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What Does Nikon Excel At?

I’m going to leave you with a think piece as I head off to my yearly month of rest from the Internet.  With Photokina coming up in September, we’ll soon have a good chance to see whether Nikon is playing to their competencies or incompetencies with their next round of announcements.

Every company has some core competencies that can’t be denied. What are Nikon’s?

In my opinion, Nikon’s best work is actually pretty deeply buried in their cameras and lenses. With cameras, Nikon has been a leader in complex matrix metering and color recognition, phase detect focus performance (in mirrorless, too), sensor and processing chain bandwidth, demosaic into JPEG without artifacts, and in factors that impact critical timing response (shutter lag, viewfinder blackout). With lenses, Nikon’s best efforts seem to be in optical VR, glass consistency, glass attributes, coatings, and lately an interesting twist where the optical design is to targets that don’t always conform with the old MTF, CA, aberration assumptions. 

These are all deep R&D projects that eventually bubble up into features in products. 

Yet there are core incompetencies evident at Nikon, too: consistency in product line management, lackadaisical marketing, poor customer support, terrible user software, poor communications with other devices, total lack of ecosystem management and enhancement, an insular and bloated upper management scheme that’s perpetuated the worst of Japan management practices, and a huge dose of NIH (not invented here). 

The deeper in a product something is developed, the better Nikon is at it, it seems. They’re an engineering company with some remarkable designers that are great at looking at very low level problems and finding solutions to them. If I had any electronics or optical hardware product and needed to iterate it into something better, I could do far worse than having Nikon’s best R&D teams work on that problem. In fact, I might not be able to do better. 

But somewhere between that low level work and the final product we often see the incompetencies start to mask or modify the competences. Nowhere was that more obvious than the Nikon 1. 

The original Nikon 1 models had fewer total parts than any sophisticated camera I’ve seen (<300), and a manufacturing build program that anyone reading this could learn quickly and completely. Yet somehow the resulting cameras were more expensive than most of Nikon’s consumer DSLRs. Those Nikon 1’s had focus performance that other mirrorless cameras took years to even approach, yet Nikon managed to design the UI so that your ability to actually control and manage the focus was terrible. Despite being a post-iPhone designed device and targeted through advertising at the “in young connected crowd” (remember the Ashton Kutcher ads?), the first Nikon 1’s had virtually nothing in them that would help you share, something that was already quite an evident need in that target market.

This isn’t the first time that Nikon has thought themselves a consumer company with consumer competencies (and been wrong). And I believe that the fundamental issue here is that Nikon simply doesn’t see, understand, or relate much to actual consumers. All of the things we love about our Nikon products come from deep within engineering programs at Nikon, and these somehow survive the process of making it into a usable product. Virtually nothing that Nikon excels at is rooted in solving customer problems. Everything they excel at comes from iterating and solving engineering problems. 

I’d argue that you need to be good at both things—solving customer problems and breaking engineering constraints—to be fully successful in today’s tech world. Moreover, you have to move at innovation speed, not iteration speed. You can’t wait to see what proved to be popular (e.g. Facebook, and eventually address that; you need to pick up trends as they happen and lock your products onto them like leeches.

None of this is easy. Products, companies, and even industries fail from time to time, and it’s often because they get the balances all wrong in their customer versus engineering problem solving. As good as the D500’s autofocus system is, one of the key things that holds back the D500 is the SnapBridge component, which is flakey, incomplete, and still doesn’t solve some of the workflow steps of the actual user problem it tries to address. 

The good news, of course, is that the D500 isn’t targeted at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and other similar mass market users (though SnapBridge is, and it is going to be part of truly consumer cameras soon). The other user problem that the D500 addresses—focusing—is something that even the core serious enthusiast/pro appreciates being addressed. And thus the D500 does well among that group. 

Here’s the trouble. I shared the following chart earlier this year:

bythom dx vs fx2

worldwide, DSLR unit volume, 2007-2015

The D500 is the only current product in the green portion of the pie. That big blue piece is where you absolutely have to solve customer problems in order to sell product efficiently. And that’s exactly where Nikon is struggling to maintain its grip at the moment. It’s where SnapBridge has to make a difference, not the number of focus points. Indeed, it’s where all of Nikon’s incompetencies come most into play, and where their core competencies help them the least.

What that tells me is this: Nikon can continue to struggle to grow—or worse, start to significantly shrink—by trying the same things they’ve done in the past and thinking that their engineering team will win the day for them. Or they have to address and fix their incompetencies. Simple as that.

For those of us who use the prosumer and pro DSLR bodies, we’re mostly happy with what Nikon has been feeding us. Yes, we can niggle and nag at little things, but the D500, D810, and D5 represent some of the finest tools we photographers have ever had. Hard to complain about that. Yet for Nikon to continue to be able to make those great tools we love, we need to see them protect the Imaging business with products that appeal to the far bigger consumer group. To do that, Nikon is going to add some competencies to their list. A lot of competencies. 

New Nikon 105mm f/1.4E Lens

Nikon today announced a new lens, the 105mm f/1.4E ED, which Nikon cited as both the world’s first digital full-frame f/1.4 of this focal length, but more interestingly: “the culmination of Nikon’s expertise in lens design.” The new lens covers both the DX and FX frame, and becomes a very interesting portrait candidate for the FX bodies, a fast moderate telephoto for DX bodies.

As with most recent Nikon fast prime designs, there seems to be an emphasis on bokeh, in particular the transition from focus to defocus, which Nikon and others tend to associate with “three-dimensionality.” I’d put it another way: the lenses tend to better mimic how our eye/brain deal with focus as a depth cue, and have minimal artifacts that call attention to themselves in things like out of focus highlights.

Most of the features of the lens are to be expected: use of ED elements and Nano/Flourine coating, Nikon’s simple-yet-effective prime design, and an E-type aperture that works better with video and Live View. The 82mm filter ring is a bit big, but seems to be Nikon’s new “normal” for “fast” lenses. The new lens is US$2200 and will be available at the end of August.

I was expecting Nikon to also introduce the new 70-300mm models with the 105mm (VR and non-VR models), but it now appears that those will be announced later, probably with the D3300 replacement. 

Nikon also announced that Nikkor lens production hit the 100m unit mark (cumulative) in July:

bythom nikon lens production

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The Likely Product Announcement Schedule

Two huge—sorry, had to use that word despite its overuse by a certain politician—European camera trade shows are coming up shortly, and they tend to be the places where camera companies like to make big splashes with new product (typically introduced just prior to one of the shows):

  • IBC (International Broadcasting Convention) — Amsterdam, September 8-13
  • Photokina — Cologne, September 20-25

Expect companies with video-related products to announce before IBC, while the more still-only companies will target Photokina-friendly dates. 

What this means is that from August 22 through September 20 you’re going to see quite a few new product announcements. Perhaps not as many as we originally expected due to the sensor shortage caused by the quake, but still, pretty much every company I cover has new products pending and awaiting announcement. 

