The Year End Comparitor

As we come to the close of another year, it's worth taking a closer look at some of the comparison questions I keep getting during this buying season. As usual, I'll take my strawman position, which tends to be aggressive and strongly stated. But I'll stand by these conclusions:

D850 or Sony A7RIII?
The D850. Nikon nailed this camera as much as they ever nail a camera. Sony is still missing critical elements that make a camera fully usable in the field (With apologies to Don Ho: "Tiny buttons, on the body, make me feel unhappy, makes me feel shoddy..."). From the standpoint of ergonomics alone, the D850 just is in a different class than the Sony. Sure, smaller and lighter is a Sony win, but it comes at a big handling price.

Image quality? Still a Nikon win, though a smaller one. Sony still has some strange minor anomalies in their sensor. Fixed pattern noise is one if you get too aggressive with ISO or pushing shadows. Compressed raw still reduces bit count and produces highlight edge artifacts. I don't know what Nikon did differently with their sensor, but I was surprised to find that, yes, pixel level output is improved from the D810. The D850's raw pixels are among the easiest to work with I've encountered, and the low level detail is an improvement from the D810 despite the modest pixel count increase.

As for Pixel Shift (A7RIII) versus Focus Stack (D850): both companies need a photographer who's well versed on UI to help them design the feature right, and they both need to hire better programmers. Sony's Pixel Shift software stinks. Worse than Nikon's usual software stench, which is hard to imagine. Nikon apparently is aware of how bad they are at software so they just punted this time and don't provide any software to help you actually use the focus stack. Way to approach the problem, guys.

Meanwhile, apparently no one in Japan knows how to document either feature at the level these cameras should require (e.g. professional). Hopefully you didn't buy either camera for these latest and greatest technologies, but to just take great images. Both can do that, but the Nikon D850 is just better.

D500 or Fujifilm X-T2?
The D500. Nikon didn't quite nail this camera, as I still find that we have battery and lockup foibles at rare random instances. We also never got a useful firmware upgrade that delivered things like D9 Autofocus Area mode (let alone fixed the battery/lockups). Fujifilm, meanwhile, just keeps iterating better and better products, with the X-T2 being the best of the bunch to date.

The problem is that Nikon wasn't starting at zero. Fujifilm was. Thus, what we have is Fujifilm approaching Nikon in many things, but not quite getting fully there yet. Of course, if Nikon keeps fumbling, Fujifilm will eventually pass Nikon very easily. But not yet.

That's because the D500 is a hard act to beat. It's gotten enough of the D5 goodness layered on what should have been the D400 body that it truly works much like a mini-D5. You lose a stop or a bit more of image quality to the D5 at higher ISOs, you don't get quite as fast a frame rate, you don't get D9 or the new Group options, the thumbstick can't work as a button and direction indicator at the same time, but that's about all you don't get, and for most of you those things aren't important. 

The D500 is a wildlife star (now basically equaled by the D850). The D500 is a sports/action star-on-a-budget (not equalled by anything). The D500 is all that's good about Nikon design, with a few firmware foibles that rarely intrude (why those aren't fixed yet, I have no idea; is Nikon not paying any attention to user experience?). Heck, the D500 is an all-around camera near-star, hobbled only by...oh no, don't write it Thom, don't!...lenses.

It's actually here that the Fujifilm gets a boost. I think the X-T2 is more a D7500-type of a camera and more competitive with that camera. But the lens selection Fujifilm has built in the X family attracts the attention of the D500 type of user. Shame on Nikon for letting that happen. 

Fujifilm has built 25 X lenses in five years. Nikon has built 27 DX lenses in eighteen years, but five of those are 18-55mm variations, six are other 18-xx variations, three are 55-200mm variations, and four are 55/70-300mm variations. So realistically, Nikon has only built 17 relatively unique DX lenses in eighteen years. 

