Mirrorless Camera News and Commentary

News and commentary about the mirrorless camera world (latest on top). Hover or tap on News/Views in the menu bar above to see the full list of recent articles as well as folders containing all older ones dating back to 2011.

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Quick Takes on New Cameras

I’m juggling a bunch of new mirrorless gear in the review process right now. Since I’m getting a lot of email inquiring about these specific products during this holiday buying season, I thought I’d give you a quick take on my current thoughts on these products:

  • Canon RP — Since Canon decided to start full frame mirrorless at the bottom, I took them up on that and am starting my RF reviews from the bottom, too ;~). At the current holiday price of US$1000 for the body, the RP is a solid entry into full frame mirrorless. Moreover, it doesn’t make the UX mistakes the R body made: the RP feels much like a Canon user will be used to. It’s a small body, but with very decent Canon-style ergonomics. Just remember that this is an entry body, so there are a number of things that serious shooters might get hung up on. The sensor may be a recycled one, but it performs decently in most settings. It’s also not nearly as bad at a higher ISO such as 6400 as some seem to be suggesting, at least if you nail the exposure. No, the sensor is not equal to a state-of-the-art Sony sensor, to be sure, but I’ve been pressing the RP in low light and finding it adequate most of the time. To me, the 4 fps frame rate seems to be the specification that’s most limiting to a wider range of shooting. This is not a sports camera, for sure. Compared to the current Sony generation, I’d say the focus performance of the RP is a little behind, too, particularly if you choose the only RF lens that currently makes a lot of sense for this body, the slow-as-a-slug 24-240mm f/4-6.3. But then again, you’re not paying as much for the body in the first place. I’m liking the RP as a reasonable general purpose camera, but if you start pushing out towards the fringes (frame rate, fast and erratic subjects, really low light, etc.) you’re quickly reminded that the price point was US$1000. If you already have fast, quality EF lenses, the RP allows you to start to see the goodness of Canon’s mirrorless initiative, and I can recommend it. If you’re going to just sample it with the slow 10x zoom, the slow aperture coupled with older sensor is probably going to trip you up in low light conditions, so exercise caution. 
  • Canon M6 m2 — The new sensor is the hero here; Canon’s finally given us a state-of-the-art crop sensor that can compete with the best. The lack of a built-in EVF is a villain. The lack of good M lenses is another villain. If you can live with those statements, this is a very nice camera. Basically the M5 ergonomics and capabilities other than the built-in viewfinder, and I liked the M5. My problem with the M6 m2 is that the M zooms generally all clearly show their issues with this new higher-resolution sensor. Even the 22mm pancake reveals that it could use some more optical oomph outside the central area. Put a really good EF lens on the EF-to-M adapter Canon sells, and you'll see what the sensor can really do. Canon is really close to jacket-pocket excellence here, but lenses hold it back. Recommended if you can tolerate the lens choices.
  • Nikon Z50 — Downsize the Z6 body, strip the Z6 firmware down to D7500-level features, take the D7500/D500 sensor and tweak it some more to the good, and you have the Z50. In terms of the mirrorless part: the Z50 is just like a Z6 in terms of focus. I’m not seeing any tangible differences in Z50, Z6, or Z7 focus performance. I do see some differences when framing fast moving subjects, and that’s because the EVF is a level down on the Z50. At max frame rate with the slide show effect, you’ll lose composition faster on the Z50 than the Z6 when panning with subjects, and you lose composition faster on the Z6 than the D850. That’s the downside to using Nikon’s mirrorless as action cameras (problem is the same for many other makers, too, with only the Sony A9 completely avoiding this). Personally, I’m liking the Z50 a lot, just not for extreme uses. And the pancake kit zoom is, well, another Z-mount gem from Nikon. I guess they weren’t kidding that the new mount gave their designers new options they were going to take advantage of. Where the Canon was close to jacket-pocket excellence, the Z50 is already there. An unexpected top-notch camera and kit lens that slots between the D5600 and D7500 in Nikon’s lineup. Small, capable, competent. I’m pretty sure you’ll see me recommending this camera in my eventual review.
  • Panasonic S1 — Still don’t have a lot of experience with this camera yet, but the ergonomics are there. It’s on the bigger and heavier side of entry full frame, and it’s on the expensive side, too. Which is kind of the dilemma I’m trying to figure out: what does the S1 offer for that extra money that you don’t get from the others? It isn’t focus performance. Don’t get me wrong, single servo focus performance is excellent, though I dislike the viewfinder jitter you sometimes get as it finds focus. Continuous autofocus isn’t up to sports/wildlife use, in my opinion, though with moderate movement it seems to work fine. The sensor and video are state-of-the-art. The UX shows Sony what they missed. The prospect of the L-mount seems intriguing. I’m still a “jury hearing testimony” on this one. 
  • Sony A7R m4 — Love it and don’t love it. Yes, we have a split decision. If you need 60mp—and that should be a big IF—the sensor performs as you’d expect. It’s basically the same pixel level performance as the 28mp APS-C sensor and the 100mp MF sensor Sony produce: really good but not great. If you were expecting more dynamic range, it’s not there. If you were expecting better high ISO capability, that really isn’t there. I’m sure there are those that think 60mp gives them more crop capability. I think those folk will be disappointed in the results compared to using a 42mp sensor using the right lens. To me, the big change I fully approve of is the ergonomics. Sony has now taken two rounds of button/feel/location criticism and put correct responses into the A7R m4 and A9 m2 body design. Finally, I can use these cameras with gloves (thin ones, but still). Clean up the menus and Sony would have really solid UX. I’m sure you noticed that I didn’t anoint the A7R m4 the first or second best all-around camera you can buy this year, and left my recommendation of #2 with the A7R m3. That was a very tough decision, but I think the right one. The A7R m4 feels more like a studio/landscape camera and less like an all-rounder to me. That’s particularly true because of the file sizes that the camera produces in raw. Don’t take my comments here wrong: I really like the A7R m4, I just don’t think it’s the one general purpose camera that you should have (again, right now that would be a Nikon D850 or a Sony A7R m3). Coupled with a second body—I use the A9, soon to be a m2—a Sony full frame shooter would have a nice system able to shoot virtually anything. But single body owners? I think you need to be careful about going down any rabbit hole (megapixels, frame rate, video capabilities, etc.). 