I expect Canon and Sony to be first up with any major announcement, mainly because of IBC. Both are key exhibitors at IBC (as is Panasonic). Neither company is prepared to do an all-out press rollout twice in one month, so these companies will likely do theirs just prior to IBC, I think. It’s possible that Canon—who has a lot to announce—might hold something for Photokina announcement (likely EOS M related products). 

For the Photokina crowd, camera companies need to be careful not to get caught in the IBC-produced hype (if any). I don’t think September 8-13 is a good time to announce anything related solely (mostly) to still photography. Yet, that means that there’s only one week after IBC to announce for Photokina. 

That poses issues for companies such as Nikon, which has a booth at Photokina, but not at IBC. In the past, Nikon has tried to announce so that the product is available as Photokina starts, which implies an announcement three to four weeks prior to the show.

Typically the camera companies like to announce early for both these shows because they’re both open to the public, and they’re the best way to reach the higher-end still and video camera audiences in Europe. By announcing earlier than the shows, you hope that you generate more foot traffic at your booth. Heck, you hope that you get some people to come to the show that weren’t originally planning to attend.

So, realistically, the period of August 22 through September 8 is likely to be where the biggest announcement action is. Yet past history tells us there will be one or two companies that wait until the last possible moment to pull a Photokina-surprise and try to win the mindshare of the public and dominate all the press that hits in the day prior to and day of the show opening. 

The real question, of course, is can everyone actually ship what they announce to meet demand in the fast approaching holiday buying season? My sources in Japan tell me there’s been a mad scramble among most of the camera companies to reallocate the sensors they’ve got on hand with the ones they expect soon as the Sony plant gets back up to full speed and come up with a way to make it look like everything is available for the holidays. 

This is one place that the tyranny of the Duopoly comes into play. Canon and Nikon use so many 1” sensors in current and upcoming models that their volume buys them clout at the factory. Likewise, Nikon is such an important APS and full frame sensor customer of Sony’s that I’m not expecting Nikon to have big troubles getting models to market. (That’s not to say any troubles, just not big troubles.)

I’ll be offline when the action starts in August. But I’ll catch up quickly when I return after my month-long sojourn and Internet cleansing.  

Denial, That River in Africa

It seems to me that a lot of people are still in denial—including some of the folk designing and making decisions about DSLRs for Nikon in Japan. 

Nikon had it right in 2001 for serious photographers when they split the D1 into the D1h and D1x models. The high-end specialized DSLR can indeed be better if optimized to purpose by making such a duo. Unfortunately, the big run up of buying in the first decade of digital started pretty much every camera maker down the path of trying to make the all-in-one camera that would appeal to the masses at any given price point. Nikon currently has five DSLRs that fit that pretty much fit that description (D3300, D5500, D7200, D610, and D750). That’s more than enough, I think. 

The reason I’m writing about this (again) is the D5/D500. I see quite a few people agonizing over whether they should get a D500, a D5, or maybe even a bargain D4/D4s. But these are all specialized cameras. When I wrote in my D500 review that most people would be well-served and perhaps better served by a D7200, I meant it. The D7200 has some “roundings” to it that make for a better general purpose camera, particularly the inclusion of the built-in flash. Almost every aspect that the D7200 gives up to the D500 is in performance-oriented shooting: frames per second, buffer, focus on moving subjects, etc.

People get seriously hung up on the “state of the art” focus system in the D500. Yes, it has that. If you’re shooting sports of wildlife you’ll almost certainly see a real difference, especially if you’re a burst shooter. Other kinds of shooting, not so much. 

The D5 (and D4/D4s) are even more specialized cameras. The D5 sacrifices low ISO dynamic range for cleaner high ISO work. The D4/D4s have 16mp sensors with an AA filter, making them somewhat less useful for things like landscape work, but great for photo journalism work.  

Thing is, most people can’t afford more than one camera. Or more accurately: more than one new body while keeping their older DSLR as a backup. Thus, if you’re a generalist in your shooting, you need to pay attention to the balance of features, performance, and quality. I’ve written it before and I believe it to still be true today: the D8xx (currently D810) is Nikon’s best all-around DSLR. It excels for landscape and studio work. It handles events and even sports not perfectly but still quite well. Plus including a 15mp DX crop—there’s also an intermediary 24mp 1.2x crop at 6 fps—means that you can also reliably use a D810 for wildlife and not give up the FX-lack-of-reach issue, too. It has a built-in flash that can be set to commander mode, and it has pretty much every D4 generation feature Nikon offered, including some that disappeared in the D5 generation (e.g. 1/320 flash sync). Probably the biggest issue with the D810 is that the video tends to produce a few more artifacts than the rest of the lineup, partly due to having to downsample such a large megapixel count.

Ironically, the D810 is basically the D4x idea in the smaller body. 

Still, I’ve argued for 15 years now that the split in pro, specialized models is highly desired, especially among Nikon’s faithful, the enthusiast group. Having a pair of bodies that are exactly the same but optimized to different tasks is perfect, and why Nikon stopped doing that after the D3 generation I don’t know. 

These days I want a D5x with 54mp (give or take a few pixels). Optimized to landscape, architectural, and studio shooting. Coupled with the D5 at 20mp optimized to sports, event, and wildlife shooting, that would be a hard-to-beat pair. In a pinch, either body could serve as a reasonable backup to the other. 

I’d argue further that we need the same thing at the prosumer body level (D500, D810): a D850s with the 20mp sensor, a D850x with the D5x sensor. Of course, had Nikon actually pursued my modular idea, we could just have one body and a substitutable sensor/digiboard module to do the same thing, and I’d buy more than two of those (high megapixel, high ISO, monochrome, and IR would be what I’d purchase, but there are more options than that with this approach). 

I doubt Nikon is going to do the specialized model thing I suggest, though, which is a shame. As the camera market returns back to mostly just the most serious shooters being active buyers and updaters, we’re getting less of this kind of choice (except from Sony in the A7 series). Instead, this is what’s most likely in the D5 generation:

  • The D5/D500 pairing because the D3/D300 worked so well.
  • A D850 focused on serving the pixel counter instead of a D5x.
  • Some odd extra use of the 20mp FX sensor, ala what the Df was to the D4.
  • More emphasis on making the five remaining models the all-in-one camera you’ll buy.

The last bullet begs another issue: it’s actually that group of buyers that has been the ones to migrate fastest to mirrorless and away from DSLRs. Smaller, lighter, competent, all-around cameras, that’s what the all-in-one group wants. The funny part of the story is that mirrorless didn’t completely gobble up the all-around DSLR market for one reason and pretty much one reason only: pricing. 

Every time the older mirrorless—and sometimes newer ones—go on fire sale and drop below DSLR prices, I see another wave of samplers step up to buy them. And some of those folk stick with their new mirrorless partner and become switchers. Put another way, it’s the US$550 price of the D3300 kit—and the lower prices of generation-old DSLRs still available—that’s kept things from really going wonky on Nikon (and the same thing is true for Canon, as well, though their mirrorless EOS M is starting to explore low-end DSLR pricing and could change things). The only mirrorless models that currently get under that low D3300 price bar are fire sales on Samsung models and generation-old, lower-end models such as the Sony A5000. The general purpose camera market is price sensitive, so this erosion away from DSLRs is still slow. But it’s still an erosion.

