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.

So Why did Olympus Fail?

In ten years of operation, nine years of losses seems like a failure to me, so what really happened at Olympus that is leading to them now divesting the Imaging group?

As with a lot of the camera companies, Olympus got very vested in compact cameras in the late 90's and early 00's. At one point, Olympus had the third leading market share in digital cameras due to an onslaught of models, many of which were quite good for the time. Those Olympus compacts were certainly successful and profitable at that point.

In 2003, the Olympus E-1 introduced us to the 4/3 DSLR, which had been hinted at for two years. I got a lot of grief from others for writing at the time that Olympus had brought a knife to a gun fight (i.e. a small sensor to a larger sensor battle). I predicted that wouldn't work. The E-1 was DSLR sized, for sure, weighing in at 26 ounces (735g), but the viewfinder was a bit like looking down a tunnel, and the Kodak-based sensor wasn't exactly up to snuff either (at ISO 800, it was down a stop-and-a-half in dynamic range to the Nikon D100, which was 35g lighter).

There was a lot to like about the E-1 itself. It had one of the more complete and user-friendly control abilities of the time, and was solidly built. But it also required that you buy into a new mount. Body price was US$2200, a bit higher than the D100, which had come out a year earlier.

The E-3 in 2007 was probably the high point of the 4/3 DSLRs, but against a Nikon D300 it was still down almost a stop-and-a-half at ISO 800 (and worse at ISO 200). It was easy for me to predict the demise of 4/3 DSLRs—again taking a lot of heat on the Internet for that—as the contradiction between high-end build and lower-end image quality was jarring, and ultimately fatal. If anything, the market was asking for the opposite: lower-end build and higher-end image quality.

m4/3 appeared in 2010 with the E-P1. Against the now-bigger Nikon DSLR—a D7000 would be current for that period—Olympus was now at 12mp compared to 16mp, and down only a stop at ISO 800. The reason why I picked up an E-P1 had to do with size, particularly for a competent mid-range focal zoom camera as opposed to a compact camera with a smaller sensor. 

On safari, with big lenses on my two Nikon DSLRs, I needed something small and highly competent to serve the 24-70mm focal range. The E-P1 fit that bill better than anything else at the time. But again, Olympus was asking people to buy into a new mount, and pricing was a bit on the high side for what you got. 

Olympus' long-term reputation in the photo industry was as a purveyor of small, highly competent cameras. Note that one of their most recent introductions, the E-M1X, is not small, and it's not really any more competent than the smaller E-M1 Mark II/III at most things. Somewhere between the E-P1 and the E-M1X things got murky in Olympus engineering.

While Olympus has had a long history of ground-breaking technologies, including an industry-leading sensor-based IS system, their m4/3 cameras have consistently stayed geeky while not addressing their weaknesses or fully playing to their strengths. Couple that with asking for more money than for what consumers perceived to be equal or better cameras, m4/3 just never really got past its initial launch success. 

Indeed, sales plateaued and then dropped: 590k, 510k, 500k, 510k, 550k, 450k, 420k, 340k units sold during the last eight fiscal years. In terms of interchangeable lens camera market share, Olympus has tended to be in the low single digit percentages (currently ~3%). It's just darned tough to make a profit when you're the small player, no matter what the overall market is doing.

As Ries and Trout once put it, the top two players in a market generally take all of the profits. Maybe the third position is worth having. But fourth or worse? Not viable. Ries and Trout's formula for breaking out of that was to "start a new market (niche)". And that's what the original m4/3 alliance tried to do: small, capable, mirrorless cameras. 

What I've always liked about m4/3 is the lenses. I can't really complain about anything Olympus and Panasonic have done in the lens realm. Together they built out a full set with multiple choices very rapidly, and many of those lenses are gems. The lenses, while often overbuilt on the Olympus side, still tend towards small and capable, so good news there.

Where I started to have problems is with the m4/3 cameras. The GH4/5/5s and E-M1X are a bit of jumping the shark. Those larger Panasonic bodies sold mostly because of their video capabilities (smallest, most competent 4K video cameras), which isn't exactly mass market. Olympus kept making the same camera in different ways: 1, 10, 5, X, with that latter completely missing the small mark. Moreover, Olympus missed a turn or two along the way. Why we don't have a Tough camera with the m4/3 sensor plus a pocket compact camera akin to the once seminal XA, but with the m4/3 sensor, I have no idea why. 

The reason why these are missed opportunities has to do with parts commitment. At 500k sensor use a year, Olympus eventually found themselves trapped: they don't have the volume to move to new sensor tech (BSI and fuller on-sensor phase detect would be two useful things; note that the current Olympus on-sensor phase detect is minimal compared to the Canon/Nikon/Sony approaches). Olympus simply can't pay back the necessary R&D costs at low sensor volume, and so we slowly stagnated. Worse still, I suspect that Olympus overcommitted to volume on sensors—every year it seemed that they were suggesting that they'd break 600k units, then failing to do so—and then found themselves having to keep making products with the current ones. Even if Tough/XA cameras only sold another 200k units, that might have broken the sensor predicament. (But to be fair, the Tough may also been plagued by a small sensor commitment that Olympus couldn't manage to sell to.)

