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Why did I choose Canon EOS film cameras?

PhotoNotes.org DonationsCopyright © 2000-2014 NK Guy

Here are a few brief notes that I wrote back in 2000, explaining why I decided to go for the Canon EOS system of SLR cameras when I made the switch from manual focus film cameras (Pentax Spotmatic and Canon FD) to autofocus (EOS) film SLRs. They may be of interest to someone considering a similar jump, though they're totally out of date now. I wrote this years ago, back when digital wasn't really an option.

Note that I only talked about 35mm SLRs here - I don’t talk at all about medium format (Hasselblad, Mamiya, Pentax medium format, etc) and large format because, much as I love the image quality of larger formats, they’re too expensive. (well - I do have a Holga medium format camera, but that $20 plastic toy doesn’t really count) I also don’t talk about APS, since I don’t like the tiny negatives.

Look at the whole system.

If you just want a point and shoot camera then comparing different models by different manufacturers makes a lot of sense. After all, you’re just buying a camera - the occasional accessory is merely a bit of icing on the proverbial cake. And such cameras don’t support interchangeable lenses; a key part of SLR systems.

But if you’re thinking of buying a new camera with interchangeable lenses with the interest of serious photography - amateur or professional - then you have to think in terms of the whole system that you’re buying into.

Comparing individual camera models from different manufacturers isn’t as important as deciding if the entire system of products works for you. It’s not just the particular camera but the lenses, flash system, technological options, widespread availability and so on. Remember that once you’re locked into one system it can be fairly expensive and troublesome to switch.

Whatever you do, don’t decide on a particular system because one camera you tried has a particular feature you like, unless you really need that one feature. The one thing I would double-check, however, is if the camera you’re thinking of getting feels right to you. The subjective feel of a camera - its shape, positioning of controls, heft and size, etc, are critical in regular use and you have to be sure that the camera you choose works for you.

Luxury 35mm and medium format makers - Leica, Contax, etc.

Not an option for me for one single word - money.

Other makers - Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, etc.

I didn’t opt for these smaller manufacturers. They all make excellent products and all have a wide range of equipment available, but there’s one basic reason why I didn’t consider them. And that is that very few professional photographers use them.

Why does that matter? Snob appeal? No, quite simply it’s because you can rent high-end Canon and Nikon gear in most cities. If you can’t afford a $1500 Nikon or Canon pro lens but want to shoot a wedding, no problem - just rent one for the day. It’s risky if you don’t have insurance that covers the rental, but at least it’s an option. By contrast, I’ve never really seen anywhere that rents much Minolta, Pentax or Olympus gear. So you’re basically stuck with just the gear you can afford to buy.

The other pro camera maker - Nikon.

So the choice came down to Nikon and Canon. Nikon are certainly a very attractive option. Besides the unparalleled cachet of the name and the fact that it was Nikon who spearheaded the Japanese takeover of the postwar camera business from the Germans, Nikon make excellent products. They’ve used the same basic lens mount for decades, so there’s a huge range of lenses out there. One of the most vaunted features of the Nikon system is that you can attach a high quality old manual-focus lens onto your modern autofocus camera.

But there is a significant difference between the way Nikon and Canon roll out newly minted technologies that made the decision for me. Nikon tend to include their new tech in their high-end cameras and lenses first. Only later do they filter the new technology down to their cheaper products. So if you want a silent-wave or VR lens, for example, you have to buy a really expensive product.

Canon and new technology.

Canon take a very different approach to new technologies. On the whole they include their new technology first in their midrange gear.

As they refine the tech they introduce bulletproof implementations in their high-end gear, and as they simplify the manufacturing process they then include it in their low-end gear. There are exceptions to this, of course. The new diffractive (DO) lenses are insanely expensive, for example. But on the whole this is the pattern they follow.

What does this mean for me? Well, it means that I can afford a lens with a fast and silent ultrasonic motor, for example. Canon’s ECF (eye control) cameras and IS (image stabilization) lenses are similarly relatively affordable. As I’m neither a professional photographer nor a highly wealthy amateur with money to burn, affordability is crucial to me.

Another factor comes into play. Both Canon and Nikon build expensive pro cameras, midrange cameras for advanced amateurs and consumer cameras. Canon differ in that they also sell really cheap mass-market cameras that use the same lens system as all of their other gear. This means they can spread development costs over a much larger product base.

It also means you can easily pick up dirt cheap low-end bodies to pack around for fun or as inexpensive backups and maintain compatibility with your higher-end gear. Or it means you can start out with a super-cheap inexpensive camera and build a system from there. The financial bars to entry are much lower.

Finally, Canon is a much larger and more diverse company than Nikon. This means that they can justify the research costs of a new technology by incorporating it into products across their product lineup. Image stabilization, for example, is built into their SLR cameras, binoculars and camcorders. This is probably the reason why Canon have been the first to introduce a number of significant new camera technologies over the past 15 years or so.

Benefits of Canon EOS.

So those are some of the decisions that made me choose Canon. And I’m generally very pleased. Here are the main benefits as far as I’m concerned.

Disadvantages.

Are there disadvantages with Canon? Of course - every system has its compromises. I do regret not being able to pick up inexpensive manual-focus lenses the way Nikon users can. It’s frustrating to me that most cameras in the EOS lineup fog high-speed infrared film. That only high-end Canons have true spot metering. That modern Canon viewfinders are really lousy if you wear glasses. That EOS cameras are clearly not built for longevity and have to be thought of as devices with maybe a 5-10 year lifespan - look at the disintegrating shutter bumpers in EOS 600 series and Elan/100 cameras. That Canon do sometimes seem to put more emphasis on flashy technology (eg: ECF) rather than getting the basics right (eg: AE metering and flash metering, particularly on the digital EOS cameras).

Nikon are also arguably superior when it comes to macro and wide-angle lenses, and many people claim that Nikon still have the edge over Canon in the area of flash photography, even with E-TTL. Nikon are also more modular in some regards - their high-end film cameras had interchangeable finders, for example.

And so on. But on the whole, I’m quite satisfied with my decision.

Conclusion.

So there you go. Those are the factors which shaped my decision. I’m not, however, saying anything stupid like Canon make the best gear out there. Of course they don’t - because there’s no such thing. Each system has its pros and cons, and what’s best for one user isn’t necessarily the best for another.

And yes, I do focus somewhat on questions of technology. Obviously - the point of this document is moving from older manual-focus equipment to autofocus. If I wanted to stay with manual gear, I would have. Autofocus isn’t superior for everything, but it was a switch I was ready to make. Having all my manual-focus gear stolen in one proverbial fell swoop did, I admit, make it a little easier.

If you’re looking for a camera, ignore the diehard fans, as they’re usually totally blind to the faults and disadvantages of a given camera system. Spend some time with the gear before buying, if you can. Rent a camera and a lens or two and see if they work for you. Make a quick list of the type of photography you want to do and see which system is likely to fit your needs. Find out what your friends and relations use - you might be able to borrow lenses you need on occasion if they have compatible gear to yours. And have fun!


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- NK Guy, PhotoNotes.org.

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