Moreover, of those 17, only five are what I'd call D500-worthy, and two of those need a redesign. Nikon simply lacks DX primes of interest, while Fujifilm has fourteen. And at the level of camera we're talking about here, primes of very much of interest to the buyer, not 18-300mm convenience zooms. 

Why am I talking about lenses while comparing bodies? Because that's exactly what customers are doing. Had Nikon paid any attention to me over the years, they wouldn't have had this problem. But they have it in spades these days: most Fujifilm X buyers are former Nikon DX users. That's why people are looking at the X-T2 versus the D500 in the first place, even though the D500 is going to run rings around the X-T2 in almost any situation where the subject is moving—even face detection on the X-T2 isn't good enough to truly present a clearcut advantage—especially on fast and erratic motion (wildlife, sports). 

D5 or 1DxII or A9?
Your choice. If you're already shooting with a mount, stay in the mount (e.g. Nikon shooters choose the D5, Canon shooters choose the 1DxII, Sony shooters choose the A9). 

Yes, there are differences between the cameras. The D5 has the best autofocus system, in my opinion and after a lot of side-by-side testing. I generate more keepers from it than the others, ever after lots of preference changing and practice. But none are terrible, and all are arguably the top three choices you can make for focus performance as I write this.

If you were starting from scratch, things look a little different. The A9 is less expensive, shoots silently when needed, and can capture a faster burst. All good things. But lens choice is limited past 200mm. (Don't get me talking about adapters; performance drops with adapters, period, and you should be buying this kind of camera for performance.) 

The Canon has some incredible lens choices that are often the least expensive in the telephoto range. When they are expensive, they're unique, great lenses. Love the Canon telephoto glass. 

But I also love most of the Nikon telephoto glass. Indeed, the 70-200mm f/2.8E and 200mm f/2G are just not equaled by anything else out there. The 105mm f/1.4E is right up there, too. My 400mm f/2.8 is just an absolute joy to use (other than to carry ;~). 

But frankly, as a sports shooter, I'd shoot with any of the three and be happy. I'd shoot as a wildlife shooter with any of the three and be happy. ("Be happy" in the Sony realm means "happy with what I've got and what I expect Sony to deliver in future lenses.")

As an event-only shooter where fast 200mm is about the focal length limit of what you need, I might modify my recommendation a bit and lean slightly towards the Sony A9. First, that's where Sony's lens energy has been and pays off the most. And Sony has done a fine job with the f/2.8 and more recent f/4 lenses (not the originals). Coupled with the silent shooting ability, I think Sony gets a slight edge now for the event shooter, at least with these three models.

RX100 or GX or LX?
The RX100V (arguably III-IV, too). While there's a lot to not like about the RX, Sony got two things dead-on perfect with the RX100 models: shirt-pocket fit and a fast lens (f/1.8-2.8). While the limited focal length range (24-70mm equivalent) is a bummer, the battery life is measured in microseconds, the EVF a bit awkward, and the tiny buttons (those again?) frustrating, I've learned to adapt. 

Aside: it's a total shame that Nikon bailed on the DL models. They would have given the RX100 a real run for the money, even with their slightly bigger size. 

The Canon GX models all tend to be ugly ducklings, and awkwardly bigger. The G7 XII is the best of the bunch, but it becomes an ugly duckling while shooting, as it doesn't have the EVF option and you end up arms out like a flightless cormorant staring at a glare-infested screen. It also isn't 4K capable on the video side. Still, it's the one I'd consider first and foremost after the RX100 for stills.

The LX100 was a favorite of mine. From an ergonomics/design standpoint, it's clearly the best compact camera out there. The problem is the 12.8mp sensor. Not a lot of pixels and the low light capabilities really don't stand out from the 1" models. The lens also lets the LX100 down a bit in the corners, but so does the RX100's lens. In 2014 when it came out the LX100 was sitting in the sweet spot. Now, not so much. This is a camera I'm hoping that Panasonic will refresh soon, especially considering how much the m4/3 sensors progressed in the last couple of years.