The specialized camera market, however, isn’t all that price sensitive. The relative popularity of the D500 shows that, as it’s almost twice the cost of the very capable D7200, yet still selling quite well. But it’s not a fully generalized body, so you have to consider having another body in your bag. Right now that’s probably a D810, though the difference in controls/menus/UI between the camera generations needs to be addressed.

So my prediction is this: Nikon is still following the deviation from path they made after the D3x. While Nikon’s crack teams still turn out cameras such as the D500, D810, and D5, it seems that most of Nikon’s efforts are in trying to ignite all-in-one buying at price points from US$500 to US$2000 (e.g. D3300, D5500, D7200, D610, D750). 

The next year of product announcements will prove my assertion right or wrong. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

How Much Choice Do We Really Have?

I was tooling around B&H’s site the other day trying to find something by brute force—the search wasn’t pulling it up—and hit the main Digital Cameras page. I noticed that the summary was saying 208 compact cameras, 132 mirrorless cameras, 300 DSLRs, and 32 medium format cameras. Those numbers have some duplicates and oddities, but I was struck enough to spend some time browsing through to see what the real situation was.

First, the full category results from B&H:

  • Canon 220 cameras
  • DxO 1 camera
  • Fujifilm 34 cameras
  • Hasselblad 11 cameras
  • Horseman 4 cameras
  • Ion 4 cameras
  • Leica 28 cameras
  • Lytro 1 camera
  • Mamiya/Leaf 8 cameras
  • Minox 2 cameras
  • Nikon 127 cameras
  • Olympus 30 cameras
  • Panasonic 30 cameras
  • Pentax 42 cameras
  • Polaroid 20 cameras
  • Ricoh 9 cameras
  • Samsung 3 cameras
  • SeaLife 1 camera
  • Sigma 14 cameras
  • Sony 69 cameras
  • Vivitar 13 cameras

Let’s leave off medium format gear and the oddball small sensor gear and do some further analysis. I’ll do it in alphabetical order. Also, I’m looking solely at the US market. Some of the camera makers produce additional models that they designate and distribute only regionally, particularly in Asia.

Canon produced 52 compact cameras, 9 mirrorless, and 159 DSLRs according to B&H’s site. In actuality, there are only 33 compact cameras in the current Canon lineup, and some of those are quite old (e.g. PowerShot N). In mirrorless we have 2 current models, while we have 15 DSLRs.

Fujifilm produces 11 compacts, and 23 mirrorless if you believe the B&H search. In actuality, Fujifilm currently has 10 compacts, and 7 mirrorless.

Leica’s a little tricky, as they repurpose some Panasonic products plus produce unique ones. Moreover, I’m not 100% sure how to count all their limited edition type models. I’m going to go mainstream here and not count the Panasonic rebranded products, nor any but the major mirrorless endeavors. I see that currently as 2 compacts (X-U and Q) and 7 mirrorless models.

We also have a bit of a problem with Nikon, as they have long-ago-announced-but-not-shipped cameras. I’m going to count those here. B&H says 25 point & shoots, 12 mirrorless, and 90 DSLRs. But the real numbers according to NikonUSA are: 26 (!) compacts, 7 mirrorless, and 13 DSLRs.

We can already see that B&H has a lot of bundle and extra deals, so I’m going to drop their search numbers and just go with the manufacturer’s own data:

Olympus provides 4 compacts and 7 mirrorless currently.

Panasonic produces 7 compacts and 5 mirrorless currently.

Pentax/Ricoh lists 7 compacts, 1 mirrorless, and 5 DSLRs as current.

And finally, Sony nets us 22 compacts, 10 mirrorless, and 3 DSLR at present.

So what is the final tally of our current camera choices?

  • 111 compact cameras, with 74% of those choices coming from Canon, Nikon, and Sony.
  • 46 mirrorless cameras, with a number of earlier generation products still listed (half of Sony’s are previous generation).
  • 36 DSLRs, of which Canon and Nikon offer 78% of the choices.

So now for some absurdity. If you’re arguing that Canon or Nikon has the best DSLR, there’s a 39% chance you’re right just because of randomized model selection. Heck, there’s a 25% chance you're right no matter which brand you pick ;~). Yes, yes, I’m playing Trump-like with numbers here. These are faux statistics with no content. Still, I couldn’t resist poking fun at those claiming brand superiority.

Realistically, on the DSLR end we’re at almost 60 years of continuous evolution if we’re allowed to count the SLR evolution (which I’d argue we should). In that time there have been two major disruptions that reset the market and triggered a lot of re-buying: autofocus and digital. Some might count a third (automatic exposure metering), but that came so early that it didn’t really trigger the sort of resurgence that autofocus and digital did. 

So we’re back to the question I’ve been asking for almost 10 years now: what real change are the camera makers going to make that triggers a truly new re-buying wave? Because that’s what it’s going to take for us to get something other than incremental and mild evolutionary changes to our cameras now. The overall buying is going down, the model count is going down, and we’ve even managed to lose a camera maker or two along the way (e.g. Samsung). The model count is going down because the money to invest in R&D has to go down when the buying goes down. So this is a self-fulfilling death spiral short of some company investing in something radically new that breaks the cycle. 

I’ll repeat what I’ve written for a decade now in a slightly different way: there are sophisticated computers inside every camera. Unfortunately, the only ones that get to program those computers are the Japanese camera companies, and they simply are adding too little, too infrequently (and sometimes too much that we’d never actually use). 

It seems that the imagination in the software circles in Tokyo is exhausted. Which is too bad, as that means we’re not likely to get the next disruption that will revive the industry. 

CIPA Still in Denial about EXIF

Woo hoo! Six years after the last published standard for EXIF, CIPA has managed to produce a new version (2.31, published in English translation earlier this month). What changed? Not a lot. The official revision list says:

  • Added “time difference to UTC” tags.
  • Added tags for temperature, humidity, pressure, water depth, acceleration, and camera elevation angle.
  • Corrected misprints and omissions.

Reading deeper we got some optional tags for alternate sensitivity measurements, some minor GPS additions, the ability to have a camera owner’s name in EXIF as well as serial number, official (but still optional ;~) lens information specifications, some new audio specifications that are recognized, and some revisions to fluorescent lamp information.

Of course, I found a lot of “obtaining method or accuracy is not stipulated” in the new measurement tags (e.g. humidity). And if you look closely, the number of “mandatory” tags is still absurdly minimal (as are even the “recommended” tags). 

I’m being a little snide here, yes. We wouldn’t have any interoperability and meaningful information we could access without EXIF.

But one problem we have is that these standards are voted on by a group that basically consists of Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony (Fujitsu, JEITA, Morpho, and Ricoh are on the working group that creates and documents them). Another problem is that both DCF and EXIF are trying to be backwards compatible and operationally compatible to a group of CE products mostly defined by these same companies—we’re still stuck in the 8-bit ASCII, 8.3 world of DOS, basically. There’s plenty of room to be proprietary (Maker’s Tags), but virtually very little true interoperability actually defined. 

