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. 

Latest News/Views stories (top is most recent):

More Ask Thom Questions Answered

"Do I really need 1/8000 second shutter speeds, or is a camera with only 1/4000 enough?”

Excellent question. The answer, as to a lot of questions, is “maybe.” 

If you’re shooting at base ISO all the time, it’s somewhat unlikely that you’d be bumping up against a 1/4000 shutter limit. For ISO 100 Sunny 16 is 1/100 and f/16, so you’ve got at least five stops of leeway (e.g. you're at 1/3200 at f/2.8). That’s a good enough range for most types of photography. If your camera is base ISO 200, then Sunny 16 is 1/200 and f/16 and you’re going to lose one of those stops of flexibility. You could be over the top at f/2.8.

Where you certainly might hit the shutter speed bar is when you really want to use a fast (f/1.4) lens in bright light to produce shallow DOF (perhaps some portraiture and street scenes). You usually can’t lower the ISO and thus you hit maximum shutter speed before you get to that f/1.4 aperture. (Many cameras allow a false ISO of half the base, but they’re cheating on highlights, and you need to be careful using that.)

Those of us who shoot sports and wildlife action tend to hit the shutter speed bar a different way. I’m at the darker shadow end of the stadium/arena maxed out on ISO and trying to maintain a 1/1250 or higher shutter speed (depends upon sport). I pan with the subject to a brighter area still lit by sun and I may find myself suddenly hitting the top shutter speed. 

Auto ISO certainly can help in the second situation, particularly when you want maximum aperture, as I tend to want in the sports situation.

While I’m discussing this, the 1/2000 top shutter speed imposed by some cameras in some electronic shutter modes on modern cameras can be very frustrating to deal with. So I’d tend to say: Avoid 1/2000 top ends; double check whether a 1/4000 top end will work for everything you do; or just get a 1/8000 top end. 

“I’m having trouble seeing the effect of a circular polarizer in my EVF. What am I doing wrong?”

You’re letting Nikon pick what to do about contrast, saturation, and tonal curves. In other words, you’ve selected the Automatic Picture Control, which is the default these days. Coupled with the EVF showing you what the image will look like, the camera is fighting your polarizer, trying to produce the same look. Try Neutral as a Picture Control and you won’t be having that fight.

"Are you sure XQD cards never fail?"

No I'm not, and I never wrote that. What I wrote originally several years ago was that I'd not then heard of an XQD failure. All of us have had a lot more experience with XQD since then. What I can say is that an outright physical failure—which is relatively common with SD cards used for a long time—is extremely rare. I know of two such circumstances, and it appears that in one the culprit wasn't the card itself, but the card holder in the camera. In the other case, I personally have a card where an edge of the plastic case has finally succumbed and started to break off. Super Glue to the rescue.

Logical failures also seem to be rare in the XQD world. I know of four that have been reported to me, most from high volume shooters. Like all NAND-based storage, XQD cards have both a fixed life and like any semiconductor, can fail. Buying from an established, vetted manufacturer is better than trying to find a bargain somewhere. That's been true of SD cards, and as XQD/CFexpress gets more popular, it will be true of them, as well.

What people don't talk about, and what's difficult to get a clear handle on, is that when you produce cards, you source both memory controllers and NAND parts. You can buy cheap, lightly tested units, or you can buy more expensive, highly tested units to put in your product. When you buy a US$20 SD card, which do you think the manufacturer has used? When you buy from an XQD card from a primary vendor who values reputation, such as Sony, which do you think the manufacturer has used? Some brands, such as Delkin and ProGrade tend to make claims backed up with some form of warranty, and they probably do so because they're buying and integrating the "better" parts rather than the "cheapest" parts.

Unfortunately, there's no easy way to verify any of this. I've had long discussions with card vendors, and they generally won't tell you exactly what parts they're using and how they were tested. No one wants to get into specifics, as if they're hiding some trade secret from each other. 

I can speak to my own use, for sure. I shoot tens of thousands of images a year. Virtually all of that now is SD or XQD. I encounter fairly regular SD card failures, even from top brands, and physical failure is definitely an issue I have to watch for. I've literally had an SD card fall out of the camera in parts. XQD? I'm not had a physical failure, and I've not had a logical failure to date, either. That's better than my experience with CompactFlash with about the same volume of use (and of course, CompactFlash card/slots are highly subject to pin bending, which is a form of physical failure and fairly common).

All else equal, I'd take an XQD/CFexpress over an SD card today. But all else is not equal; CFexpress cards, slots, and readers are clearly faster than the top SD ones we're currently using.

So I'll continue to support XQD and its successor CFexpress. To me, these cards seem like the best of both worlds: robust physical attributes and high performance. Will I ever experience an XQD/CFexpress failure? I'm sure I will. Use something enough and it will eventually fail. What I don't like is using something a little and having it fail.

"Where are the CFexpress card firmware updates?"

This is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario, and I think some eggs got broken in the process. For CFexpress to really hit the market, it has to satisfy a lot of needs now, not just those of Nikon cameras. Canon and Panasonic will be supporting CFexpress. Plus we've got video devices and industrial devices using these cards, too.

Nikon has finally issued a firmware update for the Z6 and Z7 to use CFexpress cards, about a month later than anyone thought. But note that Nikon says that this firmware has only been verified to work with Sony CFexpress cards. Reports of problems with SanDisk CFexpress cards abound.

What I heard is that in the final testing of early production cards someone (everyone?) found small issues that needed addressing. In other words, the first chickens didn't produce the expected eggs. Or was it the eggs didn't produce the expected chickens? I'm told that these are normal birthing issues and that everyone went into deeper testing and resolving cycles than they expected to have to. 

You also need finished, or at least near finished, devices upon which to test. The upcoming D6 and 1DX m3 are two of the likely best test beds, as they both have dual CFexpress slots and can stress the write/read performance. The Nikon D5, D500, and D850 all have early XQD slots that need firmware upgrades, and I have to wonder if their slots are slightly different than the Z6/Z7 ones. Whatever the reason, it'll be a little longer before we get firmware updates for those cameras, I think. 

CFexpress cards now have to pass Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony device verification at this point. The rumble out of Tokyo a month or so ago was that there was an issue in the software stack that kept a complete sign off of all players on all devices from happening, and that issue was being resolved by the standards group (which extends to the card makers, card reader makers, etc.). 

Some things take time. Patience, grasshopper. We'd rather have this done right than quickly. 

More on the Nikon D780

As we get the chance to go beyond press releases and actually handling the camera and fully contemplating it, a few other things should be pointed out:

  • For once, Nikon's marketing got a consistent message out of the Internet sites covering the launch. Basically "a Z6 in a DSLR body." I actually think that does the D780 a bit of a disservice. As I've pointed out before, all the Z's have been targeted below the near equivalent DSLR. In the Z6's case, that's clearly the D780.
  • Got a screw-drive autofocus lens? Yep, the D780 has no issues with that, while the Z6 and FTZ adapter means you lose autofocus. For some long-term Nikon users, that may be enough to keep them in the DSLR fold awhile longer.
  • Where's the ProRes RAW support? It seems that should have been a no-brainer to bring over from the Z6, but for some reason Nikon's been silent on this. I suspect that this is mostly logistical. Nikon was in silent running mode on the D780. Specific rumors didn't appear until nearly the last minute, and the body is already shipping in some regions within days after the announcement. I suspect that the D780 was an example of what Nikon executives said would be an effort to speed up development and release cycles. ProRes RAW support requires Atomos to be in on the deal, and they might not have had a camera to work with. We'll see if this changes down the line, or whether Nikon will just leave ProRes RAW for the mirrorless cameras.
  • I'm amused that it's taken this long for Nikon to understand that the D810A long exposure time ability was something that we all wanted in all our Nikon cameras. Being able to set a direct shutter speed up to 15 minutes is something that needs to be in the Z6, Z7, D6, and D850. Some might argue it should be in the Z50 and higher cameras, too.
  • Nikon and Canon both have the same problem at the moment: explaining how optical focus is different than sensor focus. We have different modes, different capabilities, and a lot of other differences, some clearly different, some much more nuanced. Getting across "when to use what and why" is going to be something both companies need to spend some time detailing. I'm not holding my breath. 
  • Throwing in the oddball film digitizer feature—formerly only in the D850—is a bit of "throwing in the kitchen sink." Not that I'm complaining, because prior to this Nikon's approach tended to be "take out features" in any camera other than the top end one. Still, adding things like this into the D780 shows me that Nikon is a bit worried about whether "there's enough" in the DSLR still to keep people buying. But then they take out the internal flash and grip option. That's a bit schizophrenic. Pick a lane, Nikon.
  • Nikon continues to not understand "feature = user benefit" marketing. Nikon does mention that the D780 inherits D5-generation focus technology, even though the D780 uses the same physical focus sensor as before. What Nikon fails to do is tell you why inheriting D5-generation focus technology is a user benefit (and it is, clearly so). Try this with your D750 and D780: use 3D tracking and see what happens. One is going to be clearly better at identifying and tracking a subject. Guess which one that is? 
  • I'm starting to think that my biggest objection to the D780 features/changes/improvements will be the AE-L/AF-L button sitting right where we need a thumb stick. The Direction Pad is too far down the back for comfortable focus selector use (same problem as on the Z50). 
bythom D780 back detail

Simple question: is this the proper position and array for things your right thumb controls?


