I’ve gotten asked this question a few times lately, and it’s probably a good idea to share my thoughts publicly. Here’s an email conversation I had earlier today:
B.T.: “Simply put, is the Canon 30D or the Nikon D80 the best way to go? […] Was about to get the Nikon D40, but then got a piece of advice that said that Canon might be better in the way of sports photography. I’m not sure if this was a “standard” or a perceived notion. Anyhow, now I’m trying to decide between the D80 and 30D. I know once I buy into either the Nikon or Canon “family” I’m pretty much there because of accessories and lenses.
So… what was it that made you choose Canon? I knew you were considering the D200 for a bit. […] But what are you thoughts on overall image quality between the two given the different types of image sensors (CCD vs. CMOS)? And I’ve actually thought of going ahead w/ the D40 as a stepping stone to the D200. To be honest, I’ve been back and forth a few times… but wondered about your opinion. […]”
My reply, with some additional edits:
I’m always hesitant to give brand-specific advice, because what works for me might not work for you. I have not used Nikon DSLRs yet. People that use them love them. By the same token, people that use Canon DSLRs love them as well. And people that use Olympus DSLRs love them too. And Sigma, and Fuji, etc.
What I can tell you is to try out the camera. Inquire locally, perhaps at your local camera shop, and see where you can rent the camera you’re interested in buying, even if it’s only for a day or two. Then rent the camera from the other brand, and compare. Even if it costs you up to $200 for the total cost of renting them, it’s well worth it considering you’ll be spending thousands on the equipment and will own it for several years or more, particularly the lenses.
When it comes to the 30D and D80, I tried out the 30D for a whole month. Then I went to the store and examined the D80 closely. I liked the grip and feel of the 30D better than that of the D80, but that’s just me, and my hands are different from others’.
What I can also tell you is that it seems the Nikon cameras have a little more noise and they lose some of the detail in low light when compared to Canon. But if you plan to use a tripod for longer exposures or a flash — and both of these devices will allow you to use a lower ISO — the difference in photo quality is going to be difficult to see, so don’t hang your entire purchase decision on this issue alone, unless shooting mostly hand held in low light is going to be one of the main reasons you want the camera.
Once you get above a certain level (you graduate from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR), the brand or the camera itself doesn’t matter that much. It won’t be the camera that takes the great photos, it’ll be you. To a certain extent, the lenses that you use will matter more than the camera body. You can get great photos with any brand of camera, provided you know its strengths and weaknesses and know just how to use it.
One last thought: the CCD vs. CMOS sensor arguments are pretty useless all around. Don’t forget, Nikon itself — while praised for its CCD sensors — uses a CMOS sensor for its flagship model, the D2X. It doesn’t matter what sensor is inside the camera, as long as the camera manufacturer uses it well. It seems Canon makes pretty darn good use of its CMOS sensors, while Nikon makes great use of their CCD and CMOS sensors as well. And after trying out an Olympus DSLR, I was pretty happy with their CCD sensor as well (except in low light). The Fuji Pro line has some pretty interesting sensors as well. And Sigma is doing groundbreaking work with the Foveon sensors in their SD line. The SD14 is a pretty amazing camera, and I would have bought it instead of my 5D if its effective resolution wasn’t 5 megapixels. (Note: the SD14’s advertised resolution is 14 megapixels, because it has three stacked sensors at 4.7 megapixels each, but the effective resolution is still about 5 megapixels.)
The point is to find out what works for you, and know how to use it well. You can only do that when you’ve held the equipment in your hand and researched the field thoroughly. It really helps when you sit down in front of a spreadsheet and add up all of the stuff you want to buy: camera body, lenses, filters, tripods, batteries, bags, sensor and lens cleaning equipment, editing software, etc. You’ll quickly find out what your ceiling price is, and you’ll know what camera body and brand you can afford. And if you compare your choices that way, you’ll have the information you need to make an educated, logical choice. The decision will be all yours, and believe me, you’ll enjoy your equipment a lot more that way.