Meanwhile, images are more often than not now being generated by Apple and Samsung devices (companies obviously not on the all-Japanese committee), and being stored in macOS/iOS or Android or Windows systems capable of long file names in International ANSI characters. Smart devices of all forms are creating images and additional data about the image (which should be in EXIF) that simply don’t fit conveniently into the current DCF/EXIF definitions. And that doesn’t even get us to all the software/Internet vendors adding additional metadata to the images (e.g. likes).

What very well could happen is that Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft get together with their ecosystem partners and define a better set of “image standards metadata” than what we’ve got today. One that fits easier within the modern world of connected devices and less into the old consumer electronics world that Japan once dominated.

There’s an easy solution. Define new extended tags for the modern world and then add to your software: IF EXIF <= 2.31 use old standards, ELSE use new standard. Make filling in as much of the old standard as required to keep a minimum of compatibility with old devices a requirement of the new. 

If you want to read the full published standard, you’ll find it on the CIPA site.

What Do I Expect To See from Nikon at Photokina?

This has been a strange year. Cameras announced at the start of the year still haven’t shipped. Others that were supposedly ready to launch haven’t even been announced. Coupled with the sensor shortage caused by the quake in Japan earlier this year, all the camera makers are scrambling to figure out when they can launch their newest products, as well as how to keep their existing ones in stock. 

But let’s put that behind us for a moment and consider a different question: considering the current Nikon product line—including the announcements made earlier this year and the D5/D500 combo that launched in the first half—what do we expect to see Nikon launch at (or around) Photokina?

Let’s start by listing the cameras that are due for updates:

  • D610 (overdue)
  • D750 (not quite due yet)
  • D810 (due)
  • D3500 (overdue)
  • Nikon 1, all models (overdue)
  • Coolpix P several models (overdue)

There’s no way Nikon does a big, multiple camera launch at Photokina. Beyond the sensor supply problem, there’s the fact that Nikon tends to have troubles executing on multiple, major launches simultaneously. Thus, for the most part they’ve avoided them. Two cameras at a time seems to be their max (other than low-end Coolpix).

Let’s also list the cameras that we’d expect to be updated in 2017:

  • Df (already hinted there will be an anniversary model)
  • D5500 (due)
  • D7200 (due)

I’m 99.9% sure that the first and third on that list won’t show up in 2016, and I don’t see how a D5500 would get moved up, either. So we can dismiss those for Photokina. 

If you look at the list that’s due for update this year, you come to some interesting conclusions:

  • There’s nothing particularly wrong with the current D610 or D750 models and they’re still competitive at their current prices; any update of them is likely to be centered around SnapBridge and perhaps a couple of other D5 generation features (e.g. radio-controlled flash support). Such a minor update would be easy enough to do. 
  • The D810 is now starting to look like the lowest resolution of the full frame high resolution models, plus the D5/D500 autofocus system really needs to be in any update of the camera. So this camera needs a complete sensor and internals overhaul to bring it into the D5 generation. This is a big, tough, lots-of-engineering update and is also sensor-timing sensitive. Look at how hard the D500 was to pull off simultaneously with the D5.
  • The D3300 is another camera that’s remarkably competitive still. Moreover, we’re all puzzling over what Nikon could change on it other than perhaps upgrading the autofocus system a notch upwards and adding SnapBridge. Remember, this camera is the low-cost leader in the lineup. It’s not likely to get anything new or fancy that we haven’t already seen for awhile.
  • Nikon 1 is seemingly dead. It’s certainly dead in the water. Nikon is completely off their upgrade cycles for all the models in this lineup, the cameras haven’t sold well other than at fire sale prices, and they’re generally regarded as uncompetitive (other than their focus performance). The new compact camera DLs—whenever they ship—on paper are better than the Nikon 1 models, and easily so. Which means that Nikon 1 needs a 100% rethink. Rumors have Nikon moving to a larger sensor but not necessarily to a larger lens mount. But that just puts them into the “need a new sensor” conundrum they have with a lot of their models at the moment. Multiples of new sensors don’t tend to show up simultaneously ;~). Plus we still need new lenses. Other rumors have Nikon finally producing a DX or FX mirrorless option of some sort, but I don’t buy those rumors as being anything we’re likely to see in the short term. Nikon needs a viable mirrorless option today, but that option has to co-exist with DX and FX DSLRs or else it doesn’t help Nikon at all. 
  • The Coolpix P series seems to have transitioned to DLs. The notion of a professional level compact camera now seems clearly in the DL marketing message, though Nikon has jumped and jumbled such messages before (remember the “DX Flagship”?). Frankly, though, the 1” sensor of the DL makes for a conditional “professional” camera. Yes, you can get results similar to 10-year old DSLRs in bright light (which is to say quite good), but lower light levels start exposing the sensor size for what it is: compromised. Personally, I believe Nikon still needs a compact camera or two more like the much maligned and too expensive Coolpix A, but better designed, marketed, and priced. But that is a huge project to get right. 

Bottom line is that Nikon needs a few new sensors. In FX, the 24mp sensors need some updating, but that will be on Sony’s schedule. The 36mp sensor needs more pixels to be competitive, and that’s likely to be a Nikon/Sony joint initiative. The eventual Df2 and D5s can live off the current 20mp sensor, I believe, though I really think the Df2 should use something else. 

Let me put that last statement into context. Nikon needs another body for the 20mp D5 sensor in order to keep sensor costs reasonable. The Df used the D4 sensor for that reason. A Df2 in 2017 could use the D5 sensor the same way. Or…Nikon could do what everyone has asked for in like forever: build the true D700 replacement. I have to wonder, for example, what D750 users would think if Nikon made its replacement with the 20mp sensor. Certainly would bump up frames per second capabilities, but would D750 users step backwards from 24mp to 20mp? 

Then we need a new sensor for mirrorless. 

At the moment DX doesn’t need any new sensors. Nikon is already at 24mp—which is right at the balance edge of current lenses and diffraction constraints—and got there before everyone else. Nikon already had high dynamic range and good low light performance in DX before pretty much everyone else. I suspect that they can ride for awhile on small, incremental sensor improvements as Sony moves to copper wiring and other changes. In fact, here’s the only thing Nikon’s DX sensors actually need: on-sensor PDAF support for better Live View focus performance. That’s it (I’d expect that in the D5500 or D7200 replacement in 2017, by the way). 