Olympus—despite having pretty much invented the all-in-one camera—also seems to have missed the fact that a compact camera with a really long lens was the only viable compact market left other than large sensor. Say what you will about the Nikon Coolpix P900 and it's later brethren, but it sells. 

No doubt that the convenience of smartphones for photography that was triggered by the iPhone in 2007 has made it tough for the camera companies to find their footing. If they were doing what any tech company should be doing and evaluating where the technology leads the product use five to ten years out, then Olympus much have mostly ignored what they saw. If they weren't doing that type of forward-thinking, then they were caught out by their lack of diligence. 

Thing is, the Japanese camera companies are almost all backwards looking. Nikon, especially, values legacy features over everything else (you can still use lenses made in 1970 that function fully on the latest Nikon Z cameras, for instance). 

It's fine to keep legacy in mind, but you have to push it forward into new technologies as they're enabled. Digital cameras create files with bits in them. People today are accustomed to sharing files with bits in them over the Internet, first and foremost. Cameras aren't doing that well; it's an add-on construct that hasn't been given much attention.

The whole situation with dedicated cameras is much like what we saw with Hi-Fi equipment when first CDs, and later mp3 files became the norm. It's not that Hi-Fi died. The market did contract considerably, and the remaining players today actually embrace such technologies as Apple AirPlay, Amazon Alexa, bluetooth streaming, and much, much more. That the Japanese camera companies can't see what the Japanese Hi-Fi companies had to do to continue is a bit mind-boggling. 

I've said it for a long time: you must embrace your customers. You need to know what problems they have, how they're solving them, and figure out better ways for them to do that. Ways that fit better into the customer's world. 

If Olympus had a real failing, it was a stubbornness to just continue to do things they way they wanted to do things. The overly complex menu system that buries unique features is just one area where you can see that at work. The thinking that 6.5 stops of IS is going to sell more systems than 5 stops of IS is another. The lack of embrace with social networking is yet another. 

That stubbornness, coupled with the engine (image sensor) getting dated, the needless and incorrect model proliferation, and an increasing price/performance issue, are what killed Olympus in the long run. 

I'm sad at the outcome. I don't think it had to be this way, but I've come to accept that it did. For the moment, an E-M1 Mark III still has a few bright points about it that make it unique in the market, but unfortunately those aren't enough to save a storied camera maker. 

Good m4/3 News, Bad m4/3 News

In a strange morning for m4/3, Olympus retreated while Panasonic advanced.

Let's take the positive news first. Panasonic introduced the G100 (G110 in some areas of the world), an m4/3 camera that's targeted towards vloggers. As with Sony and the ZV-1, it seems that Panasonic targeted price before features. 

bythom panasonic g100

The key parameters from a vlogging standpoint are 4K/30P and 24P recording, for up to 10 minutes, an optional (wired) handgrip/remote, and improved direction mic system designed by Nokia. 

At US$799, the G100 basically slots in as a direct competitor to the ZV-1. One key difference, though, is that the G100 has an m4/3 lens mount, meaning wider  and more useful lenses can be mounted. Image stabilization is not on-sensor, but a combination of electronic (cropping) IS with lens-based IS.

Unfortunately, 4K is a crop on the G100, and an even bigger crop if you invoke the electronic IS at its highest mode. With IS off, the 4K crop is 1.26x. With it on, it ranges from 1.37x to 1.79x. In 1080P, there's no crop with IS off, a 1.09x to 1.43x crop with electronic IS on. While you can mount wider lenses on the G100, not all of those really wide lenses have IS, so there's no bullseye scored by engineers with IS, for sure. 

As a still camera, there's a different limitation: the mechanical shutter is single curtain, and limited to 1/500 and 1/50 flash sync. Want to go above that? You'll be in a fully electronic shutter, which has some rolling shutter issues. 

Overall, the G100 is an interesting addition to the m4/3 field, and to vlogging cameras in general. Not perfect, but also something that will appeal to some. 

Unfortunately, on the same day the G100 announcement went live, we also got not-so-good m4/3 news: Olympus has started the process of divesting the Imaging business (cameras and lenses) from the corporate parent. Actually, it's more than a divestment, it appears. It's an outright fire sale. Specifically, Olympus a new company will be created and managed by JIP (Japan Industrial Partners, a private equity firm who previously bought the VAIO computer business from Sony). JIP has been acquiring insolvent businesses in Japan since 2002, including one from Olympus before, Olympus mobile phone business. 

But JIP is not a large pocket investor, it's a small (US$150m) equity investment partner. In particular, they specialize in what they call "curve out" projects. Basically this is code for "take over a business while stripping out any non-performing aspects." It's a way of getting around Japan's employee laws, among other things. What's likely to be left of Olympus Imaging if the deal goes through is something smaller than before. To quote the Olympus disclosure agreement: "structure may become more compact, efficient and agile..."  

This pretty much puts an end to all the disinformation that Olympus spread over the past five years about the Imaging group. The R&D for Imaging goes to the new corporation; there's no mention of Olympus Medical getting any exclusive access to any Imaging R&D in the future. I've been saying that Olympus' statements about Imaging R&D being key to Medical advances was hogwash for some time now. Moreover, Olympus' constant optimism ("we'll stop the losses next year"; see Claims to Remember) is also proven wrong, once again ("...despite all such efforts...recorded losses for 3 consecutive fiscal years"). 