While I've been on the harsh side with my comments on the D780, there is the sum-of-the-parts thing going on here. Just as the D810 was clearly a better camera for the sophisticated user than the D800 despite using the same sensor, so it may be that the D780 is the same thing to the D750. The problem is that this type of difference doesn't show up in specifications or even feature lists. 

The way I look at the sum-of-the-parts thing is this: is the new camera more in my way or less in my way while shooting? And how clearly so? 

Things like the long exposure times are a "less in the way" thing. Removing features like the internal flash may be a "more in the way" thing. The real question thus becomes one of balance. For the things I'd (or you'd) normally use this camera for, did the balance improve, and did it improve enough to make a clear difference to you? 

One of the reasons why people are disagreeing about how they see the D780 is in that last question. For some, the balance may very well have tilted towards a clearly better camera. If you use Live View or video a lot, I'm pretty sure it did. For others, they're guessing that the balance may have tilted the wrong way. That's particularly true for those that use flash or prefer the vertical grip, who may find the camera is now not helping them. 

I think I've been consistent on this: this late in the DSLR cycle I don't think you want to create a new camera where anything triggers a "gets in the way more" issue for someone. Nikon's asking you for US$2300 to upgrade to this camera, and the camera you have is probably perfectly capable of taking excellent photos, after all. Not to mention that there's another choice available in the Z6. 

The D750 was Nikon's best selling full frame DSLR. First, because it was on the market for so long. Second, because it was highly competent. Third due to the fact that it was on substantive discount so often and sat at or just above the top DX camera choices, tempting folk to cross over. The D780 won't have two of those benefits (I'm assuming it will be highly competent). It also has a competitor in the Z6. 

Thus, I don't expect the D780 to be the next "best seller" in Nikon's lineup. I suspect that would be the Z6, and for the same three reasons the D750 was. Nikon doesn't need the D780 to outsell the Z6, but I'm pretty sure they need it to sell well. Only time will tell if they got the balance right. I still suspect the answer is "not quite." 

I've got a lot in my queue and in my testing cycle right now. It's likely that further comments about the D780 will have to wait until I can turn my attention more directly to it.

Nikon Announcement Feedback

I have to be a little careful with this, as some of the feedback I get mimics what I write, thus serves as a confirmation bias. Still, I've been closely watching my email, actively talking to other pros, looking at responses around the Web, and more. All trying to suss out what is really being said about Nikon's recent announcements—we had four, three of which impact my main two sites—and whether that has any basis in reality.

bythom nikon prods

The D780. Most of the photography and tech press have been quite positive about the D780, and for the most part Nikon seems to have avoided some of the ugly headlines they got in the recent past. Yet most of the customer feedback I've heard is far less positive. 

This cuts right to what I've been writing about recently. As an update to the D750, the D780 does bring quite a bit to the table: newer sensor, faster focus, new EXPEED functions, faster (and slower) shutter, better weather sealing and body structure, better video capabilities, faster card slots, longer battery life, and a handful of features that are in the D850 but not the D750. From a press release standpoint, there's a lot to be positive about, as, on paper, the D780 clearly looks to be a better camera than the D750 it replaces. In many ways, they D780 may be very much like the D810 was to the D800, and the D850 to the D810: a solid set of changes and improvements that truly make for a better camera.

The problem, of course, is "who's going to buy it?" Not new-to-Nikon-DSLR users. So basically we're mostly stuck with D600, D700, and D750 upgraders that might buy it. And there's the rub. 

So far, the majority of those folk are telling me that they're not interested. It's a simple cost/benefit analysis on their part: "for US$2300 what do I get that I don't already have, and do I actually need that?" Worse still, recent discounts on other cameras, such as the Z's and the D850, make some ponder a different choice entirely (typically D850 for the crowd that would be interested in the D780). 

I'm a little worried about this disparity (press liking it, most likely customers not yet liking it). Somehow, Nikon's marketing needs to amplify the former and directly address the latter if the D780 is going to manage truly useful sales levels without significant discounting. I suspect that the D780 is going to be a significant upgrade to the D750, but is Nikon getting that message clearly across?

To answer your question: yes, I'll work on a book for the D780, and I'll have my usual thorough review once I've had enough practical shooting experience with it.

The 120-300mm f/2.8. All my pro shooting friends say the same basic thing: they're not buying it. I guess that means that there will be plenty on hand to borrow in Tokyo at the Olympics for NPS members ;~). Two of my sports photographer friends said almost exactly the same thing: they were interested in the lens and had budgeted for it, but at US$9500 it is way over what they had planned. More like US$5500 was what they were expecting (again, the Sigma version of this lens is currently US$3100). As my friends looked more at the final specifications, they caught the thing that makes me pause about the new lens: it's too heavy (and probably again front heavy). 

You really have to look at this new lens as a replacement for the 300mm f/2.8G VRII (which sells for US$5500). It's about the same size and weight, it's designed to be sharp at 300mm. So for US$4000 more what you're actually getting over the original prime exotic is the 120-299mm focal range. No one I know can justify that, particularly considering that they've already got the 70-200mm focal range well covered with the expensive f/2.8E they previously bought. So what we're really talking about on the sidelines is that the 201-299mm focal range is costing you US$4000.

Okay, so let's stick a TC1.4E on it. Now we're at 168-420mm f/4. Wait, doesn't Nikon make a lens like that already? Yep, the 180-400mm f/4 to 560mm f/5.6 (with built-in TC). Against that the 120-300mm f/2.8 looks like a bit of a bargain, as the 180-400mm is US$12,400. Hmm, so which would I rather have? I can't say for sure since I haven't used the 120-300mm, but if I'm spending the equivalent of an excellent condition used car, I'd lean towards the 180-400mm to couple with a 70-200mm on my other camera.

Let's hope that Nikon got a clear signal from Sony when they get around to making mirrorless exotics: maybe the price is okay and exotics are just costly to produce, but that price is only okay if you can drop weight and balance our cameras better (e.g. move the weight in the lens more towards the mount). Because when Nikon finally gets around to making a Z-mount exotics and they don't weight reduce and rebalance, we're going to be in "more of the same" territory and still not taking our wallets out. 

The 70-200mm f/2.8 S. This lens was being much maligned before it's official announcement. People had seen it in glass cases at shows and didn't think much of it. That's mostly because Canon did a rethink—almost exactly what I mention in that last paragraph on the 120-300mm—and designed for compact (and lighter) with their RF 70-200mm f/2.8. That Canon RF lens is slightly less than 6" in length when retracted and 1070g. The new Nikkor comes in at almost 9" and 1360g without the tripod collar, and I think that's about where everyone was thinking it would be after their in glass case examination. (By comparison, the current f-mount lens is 8" and 1430g.)

What changed people's minds with the actual announcement from Nikon was the accompanying MTF charts. They're clearly better than any other 70-200mm f/2.8 we've seen, including the current champ, which is Nikon's f-mount version! Now MTF's derived from theoretical design are not necessarily what you get in practice, but still, most of the reaction was a very appropriate "wow!" 

But wait...there's more!