As usual I’m winding a long path towards my goal: what do I expect at Photokina? Okay, here goes:

  1. The DLs shipping. They may not be shipping in large quantities, but I believe that Nikon has to ship these prior to Photokina and then re-trumpet them at the show. You have to wonder if iOS SnapBridge will be ready by then, but I don’t think Nikon has any choice but to get some DLs out the door, iOS-ready or not.
  2. Lenses. Wait, what? Yeah, I pulled a fast one on you. Wrote about cameras and then suddenly pull lenses out of my keyboard. But yes, I think that some of Photokina for Nikon this year has to be about lenses. Why? Because we’re still in sensor shortages and you can’t get too pushy about selling cameras, since you might not have enough of them to sell. We know that there are several Nikkors sitting in the queue to be launched at the moment, and I believe that they’ll get announced either late this month or in August and promoted at the show. 
  3. The D3300 update. Likely to be announced significantly prior to the show because it’s not the “big” splash Nikon wants to make. But technically we’re entering the pre-Photokina launch period already, so it’s a Photokina product if it gets announced between now and September 20th.
  4. One of the following: D610 or D810 update. I’ve heard competing stories out of Japan. There’s little doubt that Nikon is updating both cameras. The question is which one makes it to Photokina. I’d bet D610. Nikon really needs to shore up the lower levels in its model lines; the higher end is competitive and holding its own at the moment (D7200, D500, D750, D810, D5), though the D5 sales are now over the rush-to-upgrade stampede and down at the sells-a-handful-a-month level that the top pro bodies usually run at. At a big consumer-attended show such as Photokina, I’d guess that Nikon will stick to introducing more consumer-oriented products. I’d expect the D810 replacement early next year, say at CES if Nikon still wants to waste money going to that show.

The wildcard: mirrorless. If Nikon doesn’t show up with new Nikon 1 gear or launch a “new” mirrorless system, I’m tempted to tell everyone reading this that’s attending Photokina to go up to any Nikon employee they see at the show and ask “what’s happening with Nikon 1?” It’s time for Nikon’s top executives to get out of their recliners and tell the world what they’re going to do about mirrorless. The options are: (1) resurrect Nikon 1 with new products with the right features at the right prices; (2) launch a new mirrorless system of some sort, which could use the CX mount with a larger sensor; or (3) go nuclear on the “DSLRs are what we do, and they’re better choices” option. Of course, to do #3, Nikon’s going to have to work more on size/weight, more on DX lens options (buzz, buzz), more on Live View performance, and just get like 1000% better at marketing and staying on message ;~). 

I see no evidence they’re doing #1. I don’t think they’re fully capable of doing #3 (they’d miss on DX lenses and better marketing). Which leaves us #2, which is exactly what the best rumors out of Tokyo have us believing. That means two key times to launch and make enough consumer noise: Photokina in September or CES in January. I’m betting CES in January.

So, here are my current short-term predictions:

July/August: D3500, two lenses, DL ship announcement
September: D650, two lenses, KeyMission relaunch (Photokina)
January: Nikon 2 (;!) launch, D850 (CES)
February: D7300, lenses, maybe DF2 (CP+)

Focus or Image Quality?

As I look at post after post and email after email concerning little nits in image quality between possible camera purchases, I wonder if people are actually understanding what’s important to their shooting. Maybe focus is more important. Or maybe it’s something else, like fps and buffer? Or tethering stability? 

But let’s stick with the headline, shall we? 

The critic in me says this: if the image isn’t in focus it won’t much matter what the camera’s basic image quality is. That’s true of landscapes, of sports, of events, of studio shots, of pretty much any photography you do. Focus—and its relative depth of field—needs to be nailed if you want ultimate “image quality.” 

I only write this because recent cameras are changing the equation of how we think about this a bit. 

Go back even a few years and focus was more the responsibility of the shooter than the camera. In the earliest autofocus systems I often was tweaking focus manually after letting the camera do its thing. If you saw me on the sidelines of a sporting event in the 90’s I can pretty much guarantee you that my left hand was on the focus ring and overriding the focus from time to time even on the best autofocus Nikkors. 

The progression in the 00’s of D1 to D2 to D3 wasn’t particularly about focus. Sure, these cameras each had different focus systems of varying ability, but my trust factor on them was still on the low side: I was still micromanaging focus and overriding the camera decisions quite a bit of the time. Thus, in that progression, it was actually more important to me that the quality of the basic raw data was being improved. We’ve seen an enormous jump in that from, say, the original D1 to the D810. 

Low level data integrity is pretty darned good these days in almost all APS/DX and full frame/FX sensors. It now takes a lot of testing and a truly trained eye to see any difference in raw data between similar cameras. 

Yet focus performance is seeing an interesting resurgence of improvement. The mirrorless systems are superb at nailing static subject focus planes (assuming you know how to direct the system as to where to put that plane). Some are near magic. Sony’s face-detection mode on the A7’s may be better than I am at nailing focus on the eyes for static portraiture, at least in some situations. 

But what really prompts this discussion are the D5/D500 changes. 

My level of confidence in the autofocus system has gone up with the D5 generation. I’m finding less reason to override the camera—assuming that I’m controlling the focus point and focus settings correctly for the situation. It’s even easier to configure the camera to jump from one type of focus to another with the programmable controls Nikon has added this time around. 

So here’s where the question I ask really comes up: D4 versus D5. 

Clearly the D4 has better image quality measurements in the lower ISO range. Eventually, at higher ISO values, the D5 wins. If I were evaluating the two solely on low level image quality, my decision would depend upon how much shooting I did below ISO 2400 (D4 wins) versus above it (D5 wins). 

But that’s without considering focus. There’s no situation where I’d prefer the D4’s autofocus system to the D5’s. None. 

Not that there was anything wrong with the D4’s autofocus system. Obviously, I’ve used it with great success for a number of years now. But it simply isn’t as fast or as intelligent or as accurate as the D5’s is proving to be (once learned). 

So we’re back to what I said earlier: if the image isn’t in focus it won’t much matter what the camera’s basic image quality is. Thus, if the D5 helps you nail focus more often, it doesn’t really matter what it’s low ISO dynamic range is. 

Over time, I’ve noted that my use of many mirrorless cameras really fall vulnerable to this same evaluation: if the camera I’m using doesn’t allow me to always nail focus for the situation I’m facing, I get frustrated with it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a 42mp state-of-the-art full frame sensor (Sony A7rII) or a smaller 16mp m4/3 sensor that’s not going to match my full frame sensors in dynamic range: focus is what determines whether I use these cameras or not. 

I’m probably more demanding at this than most of you reading this, as I’m shooting more sports—already committed to several college events in the fall—plus I shoot wildlife in wild, and these subjects tend to move fast and unpredictably (especially true considering my close-in positions to the subject). But I also think more of you should be more demanding about focus than you are, even shooting somewhat static subjects.

More and more the camera industry looks like the old Hi-Fi industry (including the eventual collapse of that market and the reasons why). An awful lot of folk are too busy arguing about esoteric measurements that they don’t understand or how the data was generated, and thus are not focusing on the right things (intentional pun).

Let me remind everyone: photography is a huge pile of decision making. Those decisions start with buying and selecting what to bring/use for a shoot. The decisions continue during the shoot, and if you’re shooting raw, they continue long after you put the camera down. In every decision there are compromises that you will have to make. If you emphasize X in any decision, Y will be compromised. That’s why you’re making the decisions: to optimize to your intended result. 

So consider this: what are you compromising if you absolutely insist on purchasing the camera that has the highest engineering dynamic range? And what are you compromising if you don’t buy a camera with true state-of-the-art focusing? Obviously, those of you shooting static subjects with manual focus lenses will answer those two questions differently than someone shooting moving subjects with autofocus. But they’re still questions worth asking.