Are You Tracking Tracking Correctly?

One common theme I get in my In Box these days has to do with “the Nikon Z’s can’t track in autofocus.” This is incorrect. It started with YouTube videos at camera introduction that made similar claims, and has morphed and metamorphosed like a chameleon that makes cocoons in its larval stage but never quite becomes beautiful and gains flight. 

We’ve got a big problem with nomenclature here, particularly when different brands use similar terms differently. 

So let’s define a term:

Tracking. Focus initializes on an object, then follows as that object moves.

In order to track on a Nikon, you need to set your focus system to AF-A or AF-C (again, nomenclature does vary across brands), because focus must continue after the camera detects the object. Face Detect and Eye Detect are not by themselves tracking modes. They’re initializing functions (e.g. “find a face to focus on”). Both Face Detect and Eye Detect work in AF-S (single focus) modes. They only become tracking modes when you set a continuous focus mode (again, AF-A or AF-C, though AF-A starts as a non-continuous mode and then eventually figures out that the thing it focused on moved, so maybe it ought to follow; as you can guess from my wording, AF-A tends to not react quick enough, and I tell people to avoid it). 

Face and Eye Detect aren’t the only object recognition algorithms in cameras these days. Virtually no one will talk about what their cameras do when no human is in the scene, but many of them look for “large thing that’s nearby.” Others look for “how much of the scene is at the same distance?” 

Which brings us to 3D Tracking. In the Nikon world—which is where much of the confusion and misinformation lies—3D Tracking started with color recognition. That goes all the way back to the F5 film SLR, though back then it was very crude and mostly related to exposure. 

In 3D Tracking on the Nikon DSLRs, you put the focus cursor on something, initiate focus—half press the shutter release or press the AF-ON button—and the camera analyzes color shapes in the area the focus cursor is over and builds a data set of the unique color pattern. Originally, this worked best with face shapes and tones. If a face tone was detected at the point you said to focus, the camera identified the shape and size of that, and followed it, even outside the autofocus cursor area! I and others were astonished when we found that a subject so identified could stray away from all the available focus positions, but when it came back to any of them, the camera correctly noted that and shifted focus accordingly. 

As the metering sensor that collected this color information got more pixels, the system became quite robust. In the D5 generation cameras (D500, D850, D5, and D7500), 3D Tracking mode got good enough to use on things other than skin tones. It really does seem to follow most objects well, and on a D500 or D7500 it tends to do that completely across the frame.

So what is the complaint about the Z6 and Z7? Is it that 3D Tracking doesn’t work? No. It’s that we have to tell the camera what to start using it on with an additional step. Because Nikon implemented it as a mode within a mode, you have to perform additional steps to get 3D Tracking started. And you have to tell it when to stop, and then go through the same steps to get it started again. 

Frankly, if one of my programmers gave me the Z6/Z7 method (now also on the Z50), I’d be screaming at them until they fixed it. It’s quite fixable, because it’s a UI thing, not a performance thing. 

The Z6 and Z7 track motion just fine, particular human motion, as I think I’ve proven many times now (sports and wildlife photography, as well as event). For most people photographing humans, AF-C with Auto Area and Face/Eye Detect works quite well. Sony still has a small edge, but Nikon rapidly closed the gap (Canon did, too; both with firmware updates).

So it’s really only with identifying a non-human face or object that I want to track that’s the problem, because I have to jump through hoops to tell the camera what that is. It’s not a performance problem—the 3D Tracking Nikon provides in mirrorless is very similar to Sony’s capability when used for focus-and-reframe use—it’s solely an implementation problem on the Nikon: too klutzy and step driven when it doesn’t need to be. 

Simply put, Nikon’s engineering team made an implementation mistake that they need to fix. I suspect they’ll eventually get around to fixing this, but so far we’ve not seen them acknowledge their mistake (in the Japanese culture they’ll never admit it was a mistake, they’ll just quietly fix it). I suspect that Nikon is very busy at the moment trying to get more new products to market at the moment, including a very critical one in the D6. 

If fixing 3D Tracking in mirrorless isn’t on their to-do list, though, they haven’t been paying enough attention to customers. I’m pretty sure that’s not true.


By the way, the term 3D Tracking came about as a way of pointing out that the focus system wasn’t just watching spots across the horizontal and vertical axis to establish focus. 3D Tracking systems follow objects moving to and from the camera (depth), and they generally use predictive calculations as they do so.  

Nikon Z Discounts Extended

NikonUSA had fall discounts that were supposedly available only for a few days last week, but now they've decided to extend them through November 27th. 

In the interest of helping you keep track, here are the current Z offers (all links are to this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H):