The lens is both parfocal (doesn't change focus with zoom) and benign with focal length breathing (no focal length change when focusing). That gets my attention. Even though I probably won't use the lens for video, I still like parfocal, because I can zoom in, magnify, and focus, then demagnify and zoom out and know I'm focused exactly where I want to be. You can't do that with the current 70-200's. 

The multi-motor focus, weather sealing, and the internal VR that works with sensor VR just dot the i and cross the t. I think Nikon may have a winner here, just like the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. And by the way, the 14-24mm f/2.8 S has popped up in the glass case at CES. It looks pretty much like we expected it to, and near the same size and look as the 24-70mm f/2.8. Nice, particularly if once again the MTF is top notch.

For what it's worth: the lenses that are appearing as near final are the 14-24mm f/2.8 S, the 20mm f/1.8 S, and the 50mm f/1.2 S, all of which were on the 2020 release schedule from the original lens road map. None of the other lenses on the Z-mount road map have dates associated with them other "by the end of 2021."

Final Thoughts. Product in hand and being put to real world test is what you really need in order to make effective buying decisions. I'm told that all three of the above goodies will be available by the end of February, so it won't take long before the Internet chatter about these products goes from "initial impressions" to "actual ability." So don't get too caught up in anything that's being written at the moment, including from me.

Bonus: Meanwhile, over at Canon, their European Senior Product Marketing Manager was quoted as saying: "...should the market demand it, we are ready to create new EF lenses. But for now, our focus is on RF." This is being widely interpreted as "no more new EF lenses are coming." At least not unless Canon sees a change in customer demand.

This wasn't the way to "announce" such a change, if that change is actually true. At a time Canon still needs to sell DSLRs, in particular their new flagship 1DX Mark III, you really don't want to send a message that says it's an orphan now. And you certainly don't want to send such a message from a mid-level manager at a subsidiary. I suspect we're going to see a followup statement from corporate that is a little less direct.

To Nikon's credit, they aren't making that same mistake. They're still 100% on the "DSLRs have a future" plan at the moment, while continuing to invest in their mirrorless future. Thing is, Nikon is correct: DSLRs and mirrorless can (and have) cohabit for awhile. My only problem is that Nikon has undermined their new DSLR product a bit (removing flash and grip, for example). If there is truly ongoing DSLR demand, you need to more boldly serve those customers.

The DSLR Cash Cow is Alive For How Long?

We're starting to get a better understanding about how Canon and Nikon see "we'll continue to support the DSLR." With the 1DX Mark III and D780 in the books, a peak at the D6, plus some strong rumors about two other models, the answer is probably going to be disappointing to a lot of DSLR owners. (And now you'll see why I posted my "Can a Better DSLR Exist" article just prior to these launches.)

What I'm seeing is the traditional Milk the Cow approach to the DSLR to mirrorless transition, and not an overly well done version of that, too. All the accountants in charge at Canon and Nikon appear to think that there's still "some money" left in the DSLR till they can extract, but they don't want to spend too much in money or effort to get it out. 

The 1DX m3 update turned out to be predictable and mostly a mash-up of existing Canon tech, despite all the predictions of "big surprises." Did we really need four years to stick in a faster card slot, add DPAF and better video to the sensor, and figure out how to offer HEIF? Sure, there's a lot of the usual top-of-the-line tweaking in it, particularly to the focus system, but the Mark III feels a lot more Mark II.5-ish to me. There's no "urgency" in the 1DX m3 design: virtually everything in the Mark III was predictable when the Mark II came out, and it took the usual amount of time to produce it.

From what we know of the D6, I think you'll see much the same from Nikon at the high end, and that's more predictable. The 1, 3, 5 were the big changes on eight year boundaries and the 2 and 4 (and soon 6) were the smaller ones on four year boundaries (and of course, the even smaller s updates on two year boundaries). Again, once the details are revealed, look closely to see if there was any urgency or additional push to produce something better than expectations.

Meanwhile, one Canon executive in Europe is quoted as saying that EF lens development will no longer be pursued. Another indication that the 1DX m3 (and probably D6) may be the last of the top-end DSLRs. Nikon, on the other hand, introduced a replacement for the 300mm f/2.8 f-mount prime that's...a zoom. And which is non-competitive for most photographers (it's not in a mirrorless mount, it's not light, it's not affordable).

Truly, I don't see a lot changing at the top of the DSLR world, though I'll always take any progress or performance improvement offered. Canon and Nikon will get some pros to upgrade, I'm absolutely sure, particularly if the focus improvements are truly clear improvements. But these are pros that are hanging onto DSLRs for the moment, and I'm not sure anything has been done to staunch the increasing leakage to the Sony A9. 

The Nikon D780 shows how to undermine an update. Don't get me wrong, in almost all respects that new camera should be a somewhat better camera than the one it replaces, but the word "somewhat" shouldn't be in this launch cycle at all. Both Canon and Nikon need some "see, we're still the tech leader than knows photographers better than anyone else" mojo right now. 

The D780 seems to be the opposite of that. A lot of small changes that benefit Nikon but not always the user, plus a lot of expected low-hanging fruit that spills over from the mirrorless and D850 efforts. What else was there in the D780 update?

Here's the thing: the D780 update came almost five years after the D750 and seems like a rather mild update to many. (Consider this: the D750 sells for US$1500 and the D780 for US$2300; is there US$800 worth or real difference in the two, and if not, which one would you buy?) 

If we predict out into the future, that means no D780 update until 2025 (if then). Can the modest changes of the D780 really sustain the mid-range DSLR line that far out? I don't think so. Because Nikon is going to have to update the Z6 long before that, and it's likely that they're going to just further leapfrog the D780 and thus obsolete that whole DSLR product line.

This is basically true for the 1DX m3 and D6, too: they have to suffice through to the 2024 Paris Olympics, but I'm pretty sure that an RX and Z9 will be taking their place sometime between the Tokyo and Paris Olympics. So a 1DX m4 and D7 look less and less likely, or will have less and less change. In essence, Canon and Nikon just fully tipped their hands: DSLRs are getting lip service and a quick makeover, but the real renovation job is over there in mirrorless, it just hasn't fully arrived at the former leaders yet.

In my "better DSLR" article I left out a number of things that could have been done to sustain DSLRs. For example, instead of the current LCD overlay system Nikon uses in the optical viewfinder, they could have put in an OLED-based one. That technology exists, and it exists well enough to basically build a hybrid-type DSLR. Only problem? It adds costs. Guess what Canon and Nikon are 100% averse to right now? Costs. 

Perhaps there's an accountant in Tokyo that can explain exactly how the path being taken by Canon and Nikon is "optimal." He should expect a huge counter argument in response from me, though. The camera makers have long patterned themselves after the...wait for it...automotive industry product practices, and the whole Japanese consumer electronics efforts have tended to do the same. Major redevelopment many years apart, minor iteration in between, preferably with annual or bi-annual updates. Even the whole model lineup confusion is basically patterned after the auto industry, most notably Toyota. 

Is that really the optimal product approach for a declining market with a loyal customer base, though? I don't think so. Indeed, I'm predicting another big (-20%+) down year for cameras in 2020, despite the fact we're likely to see quite a few new (and some overdue) models announced. The reason? Those new cameras just aren't appealing enough to the remaining customers to attract a big update cycle. The recently announced new DSLRs are witness of that.

In MBA parlance, the camera world is becoming a battle between gross profit margin (GPM) and net profit margin (NPM). The difference between the two tends to be impacted by scale of the market. As the market size has changed, the balance between those two things starts to get wonky. But if you steer too hard towards one or the other, things get wonkier. I'm arguing that the camera makers are doing just that: by micromanaging GPM too hard, they're actually now hurting their NPM.

Put a different way, what the camera makers need most right now is More Sales Volume. What they're doing in product development won't generate that. 


The Nikon D780 is Announced

In conjunction with CES (Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas), Nikon today finally introduced the replacement to the D750. I write "finally," as the D750 is now well over four years old, though overall that has made it Nikon's best selling full frame camera. In essence, the new camera is a D750 type body with the Z6 sensor and EXPEED6 processor. Plus a few of Nikon's continued and frustrating product simplifications.

bythom nikon d780

Let's start with the simplifications, because they show the dilemma that Nikon has gotten themselves into. In order to reduce costs, Nikon is de-contenting cameras on the physical side. We saw this with the D7500, which lost AI indexing, a card slot, and a vertical grip, among other things. Now we see it again with the D780, which loses a flash and AF Assist lamp, and again comes with no vertical grip option. We also don't get a thumb stick to control autofocus.