Seven Reasons Why I’m Still a Nikon DSLR User

Plus Three Reasons Why I Could be Convinced to Move On

Update: since this article got multiple mentions elsewhere and discussions about it have ensued on various fora and comment sections, I need to remind everyone to read the title carefully. This article is about me and my choices for my photography. It’s not “you should buy a DSLR because…” or “you should avoid mirrorless because…”.  It’s why I’ve made the choice I’ve made at the moment, simple as that. You are not the same as me, so please don’t try to justify your buying decision by saying I’m wrong.  

People ask me all the time why I haven’t just moved to a mirrorless system. Sure, there’s some inertia in my choice to stick with Nikon DSLRs for most of my work given that I have a full F-mount lens set, but there are some genuine other reasons for my sticking to Nikon DSLRs, too. Let’s take a look at them:

1. Viewfinder
Much of what I shoot is what I’d call “timely.” Sports, events, wildlife. Miss by even a millisecond and I don’t have the peak moment and the photo is less engaging than it could be. And no, frame rate doesn’t begin to make up for this if you’re at the level of shooting I am.

EVFs always have a lag. The very best lag I’ve seen in one is the one in the Samsung NX1, which runs at about 1/250 behind reality. Samsung did something that is mostly done in the video system: they “genlocked” the EVF to the image sensor. I won’t get into the technical details of what that means, but in essence the signal is about as direct as you can get from sensor to EVF. 

The problem is that to make that 1/250 lag faster you need to run the sensor faster. Which means more technology in and around the sensor, and the sensor will probably run hotter, too. Samsung and a few others are running EVFs at about the max speed you can with current technologies. The good news is that will change with time as new abilities and technologies emerge. But it will change somewhat slowly, I think. 

And that 1/250 lag is lag. That 1/250 visual lag sits on top of your recognition lag (response to the scene in front of you) which sits on top of the shutter lag. So you get lag+lag+lag = real lag. I don’t want lag. Indeed, I have to make sure that I’m on top of my game and my brain is processing fast when I’m shooting a number of subjects. I mostly choose cameras—such as the Nikon D5 or the D500—that have minimal shutter lags and no viewfinder lag. 

But the initial EVF lag isn’t the only lag in the mirrorless systems. In DSLRs we talk about “viewfinder blackout,” which is the time that the viewfinder is dark while the mirror is flipped up. The D5 has an incredibly short viewfinder blackout, meaning that when I’m panning with action there is very little time I’m not looking at my subject in real time. The D500 is also quite good at this.

With mirrorless systems, some have this funny “slide show” kind of effect when you’re shooting continuously. The latest Fujifilm’s and Sony’s have minimized this, but they also need time to clear the sensor data before turning it back on. So there’s still a bit of disjointedness to what you’re watching. And again, if you keep running mirrorless systems continuously, you’re building heat at the sensor. I’d prefer to keep that to a minimum when I’m shooting in low light.

So, the DSLR’s complicated optical viewfinder just keeps me closer to what’s happening in front of me, both in timing and continuousness. 

2. Lenses

I already mentioned this one up front. Indeed, it’s the primary reason for most DSLR users to resist moving to mirrorless: they already have built a lens set, and the cost of doing that wasn’t minimal. 

It used to be that Nikkors retained their value quite well. But the overabundance of lenses that occurred with time and the abandonment of the F-mount by some has severely reduced used prices for Nikkors, so that adds another inertia: if you spent US$4000 on lenses and can now only get US$2000 for them and now need to spend US$4000 on lenses on a new platform to match those… Right, that new platform better have US$2000 worth of advantage to it right out of the box. 

But that’s considering that you can even match the lens set you used to have. With the F-mount there are only about six lenses I’d want that don’t exist in the current offerings (and three of those can be approximated by dipping into the used Nikkor market). Oh dear, you want to know which six. Well, quick and dirty:

  • A really wide PC-E (e.g. 16-18mm)
  • Wide DX primes (20mm and 24mm equivalent) (buzz, buzz)
  • A longer Micro-Nikkor, preferably a zoom
  • Compact telephotos with slower apertures (400mm and 500mm f/5.6 PF)

m4/3 probably has the broadest selection of lens choices, with Fujifilm X being reasonably broad in the wide-to-normal range and deficient in the telephoto range. Sony is mostly in the 24-200mm range still (just announced a third ~50mm as I write this), though the recent 70-300mm gave us a first peak outwards, and the third-party Loxia 21mm gets us further into the wide end with quality. Still, Not a single mirrorless platform matches Canon or Nikon full frame offerings in breadth and depth, and if Canikon weren’t brain dead, they’d make sure that was true for APS/DX, too (buzz, buzz).

I press lens choice pretty hard compared to most. I shoot landscapes (thus the need for very wide and PC-E). I shoot wildlife and sports (thus the need for telephoto). And yes, I shoot events and other things in between where the 24-200mm zoom/prime range most mounts can fill adequately lives.

3. Battery Life

Mirrorless cameras are not only running the sensor continuously, but they’re running either the EVF or LCD continuously, too. Remember there’s a lot of circuitry behind both, and that starts chewing battery. It doesn’t help that many of the mirrorless camera batteries have lower Watt hour ratings than most DSLR batteries, either. 

It also doesn’t help that most modern cameras tend to “crash hard” when batteries go low. By that I mean you don’t get a lot of warning before, poof, the camera is inoperable (but apparently has enough power to tell you that it’s out of power ;~). This makes me tend to change batteries the first chance I get after I notice the battery indicator has dropped to low. (And don’t get me started on two and three-segment battery status indicators; power is something that should present nuanced and meaningful information, not a full, less full, empty value.) 

So if I’m only getting 300-400 shots per full charge with a mirrorless camera, I’m tending to actually only get 200-300 shots in practice because I’m changing the battery early to avoid not having power at a time when I need it for critical action. Last year I covered a soccer match with a Nikon D4 and a Sony A7rII. The D4 barely made a dent in its battery in two+ hours of shooting. I went through three batteries on the Sony, and I was running them down further than I normally do. In Africa, I’ve actually made it more than a week at a time on one battery with my big DSLRs, but end up running through multiple mirrorless batteries every day.

4. Focus Speed and Accuracy

In their latest high-end DSLRs Canon and Nikon have once again shown that the old DSLR-type phase detect system coupled with good in-lens motors just is unmatched in speed and accuracy when a subject isn’t stationary. I don’t know how else to state that. Unmatched in speed and accuracy when a subject isn’t stationary

This isn’t to say that mirrorless cameras are slow in autofocus or inaccurate. Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony have made great strides forward in mirrorless focus performance. For static subjects, they may be as fast as and more accurate than DSLRs now. 

But frankly, other than landscapes and an occasional cityscape, my subjects are rarely static. 

Both DSLR and mirrorless phase detect systems have liabilities that have to do with geometry and physics. A DSLR produces data to the focus system that has a great deal of discrimination to it: the DSLR knows very precisely the distance the subject was from the focal plane. Where the DSLR gets into trouble is that it relies on the lens to absolutely get to that same precise focus point in one move. 

