Revenge of the DSLRs: What our winningest photographers shoot with and why


posted Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 3:43 PM EDT


I wrote an article about a month ago, about how so many formerly "niche" camera types are growing in popularity and market share relative to traditional camera categories. It's a trend we've definitely seen developing over the past few years, in what we see coming into the lab to review, and also in direct reader interested and popularity in our reviews of them.

As I was processing the votes for our July 2014 Photo of the Month awards though, it occurred to me to check out what the results of our POTD/POTM contest might reveal about what these active and highly skilled photographers were shooting with. So I took a look at the last year's worth of our monthly Photo of the Day winners and runners-up, and have to admit I was a little suprised by what the data showed.

In our Photo of the Day contest, we award monthly first through third place winners, as well as two worthy runners-up, chosen from each month's daily winners - a total of 60 placing images over the course of a year. When photos are submitted, we naturally ask which camera was used for each shot as that's useful information to our readers, so that data was there for me to look at.*

When I decided to take a look at the last year (August 2013 - July 2014), I certainly expected that the results might be weighted toward the heavyweight players and to DSLRs, but we were all very surprised (shocked?) by the actual numbers: Of the 60 contest-placing shots over the past twelve months, fully 57 of them are DSLRs from just two manufacturers.

That's right, two. And you may have already guessed their names: Canon and Nikon.
(The other three were Panasonic, Sigma and Konica Minolta, now long since absorbed by Sony, with one each.)

This is what a typical month looks like on our contest winners' page:
A back and forth play between Canon and Nikon DSLR's.

The Competition

So which of these two Big Players won the battle for the top spot? I'm glad you asked, because the other big surprise was just how close it turned out to be. Have you ever watched a great sporting event that was so evenly matched and so well fought that it was a shame one team had to lose? That's certainly what this felt like.

Canon scored 29 prize winners or runners-up, and Nikon scored 28. And just like that excellent sporting event that went into double overtime, you have to wonder if there were just a few seconds left if the other team might have won. 29-28 is just too close to call, so I decided to investigate further, to see if different weighting parameters would skew the results.

Looking at only the top 3 prize-winners and leaving out the runners-up, you get Canon 18 to Nikon 16. But in contrast, looking solely at the top winner for each month, you get Nikon 7 to Canon 5. Surely these balance each other out. Lastly, by weighting the top 3 slots (#1 = 3pts; #2 = 2pts; #3 = 1pt) and then adding up all the resulting numbers I got the closest score yet: With that weighting, the score comes out Canon 35 to Nikon 34. (A virtual dead heat!)

Looking for clues to the overall DSLR dominance, I asked one of our hardcore DSLR guys here at IR for his take on this phenomenon and he said "They're just so versatile... look at the shots that actually win the prizes and they vary so widely in style and type of shooting... DSLR's are the best bet for capturing the largest selection of styles and shot types, from great macros to great sports shots. This is the reason pretty much all the pros and most enthusiasts still remain true to them."

I wanted additional opinions on the matter, so I went straight to the source and asked a few of our most winning photographers why they chose either Canon or Nikon to be their primary tool for image capture. Below are a few of their comments, in all cases reflecting many years of photographic experience:

Mitch Spence (Nikon)

In my film days, I wasn't a Nikon user. It was Olympus then, with the OM10 as the last in this series. When I (and just about everything) went digital, however, that changed to Nikon. That time corresponded with retirement and more time to spend on my photography love affair. Friends had Nikons. I liked the spot metering. I liked the reputation, including the fact that they didn't abandon folks with older model cameras and make them buy new lenses just to upgrade the body. So, that's the way I went. I am happy with my choices, from the original D100, through interim models, to my present D7100. While I have some "other" market lenses and use them, my constant companion is the 18-200 Nikkor. I thoroughly enjoy the fast-moving freedom it gives to shoot whatever I find wherever I find it.

Mitch Spence • Sanderlings at Sunset • Nikon D300

Linn Smith (Canon)

Like many things in life, selecting a camera for personal use is subjective and can easily be influenced by people you know and admire who take superb images. Having a friend who is a professional photographer certainly influenced my decision to choose a Canon camera and become hooked on this particular system. It also led me to continue with the brand I first gained trust in and became familiar with. A great introduction to the entry level DSLR world was the Canon Rebel with its vast range of functions. The controls, ease of use and overall quality of images of this camera helped to further the need to improve, prompting me to leave that comfort zone and purchase the Canon 5D.

This camera opened a whole new world of enjoyment as well as everything needed to explore the more in-depth aspects of photography! I studied the manual, read photography books/magazines and bought new lenses to further the range of images I shot. With time I upgraded further with the purchase of a Canon 5D Mark II. Being a small person the relatively light weight of this camera is a major plus as well as the technical full-frame image at 21.1 megapixels and three programmable Total Recall positions. Canon has all the main settings and knobs around the LCD screen where they can easily be found.

Linn Smith • Suspended Above Water • Canon 5D Mark II

Sean Rooney (Nikon)

I have a Nikon D4 and two lenses I carry in my camera bag: the Nikon 70-200 F2.8 and the Nikon 16-35 F4. The Nikon D4 needs no introduction, it's just an outstanding camera. The sharpness and the focusing speed of the 70-200 has never let me down. It's a super lens for portraits and landscapes in that you can zoom into a particular part of a scene that looks interesting and removes the need for cropping at a later stage.