  • Z50 Dual Lens Kit — US$150 savings. Seems odd that a product that hasn't shipped yet would have a discount like this, but there it is. Nikon's giving you strong encouragement to buy both lenses if you're going to get a Z50. I think you shouldn't overlook this discount (my money is where my pen is, by the way). 
  • Z6 Body only, Z6+24-70mm f/4, Z6 Filmmaker's Kit —all net you US$300 savings. The Z6 continues to be the least expensive of the 24mp Sony sensor bodies at the moment. It's a strong performer, and as I noted yesterday, probably as much camera as most people need. The FTZ is still part of the US$1700 "body kit" that B&H sells. 
  • Z7 Body only, Z7+24-70mm f/4 — both net you US$700 savings. That puts the Z7 with the FTZ down to US$2700, an excellent discount for an excellent camera.
  • 35mm f/1.8 S — US$150 savings. This may seem like a high price for a 35mm optic, but it's arguably the best 35mm lens Nikon has made. I'm not a big fan of the focal length, but many consider this to be an essential focal length.
  • 50mm f/1.8 S — US$100 savings. Again, this may seem like a high price for a 50mm "normal" lens, but this lens is anything but normal. The results I get from it are up there in Zeiss Otus country: really, really good. If you're only going to buy one of the f/1.8 S lenses based upon optical performance, so far it should be this one, or perhaps the 85mm f/1.8 S.
  • 14-30mm f/4 S — US$200 savings. The discount puts this lens at about the correct price, in my opinion. It's good but not great. The problem here is that I've seen a fair amount of sample variability; some 14-30mm's seem to have some element off-centering. That said, one built as it should be (e.g. centered) performs quite well, and if you need really wide angle, it's your only dedicated autofocus choice at the moment.
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S — US$300 savings. I've not found a better mid-range zoom than this on any platform. This lens just shines, even wide open. The question I keep getting is "should I get the f/2.8 instead of the f/4?" That's actually not easy to answer, as the f/4 is compact and light and quite a good performer in its own right. Most people will be well served by it. But if you're venturing into low light and need that f/2.8 and don't mind the extra weight and bulk, you're going to be very happy with the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. That said, it's not the lens I'd pick for travel; the f/4 is what most people should be using for that.
  • FTZ — Basically it's still free with the Z6 and Z7 purchases, and gets a US$150 discount (making it US$100) when bought with the Z50. 

I've reviewed all these products except for the not-yet-released Z50, so check out Cameras/Mirrorless Camera Reviews/Nikon Z Reviews for the bodies, and Lenses/Lens Reviews/Lenses for Nikon Z. If you need to know more about the Z50, check out my Reader Questions page for that camera.

Where Are We? (End of 2019)

Amazingly, we still have a straggler or two in terms of mirrorless camera announcements before year's end (I'm looking at you SL2). Still, for the most part things are well established for the coming holiday season from most makers, so it's an appropriate time for some year-end commentary on where the mirrorless camera market actually stands.

  • Canon — Canon is mostly attacking the low end of mirrorless and is doing so with price. The M200 and M6 m2 are the crop-sensor cameras they want to sell you in the US$500-1000 range; the full frame RP has hit US$1000 with rebates, and the R is US$500 off its list price as I write this. True high-end models don't exist in either the M or RF line yet, though I'm sure they're coming. So for the time being, Canon is starting low and being aggressive with price.

    My problem with Canon's strategy is this: the M mount seems to be a dead-end mount with very little good lens support. The M6 m2's new 32mp sensor shows just how poor many of those few M lenses really are. Meanwhile, the RF mount has some really impressive lenses in it—with the 70-200mm f/2.8 being the latest addition—but these lenses all cry out for a better RF body than we've gotten so far. 

    So, I have a hard time recommending Canon except to the price conscious who aren't seeking exceptional results (e.g. buy an M with the three good lenses in the mount, or buy the RP with the 24-240mm lens, as that's a good kit at low price). 

    I suspect Canon will sell a lot of M's and RF's this holiday, but mostly to unsuspecting customers buying through Big Box and other non-specialized channels who are price sensitive. I think a lot of the Canon EF faithful are still waiting to see what's next. The top-quality RF lenses are, I hope, a good indication.

  • Fujifilm — Fujifilm has a very nice, complete, and excellent performing XF line that runs X-A7, X-100, X-T30, X-T3, X-Pro3; plus they have the X-H1 and X-E3 holdovers, as well. Fujifilm's XF lens lineup is good-to-excellent optically, broad, and deep for the most part, with only the long telephoto side still needed work. Fujifilm tends to be aggressive in pricing in spurts, with instant rebate sales popping up often.

    Thing is, as good as everything might be in the XF lineup, I still have a hard time recommending any XF body other than the deeply-discounted X-H1. At the current US$999 price (with extra batteries and grip), the X-H1 and its sensor-based IS just seems to be a better choice than the more expensive X-T3 or X-Pro3. At the current X-H1 price a potential X-T30 customer likely should stretch for the X-H1, too (unless they're going solely for small/light). 

    Of course Fujifilm also has the GFX medium format system, too, where bodies currently range in price from a 50mp rangefinder design at US$4000 to the 100mp big body GFX I recently tested at US$10,000. I have to say, there's real appeal in the GFX lineup if you're someone who can really make use of the pixels, but you're in pricey territory if that's you. 

  • Nikon — And now we have Nikon's initial mirrorless work fully revealed: "we'll start in the middle." As I've noted, the Z6 and Z7 slot in the middle of Nikon's full frame camera lineup, and now the just-introduced Z50 slots in the middle of Nikon's DX camera lineup. 

    I think Nikon correctly identified their strongest core user base: serious long-term photographers, but not necessarily the very top-end prosumers, let alone pros. The cameras are good enough to appeal upwards, though; I find myself using my Z7 as much as my D850 now, simply picking the camera that (slightly) better fits what I'm shooting. I suspect that same thing is going to happen now between the Z50 and D7500 (yes, I still shoot sometimes with the D7500, for reasons that have to do with size of kit). 

    Nikon's been aggressive with pricing with mirrorless, as well they can be, as they've automated factories and reduced parts in these new mirrorless cameras compared to their DSLRs. I expect them to stay aggressive as they try to bring their long-term shooters over to mirrorless. I can pretty much recommend all the Z models to the folk that fit in the D70 to D700 realm.

    While the Z FX lens lineup is starting to shape up decently and every lens Nikon has made so far pretty much gets the label "best x focal length Nikon has ever made...", my concern with Z DX is the same as it was with DSLR DX: where are the lenses? The two kit zooms make a very nice, very small, 24-375mm equivalent kit, smaller and better than the D3500 two lens kit, but we need a lot more than that to drive Z50 (and later Z DX) body sales. Even Canon's dead-end M series has more (poorly performing ;~) lens choice. Oops. I think I should buzz, buzz ;~).

