Nikon vs Canon - use of older lenses

I am writing this article solely to address the use of older lenses (aka “legacy glass” on newer, current Nikon and Canon digital bodies. Whenever, people hear about a Nikon vs Canon debate, the first reaction is “oh no, not THIS again”, but there really are some distinct differences between the two systems that should be considered when making an investment into one or the other system. The only difference that I am addressing in this article is the lens mount. Nikon uses the Nikon F mount which is somewhat smaller than the Canon EF mount.  – is one better than the other, and if so, why? So let’s review the differences between the Nikon F and Canon EF mounts in detail.


For full disclosure, my interchangable lens cameras have all been Nikons, and except for the Pentax KM I began with in 1976. I have had 2 Nikon film bodies, an F-301 and the F5 I have now, and a multitude of both crop sensor and full frame digital bodies. My main squeeze now is a D810. I have never regretted my decision to stick with Nikon and I managed to dodge the recent issues with Nikon’s quality control. My lenses are all Nikon-made Nikkor lenses which I believe have superb performance and many have been bought previously owned. I love my Nikon gear, but there are some issues with the Nikon F mount when compared to the Canon EF mount.  I’ll explain these below.

Nikon F – Mechanical Diaphragm Lever

One of the biggest disadvantages of the Nikon F mount is the mechanical diaphragm / aperture lever that is present on most Nikon lenses. Whether you are looking at a classic manual focus Nikkor, an older “D” or the newer “G” type lenses, all of them require Nikon camera bodies to physically change aperture on every shot if it is set to anything other than maximum aperture. That’s because all such Nikon lenses contain a mechanical lever on the rear side of the lens, which must be engaged to adjust the aperture. When a lens is dismounted, the spring-loaded lever on the lens is pushed back to its standard position, which basically stops the lens down to its minimum aperture. Once you start attaching the lens to a camera body, the corresponding lever inside the camera chamber forces the lens to open up the diaphragm, as illustrated below:

Nikon G Lens Aperture Open
Lenses typically stay wide open at maximum aperture when mounted to cameras, for maximum amount of light to reach the viewfinder and the phase detection autofocus system. Hence, aperture on DSLRs only changes right before the exposure. Once a picture is taken, the lever goes back and the diaphragm mechanism returns to its wide open state to continue providing maximum amount of light to the camera. This means that when shooting with lenses that feature such mechanical levers, the lens must physically stop down and open up every time the camera fires. Since the mechanical lever is physically triggered by the camera, this mechanism must be extremely precise and accurate in order to yield consistently accurate brightness and desired depth of field. However, when shooting continuously in high speed, it is often impossible to yield consistent results, since the mechanical lever might not have enough time to go back and forth quick enough. And if the lever is not precisely calibrated, or potentially wears off / malfunctions overtime, each shot might yield incorrect aperture and brightness.

In contrast, lenses that feature electromagnetic diaphragms do not have any mechanical levers – changes in aperture are communicated electronically by the camera through lens contacts. Such method of aperture control is much more preferred, because lenses can set their apertures consistently and accurately, with no shot-to-shot variation.

Because of the above, using a mechanical lever to change aperture is prone to inconsistency in exposure and potential mechanical issues both in camera and in lenses. Canon realized this and fully moved to electronic aperture control on both EF and EF-S mounts a while ago, and Nikon has only recently started updating its lenses to “E” type lenses with electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism. Unfortunately, such lenses have been limited to mostly super telephoto and higher-end zoom lenses, so despite the obvious disadvantages, Nikon has still been releasing many modern “G” type lenses with mechanical levers.

Nikon F and Canon EF Mount Size Differences

Another key difference is the physical mount size – Nikon F mount’s “throat” diameter is 44mm, whereas the Canon EF mount is larger at 54mm. That 10mm difference might seem small, but it is actually quite important when it comes to lens design. If you have been wondering why Nikon does not release fast f/1.2 primes with autofocus, while Canon has the excellent 50mm f/1.2L and 85mm f/1.2L II lenses in its stable, the answer is primarily in the limitation of the physical diameter of the Nikon F mount. It would be very cost prohibitive for Nikon to try to design f/1.2 lenses with autofocus capabilities, because of space limitations on the rear side of lenses. Such designs would have to be limited to under 60mm focal length range and even then, the CPU contacts would probably have to be put right on the rear element. Anyone who has tried to make the classic Noct-NIKKOR 58mm f/1.2 CPU-capable knows that it requires grinding the rear element to fit the contacts – there is no other way to do it. And forget about longer focal lengths, because it would never fit. In fact, if you look at the rear of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, which appears significantly larger than the rear element of any Nikkor, that lens required Canon engineers to put the CPU contacts right on top of the rear glass surface.