The 16-35 is what I use when I want a foreground, mid-ground and background in my landscapes -- using this lens at F11 creates amazing results. This combination has provided wonderful results and I look forward to the ones I've still yet to capture.

Sean Rooney • Remember to Breathe • Nikon D4

Karen Celella (Canon)

My primary camera is the Canon 7D. In fact I love it so much that I purchased a second 7D. I had the choice of any second body but it was an easy decision. We travel frequently for wildlife, so the fast frames-per-second and weight of the camera are very important. I thought I wanted to move up to the Mark series, but when decision time came I knew the 7D would serve me best. I did purchase L series lenses, which are meant for the full frames, but I love them on the 7D. So I have two 7D’s and a Canon G12 for when I can’t bring my big boys. The cameras feel good in my hands and hold up exceptionally well in uncomfortable weather conditions, ranging from hot, cold, rain, sand and dirt. Having the two bodies allow me to not have to stop and change lenses, plus the G12 tucks in my pocket to help cover all the bases. When not traveling, the macro lens provides unlimited fun and learning. I’m always amazed with how long the batteries last. I rarely have a battery die and usually get through a full shooting day on one battery. The controls are easy to use and understand. The only bad thing is that I will probably never learn how to use all that the 7D has to offer. I will try to keep learning and expanding and will enjoy every step of the journey. I’m always very proud to say that I use the Canon 7D’s!

Karen Celella • Central Park Bubbles • Canon 7D

Lorenzo Cassina (Nikon)

For photographs that have received more than 200 awards to date, the large majority came by pairing up my Nikon D80 with my beloved Sigma 70-300mm. It does not have vibration reduction but works wonders with my monopod. I love it so much that it became my walk around lens. It does not always help me because of the range (too close or too far away) but covers my needs and I am super happy with it. The color rendition, definition, bokeh, and sharpness at 70 or at 300mm is super. All of this for a $ 200.00 buy which has exceeded my expectations big time.

Lorenzo Cassina • Buddying • Nikon D80

Jimmy Marz (Canon)

I worked my way up from my first L lens - a 300mm f4 (the L is for luxury) to the 600mm f4 and at my age finally settling on a 500mm f4 and a Canon 70D camera. This camera has everything, the wireless feature allows me to sit in my living room and take pictures of hummingbirds in the yard, the controls are easy to use and the settings can make the camera custom to what you shoot on a daily basis. I have mostly Prime lens now, only because I use certain ones for shooting situations, i.e. I have a 135mm f2 a very bright lens for early morning coyote and fox. My carry lens is a 70mm to 200mm f/2.8, and with the 1x [ed note - 1.4x TC?] and 2x along it gives me over 500mm and down to 70mm covering all sizes of critters. The 500mm f4 lens can keep up with any flying bird including peregrine falcons and king fishers. I can't see ever changing camera companies as Canon keeps adding the things that make shooting easier as well as better by adding easier controls and more options in using the equipment in all different situations.

Jimmy Marz • Resting Place • Canon 7D

So there you have it, camera fans. We can talk all day about just how popular niche cameras are becoming (and they most assuredly are), but our contest-winning photographers continue to go about their daily shooting business with Canon and Nikon DSLRs. If the newer specialty models are less bulky, lighter in weight, and often less costly, perhaps even offering a few new bells or whistles not yet available, our contest winners sure don't seem to care much.

In the end a great photograph is mostly about the photographer, just as a great vocal performance is much more about the singer than the microphone he or she happened to use (Stevie Nicks used a $50 handheld mic to sing "Landslide"). But, isn't it interesting that all these photographers with the talent to win monthly awards (and prizes!) on our site are so strongly bent towards the more traditional Nikon and Canon DSLR's?

If there is a debate raging out there over DSLR vs mirrorless, and if our recent Premium/Niche article argued even a little bit on the side of the mirrorless and specialty models, surely this article is the counterpoint. We're not trying to talk out of both sides of our mouths here; both articles have numbers behind them to back up their reasoning.

For those who want to know "the truth" about us at IR, and where we come down in the debate, we can say that all of us here own and actively shoot with at least one of each, and that's inside information worth knowing; we truly don't have a horse in this race. Perhaps that's the real conclusion to draw from the seeming discrepancy between the two sets of popularity data: both DSLR and mirrorless form factors have their place and usage, and if you can afford it, there are good reasons to own one (or more) of each!

So how about you? What are you shooting with these days, has it changed, or do you think it will change in the near future? How many of you are crazy enough to own both DSLR and Mirrorless models? Or, as is the case for several of us here, owning DSLR, Mirrorless and an all-in-one pocket model? Let us know in the comments section below, we dare you (without ice).

[Addendum: After posting this it occurred to me that I'd forgotten to clarify one important thing: these 57 DSLR winning and placing shots represent the best of the crop, but certainly not all of the daily winners. After all, there are 365 of those over the past year, and that population includes a lot more variety in both type and manufacturer. I'll run those rumbers and report back in here. Of course, as fate would have it, the first two winners since this article posted (voted in several weeks ago) are from regulars shooting Nikon DSLRs.]


*(Ed note: When we're doing the judging, it's a pretty blind process: Marti prints, separates, and displays all the daily winners on a large tiltable drafting table that's in good light. Other than myself and Marti, the other 5 - 7 judges don't know who shot any of the photos, let alone what gear they shot them with, so the bias is all towards the images themselves.)