Nikon's weight problem

Nikon, I hate to be so blunt, but you are fat. And no, it’s not just your lens, it’s your body too.

Nikon, as an honest friend, I should tell you something...

The two biggest players in the Digital SLR market are Canon and Nikon. These two giants offer similar equipment ranges. But how do they weigh up against each other… literally? I’ve handled them, and I’ve looked at the numbers. Nikon, you’ve got a weight problem. Shame on you.

Before you decry me as a zealous Canon fanboy, I’ll just set the record straight: I own a Nikon D80, five matching lenses, and a SB-600 flashgun. I love their ergonomics, and I’ve taken them all over the world. They’re still give me great service. And I’ll probably upgrade to the yet-to-be-announced D90′s successor. But I do have an issue with weight – bigger does not always equal better.

I realise that top quality photographic gear come with a weight penalty. Large image sensors and fast processors use more electricity and therefore need larger batteries, and large aperture lenses and bright viewfinders require larger chunks of glass. Solid construction and weatherproofing add still more weight.

Let’s for the moment forget the promise of mirrorless large sensor cameras, and accept that a choice has to be made between compactness and performance. For me, performance is very important, and hence when I get serious, I leave my nimble Panasonic LX3 at home and instead take off with my DSLR battleship. I even climbed Kilimanjaro with my D80, wheezing through the thin air with it’s 1.3 kg (lens included) bulk anchoring me down.

My problem is that, when you compare it to its largest rival Canon, the Nikon almost invariably weighs in heavier. And it’s not clear what you’re getting in exchange for the extra bulk, or why it’s necessary. Generally I find Nikon’s cameras more ergonomic than the competition, but do you need hundreds of grams to sculpt a more comfortable hand grip? I think not.

A summary of the current Canon vs Nikon DSLR lineup puts things into perspective:

Market position Canon Nikon
and sensor size Model Weight Model Weight penalty
Entry level, APS-C 1000D 502 g
D3000 + 6.8 %
Consumer, APS-C 550D 530 g
D5000 + 11.3 %
Enthusiast, APS-C 50D 822 g D90 -11.2%
Prosumer, APS-C 7D 860 g D300s + 9.1 %
Prosumer, full frame 5D Mk II 850 g D700 +26.4 %

Professional, full frame 1D Mk IV 1230 g
D3s + 0.8 %

The oddball is the Nikon D90, which offers most of the features of the 50D, but without its fast shutter, continuous shooting and magnesium alloy body. In price too, the D90 is a closer match for the 550D, but offers a dual control dials, a top LCD and pentaprism viewfinder. Some ambiguity also exists in whether the Nikon D300s is best matched to the Canon 50D or 7D.

Despite the difficulty in perfectly aligning Canon and Nikon’s ranges, the same trend always emerges: Nikon’s DSLRs are generally heavier than their feature-matched Canon partners.

You see a similar picture when you look at some of their most popular DSLR lenses:

Lens Canon Nikkor*
type specs Weight Weight penalty
fast normal prime 50mm f/1.8 130 g + 19.2 %
kit zoom 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 200 g +32.5 %
wide angle zoom 10-22† mm f/3.5-5.6 385 g +19.5 %
super zoom 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 595 g -5.9 %
standard telephoto 70-300mm f/4.0‡-5.6 630 g +18.3 %
fast pro telephoto 70-200mm f/2.8 1490 g +3.4 %

*Nikon’s lenses carry the “Nikkor” name. †The Nikkor zooms to 24mm, compared to Canon’s 22. ‡The Nikkor’s max aperture at 70mm is 4.5, compared to Canon’s 4.0.

On average, this selection of Nikkor lenses are 14.5 % heavier than their Canon counterparts. If you put them all in a bag (as many enthusiasts do) you’ll be carrying an extra 300g if you choose Nikon. And that’s before taking the extra weight of the body into account. In comparison, the Canon guy can easily carry an extra lens with no total weight penalty.

I don’t think this extra weight is due to maliciousness on Nikon’s part. Maybe it’s a legacy of their venerable F-mount, which has one of the longest flange back distances in its class, and also requires a body-mounted autofocus motor for many of its older lenses. Canon decided to take a technological leap in 1987 by completely redesigning their lens mount. Nikon instead chose for backward compatibility, and now they have to deal with its disadvantages. The antiquity of the F-mount is put into even starker contrast by the latest Sony NEX mount, which dramatically reduces bulk without reducing the sensor size. Nikon gradually phases in new technology such as lens-integrated focus motors, but the slow transition forces them to build a lot of (heavy) redundancy into their cameras. Maybe it’s time for a radical redesign?

In my post on the dangers of having a big camera, I stressed how important the bulk-and-weight issue can be. You make wonderful cameras, Nikon. Sometimes, I can forgive you for breaking the bank. But please, don’t break my back also!