On-sensor phase detect has far less precision to the distance measurement due to the very small gap between the microlenses that produce the phase shift and the data collection mechanism. But they tend to make up for that slight imprecision by doing a contrast detect verification step immediately following the lens moving focus to where the phase detect system indicated. This adds a little extra time to getting focus to the right spot. For static subjects, you won’t notice. For moving subjects, you will.

What happens with moving subjects is twofold: (1) the contrast detect verification sometimes has to play catchup, and sometimes can’t; (2) the autofocus systems in most mirrorless cameras seem to let the camera take a photo if they think the focus plane is within the depth of field. What I see—especially with the current Sony implementation—is that in continuous shooting of a moving subject you get some images dead on, some images a bit off. On the very latest DSLRs, I rarely see images of moving subjects “a bit off.” 

Again, I shoot a lot of moving subjects, some of them quite fast and irregular in motion. No mirrorless camera currently comes close to matching my current shooting pair, the Nikon D5 and D500.


5. Controls & Ergonomics

As much as I complain about small ergonomic issues with Nikon’s recent designs—in particular, a lot of what I call “moving the cheese”—I tend to be nit-picking and perfectionist in those complaints. I can fully control my D500 without taking my eye from the viewfinder when shooting, the hand position is good for long periods of time, and I have enough information presented in the viewfinder to make good decisions.

I can’t say that about any mirrorless camera except maybe the Fujifilm X-T1. Even there I had problems with a few things (a couple of which look like they’ll be addressed with the upcoming X-T2). Olympus’ terminology and menus and conditional options are a mess. They are the same exact mess as they were on the original Pen E-P1, which means that no one at Olympus cares about ergonomics. Sony’s menus have gone through change after change after change from the original NEX to the current Alphas, but now are a sprawling, disordered mess. They, too, have some confusing terminology, though not nearly as much as Olympus. 

But it goes beyond just menus and terminology. Some mirrorless cameras just seem to have controls strewn wherever the designer found convenient. Others have such tiny indented buttons that I can’t find them by feel, let alone use them with even thin gloves. Some cameras don’t have reasonable hand grips. Others have uncomfortable hand positions when used for any length of time. A few have all of the above. 

Yes, I know about Fujifilm’s retro style controls. I also found my original X-T1’s indented Direction pad unusable for the most part. The mirrorless camera maker that I generally don’t have a lot of issues with across a wide range of their product is Panasonic. Other than their propensity to use cryptic and odd abbreviations in their menus, it actually seems like most of their cameras were designed with someone shooting for long periods across multiple situations in mind. 

The DSLRs have the advantage here in that both Canon and Nikon are building on decades of refinement of the same basic form and shape, and over a decade worth of menu refinement (plus Nikon started out with a reasonable structure to start with). But even the DSLRs could use some good ergonomic advice; meanwhile, the mirrorless makers tend to need more than just some additional advice, they need to start locking in on long-term benefits to their designs. I can tell you this: I don’t want to be using a Sony A7VVII in a dozen years that has the same ergonomics as the current A7.

6. Buffer Performance

The mirrorless cameras were getting better at buffer issues, at least until the D500 rolled into town. 10 fps and a 200 frame buffer basically add up to “never worry about continuous shooting ever.” I’m not a shutter masher, but even with my D810 and D7200 there were times when I found myself waiting for the camera. Not so with the D4, D4s, D5, and D500. Just doesn’t happen.

Until the X-T1 came around, Fujifilm had a real buffer issue: they simply put slow write mechanisms into their cameras and wrote huge uncompressed raw files to the card. Slowly. Many of their still-on-sale models still have this problem, though it looks like Fujifilm is going to address that in all the next generation updates.

Indeed, it’s the dirty-little-secret across the camera industry: they make all these claims about technology and performance, and then they wimp out in manufacturing and buy parts that most of the tech industry wouldn’t touch because of their slow-to-current-standards performance. Even in the DSLRs you’ll find cameras that can’t write to a card faster than 50Mbps (and don’t get me started on Wi-Fi parts). But that’s the norm in the mirrorless world, it seems. 

Almost all the mirrorless cameras use SD cards, but virtually all aren’t even close to capable of what a UHS-II SD card can do.  Couple that with putting less physical memory into the camera, and you have “shoots at maximum frame rate right until the smallish buffer fills, then takes forever to clear.”

And Sony? OMG. Continuous shooting on the A7rII can be exceedingly frustrating if you’re on and off the shutter release using back button focus (AF-ON). If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen the “Writing to card. Unable to Operate” message, I’d be rich.

7. Neutrality

This reason for preferring my DSLR is probably going to surprise you a bit. I like Nikon JPEGs and NEFs. The JPEGs don’t tend to have those complicated hue twists that Canon and Fujifilm and Olympus use. Indeed, if you set a Nikon DSLR to a Picture Control of Neutral you will get about as neutral an image as you can get out of any camera. It’s devoid of color shifts, extra contrast, hue changes, extra saturation, and even edge artifacts due to sharpening. Clean, 8-bit JPEGs. That’s what I want from a camera and I get from a Nikon DSLR. 

Not so much with the mirrorless cameras. Fujifilm and Olympus both hue shift and add saturation. Olympus tends to add contrast in every setting, while Fujifilm at least has many settings that temper that down to almost neutral. Panasonic’s JPEG engine still seems less refined than many of the others, producing less pleasing color, more noise, and more artifacts than I see from the other companies.

Sony is probably the closest to the Nikon JPEGs I like, and the latest BIONZ processing has finally tempered the overaggressive noise reduction and produces clean JPEGs. Still, Nikon Neutral is Neutral (especially with the new Keep White automatic white balance when shot in sunlight). And clean. And remarkably free from artifacts even if you decide to crank the compression all the way up to Basic Size Priority (which can cut an already compressed JPEG size down by 7/8ths). 

But I find the Nikon NEFs pretty well behaved, too. One thing to note about Nikon DSLRs is that Nikon has long labeled ISO values with numbers when the sensor/ADC is controlling the gain to produce the final digital numbers (DNs) in the raw file. ISO values not labeled with numbers (LO, HI), use various other techniques to generate the DNs including multiplication of data, repositioning of data, and noise reduction in the data. Other camera makers don’t seem to do this consistently, if at all, so you have to be careful to figure out where they start “cooking” the data in raw files. 

Likewise, on the upper end cameras where RAW shooters prevail, Nikon offers a choice of 12-bit versus 14-bit, and various compression options. At base and low ISO values, 14-bit can produce slightly better results. But at ISO 400 and up 12-bit is generally all you need, because the extra two bits in the DNs aren’t useful or meaningful data. 

Virtually no mirrorless camera maker has gotten to that level of sophistication in their raw files yet. In fact, it’s only been recently that some have offered any compression (Fujifilm) or have offered something other than lossy compression (Sony). 

With my Nikon NEFs I tend to make about a half dozen adjustments to Adobe’s converters to get the color/tonality right. With my Olympus, I make 18. Developing those adjustments for every new camera is a lot easier in the Canon/Nikon world than it has been with some of the mirrorless cameras. I’m still not 100% happy with any raw converter—even after adjustments—on Fujifilm’s X-Trans sensor designs. Close, but not 100%. 

