News/Views

News and commentary about the Nikon DSLR world and photography in general. This page automatically updates with links for each new news/views story and is a good place to bookmark if you want to see the traditional bythom "front page" type of story. 

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The 20 Year Anniversary

June 15th marked the twenty-year anniversary of Nikon's announcement of the D1, the camera that most feel kicked off the DSLR era. The camera actually didn't ship to customers until early 2000, but a number of us got a chance to use it briefly in 1999.

Upon initially handling the D1—despite its many modal UI flaws (all fixed in the D1h)—I knew that the serious photography world was about to change.

Yes, I'm well aware of and even used some of the Kodak SLR conversions and the Nikon/Fujifilm E2 experiment in the 90's. I don't dismiss those products, but it was clear with the D1 that something different was about to happen: a new era of cameras you would find in every camera store and which carried on the mantel from the SLR bodies. 

It's illustrative to look at the specifications of that original D1 to see just how far we've come.

  • 2000 x 1312 megapixel images (3mp). 
  • A top ISO of 1600 (base of 200). 
  • An APS-C sized CCD image sensor producing 12 bits per photosite. 
  • A 2" LCD with 130k dots. 
  • A claimed top frame rate of 4.5 fps. 
  • The F5 autofocus system. 
  • All for US$5500. 

That frame rate turned out to be not quite true with the then current CompactFlash cards, particularly with the old Microdrive cards. Plus the buffer really worked out to be less than a dozen raw images (less than two dozen JPEGs). 

Still, as limiting as those specifications might seem today, for photojournalists in particular there was clear promise here, to the point that the D1 really changed serious photography as we knew it very quickly. 

Canon shot low, with the consumer D30 DSLR as their first effort in 2000, and feeling a bit rushed to market at that (sound familiar here in the mirrorless transition?). Nikon shot high, with the D1 being followed by the very solid D1h, D1x in early 2001 and the also serious D100 in early 2002. Canon responded with the 1D—featuring a stitched sensor from a non-Canon source, again a sign of rush—in 2001 and the 1Ds in 2002. Those six cameras pretty much were the kick-in-the-butt that blasted the DSLR era into high growth and killed the SLR.

I note that dpreview gave the D1 a Highly Recommended rating in its review. I didn't. I declared the D1 as being too modal and likely to trigger you to miss shots. It wasn't until the D1h came along that I could recommend to others that the DSLR era had truly arrived with a highly usable camera.

So twenty years on, what have we gotten from the DSLR iteration highway?

  • A transition from CCD to CMOS. That didn't come without complaint. Both semiconductor approaches have their pluses and minuses. That said, anyone in the silicon business knew that CMOS was going to be the winner if you could address its (then) image quality  shortcomings. That's because of the ability in CMOS to address cells individual and to add additional electronics into the image sensor itself, things we have in spades in today's cameras, and which make them better.
  • More and better pixels. A lot of people don't know that the original D1/D1h were actually 10.4mp sensors. Say what? Nikon took some Sony Semiconductor pixel technology and had them bin it! An individual pixel in the D1/D1h was actually four sub pixels binned together. The D1x saw a different binning approach, with only two horizontal pixels binned together. When people today talk about the camera makers being beat to the punch in computational photography by the smartphones, that's not exactly true. That D1x in 2001 used computational methods to build JPEG images that were bereft of short axis pixel information yet still looked quite good. That's because of computational work done in the imaging ASIC chip of the D1x.
  • Bigger and better LCDs. One of the primary benefits of the digital camera was its ability to let you immediately review what you just shot and evaluate if you need to change a setting or shoot again. As I've written before, this was one of the things that, once discovered by consumers, triggered the rapid change from SLR to DSLR. It's kind of amazing that this was clear even with a 2" display that only had 160k dots (today's screens are typically a minimum of 3" and a minimum of 1m dots, so larger and much more detailed).
  • More images faster and for longer periods of time. The D1 was effectively a 4 fps camera with a 2.5 second buffer (and remember, this is for a top-end professional camera). Today the D5—despite the extra megapixels and bit depth—is a fully functional 12 fps with a 17 second buffer. I remember clearly the first time I was on the football sidelines with a new deep buffer Nikon body standing next to a bunch of Canon shooters and I just decided to hold down the shutter release (as you all well know, I don't shoot long bursts to "save my butt," but am much more selective about timing and bursts). Every Canon user's head turned my direction in disbelief. That's basically where we are today with current cameras: anyone using an old one is going to wonder how it is that you're still shooting, should you care to fill you card up.

Looking at a D1 today, you see that the D5 isn't all that far from it, other than the things I just mentioned. Sure, Nikon added some additional controls (e.g. the thumb stick) and buttons, and changed card formats. But the bones and muscular structure are all there and are still being inherited today. Indeed, the D5 is really just another continuation of the all-electronic design Nikon put forth with the F5 in the 1990's. The things that weren't broken weren't fixed. Things that were missing were added. A few things have been fleshed out and made better.

You'll note that most of the changes and benefits we've gotten in the 20 years post D1 are internal. Indeed, that's something to consider in these days of transition from DSLR to mirrorless. 

Anyone who has been involved with the technology industry knows that the primary thrust in true tech product change comes from the silicon inside (and by inference, the software). That's because there are huge benefits to reaping the results of Moore's Law to combine, group, and simplify into fewer and fewer components that can be mass produced and assembled using automation. 

We got all the major changes in the DSLR I outlined above because of semiconductor advancement (yes, even the LCD addition). The transition that's going on right now in ILC is mostly a logical continuation of that. Mirrorless cameras remove most of the mechanical parts from DSLRs and put more emphasis on parts that can be mass produced on automated machines. The good news is that the constant push in semiconductor technology continues and will result in even more happening inside our cameras (see my other article today on where cameras are headed).

I haven't run into anyone lately still using a D1 era camera (e.g. the D1h). I have encountered one recently who was still shooting a D2Hs. And I still see quite a few dragging D3's around. D4's are almost as common as D5's when I look around the events I shoot at. 

Which tells another story about this anniversary: while we've had 20 years where Nikon (and Canon) has put out new and better iterations every four years, our DSLRs have proven to be long-lived even as the potential technology inside started to pass them by. I fully expect to see folk still shooting D500, D850, and D5 cameras (and similar Canons) four years from now. 

So happy birthday, D1. It's been a long and wonderful journey you started us on.

The Coming Cameras

Updated

I like to do a "thought piece" every now and then premised on what I did through most of my career in Silicon Valley: look five to ten years out and try to understand what developing or new technologies could be used to solve current user problems.

One problem with doing that at the moment in the camera market is this: they aren't today where they should have perceived they needed to be five years ago. (Yes, that's a complex sentence. Read it again and make sure you understand it.)  In other words, they're already behind where they should/could be, therefore looking further forward may not be quite as useful as it ought to be.

For example, you're probably well aware that inside your cameras are a bunch of semiconductors, including the image sensor. One of the predictable things about semiconductors has been—though it's getting more problematic at the forward edge of progress—the reduction of what's called process size. As a placeholder, think of process size as the smallest possible transistor. The smaller the transistor, the more of those you can pack on a chip and the closer you can put them together (which provides quicker communication between them). Those two things mean more computational power at faster speeds (though heat dissipation can become an issue as you miniaturize). 

So, here's a question: what's the process size for your image sensor? Or your imaging chip?

Apple is currently using a 7nm process size for its latest CPU (A12X Bionic). Indeed, looking at Apple's iOS CPUs is an illustration in process size reduction: 45nm, 32nm, 28nm, 20nm, 14nm, 16nm, 10nm, 7nm. That's why the newest iPhone and iPad have been getting faster, more capable, and able to do more things.

The problem with image sensors is that the the photons-to-electrons part of the sensor (photo diode) doesn't really benefit from process reduction, so there's not been as great a push to change it. But the ride-along electronics on CMOS sensors absolutely do benefit. Smaller process size allows you to do more with the storage charge the image capture creates, and to do it faster.

So again, what's the process size for your image sensor?

Would you believe probably something in the 200nm+ range? That's huge by today's state-of-the-art.

Update: An engineer or two pointed out that image sensors still work in the analog realm—what, you thought they were digital?—and going below 180nm becomes an issue. I should have caught that. One reason why Sony may have gone to stacked sensors has to do with this: if you can make the light gathering/ADC side of the sensor under a larger process and hook that fairly directly to something that is done in a smaller process, you can get some of the benefits. Nevertheless:

Moreover, from what I can gather, even the BIONZ, DIGIC, EXPEED type of chip is lagging behind current semiconductor state-of-the-art. I can't get official confirmation, but I believe the latest EXPEED6 chip, for instance, is made with 28nm process, and Nikon's SoC supplier, Socionext, currently only offers 16/12nm process as its smallest possible size. 

