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It’s About the Sensor Again

Here’s the state of the dedicated camera market at Photokina 2016: you have a choice of five sensor sizes, all approximately a stop apart from each other: 1” (2.7x crop), m4/3 (2x), APS/DX (1.5x or 1.6x), 35mm/FX (1x, no crop), and small medium format (0.79x).

(Technically, exactly one stop would be 1x, 1.4x, 2x, and 2.8x. But in practical sense we’ve been getting products that tend to deliver about a stop difference due to the progression of sensors. Sometimes this narrows a bit between formats, eventually it returns to the gaps that linear area suggest.)


There are other format options out there still, but the bulk of the cameras—especially the desirable and affordable ones—all fit within that continuum. And that continuum, all else equal (and it never quite is), tends to be a max of a five stop performance spread. With a 20:1 price spread. 

At the bottom we have some ~US$500 1” cameras with minimal lenses and features. At the top we have some ~US$10,000+ medium format cameras with minimal lens choice but plenty of features and performance.

The question is this: where do you want to live? 

I’ve long said I believe that APS/DX is the sweet spot, and I back that up by shooting DX quite a bit of the time. 

Why is it the sweet spot? Because of the price/performance relationship, basically. The smaller the sensor, the cheaper it is to build it. The larger the sensor, the better the low-light performance is going to be (again, all else equal). The problem is that the performance goes up more linearly with size, while the costs go up much more exponentially. 

In the 1” position we have some compromise of dynamic range, plus quantum shot noise at the pixel level is definitely an issue when you’re talking about the small photosites on the 20mp sensors. But a 1” sensor is fairly inexpensive to produce, and now that Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are all building lots of models with those sensors, there’s the old tech advantage of “higher volume produces lower costs” that comes into play, too. 

Personally, I find 1” a “convenience size.” By that, I mean that the compromises on image quality performance I can live with only if the product itself gives me convenience. The Sony RX100 was a pioneer at this, basically giving us a shirt-pocket camera with good enough performance. Now we’ve got multiple vendors all exploring variations of this option, so competition will drive down price and add features for awhile in this category.

Also in the ‘convenience” realm for 1” is the small camera, big lens design. Sony once again was a bit of a pioneer here with the RX10 (yes, I know that the Nikon 1 fits in here, but Nikon appears to be abandoning that approach, so it’s a dead pioneer). And once again we have all the other vendors doing the same thing. 

Here’s what I say about 1” now: it’s gone commodity already. Buy on price and your preferred features/handling. There’s not a lot of differential in performance between the models you can buy. 

I’m also not sure that 1” is going to hold off smartphones for very long. There’s just too much development money circulating in the smartphone camera market, and that’s driving tech updates for mobile phones and tablets faster and further. The notion of multi-image-sensor phones is now clearly upon us, and that's already making the old small sensor compacts completely irrelevant. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg with multi-sensor smartphones. I expect things to heat up there fairly quickly now. Quick enough that companies like Light have their work cut out for themselves in keeping from getting trampled by the on-rushing smartphone makers. All those multi-sensor patents that have started to appear from the Japanese camera companies also seems to suggest a very big nail going into another dedicated camera coffin as everyone rushes to play.

So on top of thinking of 1” as a convenience camera, think of it as not going to hold its own for very long, particularly the ones with small mid-range zoom ratios.

At the other extreme, we’ve now got Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Leica, Pentax, and PhaseOne playing in the "medium format” market. I put medium format in quotes because most of the offerings that are viable to you and I are really not as big a size as the old medium format film was. Still, they’re significantly bigger than 35mm film was, so the same way that medium and large format had advantages over 35mm in the film era still applies in many ways to the digital era now.

What also applies is “extra price." The low volume of medium format sensor production, coupled with the need to stitch the sensor in place on the fab, coupled with the extra wasted space on the expensive silicon wafer, all means that medium format sensors are just not going to be big sellers in the casual photography world any time that I can imagine. The Fujifilm GFX is a good example: it’s basically an XT-2 sized up for the far bigger sensor. The actual “camera” costs don't go up much, if at all, but boy did the sensor cost drive the overall price upwards. So we end up with something that’s probably 4-5x in cost, but featured similarly (other than the sensor). 

Guess what’s almost exactly in the center of those two extremes I’ve described so far? Yep, APS/DX. That sensor size is big enough to withstand the smartphone improvements for some time, not big enough that it commands a lot of extra price. Sweet spot.

So why the hell are Canon, Nikon, and Sony not shoring up their lens lineups for this sensor size (buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz: yes, I now need three repeats of my buzz buzz poke now that dslrbodies has broadened its coverage ;~)? Fujifilm certainly isn’t making this mistake, though their XF system is still a small player in the ILC market (though growing steadily and fairly rapidly, unlike most other players).  

Indeed, Fujifilm made the point at Photokina that they didn’t design a full frame (1x) sensor camera because they didn’t think the difference between APS and full frame was big enough: they wanted clear separation between their offerings. Message received.

Canikony (Canon, Nikon, Sony) are artificially making separation between their offerings using lens choice. The APS sensor models get mostly consumer zooms, and not a full lens lineup, while the full frame models get a full lineup of lenses, including a wide range of primes. Yeah, that might be good for Canikony’s coffers short term, but is it the right thing to do for the customer?

No, because customers aren’t dumb. They can see that Fujifilm is trying to offer them a clear choice with a clear performance differential (and price differential). Indeed, Fujifilm will sell them the APS camera and lenses they want. They can also see that Canikony isn’t doing this nearly as clearly or as well with APS versus full frame (DX versus FX). 

And here’s the rub: the natural thing for Olympus and Panasonic to do is to expand the same way Fujifilm did: choose formats that are two stops apart. That would be the current m4/3 (2x) supplemented with full frame (1x). Indeed, Olympus should be making m4/3 compacts already and they’d have a very strong case against the 1” flotilla the rest of the Japanese makers are doing. Add to that a return of the 35mm OM type models (very small SLRs), and they’d have a pretty strong and defensible position, I think.

Olympus is already trying to manage expectations upward (their assertion that the E-M1 Mark II will best APS DSLRs in an interview with Amateur Photography). Realistically, they should be doing the opposite: m4/3 compacts versus 1”, full frame mirrorless against APS. Why? Because that’s always been their position: smaller, more highly capable products than the competitor. Selling 2x as better than 1.5x requires a leap of physics or a leap of faith, neither of which is truly realistic.

Pros out there pretty much have to pick a format and stick to it. Sports shooters, for instance, really have to shoot full frame to stay competitive, especially as more and more sports games seem to move to night (e.g. a single Monday Night Football game has now morphed into Many Night Football games). Studio and maybe wedding shooters are probably going to have to go medium format again, if they aren’t already. 

But pros aren’t where the bulk of the sales are, even in a declining market. The primary buyers are becoming more and more what we call the enthusiast market, and they’re going to choose 1”, m4/3, APS, or full frame. A few well-heeled ones will pick medium format to go with their Porsche. 

So where do you want to be? 

  • Inexpensive and 1” because it’s “good enough.”
  • Modestly expensive and APS/DX because it’s the “sweet spot.”
  • Expensive and medium format because it’s “the best.”

I think I already gave things away for my personal stance: APS is my sweet spot. But if I truly had the products I wanted to be on the market, I’d be at m4/3 for my low end and full frame/FX at my high end. Why? Because those are clearly different levels of performance: the m4/3 would give me better than good enough performance in my more casual and less challenged shooting, while FX would handle my wildlife and sports shooting addictions just fine, thank you.

Photokina 2016 helped us all see the sensor spread more clearly. Certainly at the enthusiast level we have four levels of cameras being thrown at us. Each has pluses and minuses to it, so make sure you know what they are before jumping into the pool. 

But a word of warning to Canikony: those sweet spot cameras don’t look so sweet with compromised lens choices (buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz). 

Winners and Losers at Photokina

One of the reasons companies go to Photokina is to make a splash. So what splashed in a good way that caught our attention, and what made a tiny or no splash before sinking in deep water?

For a brief moment, medium format is shining. Hasselblad tells us that demand for their new mirrorless entry is far greater than they expected, Phase One continues to introduce new options. And Fujifilm dropped the news of their upcoming “affordable” medium format mirrorless system. It seems that big sensors are getting big press. 

