-30% less, but I would strongly recommend to resist the temptation. Don't forget: You are choosing not just a camera but a whole equipment system. If you are short of money, just don't try to purchase all at once — get only one lens or two that you use for a awhile with an older camera body that you can find relatively cheap on eBay. My way to the current equipment collection was like this, and I am still convinced that it was right.

nikon vs. canon

This is a very popular discussion topic on amateur photography forums throughout the Web. Typically, a beginner who has difficulties with the decision asks this question which is certainly quite legitimate. The replies of the community may very quickly shift into attempts of mutual insults between protagonists of the two brands. I suppose that people who carry out such verbal fights are beginners too who just recently got a camera of either brand and are very proud of this, love it, but at the same time are afraid of having made a mistake. Such willingness to defend the favourite brand in every situation is a sign of immaturity rather than of expertise.

As I already pointed out a few times in this article, both brands are the best among DSLR. Thus, there can't be a general answer of the question, what is better: Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Many opinions pro and contra obviously result from habits, experience, attitudes: For instance, a Canon user may dislike Nikon cameras for the lack of a wheel that quickly switches between menu options, aperture settings, thumbnails in preview mode, etc.

Some opinions however are of objective kind and worth to be taken seriously by someone who is choosing the first camera. For example, Nikon users often view as an advantage that also DX lenses, i.e. made for reduced frame sensors, can be used with FX, i.e. full-frame, cameras though producing a cropped frame. In Canon equipment, the EF-S lenses can't be used with full-frame cameras. In my opinion, it is a negligible disadvantage because a cropped-frame lens on a full-frame camera doesn't make sense anyway. However, I can imagine that some Canon users may be annoyed by the fact that they have to purchase expensive EF (i.e. full-frame lenses) even if they don't have a full-frame camera yet but plan to get one in future because none of EF-S lenses will then work.

The professional camera bodies of both manufacturers are outrageously expensive, but sometimes one may cost less than the other. For someone who is looking for a professional camera this may be a reason to prefer the brand with currently lower price. On the other hand, even many professionals who can't afford a pro body choose high-end amateur cameras with full-frame sensors. Canon and Nikon often swap the leadership in this market segment. When I was writing this article, Nikon's top-level amateur camera was better than Canon's. But this may have changed when you are reading it. Always check the current status of both brands before you decide in favour of either brand.

The above said is valid for lenses too. Some types of lenses are better in Canon while some — in Nikon. I already mentioned the great Nikkor 14 - 24 mm lens. There is another very popular Nikon zoom lens that has no counterpart among Canon lenses: 200 - 400 mm f/4. (Canon has developed a zoom lens with the same focal length already in 2010 but still didn't release it. It is also unknown if this lens will ever appear on the market and how much it would cost.) However, there are quite many Canon lenses that outperform the Nikon's counterparts. For instance, Canon super telephoto and tilt-shift lenses are currently the best in class. For some Canon lenses no Nikon equivalents currently exist. For instance, there was no Nikon 17 mm tilt-shift lens and no 800 mm telephoto lens for the time of writing (It was announced however after this article was completed — 4 years after Canon's 800 mm lens appeared.). Another advantage of Canon's system is that most full-frame lenses of other brands that aren't compatible with Canon EF mount can be used via adapters. This can't be done with Nikon cameras, whose mount has the smallest diameter among SLR systems.

summary and conclusions

If you are a beginner in digital nature photography, you may be now disappointed because you haven't found recommendations of a specific brand or model in the above text. But I hope that I could explain why there can't be any. My intention with this article was to outline the principles of choosing a camera system for serious nature photography. Based on the above said, here are my final recommendations in brief:

If you just became interested in nature photography and have no experience, hence don't know yet your likes, preferences and needs, I would recommend you to use a bridge camera first.

June, 2012