First Summary

Most of the mirrorless system issues I note above will tend to go away with time, as technology “solves” some of the problems, and digital cameras evolve even more than they have. 

But DSLRs have been benefiting from technology moving forward, too, so it’s not as if mirrorless is trying to catch up to a stationary target. The D5/D500 proves that the target is still moving in big strides forward in some areas, and the DSLR/mirrorless problem has become like one of those algebra problems you had in grade school: “If train A leaves the station headed west at 75mph at 1pm and train B leaves the station headed west at 100mp at 3pm, when does train B pass train A?” 

That said, there are things that the mirrorless systems provide that I like, which is why I use them for some things. Let’s next address the things that tend to make me consider moving from a DSLR to a mirrorless.

A. Size and Weight

This isn’t a given advantage to mirrorless. The Panasonic GH4 is an awful big camera for its sensor size, for example. Still, in general the mirrorless camera producers have tended to make smaller and lighter cameras than DSLRs. 

That was (and still is) intentional. 

DSLR makers could make smaller and lighter DSLRs, but they don’t tend to. Thus, as the camera makers that couldn’t knock Canon and Nikon off the pedestal in DSLRs moved to mirrorless to try to establish a new category they could dominate, they looked at things that they could do differently that would clearly distinguish those cameras from DSLRs. Number one on the list: just make their new cameras smaller and lighter, but seemingly as flexible (e.g. interchangeable lenses, system accessories). 

Over time, this “smaller/lighter” mantra in the mirrorless realm has led to some very tricky plays. When Sony built the full frame sensor A7 series, they didn’t make the camera body all that much lighter and smaller, but they “cheated” by clipping off the hand grip and producing f/4 zooms that were obviously smaller than the f/2.8 zooms people were using on their DSLRs. In particular, a wide angle f/4 zoom for a mirrorless system can take advantage of the short flange distance and be substantively smaller than what a DSLR would produce with the same specs. Other corners were cut, as well.

Given that cameras now have built-in lens corrections, many of the mirrorless lens designs simply don’t control for linear distortion or vignetting: they let the camera fix those. I’m seeing some pretty big distortions and extreme vignetting in many cases with mirrorless lenses. 6-10% linear distortion and 2+ stops of vignetting. Obviously, if you design lenses this way, you can make them simpler, lighter, and smaller. 

That’s not without consequence. If you push the corners of an image up by two stops in post processing, you tend to produce visible noise, especially if you were at a higher ISO value or using a smaller sensor to start with. And distortion correction writ large like that makes for some unusual optical effects in the corners, too. 

Still, there’s no arguing that you can get a ridiculously small mirrorless system (Olympus OM-D E10 for example) or even a small, usable, full frame mirrorless system that packs small and light (Sony A7 series with some, but not all, of the lenses Sony produced). 

For backcountry hiking and for travel photography I find small and light to be a big win over my bulky and heavy DSLRs. And I can generally work my way around any of the tricks and consequences that the mirrorless makers snuck into their systems to make them so small.


B. Accuracy of Static Subject Focus

DSLRs aren’t slouches at this, for sure, but some of the mirrorless cameras just truly nail the focus plane in ways that the DSLRs would love to, but don’t. It’s that last contrast-detect step that most mirrorless cameras do that nets them the more precise focus position (assuming the lens you’re using is capable; a few of the lower cost lenses aren’t quite as good at this precise positioning). 

For landscape photography and travel photography I appreciate that. But there’s an even better aspect to this on many of the mirrorless cameras: touch focus. The mirrorless cameras with touch screens allow you to simply tap the thing on the rear LCD that you want to be precisely in focus. (Technically, a D500 and a few other DSLRs can now do this too, but the focus system they use in Live View tends to be slow and not as good.)  

C. Quiet

Many of the mirrorless cameras can be set to a truly quiet mode, where the physical shutter is disabled and an electronic shutter used instead. This makes for completely silent shooting.

I wrote when the Nikon 1 came out that I couldn’t figure out why every pro golf photographer wasn’t using a V1. Truly silent shooting at 20 fps lets you shoot an entire swing on a golf course without some caddy coming over and bashing your camera into the ground.

But there are plenty of mirrorless cameras that now do the same thing, and plenty of situations besides golf where shooting totally quietly is a huge advantage that DSLRs can’t match. Theatre and music performances. Street photography. Even some parts of weddings. 

Like many things mirrorless, silent shooting doesn’t come without a downside, though. When you run the sensor in electronic shutter mode you tend to get slightly more noise in your image than when you run with the mechanical shutter. This is especially true if you’re doing shot after shot. Still, the visual impact is minimal, and worth getting the shot you couldn’t get otherwise. 

Summary Two

So it isn’t a shut-out for the DSLRs. As with many types of tools, the one you really want to use for any situation depends upon exactly what you’re trying to do. 

For me, the majority of the time the thing I’m trying to deal with is moving, and I have to react quickly and precisely in my handling of the camera to get the image I want. DSLR.

Some of the time I’m working more deliberately, or ranging far and wide on foot and don’t want the extra weight. Mirrorless.

Everyone who reads this article is going to have a slightly different take than me. That’s because you don’t shoot like me, you don’t shoot the same things as me, and you don’t have the same requirements as I do. Still, I wanted to put this article out there, because a number of you continue to ask why I stick with Nikon DSLRs. The short answer is: because they work for what I do and other things don’t work as well. 

This is just another reason why you have to analyze want versus need. I need my cameras to do certain things in specific situations. Mirrorless simply hasn’t managed to get to where I need it to. It may never get there (in my remaining lifetime). At times I want some of the things that mirrorless provide, but that’s not the same as need. 

So I continue to shoot with Nikon DSLRs.

Eye-Fi Deprecation Coming Soon

Technology is a marvelous thing, but it moves on and on, imploring you to follow. 

Eye-Fi cards are about to make a transition that you need to be aware of (most recent Nikon DSLRs support Eye-Fi cards directly). Short version: if your Eye-Fi card isn’t a Mobi or Mobi Pro one, support for it will end “no later than September 16, 2016” according to Eye-Fi.

Products impacted include all Geo, Connect, Explore, Mobile and Pro Eye-Fi cards and the Windows, Macintosh, iOS, and Android applications. They may simply stop working when end of life comes soon. You also need to migrate your old Eyefi data to Eyefi Cloud if you want those images to remain guaranteed available, and you need to move to Mobi or Mobi Pro versions of the cards to continue using Eye-Fi in the future.

Why the change? Simply put, the old Eye-Fi system was built on 2007 standards and parts that are now vulnerable from a security standpoint and outdated from the technology side. While technically you can keep trying to throw patches at old technology, at some point this becomes impractical. Eye-Fi’s old technology is at that point.

Three Web pages you need to know about if you’re affected by this:

Until September 16th, you can get a 20% discount by buying a Mobi or Mobi Pro card directly from Eye-Fi (see the FAQ page, above).

Most Eye-Fi users should have been notified in the past year about this coming deprecation, but if you weren’t, it’s past time for you to deal with. The end is near.

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