  • Olympus — Olympus started strong with mirrorless, being one of the first to market and putting a lot of interesting engineering and design effort into their early products. They iterated quickly and constantly, too. But...

    Today the iteration feels very small and unambitious. Key technologies are now lagging (e.g. no BSI sensor, focus performance not as good as competitors, etc.). Like Nikon, the fact that Olympus is not a true consumer-oriented company but rather a business-to-business one is starting to have impact on whether Olympus can stay on top of and ahead of consumer desires and trends. 

    Don't get me wrong. The E-M5 m3 is a nice, mild update to the E-M5 m2, which makes it a pretty desirable small camera. But it's overpriced for its performance, and there's nothing in this latest model that makes me think Olympus engineers have actually been listening to consumers and finding new problems to solve. Even the E-M1X feels more like "old tech" than "new tech" to me. It's just a different distribution and iteration of that tech than the E-M1 m2. 

    Thus, Olympus models are starting to feel a little stale to me. That disappoints me quite a bit as Olympus was the mirrorless camera system I began supplementing my DSLR kit with ten years ago because they were pushing the limits. Now? Not so much. With only the E-M10 and whatever the current E-PL is in your country being the only easily affordable cameras in the lineup, it feels like the mirrorless camera market is passing Olympus by now. I find better choices in other company's lineups now.

  • Panasonic — I guess I hadn't really understood how much Panasonic is still trying until I saw all 12 (!) of the current mirrorless cameras they're still selling together at once. It's an impressively broad lineup, but I'm confused by it, and you probably are, too.

    Let's start with the easy part: the full frame cameras. We have an S1 and S1R that match up well in features and performance against the Nikon Z6/Z7 and Sony A7/A7R. What they don't match up well on is price. In fact, they match up very badly on price. As I write this, the S1 is US$2500 body only, the Z6 is US$1700, and the Sony A7 m3 is US$2000. An argument can be made that these are relatively close products that don't justify that much price differential. It makes me say this: Panasonic isn't going to sell many unless they adjust their pricing.

    The full frame S1H and the m4/3 GH5/GH5s are what I think of as the highlights of the Panasonic line, the thing that Panasonic is doing better than everyone else. And that's making a camera that performs exceptionally well for video while performing very well for stills. Most of the other makers do that the other way around (exceptionally well for stills, very well for video). The GH5 at its current US$1400 price is a no-brainer to recommend to  a student graduating out of one of my broadcast school alma maters (Murrow School of Broadcasting at WSU or The Media School at IU). You can shoot pro quality video with a small, affordable, expandable kit in a way that's harder to do with anything else, and currently at a price that's tough to beat.

    I know there are a lot of folk out there that like the other G's (m4/3) cameras in Panasonic's currently extended lineup, but I'm not a big fan. I think there are better choices available elsewhere now, and I find many of the G's just too big (a small sensor should equate to a very small overall kit first and foremost, not a DSLR-sized body). It doesn't help that Panasonic's DFD autofocus just doesn't hold its own against state-of-the-art phase detect focus in competitor's products for any moving object, either.

    That said, Panasonic has a broad, deep line of both cameras and lenses that you can't ignore. Just make sure it's the right choice for you.

  • Sony — Now that Sony has come back and shown (a little) love to APS-C, there probably isn't another mirrorless maker that's got as solid a "current" mirrorless camera lineup as Sony: A6100, A6400, A6600, A7 m3, A7R m4, A7S m2, and A9 m2. Three solid and differentiated APS-C cameras, four solid and even better differentiated full frame cameras. Add in the fact that Sony will sell you pretty much any of their older mirrorless cameras at strong discounts, and I'd guess that there has to be something in there at the right price for anyone reading this.

    Moreover, six years of full frame lens introductions and nine years of crop-sensor lens introductions have produced a pretty broad set of lenses that almost rival what the Canon/Nikon duopoly was able to do with SLRs/DSLRs over several decades. 

    Sony today pretty much sits in the cat-bird seat for mirrorless because of this, though I don't think it will be long before Canon and Nikon are matching or exceeding Sony. Sony is using their position in an interesting manner: not being particularly aggressive about pricing of the most recent models, but leaving older models on the market at very aggressive prices. This, I think, is going to hurt them long-term. While the latest generation of cameras is addressing (most) handling issues, those older models have a lot of pain points in them, so Sony is attracting customers that will discover those issues and not be happy with them. Be careful that you know what you're really getting and can live with it if you shop outside the current Sony lineup.

On a more high-level view of the mirrorless world, you have three basic choices:

  • Full Frame — (1) 12mp, (2) 24/26/30mp, (3) 45/47mp, (4) 60mp, the middle two from multiple players (and likely #4 from multiple players soon). #1 and #4 are really specialty cameras, in my opinion, and you really should make sure you need their specialness before committing the money to them. Most folk will do quite fine with #2. That's enough for the largest print you can get out of a desktop inkjet printer (13x19") and there's really not a dud in that group (though there is a difference in feature sets). Full frame has made it all the way down to US$1000 (#2 from Canon, old #2 from Sony), so it's within the reach of most serious photographers now.
  • APS-C — With Nikon's entry, we now have Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony all playing in the APS-C crop sensor game with very competent products (20 to 32mp, similar to #2 in full frame). You give up a stop or so of ISO performance for something smaller and lighter, and sometimes very small and very light. While Fujifilm is trying to push APS-C all the way up to the US$2000 price point (X-Pro3), realistically the price range is at most US$500-1500, and obviously anything above US$1000 needs to have performance/feature capabilities that the US$1000 full frame cameras don't. APS-C can make for a small, light, and excellent quality travel camera kit. When I make my holiday buying recommendations soon, you'll see a lot of APS-C in the small, light category. 
  • m4/3 — The first (well, technically the extremely low-volume Epson R-D1 was first) of the mirrorless entrants is now the smallest. Smallest in sensor size, smallest in ILC sales volume. These cameras can be smallest in travel kit size, too, with the right camera and lens choices. As smartphone camera quality keeps creeping up, the products at the small sensor end of the camera world keep getting marginalized. That used to be 1/2.3" sensors, now it's starting to be 1" sensors, and I can now see Apple and Google may eventually begin nibbling at m4/3 in the future, too. So it's feature set, performance, lens choice, coupled with manageable size that will keep m4/3 in the running, and that's where you should spend your time investigating whether an Olympus or Panasonic m4/3 camera is for you. 

