Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Regular readers to this site will be aware that I’ve just spent a few days in New York, wandering around, eating myself silly, and taking a pile of photographs. As close to Paradise as I can get on my own.

Before I went, I decided to lash out and buy a new camera. Which in turn got me thinking about the real issues which decided me on one brand rather than another.

When I got into photography too many years ago for me to want to remember, I had read all the magazines, and reviews, and had come to the conclusion that what I really, really needed was a Canon EOS 5, a new camera which had just been launched onto the market. In the English vernacular, it was the “Bees’ Knees”. And I wanted one, badly.

I went to a Camera Fair to touch and play with one, just to confirm my conclusions, and it was with bated breath that I got to the Canon stand, and started handling, possibly even fondling one. To my huge disappointment, I was slightly underwhelmed, and reluctantly put it down.

I wandered round the rest of the show, picked up a Nikon F90, and within 10 seconds was completely converted. It was solid, sat in my hand beautifully, almost as if it had been designed just for me, and felt so right. I read the specification which said that the shutter had been designed for 180,000 exposures – that’s nearly 100 years at the rate I used to take pictures, and that convinced me. It exuded quality, and I bought one on the spot. Never have I made a better purchase.

This put me straight into the Nikon family, and it was followed by a D100 a few years later – another great camera. There I stayed for almost a decade, until the spectre of the Digital demon came over us all.

Now, it’s fair to say that Canon, for reasons I still don’t totally understand, have probably had the technical drop on Nikon in the Digital field of Professional/Serious Amateur cameras for quite a few years now, although I still stayed loyal to Nikon when their D70 came out in around 2004.

In reality, the cost of change is not just the camera, it’s the ancillary bits and pieces, the lenses and the flashguns, and just as importantly, knowing almost instinctively the way the camera works, which keeps you in the family. The Nikons I’ve owned were particularly intuitive. If you didn’t know how something worked on them, the odds were that if you took a guess at it, you would more often be right. When you want to do something in a hurry, that’s a very comforting feeling.

And Nikon were not daft – they kept as much of their operating methodology for a new camera as similar as possible to the last product, on the basis that “If it isn’t broken, don’t change it”. They maintain a lens mount which allows you to fit and use almost any lens they have produced in the last 50 years. So anyone who was versed in the Nikon style, and who picked up a brand new Nikon, could easily start taking decent pictures almost immediately.

I don’t change my camera each time the manufacturer brings out a new model, but recently, I started to look rather enviously at their newest offering, the D300, and its larger sibling, the D3. Apart from the D3 being 3 times the price of its smaller brother, it also weighed a ton, and I couldn’t convince myself that I needed such a beast. But the D300, well that was another story. As soon as I handled it, it murmured to me “Buy me, buy me, I’m the one that you want”, and I gave in immediately.

Wandering around New York, I took around 1000 pictures with it, without having had almost any time to familiarise myself properly with it. It just works. It’s blazingly fast, very intuitive, and seems to be able to do anything I want from a camera. The LCD panel on the back is quite superb, much better than on any other camera you can buy, and this means you can check the focus almost immediately rather than having to press the zoom button umpteen times as I had to do on all the other cameras I’ve owned. Simple, obvious and effective.

But the thing which unexpectedly astounded me about it, was its performance at high ASAs. On everything I’ve owned before, when you get much above 400ASA, the noise performance starts to deteriorate markedly. And if you want an image in low light, the noise is just something you have to live with. On this D300, I reckon you can get an almost noiseless image up to around 1000 ASA, which means you can take decent candids, in almost any light available.

This is something I simply hadn’t expected, and greatly expanded the envelope within which I could take pictures that pleased me. It really is a technical tour de force, and if you flick back to the title of this piece, which is the strap-line of a marvellous Honda TV car advert, you can put this lovely machine in the same category.

I probably don’t use the camera at its extremes, but I’ve sat and thought about it a lot – to try and think what I would improve on it. I read somewhere that the difference between the Canon and Nikon design philosophy was that Canons are designed by Engineers, and Nikons are designed by Photographers. This may sound a bit of a silly statement, but I can feel what it means quite clearly when I play with my new toy. It feels almost part of you.

Quite what Nikon are going to do when they set about developing the D400, I have no idea.


No comments: