Is Sony Now Better Than Nikon?

Okay, this is blasphemy from a Nikon user, I know. But I want to kick off a series of “X better than Y” articles, and given the current hype on the Internet, why not feed fuel to a fire?

Over time, the camera makers—just like competitors in any industry—learn from one another. Or not. When they learn from each other, they do better. When they don’t, they do worse. 

So how is the best Sony camera right now better than the best Nikon camera? You might be surprised at my answer:

  • Named settings files. The Sony A1 can save 10 named settings files to a card, the most any Nikon can do is save one unnamed settings file to a card. I set up my camera different for landscape work than I do for sports work, for instance, and only having one settings file means I end up having to spend time pre-configuring a Nikon before each session. Not so with the Sony. I’ve been hammering on this need for over decade. Only Sony seems to have heard me. Time for Nikon to follow. 
  • Pixel shift photography. Olympus pioneered the use of the IS platform behind the sensor being able to shift slightly to record more information. Pentax uses it to antialias. Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and Sony all have pixel shift modes. Notable exception from the list: Nikon. Once again Nikon missed a memo from their user base.
  • Sophisticated electronic shutter. The Sony A1 has a bunch of tricks up its sleeve. First off, it has a much faster rolling shutter, which approximates a mechanical shutter. Second, flash can be used with the silent electronic shutter. Third, anti-flicker is much more sophisticated, including being able to set highly incremental shutter speeds (1/247.6 for instance). 
  • Picture Profiles. Everyone has the ability to change the “look” of the in-camera color/tonal/contrast settings. With Sony, that’s usually done via the Creative Look, with Nikon it's with the Picture Controls. Sony adds a second function, Picture Profiles, where there is much more adjustment capability, including Black Level, video Gamuts and Color Spaces (e.g. Rec.2020), the Knee value, and more. This really benefits video users who need to match against other cameras, but it’s of value to sophisticated still photographers, too.
  • Controllable Zebras. Not only does the Sony A1 show Zebras in still photography, but you also can set their values in single digit percentages. Nikon limits Zebra display to video modes for the most part, and isn’t as flexible in the settings.
  • Focus Area mode switch with control. It’s slightly buried in Sony’s menus, but it is possible to customize a button so that it switches your Focus Area mode instantly. Nikon does this with a couple of DSLRs, but only in conjunction with AF-ON. 
  • Grouping of playback images. This one is going to be a little controversial, but you can turn it off on the Sony if you don't like it. When you take a burst of images, you can have them appear together as a group on playback (shows the last image taken with a stack indicator). This requires you to click into the stack to see individual images, but sports photographers find this quite useful, as individual plays are isolated, and they can later chimp a particular play to find the best shot of it and send to their agency.
  • FTP any way you want it. Ethernet, USB tethered, and Wi-Fi all are supported for FTP on the Sony A1. I’m not a huge fan of FTP as it requires a lot of setup to get right, and can be temperamental in use. Sony also has much more ability to configure FTP and save up to 9 different configurations than does Nikon. That’s just enough for all the facilities I use. Getting FTP on most of the Nikon cameras requires an accessory, and the abilities are far more limiting. I’ve been harping on Nikon with “communication” issues for over a decade. They started out ahead, they’re now behind. That means they haven’t kept their eye on the ball for pro users.
  • Customizing buttons is more extensive. The Sony A1 often allows you to set a button customization to virtually anything in the menu system (there are a few limitations). Nikon is paternal and severely limits button customization, in one case only allowing three choices that they somehow determined, none of which interest me. 
  • Viewfinder AF information. The Sony A1 pretty much keeps up with any situation, showing which focus sensors are in use and their status. To some, this is almost overkill, as it means constantly bouncing focus indicators in some modes (you can turn them off). Even on the best Nikon DSLR, the D6, the camera doesn’t keep the user fully abreast of where focus is being done in some cases, and on the Z System cameras, there’s frustrating lag in the focus sensor information. 
  • View by attribute. Here’s how it works on the sidelines with my A1: take photos; when I get time I chimp and mark images; when I get a bit more time, I search by marks (jump) and send each of those to my agency via FTP or my mobile connection. Here’s how it works on the sidelines with a D6: take photos; when I get time I chimp and mark images; when I get to the press room, I download to my computer and search/send the marked images. Which is better? You can jump between protected images or specific rated images on the Sony. I use protected because it’s a convenient pre-programmed button press to protect an image. 

You’ll note that I didn’t write about dynamic range, frame rate, high ISO capability, or a whole host of things that keep getting debated on the Internet. Virtually everything I note above are things that deal with real user pain points and would best be described as items that make something easier or provide additional benefit in the workflow.

I also didn’t say “Sony AF is better than Nikon AF.” Frankly, it’s about a draw right now between my Sony A1 and my Nikon D6 (and I hope Z9). To get the best out of any autofocus system requires study and practice. With study and practice I get really nice sequences with focus where I want it from both cameras. Yes, the A1 would be somewhat better than the Z6 II, but they’re different classes of cameras. I get similar focus results from a Z6 II that I do from an A7 Mark III these days. 

One takeaway from this article should be: the camera makers need to pay much more attention to how photographers are using their cameras than they do to small technical advances. Not that we want them to stop tinkering with the electronic capabilities, but we want them to improve the user experience and options more. 

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