A strange thing happens when you’re out in public with an SLR around your neck: people think you know something about photography. One question I’ve gotten a lot, with variations, is, “So, is Nikon better than Canon/Sony/Olympus/Minolta?”*
The short answer I usually give is “No.” This usually causes people to look at me funny, and I can kinda understand why; I mean, if I don’t think they’re better, how come I didn’t buy some other brand? The somewhat longer answer (which follows if I get That Look) is that Nikon is a bit better. For me.
Your mileage may vary.
The somewhat-longer-still answer:
When you’re buying a camera, there’s quite a bit to take into consideration: build quality, processing speed, video quality (if you’re into that sort of thing), JPG processing if you’re not shooting RAW, pentamirror vs. pentaprism, weather sealing, ergonomics, battery life, available lenses and the quality thereof, et cetera, et cetera. There’s not a single brand that’s had an unbroken run of successes; all but the most diehard Leica fanboys will tell you the M8 was a dog, for instance, and every other manufacturer has released cameras and lenses that had their share of quirks, if not serious flaws.
Generally speaking, however, these are precision pieces of equipment, built to some pretty high specs. As long as we’re comparing apples to apples (it’s no fair comparing one company’s compacts against another’s SLR’s), there aren’t usually enormous variations in quality.** It all comes down to finding what works for you. Some cameras feel better in the hands than others, some may have easier menu navigation and button layout, or features you’re not willing to live without (or that you wouldn’t care if the camera spit them out tomorrow).
Differences in sensors and processors, meantime, are a bit like the differences between shooting with Kodachrome or Velvia back in the day. The photos coming out of a Sony will look different from those coming out of a Nikon (even though both use Sony sensors), and the photos from your compact Kodak will look different than those from a Leica (even though both use Kodak sensors).
So which brand is better? No one brand is objectively better than the others,** but they are different, and there are subjective differences among them that mean you’ll probably like one over the others. And that’s okay.
*Now that I don’t have the yellow-and-black Nikon neckstrap on anymore, I’m curious if I’ll get that question a bit less. I’m starting to understand why sometimes I see experienced photographers putting black gaffer’s tape over the manufacturer’s logo on their cameras.
**Two caveats here: First of all, I’m dealing with bodies and not lenses/accessories, though even there I’d be assuming OEM and not aftermarket stuff; there are enormous differences between some aftermarket manufacturers, both vis-à-vis each other and versus their OEM counterparts. Second, there are exceptions here. For example, Canon has set the pace with SLR video, (though Sony’s SLR’s and a couple of Panasonic’s Micro 4/3 offerings are beginning to erase that distinction), and there are still photographers who shoot Nikon just because of the Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System, which is a fancy name for their speedlights).