Monday, February 20, 2017

Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1: Chocolate vs Vanilla

Those paying close attention will remember that I was recently blessed with the gift of a Nikon F4. Only a few weeks later, I also had the opportunity of getting a Canon EOS-1 for an absolute song – and I jumped at the chance. I’ve been a Canon fanboy off and on for 30 years, and the possibility of owning a Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1 at the same time was almost more than I could handle! I could definitely feel a shoot-out coming on 😊

The Nikon F4 is a legend in camera history – but also a turning point in Nikon’s own history. Many consider it to be the greatest traditionally controlled 35mm SLR camera ever made. It was Nikon’s first professional camera to offer autofocus, has a staggering 7 CPU’s to control its various electronic functions, is compatible with every Nikon lens from 1959 to today (although it does not support VR), has over 1700 parts yet is one of the most rugged cameras ever produced, and comes in three different configurations depending on the grip attached.

It was designed and built by Nikon at a time when they were the undisputable kings of the SLR camera market. Introduced in 1988, just in time for the Seoul Olympics, the F4 would bring autofocusing to the professional market, and in doing so, would help Nikon to maintain its 75% market share. It’s hard to believe in today’s digital market, where Canon is arguably the king, that only 30 years ago they were a very distant second to the Nikon juggernaut. But all that was about to change.

Just one year later, in 1989, Canon introduced its EOS professional camera, the EOS-1. Canon had taken a lot of criticism from professionals, and bad press from the industry, when it discontinued its traditional FD lens mount in 1987, in favour of the new EF mount. As a Canon T90 user myself back then I remember it well, and can also remember the betrayal I felt when Canon announced they would no longer be making lenses for a camera system I loved. But eventually, it proved to be the right move. The 1990s was the race to introduce autofocus technology into the main stream (and professional systems) for all camera manufacturers, and by adopting a completely new lens mount, engineered specifically for auto focus, Canon had the upper hand over Nikon for the very first time.

On paper, the Canon EOS-1 was a distant second against the Nikon F4 – in all but one very major area; autofocusing. With the new EF lens mount, which allowed for micro-motors built into the lens itself, Canon’s auto focusing system was light years ahead of anything Nikon – who maintained their ‘F’ mount - could deliver. The EOS-1 also introduced a more simplified, menu-driven method of camera control that is the DNA of all their digital control systems to this day.

Just four years later, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the tide had turned unanimously in favour of Canon. Nikon tried to follow suit by developing the menu-driven control interface of their new F5, but it was already too little too late. Once a market leader, Nikon was now playing catch-up, and constantly failing to match Canon where it counts. Canon would introduce Image Stabilisation in their lenses a full 5 years before Nikon could counter with their own VR technology. And I don’t need to remind you that 5 years behind the latest technology in this day and age may as well be a life-time.

So where does that leave the Nikon F4? Is it an abject failure? Is it an engineering disaster? Or is it still one of the best 35mm cameras that Nikon (or anyone else for that matter) has ever made?

Hold one in your hands. Feel the camera mould itself to your grip. Marvel at the gorgeous lines and contoured shapes given to the camera by industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro (the designer of the DeLorean DMC-12). Feel the weight, the heft and the solidity of all that metal and rubber. Experience the positive clicks and precise machinery of all the controls and dials that festoon the ample camera body – but that are in exactly the right place and never get in the way. Listen to the sound of its smooth, gentle shutter release, perfectly weighted to give just the right amount of resistance and feedback. Is this the epitome of form follows function? The ultimate expression of a traditional 35mm film camera?

Ok – so the autofocus system isn’t up to Canon’s professional standards. It’s just not. But is it unusable? No – of course not. Thousands of professional photographers used it for many years – some even preferring it over the F5 once it was released. Is it ‘antiquated’ with its use of buttons and dials rather than wheels and menus – perhaps? But I actually prefer buttons and dials on the outside of the camera for ultimate control. Always have. Canon’s interface, while perhaps more stream-lined, has always left me feeling a little left-out of the picture taking equation. And their cameras feel a little ‘vanilla’ to me after a while. There is a real sameness about each one that leaves me a little underwhelmed.

There’s no such feeling when you pick up an F4 (or F4s, depending on what grip you have attached). It’s a machine. A picture taking machine. And it begs to be used to take pictures with.

But then again, so does the Canon EOS-1, for all its familiarity. Many actually see this as the strength of the Canon system, and bemoan any major changes made to its design. Sometimes, simple is better from a design point, and the Canon EOS 1 really is simplicity itself – albeit in a very rugged package.

I was a Canon user for the first 15 or so years of my photographic journey – starting with the T70 and progressing to the granddaddy of today’s digital cameras, the classic T90. The T90 was (is) a superb camera, so much so that every camera that Canon has produced since includes the T90’s design DNA. While Nikon had Italian designer Giugiaro, Canon called on the talents of Kurdish born German industrial designer Luigi Colani to help design the T90. Colani’s ‘Bio Forms’ together with Canon’s new reliance on integrated electronics created an entirely new camera aesthetic unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It may seem ‘vanilla’ to me now, but 30 years ago, with the introduction of the T90, (and a few years later the EOS-1) it was entirely revolutionary.

Questions of autofocus accuracy or reliability aside (these are both first generation autofocus systems), the Nikon F4 v Canon EOS-1 debate really comes down to a question of design aesthetics. Do you like your knobs and dials on the outside or the inside of the camera? Do you like traditional control over camera settings, or a more electronic interface? Both are outstanding image making machines – no doubt. So the question remains: Do you prefer cookies and cream with chocolate sauce and sprinkles, or plain old vanilla?


  1. Yet another well written article... Thinking of the T70/T90... I have an A-1 at home and i am currently hunting for a T-90 on ebay, quite a few there at reasonable prices

  2. Thanks Hayden. Good luck with the T90 hunting. It's been a long time since I looked at anything on eBay. Bought a few things on eBay, but always found Paypal to be more of a hassle than a help? Still get emails from them periodically telling me someone else has tried to access my account? Certainly opens up a bigger second-hand market than TradeMe though - and often at better prices even with postage...


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