More Buzzing about Missing Lenses

I’ve commented before about how I believe that Canon and Nikon are missing key components in their lens sets, particularly for the DX/APS models (buzz, buzz). Technically, they’re not the only ones making that mistake; Sony currently does the same thing with the E-mount (as opposed to the FE-mount). 

Nikon in particular seems to be mostly confining new lens designs to two categories: (1) update the legacy FX lens set to modern technology and specifications (G/E, AF-S, VR, f/2.8 to f/1.8 prime set, etc.); and (2) create new convenience lenses (e.g. superzooms). 

I’d argue that both of these are backwards-looking strategies. The legacy updates essentially freeze lens choice to something around circa 1990 decisions and proclivities. This seems to ignore any stylistic transition of focal length use and preference that might have occurred since. We went through a time when 35-70mm was the “normal” mid-range length, then 28-70mm, but we now seem to be stuck on 24-70mm and not likely to get off if Canon/Nikon have their way.

The new convenience lenses, on the other hand, were initially responses to Tamron’s success in the early 90’s with the original superzoom coupled with the subsequent mad rush towards consumers in the digital DSLR era. The tendency here has been towards “more super” as that obviously must make the lenses “more convenient”, and convenience is what is perceived to have sold.

As a designer, I always prefer to think to the future. Designing to what sold in the past works for dominant companies in growing markets, but as markets shrink or you need to open up new space to grow more, that kind of thinking eventually brings even a rocket ship back to earth. Moreover, photography is faddish and prone to stylistic changes over time. 

It’s been clear to me that consumer preferences in large cameras began changing with the success of the iPhone, and as the audience for larger cameras has aged, those preferences are still evolving. For instance, the so-called “normal” lens for a camera with only one lens was 50mm in film and then digital cameras. But for smartphones? The most common focal length is about 28mm. A whole generation brought up on phones think “normal” looks like 28mm, not 50mm. Do Canon or Nikon make a small 18mm prime lens for their crop sensor DSLRs? No.

The evolution due to phones—coupled with an aging population in the developed world that tends to buy dedicated cameras—has also introduced a strong demand for smaller, lighter, more travel-friendly products. To a large degree, mirrorless’ success has been fueled by this, as has all the 1” compacts that have appeared. While Asia has always had a bias towards small, we’re now seeing that same notion become more and more prevalent in the North American and European markets, as well, and I don’t think this trend is going to change. It’s only going to snowball.

Even among pros. I noticed recently that a well-known former Nikon DSLR pro user is now saying that his kit is no longer DSLRs, but rather a Sony A7rII and A6300 with the f/4 zoom lenses. That’s it. And yes, that’s a very tempting set, as it travels small and light, but doesn’t give up much competency for someone who knows what they’re doing.

So the question customers are asking themselves is this: what’s the best way to get to smaller, lighter, and travel friendly? 

I’d argue that the right lens set is the best place for the big camera companies to start. Why Nikon hasn’t matched the Canon 24mm f/2.8 EF-S lens yet, I don’t know (let alone the full frame 40mm f/2.8 STM).  Here’s the thing: you can take a photo with your phone and you’ll be typically in the 28-35mm effective focal length range. What if I want similarly framed/perspective images, but with “best possible results” from a DX body? Yep, I’ve got to move to a relatively large zoom lens of some sort. Heaven help me if I’m carrying FX. The larger that lens is, the less travel friendly the DSLR is and the more likely that the phone is used. 