This is one of those things that it out of proportion with the reality of the business, though. Realistically, we’re not talking about much unit volume at all. Virtually every individual DSLR model will outsell the entire medium format market this year. 

But this just goes to show that perception isn’t always aligned with sales volumes. I don’t expect to see XCD and GFX systems being carried by others I find shooting alongside me, but I do expect some pros and high-end enthusiasts to buy them. 

Still, the excitement surrounding the medium format re-emergence—particularly Fujifilm’s upcoming offering—reminds us that there’s a small but influential subset of the market that is still interested in pursuing absolute quality if it reaches their purchasing capability. Dropping US$10,000 is not particularly out of whack for any hobby of the upper middle class, and I’ve known some in the middle class to spend well more than they make in one year on their hobbies, they just have to balance their cash outlay carefully, and maybe even buy on credit.

Moreover, look at the auto industry. Virtually all vehicles these days provide more than good enough transportation, but the so-called luxury brands are still selling plenty of products that are 2x+ the price of the average models being bought. There’s this inherent drive among many to “own the best”—though their definition of “best” isn’t always consistent—and medium format suddenly looks like the “best” of the dedicated camera systems to many. I have more to say about this in my other article today.

Meanwhile, m4/3 came out of the show looking like it will become stronger, with five different new cameras and six new significant lenses dropping at the show. The two powerhouse cameras—the GH5 and E-M1 Mark II—were both pre-announcements, but show that Olympus and Panasonic are throwing considerably engineering resources at trying to break beyond the box of the smallish sensor they’ve chosen. 

Olympus continues to prove that they’re willing to tackle really tough engineering tasks to push the performance of their products forward, though it’s becoming more clear that they’re doing this in leap-frog fashion rather than raising the full model lineup simultaneously. Thus, I won’t be surprised when the eventual E-M5 Mark III introduces something that the upcoming E-M1 Mark II doesn’t have. That’s a bit troublesome for dedicated shooters, as it means that the actual update of the camera you prefer is now stretching out to three years or more.

Panasonic, meanwhile, continues its 4K emphasis and is pushing towards something eventually higher, probably 8K by the Tokyo Olympics. Internal 10-bit 4:2:2 recording is something new in the DSLR body type and GH5 price point, too. It’s clear that Panasonic is leaning a bit more on video shooters more than still shooters to keep their m4/3 lineup healthy, but that’s fine. The GH4 was a remarkably good 4K video camera (still is, actually, and especially at its price; it’s the 4K video choice I’d tend to recommend to college students seeking a strong and versatile video camera without breaking the bank). 

Six strong, mostly pro-oriented lenses added to the already deep m4/3 lineup help put m4/3 in the winner category, too. Interestingly, we’re not getting “re-dos” in the new lenses, but things that fill in gaps or spaces in the existing lineup. In particularly this time, we have four lenses that are trying to bridge the gap between all out performance and consumer.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the f/2.8-4 thing—Nikon did that with their 16-80mm DX lens recently, too. I’m not really sure how much it gains at the fast end while saving at the size end over just giving us an f/4 lens to complement the f/2.8 versions.  I need to talk to some more lens designers on this trend to see if this is giving us more real performance or is more tickling a marketing button. Still, choice is good, and my point here is that m4/3 is still winning the “adding lens choice” game.

Middle Muddle
Canon and Sony seem to fall into a category that’s about as exciting as a tie match in soccer. Yes, there were some nice plays. No, nothing really changed and nobody won. 

Canon clearly is completely committed to their iterative approach. New models of the same thing. Yes, progress was made (EOS M5 gets the EVF and new sensor, 5D Mark IV gets more pixels), but it was expected progress and certainly nothing that had all the press reporters firing up their Wi-Fi to push glowing praise to the Internet before the person seated next to them.

Canon seems happy with their current approach, their speed, and their product lineup. No big win, but no loss, either. 

Some will wonder why I don’t put the Sony A99 Mark II in the winner category. That’s because I’m not putting products per se into winning and losing, I’m judging company efforts instead, and market perceptions of product categories. 

Sony obviously is stuck with the sensor problem that resulted due to the quake that shut down their key factory. A number of Sony’s winning mirrorless cameras are in short supply due to that, but we’re now to the point where everyone expects Mark III’s of the A7 models, an A9 top end model, the missing A5xxx update, and more. Photokina did nothing to fix those problems, and it seems clear that was intentional on Sony’s part. They’re just not prepared with new sensors and products yet.

The A99 Mark II is problematic in this sense: it’s long overdue. So while it looks like a great update to the SLT lineup, Sony let the perception of SLT drag so far down that the customer base for the new camera isn’t exactly big; indeed, a number of them left the building. 

Coupled with the lack of much happening in the way of even recent lenses for the camera, the A99 Mark II is one of those good news, bad news problems. The good news is that if you’re still an aficionado of the old Minolta Alpha mount SLR/DSLRs, you’ve got a new flagship, and it’s pretty much state-of-the-art in every respect. The bad news is that aren’t many of you.

It’s not difficult to identify the losers at Photokina, though who they are is a bit surprising. Essentially it’s the companies that came with minor announcements or none: Leica, Nikon, and Pentax are the three primary ones that come to mind here.

Nikon launched its very late-to-market action cameras literally an hour before the market creator and leader kicked up more turbulence to overcome. In particular the KeyMission 170 has its work cut out for it against the HERO5 Black. To upset a leader in the market you either need to spend tremendous marketing dollars (not going to happen at cost cutting Nikon versus GoPro’s already huge efforts there) or take your product significantly further. Oops. The 170 doesn’t have raw still file save (think time-lapse) and the 5 does. It’s unclear to me exactly what the KeyMission 170 has over the HERO5, let alone what the KeyMission 360 has over the pre-existing Ricoh Theta. 

Maybe that will become clearer to me as the products ship and I can examine them, but we’re talking about losers at Photokina here. Nikon’s marketing did not satisfy the need to prove that KeyMission is the action camera of choice. That’s losing in my book when you’re last to market and the market itself is shrinking.

But let’s be serious for a moment: this is an odd year. Every camera maker’s plans were disrupted by the quake earlier this year, other than perhaps Canon. Some decided to go full on into Photokina and pre-announce, others didn’t. It’s entirely possible that companies that I’m putting in the losing category intentionally chose to lose because they think they can make bigger, better noise when they’re ready to ship.

Still, there aren’t many customer-oriented shows out there (CP+, Photokina, PhotoPlus Expo), and those—coupled with the more trade-oriented CES, NAB, and IFC—tend to be where the press gathers in enough mass that you can make or break perceptions. 

So “losing” means this: Leica, Nikon, and Pentax let customer perceptions of their innovation and up-to-date, leading-edge technology slip. “Winning” means that Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic bolstered or increased customer perceptions of their product lines, at least briefly. 

In reality, a show like Photokina doesn’t determine much in the way of sales. I don’t think we’ll see a huge amount of pre-ordering come out the products announced at the show. We’ll see some minor blips in unit sales that shift market shares briefly and  perhaps even less that 1%. 

Still, perception is an ongoing game you have to play long-term. Let public perception fall once, you can recover. Let it fall twice, it gets more difficult to recover. Let it fall continuously, and you’ll find new customers difficult to come by and your loyal customers more likely to abandon you. 

We’re in the realm where some players are continuously bolstering their perception (Fujifilm and Sony come to mind), while other players aren’t. If that continues, there will be a shift in market shares. 

Google Glass is Back in a Snap

Snapchat—the image messaging application created by three students at Stanford University—has morphed into a software and hardware company. Their first camera product will be the US$130 sunglasses called Spectacles, which includes a video camera and should ship this fall.

This is a simpler variation on Google Glass: there’s no full mobile device in the sunglasses, and no output displayed for the user. On one side of the glasses is a small camera, while on the other there's an LED “I’m recording” indicator light. These glasses only do one tech thing: record video (10 or 30 second clips), then offload them via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to your connected mobile device.

Curiously, Snap (more on that in a moment) has chosen to record 115° circular video with their camera. I’m not sure why that was chosen, though it certainly means that when you get a message with a Spectacles-created video in it, you’ll know where the video came from ;~).

But the more interesting thing about the Snapchat announcement is that Snapchat is no longer Snapchat. It’s just Snap. As if to emphasize this, their Web site now says: “Snap Inc. is a camera company. We believe that reinventing the camera represents our greatest opportunity to improve the way people live and communicate.”


