Canon vs Leica vs Nikon
Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, LEICA ELMARIT-M 28mm f/2.8, and Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, all the same price. enlarge. It helps me keep adding to this site when you use these links to Adorama, Amazon, B&H, Calumet, Ritz, J&R and eBay to get your goodies. Thanks! Ken.
Let's compare the three top new cameras and lenses as used by the majority of outdoor, nature and landscape photographers. The oldest of this gear was announced in 2007.
Let's compare Canon, Nikon and Leica's top digital cameras, and compare each with a similar lens, each at the same price.
For camera bodies, we'll use the top body made by each that sells for under $7,000 USD.
For lenses, I got lucky when I realized that the most popular lens for each just happen to be the same price! Each lens sells new between $1,500 and $1,800 USD, all as of October 2009. Actually, the Nikon costs $5 more than the Leica.
I got lucky. There are a zillion ways to do a comparison like this.
I was going crazy trying to find three lenses similar in some way to make a meaningful comparison.
I realized that I had three ways to make 28mm and f/2.8, but when I realized the Leica, Nikon and Canon lenses each cost the same, it was a slam-dunk that this would be the most meaningful comparison.
Last week I compared three 50mm f/1.4 lenses, but the Leica lens was 45 years old. All that did was show that the old Leica lens still creamed the newest from Canon and Nikon wide-open.
We have three contenders, all the same price, and all available new today. This time, Leica will compete for the very same dollars.
Canon 5D Mark II (1Ds Mark III)
The 5D Mark II is Canon's best, edging out the 1Ds Mark III slightly in image quality, per Canon's PR on the 5D Mark II. The 1Ds Mk II may or may not have made it under our $7,000 practical body limit. The results should be the same; the 5D Mark II is superior for possibly for noise and highlight and shadow handling; this is a sharpness test where they should be identical.
Nikon D3 (D700)
The Nikon D700 is less expensive and more popular, and gives results indistinguishable from the D3. I just happened to have a D3 lying around; otherwise the D700 is far more popular with outdoor shooters.
The D3X is nice, but it's neither popular, nor under $7,000, nor did I have any rich neighbors to loan me one. As we'll see, even if I did use one, the D3X is still limited by Nikon's optics.
I shot everything on a tripod at a special optical test range under controlled conditions. There was no wind and no heat shimmer.
Each camera was shot at ISO 200.
I shot raw and opened all the images in Adobe Camera Raw in Adobe Photoshop CS4. Each was opened at default settings, with "as shot" white balance. Each camera was set to DAYLIGHT WB.
I got really lucky: ACR had a 25MP option for opening each camera, so each image was exactly 6,144 pixels wide. I didn't have to do any resampling among these cameras for this comparison.
(I tried opening these in Photoshop CS2, but ACR in CS2 can't be upgraded to read the Nikon or Canon files; only the Leica used the standard DNG format and would open. The Leica files looked even better in CS2.)
I shot with manual exposure: 1/2,000 at f/2.8 and 1/250 at f/8.
Another reason I love the LEICA: it took me only about two clicks to get it to default settings so the images looked the same as the other cameras. On the Canon and the Nikon, it takes like five minutes screwing around in seven menus to get all the image settings back to normal.
These are crops from much, much larger images. On most computer monitors, the cropped images below are about 9.3" (24cm) wide. If so, then the full images would print at 5 feet (1.5m) wide.
This is an extreme test. Only geeks would look at 5-foot wide prints as close as you're looking at your monitor.
f/2.8, lower left corner top
The Canon looks awful because the 16-35mm f/2.8 L II is relatively awful in the corners wide-open. This is why people use screwy adapters to use Nikon's newest zooms on their Canons, since Nikon's newest 14-24mm and 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S zooms are a generation ahead of Canon.
The Leica isn't quite as good as the Nikon in the middle and right of this small crop from the lower left corner of a much larger image, but the lowest left corner of these crops represents the lowest left corner of the full images, and you'll see that the Leica is the best in the far lowest left corner.
f/8, lower left corner top
The Canon still looks awful because the 16-35mm f/2.8 L II is relatively awful looked at this close. The 16-35 L II is an extraordinary journalism lens, but not great for printing this huge and looking this close.
The Leica is the best, with what looks like twice as much fine detail as Nikon or Canon.
The Nikon looks worse than I expected: there are lateral color fringes. I hadn't seen it before, since the D3 and D700 automatically correct this, but at this insane level of magnification (5-foot or 1.5-meter wide prints), it's obvious. It's also obvious in the Canon shots, but I expect that since Canon's cameras don't yet correct for this as do Nikon's latest.
Hold on! Nikons do correct for this if you shoot JPG or probably use Nikon's software to open the NEFs, but I used Adobe instead. Adobe and Aperture don't have this feature of automatic lateral color correction. I won't load Nikon's buggy software on my computer, and if I gave Nikon this edge, I'd use CS2 to open the Leica file, which looks even better opened there.I'm very impressed. I was expecting to see some lateral color in Leica, since as far as I know it doesn't correct for it, and in this case, Leica's tiny lens has proven itself far superior.
f/2.8, center top
The Canon looks OK because the 16-35mm f/2.8 L II is decent in the middle, and the Canon does have a lot more pixels.