Why am I starting here? Because silicon is one of the easiest things to predict. Apple and Nikon both use ARM-licensed cores, but Nikon is using older, larger process Cortex cores while Apple has moved forward to their own version of ARM's latest core technology and producing it on smaller process fabs.

The trend that intersects with this is the use of computational and AI algorithms with image data. The smaller process, more sophisticated, main chip that Apple is using at the heart of their iOS devices simply can do more than the best the camera companies can do when it comes to changing pixel data or analyzing pixel data for hints on how to tune the camera's performance.

Moreover, Apple seems to have taken one of my original design philosophies on the QuickCam to heart: "the smallest number of components to get image sensor data into the CPU." There's almost nothing between the image sensor and A12X Bionic chip other than a data pipe. In our cameras, there's a bit more going on, and on designs such as Sony's stacked sensor chips, that can get quite complex and more expensive to make.

Where am I going with this? 

The future is going to see much more computational and AI logic in our cameras. No doubt about that. This was clear back at the turn of the century, but it was the smartphones that really got serious about this first, unfortunately for the dedicated camera makers. Heck, it was clear when I managed the team that put out the QuickCam in 1994, because the whole idea behind that product was to use your computer's computational power behind an image sensor.

This is a long-winded way of saying that camera makers have some catching up to do. Okay, not some. A lot. The silicon capabilities are there to let them do it, but when we talk about SoC (system on chip) entities like BIONZ, DIGIC, and EXPEED, we find ourselves caught up in the real problem: the camera industry is contracting rapidly. 

The reason that smartphones are eating the camera maker's lunch has to do with a lot of things, but one of them is volume. 1.5b cell phones were sold in 2018. Compare that to the 19.4m units that CIPA says shipped in the same period (that would understate total camera sales a bit, as there are a few non-Japanese companies that ship cameras). That's almost two orders of magnitude difference. Simply put, the smartphone companies can afford to spend more on R&D in keeping their silicon up to the state-of-the-art because they have so many more units over which to spread the cost.

Thus, one prediction that's easy to make is that dedicated cameras will continue to get better at adding computational and AI features in the future, but they won't catch up—let alone pass—the big smartphone vendors in the next five years. To do so would take a leap of innovation that is highly unlikely. 

Even for Sony, who recently decided that their smartphone and dedicated camera groups needed to work together, the volume problem is still a real issue. Sony's Xperia phones are not exactly big sellers (<2% of the market). So while combining efforts of their two groups does give them more volume to spread costs over, it's not quite as big a boost as it at first seems.

You wonder why there's so much emphasis on full frame these days? It's because the camera makers are looking not just for profit, but they're trying to stay in a lane they're pretty sure that the smartphones can't play in. "Good enough" is owned by the smartphone cameras now. That really only leaves "Exceptional and Unique" as the playground in which the camera makers can retain foothold. 

That's the reason why you see Nikon only making compact cameras with huge focal length range lenses or waterproofing. And the latter is now becoming a smartphone trait, so short of adding a really long focal length zoom to the waterproof camera...

The problem, of course, is that by defining narrower and narrower niches—full frame, superzoom, rugged/waterproof—you also limit your market size. Pushing up-scale to higher priced products also limits your market size.

So my first prediction is that we'll see a slow move towards more and more computational and AI attributes in our cameras. It will be slow not because the technology to do it is slow in coming, but because the cost of deploying it is being born over fewer and fewer units. Canon and Sony have a bit of an advantage here in that their scale of business is bigger than Nikon's and can better support additional R&D costs. But still, everyone is cautious because no one knows just how far the camera industry will contract. That's a bit of chicken and egg, though. If you move too cautiously, you actually make the industry contract more. (I'll come back to that in a bit.)

Meanwhile, there's another thing that's semiconductor-related that smartphones have gotten right and the cameras haven't: communications. 

Let's just admit the obvious: for the vast majority of people taking photographs, those images are now shared electronically. Smartphones embrace that in so many ways I'm not sure I can count them all. Dedicated cameras? Not so much, as I've pointed out many times.

The irony is that Nikon got into the photos-in-the-cloud business early with what's now known as Nikon Image Space (formerly myPicturetown, which dates all the way back to 2008!). Here's an easy way to see that Nikon doesn't understand what they're doing in cloud photo storage: exactly why aren't the Nikon Image Ambassadors using and promoting Nikon Image Space (NIS) to store, manage, and share their photos? Oops. NIS is a separate app from SnapBridge and doesn't allow sharing directly from it. Oops. Can Lightroom push my images to NIS? Oops. (The oops go on and on, but you should get my point with just three examples.)

Update: If you want to see an even bigger Oops, just check out the message Nikon sent to NIS users in May.

So here's the thing: if camera makers want people to keep using cameras, they need to fully embrace the way that people are using images and enable that. But for the most part, they aren't. Yet the technology is available that would let them do that.

At some point during the continued contraction, someone in Tokyo is going to bang their head against the wall, say "Doh", and start trying to do what users actually want and need. And guess what? While that might not generate the kinds of growth in the digital camera market we saw in the first decade of this century, a camera that functions well in today's image sharing world will sell better than one that doesn't. 

I put that last part in bold because every time I write about the fact that the communications side of dedicated cameras is terrible and needs to be fixed, I get a lot of pushback. Things like "that won't save the camera market." That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying that camera makers are getting sub-optimal sales because they've ignored a common and highly requested (and now necessary) user need. We can argue about whether camera sales would continue to go down (perhaps by a smaller percentage), stabilize, or start to grow a bit if the camera makers put the right technology done the right way into their cameras, but failing to do so will simply make them fail faster.

The thing is, the Japanese consumer electronics companies are fighting against Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, almost the opposite problem happens: Silicon Valley will pursue solving customer problems first and foremost almost without regard to cost or profit. Get the customer first, then worry about the business finances. Worse still, Silicon Valley stole the whole notion of sharing of images electronically from Japan, where that was technically done first with some early cell phones (but not particularly well commercialized or followed up on). 

What I find ironic is that in this world where everyone talks about the Internet of Things (IoT), dedicated digital cameras are some of the worst connected digital devices on the planet. Not only do they not "plug and play" into the Internet easily, making them too complicated for consumers, but their performance in doing so is woefully behind. 

We're about to go 5G in cellular, Wi-Fi 6 in radio. Both will be the primary thing you hear about in wireless communications in the next few years. Cameras aren't even close to the abilities we expect from those new technologies. Wi-Fi 5 (the current 802.11ac) is theoretically a minimum of 433Mbps speed. Divide by 9 (8 bits plus some overhead): 48MBps. A 48MB file should transfer in a second. Does it? Not on any Wi-Fi 5 capable camera in my gear closet (and there are several). Why? Because of the way the cameras are designed. 

So one thing that's going to have to change soon is in some internal structural ways that cameras are designed. In essence, cameras consider "communications" an interruptible and low priority background process. In a world where images are shared, and immediately shared at that, communications needs to be a primary process with some guarantee of delivery speed. The video camera makers have figured this out. I can stream real time from my video camera. The still camera makers are laggards.

Meanwhile, the latest trend in tech is in the proliferation of artificial intelligence software (AI), though I'm not at all sure I'd characterize all the things that are called AI as actual artificial intelligence. Just as graphics got its own dedicated chip (GPU), AI is now getting its own dedicated chip (Google calls theirs a TPU; I'll call it an IPU, for Intelligence Processor Unit). 

We've already seen camera makers deploy two aspects of this. For example, the Nikon D5 has a chip dedicated to autofocus. Olympus and Sony are referring to the new autofocus algorithms they're using as AI. 

But true AI as is being explored now in the labs is not task specific. The goal is to use the same "learning" and "processing" techniques to any problem that needs solving. We have lots of problems in cameras. Saturated signals, noise, distortions, astigmatisms, stray light, subject recognition, camera movement, depth cues, the list goes on and on. 

What you really want to build in the near future is a set of electronics that can do computational (CPU), graphics (GPU), and intelligence (IPU) tasks. Apple already has that in their latest iOS processors (a nascent AI engine being the latest processing core to be added). The net result of having a fast, deep, wide range of "processing" capabilities available in a single chip is that you reduce hardware costs while enabling the software guys to come along and do interesting things with all that facility. 

Finally, there's one other thing I believe will (should) happen: camera makers have to recognize that "tagging" (metadata) isn't something just for their own internal use (e.g. EXIF Maker Tags), but that in the coming world of imaging users need to tag their photos in quite a few ways. Copyright is an obvious one. We have some cameras that follow the IPTC guidelines on this, mostly because the camera companies' big press clients basically insisted or they'd stop buying product. (Irony note: apparently the Japanese camera makers haven't noticed that consumers stopped buying their product. Maybe we need to form a consumer lobbying organization ;~).