TG-5 or W300? (or AW1?)
TG-5. This would actually be a slam dunk for the AW1 if Nikon actually ever did anything with that model. So let me get that out of the way first.

The AW1 is basically a Nikon 1 J3 that's been upgraded for underwater use. Maybe. During the time the AW1 has been out I've taught a few Galapagos workshops, and the AW1 is the camera my teaching partner and I bring for snorkeling. We've had lots of students bring them, too. When they work, they're awesome. But they have a real tendency towards condensation issues, and in ways that are worrisome.  

Moreover, the AW1 is 2013 technology (sensor for sure). And we never got any additional lenses for the AW1 (where's the 6.7-13mm AW?). So you're stuck with a slow non VR, doesn't go to 24mm (equivalent) zoom and a not 24mm (equivalent) 10mm f/2.8. Realistically, we want a faster, wider lens to compensate for the water impacts and a newer sensor to make those underwater shots really pop. GoPros are doing better than the AW1 now.

So why the TG-5? Simple: raw files and a bit more user control. Nikon thinks the W300 is a camera for photographic idiots, apparently, while Olympus doesn't. So it's an easy decision for any photographer who isn't an idiot. (I hope that's you, dear reader ;~).

M5 or A6xxx?
M5. Oh dear. Did I just hear my Inbox fill up with Sony fan hate mail? 

This is a far tougher call than it at first seems, yet the analysis ends up clearly in Canon's favor when the dust clears.

The Sony cameras tend to be technical wizards. That Sony packs all that they do in the little A6xxx bodies is remarkable, but that isn't without consequences. We've had heat issues at times. The offset EVF makes for a strange and awkward hold on such a small body. We've got Sony's Tiny Buttons to deal with again (did someone give Sony a special break on buttons, as long as they come in Small?). 

Meanwhile, Canon made the smallest DSLR you've ever seen. It holds like a DSLR, it shoots like a DSLR (even has a DSLR sensor), and it is controlled like a DSLR. They just put the already small SL2 into a shrink ray machine, tweaked a couple of things, and ended up with what has to be the smallest APS-C camera that handles well. 

No, the focus speed isn't Sony wiz-fast. No, the frame rates aren't Sony wiz-fast. No, the deep shadows aren't Sony wiz-post processable. No, there isn't 4K video. No, no, no. 

And yet, the M5 is an example of where the sum of the parts is greater than the sum of the parts, while the Sony A6xxx bodies tend to be the sum of the parts coming up as  less than the sum of the parts. You're not going to get any Cool Cred shooting the Canon. You're going to be called old and boring. Not hip with it. 

You'll take nice photos, though, and you'll feel in control doing it. Too bad Canon is making the same mistake with EF-M (and EF-S for that matter) lenses that Nikon made with DX. The mirrorless world would be quaking in Canon's shadow if the boys in red managed to make a full set of EF-M lenses, especially given how perfect the 22mm f/2.8 is. Seven more perfect lenses and all the other camera companies could go home. Make a slightly better and more tech gee whiz body to go with those perfect lenses and it would be game over. The rest of the world should be glad that Canon's management tells the design boys to cool it every time the market share hits 50%. 

D3400 or new Rebel of some sort?
Technically, D3400, though Nikon's marketing department seems to not realize that. But realistically? You probably ditch the low-end DSLR these days. That Canon M5 is a perfect choice for the Canon user, making the SL2 the only Rebel with any cause left in my opinion. 

Frankly, Nikon started mailing it in with the D3100. Apparently the boys in the consumer camera group ran out of ideas. Probably because they've never met and talked to a consumer, let alone a photographic consumer. The low end Nikon DSLRs became the "DSLR you recommend to your non-photography friends" in the middle of the digital camera era, which is what sold a lot of D40/D60/D3xxx. But mostly because they were recognizably a Nikon of some sort and had Nikon's excellent image quality behind the legendary mount. 