In contrast, Canon has an advantage here – shorter focal length f/1.2 lenses in the 50mm+ range can be designed easier, since the mount diameter is large enough to accommodate such optical designs.

Another advantage that some people point out is durability – since the Canon EF mount is physically larger, some people argue that it is also more durable. This claim is easily dismissed because the Nikon F mount is big enough to be quite durable. I proved this while on a safari in Africa when I dropped my camera with a 300mm prime lens attached and did not damage the lens mount. (See post-script)

Nikon F vs Canon EF Mounting Options

Due to the above-mentioned physical differences in lens mounts, along with differences in flange distance, Canon EF lenses cannot be used with adapters on Nikon DSLRs (since the rear element is too large and the flange distance is shorter at 44mm vs 46.5mm on Nikon F), while Nikon lenses can be used with adapters on Canon DSLRs. This is another disadvantage of the Nikon F mount, because it limits Nikon shooters from being able to use Canon glass, while Canon shooters can enjoy Nikon glass on their cameras. In fact, until Canon released its excellent but pricey EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, many Canon shooters loved the results they were getting with the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G coupled with an adapter.

Nikon F vs Canon EF Lens Mounting

When mounting Nikon lenses, you move lenses clockwise when looking from the back of the camera. Canon lenses are always mounted in the opposite, counter-clockwise direction. Not a big deal, but it certainly does take time to get used to this change when changing brands.

Nikon F – Older and Backwards-Compatible

So far I have pointed out the disadvantages of the Nikon F mount, but it does not mean that it does not have its advantages. One of the biggest advantages of Nikon F, is backwards compatibility due to its age – Nikon first designed its F mount back in 1957 and since then, pretty much every F mount lens has been compatible with newly released Nikon cameras. This means that you can grab some really old manual focus classics and still use them natively on modern Nikon DSLRs – something you cannot do with pre-EF Canon lenses. Canon basically ditched its previous mounts in 1987 when the EF mount was launched, without caring for backwards-compatibility. Canon shooters were not pleased, because they found themselves having to get rid of their old lenses and start from scratch with new lenses. Therefore, while Canon provides more lens options for photographers today than Nikon, the total number of lenses one could mount natively on Nikon cameras exceeds that of Canon’s.

Some of the really old Nikon lens designs went through a factory conversion process to allow proper mounting and for metering to work on modern cameras. The designations “AI and AI-s” indicate that the lens is compatible with the aperture index system in the camera body, and if the Nikon body has a “non-CPU” lens set up function in the menu, these old lenses will function beautifully in both aperture and manual shooting modes with accurate readings from the camera’s light meter. 

Autofocus compatibility issues with lower-end DSLRs that do not have built-in focus motors have also been addressed for the most part by Nikon, since all modern AF-S lenses will autofocus on any modern Nikon. 


Canon EF and EF-S Lens Compatibility

Although both EF and EF-S lenses have the same rear diameter to fit all Canon DSLR cameras, Canon limited EF-S lenses from working on full-frame cameras. This means that if one were to move up from a lower-end APS-C camera to a full-frame camera, they would have to upgrade all EF-S lenses to EF versions first. 

Nikon does not have such limitation – DX lenses will work on all full-frame cameras, but if the image circle is not big enough, it will simply have very dark corners in images. One can enable an option in full-frame cameras to automatically reduce image size to 1.5x crop when DX cameras are mounted to avoid darkening of the corners. In some cases, DX lenses at different focal lengths or focusing distances can actually cover the whole image circle of full-frame cameras and those could be used in full-frame mode without issues. This is a great advantage to those who want to move up from Nikon DX to full-frame cameras, since they can first start shooting in crop mode, then upgrade lenses at a later point of time.