Note that this isn't a done deal, though. The press announcement is a memorandum of understanding, which has been made basically because of Olympus' responsibilities to investors  under Japanese business law (you must disclose significant changes that might impact future financial results). Olympus and JIP are hoping to sign a definitive agreement by September 30th, and to close the transaction by the end of the year. However, that means that details haven't been worked out. Olympus may retain some ownership in the new venture (Sony retained 5% of the VAIO spinout), or it may have to pony up some additional cash resources. Both those things are unknowns at this point.

In the short term, it's business as usual. Olympus continues to sell and support cameras worldwide. However, that now comes with an asterisk, as it's unclear what happens when the transaction closes. As many know, the Sony VAIO computers disappeared from many markets after JIP took over. I wouldn't be surprised if JIP concentrated on where Olympus has done decently (e.g. Japan and some parts of Asia). 

Mirrorless Full Frame Today

While full frame gets a lot of lip service on the Interwebs these days, I’m not sure everyone actually understands what’s available and how all those options cost out. Let alone which option to choose. So let’s take a closer look:

Green is Sony, Red is Canon, Yellow is Nikon, Blue is Panasonic, Purple is Sigma

All the products in the above chart are available new (the prices come from a B&H search done as I write this, and are for body-only). That’s 16 products—there would be several more if I included the very expensive Leicas—of which over half sell for less than US$2000.  Of those 16 almost a dozen are more generic photography tools, while five are unique products that are more niche (fp, S1H, A7S, A9 models). 

Sony has a wide range of product, but only if you count all the previous generation product Sony has left cluttered on dealers shelves. Technically, there are only four current Sony models, but you can find double that number still available.

I’d characterize the full frame market this way for current generation cameras:

  • Entry Consumer level — Canon RP
  • Low Prosumer level — Canon R, Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, Sony A7 Mark III
  • High Prosumer level —Nikon Z7, Panasonic S1R, Sony A7R Mark IV
  • Pro level — Sony A9 Mark II
  • Specialty — Panasonic S1H, Sigma fp, Sony A7S Mark II

My recommended choices are in bold in the above bullets. Canon will launch a High Prosumer level camera this summer (R5) and what will probably be a Low Prosumer level camera, too (R6). Sony will also update the A7 to Mark IV soon, so consider those things as you consider the current full frame options.

Full frame mirrorless cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than equivalent full frame DSLRs. I keep finding that people are underestimating just how small and light some of the full frame options are. Someone recently emailed me thinking that an Olympus E-M1 Mark III and two Pro zooms would be better for them because "they’re lighter and smaller" and he was aging and having more difficulty carrying lots of heavy DSLR gear. But a Canon RP body weighs 3 ounces less, while a Nikon Z6 weighs only 3 ounces more than the Olympus body.

Yes, lenses can make a difference in size/weight because of the need to cover a larger sensor size, but not always. The lenses the emailer chose for the Olympus were 33 ounces. Similar lenses on the Nikon Z system would be 34 ounces. So he was opting for a system that would have saved him only four ounces, but would have been more challenged in low light.

Which brings us to equivalence. For some reason, applied physics is now a controversial subject. The reason to purchase a full frame system is to have a larger area collecting all those random photons you’re recording as an image. All else equal, full frame is about a stop “better” than APS-C, which is about a stop better than m4/3 (yes, I realize that there are 4:3 versus 3:2 aspect issues that arise in making such a statement, but it’s still a reasonable rule of thumb to start from). So our emailer was picking f/2.8 lenses for m4/3 to make up for the smaller sensor. The Nikon Z lenses I chose were f/4: but he’d still be a stop to the good choosing full frame over m4/3. 

Let’s not read too much into the previous paragraph. There are reasons to buy m4/3 products still, but make sure that they’re rational reasons rather than falling for marketing statements or “Internet wisdom."

Let’s move on to some controversial statements ;~).

If you look at the history of APS-C, you find that Canon, Nikon, and Sony all limited their lens sets (buzz, buzz [that’s my shorthand for being a gnat buzzing Nikon’s DX development team’s neglect of APS-C lenses]). That seems to be repeating itself in mirrorless. Thus, what happens is that the true photographic enthusiast tends to gravitate towards full frame, simply because the lens choices are deeper and broader (or eventually will be for newer mounts like Canon RF and Nikon Z). 

I’d tend to argue that if you’re truly serious about exploring all aspects of photography, full frame is likely where you need to be. As you pick smaller and smaller sensor sizes you start imposing some limitations on what you can achieve, even when the lens set is broad, as it is in m4/3. 

Next, there’s the megapixel thing. Yes, 61 is a larger number than 45, which is a larger number than 24. You’ve been conditioned to think that larger is always better, but that actually may not be true for most users. 

24mp is plenty of pixels for the largest print you’re going to get from even the biggest desktop inkjet printers. A 24” print should look fine off a 24mp camera. Meanwhile, not only is physics being challenged by folk on the Internet, but so is math: a 45mp sensor is not nearly double the resolution of a 24mp sensor, as I keep seeing people write. The Nikon Z7 (45mp) has 27% more resolution than the Z6 (24mp).  Technically, you can print 7” wider with the Z7 than the Z6. 