I've written the following before, but it also should be considered now that all the camera makers have mirrorless options: if you've been shooting a particular brand, you probably ought to stay with that brand if you decide to transition from DSLR to mirrorless.

That's particularly true for Nikon, as Nikon has managed to make their mirrorless cameras so similar to their DSLRs in handling, menus, and performance. It's somewhat less true for Canon as they've taken to more experimentation. 

Finally, at PhotoPlus I had a discussion with someone that went something like this: mirrorless may be causing the contraction in camera sales. The reason? People can now clearly see how the future of ILC is mirrorless, not DSLR, but they can also now see exactly what they're likely to get for what price. Many see the DSLR they already own as being fine. The cost of selling off the DSLR gear and buying new mirrorless gear that performs similarly is very high. In other words, the benefits are not outweighing the costs for a lot of people, so they're just staying put. Ironically, having more options to upgrade to is causing fewer people to upgrade.

Meanwhile, as I've pointed out many times before, the camera makers are still not making sharing of images as quick and easy as they could, and that puts off the potential new young buyers of dedicated cameras. They don't want to give up the ease of sharing to carry another piece of gear that, sure, might give them some new capabilities, but is too complex and disconnected for them. 

Put these two things together and you have this:

  1. To get existing ILC owners to update or upgrade their gear—particularly those at the upper end of the camera spectrum—you need to give them much more useful features, far better performance, while not costing them an arm and a leg to get those benefits.
  2. To get new ILC owners to grow the market—particularly those that might buy a lower end or simpler camera—you need to make image sharing easy and not slap on confusing user interfaces they have to take a lot of time to learn.

Camera makers aren't exactly doing either. And thus, the mirrorless may be causing the contraction in camera sales, as mirrorless is the newest thing that should be attracting both those customers.

Fujifilm X-Pro3 Announcement

bythom fujifilm xpro3

Fujifilm today officially announced the X-Pro3 after teasing it last month in Japan. For the most part it's what you'd expect: an update of the X-Pro2 to current technologies. That includes using the 26mp X-Trans sensor, incorporating the latest X-Processor 4, as well as updating the displays.

While the Fujifilm press release leads with some down-in-the-weeds things, the big news here is really those displays. 

The EVF portion of the hybrid viewfinder has been updated to a 3.69m dot OLED that covers 97% of the sRGB Color Space. Moreover, at high speed it runs at either 100 fps or 200 fps (with a unique black frame signal to make for visual smoothness frame to frame). The overlay for the OVF side of the viewfinder has been updated, as well.

On the back of the camera, the tilting and touchscreen rear LCD actually lives mostly with its face to the camera. That's because there's an additional "Memory LCD" on its back side to provide settings information full time. The main 1.6m dot LCD folds down from the back now, and flips to an 180° position max.

The X-Pro has always been a unique camera in the market, given its hybrid viewfinder. Personally, I've always found the X-Pro a bit on the gimmicky and clumsy side. I'd be curious as to the actual statistics of how people are using those early X-Pros. In other words, how much of the time they're in optical viewfinder mode versus how much they're in electronic viewfinder mode. I suspect that people aren't switching as much as Fujifilm thinks between the alternatives.

But more to the point, there's another issue that now comes up because of the way Fujifilm is handling the rear LCD. It appears that Fujifilm has a clear design bias in the X-Pro series toward folk who used old rangefinder cameras and don't want to spend time in the menus or even reviewing images on the camera. That audience is, at this point, getting old. Fujifilm also seems to be saying that this same audience isn't all that interested in one of the primary advantages that kicked the digital camera adoption into high gear, that big rear LCD. 

Each big "breakthrough" in camera tech that generated a growth spurt in ILC solved a clear user problem. Automatic metering solved the user problem of setting the right exposure. Autofocus solved the user problem of putting focus in the right spot. DSLRs solved the problem of not seeing your results instantly so that you could understand what you might still need to change.

The hypothesis behind the X-Pro design is that there is a group of photographers who know exactly what they're doing and don't need or want to see results most of the time. Call them the Totally Secure-in-What-I'm-Doing Shooters. Okay, maybe, but how many of those folk are there actually? And are they really that secure? Are they not chimping at all? To me, the change in rear display adds another clumsiness to an already somewhat awkward camera.

This is all a long-winded way of saying: what user problem is Fujifilm trying to solve with the X-Pro3? I'm not sure what that is, and I'm pretty sure it isn't for me if I don't know what the user problem was.

Because of that, the X-Pro3 feels a bit more like an experimental playground for some high-end Fujifilm engineers more than as a camera specifically targeted to win over new customers. There's other evidence of that, as well, including the titanium exterior, the spec to 10°C usage, and more. The US$2000 price for an APS-C camera also puts the X-Pro3 in a crowd by itself. 

The bulk of the XF buying is still going to be the X-A7, the X-100, the X-T30, and X-T3. Nothing changes in that because of the introduction of the X-Pro3. To me, the X-Pro3 is a little more targeted to catering to the Leica crowd than the general photographer. 

Of course, the proof is always in the actual camera use. Given that much of the X-T3 inside migrates to the X-Pro3, it should be a very capable shooter. The question is whether all the exotic add-ons add enough for us to consider it for daily shooting over the X-T3. 