Summary

My conclusion is that both Nikon and Canon systems offer very strong lens choices. But for me, Nikon is the way to go. I had 2 DX bodies that I used with full frame lenses before acquiring a full frame body. So the “upgrade” was almost painless. I am using a Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 AI-s lens that has superb image quality and it is more than 20 years old. All except the entry level Nikon bodies up to the very newest Nikon bodies D500, D850 and D5 all share the ability to use legacy glass. As Nikon moves into electronic diaphragms for their lenses, these bodies will be able to make use of both old and new technology. I see that as a plus. 

I am not starting yet another Nikon vs Canon debate, but rather pointing out the differences between them. And the views expressed are my own.

Post-script: The bayonet mount on the body did however break off. I had to buy a replacement camera body in Botswana and was lucky enough to find a used D7000 for US$250. I had D810 repaired when I returned home.  The technician at the repair shop told me that Nikon mounts are designed to break off in order to “save the lens” since lens repairs are more costly. Dropped Canons are more likely to damage the lens mounts which contain electronic contacts. 

Thanks to Nasim Mansurov who published an article on this topic in Photography Life on August 10, 2015. 

Used Gear - Yes or No?

I have been a proponent of buying good quality, pre-owned equipment for quite a long time. Most of the "stuff" I have is used and performs exceptionally well.  I have bought from dealers, on ebay and from local sellers using Craigslist.  I've been lucky and never had an issue.  For some advice, take a look at this recent article:

https://www.lightstalking.com/10-important-tips-purchasing-used-camera/

  

Ouch!

I went on a photo safari in Botswana this past September (2016).  I took my D810 and a few lenses - AFS 300mm f/4; AF 80-200mm f/2.8D; AFS 24-70mm f/2.8 and AFS 17-35mm f/2.8 as well as my trusty AF 50mm f/1.4D. I also made good use of a TC17EII.  I am still reviewing the images and selecting the ones worthy of post-processing.  Shooting birds in flight and animals on the move translates to a large number of images to review and discard!

While at the Mowana Lodge on the Chobe River, I carelessly DROPPED my camera...  with 300mm lenses attached.....  The bayonet mounting ring snapped off the body rendering the camera inoperable.  No damage to the lens though.  So halfway through a photography trip I was without a camera!  We had done some safari'ing with PANGOLIN PHOTO TOURS and became friendly with one of the guides Charl Stolz.  Pangolin has loaners for tourists getting into photography and Charl was kind enough to sell me one of their D7000 bodies.  All my lenses were compatible and the BEST part was that my batteries are too!  I used the D7000 for the remainder of the trip and got some amazing images.

Back home, I took the D810 to Sun Camera at Steeles and Keele and had it repaired.  So now I have 2 camera bodies again.  Note to self:  Be careful with the camera equipment and take a few seconds to ensure its secure!

What do I use for my image captures?

This is a question that I am asked when people see my work.  I will answer the question, but I just want to stress that a simple camera in talented hands will produce amazing photos and expensive equipment in the hands of someone who has no "vision" will render outstanding crap.

Although I was using 2 older Nikon bodies, a D300s and a D700, I recently decided to "upgrade" and acquired a D810. 

My lenses are all made by Nikon and are top quality.  Many times the limiting factor is the lens so it is important to have good "glass" especially with sensors of 16MP and greater.

I do not like "variable aperture" zoom lenses since they have much less ability to control light and depth of field.  I have three zoom lenses,  17-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8.  I also shoot with prime lenses: 16mm f/2.8 fisheye, 50mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 105mm f/2.8 macro and 300mm f/4 telephoto. 

This kit gives me quite a bit of flexibility and the ability to choose the right body/lens combination for the situation. 

Who makes the BEST camera?

This is a long standing question and the subject of never-ending debate.  Everyone has an opinion and most are valid.  In the days of 35mm photography the frontrunners were Canon and Nikon for many years joined by Pentax, Olympus and Minolta.  When digital technology started to supplant film, Canon and Nikon developed their entries with Nikon joining up with both Kodak and Fuji to provide not only choice, but also technologicl innovation.  Sony bought Minolta and the race for superiority was on!  But behind the scenes, Sony was supplying digital sensors to almost everyone.  For most of the first 10 years, there were 2 kinds of digital cameras:  professional quality DSLR's and consumer directed "Point and Shoot"s.  