What I keep finding is that people buying the higher megapixel cameras are using them to do a lot of post processing cropping. In other words, they’re not getting close enough to their subjects or not using the right lenses. I’d argue that you need to do both (distance impacts perspective, and if the subject isn’t filling the frame, you start challenging the autofocus systems). 

Sure, we all miss nailing our compositions a bit under fire. But if you are constantly cropping images by more than 5-10%, I’d argue that you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing. Using pixels as a crutch isn’t close to the optimal technique. 

Okay, considering all the above and the current pricing, I’d tend to steer most of you reading this towards a Canon RP, Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, or Sony A7 Mark III. All are fine cameras, and the current body-only price ranges from US$1000 to US$2000, right where the prosumer/enthusiast tends to be spending these days.

Finally, now that Canon and Nikon have revealed their hands, I’d say this: Canon DSLR users should start by looking closely at the Canon RF models, and Nikon DSLR users should mostly be looking at the Nikon Z models.

Which brings me to a final “controversial” statement(s):

  • Canon UI, ergonomics, and naming is consistent and (other than the R) easy enough for a previous Canon user to understand and use.
  • Nikon UI, ergonomics, and naming is probably the most consistent of all the makers, and makes transitioning from any Nikon camera to a Z fairly easy.
  • Panasonic UI, ergonomics, and naming tends to seem familiar to Nikon users, less so to Canon users.
  • Sony UI, ergonomics, and naming are entirely different beasts from the Canon/Nikon ones. Moreover, I don’t believe Sony has rationalized their menu system and naming anywhere close to what the rest of the players are doing.

What do I use? A Nikon Z6 and Z7 mostly. For some things I use a Sony A7R Mark IV or Sony A9. But again, any of the bolded entries in the top bullet list on this page are excellent choices.

The Sony A7 Firmware Wish List

I made a wish list of firmware improvements for the Nikon Z system back in February. I originally planned to roll out other firmware wish lists, but life got in the way and the project tabled for a bit.

Today, I'll tackle the A7/A7R/A7S series cameras from Sony. When I get time, I'll tackle the A6### and perhaps the A9 models. 

Despite Sony's long head start on full frame mirrorless, the list of things Sony needs to still do is reasonably long, and some of the things I list are quite overdue: 

  • Address menu organization
  • Improve the menu help system
  • Do a thorough pass on naming and consistency (e.g. fewer acronyms and weird abbreviations and more use of common photography terms, not engineering words)
  • Add touchscreen focus sensor positioning
  • Add more touchscreen support, particularly for menus and settings
  • Reduce raw file sizes
  • Create a true lossless compressed format
  • Add raw exposure tools
  • Fix Pixel Shift shooting
  • Add Focus Stacking
  • Add Live Composite shooting
  • Extend Time-lapse capabilities
  • Improve hot pixel suppression (star eater)
  • Add TIFF, HEIF support
  • Further reduce buffer full restrictions on continued camera settings/use
  • Add shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds
  • Add BIF focus AI
  • All cameras should have a changeable focus point color
  • Save/Load settings to card, including multiple file support
  • Support additional aspect ratios (5:4, 4:3, 1:1)
  • Improve reliability of smart device connection

That's probably a bare minimum of things that should be eventually done in firmware and/or Mark # updates. Additionally, Sony needs to look at how the firmware update process actually works. Installing new software, particularly on macOS, is currently problematic the way Sony has chosen to do it.

Note that because the A7, A7R, and A7S models leapfrog, they may be in varying states of firmware "completeness." It's probably not useful to wish for simultaneous improvements on all three models (Nikon has it easier with two models that appeared simultaneously). However, the faster Sony can roll firmware changes through all the models, and as far back in the Mark series they can extend that to, the better. In other words, the upcoming A7 Mark IV will likely leapfrog the A7R Mark IV, so a firmware update for the A7R to help make the cameras "match" is something to be highly desired.

CIPA's 2019 Camera Market Report

I finally got around to looking at the information CIPA was going to present at CP+ earlier this year (they released an online version of the yearly CIPA summary in March, when we were all distracted). No big revelations in the data, though some confirmation of trends we already knew about. 

I'm covering the CIPA presentation here on sansmirror instead of the usual dslrbodies site because of what the data suggests. For instance, this chart:

bythom cipa2020 1

This is an interesting, but not unexpected, trend. While DSLRs are basically still selling at the same overall value range as they decline, the compact cameras and especially mirrorless cameras are seeing a rise in selling prices. 

That will be misread by many. So let me explain. In the DSLR realm, we've had high-priced top end cameras like the 1DX and D6 for almost two decades, as well as a wide array of products underneath that, from low-end consumer DSLRs (D3xxx, Rebel), up through mid-level and prosumer cameras. This graph suggests that, while DSLR volume has declined dramatically, the mix of the types of DSLRs being bought hasn't changed a lot. 

That's clearly not true of mirrorless. Between 2012 and 2019 the range of mirrorless models changed considerably. We now have mirrorless cameras that cost as much as US$10,000 (e.g. Fujifilm GFX 100). Also, we now have five players selling high-end full frame mirrorless cameras (Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Sigma, and Sony). We didn't have all those expensive models at the start of that upward trend. 