Update: after handling the X-Pro3 for a short time, I like it better than I thought I would. That said, I still have two concerns about this camera: (1) the optical viewfinder has been downgraded in several ways, so I'm now less likely to use it, which makes me wonder why I need it and have to spend more for it; and (2) having a touch interface on a rear LCD that isn't accessible in the preferred shooting configuration is another downgrade; if the camera is completely configured exactly how you need it, great, but the minute you have to drop into the menus and use that rear LCD, it's sub-optimal compared to even the X-A7. So I still think this is a camera for a very specific type of shooter. That shooter is not me.

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Olympus E-M5 Mark III Announcement

bythom olympus em5m3wlens

Today Olympus announced the long-leaked and long-wished-for E-M5 update, the Mark III. Not a particularly exciting announcement, but it does bring quite a few significant updates to the model. 

For instance, the sensor has been upgraded from the old 16mp version to the 20mp sensor in the E-M1m2 and E-M1X. The EVF, though it has dropped slightly in size, is now OLED, so better in terms of presenting a less cheap TV-like appearance. The sensor stabilization now improves to 6.5 stops (CIPA) with lens IS, 5.5 without, from 5. The camera also gets better weather sealing with an IPX rating of 1 ("protects against 10-minute sustained dripping"), even though the body has been made slightly lighter.

4K video can be captured at up to 30 fps, and Cinema 4K (DCI 17:9) can be shot at 24 fps with a high bitrate. 1080P video has 120 fps slow motion capabilities.

As usual, the EM-5m3 has all the features you'd expect from Olympus: live composite, live bulb, pro capture (pre capture), focus bracketing, and focus stacking. Olympus shooters were wondering whether the high-res shot mode would be included. Yes, you can shoot 50mp high resolution images with eight sequential shots, but it does not support handheld shooting, as many had hoped.

The camera uses the BLS-50 battery and can be charged by USB. Unfortunately, that's USB 2.0. The single SD card slot is UHS-II. 

The E-M5m3 will sell for US$1200 body only, or US$1800 with the 14-150mm f/4-5.6 II kit lens. Units should be available in November. 

Along with the E-M5m3, Olympus also introduced the updated E-PL, now at E-PL10. Not much seems to have changed: and we have some minor changes to some Art Filters, some new colors, some minor updating. No price has been set, though availability is listed as late November. Update: The E-PL10 is currently only going to the Japanese and Asian markets.

All in all, the E-M5m3 seems to be a miniature E-M1m2 at a lower cost. There are very few compromises in picking it over its more expensive brother. Which now makes the E-M1m2 the camera that needs significant updating in the Olympus lineup, as it sits in small window between the E-M5m3 and the E-M1X.

All the reasons I liked the E-M1m2 for backpacking into the back country have now migrated to the E-M5m3, making for an even smaller and lighter kit (at least if you do a good job of choosing appropriate lenses). To that end, I applaud Olympus. Still, I have to wonder if the E-M5m3 and E-M1m2 are too close together in specs and capability. We've long had leap-frogging in these two Olympus models. The E-M5m3 doesn't really leapfrog this time, it mostly lands on the butt of the frog ahead of it. I worry about that because it's difficult for a camera company to sell cameras that are close together in capability these days.

Olympus has been in volume contraction for some time, a problem all the camera companies have been facing recently. Olympus management tries to place much of last year's decline on "reorganization of production bases..." Funny thing is, this year's sales forecast is about the same as last year's (+2.7% isn't really a change, and the first quarter's results say that it hasn't shown up yet, so the E-M5m3 is probably the key driver of that prediction).

Here's the progression that's important: 550k, 450k, 420k, 340k. That's the unit volume of m4/3 cameras that Olympus shipped over the past four fiscal years. Also, 29% of m4/3 sales for Olympus is in the home market itself, Japan. 

Olympus is forecasting 330k units in the current fiscal year, though I'd be remiss if I didn't note that they've missed every such forecast they've made since 2012 (last year they overestimated by about 15%). The problem Olympus now has is that Canon and Nikon are also in their market space, while Olympus hasn't had a camera that resonates in any way with the overall market since 2016. 

The E-M5m2 is now over four years old, so it's somewhat likely that there's potential for reasonable upgrading to the E-M5m3 among customers to happen (though I suspect a number of those potential upgraders went to the E-M1m2 or left m4/3). But here's the thing: Olympus needs more than one new model to resonate in order to stop contracting, and that resonation has to be for more than just existing current owners to upgrade. Put a different way: the E-M5m3 is not going to make a significant change in the economic dynamics of the Imaging group at Olympus. 

Nor do I think the also announced E-PL10 is the answer. Yes, it will help to update that entry model, particularly in Japan, but I'm not sure that it, too, will generate enough upside to make a real change to Olympus' volume.

Basically, Olympus makes m4/3 bodies and Tough compacts these days. The latest Tough compact is 12mp, same as an iPhone 11 Pro, which is also waterproof. The Tough is 25-100mm f/2-4.9 as opposed to the iPhone's 13-50mm f/2.4-2 (yes, that's correct; the ultra wide is the most limited aperture, the wide is actually f/1.8, and the telephoto is f/2). Leaving aside the sensor equivalency issues for a moment, to customers those specs seem similar, not dissimilar. I kayak from time to time, and last time I did so I used a Tough, mostly for its waterproofing and raw file support. Next time? Probably the iPhone 11 Pro based upon my initial evaluation of that phone (yes, it too has raw file support, at least in the camera apps I use).

So erosion is likely not just in the m4/3 side of things for Olympus Imaging, it's happening in compact camera sales, too (down 20% last year for Olympus). 

This, of course, brings up the age old question: is the continued decline enough so that Olympus will give up its camera business? No, not likely. But not because they'll manage to make the group recover in volume or make it significantly profitable ever again. Mostly they'll keep producing cameras because the parent company can cover the losses easily, and you simply don't close down businesses in Japan due to both cultural and legal issues. 

