Just as an amusing thought experiment, let's imagine a remake of my personal photography kit, chosing the appropriate product selections from each of the big three manufacturers, Canon, Nikon and Sony.  There's no idea of actually following through -- I'm perfectly happy with what I have.  But, perhaps the point of the exercise is to determine whether or not all three manufacturers now make comparable -- and satisfactory -- products for a wide variety of uses.   Hint: they do -- well, kinda!

Where are We Now

First, a bit of background.  For decades, I was a 35mm film photographer, first with a Yashica Lynx 5000E range-finder, then with a Minolta SRT-101 single lens reflex (SLR) camera.  These all-manual cameras were succeeded by Minolta 8000i and 800i autoexposure, autofocus and auto-film advance cameras.  Then, in 1999, I transitioned to Canon gear in order to take advantage of their image stabilized long telephotos -- the emerging primary interest being bird photography, an interest which remains predominant to this day.  A Canon 1Ds digital SLR (DSLR) eventually followed, and from then on everything was digital -- a succession of 1D action and 1Ds high-resolution "pro" bodies as they became available.

Canon and Nikon eventually abandoned the pro style high resolution camera line in favor of the lower resolution but high frame rate action and sports cameras.  The need for higher resolution bodies was filled by less ruggedized and slower camera bodies that were substantially lower in cost.  This feature set became the workhorse tool of choice for wedding, landscape, event and many other types of photography.  Given that Canon pro bodies no longer offered high megapixel counts, I eventually added a late model 5D-series camera.

And then, the world changed.  Sony hit the jackpot with mirrorless interchangable lens cameras -- MILCs.  Having bought out Minolta but failing to make a go of it in the DSLR market, they moved to their strong suit, electronics and digital sensors.  They were greatly aided by the rise of smartphones with built-in cameras and digital sensors.  The market for the latter came to be dominated by Sony, and their MILC digital cameras, fueled by the influx of massive sensor research funds and despite dubious ergonomics, leapt to the top of the pack,  in large measure due to superior sensor quality.

Nikon's DSLRs, with sensors bought from Sony, got pulled along in the vortex.  Canon, which had pioneered full frame CMOS sensor-based full-frame cameras, soon lagged behind in dynamic range, megapixels, noise characteristics, sensor read time, sensor architecture, fabrication feature size and a bunch of other esoteric but meaningful technical attributes.  See Sensor Wars for a more complete discusson.

What Do I Use

But, what goes around comes around.  The advantages of mirrorless are manifest, and eventually both Canon and Nikon were forced to grasp the MILC nettle -- each introduced a line of MILCs of their own.  Nikon's initial offerings were perhaps a bit better than Canon's, possibly because Canon was forced to go back to the research labs and invent a lot of technology already developed by Sony and inherited by Nikon, technology that wasn't fully available when market forces and timing drove Canon to introduce a full frame mirrorless line with what was on hand.  But, then Canon announced the R5, a 5D equivalent that represented a break from Canon's past very conservative approach to feature inclusion.  With that introduction, a feature and capability threshhold was passed, and finally it was time to take a second look at the MILC world.

We leave it to the reviewer class to dissect this new offering, as well as its competitors.  Our judgment is that a suitable kit can be assembled from all three companys' products, whether DSLR or MILC, and whether native or adapted lenses.  Having said that, let's take a look at what a comparable kit from each company would look like.  Once again, this is purely personal, based on my use cases, with no intention of following through, and lots of people would go in a different direction.

I discussed my own personal use cases pretty thoroughly in Custom Shooting Modes, so there's no need to repeat the details here.  But briefly they include, in rough order of interest:

  • Birds and wildlife

  • Family and portraits

  • Travel and architecture

  • Landscape and nature

  • Sports and action (e.g. birds in flight)

  • Macro and studio setups

This set of interests drives the selection of gear, particularly lenses, but also camera bodies.  Regarding the latter, from the beginning of the DSLR era I've always perferred a pair of cameras, one for action and one for resolution.  That has not changed, although at times the choices for one or the other were limited.  The R5 may have changed that, with 45MP and up to 20 frames per second.  We shall see.

Camera bodies come and go.  But lenses last a long time.  Over the years, I've upgraded lenses a few times, always for a newer version that offered better optical performance.  However, the industry and the technology has reached the point were gains are minimal, and my current lineup seems quite stable.  Once again, we shall see, but for now here is the lineup, couched in generic terms.

  • Long telephoto for bird photography, typically a pro quality 600mm f4, with 1.4X and 2X teleconverters.

  • Midrange telephoto for action, wildlife and other uses, typically a 300mm f2.8 or 400mm f4, with teleconverters.

  • Four zooms: ultrawide xx-to-24mm f4; midrange 24mm-105mm f4; portrait zoom 70mm-200mm f2.8; long telephoto 100-400mm f4.5-5.6

  • Tilt-shift:  17mm, 24mm, 50mm, 90mm

  • Macro and fisheye

The Kit, From Each Brand

With that stage-setting out of the way, it's time to see how each of the big three would fill out this kit.  We'll go with MILC bodies as first choice since that seems to be the way of the future, but leaving the option for DSLRs where the appropriate MILC body does not yet appear.  For lenses, we'll pick native mirrorless or adapted DSLR lenses as appropriate.  Third party lenses are not included; this is a personal choice, and others will surely see things differently.  And, there's no need to spend money upgrading unless no other choice exists.  Note that accessories such as flashes, battery grips, etc. are omittted.  Also, where discontinued items are listed there are newer versions that would fill the need if required.