That said, the fact that the average price of the mirrorless cameras being sold is now well above that of DSLRs tells us that it is well-to-do and likely serious photographers that are fueling that upward trend. That, too, has a simple explanation: DSLR volume is down, and the high-end DSLR long-term user has been sampling/switching to high-end mirrorless as they become more capable. That also explains the modest dip in the last two years for average DSLR price. The higher end DSLR user isn't always buying a new DSLR when they buy, they're sometimes buying mirrorless.

CIPA doesn't graph it together, but lenses for interchangeable cameras are doing something interesting, too. While the number of lenses actually shipped has dropped significantly in the last eight years, the pricing of those lenses hasn't had nearly the same level of decline. Shipments declined about 54% since peak, but the value of those shipments declined only 30%.

So if you've been thinking you're spending more on your hobby lately, you probably are. 

Another thing probably being driven by mirrorless is the type of lenses that are selling:

bythom cipa2

Note the increase in primes being sold. While not a big change over time, I'm pretty sure that, as people move from DSLR to mirrorless, that is driving at least some "prime replacement" activity. Note also that while the Internet is always talking about wide angle zooms and how much they want one, they're not exactly a best seller in the lens category. Indeed, far from it. 

Several years ago I predicted that mirrorless would catch and surpass DSLR volume in 2021. It looks like that might have sped up by about six to twelve months, as the 2019 mirrorless market share jumped up from 38% to 47%. But getting back to the first point I made:

bythom cipa3

Full frame mirrorless is driving that upwards march in terms of sales value. Europe and the Americas lag at this, and significantly so. In the Americas, mirrorless was 37% of the value (Europe 41%). It's really China and Japan that are driving the mirrorless progression faster at the high end.

Finally, if you think you haven't seen a lot of new compact camera models lately, you're right:

bythom cipa4

The ILC makers are still iterating at a reasonably consistent rate, but the compact makers have decimated their iteration. 

Basically, the camera market chugged along in 2019 with much the same trend lines as before. Obviously, things will be different in 2020 due to the worldwide pandemic. We've only had four new mirrorless cameras announced to date; last year at this point it was nine models introduced in the same period. According to CIPA, production of mirrorless models was about three-quarters that of the previous year in the first quarter (shipments were about four-fifths, meaning inventory is being diminished slightly). 

Where things go from here is unknown. Several upcoming product introductions I know about are slowly getting pushed backwards on the schedule. It's tough to sell a new product when folk can't go into a store and look at and handle it. The crazy leading-edge buyers will still be there ordering online the minute the gates open, but in terms of overall product volume, they're not as big a group as most people think. They're just vocal. 

Normally this time of year I've posted my predictions for the full year. This year, all bets are off, and I won't be making any. There's no stable variable that you can point to in order to base a prediction on. 

This has to be driving the management (working from home) at Canon crazy, as they had planned to put the pressure back on Sony in full frame with two new cameras and six new lenses by now, with another big set of mirrorless releases in the fall. Now it's starting to look like all that will be trickle-managed to keep Canon's name in the news. (You can already see that in action with the way the R5 was pre-announced, then details trickled out instead of actual camera shipments.)

Sony, meanwhile, hasn't announced any camera so far in 2020, while they had announced four in the first half of 2019. Likewise, one lens versus four. 

So get used to a more leisurely product introduction pace for a bit. How long that bit will last is anyone's guess. Economies have to reopen and rebound for things to get back to normal for the camera makers. 

Nine, Seven, Four

That's the number of new mirrorless cameras introduced in the first four months of 2018, 2019, and 2020. According to CIPA, the first three months of 2020 had the Japanese companies making  about a quarter fewer mirrorless cameras than the year previous. Note that this is not shipping, but actual production. In a growing market, production happens at a higher rate than shipping. In a slowing market, production numbers appear lower than the shipping numbers. 

We already had an overhanging inventory issue at camera stores worldwide at the end of 2019. Pretty much any mirrorless model you wanted was available, and many (most?) were on sale. As a result, while camera shipments in January were still within a couple of percentage points of the previous year, camera production was down over ten percentage points. That stayed true in February, and then March hit: production slowed to 77.7% of the previous year. April will be worse.

The COVID-19 virus will get the blame for this, for sure. The supply chain was definitely disrupted in March, and all the prognosticating bean-counters in Japan likely also saw that the virus going pandemic would impact sales. Brakes were applied. 

I think, however, the numbers hide a slightly more important problem: the market slide that began with compact cameras, then spread to DSLRs, is about to spread to mirrorless. 

Take full frame mirrorless for example: Canon R/RP, Leica M/S, Nikon Z, Panasonic S, Sigma fp, and Sony A7/9: is there a camera you need that isn't currently made? dpreview's conclusion? "Having considered all these factors, and looked at how they apply to different types of photography, it's difficult to announce a clear winner." 

We have a log-jam of highly competent full frame mirrorless cameras already on the market, and we also have a log-jam of highly competent APS-C mirrorless cameras (probably subject of next dpreview non-committal conclusion ;~). 

It isn't surprising that Canon's leading with FUD-teasing 8K video features for their upcoming and not-at-all-secret R5. Will it focus better, handle better, take still photos better than existing cameras? Doesn't seem likely. We were already chasing minimal gains as it was, and now users are having a chance to actually reflect on that. 