So let me state it simply: it's getting more difficult to find new customers, and it's getting more difficult to get existing customers to upgrade. There's nothing in the D780 design that's really going to attract someone new to the Nikon DSLR lineup. Thus, to succeed, the new camera must compel existing D750 users to update. By dropping features that the customer already has and may appreciate, you simply make it less likely that they'll upgrade. 

I understand Nikon's need to reduce costs, but you know what? Simply not having a booth at CES would have saved them far more than taking the flash and grip contacts out of the D780. Nikon's priorities and spending on the marketing side is completely out of whack with the reality of a rapidly declining market. I'd be spending my money directly targeting D750 users and making the new product as compelling as possible, not using outdated and inefficient tactics such as large trade shows to launch products not really targeted at the trade show's audience.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's look at what the D780 actually is.

As noted, The D780 gets the Z6 sensor. While that doesn't mean much in terms of image quality—despite the switch to BSI—it does have quite a few downstream implications for Live View and video. In essence, the D780 works exactly like a Z6 when shooting from the Rear LCD (as opposed to the viewfinder) and shooting video. (Okay, some of you want to know more about that image quality thing: at base ISO you're not going to see differences other than what newer in-camera processing can produce. At ISO 800 and above you might see a small positive impact favoring the new camera due to its use of Dual Gain; that also shows up as a higher settable numbered ISO, too.)

Video specs add in the 4K options from the Z6, as well as 120 fps 1080P. More interesting to some will be that the 10-bit N-log and HLG output carries over from the Z6, as well, making this the best video-enabled Nikon DSLR to date. The mechanical shutter now goes from 900 seconds (!) to 1/8000 second, though still with a 1/200 flash sync. We get a maximum frame rate of 12 fps (albeit in Live View; regular DSLR type shooting maxes out at 7 fps).

The viewfinder pretty much stays the same, while the Rear LCD adds dots (now 2.36m) and touch. The focus system stays the same for optical shooting, but gets the Z6 treatment for Live View and video, including Eye Detect. Battery (sort of) remains the same, with the EN-EL15b being supplied (it'll also use older EN-EL15 versions). Power consumption has been trimmed so that the CIPA rating is 2260 shots. The b version of the battery can be charged in camera via USB, though you can't power the camera via USB. The dual SD slots are now UHS-II, which is definitely appreciated. The SnapBridge "goodies" (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) are also now built in.

The D780 also gets all the EXPEED 6 generation goodies, including the Auto and Creative Picture Controls, Mid-range Sharpening, Diffraction Compensation, and more. That more includes focus stacking and the D850's level of Multiple Exposure. One curiosity is that the D780 now supports the ugly duckling WT-7A Wireless Transmitter.

Overall, the body went on a fair bit of hard-to-detect redesign for some reason, while picking up nothing from the Z back redesign. Nikon is claiming "rugged and weather-sealed" for the body. Despite no flash, the body is a bit taller and a bit wider. The body design is also more angular than before, and has some odd changes on the back, where we still have the overloaded column of buttons down the left side of the LCD, ala the consumer DSLRs. The AE-L/AF-L button has dropped to about where you'd want that missing thumb stick, and the whole right side of the camera seems weirdly angled; apparently Nikon wants you to tilt your hand slightly inward. I suspect that the D750 update was already in progress before the Z designs got locked down, then postponed a bit while Nikon put all their effort into the Z's. Why we don't get the Z-style i button and rear buttons, I don't know, though. Likewise the use of a flash button (though there's no internal flash) is another strangeness. Apparently Nikon thinks that a lot of D7## owners use flash, but Nikon doesn't want to give them one in the camera. Finally, the huge separation between the Fn and Pv buttons with the old-style small nubs-for-buttons also seems like a miss. Someone in charge of Product Management is not riding the whips nearly hard enough on the designers.

Price is US$2300 for the body alone, or US$2800 with the aging 24-120mm f/4G lens.

The real question is the one I pointed to before I got into the specs, though: is this enough camera to get people to justify upgrading? 

It's feeling like a "Maybe" to me, which is not exactly where Nikon needs to be when replacing a four-year-old+ camera that's probably the last of its line. The eye-at-the-viewfinder shooter isn't going to find a lot that justifies another US$2300 tithe to Nikon where the touchscreen actually feels like the biggest update. The shooter that values odd-angle arm length stills and who also shoots video might think the changes are more than enough, though.

To me it seems that Nikon is a little paralyzed between the mirrorless/DSLR options themselves. Nikon didn't make the be-all, do-all mirrorless cameras that would absolutely get a DSLR shooter to make a switch. Nor are they making the you-can't-believe-how-good-a-DSLR-can-be option that would keep the mirror-slapping crowd perfectly willing to continue forking out update money. I'm on record as saying they should have done both (e.g. best possible mirrorless, best possible DSLR). I'll now go on record as saying the D780 is just evidence of more, clear, bean-counter mismanagement.  

One problem Nikon had is that they never really updated the D700. The D750 wasn't really a D700 update. Now we have a stand-alone, four-year-old slightly consumerish DSLR that will likely only get the one update (e.g. the D780). And that update is more on the modest side than it is on the aggressive side. Frankly, I don't get that thinking. I'm not even sure that it is thinking ;~). 

The whole D7## thing has been a bit perplexing from the get go. The original and very popular D700 was clearly a professional camera, and made for an awesome three-pack statement (D3, D300, D700) from Nikon that entirely reversed their momentum against Canon. Indeed, Nikon started taking prosumer/pro market share from Canon, and it was led by those three seminal cameras. 

The D750 looked and felt more like a consumer camera (as does the D780), yet its staunchest users are still those that opted for the D700 previously. The D750 is one of the most popular wedding and event photographer cameras, for instance, yet I'd argue that it's build and design are a bit below what that shooter really would want. But it appears with the D780 that Nikon decided to ignore that demand. The lack of a vertical grip and built-in flash is going to annoy the very folk that settled for the D750 and were key to its success, I'll bet.

Let's hope that the upcoming D850 update is better thought through. I've already noted that the 61mp sensor would be an easy decision there, but given the D780 let's hope that Nikon doesn't let the bean counters win and force them to use the Z7's sensor instead; that kind of thinking will produce a D880 that's pretty much like the D780: modest upgrade that misses the mark for most still photographers. Who, after all, are the primary ones owning a D750 and D850 today. 

Thus, the good news is that Nikon isn't abandoning their DSLR users. The bad news is that they're also not giving those customers as much love as they probably should. 

Along with the D780, Nikon also officially introduced the 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR lens. The big claim to fame with this lens is that it's going to sell a lot of Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lenses ;~). That's because the Sigma costs US$3600 (but often has discounts), while the Nikkor drops in at a hefty US$9499. Nikon apparently intends this new lens to replace the older 300mm f/2.8G VRII, as they specifically indicate that this new zoom is optically as excellent as the prime. 

Bonus: Why does Nikon keep giving up on fully integrated camera grips? The D7500, Z50, and now D780 all don't get one, and the Z6 and Z7 really only got a Battery Dongle. 

I'm going to take a stab in the dark at this one: the bean counters say the grips aren't profitable. Why? Because the grips end up being given away when Nikon puts the cameras on sale, and by taking the profit from the grip, the camera still looks profitable ;~). Meanwhile, the third-party knockoffs all sell for one quarter to one third the price. I'm pretty sure there's some mind-blowing spreadsheet that is driving this decision, and it's all about "controlling costs." And at a lower level of annoyance, support costs go up because a lot of those third-party knockoffs don't work well, and they clog Nikon's support lines when they don't.

So why did the Z6 and Z7 get a Battery Dongle? Because those cameras can't power video for very long with only one in-camera battery, and Nikon wanted to make a stronger statement about video. Even if they have to give those Dongles away to sell cameras in the future, the costs in both the camera and the Dongle are far lower, so "problem solved." 