Photo Gear Canon Nikon Sony
Action Body 1DX Mk I I/ III or R5 (TBD) D5 / D6 A9/A9II
General Purpose Body 5D4 Mk IV / R5 (TBD) D850 /  Z7 A7R III / IV
DSLR-MILC Adapters Standard, Control, Filter FTZ Mount Adapter e.g. Metabones EF/E
Long Telephoto EF 600mm f4L II / III 600mm f4E FL ED VR 600mm f4 GM OSS
1.4X, 2X Extenders EF 1.4 III, EF 2.0X III TC-14EIII, TC-17-EII, TC-20EIII FE 1.4X, FE 2.0X
Mid-range Telephoto EF 300mm f2.8L / 400mm f4 DO 300mm f2.8G/500mm f5.6E PF Adapted ?
Ultra-wide Zoom EF 11-24mm f4L 14-24mm f2.8G FE 12-24mm f2.8 GM
Standard Zoom EF / RF 24-105mm f4L 24-120mm f4G VR FE 24-105 f4 G OSS
Fast Portrait Zoom EF / RF 70-200mm f2.8L 70-200mm f2.8E FL VR FE 70-200mm GM OSS
Long Zoom EF 100-400L / RF 100-500L 80-400mm D VR FE 100-400mm GM OSS
Macro-Telephoto EF 180mm f3.5L 200mm f4D Micro Adapted or FE 90mm G OSS
Fisheye 15mm f2.8 (discontinued) 16mm f2.8D Fisheye Adapted Canon Fisheye
Extra-wide Tilt-Shift EF 17mm f4L TS-E 19mm f4E PC Adapted EF 17mm f4 TS-E
Wide Tilt-Shift EF 24mm f3.5L TS-E II 24mm f3.5D PC-E Adapted EF 24mm f3.5 TS-E II
Normal Tilt-Shift EF 50mm f2.8L TS-E 45mm f2.8D PC-E Micro Adapted EF 50mm f2.8 TS-E
Telephoto Tilt-Shift EF 90mm f2.8 TS-E (discont.) 85mm f2.9D PC-E Micro Adapted EF 90mm f2.8 TS-E II


Any summary must begin by repeating that the above gear kit reflects my use cases and my choices only.  Each photographer makes their own choices, based on what they want, need or prefer, and based on their means.  Having said that, my original choice remains intact.  Canon, which recently trailed both Nikon and Sony in digital sensors (although not in camera ergonomics), now has a body lineup that competes favorably in all regards.  And, they have the most complete native lens lineup of any manufacturer.

Nikon.  Nikon and Canon have long been rather evenly matched rivals, with one having a lead in one area and the other pulling ahead in other aspects.  Clearly, an excellent kit can be assembled from Nikon as well as Canon.  In the past, there were cases where the Canon lens alternative was a bit sharper, but these days each of them has products that are a smidge better than the comparable choice from the other.  Despite any small differences, both make lineups fully capable of professional results, so there is little to chose between them.  On the other hand, if one specializes in birds in flight, there is no better setup than the Nikon 500mm f5.6 PF lens paired with any high end Nikon body (or an adapted Sony A9/II), all of which autofocus and track superbly.

However, for my uses, the Canon 400mm f4 DO is the faster and more versatile midrange telephoto, albeit somewhat heavier and more expensive.  For instance, for photographing deer or other large mammals in the deep woods, the alternative to stay at 400mm and have f4 available is a better choice.  (The same logic applies to 600mm f4 vs 800mm f5.6; both of which I have owned.  The 800mm f5.6 soon departed.)  And, the 400mm DO takes Canon's extenders very well.  Horses for courses.

Sony.  Powered by their class-leading sensors, Sony has made great inroads into the full-frame 35mm camera marketplace -- despite what some consider to be less than stellar body ergonomics and menu layouts.  They have taken a bite out of both Canon's and Nikon's market share.  (Surprisingly, the company experiencing the greatest market share loss is Nikon, despite having an outstanding product line.)  And, Sony is rapidly filling out their lens lineup.  But, the continuing need to adapt lenses of other brands (Canon is a favorite) or employ third party products to fill in holes that Canon and Nikon cover very well vividly illustrates the fact that Sony has more work to do.   Note that we do not consider third party optics in this discussion.  Many people are perfectly content with this path, but we have found no need to go in that direction.

Canon.  Perhaps in the end, this exercise simply formalizes what I already knew: for my purposes I'm sticking with what I have.  With the arrival of the R5, Canon would appear at this moment to have no significant weaknesses for my uses.  Their adapters make every EF lens in existence a direct transfer to the EOS R mount, and with more flexibility than any other maker.  This being so, there is no need to spend cash to upgrade -- and certainly no advantage to changing brands -- unless something comes along that offers a significant optical, performance or useability advantage.

  © 2020 Michael W. Masters   Return to top