This is the worst case scenario for the Japanese camera companies as the trend in imaging continues in the "Silicon Valley" direction. Snap’s hardware is very low end, basically lowest common denominator, and there’s no real potential for the Japanese to do with this type of product what they did with cameras originally (undercut the primary supplier, which at the time was Germany). 

The problem is that software is where the action is at, and what’s controlling the shift in imaging. 

Back when I helped create the original QuickCam (Connectix in 1994; sold to Logitech), our goal was to create a Trojan Horse, not be in the camera business. In order to sell software—in Snap’s case, give away software that allows them to sell user views to advertisers—you need a critical mass. At the time, we were working on digital imaging software, but there really weren’t a lot of outlets for it, as digital cameras were rare. Within 18 months we had a hardware base of over 1m users and an outlet for the imaging software products we were working on.

This is the conundrum in tech hardware. If you’re not careful, even innovative and unique hardware can and will go commodity on you, and when it does you’re suddenly involved in a dive-to-the-bottom race where you’re trying to cut costs in order to make any profit. Apple mostly avoided this in the Mac marketplace—at least after Jobs returned to the company—by being 100% involved in innovating the software side of their hardware product and keeping it unique. 

So what are the camera companies to make of new entrants like Snap? None of them have the software—let alone software in active use by customers—that Snap does. Making a competitive product means either (a) trying to wedge underneath them with price and be Snapchat compatible, or (b) come up with their own messaging software and attract more users than Snap. (b) isn’t going to happen, and (a) isn’t meaningfully profitable and just makes a competitor more successful. 

Imaging sensors are ubiquitous. They’re in our autos, in our homes, in our computers, in our phones, and now coming to our wearables. I’ve been writing for some time that the state of imaging has completely shifted: it’s no longer about hardware (cameras) and services (photo developing and printing). The Japanese missed a big shift in the latter that impacts the former. Yes, we still want cameras, but the services business changed completely, and we want those services on our other devices (phones, tablets, computers, etc.). Ask yourself this: what camera company has really given you much in the way of useful services on any of those devices?

So, let’s welcome Snap to the camera makers. And let’s hope that the Japanese camera makers see the error of their ways and invest heavily on the software side of things soon. Because that’s where the innovation is pushing imaging now. As much as we all lust over new hardware with specs that were unthinkable a decade ago, we really don’t have any outlets for 50mp, 16-bit ProPhotoRGB color images, nor is that what most of the market is demanding. Heck, we’re still using sneaker net techniques to just get the image from camera to computer.

SnapBridge at the Little Lehigh River

I wandered down to the Little Lehigh River Parkway yesterday afternoon looking for Frank and his friends.

Frank is my name for the heron that sits just below the Fish Hatchery and gorges himself on their fish releases. His friends are families of ducks that inhabit the same territory. 

With me on this trip were a handful of cameras and lenses I’m reviewing at the moment, in particular the Nikon D3400 and the new 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 AF-P DX zoom lens. 

Sure enough, Frank was at one of the pools washing himself, so I sat on the bank photographing him for more than an hour as I tested out gear. 

Now the interesting part of this story is that I had forgotten that I had turned SnapBridge on. The device the D3400 is paired with wasn’t with me out on my shoreline walk. No biggie. The D3400 just did it’s usual thing despite not being connected (500+ times as it turned out). 

I went back to my office and set the gear aside before I went home and spent the night catching up on TV shows I’d missed back in August. 

This morning I came into the office to find that my office iPhone 6 some messages for me on the new iOS 10 Lock Screen: 

IMG 0426

Oh! SnapBridge!

During the evening the D3400 diligently sat in the office trying to churn 2mp copies of my 500+ images to the business iPhone via Bluetooth, despite being turned off. Didn’t make it, though, as the phone ran out of storage first. Plus, looking at the D3400: low battery. 

In some ways this is what we want our cameras to do: upload our images without intervention. But the iOS message is a good example of how that doesn’t work perfectly: my work iPhone doesn’t have enough space on it to hold even 500 2mp JPEGs. (I’m unclear yet as to why the time of “termination" of the download message is prior to message time where the phone tells me it downloaded 378 photos.)

This is one reason why I’ve been shouting loudly about wanting Nikon to embrace something more than the lowest common denominator mobile device link that they think will solve their communicating problems. Had SnapBridge found my office wireless network, uploaded all those images to a folder that Lightroom watches, my grunt work would be done this morning and I could move on to a more intelligent use of my time.

Yes, I know there are still issues: the D3400 might not have enough battery power to run the Wi-Fi for transferring 500+ NEF+JPEG images. That just shows that there are other problems that have to be solved. Imagine had I put the D3400 down on a wireless charging mat…

Still, the fact that things almost worked as they should have is the frustrating point for me. I like companies that totally solve my user problems, not ones that only get part of the way. SnapBridge is one of those partial solutions. The parts SnapBridge does have do work, though.

Here’s one of the first photos of Frank that was sitting on my phone this morning (and yes, I shared it from my iPhone to my desktop instead of copying it ;~):


You’ll be seeing more of Frank soon in upcoming reviews (I promise he’ll actually be doing something other than standing there ;~). 

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings...

Here in the US we have had a long election campaign that seems solely to cater to feelings. Facts don’t matter. Experience doesn’t matter. Plans don’t really matter (at least they don’t need any specificity, let alone be based on reality, and who cares if they are even achievable). Nothing matters except how you feel. And apparently everyone feels bad.

Blame the media, who are telling you that you should feel bad.

Funny thing is, you could describe the camera market that way, too, especially when it comes to Nikon. And you could blame the media here, too, including me.

Nikon’s weak Photokina showing (D3400, KeyMission) seems to have all the Nikon faithful examining their feelings. And those feelings are turning bad. They just might vote (buy) another candidate based upon those feelings. And that would be really bad.

Funny thing is, Nikon still sits on an impressive DSLR and lens lineup. I’d argue that in practical use the D810 is still the most well-rounded camera enthusiasts have (and it’s two years old). The D5 and D500 are remarkably good cameras with awesome focus systems. Recent telephoto lenses like the 300mm f/4E and 200-500mm f/5.6E have proven to be quite good, and very reasonable alternatives to buying a lens that costs as much as a car (e.g. 500mm f/4E). Despite all the complaints about the f/1.8G primes, I find them quite good and more than one has made it into my regular bag.

True, the nonexistent DLs (“no prototypes available”), the no-longer-updated Nikon 1 (“no comment”), the strange (and late) KeyMission launch, the apparently lame D3400 update with AF-P lenses that really only work on a few models, all these things have everyone wondering what’s going on. Feelings in the Nikon crowd are getting based upon perception of those few items, and not all the good things I mention above.

Not that I completely blame Nikon for their appearance here. They came to Photokina with “what they’ve got.” What they have are a great DSLR lineup plus some new action cameras they want to sell, so that’s what is in the booth. At least everything in the Nikon booth is already available, or will be within about a month. That’s more than many of the others who’ve been more visible with just pre-announcements can say.

The problem, of course, is that we’re in a viral, social, word-of-mouth, no-facts-needed world now. You can look up anything on the Internet, but the site you look at for the answer might actually be wrong ;~). You just never know when a dog is the one creating a Web site, not a human. (That’s not as absurd as it sounds; I know of several Web sites that don’t employ humans to obtain and vouch for information.)

Moreover, one moan from someone visible to others on the Internet gets amplified into a chorus of moans very quickly. Then the moans become shouts. The shouts become swearing. The swearing becomes…well, you get the idea. 

Realistically, Nikon’s got a huge perception problem. The DSLRs are percolating along pretty much as normal and expected. But that’s not Nikon's entire ambition in cameras, nor is the entire set of cameras that we users want. 

It’s the rest of that ambition that people are complaining about this year regarding Nikon: silly Coolpix that were slow to ship and offered nothing new; DLs that now seem like only a night-fever dream; mirrorless that disappeared, probably due to its small size ;~); and an expansion leaping headfirst at the leading competitor in action cams right when that market has collapsed, too, and with nothing really all that new.

Yes, I know that I wrote yesterday that Nikon was swimming in the wrong direction. Some of you jumped right back to me with “drowning,” “thrashing like a non-swimmer”, and worse comments. I’ll stick by my statement: to all current appearances Nikon is a duck out of water when all the other ducks are fishing, washing up, floating happily, and doing the things ducks usually do.  

