The Argument to Not Switch

(commentary)

It happens every time Canon or Nikon introduce significant products: users of the competitive product suddenly get a huge case of lens envy, or body envy, or pixel envy, or even just new envy. Sure enough, with the D5/D500 introduction behind us I’m now getting feedback from both Canon shooters that now think they want to switch, and from Nikon shooters that tell me they were considering switching, but now may have changed their mind.

Reality is that Nikon and Canon have been leapfrogging each other since 1999. Nikon started it all with the D1, followed closely by the D1h, D1x, and D100; all three serious pro or enthusiast cameras worth coveting. Canon leap-frogged by going to larger and better sensors. Nikon leap-frogged with the D3/D300 combo. Canon hopped back with a series of full frame iterations that took the 5D into serious video territory, amongst other things. Nikon didn’t leap with a D300s replacement, which made the Canon 7DII hurdle an even further frog to get over. Now we’re back with a Nikon D5/D500 jump, and about to get a Canon 1DxII hop, as well. Similar things happened with lenses.

Here’s my contention—and I believe I’ve been relatively consistent on this over the years—switching to a direct competitive product makes no real sense (I’ll get to indirect competitive in a moment). Had you bounced back and forth between Canon and Nikon over the past fifteen years, you would have spent a serious amount of money just to stay “absolutely current.” And I would argue that every time you switched, you would have had to relearn everything you already knew: the UIs and terminology and control placements are enough different to be more than just a simple cognitive dissonance. 

I once made the mistake of shooting with two pro bodies simultaneously, one the top Canon, the other the top Nikon. Boy did that slow me down. My fingers were confused, and my brain was really confused as I switched back and forth. I missed shots. Since then, when I do shoot with a Canon body I make sure not to be switching back and forth but to just use it continuously to the point where I’m comfortable with it. And “comfortable” should really be in quotes, because I’d argue that it takes a month or two of shooting for a body to feel like an extension of you that you’re in full control of. It’s bad enough moving between and older and newer Nikon body every few years; switching more often and with a bigger difference between the two just makes no sense at all to anyone who values “the moment.” 

So my hypothesis: it’s better to absolutely catch the moment with what you’ve got than it is to possibly miss it with something the Internet buzz is telling you might be better. There isn’t a camera at the enthusiast to pro level out at the moment that can’t produce an image that’s good enough for a double-truck in a high quality magazine (that’s a two-page spread in lay jargon). Even in low light. Sure, you might have to do a bit of noise reduction or work the highlights and shadows a bit, but I’ll stick by that statement: there isn’t a camera at the enthusiast to pro level that can’t produce a quality double-page spread. Do you really need more?

Now Nikon DSLRs versus Canon DSLRs are what I called direct competitive products. You can choose a Nikon D5 or a Canon 1DxII in the coming months. You can choose a Canon 7DII or a Nikon D500. Very similar and directly competitive products with different DNA and thus slightly different attributes.     

What about indirectly competitive? 

That’s where the mirrorless cameras came into play. Rather than fight the DSLR duopoly directly, everyone other than the laggard Pentax seems to have decided to attack indirectly via mirrorless entries. But let me state this unequivocally: the best mirrorless camera is not the same as the best DSLR. You’re no longer comparing apples to apples, but apples to bananas or oranges or pears. 

This isn’t to damn mirrorless cameras. Obviously, I use them. But I use them differently and for different tasks than I’m using the DSLRs. It’s easy to see, for example, that the state-of-the-art DSLR has no equal in terms of shooting sports, or birds in flight, or any number of things that require quick and sure response to highly changing situations. This starts with the focus but also—the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Samsung NX1 notwithstanding—definitely applies to the view of the world you see while trying to track subjects: OVF gives you a more connected to reality timing than EVF in the present configurations.

People shooting more static subjects, for example trip photography that’s mostly posed family-selfie-in-front-of-landmark and static subjects like landscapes, might indeed prefer mirrorless cameras over DSLRs. Why? Well the simplest reason has to do with size and weight. No one wants to drag five pounds around their neck for a full vacation. I’ve criticized the DSLR makers before on this: while the lower end consumer DSLRs are somewhat smaller and lighter, they also are stupider, nor are they as small and light as they could be. Nor do they offer the full system that the mirror systems are. Superzooms aren’t the answer to everything, Nikon, especially since the more super they are the bigger and heavier they are. And then we’re back to the five pound neck weight.

So, if you’re thinking about switching from a Canon or Nikon DSLR at the enthusiast level or higher to the competitor’s product, think again. A couple years down the line, the frog will have been leaped and you’ll be jealous of the grass on the other side of the amphibian again. If you’re thinking about downsizing and you’re comfortable with the compromises, then Nikon consumer DSLR shooters probably should look at the mirrorless options (and Canon shooters look at the EOS M options; oops, see your mistake here, Nikon?). 

All that said, I can’t help but point out that the camera makers have brought all this on themselves. The real reasons people want to switch are twofold: (1) they’re dissatisfied with something in their current system; and (2) they’ve bought the marketing hype a competitor produced. So to Nikon this note: (1) you need to fix more things that customers are dissatisfied with, and faster; and (2) your marketing isn’t up to the level where it shuts down your competitor’s messages. 

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