My advice? Stop chasing megapixel and other rainbows. For 99% of you reading this, the Canon R, Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, or Sony A7m3 are all more than enough camera. I'm also hard pressed to find things to shoot where my DSLRs are a better choice these days. Plus all of my complaints about that current batch of full frame mirrorless cameras is not about image quality, it's nit-picky things about UX comfort, file size, control placement, etc. Heck, the Z6, S1, and A7m3 are all better video cameras than I've used in the past. 

Thus, I find myself paying much more attention to lenses and the other supporting cast of characters these days than I do to the camera bodies. Some really good things are taking place in the lens realm, and that's what interests me the most at the moment about mirrorless. I hope that the camera makers realize that the digital camera boom they experienced in the first decade of this century was an anomaly, and that it's actually the system that's important for continued success with those of us who are likely to continue buying camera gear once COVID-19 passes.

Camera makers need to take all that engineering energy they had as they iterated the heck out of basically the same digital bones from 1999 through 2019 and apply that energy to the rest of the system. Flash "technology" looks like it was conceived in the Stone Age these days. And don't get me started on narrow-minded remotes, the proliferation of connectors in the days of wireless, and a host of things that aren't being done at all.

Tokyo needs to realize that the days of "selling boxes" is over. They sell tool systems to sophisticated users and they've seriously neglected the system part of that.

One problem is that the Japanese camera companies tend to have a herd mentality. They're constantly trying to eat the same grass in the same field and then wondering where it went. 

Today, every camera maker makes mirrorless options (other than Ricoh/Pentax, who is basically still building your father's Oldsmobile). The current cameras are great, and will only get (marginally) better when the Mark VIII model appears. Most of us won't be buying a new body every couple of years because of that. 

That's the reality of where we are. The COVID-19 virus probably dug the hole on camera body sales faster than it would have been made naturally.  

Not that I wish COVID-19 on anyone or welcome its appearance, but I long ago embraced forced change—war, recession, job loss, divorce, etc., and now this pandemic—as an opportunity to sit back and rethink where I am, where I want to be, and how I'm going to go about getting there. Personally, I'm relaxing a bit more and letting my mind drift to the possibilities, not submitting to the reality of pounding out photos, articles, reviews, books, etc.

This is a time for everyone involved in photography to figure out where you are, where you want to be, and how you're going to go about getting there. Let's hope that the Japanese camera companies are doing that, too, because otherwise, once this dreadful virus gets beaten into submission we're just going to get another iteration parade of the same old things ("More Megapixels!", "More K Video!", "Minor Iterations Galore!").

The Canon R5 is the New Sony A9

The headline is a bit in jest.

But it seems that with each drop of new information about the upcoming Canon R5, the Internet hype world goes a little bit crazy again, just as they did when various Sony A7/A9 models appeared with a tantalizing feature not seen before. 

bythom canon r5

If you haven't already heard, the R5 will record full frame (no crop) 10-bit 8K 4:2:2 video (using some codec form of H.265) internally. And likewise, the R5 will record internal 4K video at up to 120 fps, again at 10-bit 4:2:2. 

Those new tidbits do indeed push the state of ILC video to new numerical heights. Woo-hoo. 

But I have to wonder after reading all the blog hype and the fora back-and-forth over this new information whether any of those commenting about this could actually demonstrate that they've achieved the maximum of what they can do with their existing gear

We've seen this same giant debate over another number, megapixels: 2.5, 6, 12, 16, 24, 36, 45, 61, 100. The number of people I know who are producing 100mp images that outshine the best possible 24mp images are so few I can count them on one hand at the moment. 

The same will be true for the 1080P, 4K, 5.9K, 8K, and the inevitable 16K video. 

It's not that there aren't folk that can make use of 100mp or 8K video. But those people are few and far between. What's really happening is that the camera makers—in lieu of having any other ideas—are simply going for bragging rights now. The same reason why folk who could only drive 55mph on the freeways buying big V8 engines is the same reason why folk by 45mp+ and 4K+ cameras. Canon promoting the R5 to the masses is no different than Dodge using the phrase "up to 707 horsepower" in their advertising for the Charger or Challenger. The Charger, by the way, actually comes with 300HP standard, and that's way more than you need to drive America's roads. 

The reality is this: most of you would be very well served by a well-designed 24mp camera (and maybe even an APS-C one). At 300 dpi, you'd still be producing a 20" print where the individual pixels are so buried that you're not going to see them without a magnifying glass. The good 24mp cameras also would provide you 4K video, too, though maybe not at 60P (slow motion). 

Personally, I'll be looking at the R5 in a different way than its maximum numbers. Canon still needs to show that they've conquered both the full UX necessary to command a mirrorless camera to perfection, as well as boost their game in terms of things like inherent dynamic range of the image sensor. The R seems a lot like an experimental placeholder, not a fleshed out product. The R5 needs to fix that, regardless of what the "maximum numbers" are. 

An Unintended Mirrorless Break

Yes, the sansmirror.com site has been a little quiet this past month. What gives?

Well, first we have the impacts of COVID-19 virus on new products. While there's been a few cameras announced in February (X-T4, R5), they're not available to me yet. Moreover, I've been holding off on getting some of the most recent products into the studio for a reason: I'm backed up on reviews of products already here. 