When most people take a photo now they actually would want it to be fully tagged, and to be tagged automatically if at all possible. When, where, who, what, photographer, who should be able to see it, and more. 

  • When: GPS, cell tower, or Wi-Fi provided data to be accurate. Automatic time zone detection.
  • Where: GPS, but with automatic coordinate-to-placename insertion.
  • Who: names of any identifiable people, pets, things, etc. With full ability to train those, and to make those private or public.
  • What: Intelligent categorization, which depends upon the Where and Who fields. For instance, a human identified in front of a well-known museum might be tagged "visiting the Louvre."
  • Photographer: could even go so far as to have fingerprint detection on the shutter release!

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Because photos are now living in cloud space and shared via the Internet, it is highly desirable to make sure that the photographer can control how that image might be found by others, and that's going to involve deep and wide metadata that's being stored with the image data from the moment the photo was taken.

All the things I write about in this article are possible in the very near period (five years). Indeed, I'd argue that they're required and inevitable. There's some probability that a few of them will work their way into our cameras soon. The questions are how much so, and how fast?

The biggest problem I see is that the camera companies are hesitant to fully fund all the R&D that would be necessary to get these things—and others I haven't mentioned in this article—done sooner rather than later. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I've pointed out over and over: by not getting at the front of the technology wave in recent years, cameras have now fallen behind. The potential buying public may not consciously understand that, but they've figured it out subconsciously. They know that their smartphone is doing things their camera can't do, so why do they need a new camera?

One of the things that surprised me coming out my MBA program into a wild, fast growing startup in the early days of Silicon Valley was this: all the problems we studied in those Harvard Case Studies came up. Every last one of them! What they didn't teach at the Kelley School of Business was this: the solution to the problem is always different than just making the numbers, procedures, or dependencies work right. The problem was always people. People that insisted on ignoring the right answer.

To a large degree I feel that's the problem in Tokyo right now. I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of engineers at the camera companies that understand everything I just wrote and want to give it to you in products. They're being held up in many cases by financial departments and upper management that is reluctant to take risk. 

What I know from my decades of experience in Silicon Valley is this:

  • Sometimes when you take risk, you fail.
  • If you don't take risk, you fail.

Understanding and coming to grips with those two statements is essential to a technology career. It's essential to any company that purports to be a technology company. 

So, in the end what I'll be looking for in the coming five years is not whether or not we get IPUs or 5G or full tagging. What I'll be looking at with the camera companies is who's seeing the wants/needs correctly and taking the risks necessary to fulfill those. 

Update: a final note: implicit in much of what I wrote is that the camera companies suck at software. Those of us who were appalled at how bad the original Windows version back in the 80's was are now reconsidering how good we actually had it ;~). 

Are You Following Your Heart or Head?

It's a simple thing, really: if you're confused about what to do and are contemplating changing gear, do you know whether you're following your heart or your head in your thinking?

I've written about wants and needs before, and it's the same thing: 

  • Heart = want
  • Head = need

Thing is, how you evaluate how well something actually "works" for you after purchasing and using it depends upon which of those two you're following.

What I'm seeing a lot of lately is that people following their heart (wants) end up not fully satisfied. Whether that be sampling another brand, switching to another brand, moving from DSLR to mirrorless, or any other Big Change option, their heart (wants) compels them to act, they act, and then they find something wanting (ironic, right? ;~).

Those following their head (needs) rarely end up in that situation.

When Canon and Nikon both say that they'll continue to serve the DSLR user, they're actually considering that there are heart versus head decisions being made in their user base. A long-time DSLR user, for instance, would be generally satisfied with the capabilities of any current camera. The things that they still need are likely to be more in the DSLR realm. The trick is whether or not Canon and Nikon can figure out what those are and produce them in a timely fashion.

I'll use the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as an example. The 5000 or so Canon and Nikon shooters that end up in Tokyo will be mostly DSLR-based. That's what they own, that's what they're used to using, that's what they know. For mirrorless to appeal to them at an event where they're on the line to produce images worth their cost of being there, mirrorless would have to do something special for them. Really special. That seems unlikely. A new DSLR lens might prove more useful to them. Even a new DSLR body that advanced the product they're already using might be more useful to them. This is one reason why everyone is predicting that Canon will produce a 1DXm3 and Nikon a D6: the timing is correct, and it's a natural extension for those user's needs.

When Canon and Nikon both say that mirrorless is the future and then provide marketing that tells you about how the new lenses will be better, or the WYSIWIG nature of the EVF is better, of it can shoot silently, and so on, they're catering mostly to the heart (wants). 

So again, let's consider the upcoming Olympics. Would Canon produce an RX and Nikon a Z9? Maybe. But why would the Olympics photographer opt for that? Faster frame rate, perhaps. Ability to track focus outside the central area, perhaps. Other supposed mirrorless advantages, not so much. In other words, some very specific needs. Thus, there's some opportunity for both companies to do something somewhat unheard of, and produce both a top end DSLR and a top end mirrorless camera simultaneously. I'd guess that Nikon would be more likely to do something like this, as they have the D1h/D1x/D100, D3/D300, and D5/D500 multiple announcement precedents, all of which worked well for them. Still, you have to consider whether or not that truly would get a top level shooter to move from DSLR to mirrorless at the last minute like that at an event that is so important to their clients.

Of course, the Olympics are not a problem most of us have ;~). Canon and Nikon have that problem because it's the biggest event where they see and interact with the greatest number of serious photographers, and it is fairly representative of their pro clientele. That interaction potential is one of the few reasons why I'd want to go shoot an event like the Olympics, by the way. The ability to stand out from the top pros with better access is not something that would likely happen for me at the Olympics. I'm happy sticking with smaller events and clients where I can stand out.

But let's get back to heart versus head. It's an age-old problem, and it comes up in everything from romance to work to toys. The real trick is to always understand which of the two you're following, and then to do a quick analysis of whether the other will be served well enough.

In other words, if you're following your heart, you don't want to be completely bolloxed with your needs. If you want Camera X because the marketing messages melted your mind, before jumping to the new mistress make sure that you can still do what it is you need to do. 

Likewise, if you follow your head, you need to make sure that you're still going to be happy, at least happy enough to continue on without second guessing yourself every day.

It's getting the balance of the two right that is always the problem. Pay some attention to both and know which one you're following and why and you'll be fine.

Is Disinformation a Problem?

We've got state actors attempting to influence other states' elections with disinformation. We've got lobbying organizations running campaigns with clear agendas. We have individuals who've discovered that they can be a big influencer of others by just typing on their keyboard. We have "numbers" published that are supposedly meaningful.

Have you ever thought about whether or not misinformation might be harming the photography market?

I have.

And it's not just outright misinformation, it's also information where the nuance is all reduced down to some overall numerical value (e.g. dpreview's "Overall Score", which I find mostly pointless). 

For instance, recently a flurry of messages came my way about DxOMark's rating for the 24-70mm f/4 S lens. In particular, the thing that comes up every time that DxOMark publishes a lens test these days is a number they report for "Sharpness." For the Nikkor in question, that number was 19, which is lower than the 20 given the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8E, and more intriguingly, way lower than the 24 given the Sony-Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 ZA, a lens I long ago gave up on using because of its poor performance. 

Bore down a bit into those DxOMark "scores," though. The highest rated lens for Sharpness is on the highest resolution camera (5DS R). The two Nikkor numbers come from two completely different cameras and sensors (Z7 and D800E). DxOMark is creating scores using different test platforms.

What struck me most, though, was the Nikkor Z and Sony FE comparison. One lens I think is really good (the Z), one I think is not worth using for a lot of work (the FE). The difference comes down to how each lens performs as you move away from the center of the frame. 

So, let's look at DxOMark's testing protocol. In DxOMark's own words: "For each focal length and each f-number sharpness is computed and weighted across the image field, with the corners being less critical than the image center. This results in a number for each focal length / aperture combination. We then choose the maximum sharpness value from the aperture range for each focal length. These values are then averaged across all focal lengths to obtain the DxOMark resolution score that is reported in P-MPix (Perceptual Megapixels)."

Uh, what? Corners less critical? In what way? How is that weighted? Why choose the maximum sharpness obtained and not the median? Why average the maximum of all focal lengths? 

Virtually no one seeing a DxOMark Sharpness number—even on DxOMark's own site—does the drill down to see what the heck that number actually means. 

It means absolutely nothing that's useful, in my opinion. It's an average of the maximums of unspecified weightings! Oh, and by the way, in their reviews they have this disclaimer: "Remember that the lenses are intended to be used on different camera systems and mounts, so the comparisons are not strictly applicable."

Funny thing is, if you read DxOMark's actual textual review of the Nikkor in question, they write as their conclusion "Great all-rounder for Nikon Z users." Indeed it is. Unfortunately, the testing methodology that DxOMark uses masks exactly how that might actually really compare to other brands' products. 