That’s causing bad feelings among one of the most faithful customer bases in photography. Bad feelings can turn into something worse if not acted on.

Nikon has another chance to fix perceptions next month at PhotoPlus Expo in New York. We’ll see if they do. In the meantime, get in touch and in control of your own feelings. Feelings don’t make the D500 or D810 worse cameras for shooting. Substitute D3xxx, D5xxx, D7xxx, D6xx, D750, D4, D5, or whatever other DSLR you’re shooting.

If you’re a Nikon DSLR user reading this and pondering Nikon’s Photokina experience, relax, the DSLRs are fine. Yes, we could use a couple updates soon and fill in some lens gaps, but the DSLRs are fine. Take a deep breath, pick up your camera, and keep shooting...

Nikon Swimming Wrong Direction

So here’s the takeaway from today (and the other pre-Photokina announcements):

  • Canon: swimming slowly upstream with the 5D Mark IV, new significant higher end lenses, the EOS M5.
  • Fujifilm: swimming way upstream with the medium format GFX and a half dozen lenses for it.
  • Leica: swimming upstream with a major commitment to SL lenses.
  • Olympus: swimming upstream with three new pro lenses and a look at the future E-M1 Mark II. 
  • Panasonic: swimming upstream with RX10 and RX100 competitors, a better G, and a peak at the future GH5.
  • Sigma: swimming upstream with three new significant lenses, all of which poke at Nikon staples.
  • Sony: big reach upstream with the re-emergence of the SLT, this time in 42mp, 12fps A9II form, but in a more crop-sensor sized body.

And Nikon?

  • Swimming downstream with a D3400 that isn’t really different than the D3300 in any meaningful way, new low-end DX lenses for that, and an action cam lineup that enters the fray after even Polaroid and runs right up against a GoPro refresh. The DLs still missing, too.

All I can say is that Nikon is in for a rough patch on the Internet. A very rough patch. They’re simply swimming the wrong direction. 

Unfortunately, they asked for this. Their first reaction to the downturn in cameras was to push FX, and they got plenty of takers. But those cameras aren’t the kind that are going to get updated often, and so after the initial frenzy, things have cooled considerably. It didn’t help that the D600, D750, and D800 all had significant issues when shipped, either. 

The problem is that previous management had the petal to the accelerator all the way into the wall at the end of the straightaway, and quite a bit of that happened at the low, consumer end. Nikon got addicted on growth in consumer products, yet they’re not anything close to being a class low-end consumer company. In essence, they overproduced Coolpix and low-end DSLRs well after peak camera occurred, and have been paying for it ever since. 

The simple problem is this: they can’t afford to drop consumer volume. Doing so makes the entire company a smaller entity in terms of sales and profit, takes away all the growth they had during the digital decade, and probably would trigger a number of covenants on loans and bonds if they got significantly smaller. So more so than the other camera companies, we’re still seeing Nikon making a lot of effort to make noise at the low end (<US$600 products). 

I don’t think this works. Oh, you can “make” it work by pressing your distribution channels and squeezing costs and discounting to keep the volumes up for awhile, but those are weak and short-term crutches, not a permanent solution. 

Nikon really needs the DLs, but they’re nowhere in sight. These were looking strong when they were announced, but now we’ve got even more 1” products hitting the market from competitors right into the same price points and spec sheets. That likely means having to discount them quickly when they eventually do appear. 

SnapBridge really needed to work, but it’s clearly still not all there yet. It actually works decently on the D3400 for driving 2mp images from the camera to the smartphone, but the smartphones are now 12mp instantaneously, so exactly where is the advantage in a slowish wireless transfer of small pixel count images? Ah, yes, lenses. Hmm, can I crop 12mp to 2mp? ;~) Plus the D3400 kit lens is slow and wastes a lot of that advantage right out the chute. 

Meanwhile, as we Nikon users digest all this continued consumer product and what it might mean, all the other players are at Photokina pushing stuff higher and offering things that Nikon doesn’t. 

One of my common pieces of advice to startups over the years (including my own) was this: pick something and own it. Own it in ways that others can’t duplicate, and keep owning it lest someone else take it away from you. If that means you cannibalize your own products, so be it. 

Nikon isn’t really seeming to “own” anything at the moment. The did a “different” mirrorless. They announced a “different” compact line they haven’t delivered. They’ve joined the action cam market with something that’s different in not so good ways for the dedicated action junkie. The D3xxx line seems to have stalled in terms of ideas at the D3100, the D5xxx line at the D5300. 

The things they “sort of own” are enthusiast/pro DSLRs, but even there we have DX missing lenses (buzz buzz) while competitors just keep rolling them out, and the FX lineup that was highly logical in the D3/D3x/D700 era is now D5/D810/what? I’m not getting the sense that Nikon owns anything. 

Don’t get me wrong, Nikon makes some fine products, and I use them, daily. The D5, D500, and D810 are great cameras, and the D7200 and D750 are near great. The FX lens lineup doesn’t need much to make it the best lens lineup out there, and recent FX lenses have been excellent.

Still, one wonders where the focus is at Nikon. 

Long ago (now 18 years) I started writing that Nikon was losing their connection to the actual customer of their camera products. That’s become more and more pronounced over time and I got progressively more shrill in voicing my concerns, though small groups of talented engineering teams have managed to keep a few of the top products aligned well enough that Nikon hasn't lost us long-term users yet.  

I don’t like saying “I told you so,” but more and more the things that I’ve been predicting about Nikon’s (lack of) direction and customer understanding are coming true. They seem completely unable to get their product line from bottom to top under control, and the bottom looks different than the top, and the middle isn’t exactly the same as either.

I thought that the 1-2-3 punch of D5/D500/DL at the start of the year might have been a sign that Nikon was starting to get a connection back to their user base and hone in on a clear mission to win true photo enthusiasts. I’m not so sure now. 

What I am sure of is that Nikon looks like its swimming the opposite direction to the other camera companies at Photokina this year. Let’s hope that they turn around and face the other way...

Photokina Announcement Day

bythom photokina 2016 logo

Virtually all the big companies have press conferences scheduled for today (the trade show itself opens tomorrow; bold indicates I’ve covered it below):

  • Panasonic 
  • Canon 
  • Sony 
  • Nikon 
  • Fujifilm 
  • Olympus
  • Sigma 
  • GoPro
  • Leica tonight

As we get the full announcements, I’ll update this page with the details (some additional coverage will take place on for the mirrorless entries). Additional products I learn about will be found on a supplemental page.

Panasonic announced the G80/G85 camera, the latest extension of their DSLR-like G lineup, pre-announced the GH5, plus provided information on three upcoming m4/3 lenses: 8-18mm f/2.8-4, 12-60mm f/2.8-4, and 50-200mm f/2.8-4. I deal with all these on

bythom panasonic lx10

Also in Panasonic’s announcements were the LX10/15, a new compact 1” sensor camera, and the FZ2500. The LX10/15 has a 24-72mm (equivalent) f/1.4-2.8 Leica Vario-Summilux lens. Video is recorded at 2160P/30/25/24, or 1080P/60/50. The 4K video option uses digital zooming, not optical zooming; the camera itself has a 5-axis IS system. Still shooters can expect up to 6 fps with DFD focus active in continuous shooting. The LX10/15 does not have an EVF, though, using a 3” tilting touchscreen as the sole composition device. Overall, it seems a lot like the older Sony RX100 models (pre-EVF addition). Price US$699.

The other announcement in the compact camera arena was the FZ2000/FZ2500, a 28-480mm (equivalent) f/2.8-4.5 DSLR-like camera with a 1” sensor that appears to be Panasonic’s answer to the most recent RX10 update. As with most Panasonic products, they’re promoting 4K video, in this case 10-bit 4:2:2 over the HDMI connection, though for some reason they keep insisting that if you want a Log-type photo style for video, you have to pay for it via upgrade (US$99 on top of the camera’s US$1199 price). 

Panasonic didn’t quite match Sony with lens (600mm f/4 versus 480mm f/4.5), but most of the rest of the specs tend to nod towards the Panasonic, though barely. Still, this new model is US$400 less than Sony’s, so I suspect it will do quite well.