Then Olympus, Panasonic and Leica co-operated to develop the "Four Thirds" format and then the whole business took a left turn when the Compact System or "mirror-less" cameras were introduced.  (I am not even going to mention the camera in your cell phone!!)

Today, buying a camera is a very complicated process and you need either a strong background in photography or a sales professional you can trust.  The best camera is the one that YOU can use properly to capture the images that YOU are happy with.  Nothing else matters. 

Photographing Festive Lights

Although it is cold outside in this "neck of the woods", for those brave enough to get outside and shoot the lights, there are some great opportunities.  There are a few things to know when trying to make the most of your neighbours' efforts.

1. The best time to capture the images are at twilight.  Just before the sun sets, you will get a decent shot of the house as well as the lights.  When its DARK out, all you get is the lights.

2. Use a tripod

3. Use a remote shutter release (or the self-timer if you don't have a cable release)

4. If you are using a DSLR, use the "mirror up" feature to minimize vibration and if your lens has a vibration reduction/image stabilization feature - turn if OFF.

5. If you have a spouse or kids and want some great festive pics, take them along and use a wide aperture to create some great "bokeh".

Send me any comments you have or questions about the above.  Thanks and best wishes for a festive season.

Gallery Show

i was at the gallery recently to chat about my work.  There was some interest in the technical details of the images on display. I really enjoyed speaking with people who appreciate fine art photography. Hopefully enough to give the pieces a new home........

JPG vs RAW part 5 (at last..!)

Part 4 ended part 4 with - Why would you shoot in RAW?  Because YOU have control over the final result.  If you take a look at two images in the "Blog Examples" section of the Image Collections, i will try to explain what I am taking about.  The first image is as the scene was shot. Although it was shot in RAW, the JPG would have looked about the same.  I was at a relatively high elevation with a low cloud cover.  The background is almost completely obscured.  However, the naked eye could discern that there was a mountain range in the distance.  I took the shot to determine what would be captured by the sensor in my camera.

In post-production using Adobe Lightroom,  I was able to bring the mountains out of the clouds.  See the second image.  This is because data representing the mountains was captured by the sensor.  By shooting in RAW, rather than JPG the processor did not evaluate the image, determine that there was not enough differentiation and then compress the mountains out of the final image.  I saw the mountains and the sensor did too.  And you can as well, in the second image.  I think the difference is dramatic and illustrates the benefits of capturing as much data as possible.  Remember, that film did exactly the same thing as RAW capture.  JPG was developed to minimize file sizes and may be useful in situations where there is not a broad range of tone, colour or contrast.  JPG, since it uses a "lossy compression" is also not well suited to files that will undergo multiple edits, as some image quality will usually be lost each time the image is decompressed and recompressed.

I hope that this series of Blogs will help you understand why RAW is preferable and also help you to determine when JPG might suffice.  As always, feel free to comment or ask further questions.  Thanks for reading.

JPG vs RAW part 4

In my last post, I said that "The final JPG image is not so good for "serious" photography.  On reflection, I thought that it may have been a bit harsh, but today I spoke with an advanced amateur photographer.  He mentioned that he is starting think about RAW after reviewing some images he took on a trip to Iceland a few years ago.  His comment to me was that he's like to apply some processing to improve the results, but since he shot JPG's, there was not enough data to work with.

To understand what he meant, we have to understand that a RAW image file contains ALL of the data that the camera's sensor is capable of gathering.  The image file is called RAW because it is unprocessed by the camera's on-board software. Camera manufacturers use different file extensions for their files:  Nikon uses .NEF, Canon uses .CRW or .CR2 and Olympus uses .ORF.  Although not compatible with each other, these files share the same attributes in that they contain image data, not pictures.  To see what the sensor "saw" these files have to be processed (interpreted) by software such as Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture or Lightroom.  The electronic process is analogous to "developing" film.  When you shot an image on film, you knew it was there, but you did not expect to see it until the film was processed and you could review the "negatives".  This is sort of the same, but using computers instead of chemicals.

The HUGE benefit to RAW is that once captured, you can change much of an image's settings such as white balance, exposure, colour saturation and contrast.  And you apply changes to all or just a portion of the image. The COOL thing is that the actual file that came from your camera is NEVER affected.  The changes are tracked in a "sidecar" file that keeps track of your edits and the software applies them when you view or print the image.  For this reason, the edits are referred to as "non-destructive" and your original RAW file is never compressed.    