Not that I'm trying to call out DxOMark here. I'm just using them as one example. There are plenty more where that came from. The real culprit here is all the folk on the Internet who want to repeat a single number that sums up a subjective evaluation criteria (DxOMark's Sharpness number) as if it is meaningful in comparing two lenses.

Another example of what seems to be disinformation happened recently when at the X Summit where Fujifilm introduced a concept called "Value Angle." I know that the camera makers struggle to describe why certain mount decisions can have significant impact on optical design, and I, too, have at times short-handed the discussion by simply pointing to the angle from the edge of the sensor to the edge of the mount. However, Fujifilm is a bit disingenuous in their discussion. 

The reason why they promote Value Angle is that their APS-C XF mount calculates to a bigger angle than the best full frame mount (the Nikon Z mount). So it must be better, right? You don't need to buy full frame at all!

Unfortunately, the Fujifilm XF mount has the worst Value Angle of any of the mirrorless APS-C mounts; Canon's EOS M would be the best in this calculation. Own goal, Fujifilm.

Fujifilm doesn't make full frame cameras, though. So obviously the XF cameras are better than the full frame cameras because of the mount, right? At least that's what they want you to believe.

Not so fast Fujifilm. There are way too many factors that go into the optical design of a lens and the way the optical system at the focal plane—UVIR filtration, lowpass filtration, filtration depth, gap to sensor, microlenses, photo diode depth—works for digital cameras to reduce everything to one number across differing formats. (And to add insult to injury, Fujifilm's medium format GF cameras would be worse than the full frame cameras using the Value Angle metric!)

Aside: What a larger opening and a wider angle from that opening to the sensor gives you is more optical design flexibility (all else equal). Optical center point, size and position of rear element, angle changes of extreme light through the optical path, all have more options available when you create a bigger/shorter mount for any given size sensor. Note the last highlighted clause: Fujifilm actually created the worst mount scenario for their APS-C sensor size.

What we have here is another arbitrarily calculated number standing in for actual useful information, and this time in marketing information. Be wary of those arbitrary numbers you see.

Reviewing in context is difficult. I first became aware of that back in the late 70's with High Fidelity reviews. In the early 80's I wrote one of the first standardized reviewing guidelines (50+ pages) for the computer industry in my role as editor of InfoWorld. At one point I fired a reviewer who did not disclose a paid relationship with a company in the industry, which was required by our guidelines. I managed a similar project in the 90's at Backpacker. Because all the outdoor product companies have hidden special pricing for influencers (even back in the 90's), I forbid staff to take advantage of that. We also returned or donated all gear we received for review, rather than keep it as sometimes happens elsewhere. I know how hard it is to try to describe how a product actually performs and what that might mean to a user. And I think I know what trying to maintain integrity and disclosure of conflicts means, too.

But none of us are perfect, nor are any of us writing on the Internet capable of perfectly reviewing a product, with full context to all other relevant products and your particular needs and usage. 

Thus, I caution everyone to be smart in their reliance upon external information being passed around on the Internet. There are bad actors, paid influencers, poor articulators, and meaningless numbers to wade through. Even the best of us may not get everything perfectly and adequately described, and you have to be careful not to read things into words that weren't intended. 

Over time, you find sources that you can trust. Don't trust new sources without vetting them. Trust, but verify, sources you've grown used to. Understand the business model of the sites you visit and how that might influence them (DxOMark's current business model appears to be consulting services plus selling their Analyzer product, which puts them in competition with Imatest for producing a set of numbers from standardized testing [disclosure: I use Imatest in measuring camera and lens performance in the lab, though I don't report these numbers because they're generally not comparable across products as DxOMark would like you to believe]).

How Do You Make the Mirrorless/DSLR Choice?

It seems that despite my repeated efforts to try to put things into perspective, a number of people are still asking the same questions, typically along the lines of "should I buy a D750 or Z6"? 

That's certainly a good question, no matter how you're coming at it (e.g. from a D3500, a D610, or a competitor's camera). But it doesn't have a simple answer.

As I've tried to indicate, DSLRs aren't dead. They still have some advantages to them. Most of those center around the optical view of the world, the time-tested autofocus system, and the support for them (which ranges from lenses to accessories to repair facilities to education, and more). 

The optical view of the world does not impact your night vision. It doesn't slice time up into frames. It doesn't need a moment to turn on when it hasn't been in use for awhile. It doesn't drain batteries. (Technically, Nikon's DSLR viewfinder overlay system does drain batteries, but it'll take a month or so to do so.)

The DSLR autofocus system may have limitations (area covered, only face detect, many tricky attributes to learn, and issues of tolerance in some cases), but both Canon's and Nikon's current systems are fast, reliable, and consistent once you learn how to use them. (Unfortunately many people don't; they want "all automatic" systems to do all the heavy-lifting.)

And you can't say that DSLRs are unsupported. If there's an accessory you need, it's been made. Third parties have had plenty of time to iron out wrinkles in compatibility. The lens selection for Canon and Nikon DSLRs is incredibly wide and deep. 

So why wouldn't you buy a DSLR, particularly given that prices have dropped on them?

Well, mirrorless cameras have their advantages, too. Those center around WYSIWIG viewfinders (what you see is what you get), wider/smarter autofocus systems, and generally smaller and lighter bodies for the same level of capability (e.g., the Z7 is smaller and lighter than a D850, one of the most equivalent comparisons we can make between DSLR and mirrorless). With Canon and Nikon mirrorless, in particular, we also have the promise of potentially new and exciting lens capabilities in the future. 

DSLRs are the establishment. Mirrorless is the future. 

If you're absolutely new to interchangeable lens cameras, the answer is relatively easy: buy the future (mirrorless).

If you're a long-time SLR/DSLR user, you're in the establishment. The question becomes whether you're happy with what you've been using and just need to upgrade or is there a clear benefit to stepping into a future that isn't fully there yet. 

I think my answers have been relatively consistent for awhile now. Let me throw a few of them at you:

  • New to ILC and want affordable? Canon EOS M, Fujifilm XF, and Sony E are probably where you should be looking.
  • New to ILC and want full frame? Sony FE is the first choice, as it's well fleshed out now and there are plenty of lenses to choose from. Nikon has done enough that it should get your attention; they'll be where Sony is within the next 18 months I'll bet. Canon's line has all kinds of promises, but no clear delivery yet. Yet they, too, probably will be where Sony is soon.
  • DSLR user looking to upgrade? Start with examining the logical upgrade for you (e.g. D7000 to D7500, maybe D600 to D750, D3x to D850, etc.; see my Ultimate Camera Upgrade Advice, which I update every year). If that leaves you wanting, then figure out what the missing element is and look for that in someone else's product (which may be mirrorless).

What most people upgrading tend to overlook in their decision making is that (a) they may need to learn a completely new system; (b) they may need entirely new lens sets and accessories. I see a lot of people that approach me like this "I'm a D7000 user and it's time to upgrade; I'm thinking about the Sony A7m3..." 

That may or may not be a good choice for that person. I generally have to ask questions back when I get such queries to give a reasonable answer (as should any good camera store salesperson). A lot of the time, though, the questioner has been tempted by marketing, Internet hype, or FOMO (fear of missing out). In practice, an answer of "buy a D7500" is often still the right one for that person, especially if they update a lens or two.

While I've written about "leakers" and "samplers" before, I haven't mentioned that I see a fair number of "returners", too. I've got a big data file of folk that went mirrorless and came back to DSLR. Over time, as the mirrorless systems get more mature and fully fleshed out, I suspect that I won't see so many returnees in the future, but up through today? Still seeing them.

Nikon doesn't make things any easier, either. 

As I write this, I can buy a D850 for US$3000 or a Z7 with FTZ adapter for US$2800. Image quality-wise, they're near identical. Feature-wise, they're pretty darned close. I happen to think the D850 is a better well-rounded camera than the Z7, but the Z7 isn't exactly a slouch at that. It's really close to my #2 choice in well-rounded, the A7Rm3. So close that sometimes I think I'm splitting hairs. 

So which of those do you pick? 

It gets back to whether you're more rooted in the establishment (DSLR) or the future (mirrorless). 

But then Nikon goes and throws a monkey wrench into things:

As I write this, I can buy a D750 with the 24-120mm f/4 lens for US$1800 or a Z6 with the 24-70mm lens and FTZ adapter for US$2400. Whoa Nelly. Again, in terms of image quality, the sensor in those two cameras is close enough to identical for most users. Feature-wise, they're a bit more different than the D850/Z7 pair, but still close. 

So what happens is that price gets in the way of product rationalization for the potential buyer. You pay a third more for the future in this case (US$600 is not something to ignore, even for a well-heeled customer). Nikon clearly wants you to buy the established. (I should also point out that those rumors of a D750 replacement point to a very tricky problem for Nikon: any D760 needs quite a bit of enhancement, or a lower price, to work in the market now.)