The surprise here is a full frame SLT A99II. This is essentially squeezing the A7rII sensor and electronics into an A77-sized body. The 42mp sensor is stabilized in the body to 4.5 stops CIPA. A new shutter is rated at 300k shots, which is good, because this camera is capable of 12 fps at full resolution. To deal with all this bandwidth, we have a new generation of BIONZ.

bythom sony a99ii

As with other SLT designs, there’s a partial mirror in front of the image sensor to supply light to a dedicated phase detect system, in this case 79 dedicated cross AF focus points. In addition, the A99II has focal plane phase detect, grouped as 399 additional focal points. Sony is also claiming a class leading -4EV for focus.

Video is 4K from the full sensor and can output 8-bit 4:2:2 over the HDMI connection. There’s a 1.229m dot tilting LCD and the usual 2.36m dot EVF. Battery life still seems a problem, as Sony is quoting only 390 shots using the EVF per charger. The camera will ship in November for US$3200 body only.

So Sony is back promoting the old Alpha mount, and with a body that is clearly targeted at high end enthusiasts. Overall it looks like quite an impressive camera. I’ve said all along that Nikon probably won’t be using the 42mp Sony sensor, and the A9II is a very good reason why: Nikon needs to find a better niche for the D810 followup than trying to fight with this new SLT, and that niche is likely “more pixels,” ala the Canon 5Ds/r models. 

Of course the Nikon DSLR crowd will be groaning again in lieu of camera announcements (let alone deliveries), and wondering what Nikon is (isn’t) doing. Regrouping, apparently. Still, if Nikon would just do as the high-end enthusiast and pro market really wants them to (that would be two D810 followup models, one with the 20mp D5 sensor and one with a new 50mp+ sensor), they’ll do just fine. 

Nikon announced two new action cameras to its lineup, the KeyMission 170 and KeyMission 80. The numbers indicate the field of view (170° and 80°). All three KeyMission cameras (including the previously announced 360) will be available in October. Pricing is US$280 for the 80, US$400 for the 170, and US$500 for the 360. 

bythom nikon keymission

Oddly, the KeyMission cameras are all quite different designs, with very different capabilities:

  • 360 — 360° video in 2160P/24, or 1080P/24. Two f/2 lenses sit on opposite sides of the camera with 20mp 1/2.3” sensors behind each one. This produces 30mp in-camera stitched stills. Waterproof to 98’ and shockproof to 6.6’. Connects to mobile devices with SnapBridge 360/170 app. Uses EN-EL12 battery and microSD card. An odd set of accessories come with it, including a cardboard style VR type of viewer that utilizes you smartphone.
  • 170 — 170° video in 2160P/30, 1080P/120/60, with 1080P having electronic image stabilization. GoPro style casing, but without a housing waterproof to 33’, shockproof to 6.6’. Has a small rear 1.5” 345k dot LCD. Uses the EN-EL12 battery and microSD card. Uses an 8.3mp 1/2.3” sensor, 15mm equivalent f/2.8 lens.
  • 80 — 80° with a rear facing 25mm f/2 lens behind a 12mp 1/2.3” sensor and a front-facing 5mp 1/5” sensor with a 22mm f/2.2 lens. Waterproof to 3.2’, shockproof to 6’. A 1.75” touch LCD is used to compose and review images, and to change settings. Uses built-in rechargeable battery and microSD cards.

Frankly, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain KeyMission. Every one of the models has some odd choices and liabilities, and it seems that Nikon is going to leave “mounting” to various things that screw into 1/4” tripod sockets. The 360, for instance, is a 24 fps only device with no IS, which limits its usefulness. The 170 has only electronic IS, but not at 4K. The 80 is designed like a smartphone, only without much smarts and no phone. I’m not sure why I’d want to carry it over my smartphone at all. Of the three, the 170 is probably the most interesting, as it’s basically a GoPro without the need for a case to go underwater, plus it has somewhat better setting and handling. 

Nikon’s one of the last of the companies to the action cam market, but it doesn’t really seem to show in the product definitions. That’s particularly true in the way Nikon didn’t note how GoPro standardized mounting capabilities in a unique and useful way. Instead, we’re going to be screwing things into tripod sockets all the time with this camera, and Nikon should know that this isn’t going to stand up to action abuse. First knock and you’re camera is no longer lined up where you had it. I really have to wonder if Nikon really talked to action enthusiasts to find out how those GoPros are really being used. If they did, I’m not sure they heard what those folk said. I’m hoping that Nikon is eeking more image quality out of these small sensors than the others have been getting. I’m a little tired of blown GoPro skies, for example. Still, this is going to be a tough sell for Nikon, I think, regardless of what manages to come out of them.

Another curiosity is that NikonUSA is promoting a free US$150 value accessory pack if you pre-order the 360 or 170 camera. You’ll get a small case, a small tripod, an extension arm, and an extra battery. That seems like an admission that Nikon is late and overpriced to the market. 

Sadly, that’s all Nikon announced today. 

While it was no longer a surprise due a lot of leaking recently, Fujifilm pulled the second rabbit out of the hat today (the Sony A99II being the first) with their announcement of the GFX 50mp medium format mirrorless camera. 

bythom fujifilm GFX

It’ll disappoint a few that the GFX isn’t going to be available until 2017—starting to be a common theme among announcements this year—but this isn’t just a camera announcement, it’s a full-fledged system announcement, with six lenses detailed for arrival in 2017. Cost for the camera along with the 63mm standard prime lens will be “well under US$10,000,” which means that Fujifilm has decided to give Hasselblad and Pentax a run for their money with the Sony 50mp sensor.

bythom fujifilm gfx top

Let’s start with the camera. The design is reminiscent of a “larger” XT-2, though the EVF at top is a clip-on. An accessory allows the EVF to be tilted to almost any angle. The sensor is some variation on the Sony 43.8 x 32.9mm, 51.4mp sensor we’ve seen in other cameras, though Fujifilm claims new development of some sort. Curiously, I didn’t hear mention of whether the camera will be Bayer or X-Trans. X-Trans would explain “new development."

That big sensor provides a 0.79x crop compared to traditional 35mm film, though Fujifilm is emphasizing that the GFX is a “multi-aspect” camera (for example, it can shoot 1:1 images at over 30mp, and it can shoot 4:3, 3:2, 4:5, 6:7, and 6:17 in camera).  Shutter speeds extend to 1/4000.

The new G mount will have six lenses coming. The first three will appear with the camera:

  • 63mm f/2.8 R WR (50mm equivalent)
  • 32-64mm f/4 R LM WR (25-50mm equivalent)
  • 120mm f/4 macro (95mm equivalent)

and the next three will appear later in the year:

  • 23mm f/4 R LM WR (18mm equivalent)
  • 45mm f/2.8 R WR (35mm equivalent)
  • 110mm f/2 (85mm equivalent)

The lenses are all designed to resolve “over 100mp.” Take that for whatever it’s worth.

By all appearances, Fujifilm has taken their experience with the crop sensor X cameras and applied it directly to a medium format design with as little alteration as possible. This is going to box in the high-resolution full frame DSLRs, I suspect, as one would expect this new Fujifilm to be a body perfectly suited to landscape and studio shooting, which is where those high-resolution bodies are most coveted. 

Still, the bigger the sensor, the bigger the cost, and it’s not a linear amount bigger, but exponential. Thus, investing in a Fujifilm medium format kit is going to put you significantly into the five digit game (e.g. >10k). Still, I know wedding and studio shooters that want that Fujifilm color and look, and this camera is going to have instant appeal there.

The camera Olympus announced is what I call the PL-Late (E-PL8). A ho-hum update of the PL series that managed to look more ho-hum due to the delay in getting it out after the quake stole its sensors. 

Like Panasonic, Olympus made much more significant future release announcements, the biggest of which is the upcoming (this year) 20mp E-M1 Mark II. As usual, Olympus is throwing tech at their flagship, this time with a completely new and improved AF system (still has on-sensor phase detection, though different and better). Probably the biggest eye-opener is 18fps shooting with focus, 60 fps without. Olympus claims to have doubled the buffer capacity over the predecessor. 

Moreover, the camera is “shooting” even when you’re not, as it retains the last 14 possible shots before you pressed the shutter release. And yes, it has 4K video, though not a lot of details were given on this at the press conference.

Along with the E-M1 Mark II Olympus announced two new pro lenses and an interesting macro lens. On the pro lens side we get the 25mm f/1.2 and 12-100mm f/4. The macro is the 30mm f/3.5, which manages to break the 1:1 barrier.

