A Tale of Two Cameras

A funny thing happened the other day. I got two emails, back-to-back from different site readers who apparently had been on the same polar bear expedition in Churchill. The first was from a Nikon Z9 user, and said "there were ten Z9s on the two buggies. Not a single lockup or problem with the bodies that required pulling batteries out, hard camera resets or anything else.” The second was from a Sony A1 user, and said "had utter failure with 2 Sony A1’s. Both cameras have the optional grip with 2 freshly charged Sony batteries.Within 30 mins I got a “Battery Exhausted” message and the camera shut down.” 

Both messages had much more detail, but I thought it appropriate to address the issue in the room. It’s one I’ve dealt with for 20+ years of teaching students in the field: different camera makers design to different engineering/use standards. 

We all get caught up in pixel counts and latest-greatest feature, but when push comes to shove, we need our cameras to perform reliably in any condition we throw them into. It’s one reason why the sports and photojournalist pros tend to use the big brick model cameras: they’ve been designed to be used and abused. 

In the case of the A1 and Z9, the Sony uses a 7.2v, 2280mAh battery, the Nikon a 10.8v 3300mAh one. In really cold weather (below freezing), batteries increase resistance. While this looks like a drop in available charge in the camera’s monitors, it really is just “it’s becoming harder to move charge out of the battery.” You can pull a cold battery from the camera, stick it into an inside jacket pocket to warm it back up, and later find that it’s still charged at the same level as originally, not the lower level the camera was reporting. Put the warmed battery back into the camera and it will work fine, at least until it again cools and puts up too much resistance again. That’s why I strongly recommend those working in cold weather have a battery swap strategy in place. Two fully charged batteries, one in a pocket where it is warmed, the other in the camera. Swap regularly, before it becomes a problem. 

Clearly, Nikon and Sony engineers were designing to different goals. In my experience, Nikon tends to overengineer power supplies. Sony has been sneaking upward with Watt hours and resistance tolerance, but definitely is not up to the same level.  

The above battery experience isn’t the only thing that comes up with using cameras in extreme conditions. My historical experience with Canon versus Nikon has been that the Canon’s tend to shut down in high humidity long before the Nikon’s. I’ve had this be a problem we’ve had to come up with a solution for with students in the field, basically trying to keep humidity from having any chance to build up in their Canon body. Meanwhile, the Nikon’s weren’t complaining. 

People have asked me why I’ve continued to use Nikon despite “better” cameras being available. Well, one reason is that my Nikon’s haven’t failed me in extremes, and I’m often photographing in extreme conditions. As low as -22°F, as high as 120°F, in zero humidity, in 90% humidity. In snow, rain, sleet, and sandstorms. And not just for a few minutes, but prolonged sessions to the point where I become the thing that’s too cold, too hot, or too wet. Generally the high-end Nikons simply don’t have issues with extremes, though the more you protect them a bit, the less likely you’ll ever encounter a real problem. 

To my knowledge, OM Digital Solutions is the only company that advertises cold, wet, and drop standards for (some) of their products. That was one reason why I was originally attracted to the Olympus m4/3 cameras: they were up to the level of abuse I often subject cameras to, and smaller and lighter than my big Nikon bodies and lenses. I’ve used those m4/3 cameras in conditions that I probably wouldn’t subject another camera to, and the Olympii have done fine. 

This is not to say that you should buy a Nikon. Or an OM. It’s only to point out that there is far more going on in how camera companies design their products and in which ways they are competitive. That’s despite every company moving their products upscale in recent years. 

The question is “upscale in what?” Are they spending their R&D dollars on more pixels done better, or perhaps something more nuanced, such as a hugely robust power supply or bulletproof sealing? It comes down to decision making in the design teams, and that is one place that Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OMDS, Panasonic, and Sony absolutely differ. 

There’s tech for the sake of tech, tech to solve a real problem, and a lot of other tech choices that can be made in between. 

 Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

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