Canon has near equivalent cameras in the 6Dm2 (DSLR) and RP (mirrorless), with the pricing now US$1300 (body only) for either. 

Indeed, it's usually on the price issue that I find most people hesitating on their decisions. At near equal price they tilt towards the future (mirrorless). At high discounts, they tilt towards the established (DSLR).

As I noted up front, there isn't a simple answer. 

More so than ever, you really need to prioritize your needs and your wants, and couple that to a budget. A budget that includes all the extra things you might need to switch to mirrorless (cards, lenses, accessories, etc.). 

Cameras last a long time. As I look back at my images as I reorganize them, I'm very happy with images I took with the D3x, for example. Did I need more camera than that? Not really, even today, though the 36mp/45mp sensors definitely were a modest step forward. 20/24mp is a good solid point for most imagery for most users. Higher than that buys some flexibility and future-proofing, I suppose, but I'm finding quite a few folk now that are over-buying for their needs.

What current cameras have 24mp?

  • Canon: PowerShot G7 X and G1 X, EOS M5, M6, M50, M100, 80D, SL3, T7, 6Dm2 and RP (26mp), 
  • Fujifilm: X-T30 and X-T3 (26mp), XF10, X-T100, X-H1, X-A5, X-E3, X100F
  • Nikon: D3500, D5600, D610, D750, Z6
  • Panasonic: S1
  • Pentax: KP, K-70
  • Ricoh: GRIII
  • Sony: A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500, A7 (m1 to m3)

That's a lot of choice, ranging from compact cameras with large sensors to full frame DSLRs and mirrorless. 

So again, sort through your requirements (needs) and wants. The answer becomes clearer as you scratch things off the list that don't meet those. As it always has.


Cameras Shouldn't Dictate Self-Esteem

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly when reading various comments across the Internet (or in my In Box), is that there's a very large proportion of active participants that have linked their self-esteem to their camera brand (or model, or type).

Indicators of this are comments about how well a product is (or isn't selling) relative to others, the superiority of one approach to another, minor differences in some measurement, and so on.

We've been in a land of plenty for quite some time. I first wrote the "if you can't get good prints the maximum size of a desktop inkjet with any current camera it's not the camera that's at fault" comment over a decade ago. It's absolutely true today. 

More often than not the "X is best" type of comments I see have nothing to do with actual picture results. Instead, they're attempts to justify a purchase, or a choice of model, or a brand choice. 

I've been spending a lot of time lately working through my older images, trying to get my file system cleaned up and realigned, partly because I need to make it easier to find specific example images for a project I'm working on. In looking at all these older images—many from cameras whose output won't fill my 5K Retina iMac screen at 100%—I'm finding that my basic assessment of most older models was pretty much right on the money with the benefit of hindsight. I can see small differences that could impact how I use an image, particularly in the pre-2007 or so cameras.

For example, in the D70 line of Nikon's—D70, D70s, D80, D90, D7000, D7100, D7200, D7500—I can now clearly see that the D80 and the D7000 were the weak links (because of sensor performance and focus consistency, respectively), while the D70, D90, and D7200 were the strongest contenders. (The D7500 is the current model, so almost by definition the strongest contender.)

Overall, though, I keep finding that many images I thought might not hold up because of lack of pixels or older sensor technologies actually do. Sure, I have to use noise reduction more aggressively on the old D80 images, and I have to find nuanced ways to sharpen the D1x images (the pixels weren't square), but I keep coming up with usable results. 

But here's a doozy for you: running old Coolpix 995 JPEG images from 2001 through Topax JPEG to RAW AI and AI Gigapixel, I find that I can create really good looking images that fill that iMac 5K display from my original 3mp files (I've processed the following one to look dark and gloomy, because on that early February day it was exactly that):

France Paris 2-7-2001 4075-edit-1

The biggest issue with the original pixels I obtained from that Coolpix was that there was significant chromatic aberration, which I've had to address in post processing. But surprisingly, the noise was easy to deal with, and even the near highlight blowout on the fountains was able to be pulled back. Acuity from that old built-in lens seems good once addressed with a deconvolution sharpener.

Do I want more pixels now that I have 45mp? Yes. I'd like to see us get another 15-20% step up, which would put us somewhere near 70mp in full frame. 

Do I want more dynamic range? Yes. I'd love to have something near the theoretical limit (with non-spillover wells), which would put me near a two-stop gain from where my cameras currently are.

Do I want more acuity away from the center of my lenses? Absolutely. Working on an image that has excellent acuity corner to corner as opposed to only in a central region means that I don't tend to snip a bit of a crop here and there to avoid noticeable corner smear.

Do I want better ergonomics? Yes. Particularly with some brands, but I can find UX issues with virtually all the products these days.

But none of these things I just mentioned have anything at all to do with my own personal self-esteem. I actually don't care which camera or brand you purchase (or I use) as long as it's the correct decision for you (or me). I'm well aware that my choice may not be your choice, and vice versa. All those folk arguing on the Internet about "X is best" tend to not only ignore that, but most of the time they're making that argument to defend their choice. In other words, they don't hold their choice in high esteem in the first place.

We're in a world of excellent photographic tools these days. Proper technique and care in composing with virtually all the mid-range and up gear should net you fantastic photos. Never forget that.

Frustration Versus Reality

I've been encountering a lot of very frustrated—and in some cases, angry—folk lately. Moreover, the press sometimes seems to pile on without actually doing much in the way of fact checking or logical analysis. 

One example of this is the inability to understand inflation. 

Everyone's grumping about how "greedy" Apple is with the Mac Pro, for example.

First things first: you don't need one. The iMac 5K Retina is what most serious photographers should be using. 

But let's look at that high end Mac just a little more closely. Back in 1987 Apple introduced their first high-end Macintosh, the Macintosh II. With a 20MB drive and 13" color display it cost about US$7200. What's that in today's dollars (okay, end of 2018's dollars)? Why, that would be about US$15,800. Hmm, I'll bet you can get a usable 2019 Mac Pro with the 32" display for that price.

Hmm, so the Mac Pro is overpriced? If so, then the Macintosh II was overpriced. [Disclosure: I was the publisher and primary editor of The Macintosh II Report]. Indeed, we heard that exact same claim back in the late 80's about the Mac II (and the Mac Iix and Mac IIfx), and it went on to be a popular and useful tool for many. They were essentially state-of-the-art desktops that appealed to very high end clients. Most folk bought a Mac Plus, Mac SE, or Mac SE/30, though. 

In other words, nothing's changed. 

Yes, Apple charges top dollar for their products, and our expectations of quality and performance are therefore quite high. I get that. But I got a few complaints about the Mac Pro from people who claimed that a current high-end desktop from Dell or HP could match what the upcoming Mac Pro can do. I don't think so (but we'll have to wait until the Mac Pro is actually available to determine that for sure). The Mac Pro is using a chip that isn't currently available, and it's designed to run that chip in all cores at full bore all the time without falling back on clock speed, plus it has multiple GPUs and more slots than the machines I was being told were "equivalent." 

You can buy a device that comes close to matching the Mac Pro specs on the market today. But it won't the usual stock Dell or HP. It'll be a high-end specialized box that costs north of US$15,000 when all is said and done.

How's this apply to cameras?

I see the same grumping all over the market. I get a lot of folk claiming that Nikon is "greedy" because they can pick up a gray market camera for less. While I'm on record as saying that Nikon needs to stop using the gray market to dump excess product and to come up with truly global warranty and repair policies, there's an aspect of "you get what you pay for" in those claims about gray market. You pay less for no warranty or repair. If you're fine with that, then pay less ;~).

I get others telling me that Brand X is a better bargain than Nikon. Maybe, if that Brand X does what you need doing the way you want to be done and at a lower price.

Maybe because it's because the earth is warming and no one is doing anything about it that we're all getting grumpy. Maybe it's because you see the top 0.1% getting immensely more wealthy while you struggle to make ends meet. Or maybe it's because you're lazy and greedy ;~).

The truth of the matter is this: we have better computers today than we've ever had, and we have better cameras today than we ever had. Meanwhile, prices for either haven't varied all that much over broad periods of time once you take inflation into account. Top gear requires top dollar paid. 

Aside: While most talk about smartphones nibbling away the camera market solely because of the image quality and sharing ability they have, there's another thing going on, too: cost. If you've already spent US$1000 on something that takes "good enough" photos most of the time, you're probably not going to spend another US$1000 to just take "somewhat better photos" that are tougher to share. 

First the compact cameras were destroyed by this, and now we see the same issue facing the crop sensor cameras as well. At the very top—highly refined, near state-of-the-art cameras and lenses—those that can afford the time and money to practice high-end photography are still buying high-end gear (though apparently grumping about prices, as noted above ;~). 