Originally my plan was to finish up reviews on things like the Canon RP and Sony A7R Mark IV this past month, but I never managed to get out on shoots that would have helped me resolve a few of the things I was pondering on each. Meanwhile, lenses are piling up, too. As I've written before, I prefer not to do more casual evaluation of products, but to actually use products in production situations, and I've just not been able to do that for almost a month now as events got cancelled and travel restrictions mounted.

So it will take me a bit longer to get caught up as I try to improvise (and hopefully eventually get a little more freedom of movement). I should finish up my Nikkor 24mm f/1.8 S review shortly, as I've managed to do enough shooting and lab testing with it to finish up my reactions. But I'm not sure how fast the rest of the reviews will trickle out, particularly as this whole stay-at-home thing has started me off on a couple of additional new writing projects.

That said, this respite from running around shooting, attending trade shows, and covering product launch events has been good for clearing the brain. I suspect that you might see things similarly: at a minimum, the pandemic has totally taken the edge off of gear acquisition lust (GAL). I'm much more worried about when my clients will need me again (and whether they're okay), when I'll be able to travel to the places I still want to go in my dwindling years on the planet, how my friends are all doing, and things other than gear itself. 

Thus, I can actually take time to contemplate the bird in the hand versus the GAL birds in the bush. 

So here's a question I was pondering earlier today: the sun briefly broke through our gloomy weather and I'm seeing birds and blossoms (and squirrels, yuck). So what camera do I grab to take a walk down the block to the river and get some much needed exercise? 

My first instinct was the Nikon Z7. A better handling product than the Sony A7Rm4, and as you're going to eventually find out, I'm not entirely loving more pixels (foreshadowing). But...oh Nikon, where art thou's macro lens? True, I've got some fully compatible extension tubes I could use, but it's not quite the same thing. I really like the Sony 90mm f/2.8G OSS macro (I'd like the same thing in 150mm+, too, Sony). 

Moreover, have the mirrorless makers really sat down and tried macro on their cameras? Sure, they autofocus right to a point just fine. With more precision than the DSLRs. But the serious macro user wants ultimate and nuanced control over even finer degrees of manual focal plane precision, plus focus stacking, which although the Nikon Z7 has the latter, the Z7 suffers from a poor implementation no one has completely figured out yet. 

One thing that's keeping the truly high end DSLR shooters DSLR shooters is that it's in the very fine details that we haven't quite got mirrorless product parity. Sure, some things are better in mirrorless: focus precision and focus repeatability is better in mirrorless than DSLR. But as you get further from casual and low volume shooting, the rough edges start to show in the mirrorless world.

I'll give you a simple example using Nikon. The D780 (DSLR) works exactly the same as the Z6 (mirrorless) in Live View. Now, you want to change focus mode or autofocus area mode and what happens? The D780 is better (dedicated control). It's better using the same exact focus system! Yes, I know I can dedicate a button on the Z6 to do the same thing, but that's not the same. Those buttons are not in the right place (typically right under my left thumb on the D780 as I hold the camera/lens), and there's not enough of them on a Z6 to assign to everything I want shortcuts for. 

Don't get me wrong. I really like mirrorless cameras. Other than for sports, I'm mostly using mirrorless now, and I'm sure there will come a time when I'm using them for sports, too (the Sony A9 almost got me there). But I can't help thinking that the camera companies have been missing the obvious. I've been using Nikon SLR, DSLR, and now mirrorless cameras for 50 years. You'd think that we wouldn't still be trying to reinvent things that we knew already worked, that we wouldn't be doing strange control shifts and eradications or additions. Note to Nikon: when I hold my DSLRs and mirrorless cameras up to my eye, my hands and fingers are in basically the same place. Why aren't the controls?

Sony's not immune to this even though they're all mirrorless and have been for awhile now: the difference between the A6xxx and A7 UX is basically the same problem. Why don't the A6xxx models have front command dials, for instance? Particularly on the A6600. This high-end-but-not-high-enough-to-warrant-dial kind of logic escapes me. 

If the future of cameras is in the higher end products, let's stop crippling them. 

What I do think that the mirrorless makers have all gotten right is lenses. Sure, there are still missing lenses in every full frame mount (and many of the crop sensor ones, too), but the lenses we have been getting are pretty much all excellent. I've been very happy with the new Canon, Nikon, and Sony lens offerings, as far as they've all gone. Plus Sigma's and Tamron's additions are all turning out to be quite good, too. During this slower time I'm actually enjoying some time further appreciating the lenses I've got rather than trying to sip off the fire hose of new offerings. 

All in all, it's not a bad thing that things have slowed in the camera world, particularly the part that is driven by GAL. It's given me more time with some of the gear I've been using, and in ways I wasn't using it. I hope that's the case for you, too. 

Fujifilm Announces the New XT

Today Fujifilm announced the X-H2...uh, no, that should be: Today Fujifilm announced the X-T4. The X-T4 comes a little earlier than expected, and right on the X-H2's original expected launch timing, so you have to wonder if Fujifilm did a pivot in development, deciding the top of the X-T line was more important to iterate than the X-H line. Given how close the X-H1 and X-T3 were released, and how close they were in specs, that was to be expected, I suppose. If the X-H is going to have a continued life, it needs more differentiation from the X-T and it really needs to be schedule offset for the X-T, as well. 