Personally, I'm not a fan of the vertical grips. I never use them. I've sold every one I get—I need them in writing my books, unfortunately—and I see plenty of folk in the field fighting with theirs'. I told you my proposed solution well over a decade ago: make the same camera in two forms, a vertically-gripped big body that's fully weatherproofed and near indestructible (e.g. D5 like), and a non-gripped small body that isn't as robust (and maybe has a few non-essential things taken off, like backlit buttons). Let the customer choose what they need, but make the design/development/production as conformed as possible, which saves costs. Nikon did exactly that with the D700/D3 combo. Then the success of that apparently told someone in Tokyo that they should stop doing that ;~).

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The Canon 1DX Goes Mark III

Just prior to showing it at CES—!!!, this is not a consumer camera—Canon officially launched the EOS 1DX Mark III, the long-expected sports/PJ camera replacement at the top of their DSLR lineup. We'd previously gotten vague pre-announcements from Canon, including some prototype camera and feature teasing at Photo Expo back in October.

bythom canon 1Dxiii lens

So what is the same and what's different in the new 1DX?

Let's start with the same, even though much of the "same" has small changes to it. The body and power for the 1DX doesn't change. Same body size and shape and viewfinder for the most part, and same LP-E19 battery (2850 shots CIPA, four hours video recording). Some little things change on the body, though, such as backlit buttons (ala Nikon's), and a new AF-ON button that allows you to position the focus cursor by sliding your thumb on it. A 1DX m2 shooter is going to migrate to an m3 in an eye blink for the most part and not notice much different.

The sensor did and didn't change. It's still 20.1mp (5472x3648). But it appears that Canon has been tweaking the bandwidth and making a number of small improvements to image quality. The new sensor also has full dual pixel autofocus capability, which comes into play in Live View and video recording. Sitting over the sensor is a new AA (low pass) filter technology, which Canon claims is "high detail. 

The dual pixel autofocus array covers the entire sensor (90% actual coverage in Live View), which gives the 1DX m3 a bit of a dual personality when it comes to autofocus. In DSLR mode, the focus positions bump up to 191 (155 cross point, with a dual f/2.8 cross point at the center) and a -4EV focus range. All the usual 1DX focus settings are there and have been slightly tweaked, and there's now subject recognition in the base system, using a machine learning system. In Live View (and most video modes) the new camera switches to the dual pixel sensor capability, with up to 3869 selection locations (more typically you'd use 525 zones), and all the R mirrorless-type focus capabilities.

The sensor bandwidth changes show up big time on the video side. Not only does the 1DX m3 record a no crop 4K—UHD or DCI—with 4:2:2 video recording internally at 24, 25, 30, 50, and 60P, but a full 5.4K raw option is also available for internal recording. 1080P goes to 120 fps.

Given that Canon has picked some fairly bandwidth intensive video levels (940Mbps All-in for 4K DCI), you'd probably also expect faster storage. Here Canon has finally seen the error of their ways in believing what SanDisk was telling them to do and has come back fully to embrace the CompactFlash standards committee. Nope, that doesn't mean CompactFlash cards, nor SanDisk's disastrous CFast alternative. It means that Canon is now the fourth company of the majors to endorse CFexpress Type B. The camera gets two such slots. And Canon themselves will be selling CFexpress cards, at least in some markets. Initial shipments of the 1DX m3 will come with a single CFexpress card and a card reader.

The results are impressive for still shooters: 1000+ frame buffers (with the right card) whether you're shooting JPEG, raw, or raw+JPEG. If you select HEIF, you'll see some slowdown (raw+HEIF results in about a 350 shot buffer). Wait, what's HEIF? That's the native file format of the iPhone and a new 10-bit format standard that's poised to replace/supplement JPEG in the future. Frankly, this was a good choice by Canon: having 10-bit images available straight out of camera means that the photo editor you're sending images to has a bit more flexibility in doing final adjustments before publication (at least if they have software that understands HEIF, like Apple Photos or Photoshop). Another benefit: Canon records HDR shots into those extra bits of HEIF.

For connectivity we get 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi (2400MHz), Ethernet 802.3u (1000Base-T), Bluetooth 4.2, USB 3.1 Gen 2, and GPS built in. An optional faster, longer range Wi-Fi option is also available.

The full list of 1DX Mark III specs is available elsewhere on this site, so I won't go further in detailing the changes here.

The big question is whether or not Canon has done enough to retain the kind of shooter that's going to show up at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a full kit. I'd tend to say yes, this was just enough. If nothing else, the lifting of the buffer constraints and the flexibility to do 20 fps silent shooting would have been probably enough to retain the truly faithful. But the focus performance is certainly better, and it'll be interesting to see what the new AA filter and sensor tech provides in terms of image quality.

Additionally, the 1DX just became a real workhorse video camera. While DPAF isn't available for the internal raw or 60 fps 4K options, it is for the rest of the video capabilities. We've got headphone and mic jacks, and some pretty decent compression bandwidth options that keep us at broadcast standards levels, as well. The fact that raw and 4K don't crop (other than to the 16:9 format) is icing on the cake.

Without having the ability to shoot with the camera yet and see what the image quality actually looks like, I'd tend to say that Canon did a strategically competent update to their US$6499 flagship camera, but not one that truly adds any not-seen-before features. It should hold serve until Canon can transition the platform to mirrorless.

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Can a Better DSLR Exist?

Here’s something I’ve been hearing more and more: DSLRs are dead. There’s nothing Canon or Nikon can do to make a better model that will sell. 

Wrong.

Well, at least wrong about the “make a better model” part. The “will sell” bit depends some on what Canon and Nikon produce in terms of mirrorless cameras. Note that Nikon has placed the Z6/Z7 below the D850/D5, and the Z50 below the D7500/D500. So they’ve clearly left space above the mirrorless models.

I suspect that Nikon thinks that’s significant because they can still persuade some D800, D810, and D850 owners to upgrade (likewise the other DSLR models I noted above). If they can do that, they can keep the mirrorless system rolling towards more lens support before forcing users over to it. 

So what does a “better DSLR” look like?

I’m going to skip over image sensor specifics for the moment, because there’s still plenty that can be done beyond the sensor. The D810 was a much better camera than the D800, despite using the same sensor. The D850 was a much better camera than both the D800 and D810, for things that went beyond the change in sensor. 

So what are the non-sensor choice things that come into play to make a better DSLR?

  • Sensor-based image stabilization (typically referred to as IBIS). Make every lens stabilized. This is actually an important attribute for Nikon to target, as their legacy lens support goes back many, many decades. Stabilize my original NOCT? Yes, please. Note that this has some viewfinder implications, as the composition you’re looking at might be shifted a few pixels from where you think it is. I can think of ways to mitigate that, though I doubt that we’ll see that should IBIS get added to DSLRs. At least not in generation one.
  • Hybrid focus. This one gets really tricky. But if you put phase detect pixels on the image sensor, ala mirrorless, you certainly have better Live View and video focus performance you can promote. But I think it can be pushed further. The really tricky part is integrating pre-shot focus data from the regular DSLR focus system with during-shot focus data collected by the on-sensor data during the viewfinder blackout. Actually, there’s a third data element these days, which is the viewfinder exposure sensor, which collects color information. I can imagine integrating all three of these to take DSLR focus where it’s never been before.
  • Programmability. We’re talking high-end cameras here, so I don’t think that adding some underlying complexity to promote shooting simplicity is out of order. I’ll illustrate this point with a simple example: what if I want to use HDR type techniques with deep focus? Well, I can set my camera to create HDR image sets, or I can set it to perform focus stacking, but not both at the same time. Cameras are computers, so why can’t we “write” a simple program that combines things the camera can already do? (WHILE Focus_Stack, Bracket_Exposure, END) Next, couple some basic programmability with far better configuration saving/loading. We can’t save multiple camera configurations onto a card because we can’t name them. Seems like a silly limitation. I’ll point out one important thing here: camera design engineers aren’t photographers. They don’t know the things that we want or need to combine and program. This is a Product Management task to collect the right information from the right shooters. You have to watch photographers in action to see what they’re really doing, summarize that, analyze how you can help them by making the multiple-action stuff into a single action, and put that function in the camera. Another example: if I’m adding Star ratings to my images while shooting, there’s probably something I want to do with images with 5 stars (like offload them to social media or the client, e.g. IF Star=5, THEN Apply(Hashtag), Share(Instagram), ENDIF). The key thing about a Programmability camera feature is that you have to understand the things the photographer is trying to do to facilitate it.
  • Direct storage. Some think the solution is dual slots or dedicated internal SSD. I don’t. I think the solution most of us would prefer is actually quite simple: connected direct storage. We’ve got USB 3.1 in some cameras now, we’ve got highly portable USB 3.1 SSD drives. Funny thing is, those two things don’t talk. (How many times do I have to re-iterate that the camera makers have yet to make it into the 21st century with communications?) They should talk. I should be able to push all images externally as I shoot (backup!). I should be able to connect a drive and transfer all internal storage immediately. That’s not even a weekend project for a competent engineer, I’d think. Of course, there are gotchas that have to be looked for, particularly power draw and what happens when the cable disconnects accidentally. Still, it’s an engineering problem, and isn’t that what the Japanese DSLR designers are good at? Who in Tokyo do I tell the problem to engineer a solution to? And if you don't want cabled storage, why not internal storage? Just stick 1TB of NAND into the camera and make that the primary storage. Any single card slot then becomes an Overflow/Backup/Copy solution, solving another photographer problem.
  • Detachable screen. Want to end the tilt versus swivel debate? Make the rear LCD detachable, whatever method it uses on camera to change angle. When off-screen, it becomes an automatic Bluetooth/Wi-Fi controller. Yes, you’d get a Live View lag, but this is a new function that means you don’t need to get out your smartphone to do the same thing, and go through all those connection hassles. Since the camera maker controls both the detachable LCD and the camera, you’d think they’d be able to do the Apple-like thing and make it “just work.” 