A new pro service with next day delivery of a replacement unit was also announced.

Sigma announced three new lenses, the 12-24mm f/4 Art, the 85mm f/1.4 Art, and the 500mm f/4 OS Sport. All of these are in some form replacements for earlier Sigma lenses.

The 12-24mm f/4 DG HSM Art is a redesign of Sigma’s full frame ultra wide zoom. It will be available in late October for US$1599, and in Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SLR mounts. 

The 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art is designed to support high-resolution DSLRs, and like the other lenses, has a re-engineered HSM focus system that focuses faster. It will be available in late October for US$1199 with the same mount support.

Finally, the 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM Sport is a significant redesign of an older Sigma classic (500mm f/4.5) that was popular as the budget long lens solution. Sigma seems to be trying to keep up with Nikon on this one, with a much lighter design, weatherproofing, and a two-mode optical stabilization. It will be available in late November for US$5999, again in the same mounts. You might want to get in the pre-order line for this lens, as I suspect it prove to be popular enough to sell out in its first shipment.

All these lenses now feature electronic apertures on the Nikon F mount, and can be updated or optimized using the optional Sigma USB Dock.

Nikon’s just announced Mission 170 ran head on into the GoPro HERO5 within hours of announcement. But first, let me drone on for a moment.

bythom gopro karma

I’m not sure how much meat is still on the bone in both the action camera and the aerial drone market, but sure enough GoPro is trying to find out. They announced the Karma drone (US$799). I see three things GoPro did right: folding arms to keep the unit highly portable during transport, a dedicated controller that’s small and folds up for transport, and a stabilizer system that can be dismounted from the drone and used with a hand grip. Other than that I’m not seeing something that tempts me over the DJI offerings, though GoPro’s pricing is aggressive. They’ll get some customers with this new offering, the question is how many. It’s not exactly pretty, but in many ways it looks like it’ll hold up well, despite the low price point.

bythom 480

Along with the Karma, GoPro announced the HERO5 Black, the latest in their series of action cameras. Curiously, the specs read almost the same as the Nikon KeyMission 170, and the pricing is near identical, too. 4K at 30 fps, 1080P at 120 fps, 12mp stills (up to 30 fps burst, plus time-lapse), all centered around a 1/2.3” sensor. Like the KeyMission, the new HERO5 Black doesn’t require a case to go underwater (up to 33 feet, 10m), includes a rear LCD to control the camera, and has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Three things stood out in GoPro’s announcement: voice control, auto-upload to cloud (if you’ve got a GoPro subscription), and location capture. Oh, a fourth: raw files for stills. 

Nikon’s got its hands full: they launched KeyMission 170 right into the powerhouse updating their product in ways that go beyond Nikon, and in a market that’s saturated and full of GoPro endcaps and dedicated displays at dealers and Big Box stores. I had to go back and look at the tech specs on Nikon’s site to make sure I wasn’t missing something: no voice control, no GPS, and no raw still files. The “auto upload” thing is debatable and depends a bit on what the SnapBridge app for the KeyMission cameras does.

GoPro also announced a new HERO5 version of their smaller and simpler US$299 Session camera, as well. 

Other Photokina Announcements

bythom photokina 2016 logo

As I come across Photokina announcements other than major body/lens announcements, I’ll add them to this page, newest at the top.

  • The problem with everyone using the same Sony sensors for the same thing is that everyone’s product starts to look alike. That’s really evident in the action cam market, where we had GoPro and Nikon launch nearly identical models. But they weren’t the only ones playing the game: Rollie’s Actioncam 430 (no, it doesn’t record 430 degrees) looks like an older GoPro, even uses the same accessories, and has basically the same 12mp stills, 4K/30 fps, 1080P/120 fps. Yep, a small LCD on the back and a full frame fisheye lens out front, offset in GoPro style. 
  • Pentax announced that a firmware update to the K-1 model (1.3) will add electronic first curtain shutter in Live View, a 1:1 crop format, and add bracketing for the AA filter simulator.
  • Elinchrom announced the EL-Skyport Plus for Olympus, which provides high-speed sync capability (up to 1/8000 second) with the compatible Elinchrom lights. This US$250 accessory is kind of big and clunky for the small Olympus m4/3 bodies, but it provides a very useful ability for sports and action photographers.
  • In his presentation launching the three new Sigma lenses on Monday, Yamaki-san had an interesting stat: he showed CIPA numbers that have lens sales down an estimated 40% since 2012. He followed this with a slide that had the Art, Sports, and Contemporary lens designs on it and announced that since introducing those new lens lineups in 2012 (at Photokina), Sigma’s lens sales were up 27% from 2012 to 2015, counter to the overall market.

bythom lowepro photostream
  • ThinkTank isn’t the only one ready with a regional jet capable roller: LowePro announced the PhotoStream RL 150 with very similar dimensions as the ThinkTank Airport Advantage, though it is heavier due to the use of a different padding and protection system. Also, LowePro announced three new Flipside Trek combo-packs for carrying camera and recreation gear.
  • Western Digital (SanDisk) is showing off a new 1TB SD card prototype. Yes, 1TB. No details yet on speed, price, or availability.
  • ThinkTank’s new Airport Advantage was introduced just prior to Photokina, but this is its first appearance, especially in Europe. This new addition to the Airport lineup is a wheeled pack that is designed to fit into the overhead bins on regional jets.
  • Tether Tools introduced the new US$160 Case Air Wireless Tethering System, a camera controller that connects to smartphone, tablet, or computer. At only 1.7 ounces, the small unit connects to the cameras USB socket and can either fit in the hot shoe or hang via lanyard. 
  • Nikon acquired Mark Roberts Motion Control, a small UK-based company that develops and makes robotic camera solutions, mostly for broadcasting and film production. Their products have been used in hundreds of recent motion pictures, and are used by a number of sports and event broadcasts, particularly in England. Nikon themselves says this acquisition will have no material impact on their consolidated financial statements, meaning neither the cost of acquisition nor the income from the acquisition’s ongoing business will really change Nikon’s financial results. So one has to really wonder what is going on here. Nikon recently stopped going to NAB and IBC, the primary film/video production trade shows. Mark Roberts Motion Control goes to them (and is at Photokina, too). Is this Nikon’s back-door method of staying connected to the video and film industry?
  • Some of you caught that I was using a MeFOTO tripod in Botswana. Well, the new MeFOTO designs being introduced at Photokina have a feature I like, and one I’m not sure about yet. The feature I like is removing the centerpost, which is a weak point that contributes to some additional vibration when you’re using these small, low-cost tripods fully extended. The feature I’m not sure of is the new leg lock system. I can tell you that the weakest point of the old versions was the rubber on the leg locks: the cement they used tends to dry out and you lose the grip necessary to lock/unlock the legs. But the new leg design uses a single new lock mechanism. Turn it and the leg extends as far as you let it. I’m not yet sure how well the leg “joints” stand up in this new design. It could be that convenience (fast set up) has been gained but stability has been lost. Only time and use will tell. 
  • Phase One introduced new 45mm f/3.5 (US$5990) and 150mm f/2.8 (US$6990) lenses for their medium format system. the first is a wide angle 28mm equivalent, while the latter is a short telephoto 95mm equivalent at the usual Phase One frame size.
  • Nikon’s KeyMission 360 has another competitor, the Kodak Pixpro 4KVR360. Indeed, the specs and design look very similar, though they were independently created by JK Imaging, the company behind the Kodak license these days. Pricing is also likely to be about US$500, though the Pixpro doesn’t have waterproof or shockproof ratings. Instead, it goes more the traditional route with additional buttons and an LCD on the top housing, as well as a microphone. Also the Pixpro’s lenses aren’t symmetrical like the KeyMissions: the front lens is a shallower 155° angle of view—mostly so that it can act as a traditional action cam when desired—while the back camera wraps around with a 235° view. Meanwhile, 360 degrees seems to be a trend these days (Ricoh’s Theta was an early pioneer here): Seitz Phototechnik AG announced the Roundshot Livecam 3, a 360° web cam that captures a stitched 66mp panorama every 10 minutes while capture 1080P video in between. This is an industrial type camera used for tourist locations and businesses due to its high price and complexity, but it goes to show that Nikon and Kodak (and Ricoh) are shooting low with their feature sets.  
  • A trend is developing in lighting: more and more companies are expanding beyond the Canikon E-TTL/i-TTL duopoly. Profoto announced that Sony has provided them the information necessary to bring compatibility to TTL-S for their Air Remote systems in early 2017.  PocketWizard announced a version of their FlexTT5 that supports the Panasonic DMW-FL360L and FL580L flash units, but currently only with the GH4 camera. Price will be US$186.
  • Voigtlander announced a new Sony FE lens, the 65mm f/2 APO-Lanthar macro. This old manual focus design brings the Voigtlander FE lens count to five. No word yet on availability or price.
  • Voigtlander announced a new version of the 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II, distinguished by an S instead of an N. The optics haven’t changed, the the lens sports a slightly smaller filter ring and front size. In counterpoint to the current fad of modernizing lens looks, the new 58mm actually doubles down on the old Nikkor AI-styling, including a version with a front silver ring (instead of black). Because the lens is chipped, it can be used with modern digital bodies, though it remains manual focus.
  • The Leica Sofort is the slightly expensive route to produce Fujifilm Instax printed images (1.8 x 2.4” instant images). With a 60mm f/12.7 three-zone focus lens (which makes for a 34mm equivalent capture), the Sofort specs look pretty much like a Fujifilm Mini 90 Neo for more than double the price. Personally, I don’t see the reason to go upscale in hardware for a low scale medium. 
  • Metz introduced the Mecablitz M400, a new compact flash system with a GN of 131 feet (40m for 105mm at ISO 100), coverage from 24-105mm (plus 12mm via integrated diffuser), 90° vertical and 360° horizontal swivel, an OLED display on the back, TTL support including high-speed sync, and an integrated 100 lux video LED. Support for Canon E-TTL, Fujifilm TTL, Nikon i-TTL, m4/3 TTL, Pentax P-TTL, and Sony ADI flash mode is provided. The unit can act as master or slave for Canon, Nikon, and m4/3, as a slave for Pentax and Sony systems.