So I'd guess X-H2 in 2021 if Fujifilm can figure out what that model really should be, and X-T5 in 2022. 

bythom fujifilm xt4back

So, what's different in the X-T4 from the X-T3? Sensor-based IS—IBIS as it is usually referred to—for one. An issue with IBIS is that it tends to make the body thicker. Sometimes the same thing happens with articulating screens. Since the X-T4 now has both, one way the new camera is different than the old X-T3 is that the body has gotten a little thicker and heavier. That won't bother a lot of the X-T# shooters, but it is tending to make these cameras less differentiated from crop sensor DSLRs when it comes to physical attributes. Heck, it even is making the X-T4 a bit less differentiated from full frame mirrorless cameras. That plays against the core of why many people switch to mirrorless: size and weight relief.

Another thing the X-T4 seems to have picked up from the X-H1 is much more attention to video capability. While there's nothing that truly stands out about the video side of the X-T4, it looks to be a very capable 4K and 1080P video device now. The fully articulating screen suggests that Fujifilm was thinking of those video users, too. (Tilt versus swivel is a design factor that provokes a lot of discussion, and which can't be won with either choice. That said, in my experience, video users tend to prefer swivel, still users tend to prefer tilt.)

Power has changed a bit, too: the X-T4 gets a new NP-W235 battery—similar to Nikon's EN-EL15 in size and shape—that nets a normal CIPA shooting load of 500 shots (you'll likely do better than that in actual shooting, and there are low power settings to extend shooting). Fast USB-based battery charging is now supported in camera, too. Strangely, Fujifilm is once again providing headphone monitoring either via a plug in the optional vertical grip, or via the USB-C dongle supplied with the camera. 

8- and 16-bit TIFFs get added as an image format. Eterna Bleach Bypass and Classic Negative have been added as film simulations. Multiple exposure is now fully extended, ala Nikon's implementation. The shutter is quieter and rated to 300k actuations. The AF has improved, particularly Face and Eye detection. 

Accessories—hey, it's a system camera! ;~)—were also part of Fujifilm's announcement. Besides the aforementioned VG-XT4 vertical grip, there's a new dual battery charger. 

Perhaps not as many significant changes as some were hoping for, but definitely plenty of steps forward to attract a Fuji-fanatic. 

The X-T4 is US$1699 body only, and will ship in late April or early May.

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The Nikon Z Firmware Wish List

We've now had two major drops from Nikon on Z camera firmware updates. While substantive progress has been made on already good cameras, the list of things that Nikon should still do is actually quite long: 

  • Z50: add Z6/Z7 3.00 Subject Tracking changes
  • Z50: add Save/Load Settings (to/from card)
  • Z50: add Viewfinder Priority
  • Z50: add Battery Info
  • all: touchscreen focus positioning while shooting*
  • all: make Subject Tracking an AF Area Mode, not a sub-mode
  • all: add no overlays/info to DISP settings
  • all: report actual top fps with current settings (help indicates constraining settings)
  • all: support all Trim aspect ratios in Choose Image Area (e.g. 5:4, 4:3)
  • Z6:Z7: support DX lenses in FX Image Area selection
  • Z6/Z7: support multiple Load Settings (i.e. named files on card)
  • Z6/Z7: support U1/U2/U3 with Save/Load Settings
  • Z6:Z7: allow simultaneous Peaking Display and Highlight Display (and in still shooting)
  • Z6/Z7: allow AF-ON+Autofocus Area button assignments
  • Z6/Z7: AF-C focus sensor turns green on focus achieved*
  • Z6:Z7: At least one AF Area Mode with guaranteed CSP (closest subject priority)
  • Z6/Z7: option to let manual focus ring movement trigger zoom
  • Z6/Z7: add pixel shift shooting mode(s)*
  • Z6/Z7: fix focus stacking (multiple issues)
  • Z6/Z7: create RAW output when shooting Multiple Exposure if set (ala D850)
  • Z6/Z7: add RAW ability to HDR (actually Keep All Exposures becomes Save JPEG Exposure; the camera already make HDR raws, but only if you've set JPEG ;~)
  • Z6/Z7: add Shooting Method and Choose Image Area to U1/U2/U3 memory
  • Z6/Z7: add ML-L7 support
  • Z6/Z7: add extended shutter speeds (ala D810A, D780, D6)*
  • Z6/Z7: rethink HDMI video settings (bare HDMI, N-Log, ProRes RAW not well consolidated)*
  • Z6/Z7: address low level banding issue in 14-bits*
  • Z6/Z7: allow button press to invoke Silent Photography
  • Z6/Z7: restore Image Protect capability
  • Z6/Z7: restore RGB channel Highlights capability
  • Z6/Z7: record Non-CPU Lens Data in EXIF
  • Camera Control Pro: restore ability to fully set everything on Z cameras

That's probably a bare minimum of things that should be eventually done in firmware updates. Things that might be more Mark II type changes (e.g. next model update) have an asterisk after them. The rest, I'd argue, should be implemented on the current models to make them fully competitive.

It's easy to imagine more features and changes that require hardware changes. But I've tried to avoid those here. I've also tried not to suggest a Z50 should be pushed to much towards the high end by swamping it with extra features not likely appreciated by its target buyer. 

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