Now that Nikon is rolling SnapBridge DSLRs out, the “fast sharing” issue compared to a smartphone has been mitigated somewhat, but Nikon still isn’t quite understanding that the future or photography is travel-friendly, and that means we need the following (and the right marketing campaign to ignite their sales by honing in on the trend line):

  • A small set of pancake primes. Cover the primary legacy focal lengths (28, 35, 50, 70/85mm), but doesn’t have to be a really fast aperture (especially given the low light capabilities of recent DSLRs). 
  • A full set of DX wide angle primes. We’re not able to do 24mm, 28mm, or 35mm equivalent with DX without a big zoom or a third party lens. Ridiculous (buzz, buzz).
  • True convenience zooms. Sorry, but get rid of the “manually extend and retract” mechanism, Nikon. That’s not convenience. Power into a shooting position, power out if we need retraction. Nikon eventually realized they needed to do that with the Nikon 1 kit lens, but it’s true if they want to keep DX and FX travel friendly, too. Long lenses bump into things, they’re tough to fit into small bags; manually extending is a pain and even results in missed shots from time to time. (Yes, powering out to shooting can miss shots, too, so the extension has to be done fast, not slow.)
  • Expand the Phase Fresnel type approach for long lenses: we need more travel-worthy telephoto designs, not just a single focal length. Personally, I’d opt for a 200mm and 300mm f/2.8 PF, a 400mm 5.6 PF, maybe more. 

For all Nikon's claims that it wants to be a leader, Canon is slightly further along on many of these things, though still not exactly knocking it out of the park. Unfortunately, the m4/3 twins and Fujifilm are even further along with travel-friendly, large sensor ILC offerings. Canon and Nikon are followers now, not leaders.

To me, Canon and Nikon are still selling the past. That’s nice. We’re getting some very great iterations of the past that pushes old capabilities upwards. I shoot with those products in my pro work, as do others, but there are fewer of us today than there used to be. 

I’ll bet that the future volume of dedicated cameras is not full frame, big body. It’s carry-friendly gear, which means a smaller sensor and a design ethic that works towards making the “friendly” part much more prevalent. And if you’re going to design the camera that way, you need to make sure the lenses are there to support it.

As an update to a previous chart I used, here’s the current state of things. An asterisk for a lens means it doesn’t quite conform to the focal length, typically either abbreviating or extended a zoom range above the table entry. I’ve given Canon, Nikon, and Sony some credit for full frame lenses that can be used (EF or FX or FE in the table), but be aware that those lenses may be awkwardly bigger than you would expect a properly sized lens for the sensor size to be.

Current Available Manufacturer Lens Set
Lens
(equivalent)
Canon
EF-S
Canon
EF-M
Fujifilm
X
Nikon
DX
m4/3
Sony
E
20mm
    f/2.8*
FX f/2.8*
   
24mm
S f/2.8*
  f/1.4
  f/2
f/2.8
28mm
    f/2
FX f/1.8*
f/2.5
f/2.8*
35mm
S f/2.8
M f/2 f/1.4, f/2
FX f/1.4,
FX f/1.8
f/1.7*, f/1.8,
f/2.8
FE f/1.4,
f/1.8
50mm
EF f/2

f/1.4, f/2
DX f/1.8
f/1.2,
f/1.4,
f/1.7,
f/1.8
f/1.8
85mm
    f/1.2
FX f/1.4
f/1.2,
f/1.7,
f/1.8
FE f/1.8*,
f/1.8*
FE f/1.8
14-24mm f/4
EF
version*
slower
f/4-5.6*
f/4*
DX f/4*
f/4
f/4*
24-70mm f/4
EF
version*
slower
f/4-5.6
f/3.5-5.6
  f/3.5-5.6*
f/3.5-5.6,
f/4*,
FE f/4*
70-200mm f/4
     
     
14-24mm f/2.8
EF
version*
     
f/2.8
 
24-70mm f/2.8
 
  f/2.8
DX f/2.8-4*
f/2.8,
f/2.8
 
28-70/85mm f/2.8
S f/2.8
  f/2.8-4* DX f/2.8
 
70-200mm f/2.8     f/2.8
  f/2.8*,
f/2.8
 
fisheye
      DX f/2.8
f/1.8,
f/3.5
 
macro for crop sensor (35mm
equivalent listed)
  M
50mm
60mm
DX 60mm,
130mm
60mm,
90mm,
120mm
45mm




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