  • Technically they sent the press release at the end of last month, but Photokina is the first place where they’re showing the new device: foolography has a new Kickstarter campaign for their latest Unleashed product. For Nikon users there are the N1, N2, and N3 models, while for Canon users we’ve got C1 and C2 models. Which you need is depending upon the remote control connector on your camera. What is Unleashed? It’s a tiny Bluetooth accessory that communicates with foolography software on your smartphone to control your camera remotely. It also provides a link to external GPS devices, which is how all those GPS tracks in my latest Botswana blog came to be. Yes, there are other ways to do this—including, for example, the WU Wi-Fi adapters Nikon makes—but foolography has been making small and frankly more convenient products for a number of years now (though the currently available version only supports GPS devices). The newest version just unleashed (oh dear) seems particularly unobtrusive, adds the camera control features, and does not require anything in the hot shoe like other devices. Nor does it use big long cables that are guaranteed to hook on something and pull the device out. The bad news? This item isn’t expected to be available until late Spring 2017.

Communicating, Programmable, Modular

It’s getting quite close now to all the at-Photokina announcements, and I expect a number of new mirrorless camera entries. So wrap your mind around this thought:

The very best mirrorless camera we currently foresee will be no better
than the very best DSLR camera we currently foresee.

Put another way, mirrorless is just a different way of designing the same thing. 

As I’ve noted many times, mirrorless is an inevitable shift from DSLRs and their mirrors for the following reason: fewer parts and fewer alignment steps in manufacturing. Simple as that. 

We can argue all day about whether an optical view or an EVF view is better, but that point is actually totally moot, as Fujifilm has proven with the X-Pro1/2 models, which have both ;~). Those that say you can’t get real time histograms in the optical DSLR viewfinder also are barking up the wrong tree. We already have real-time horizon indicators in DSLR viewfinders; there’s absolutely no reason—other than the Japanese not thinking of it, or perhaps not thinking it necessary—that we can’t have a functional histogram in a DSLR viewfinder. 

The whole notion that first there were SLRs, then DSLRs, and eventually mirrorless cameras is a false belief. We had analog (film) cameras, we now have digital cameras, and that was revolutionary because it changed from chemicals to bits. But another revolution via mirrorless taking over from DSLR? Not really. 

The Nikon D1 in 1999 marked a real change. Film cameras were already on the decline, and the D1 and competitive rush to digital it triggered was a revolution. Things changed. Dramatically. We’re now far better off than we were in film, in my opinion. Many people don’t understand why DSLRs took off so fast and soon produced sales numbers that far exceeded film SLR’s peak. It’s simple really: feedback. 

With film you had no idea whether what you tried worked or not until you got the film back from the lab. If you were on vacation, that could be two weeks or more later. By then you’d forgotten the details of what you were trying, and the do/fail/retry loop was so slow that most simply gave up. 

Digital solved that feedback loop problem. Take a picture. Pop it up on the LCD. Did it work? No? Then try something else. Rinse, Lather, Repeat (or rather Shoot, Adjust, Repeat). As crude as the LCDs were in the first days of DSLRs, they were enough to solve the basic problem for most. You could quickly evaluate exposure, focus, timing, all the parameters necessary to make the shot you wanted. Suddenly photography was fun again. Wait, what, a better camera came out? Great, I’ll buy it. 

This “digital is great, digital is fun” thing continued right up until the iPhone. Technically, the iPhone wasn’t first. But Apple’s marketing machine coupled with an engineering team doing their usual “think like a user” design, started the ball rolling. When Apple quickly figured out that they needed to let others produce apps, that opened the way for Facebook, Twitter, to do the thing that suddenly made Japanese digital cameras not so fun any more: instant sharing of images. Here it is eight years later and I can’t point to a single Japanese camera company that’s got the sharing thing right yet. Some get it just convolutedly wrong. 

Smartphones had all the attributes of digital cameras (e.g. instant feedback), but added something that the Japanese camera makers simply didn’t match. That’s surprising, because the first cameras in cell phones were made in Japan in the 90’s, so it’s not as if they didn’t have the hardware ingredients figured out. What tripped them up was software. 

The current decline in digital camera sales has people constantly asking me what the next revolution will be (some suggesting mirrorless, thus my point, above). 

Back in 2008 I suggested what it would be: not a change in analog/digital or a change in camera specifications per se, but a change in workflow. Simply put, digital camera workflow sucks in the modern world. Sucks badly. That instant sharing of the smartphones simply did the same thing to DSLRs that DSLRs did to SLRs: made them dinosaurs that looked cumbersome.

The next revolution should be as I described it in 2008: communicating, programmable, and modular. Each of those three things has the ability to not only transform workflow, but to bring it as far into the modern world as far as is possible.

I’m going to start backwards this time: modular.

Technically, modularity is the least needed of the three changes, yet it has potential for a profound difference in how we work. 

One of the most common emails I get from readers goes something like this: “I really wanted a D5 sensor in a D800-type body, so what should I buy?” Well, modularity would have solved that problem. Two pro bodies, one big with the dual grip, one small and compact, both modular. All Nikon’s sensors available for either. Were that the case, almost all of us pros would have bought two bodies and three or four or more of the following sensors: 20mp high-ISO, 24mp general purpose, 36mp high resolution, and all in color, monochrome, and UVIR versions. We’d be buying new sensors as they get better, and we’d still buy new bodies when things like the D5’s autofocus system come along and improve the basic body experience. Somehow I don’t think Nikon can prove that they sold more D4/D4s, D800/D800E/D810 models than a modular combo would have. Indeed, I’ll bet that the dollar output from pros and serious enthusiasts would have been higher.

Why? Because it solves so many problems in our workflow. 

One day I’m shooting sports at night and need a sensor that’s tops at low light. The following week I’m out shooting landscapes and need all the resolution I can get. Next month I get an RFQ for a monochrome shoot. Yeah, got it all covered (and more) with a modular system.

I also originally outlined the communications as needing to be modular, too. If I’m shooting for a newspaper, they want JPEG delivery Right Away and cellular probably is the answer. At events, I want a fast Wi-Fi system that can talk to the server I set up at the reception (slide shows, etc.). 

Let’s be reasonable. From day one of DSLRs until today what have been the things that have really changed? Sensors, communications, and card sizes/speeds. Those are the things that should have been modular. Viewfinders, autofocus systems, controls, LCDs, etc.—those were pretty good on the D1h and frankly a new body with improvements every four years would have been perfect. 

Let’s move on.