I could describe a whole host of other smaller changes, additions, and refinements that could be made as well. But I’ll leave those for another day. The above is more than enough to make a DSLR look pretty darned alluring still. 

Now, let’s couple all that with some image sensor specifications. Add all the above features to the DSLR and you get:

  • D6 — 24mp low light tuned full frame sensor with high bandwidth.
  • D900 — 61mp resolution tuned full frame sensor.
  • D550 — 26mp crop sensor with high bandwidth.

Gee, every one of those would look like a real winner when coupled with the added features I outlined above. D3, D3s, and D4 users would certainly see the upside to upgrading. D800 and D810 users and D300 users would, too. Heck, even D5, D500, and D850 users would probably see these as serious upgrades they need to consider. 

That’s how you keep some key DSLR customers buying DSLRs as most of the market transitions towards mirrorless. You can’t just phone in an upgrade and expect it to sell. Frankly, the Japanese camera makers have been behind the customer-desired product curve for quite some time, relying upon “bigger, faster engine” to drive most of their sales. How’d that work out for them?

Just Make a Better Camera

Hmm. I think I just designed a hat... 

bythom hat

Pardon Me While I Yawn

On top of all its other problems, the camera industry has gotten boring. 

We're getting ready to start into another round of new camera introductions, and I suspect that most of what we'll see is going to be "more of the same." Yawn. Hard to get excited.

With Canon and Nikon now firmly planted in mirrorless, the real question you have to ask yourself is this: what would it really take to get you excited about a new camera announcement? Even more important is this: can you really see the difference in some small gain in resolution or dynamic range? Can you really tell two lenses—one older, one newer—apart when you're stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6? 

Those latter questions are ones I grapple with every day. In comes the latest and greatest, and I find myself deep in the bowels trying to suss out small differences. At this point it's starting to become a real fight between my aging eyes and the minor improvements. Better or worse? Better or worse? Better or worse? Seems like I'm spending a lot more time trying to figure that out these days than I used to, because the actual differences are becoming quite nuanced and miniscule. 

Moreover, I'm finding more and more people these days preferring the "old" to the new, particularly with lenses. This is similar to the issue on the non-still side of the camera, where we're still running 24 fps with slow shutter speeds—180°+ shutter, so 1/48 or slower if you can achieve it—because we collectively have a century worth of seeing intraframe and interframe blur as meaning "movie", whereas 30 fps (or worse, 60i or higher) is seen as distinctly "video." 

Thus, many people are also "rejecting" the latest and greatest lenses because they're not used to complete linearity with edge-to-edge sharpness. It feels too "gritty" to them, doesn't operate the way their eyes do (!), and the old center-sharp-edge-blur designs thus get their preference.

Sometime in 2020, all Canon and Nikon DSLR users are going to be faced with an existential set of options:

  1. Upgrade to the latest DSLR in your model line, which really is just a pile of features and performance that have built up over the years, with not a heck of a lot to distinguish Version Y from Version X. Maybe you'll see something you haven't before, like sensor-based IS, but frankly, that's still something from the feature/performance pile that's just lifted from mirrorless now instead of top-end DSLRs.
  2. Transition to mirrorless, which means also rethinking your lens set, at least in the wide to near telephoto realm (the advantages in the long telephoto realm for mirrorless are small, if any, at least if you're staying with a big sensor).
  3. Stick with what you've got, which probably means you're not in the buying mood, and new product announcements are just going to irritate you because you're not getting what you'd really want (some new, compelling, and easily seen photographically important feature or performance change). 

Canon and Nikon really want you to do #2, but only if you stick within the brand, as it means more sales for them, keeps you from becoming a Sony Fanatic, and sets you up for a whole new future of upgrading. They'll be happy if you choose #1, because at least you stayed in the family; hopefully you also will pick up some new DSLR lenses, too. 

#3, of course, is what they should dread. Thus, I suspect that we'll get a pretty full kitchen sink worth of features and performance in many DSLR updates that happen in 2020 and later. Indeed, the rumors are strong enough that the D6 and 1DX m3 are just that: kitchen sink filled to the brim. 

There's actually a lot that Canon and Nikon can do with a new DSLR design: (a) use mirrorless sensors so that Live View and video get mirrorless autofocus performance; (b) add sensor-based IS, so all your lenses are stabilized; (c) up the sensor resolution; (d) throw more internal horsepower at everything (imaging SoC, which you know as Digic and EXPEED); and (e) adding in any feature they've ever put in a camera (e.g. adding focus stack shooting to a D750 update). 

The problem I—and probably you—have with that "stuff the DSLR" approach is that it really only gets you parity with what's happening in mirrorless. Thus, the only folk that truly would opt for that #1 upgraded DSLR are those who are going to stay firmly committed to the last round of DSLR updates. And that's probably because they value the optical viewfinder. Wanna bet if Canon or Nikon actually spend any time improving the optical viewfinder in any of their next DSLR updates? ;~)

Which means a lot of you are thinking you should be in category #2. 

So what have Canon and Nikon done there? 

Shot low. Canon specifically shot very low with the RP and R, using older sensors and not really doing anything other than making the 5D and 6D into mirrorless cameras (while at the same time totally messing up the 5D's ergonomics). While I like the RP as an entry full frame mirrorless camera, it really does feel like I'm going backwards in terms of overall features and performance from the kinds of Canon DSLRs I've used. How many Canon DSLR users want to go backwards?

Nikon put the Z7 just a shade under the D850, and I suspect we'll find that the Z6 is a shade under the upcoming D750 update, too. Which says to me that Nikon doesn't really want you to transition from DSLR to mirrorless. Yet that's exactly what I—and I suspect you—want to do. I don't want to lose anything in making such a transition. I want all the Nikon "good bits" to be present, not just most of them. The whole 3D Tracking "mode" problem is something that just boggles my mind, as there's no reason why 3D Tracking on the Nikon mirrorless cameras couldn't be an Autofocus-Area mode that works exactly the same way as it does on the DSLRs. Nothing. (If you've actually tried the mode-within-a-mode nonsense on the Z6 and Z7, you'll know that the actual focus tracking works just fine, it's only the UI that gets in your way. UI that changed from the DSLR to the mirrorless body for no good reason.)

But to get back to my original thought: even if Nikon had made the Z7 exactly the same as the D850, only mirrorless, it still would be a boring camera ;~). It's as if the camera companies have run out of ideas, and just do mild iteration of what they've already done while they wait for someone on staff to have an Aha! moment.