So I believe we're left with "more of the same" for Olympus. And indeed, the E-M5m3 and E-PL10 feel a lot like "more of the same." Olympus is a small fish getting smaller in a pool that's also getting smaller. They probably won't breed (produce new and upgrade existing models) as often as before, and they likely won't evolve much (pioneer completely new features). Frankly, I see them as a three-model ILC company (entry, enthusiast, prosumer/pro). They'd be more successful making sure those three models were dead-on perfect than they would proliferating models and updating models that overlap too much. 

Which brings us to image sensors. When you sign up to use a sensor with Sony Semiconductor, your pricing is variable based on your volume commitment level. Because large sensors—1" and bigger, which includes m4/3—are generally the highest cost part in a camera, everyone commits to higher volumes to bring the cost down. Olympus made a number of strategic errors in Imaging. One was that they didn't create a compact camera (and these days that would be a Tough model) that used that m4/3 sensor. The XA equivalent with a 4/3 sensor never appeared.

Yes, that would have sent their compact cameras up-market (higher cost), but that's exactly what Olympus needs to do across the line: minimum number of models, all upscale from competition, sold at a small premium. Of course, now the problem is whether a camera with a 20mp m4/3 sensor can actually be seen as premium. Fujifilm and Canon are selling low cost APS-C cameras now that outperform the 20mp m4/3 sensor in a number of ways. Nikon just entered the crop sensor market below the E-M5m3 price point.

That's why I wrote "Olympus made..." strategic mistakes. The problem is that if you make mistakes in tech you generally don't get a re-do. You can't just reverse your decision, because the world around you has moved by the time you do. 

Here's the world as it will be soon: serious cameras bought by well-heeled customers only. Full frame is going to sit in the US$1000-2000 pocket for entry level, and that entry level is remarkably sophisticated and performance-oriented. APS-C is going to sit mostly in the <US$1000 position, and it, too, is turning out to be sophisticated and performance-oriented. There's literally no traction point for a US$3000 m4/3 camera (E-M1X). The traction point for the E-M1m2 (and eventual m3) is also probably now down to US$1000, certainly not anywhere near the list price of US$1700 (current sale offer is US$1500, still on the high side). 

So what I expect from Olympus is more "withering." Much like Pentax, Olympus will continue to make cameras. Updates will get farther apart with fewer new features, model availability will drop, and the whole market for Olympus will become "how many current owners can we get to upgrade?" 

When that happens—your market changes from new and existing customers to just existing customers—your sales and distribution should probably change, too. Too bad Olympus doesn't really know who their still active owners are. (They're not alone in that: camera companies are notoriously poor compared to other tech companies at getting customer registration and then engaging that customer well enough to understand and delight them. You might note, for example, that any Apple product you buy pretty much requires an Apple ID to be fully functional, so Apple knows who you are and if you're active; even though Apple isn't aggressive about using that data by promoting back at you they have a wealth of statistics they can aggregate anonymously that help them understand their customer.)

Finally, there's this question: why doesn't Olympus just make a full frame camera? 

Again, I wrote that Olympus made a number of strategic mistakes. Not making an OM4-like full frame camera with small primes was probably one of those. The problem with full frame mirrorless is this: you could easily predict that the Big Three that dominate ILC sales (80%+ market share) would go there. For all three it was just "slide over from DSLR to mirrorless." Sony did it first, and now Canon and Nikon in are in full swing with that. Note that Canon took the full frame entry price all the way down to US$1300, which is US$700 below where Nikon and Sony really want it to be. (And we're going to have some massive sales coming up this holiday season, which will pressure all price points.)

m4/3 and full frame would have been a natural fit for Olympus: m4/3 for price and size advantage, full frame for high-end practitioners still looking for something smallish. Those sensors, all else equal, are two stops apart (as opposed to the one-stop apart of APS-C and full frame, which leads to a lot of "which should I buy questions"). 

Moreover, Olympus could have probably targeted size with full frame, too, had they gotten there early enough. An OM-4 was 139 x 87 x 50mm and 540g. While that's very near where Sony ended up with the A7, there's a lot Olympus could have done to bring that size down some more (the 139mm width was mostly dictated by getting film flat between the two reels, for example). And the real Olympus advantage in the film SLR world was small, discrete primes. The 35mm f/2 was 240g and only 42mm in length, for example (still shorter than the Sony 35mm f/1.8 FE even if we add the additional mirror box dimension). 

Now, of course, not only is Sony there with smallish full frame bodies, so is Nikon. Third party lens makers, such as Samyang, are also bringing compact primes to market, as well. So entering the market last with full frame mirrorless Olympus' original SLR size advantages wouldn't actually have a lot of traction now: they'd be competing fairly closely with the Big Three, and they won't win that game.

You'll notice I keep using the word "traction." To avoid contraction, you must have traction. Sony clearly has traction in the mirrorless market at the moment. They believe size/weight and technology are their traction points, though I don't think those will hold up to time for Sony.

To get re-established and reverse decline in the ILC market, you have to have something new that starts a new traction engagement, not just iterate old models with existing sensors. And that's Olympus's problem: they're currently only iterating older models with existing sensors. No real traction. 

Even with iterating Olympus gets it wrong. The E-M1X shouldn't exist. Just add the extra processor and create an E-M1m3, not a new model (let alone try to charge US$1200 more for it). 

Thus, I don't have a lot positive to say about Olympus' position in the market these days. Sure, the E-M5m3 looks like the upgrade it needed to be, but it's likely to seriously cut into E-M1m2 sales if people are rational. Plus it's not a model that feels as competitive these days as it once did. Olympus will get a small, temporary blip from postponed upgraders, and I think that's about it. After that blip goes away, it's back to the contraction game for Olympus I fear.

Corrected the IS and E-PL10 information.