A lot of assignments (self imposed or real) end up with shot lists. Exactly where do I store that on my camera? Oh, right, I look at a list on my smartphone, which is becoming a better camera every day. Oops. Why can’t I send a list to my camera and tick it off as I shoot? Heck, if I’m ticking with shot IDs, why wouldn’t I also be tagging those same images? 

Funny thing is, this idea came to me back in 1977. Say what? Well, that’s when I was starting to shoot video news using some of the early ENG cameras. Hey, I shot three takes in the camera, why can’t I mark each one so that when I get back to the editing station I don’t have to blindly search for what I’m going to stick into the edit? The fact that we really don’t have a good solution for this even today tells me that the engineers really aren’t looking over the shoulders of users. 

Even some of the products that get it partly right don’t get it completely right. The Blackmagic Design cameras, for instance, allow you to enter take information into the metadata that follows the clip. But the notion of “I’ve got four takes and take three is the one to use” doesn’t have a component in the software. Nor can I pre-enter my scene information.

The reason why I write that “programmability” is a necessary function for the next camera revolution feeds from that last paragraph. The people that know what we want in our workflow best is, well, us. 

Let’s expand all this list/tag thing to a wedding photographer. The shot list that sits in the camera came from the pre-wedding meetings with the bride and her mother. As I’m shooting, I want to be able to pull up that list, and after I’ve shot something I want to be able to tag it as to where it should go (e.g. live slide show at the reception, best take for post processing, save but don’t prioritize, etc.). 

I’d really love it if my list also provided key IPTC information, such as subject names. Let’s move to the football game and see how that works. I want the event information, location, and maybe even the quarter to be in the IPTC information already. I’d love to be able to chimp between shots and tag player numbers and get the player team and name into the IPTC. Why? Because I have to supply that to the news services at some point. I don’t want to be spending hours after the game typing things in manually. 

I should point out that Nikon did add IPTC information (D4, D4s, D5, D500) after I pointed out what sports shooters were really doing. They even gave us the ability to enter it with a touchscreen (D5, D500). But it’s still not a perfect solution, and I have no way to tag players using IPTC. My photo editor wants a caption with my photo when it receives it on deadline. He hasn’t the faintest idea who the players in the shot are or what they’re doing. One solution we’ve been using sometimes on the D3/D4/D5 cameras is to record an audio file with an image, but that’s adding a workflow step down the line, and you’d better keep the JPEGs and audio files aligned, which I’ve found that photo editors don’t seem to do well ;~). 

Of course, in both those examples I just gave, there’s an element of communication suggested, which is my last point. My photos should automatically go to all the places where they need to be. Not just one place, but all the places. All my images should go into my cloud storage. My best images (tagged during shooting) should be ready in a folder for post processing on my desktop. Particular images I picked out while shooting might go to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, a wire service, to a client, or somewhere else as I’m shooting. All images from a shoot should be in a folder for the shoot in my images RAID. 

This is another reason why the camera needs to be programmable: all the services I use and options I need change constantly; photographers and imaging companies should be able to write or commission an app for our cameras. Certainly the camera companies won’t be able to do it, let alone keep up with the constantly changing environment. Even after presenting my needs directly to Nikon, I’m not 100% sure if they fully understood everything I presented them. Moreover, some of my needs are unique to me, and Nikon isn’t going to put their “crack” team of programmers on solving something only for me. 

Ironically, we’re seeing more companies try to tackle some of what I write above in the smaller video camera industry than in the bigger still camera side. Indeed, companies like RED went modular from the get go, companies like Blackmagic Design have been seriously looking at the programming side. As I learned at NAB back in April, everyone is looking at VOIP as one critical way to move video data over virtually any communication channel. 

The still camera companies? Ricoh abandoned their modular camera (GX). “Programmability” seems to mean “enter some meta data” to most of camera companies, though it doesn’t always go the right place ;~). And communications? Gee, Wi-Fi is proving to be difficult for them. It took them forever to solve the quick connect problem, but no one yet seems to want to tackle both AdHoc and Infrastructure use.

Unfortunately for us still photographers, the Japanese camera companies are still taking baby steps. They’re fully locked into their mild iteration each generation, major iteration every few generations mantra. And yet the “major” isn’t all that major now that smartphones have revealed just how much they have left to do. 

All this is why I don’t think “mirrorless” is the answer to all our problems. It’s just an iteration step. I’m sure both Canon and Nikon have a big planning document that shows just how far and fast that iteration goes for each of them, and how their DSLR lines slowly morph into mirrorless. 

But I’m here to tell them that this doesn’t solve their bigger problem, no matter how well you design a mirrorless camera. 

I’ve written this before, but each significant new surge in still camera sales has been because a big user problem has been solved: exposure meters, autofocus, and digital. Those were all big leaps forward that solved a problem that those that were interested couldn’t easily master. Smartphones just solved an even bigger problem: workflow to share an image. It will take something bigger than that to grow the camera industry rapidly again. Maybe to grow it at all. 

We’re All Just Dating...

“There are plenty of fish in the sea, so don’t settle for a shark” ― Kalvin Valentine

I finally figured it out. You’re all dating your cameras, not married to them. 

The switching, sampling, leaking, updating phenomena are no different than dating different women or men: you’re looking for perfect. You won’t find it, of course, but you might find something that’s not only just good enough but that you can live with without regret. 

Camera Web sites are like dating advice sites (only possibly more contentious). Camera stores like B&H are like pick-up bars. All the various subjective ratings you see have their basis in the old “she’s a 10” scale you used in high school. Those of you who move from system to system are basically promiscuous. 

Unfortunately, there’s no evolutionary advantage I can see to treating cameras like potential mates. That said, there’s a lot to be said to sticking with what you’ve got, learning it inside out, and optimizing your use of it. Miss some settings with the latest model you’re dating and you might not even get the advantage(s) it potentially has compared to your last camerafriend. 

Of course my tongue is firmly in cheek once again. And yet, there’s something true about all this gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) stuff being a lot like dating. We date because we’re looking for a best fit to our desires. There’s a lot that’s personal in GAS, believe it or not. I’ve seen people who will prefer A to B simply because of the way it fits in the hand, or because it looks good to them, and not because it has .00001 percent better X, Y, or Z. 

Thing is, like mates, we tend to take our gear everywhere with us, so we’d darned well be prepared to live with their idiosyncrasies and small flaws. We need to be “in sync” with them, not out of sync. I can easily say I’m fairly in sync with Nikon DSLRs because I’ve been living with variations of them for decades. Throw a Sony Alpha DSLR at me as a camera, and I might not be quite as in sync. 

One funny thing is how long it took the Japanese camera makers to realize that a hump in the middle really was necessary to win over a lot of long-time camera owners. You can certainly make mirrorless cameras without an EVF hump, as a few have shown (Sony A6300, for instance), but it’s amusing to watch all my old-fogey buddies pooh pooh such cameras immediately simply because “they don’t look right.” At this point, a camera has to look and work like a camera to get much resonance with the over 40 crowd, because all the previous camerafriends they’ve dated were that way. 

True, the Japanese thought that they were branching out into new markets, specifically catering to women and the millennials. But both those groups are less interested in looks than convenience when it comes to cameras. They want to date a Facebook-ready camera, not put up with their dad’s Nikon DSLR workflow. 

So the relevant questions for GAS turn out to be the similar to the ones you might ask your date. Seriously:

  • What was your family like growing up? (is there consistency in product updating?)
  • What’s your biggest goal in life right now? (where does the camera maker see its gear getting used?)
  • What’s your favorite place in the world? (what photography are you really relevant for?)
  • Who’s your best friend and what do you like about them? (what accessories work with you and what do they accomplish?)
  • What should I know about you that I’d never think to ask? (what can you do that’s not obvious to me?)
  • Who’s your role model and/or who had the biggest influence on you? (who are your real competitors?)
  • What is one job you could never do? (what is the one photo you can’t take?)
  • Do you think it’s the little things or grand gestures that count most? (how easy is it to configure this camera to any given situation, or do you just want me to set Auto Everything?)
  • What skill or talent do you wish you had or were better at? (in the next iteration of this model, what are you likely to add?)
  • If you had a superpower, what would it be? (there must be some feature or capability that sets you apart from the rest of the cameras)

Hope for love, pray for love, wish for love, dream for love…but don’t put your life on hold waiting for love.  ― Mandy Hale, The Single Woman

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