You'd think SnapBridge would have been a super high priority with the D3400. Instead it became a "let's cut costs and mostly neglect it" feature instead. The designers spent more time reinventing their Terrible Guide Mode, which doesn't do a lot of useful guiding and just adds another mode to a camera that already has too many modes for a beginning model. These days Terrible Guide Mode has been relegated to the 10th marketing message on the NikonUSA D3400 page ;~). Shows you how important this unique feature of the D3400 really is. Also how useful, since it comes after the Not SnappyBridge marketing messages, some of which are misleading (the free Nikon Image Space space is for 2mp versions of your images, so is that really a "backup" that gives you peace of mind?).

Today the D3400 is bought for one reason: it's cheap. Dirt cheap. Virtually the cheapest brand new ILC camera you can buy, and remarkably one with near state-of-the-art APS-C (DX) image quality. Nikon should have stripped more out of the camera (Terrible Guide Mode, for example). Scene modes. Picture Controls (just have Auto and raw). Maybe more. Indeed, just add a Front Command dial and dedicate the dials to Aperture and Shutter, period (with the rear dial still allowing some button+dial things, like Exposure Compensation). Make it the Nikon Stripper: bare bones, dirt simple to learn and set (yet still evoke the top body controls that make it a Nikon!), and then produce a few more DX lenses to mate with it. A 22mm f/2.8 pancake (see Canon) might be nice. Oh, and fix NotSnappyBridge.

You might be getting the impression I don't recommend the D3400. Actually, I do. I just recommend you ignore half the camera and use it as the lowest cost, high quality ILC that it is. If you can find appropriate lenses, that is.

E-M1 Mark II or GH5?
E-M1 if you shoot stills, GH5 if you shoot video. I hope I don't have to explain why.

Discounted Older Body or New?
If you have to ask, take the discount. We're now in an era where the new bodies generally have very specific, task-specific things that appeal to a few. Thus, if you don't know what that is for you, you're better off with the older, discounted body and buying better lenses. 

There isn't a digital camera on the market—including most smartphones—that can't take a good image. Now with the low-end stuff (smartphones, compact cameras, budget ILC) you need to be a little careful: the camera needs to support good user control well so that you can stop the automated systems from making decisions that you won't like in your pixels.

But at a level like the D750, what would you really want more that you'd pay an extra US$1000 or more for? Don't fall for those marketing messages. Most people don't need more than full frame 24mp for anything. That'll make a very nice 24" print under even lower light conditions. No, you might not see grains of sand in a 48" landscape shot, but are you actually making such shots?

Frankly, most people need better focus systems, not more pixels. Particularly in low light. That's one of the things that makes a D750 so much in the sweet spot. It's one of the things that makes earlier mirrorless models not so much in the sweet spot. It's what made the Nikon 1 so incredible despite it's small sensor. 

So: (1) Can you control it? (2) Does it focus fast even in low light? (3) Can I afford it? The DSLRs win this competition, even older ones. The mirrorless cameras can play in this competition, but generally only the latest and greatest net you #2, which makes #3 a bit more problematic (no significant discounts yet). 

Final Words
So there you have it. Thom's camera buying advice for the holiday season.

Oh, one more thing: the camera companies tend to keep discounting after Christmas. Indeed, since most of them have a corporate fiscal year that ends in March (all except Canon), they often use the post-Christmas season to micromanage their year-end financials. They'll discount to produce higher sales volume, giving up a bit of margin for better overall numbers.

Most of the time, that last big end-of-year push comes in February. That's the point where the companies know what their year-end financials are likely to look like, and where they can better predict how shifting a bit of margin via sales can deliver better-looking year-end results as viewed by shareholders. But if Christmas sales weren't up to their expectations, those sales will start in January. 

Finally, remember that the next cycle of cameras is about to be upon us. We'll get a few new camera announcements in January. With CP+ in Japan starting March 1st, we'll get a fair number of announcements prior to that, in February. Everyone will want a good story to come to CP+ this year, as last year the story was a sad one (lower sales, sensor shortage, etc.). 

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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