The Leica is the same as the Canon. The Leica seems to have a little more contrast, while the Canon seems to have a little more detail hiding under the haze. It's a tie.
The Nikon looks worse , limited by the lower resolution of the D3 and D700.
f/8, center top
The Canon and Leica look alike. If you did comparisons like these as often as I do, I'm astounded at how close they look .
The Nikon has fewer pixels, so at f/8 in the center where all lenses work pretty much alike, the D3 and D700 are at a disadvantage.
With the same money spent on lenses, the Leica easily wins.
The Leica is usually superior, or at least as good, as the best from Nikon and Canon at the same price.
When you also consider that the Leica weighs only a fraction as much as either camera or lens, it's a no-brainer to see which is the best for outdoor photography.
Even then, the Leica shot instantly, while I had to jack with menus to set the Nikon and Canon. Worse, I had to deal with foolish electronic controls to set manual aperture and shutter speeds on the Nikon and Canon, while with the Leica, all I did was turn the dedicated, click-stopped knobs. I shot the Leica in a tenth the time that it took to shoot either the Canon or Nikon.
Overall, the Leica wins because of its great sensor coupled with Leica's superior optics. Canon's 21MP sensor is about as good, but the end results only match if you could get lenses this good for the Canon — which you can't do at most focal lengths.
Even if Nikon' slightly higher-on-paper resolution D3X was relevant here, it would also be limited by Nikon's optics, just like the D700 and D3 as shown above.
The M9 sensor is made in Rochester, New York, USA. GO USA! Buy American!
What if top
The Leica used a fixed lens, as do most Leica shooters, and the SLRs used zooms, as do most SLR shooters. Each costs the same, each is a very recent design, and each is typical of what real photographers actually shoot today.
In case one still thinks fixed SLR lenses are the way to go, no. Nikon and Canon haven't updated their 28mm f/2.8 lenses in decades.
For example, here is the newest Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AF-D at f/2.8 for comparison:
At these huge enlargements, the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AF-D is nasty!
Nikon and Canon have put all their engineering into zooms these past decades, and Nikon's 24-70mm is state-of-the art. The older manual focus 28mm f/2.8 AI-S is better than any Nikon fixed 28mm AF lens, but the newest 24-70mm zoom is Nikon's best.
Hey, no one pays me anything for all this. I'm as curious as the rest of us. No one is sending me any free cameras; I have to buy or borrow all this just like everyone else.
If you want to try a different set of test conditions or equipment, please go right ahead and share your results so we all can benefit.
Remember to use a scientifically valid test subject. You can't use charts since focus and alignment issues get in the way, and you can't just shoot outside unless you have calibrated reference conditions as I can occasionally get at the military's Yucca Optical Test Range.
The Canon has the corners sucked-out with pincushion distortion. It varies with focal length setting.
The Leica doesn't have any distortion. What you're seeing is how poorly I lined up the camera, and that this dealer's cabinets need their doors more precisely set to do more of these sorts of tests.
The Nikon has a lot of barrel distortion at the wide end. The center bulges out.
None of these lenses have any problems with falloff as shot here at medium apertures, but the cabinets certainly weren't lit evenly.
Comparison Tables top
All weights are the actual weights as I measured them, including batteries and cards. Manufacturers pad their numbers by weighing cameras without cards or batteries.
Which will you take to dinner for great shots along the way, and which is more likely to be left back at the hotel to get stolen?
Good gosh: the Canon lens weighs almost four times as much as the Leica.
The Nikon lens weighs over five times as much as the Leica, and costs more, too!
Lens and Camera Together top
See also Rangefinder versus SLR Cameras.
Travel, nature, outdoor, interior and landscape
The days of the DSLR for serious digital nature, outdoor, interior and landscape photography are numbered.
The Leica gives better results, is far more comfortable to carry, and far easier and faster to shoot. No one gives me these cameras or pays me anything to review them; these are my honest oppinions.
The Leica is as light as a point and shoot. You don't notice it around your shoulder, so you take it everywhere, and get the shots that people who leave their DSLRs back at the hotel won't get at all, and even if they do, the Leica is still sharper.
What matters is getting the right picture with whatever camera you have with you. I have no problem printing this big from 6MP cameras.
The real reason to get the Leica is that you'll always have it with you, and when the time to make a photo arises, you'll be able to get your shot off with the Leica far faster than you'll ever be able to set all the menus in your DSLR. Heck, I set the apertures on my Leicas by feel with one fingertip as I'm composing. No Canon or Nikon has ever done that (they needed two fingers back in the 1970s), and today, Nikon and Canon require a button and knob and require you to look down in the finder to read the values, since their electronic knobs spin without end stops.
Game over. Buy American: the Leica's sensor is made in Rochester, New York, USA.
Sports, kids, macro and moving subjects
I'm not good enough to focus on moving subjects with the Leica, but better men are. For me, the D3 is the fastest thing out there for taking pictures of my kids, once I get it set up properly.
When I shoot in my studio, I use a 200mm macro lens, and for that, only an SLR like the D3 lets me see what I'm doing. With a rangefinder camera like a Leica, you aren't looking through the lens, and can't really see what you're doing.
Better men than I can shoot macro with a Leica, but I'm lazy. I leave my D3 locked up on a shelf where it's always set to make studio shots, like the one of the three lenses at the top.
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Thanks for reading!