It's that middle area where the camera companies will prove whether they can live viably long term or not. Given that full frame is now US$1300+, crop sensor has a low ceiling in price. And given that US$1000 smartphones are 12mp+, 24-50mm, and decent in good light, that puts a floor on where crop sensor cameras have to live above. That's a fairly narrow tightrope to walk, and you can't afford to get things wrong—like ease of sharing of images—if you want to succeed in that middle.



Sticking With DSLR? Don't Worry, be Happy

With camera sales overall still contracting, and with so many players duking it out in full frame mirrorless and dangling discounts to grab business, it's easy to see the Dark Side of the situation.

But rest assured, DSLR users, there's a Bright Side, too. 

Because so many people who are picking up mirrorless bodies are dumping a fair amount of DSLR gear to pay for their "upgrade" (!?!?!), it's creating a situation in the refurbished, used, gray, and even new market where the prices are coming down for DSLR owners, too. 

The thing to pay attention to is the timing of new product introductions. 

For example, on the Nikon side, the brand new 24-70mm f/2.8 S is just a far better lens than the old F-mount 24-70mm f/2.8G; heck the fairly new 24-70mm f/4 S is better at equivalent apertures, in my opinion. Enough so that a lot of the transitioners are dumping their big, older mid-range zooms for the newer Z options. Sometime shortly after the Z lens introductions, prices on the oldest 24-70mm f/2.8 F-mount lenses started to drop. 

The same thing is going to happen soon with the 70-200mm f/2.8G (non-E) versions, I'd bet, once Nikon delivers the 70-200mm f/2.8 S. And I'm starting to see the same thing with the 14-30mm f/4 versus the 16-35mm f/4. Similar things are about to happen on the Canon side, too, particularly with their upcoming 70-200mm f/2.8L RF versus the older 70-200mm f/2.8L EF.

The tricky part is understanding the timing. This isn't a new phenomena, as we've gone through major transitions like this before (e.g. autofocus, DSLR, etc.). What typically happens is that gear that's considered "out of date" by the early movers starts losing value when the number of transitioners coupled with the better ability of the new gear becomes obvious. Used prices then slide downward for a bit, and then eventually their price either plateaus or rebounds some. 

The real issue here is supply versus demand. Lots of trade-ins push supply up far higher than demand, so price goes down. Eventually the trade-in flurry slows, and the supply/demand situation rebalances. You want to buy—and negotiate hard—in the period from the initial oversupply to the eventual plateau.

Thing is, the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G isn't a terrible lens at all. For many years it was essentially state-of-the-art, and you'll find a lot of folk out there still using that lens and enjoying it. It takes fine pictures, but it has some weak points that have been addressed with the newer versions. It's also been in production for 12 years now, and there are hundreds of thousands of these older lenses in the field. So there was already plenty of supply in the used market, thus any new trade-in activity just bumps supply upwards and prices down.

Given that current DSLR lenses on adapters work so well on the Canon RF and Nikon Z mirrorless systems, people are tending to hold onto lenses for which there isn't yet a mirrorless equivalent. Thus, the exotic* telephoto market, for example, is still pretty much performing as it has for awhile (a slow trend downwards in used prices for the more recent exotics, which are overpriced new; a stabilized price for the oldest, particularly the manual focus ones [thus proving my point about plateau]). But watch what happens if we start seeing exotics introduced for the mirrorless cameras: any trade-ins at that point would clearly oversupply the DSLR lens market.

So don't be discouraged. If you've got a D850, you've got the top camera out there, in my view. It's going to perform well and stay viable for many years. That can also be said for even the current top crop sensor cameras (e.g. D7500, D500). 

On the Nikon side, D7500, D500, D750, D850, and D5 owners have arguably state-of-the-art gear they should be happy with. On the Canon side, I'd be more limiting, putting the "happy point" really at the 5Dm4 and 1DXm2 (the RP simply undercuts the 6Dm2, and I never really liked the 5DS; meanwhile, the 7Dm2 is very out of date now).

Thus, all those trade-ins from people jumping to mirrorless because that's what social media says they should do are just going to make it cheaper for those of you sticking with DSLRs to pick up back up bodies, additional lenses, and more. Don't worry, be happy now.


* I use the term exotic to describe the very expensive, high performance telephoto lenses, such as (but not limited to) the 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, and 600mm f/4. 

What's Likely to Go Away?

The common theme you see now is that we're in a DSLR-to-mirrorless transition period. I would agree, but that doesn't mean that DSLRs go away completely, nor does it mean everything will go away. After all, Nikon is still building a high-end film SLR body and selling it (F6).

Transition, therefore, means "the majority of users" transfer from DSLR to mirrorless, and probably over a period of at least three or four years (has to do with update cycles, disposable income, age, and much more). But four years from now, there will still be DSLR users.

Both Canon and Nikon have said they'll continue to build DSLR products while building out their new mirrorless systems. Moreover, Sony is still selling their DSLR (SLT) products, despite not having introduced one for years (the A99m2 body was the last one in 2016, and the last Alpha mount lenses were introduced in 2015). 

So let's talk about what's likely to go away in DSLR land, what's likely to stay available, and why.

Canon

It's no secret that the APS-C DSLRs are Canon's biggest bane at the moment. By my count, Canon still has 11 such models on the market they're trying to sell, including multiple generations of some products. Clearly, that will change. Canon executives themselves say so.

The rumors are that the 7D, 77D, and 80D will sort of merge into one model soon, and I don't see Canon abandoing the small, light, and recently introduced SL3 (which is my favorite Canon APS-C DSLR, by the way). The question is whether or not Canon needs more DSLR models with the crop sensor. 

I look back to the film-SLR-to-DSLR transition, and I'd say no. The higher end models hang on for a bit during transitions, the lower end models quickly transition and disappear, though there's usually one consumer model that hangs on for a time. Thus, I'd be surprised if we see more Rebels (Kisses) enter the world. And I'd be extremely surprised if we saw more than one.

The last EF-S lens (for APS-C DSLRs from Canon) was introduced in 2017. I don't expect anything particularly new in their crop sensor lens lineup, either. The fact that Canon's lens factory now seems focused on M and RF plus some EF updates by itself says that APS-C DSLR is on last call at Canon. 

In full frame, Canon currently has five DSLRs still actively selling. The 1DX will get a Mark III revision, no doubt. It's the Tokyo 2020 Olympics model that's been brewing for several years. The rest? No, I'm not seeing significant updates likely there, though maybe Canon will take the 5D to Mark V with a new generation sensor. I see the 6Dm2 as a dead end (due to the RP) and the 5DS/R as additional dead ends (due to their poor showing in the market and the next RF model rumored to be coming at the end of the year).

The fact that Canon is shooting so high with RF glass early on seems to imply that they aren't going to sit on the full frame DSLRs for performance (other than the 1DXm3). So expect considerable weening in full frame DSLRs.

Curiously, Canon is getting caught out with their Cinema EOS models. Those rely on the EF mount (you can also get a PL version, but that's a smaller subset of the Cinema user base). Sony already is single mount for both their still and video cameras (E mount), and Panasonic is soon to announce an L mount pro video camera, so it looks like they're taking the Sony approach, too. So, canary in the coal mine: watch Cinema EOS. The minute it transitions to RF, that's the day that the EF lens parade stops. Until then, Canon has no choice but to continue pushing EF lenses and updates. I just don't see anything going away in their EF lens lineup any time soon.

So, at Canon: APS-C DSLR is closing up shop, full frame DSLR is still open. The interesting thing is that a huge installed base of Canon APS-C DSLR users exist. If Canon can get their products and marketing messages lined up correctly, they have a large opportunity for moving a significant portion of that base to something new (M or RF). But that's sort of been my point about the mismatch of M and RF: the messaging isn't right. 

Nikon

Likewise, Nikon has felt the decline of the consumer DSLR, what Nikon calls consumer DX. The D3500 is Nikon's best selling crop sensor DSLR, and by far. It's doing that mostly on price, which is, of course, a problem in and of itself given how far it has dropped. 

About a decade ago Nikon executives said that they had to be prepared to sell a US$400 DSLR. Guess what? They are. And that's still not helping them any, as even D3500 volume is reduced substantially now. 

More so than Canon, I think Nikon makes a complete restart with crop sensor cameras. The D3500 is weak and low margin now, the D5600 is missing in action, the D7500 needed a huge discount to get back into the "selling" column, and the D500 never really delivered on sales like the D300 did.

I'd bet that all four DX DSLRs would go away immediately if it weren't for two things: (1) parts commitments, and (2) the need to moderate the contraction. To get costs down (and gross profit margin up), Nikon has always been very aggressive about volume commitments. It's why they've reused sensors across so many models for so many years. I'd bet that the D7500 can't go away soon because it's what will get Nikon to their sensor commitment number. 