The Full Frame Lens Situation

One thing that gets overlooked in many discussions about mirrorless lenses is where everyone is in their actual cycle. Sony introduced the A7 and A7R and FE lenses in 2013, Canon and Nikon introduced the RF and Z lens mount cameras and lenses in 2018. Sony thus had five years head start on Canon and Nikon, so they'd damn sure better have more lenses at this point ;~). The current count is 30 for Sony, 8 for Canon, 8 for Nikon. 

But where did Sony stand three years in? Because that's what we should compare with now that Nikon has announced their lens road map through 2021. Canon doesn't have a road map, though there are enough leaks to give us an idea of what they're up to. Let's take a look, shall we?

Canon RF Nikon Z FX
Sony FE
Primes 24mm f/1.4 L
35mm f/1.4 L
50mm f/1.4 L
85mm f/1.2 L
105mm f/1.4 L
135mm f/1.4 L
20mm f/1.8 S
24mm f/1.8 S
28mm ?
35mm f/1.8 S
40mm ?
50mm f/1.2 S
50mm f/1.8 S
58mm f/0.95 S
85mm f/1.8 S
28mm f/2
35mm f/1.4
35mm f/2.8
50mm f/1.8
55mm f/1.8 ZA
85mm f/1.4 GM
Zooms 15-35mm f/2.8 L
24-70mm f/2.8 L
24-105mm f/4 L
24-240mm f/4-6.3
28-70mm f/2 L
70-200mm f/2.8 L
14-24mm f/2.8 S
14-30mm f/4 S
24-70mm f/2.8 S
24-70mm f/4 S
24-105mm ? S
24-200mm ?
70-200mm f/2.8 S
100-400mm ? S
200-600mm ?
16-35mm f/4
24-70mm f/2.8 GM
24-70mm f/4 ZA
24-240mm f/3.5-6.3
70-200mm f/2.8 GM
70-200mm f/4 G
70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G
Specialty 35mm f/1.8 Macro
90mm f/2.8 Macro
60mm Macro
105mm Macro S
28-135mm f/4 G
50mm f/2.8 Macro
90mm f/2.8 Macro

Total 8 produced

5 rumored

13 total (likely to be higher)
8 produced

12 known

20 total
16 produced

16 total

Update: I had originally left the 14-24mm f/2.8 out of the table. It's been added.

In the case of Canon, I've had to use clear rumored and hinted at lenses to fill in the table through the end of 2021. I suspect there will be at least two or three additional lenses that I haven't caught. Which would put them on par with Sony's first three years in the FE mount. 

The more interesting thing is how the initial lens choices for the new mount differ between the three companies. Nikon is executing a full series of f/1.8 primes and a broader zoom range then Sony originally produced. Nikon also seems to emphasizing higher quality lenses than Sony originally did (thirteen S-Line Nikkors versus six G or GM Sonys). Canon's lens list sure looks like there's a higher end camera coming soon, otherwise it makes little sense.

Canon and Nikon are, of course, are both relying upon their established DSLR lens base to tide them over until they can get to parity with Sony. The Canon and Nikon mount adapters have been included with just about every sale, and both do an excellent job of making DSLR lenses useful on their mirrorless systems. Thus, existing Canon and Nikon users probably now seem like viable full frame systems with no need to switch. 

Of course, there's this: if you were buying from scratch today, Sony's in a better position, simply due to that head start. 

Update: I've been getting a lot of feedback on this article. A good portion of it is seems to ignore that last line ("if you were buying from scratch today..."). 

So why do this article? For the same reason I was trying to moderate knee-jerk opinions back in 2014 and 2015 with the Sony FE mount! A lot of people forget that Sony pretty much abandoned the A-mount to fully pursue mirrorless. Meanwhile, their initial FE mount lens choices seemed a bit anemic. The 28-70mm was really poor, the 24-70mm f/4 Zeiss was poor in the edges and corners of the frame, though the 70-200mm f/4 was pretty decent. Sony also initially seemed to keep executing 28/35mm and 50/55mm primes for some reason.

Canon and Nikon both will end up with a trio of high-quality, pro-level f/2.8 zooms faster than Sony did. To me, this bodes well: both companies understand that they have a long way to go to get to absolute lens parity, but they're putting emphasis on key optics in a way that shows to me that they're very serious about this market and will do what it takes to eventually satisfy users.

So I look at the present scene for Canon and Nikon DSLR shooters much like I looked at the scene for Sony A-mount back one and two years into the FE bodies: Canon and Nikon are moving faster, and it's far easier to see where they're headed from the initial road maps. People don't remember that Sony A-mount users were leaving Sony in 2014 and 2015 for Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and both the apparent abandonment of the A-mount and the strange mix of initial FE lenses was part of the reason.

For Canon and Nikon DSLR users now in the same position, they have a choice: switch to Sony FE or transition to Canon RF or Nikon Z. I'm going to call this one: those Canon and Nikon users have more and better information than the Sony A-mount users did at the same point in Sony's transition. 

Finally, a lot of folk think the race is over and Sony has won. They apparently haven't paid a lot of attention to history or understand the dynamics of a company like Canon (Nikon's more quirky, as cameras are the only real consumer business they have; everything else at Nikon is pretty much business-to-business). 

Sony's right to be highly aggressive right now. It's their last chance before the battleship (Canon) and cruiser (Nikon) lock onto them with their full battery. But here's the thing: this is exactly what we as customers want to happen. Strong competition between Canon, Nikon, and Sony will keep all three on their toes and improving their products and fleshing out their lineups. If you just want Sony to win and Canon and Nikon to fade to oblivion, you're asking for mediocrity down the line. No need for all that R&D investment if you don't have competition.

2019 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

Mirrorless camera news and views for 2019. The stories in these folders were front page news on sansmirror during the time periods indicated:

2018 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

Mirrorless camera news and views for 2018. The stories in these folders were front page news on sansmirror during the time periods indicated:

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