What's the best 35mm camera system? Nikon, Canon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Sigma, Leica or some other brand. You'll see endless debates on this issue on web sites and Usenet (rec.photo), mostly conducted by people who don't seem to have much better to do with their time!
Well, here's the practical answer. If you're an amateur who just wants a decent quality inexpensive camera body and a couple of zoom lenses covering between maybe 28 and 300mm, it really doesn't matter much what brand you buy. As long as both the camera and lens have the features you need at the price you want to pay, you're not really going to see much difference no matter what you buy, as long as you stick with "name brand" equipment.
However if you are really serious about photography, perhaps thinking of turning pro or semi-pro at some point then there are decisions to be made. Two companies probably supply the majority of professional photographers with 35mm equipment. They are Nikon and Canon. They have the best and most extensive professional service organizations. When it comes to renting equipment Nikon equipment is probably the easiest to find, followed by Canon. Both have the most extensive systems available including "oddball" lenses, remote releases, flash accessories etc.
Nikon has the advantage of some compatibility with most older manual focus Nikon mount lenses, but that comes at the expense of some incompatibilities within their AF line. For example their VR (vibration reduction) lenses only have the VR function on their high end bodies and you don't always get full metering functions with some MF lenses. On the other hand Canon abandoned their manual focus compatibility when they designed their EOS AF system, with the result that all their AF lenses have full functionality on all their AF bodies from the cheapest to the most expensive. You pay your money and take your choice. There are pluses and minuses to both systems so study them carefully and decide on the basis of your present and anticipated future needs.
Third on the list comes Minolta. Their pro network isn't as extensive as Nikon and Canon and it's harder to find rental gear. They do have a "pro" level AF body and a good array of lenses. There's certainly no reason not to pick Minolta in terms of quality, so if you aren't thinking of pro work, don't need rentals or a range of unusual (and expensive!) lenses, Minolta could be a good choice. There are pros using Minolta of course, they're just in the minority.
Pentax make good cameras and lenses, but again their pro support isn't as extensive as Nikon and Canon (or even Minolta). Good quality though and a good choice if they have some particular feature you can't live without!
That's about it for serious 35mm AF work. Sigma have an SLR body, but you're stuck with Sigma lenses. OK for an amateur, but why limit yourself? You can use Sigma lenses on Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Pentax if you really want to, plus you can chose from the manufacturer's lenses and those made by Tokina, Tamron and others.
Olympus don't really have a serious AF line, though their older manual focus bodies are excellent. Contax make excellent (if expensive) bodies and lenses and even have an unusual AF body which moves the film to focus and so gives AF with manual focus lenses. Leica has legendary optics (at a price), but no autofocus (yet).
Digital - This article was originally written before DSLRs became affordable, but most of it still applies. Both Canon and Nikon have retained full compatibility between their 35mm lenses and DSLR bodies. Both have both high end, professional, bodies and lower end, consumer, bodies. Pentax have a consumer level DLSR, compatible with existing Pentax lenses, but the Olympus DSLR (E-1) is designed for use with a new line of special "digital lenses" - though adaptors may be available. Minolta are currently not a real player in the DSLR market.
So the bottom line is that most pros will chose Nikon or Canon, with a few opting for Minolta/Pentax and even fewer choosing the other remaining brands. Again this is mostly from the viewpoint of the range of equipment available and professional support, not issues of optical quality.
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