As for moderating the contraction: Nikon doesn't have a crop sensor future that they've defined and announced yet. Way back in May 2017 I outlined the options that Nikon had for mirrorless. They picked my #4 as their first step, but they haven't yet tipped their hand as to what they'll do with crop sensors. That was my #3 options:

a. use the existing DX mount
b. create a new crop sensor mount

Neither seems out of the question, surprisingly. The line of DX AF-P lenses mean that Nikon has a small set of wide angle to telephoto lenses that would perform quite well on #3a. Meanwhile, if #3b is "use the Z mount," that doesn't seem to play into what crop sensor must be now: a much smaller and lighter offering than full frame (or something very high end, ala the D500). So #3b could be a play like Canon's EOS M: a different mount than their full frame mount. Personally, I think that would be a wrong play.

Frankly, Nikon has no perfect option for crop sensor at the moment, which may be why they're taking their time to try to get whatever they do there as "right as possible."

This is a long-winded way of saying "DX DSLRs go away relatively fast, but we don't know what replaces them, if anything."

The FX full frame DSLR, however, is another story. The D5 will be replaced with a D6, for the same reasons Canon will do the 1DXm3: wanting something top end for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics coupled with the fact that they started design work on these new cameras back in 2015/6. 

The D850 still sells well, and I believe that Nikon will likely update it again (the D850 is itself the third update in the series). I've long thought that the D750 will get an update, and I can see such an update as being a "bridge" between DSLR and mirrorless: use the Z6 sensor and logic and you get a highly competent and silent DSLR using Live View. You also get the video improvements and more. Throw in Sensor VR, and I'd say you have a life extension machine (that would be the D750's life, not yours ;~).

So I'm not expecting a lot to change in the full frame end of Nikon DSLR lineup. The D610 and Df seem destined to go away, though.

In terms of lenses, as much as Nikon likes to say they're an optics company, they always seem to be a "constrained" optics company. They don't launch a lot of new lenses, and now they seem committed to pushing out Z lenses at a pace that consumes their constrained limits. We'll probably get an FX leftover design or update or two, but I'm not holding my breath. Realistically, that's fine, as the Nikkor F-mount lineup is pretty complete and compelling as it is. 

What's likely going to go away first in full frame are the screw-drive lenses. That would be the 14mm f/2.8D, 16mm f/2.8D, 20mm f/2.8D, 24mm f/2.8D, 28mm f/2.8D, 35mm f/1.4, 35mm f/2D, 50mm f/1.4D, 60mm f/2.8D, 80-200mm f/2.8D, 105mm f/2D, 135mm f/2D, 180mm f/2.8D, and 300mm f/4D. But not quickly. Nikon has this tendency to just keep a lens in stock as long as there's any demand for it.

Which is why the AI-S lenses still exist! They work well on the remaining film SLRs (!) and now on the new Z's. Things die slowly at Nikon. So even though I'm saying that pretty much all the lenses that aren't AF-S/AF-P are in danger of going away, there's no indication that they will do so anytime soon.

The thing that's going to surprise you is this: Nikon flash is broken. I wouldn't be surprised if it goes away or gets replaced. Oh, the SB-5000 is probably safe. But all kinds of Nikon flash is now showing senility. The SU-800 doesn't work correctly with the D7500 or the Z6/Z7, for instance. Which means that the macro flash kit is also kaput unless Nikon fixes this problem. The SB-300 and SB-700 also seem out of sync with the cameras now (e.g. the SB-700 doesn't show up in the menu-driven flash options).

Either Nikon is going to redo the flash lineup and fix compatibilities, or they're going to let most of it wilt. Funny thing is, the D5 (and upcoming D6), Z6 and Z7 don't have a built in flash, and don't use some of the features of the current flashes (such as Autofocus Assist), so Nikon flash needs a redo, not a wilting. 

Pentax

With no mirrorless strategy in place, all Pentax has is DSLR. Unfortunately, the news isn't good no matter what comes next. If it's "stay the course with DSLRs," that means something like a 2% market share of a fast declining market, which doesn't allow for much investment in new product. If it's "let's do mirrorless," they don't have enough engineering bandwidth to continue to do much with DSLRs.

A recent dpreview interview with Ricoh executives at the CP+ trade show in Japan generated the following quote: "I imagine, in two or three years, some users who bought mirrorless cameras will return to DSLRs or choose to use both systems, because each has its own benefits." 

In any transition, there's always a subset of folk who essentially create a small backlash. They go to the new restaurant and sample the new cuisine, don't like it, and then return their old restaurant, at least until it closes. 

Thing is, as I've said from the beginning of mirrorless, the camera makers have big incentives to get people to transition. Fewer parts and simpler construction that requires fewer alignment steps means that if they can keep price points close to intact, they can make more profit. And if the market continues contracting, they aren't as exposed to that because they can give up some of their increased profit margin.

If Pentax thinks that their forecast Back to the DSLR movement is going to be significant in size and benefit them, I'd say they're going to be wrong. Pentax is in the wrong place to take advantage of that, as they don't have any mirrorless folk who would backlash ;~). I really don't see a Canon M/RF, Nikon Z, or Sony E owner saying "you know, I liked DSLRs better" and then going out and buying a Pentax DSLR.

A persistent rumor has been going around about the Pentax brand, too: that Hoya only licensed the Pentax name to Ricoh for a specific period of time.  (Update: Ricoh has issued a statement denying that this is true, even though Hoya still technically owns the Pentax trademark.) 

Frankly, Ricoh should have consolidated its Ricoh and Pentax cameras under one brand name a long time ago. Lately I've noticed more "Ricoh" executives at trade shows, but fewer "Pentax" ones. That might be because of launches of things like the GR and Theta, but it might be more indicative that the one-brand idea is finally starting to play out internally. 

While Pentax was early to the small MF Sony sensor with the 645Z in 2014, they've been quiet since Fujifilm and Hassleblad came on the scene, and Fujifilm clearly wants to own that market, so silence on Pentax's part is not comforting. 

Likewise, that the K1 is still on the 36mp Sony sensor and with only a minor change since its appearance in 2016 also isn't comforting. It feels like Pentax is slowly sliding backwards while the other camera companies push forward despite the market contraction.

That said, I don't see anything going away in the Pentax lineup until it all goes away. 

But...

Take a deep breath, close your eyes, concentrate on shutting down your senses, think about nothing but your mantra. No, you can't use the mantra Om, because that might make you desire Olympus resurrect the OM series as a full frame mirrorless camera ;~). 

If you were to make the decision today to buy your first DSLR camera, you're fine. The best of the bunch are excellent cameras that should last you years, probably a decade. And in the Canikon world, you'll be able to buy lenses and accessories for quite some time. Longer than you camera will last.

If you're making a decision about a camera today based upon some belief that things will be different five or ten years from now—e.g. buying mirrorless now because it is the future—you're a grass is always greener on the other side time traveler. 

I've written it many times: the best all-around ILC you can buy today is the Nikon D850, a DSLR. No, the Sony A7Rm3 didn't change that. Nor does the Nikon Z7. 

Yes, our DSLR choices are going to start getting more limited moving forward. But the ones that remain are great choices. 

Where Are We? (Update IV or V, I've Lost Count)

For over a decade I've been writing the following about the currently-available digital cameras: "if you can't get good-looking prints at the maximum size a desktop printer can produce, it isn't the camera that's the problem." (The print size I'm referring to is basically 13x19", though we've gotten a few printers recently that could theoretically fit on a desktop and go beyond that.)

DenaliAK2004-08-13 0002

The 6mp D70. And yes, this image, with a lot of tender care in post processing, holds up quite well in a 19" print, despite seeming to only start with enough pixels for a 10" one. In fact, I processed it in a window on my monitor that was about 19" wide. 

As I've noted in some earlier articles, I've been using this rainy spring to go through my image files (all the way back to 1992). Those come from dozens of different cameras and brands and hundreds of lenses. Nothing I've seen so far says that the quoted remark at the top of this article isn't true.

So what is the problem? Why might you not get good-looking photos? And where do we really stand with today's products? Where might we go next?

What is the Problem?

So if the camera isn't the problem with getting bad looking images, what is? The shorthand answer is:

  • Bad setting decisions — poor exposure, poor JPEG settings, wrong white balance, wrong shutter speed (motion), wrong aperture (focus), and so on.
  • Bad shot discipline — poor handholding, support that isn't, poor timing.
  • Wrong lens — too much cropping, observable lens fault for the subject (e.g. linear distortion for architecture, vignetting for landscape, etc.).
  • Bad processing — too much or improper sharpening, wrong colors, too much saturation, improper white/black levels, incorrect noise reduction, wacky contrast decisions.

