The feeling of a camera in your hands is supposed to be frictionless. It’s supposed to be an extension of your vision and a conduit for bringing that vision into the world. When it’s a perfect fit, it’s magic.
This past summer, I decided that it was time to reevaluate the primary tools I use to make photographs—my cameras and lenses. For the last ten years I’ve worked within the Canon system, and for the most part, I’ve been happy with the results. But after a few conversations with photographers whose work I both respect and admire, I began some of the most rigorous testing of a camera system that I’ve ever undertaken.
In early August, I began testing the Nikon D810 camera along with three Nikon lenses. My plan was to make a blind A/B test of the Canon 5D MkIII camera and the Nikon D810 using an equivalent lens on each. Each system would be mounted side-by-side on a Really Right Stuff camera bar, fired simultaneously using PocketWizard radios, and then each file would be generically renamed so that the resulting images could be compared without bias.
One of the reasons that I like to do blind A/B testing is that the results remove emotion from the process and instead deliver irrefutable facts. I’ve seen many reviews of cameras where the tester takes a single camera out into the field, makes some beautiful pictures, and then proclaims the camera to be a great camera to own. But without something to compare it to, how could one possibly know if the camera is simply capable rather than possessing qualities that make it distinctive or remarkable? Viewing the results from two different cameras without knowing which image file came from which camera allows the images on the screen to simply speak for themselves without bias or favor.
When I test cameras and lenses, I’m looking for three specific qualities I want to see in the results. The first is color fidelity and sharpness. Each lens and camera combination has it’s own way of rendering color and detail which ultimately determines the look of a capture before the processing stage. This look is highly subjective and the specific qualities sought are different for each photographer.
Second, the image must be loaded with tonal information. Dynamic range—the number of distinct tones that the camera is able to capture in one image—is the single most important quality in making a photograph look real. Being able to see deep into the shadows of a scene while simultaneously seeing detail in highlights of the same scene is something that the human eye does exceedingly well. In a digital capture, the greater number of distinct tones that can be captured in the file, the closer the final image will look to the original scene. For example, one of the greatest challenges for a camera system is rendering skin tone faithfully—from highlight to shadow. When a subject is lighted from the side, there is usually a shadow on the opposite side of the face, a highlight on the light source side of the face, and an area of specular highlight from the skin at the angle of incidence to that light source. This highlight is distinct from the overall highlight side of the face. It’s the specific spot that often renders as shine rather than skin because the dynamic range of the camera is insufficient to hold the shadow side of the face, the highlight side of the face and the specular highlight from the light source itself.
The most important quality in a digital capture though is transparency. In a perfect world, a digital image shouldn’t feel digital. It should be transparent—as though it’s not really an image at all. For example, if the image is of a person, it should feel as though you could reach into the image and touch their face.
For me, finding a camera system that possessed all three of these critical qualities has been the unreachable holy grail of digital photography—until now.
After nearly three months of testing, every image quality that mattered deeply to me was showing up on my screen in one of the two A/B images. Again and again as I looked at the files, I was seeing a chasm between each simultaneously captured pair of photographs. There was good color and detail in both, but one half of the pair had a transparent quality that I’d never seen before. Both cameras were like looking through a window, but the Nikon files appeared as though the glass had been removed.When I looked at some of the portrait tests I’d made, I really felt as though I could actually feel the skin of the subject. And it wasn’t because the images were so detailed. It was because they were detailed and they were also silky smooth—the way that skin appears in real life.
During my testing, I wasn’t familiar enough with the system to use it exclusively on an actual project, but I did briefly use it during an editorial shoot using strobes in the studio. These few images—made under real-world conditions—confirmed everything I had found in my earlier evaluations.
The results of both the testing and the real-world use were repeatable and the conclusion was irrefutable. I wasn’t using the right camera for the kind of work I do and I decided that it was time to make the switch to Nikon. And so I have.
In the next post, I’ll share some additional images made with the brand new system as well as why, for me, switching to Nikon goes far beyond the quality of their cameras and lenses.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.