So - why would you shoot in RAW?  Because YOU have control over the final result, not the brilliant engineers who designed your camera hoping they can give you what you want.  The next (last?) blog on the subject will deal with examples of what you can accomplish with RAW.

JPG vs RAW part 3

In the last blog, we ended with "Now that we know what RAW is, we can go on to explain why you'd want to use it...."  I guess that the difference between JPG and RAW is akin to the olden days when you could take pictures with 35mm film or use a Polaroid.  The Polaroid gave you a nice picture, but if you wanted to change it - well it was WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).  However, if you shot the image with 35mm film, you had control over the processing and post-processing.  The film captured data and when developed, you could edit it for exposure, colour saturation, colour temperature and imperfections.

I suppose these attributes of film were of more interest to professionals, but even casual photographers could go to a local lab and get their negatives cropped, corrected and printed.

Although there is software that permits basic editing of JPG images, we have to understand how a JPG is created.  Your digital camera comes packed with very sophisticated computer technology.  When you capture a JPG image, your camera's image processor evaluates it and determines (for you) what data to retain and what data is unneeded.  Shades and fine details are averaged and much of the data is discarded when the image is compressed.  Thus a JPG is a compressed image and is referred to as a "lossy compression".  To understand this, think of an image with a bright background and a darker foreground.  If the foreground has detail in the shaded areas, it will be averaged and the resulting image will contain very little of what your eyes saw.  

The final JPG image is great for snapshots and family photos, but not so good for "serious" photography.  In the next instalment, we'll delve into the technical aspects of RAW....

 

 

JPG vs RAW part 2

To explain why you would want to use a RAW format, we have to explain what RAW is.  Every camera manufacturer gives you this option.  The files have a specific extension that denotes a RAW file.  Nikon (my preference) uses the NEF format (Nikon Electronic File), Canon uses either CRW or the newer CR2 and Olympus uses ORF (Olympus Raw Format).  These file types all have the same attributes but are no compatible with each other.

They are different from JPG's in that they contain 100% of the data "seen" by the sensor and the camera does not process any of it.  The file sizes are much larger than JPG's since none of the information is discarded.  So it appears that RAW should be "better" since it has way more data than a JPG file.  Well, it may be true, but......

Since the camera's software is not used to process that data, you will need something to do it.  It is similar to shooting film in the "olden days" and then having to develop the film to get an image you can see.

If you shoot in a RAW format, you will need software like Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture or Lightroom to process (think - develop) the data.  There are others, but these are the top 3.

Now that we know what RAW is, we can go on to explain why you'd want to use it....

JPG vs RAW

A question I am asked frequently is "Do you shoot in JPG or RAW? "

The answer is actually, both.  As a former (and sometimes current film photographer, I need the latitude that RAW images provide.  However, when I do not intend to process the images, JPG is definitely a more efficient format.  If you have a few minutes, let me begin to explain....

Most beginning digital photographers use the JPG setting in their cameras.  This setting allows the software in the camera to "process" the data captured by the sensor into a viewable image.  The photographer has control over the white balance, exposure and ISO and when you preview the picture on your camera's rear screen, for the most part, what you see - is what you get.  If you don't like it, you just change the settings and shoot again.  The best parts of digital photography is that you get instant feedback, and retakes are free!.

So, what do I mean when I say that the camera "processes" an image to produce a JPG file?  Well, in simple terms - the camera's digital sensor captures image data from whatever you point it at.  The data comprises information about colour, light, white balance and focus.  In JPG mode, the camera analyses the data and discards a portion that the software "thinks" is unnecessary.  It does this by "compressing" the data.  The compression is referred to as "lossy" referring to the discarded or lost data.  

But what data is lost?  Well, let's say that an image contains 6 shades of blue.  That's pretty subtle and may not even be discerned by someone looking at a printed picture.  So the software smooths it out into 3 shades, by discarding (losing) some of the data and smoothing out the remaining information.  This same process is used for gradations in light intensity and other elements of the photo.  Very cool and efficient.  File sizes are manageable and the pictures usually look great!

Sounds like the camera takes a great picture so what the heck is RAW?  And why use the RAW mode?  Wait for part 2......