I've seen plenty of all four of these things in imagery from others when they begin complaining about their camera. 

Before you complain about your camera, though, make sure you're not guilty of any of the things I just called out. Buying a new camera doesn't solve any of them. Some think that more automation will solve their problem—e.g. set Auto on a new camera and bad setting decisions go away—but more often than not in the best case that just locks them into a very specific, and not optimal, look. It's faux progress, really.

I'm going to add one additional problem that's going to be a bit controversial: wrong camera for the job. 

There's a reason why sports photographers on the sidelines of college and pro games are for the most part using Canon 1Dx's, Nikon D5's, and Sony A9's. If they're not using one of those, then often they're using Canon 7Dm2's, Nikon D500/D850's, or Sony A7m3's.

In some types of photography, a few features and performance factors do come into play. Make sure you know what those are and that you're getting them if you value one type of photography over another.

Where do we Stand?

Before I get into specifics, let's go through those four problems again:

  • Bad setting decisions — more automation and specifically AI automation is being used, with more coming. If you believe that computers make better decisions than humans, you're probably jumping for joy. I don't think so, and automation tends to drive all decisions toward the mean, reducing creativity.
  • Bad shot discipline — image stabilization is what many think solves this. For those that are really bad at handholding, yes, it probably does solve most of their problem. Don't think this comes without a penalty. IS impacts bokeh, for instance. At certain shutter speeds, it can impact acuity. Again, things are being driven towards the mean, so be careful if you're someone that wants to stand out.
  • Wrong lens I'll get to the cropping note when I talk about pixels in a bit. But now that we're in a world of "lens correction algorithms", be careful that those aren't producing unwanted side effects.
  • Bad processing — I can't tell you how many people I've seen turn their cameras up to 11 (that would be something like using a Vivid picture control with extra sharpening and contrast). Because they can. My images look bland coming out of the camera. Because I shoot raw and remove all the Extra Sauce. But what I see more and more people doing is abandon bad after-the-fact raw processing for bad in-camera processing as the cameras get more sophisticated and offer more selections.

Here's today's state-of-the-art: 36mp or more for large format work or if you are heavy cropper, 24mp for low light and fast frame rate work. A realistic 11 stops or more of usable dynamic range at base ISO. All of Nikon's current full frame cameras except for the Df and D5 hit those marks, as do some past ones (e.g. D800, D810). All of Sony's A7/A9 current cameras and a few of their past ones hit those marks (except for the A7S models). The Canon R and 5DmIV hit those marks. 

(The D5, A7Sm2, and 1DXm2 are all what I'd call speciality cameras; see my comment in the previous section about right camera for the job. These cameras are the right camera for some jobs.)

APS-C (DX)—at least from Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony—tends to fall just off today's state of the art for low light and fast frame rate work, but not far from it. You'd expect a stop of difference in DR due to sensor sizes, but in some cases it's a bit less than that. But we don't have any APS-C cameras that could be said to be suitable for large format work (you'd have to shoot panos or use sensor shift techniques). And you don't have a lot of room for cropping, so make sure you have the right lenses.

(What about Canon APS-C, you ask? Unfortunately, Canon has fallen behind the Sony-based crop sensors enough so that it shows. Apparently, buyers are starting to notice, too.)

Features and automation for top-end cameras is getting pretty well balanced across brands now. I've not picked up a recent camera that I can't get exposure, focus, and much more right with very little effort. You do have to study the camera and make sure you understand how to control it, though. UX (user experience, which includes user interface, grip, and more) is different from brand to brand, and even from model to model in some cases (I'm looking at you, Canon RF). 

Which brings me to another thing I've been writing for some time: given the relative parity among camera features and even performance these days, how you react to controlling the camera is probably the most important factor that most people don't pay enough attention to. 

Nikon, for instance, has been doggedly consistent (overall) with their button+dial interface dating back into the 1980's. You can pick up an N8008, F100, D100, D500, D850, or Z7 and find that the basic Nikon UX DNA is intact. Yes, a button or two may have moved—often for no good reason, which is why I call Nikon out when they do that—but it's pretty easy for an existing Nikon user to pick up any new Nikon and adjust quickly. Change to another brand? Nope, lots of new learning will be triggered, and muscle memory has to be redeveloped.

That's why I've often written that it makes little sense for a Nikon user to switch to another brand. I find a lot of those that switch end up switching back after time, and that's because they are most at home with the Nikon UX. (I could say the same thing about Canon cameras until recently, when the M and R series started messing with the Canon DNA. I'm starting to say the same thing about the Sony Alphas, though I really think the menus have been messed up and keep juggling enough change between models to confuse folk moving between Sony cameras.)

So, let me state a couple of strawman proposals about the current state-of-the-art:

  • For most folk, current 24mp is enough (APS-C or full frame), and most current cameras at any given sensor size and pixel count are within sight of parity at any given price point. 
  • For those producing large prints or needing to crop aggressively, most current cameras of 36mp or above are enough, and most current cameras at the full frame sensor size and high pixel counts are again within sight of parity, even at different price points (e.g. 45mp full frame versus 50mp medium format).

The corollary is that if you're below the above (e.g. <24mp or <42mp), then you're probably going to end up significantly below state-of-the-art. (Again, the specialized cameras like the Canon 1DXm2, Nikon D5, and Sony A9 I'd judge a bit differently. But these are not cameras you buy for all-around general use, IMHO.)

What about 20mp, you ask? After all, the top Olympus m4/3 cameras and the Nikon D7500 and D500 are at that mark. Well, here's the somewhat damning answer: you don't have a lot of crop flexibility, so you need to be using the right lens. If you're producing mostly for social media, you probably aren't bothered by the lack of pixels. If you want to print or display large, you probably will be. But again, it depends a bit on whether you composed right in the field with the right lens or not.

So, are you below or above what I just described? If below, sure, maybe it's time to think about upgrading. If you're at or above my strawman bar, I'd say you should spend your time looking to improve in places other than the camera.

Like lenses. While what I wrote about cameras is arguably true, you can muck that all up by putting the wrong lenses on the right camera (or the right lenses on the wrong camera). The 28-300mm f/3.4-5.6 Nikkor is not state-of-the-art on a Nikon D850. Simple as that. That lens is all about convenience, while that body is all about performance. That's a poor combination choice, in my opinion. Yet I keep finding people trying to make that choice.

Likewise, the 70-200mm f/2.8E lens—the best telephoto zoom in that range I've encountered to date—isn't exactly a good choice on an older D700 or D7000 body. At 12mp full frame or 16mp crop sensor—and both older technology sensors to boot—you're putting more lens on the camera body than really resolves well. The older 70-200mm's were quite adequate for those older bodies. 

To me, this is the trickiest part of "state-of-the-art" for photography: lenses. In the past decade I'd argue that we've seen more progress on lenses pushing performance upward than in image sensors. Some recent lenses I've tested are spectacular. True, we wouldn't see exactly how spectacular they are without more and better pixels, but the thing I keep noticing in my image files as I go through them is this: the best lenses show through, no matter what camera body I put them on. 

I'd argue that if you're going to make your images stand out from others—besides with your eye for composition and your technique—things have shifted some recently from "use better cameras" to "use better lenses." 

Where are We Going?

Here's a truism: there's no stopping the Japanese engineers when it comes to incremental iteration. Once you hire them—and in Japan there's still a strong sense of hire-for-life—they just keep making whatever it is they were working on better. It's what they do. And they do it incredibly well.

So more pixels, better pixels, more bandwidth, faster/better focus, deeper feature sets are a given. Lenses, particularly on the short mirrorless mounts, will continue to get better, too.

The problem I see for all of those things is that there will be fewer and fewer takers on the buying side, as the general image quality capability of today's cameras and lenses already far exceed what most people need. Pros certainly want to stay on top of what's possible in imaging, otherwise they can't charge good money for what they do. They need to use any small advantage they find to help them stand out from the crowd. But that's a small subset of the buyers of sophisticated cameras. 

The high-end enthusiast often can be triggered to buy something new based on FOMO (fear of missing out). More Pixels! Faster Frame Rates! Higher MTF! This was what propelled the High Fidelity snob aficionado back when CDs and then MP3s became the norm for most people, but the number of those folks who carried on at the high end was determined by disposable income, and eventually buying exhaustion. The higher the HiFi market reached, the fewer it reached ;~). The same thing is starting to happen with interchangeable lens cameras now.

In my shortest essay ever, I point out a truism: "There is no shortage of customers who want to take photos and share them." The camera makers, unfortunately, aren't making cameras for those folk. And I see no signs that the camera makers want to really try. 

So I have to ask: do you really want a 70mp full frame camera? Bigger, better, heavier lenses? More dynamic range than the median scene has in it? AI automation that makes every camera decision the same and thus most pictures look the same? Because that's where we're headed. 


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