Thing is, not many on camera company engineering staff in Japan are actually photographers (I recently caught a Japanese camera executive whose name you'd recognize at a trade show taking a photo with his smartphone; he knew people might be watching, so he tried to do it discretely, but I still noticed). So the engineering teams are not seeing the actual user problems that you and I face every day shooting dozens, hundreds, or thousands of images at a time. If you don't know what the problem is, it's unlikely you'll provide the solution.

It's getting less and less important that you update your current camera gear. The very old D750 and D800 both take photos that can be competitive with any other Nikon camera you might want to buy today. If I had to shoot sports with a D3—preferably a D3s—I wouldn't be particularly less competitive than I am today (though I'd have to go tighter with lenses, as I wouldn't have any real cropping flexibility). 

So, as the new camera updates start rolling in here in early 2020, ask yourself this: boring or exciting? (hint: if it's not exciting, it's boring ;~) I suspect I know what your answer is going to be most of the time.

Camera Company New Year’s Resolutions

Not that anyone manages to keep to their New Year’s Resolutions, but wouldn’t it be nice if the camera companies publicly stated theirs and we could hold their feet to the fire?

Here are my proposed New Year’s Resolutions for each of the camera companies. (Careful, my tongue is exploring a remote side area.)

Canon

  • We’re finally going to give the Kiss of Death to Kiss (the cameras, not the rock band). Oh wait, some of you will see us Stormtroop the Rebels instead. Well, okay, we’re really just likely to use those names for something else now. But you get the idea, old Kiss/Rebels bad, upcoming Kiss/Rebels good. Something like that. Marketing will figure it out, we think.
  • We’ll have a lot of product sales this year. Make of that what you will.
  • For all of you who bought expensive, highly capable RF lenses, we’ll finally get around to producing a body that might show whether those are any good or not. Likewise, for those of you who bought inexpensive R and RP bodies on sale, we'll finally start producing some RF lenses that live down to your expectations.
  • If you bought an EOS M model, we’re happy to report that you should buy additional lenses from Sigma now. That’s what you wanted, right?

Fujifilm

  • We built a camera with IBIS, which turned out to be unpopular. So we’ll put IBIS in a popular camera instead. Yes, we know we should have done that in the first place.
  • Traditional dials, no dials, different dials, we’re still unsure what to do about dials. But we got rid of the Direction pad! We’ll look to see what else we can remove.

Nikon

  • We’ll get away from the middle and release something that’s not 5, 6, or 7. Wait, oh, we forgot about the D6, which may be a middle number but not a middle camera. At least the D780 has an 8 in it. Hmm. Well, our engineering is better than our marketing, naming, and messaging.
  • We’ll introduce more cameras this year than last because, well, you know, market contraction. 

Olympus

  • We have already established a clear and exciting product roadmap for the coming months.* It will look very much like our previous clear and exciting product roadmap.
  • We will or won’t sell the business. Or maybe we will or won't close the business. We'll do something with the business. 

Panasonic

  • Let’s see, we made m4/3 cameras that could use Olympus lenses, full frame cameras that can use Leica lenses, and we even made a pro video camera that can use Canon lenses. We’ll make some more stuff this year that can use other company’s lenses. 
  • Wait, did we forget to make the GH6? Or is that supposed to be this year? Sorry, someone removed the calendar from the Salarymen room. We’ll let you know as soon as we find it.

Pentax

  • We’ll do something this year to remind you that we still exist and are completely relevant. Really. At least that’s what we’re thinking right now. We’re asking the Ricoh executives if that’s okay as we speak...

Sigma

  • Hey, we’ve got a full frame camera that actually sells and that some people like. Did you see that? Now what do we do?
  • We will make versions of our big, heavy Art lenses for any mount we can figure out. In some cases, that will make the lens bigger than it originally was. We call that Art+.
  • We’d like to publicly thank Canon for the extra business. Anything else you need us to do, Yamada-san?

Sony

  • We promise that we’ll stop selling six or seven generations of a camera at the same time. The warehouse is starting to have troubles figuring out which box to ship for an order, since they all look alike.
  • One of the Senior VP's finally got around to trying to set up one of our new cameras, and couldn’t figure out the menus. We’ll either fix those menus, or tell you how to do what he couldn’t figure out how to do.
  • We’ll try real hard not to release another 35mm or 50mm lens. No promises, though.


* Yes, that was an actual management quote. You can hold them to that resolution!

Odd Things Were Written...

Writers like myself are also voluminous readers. Which means we see things. Things that raise our eyebrows and obviously warrant further discussion. Here are some of the things that caught my attention towards the end of 2019:

  • “...generally speaking, most photographers don't want framed prints of their own work to hang on the wall…” [dpreview]  This quote ties in with something I’ve been arguing with “photographers” about for some time: why are you photographing, and for whom? This devolves quickly into the craft versus art discussion most of the time. Photographers are okay with saying they attempt to master a craft, but most are leery of saying what they do might be art. Art hangs on walls. Craft gets stuck in closets (or on hard drives ;~). Thing is, having a camera and not showing what you accomplished with it is a bit like owning a copier but never putting paper in it. You go through all the early motions, then punt on the last. One of the big pushbacks I get about doing better communications and image sharing from cameras is centered on this, too: most DSLR users are taking pictures that’ll never be seen. What’s really going on here is that no one wants to show their failure rate. Not every photo you take will be dramatic, impactful, or display a clear story or thing of interest on its own. In fact, virtually all of the photos you take won’t meet that standard. That doesn’t mean you should avoid showing your work, though. 
  • "one of the advantages of shooting with APS-C, is that you can shoot with a much faster shutter speed compared to full frame.” [fujirumors] This was the conclusion stated from shooting the same scene with a Fujifilm APS-C camera at ISO 160, f/1.2, and 1/8000 versus shooting a Sony full frame camera at ISO 100, f/1.8, and 1/3200. I see this kind of thing all the time, where we get apples-versus-oranges comparisons and then odd, often misleading conclusions made from that. Both cameras were shot wide open at base ISO, but we have different “wide open” and different “base ISO.” We also have different capture areas of light, which would theoretically impact noise production. A lot of oranges in this apples comparison. Had the shooter in question simply matched ISO and used the same lens, would they say the same thing (I’ll leave you to figure out the math there)? Equivalence is a base concept. A way to compare apples to apples. It uses scientific method to attempt to explain what a difference actually means and where it comes from. In reality we often don’t get exact matchups when people write about gear, which leads them to trying to make sense of things and sometimes stating a conclusion that, taken on its own, will likely lead you, the reader, down a wrong path. Now there’s no doubt that there are non-equivalent rabbit holes you can fall down when comparing between brands. Brand X might not have an f/1.2 lens and Brand Y might not let you set ISO 100. That’s what I would call an attempt at a pragmatic comparison. But I’d never try to make a generalized overall equivalence statement from a pragmatic comparison. After all, the pragmatics might change ;~). A better way to look at things is this: can the system you are considering do what you want it to do, period. (And finally, “much faster” apparently means a little over a stop to the person writing this article. I’m not sure I’d use the words “much faster” here. Words matter.)
  • "...developing a mirrorless housing proves simpler than designing a SLR camera. On the other hand, the difficulty lies in the development of a wide range of optics in a very short time.” [Interview with Ricoh Europe General Sales Manager]  And people wonder why I constantly harp on lenses. There’s a missing part to Farreng’s statement here. It should read “development of a wide range of optics in a very short time that will sustain a system as competitive for a very long time.” I think there’s a distinction to be made here. And it’s key to why I’m so rough on Canon with the EOS M line: they’re not doing either. We don’t have a wide range of optics (only 8 after 7 years), nor is that going to last them a really long time (RF lenses don’t work on M, even with an adapter). Let me phrase things a bit differently: everyone’s problem is lenses. In a contracting market with the attachment rate (lenses sold per camera body) not increasing, this puts enormous pressure on the camera companies. Panasonic partially solved their problem with alliances (m4/3, L-mount). Sony has a good head start but still has clear holes in the lineup. Nikon is at full capacity trying to fill out a new mount. Canon, well, Canon is all over the board and difficult to figure (continuing EF, continuing to choke EF-S and M, and making RF lenses that clearly outperform their cameras). 
  • "Full frame is not for everyone." [Olympus Murata-san interview with dpreview] While not an odd thing to say, many of the comments people made on various fora about that quote are on the odd slide. First, some historical context: in the brands that have both crop sensor and full frame options, full frame has ranged from 5% to almost 20% at any given point in time in terms of volume; the remainder has been crop sensor. So absolutely, full frame is not for everyone. It hasn't been, currently isn't, and I don't see a time when it ever will be. One of the oddities with Murata-san's statements is the notion that you just transition m4/3 towards wildlife shooters, because, after all, that 150-400mm f/4.5 lens makes it so. The problem is equivalence. As I've noted many times, you can use a smaller sensor to make a smaller product, but you do so at the risk of a shutter speed/noise interaction for sports and wildlife shooters. The Nikon 1 with its 70-300mm lens was a great Sunny 16 camera, but struggled in deep shade, edge of day, and any low light situation. Quantum Shot Noise is a real issue you can't avoid in action photography, and one that any serious wildlife, sports, or event shooter learns about very quickly. The only real benefit the upcoming 150-400mm lens gives us that we don't already have is the constant f/4.5 aperture (Panasonic's already existing lens in that focal range is variable aperture). I do believe that there's a niche within the niche that m4/3 can exploit, but it's a narrow one, and it's not going to save Olympus's market contraction issues.
  • "Lens A on mirrorless is better than Lens B on a DSLR." [various] I'm seeing all kinds of this type of comparison these days, and even when we start putting the same lenses on the same camera (e.g. DSLR lens tested via adapter on mirrorless camera) the apples versus oranges problems can mask what's really going on. I tend to think that comparing an older DSLR lens against a new mirrorless lens is a bit of a mismatch, though we're all having to do it, for obvious reasons. For one thing, the design parameters and actual use case are different for DSLR and mirrorless. For instance, one recent comparison tried to point out that the corners of the 14-30mm f/4 S were better than the 14-24mm f/2.8G. The problem here is that something changed in lens design between the design of those two lenses. And that thing is "lens corrections." The 14-30mm is really wider than 14mm and has very high linear distortion, while the 14-24mm is a real 14mm and has—for that wide an angle—very low linear distortion, though a complex type. The 14-24mm was designed for a time when you didn't try to use a computer to "fix" a lens in post. The 14-30mm was clearly designed so that it will only be used with a computer to fix its faults in post. The "corner pixels" in any true test tend to be real for the DSLR lens, but invented for the mirrorless lens. Now pragmatically, yes the corners of the 14-30mm f/4 lens at f/8 look better than the corners of the 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at f/8, both on a Z7 (with or without lens corrections turned on in the case of the DSLR lens). But you're mostly looking at faux pixels versus real pixels in the corners, and yes, the faux pixels look better. But were they manipulated to be better (e.g. judicious contrast and sharpness application in the re-arrangement)? That's something I'm still investigating. All that said, clearly Canon with RF L, Nikon with Z S, and Sony with FE GM lenses are today designing to a higher standard, using mount differences to advantage, and have figured out how to make software lens corrections that tie in with the optical design to produce better final results. But let's not condemn the EF L, F G/E, and Sony A lenses quite so fast. Most of those older lenses hold up quite well against the best of today's designs.
  • "The twinning arrangement between Cologne and Kyoto..." [Photokina 2020 press release] So begins one of the strangest press releases I've ever read (and I didn't know that Kyoto was the center of the Japanese camera industry ;~). The press release wanders around not-to-the-point points before it gets to a sort of punch line: come see the photo gear that will be at the Tokyo Olympic Games by attending Photokina in May 2020. Uh, not exactly. Because Nikon and Olympus gear won't be exhibiting at Photokina (nor will Leica or Fujifilm). So the E-M1X and the lenses Olympus is launching for the Olympics, nor the Nikon D6 and the 120-300mm f/2.8 won't be there. Canon and Sony will be at Photokina 2020 doing what the press release suggests. The press release that Photokina 2020 actually needs is a "this is why you should attend" one. The problem is that with half the camera industry not supporting the show, the event needs a new identity and purpose, which at the moment isn't clear as to what that would be. At one point, the every two years Photokina show was the only place where you could see pretty much everything that was going on in the photography industry and community. In 2020 and every year after that, I don't know what purpose the show will actually serve. But the press release Photokina released actually convinced me more that 2020 is a year for me to skip Photokina. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be the intention of the press release ;~).
  • "Instagram isn't for photography and your best work will never get as much attention as some coed posting bathroom selfies in a bikini." [reddit] While there's some truth behind this statement, it's also deceiving, dismissive, and disingenuous. You of course are free to promote your photography wherever you'd like, though I tend to think that Instagram isn't the place, mostly due to the way it insists that photos are square and only 1080 pixels wide. And, no, you may not get as much attention, just as the statement suggests, though that part seems a bit misogynist to me. But is the purpose of a photograph to get the most attention possible? It definitely seems like the smartphone crowd and their selfies think that's the case, but photographs inform, inspire, and engage—among many other possibilities—and the key is always to make sure how your work is getting displayed matches its intent. 
  • "Of those ten [Z mount] lenses, all five of the zoom lenses cover the same focal range as the primes, and none of the primes are what are considered top-end optics except for the nigh unattainable 58mm NOCT." [petapixel] Oh my, three problems in one sentence. And this isn't the only sentence in that article with over-the-top and misguided statements. Let's start with the zoom lenses. Don't all zoom lenses cover the same focal range as primes? Moreover, the statement actually isn't true unless you consider a DX lens as overlapping an FX lens (the current Z FX lens zooms go from 14-70mm, but we have an 85mm prime. Apparently I also missed the class where it said that only f/1.4 or faster primes qualify as "top-end." As I've noted, every prime Nikon has offered so far for the Z mount has been the best performing prime of that focal length Nikon has ever made, so taken further, the writer would have to say "Nikon never made a top-end prime." So once again the Tyranny of Numbers has shown up on the Internet, where f/1.4 is automatically better than f/1.8. Finally, I'd point out that the NOCT is only nigh unattainable to the author, apparently because their credit card limit doesn't go that high or his local store doesn't carry it.
  • "Although the Z7 was billed at its launch as the top-end mirrorless camera that Nikon would be producing, in the face of the criticism Nikon walked that back, saying that a higher-end mirrorless would be coming." [petapixel again] I just went back and re-read Nikon's launch documents. Nowhere do I find a statement from Nikon saying the Z7 would be the top-end mirrorless camera Nikon will ever produce. I do note other sites using the term "flagship" and "top-end" in their descriptions of the launch, though. I'm also not aware of Nikon "walking back" a statement. Umatate-san did eventually make a comment to Nikon Kogyo Shimbun, a Japanese trade paper, that a higher-end mirrorless camera would be coming. But what I see here is an author taking two statements in other media and adding "in the face of the criticism..." I've tried to be clear in my assessments of the Nikon mirrorless cameras so far: they all shoot a tiny bit lower than the equivalent DSLR (e.g. Z7<D850, Z50<D7500). This seems to be a clear and consistent product management decision. Not one that I agree with, but it still seems clear to me that Nikon was attempting to protect its remaining DSLR business with its initial models in the Z series. Obviously, one would have to guess that this would change over time as DSLR sales continue to drop while mirrorless becomes the dominant ILC. 
  • "There are now seven RX100 models currently on the market that you can buy. Should you save a few bucks and go with less than the latest-and-greatest?" [dpreview] Okay, the statement itself isn't odd, as it is factual (and I've previously pointed out the same thing). What's odd is that this has happened. The engineering iteration was carefully managed in a way that allowed Sony to create this problem. At this point, "any sale" is the mantra with the Japanese camera makers. They haven't distinguished their new products enough to make them absolutely compelling, so they'll happily sell you their old products at a lower price just to sell something. In tech, this sort of thing—generational buildup—typically happens just before the storm waves they've been fighting overwhelm the industry. As a long-term strategy generational buildup sucks, as it erodes your margins and establishes lower price points you have to keep matching. It's the definition of a downward spiral. Personally, I'm still waiting for the camera company that realizes that the way they've been doing things no longer works and does a complete reset of both their offerings and how they're sold. Let me pose it this way: which would you rather have? (1) An RX-100 Mark VIII appears with a few more tweaks and performance upticks; or (2) An RX-200 appears with completely rethought and photographer-focused UX/ergonomics/controls, plus better integration into the mobile world? Thought so.


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