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.

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
14-30mm 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

11 known

19 total
16 produced

16 total

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. 

My View on the Nikon Announcements

As often happens, Nikon was a bit all over the board with their latest announcement, putting a lot of grist in the mill to contemplate all at once. Realistically, this was mainly just a camera-plus-kit-lens announcement, but the bundle of all the other stuff into their press releases makes it seem like more. Let's deal with that other stuff first. 

  • The MB-N10 battery grip for the Z6/Z7. Yeah, you can see why they buried it with other announcements. It's very late, under-developed, and over-priced (at US$199). As expected, you pull the EN-EL15b out of the Z6/Z7 camera body, pull off the battery compartment door, and mount this thing up through the resulting hole, locking it via the usual tripod mount wheel. It's a tiny bit more than that just two-batteries-in-plastic-case, though. You do get a USB-C socket to charge the batteries from (must be EN-EL15b). You also get visible battery indicators on the grip itself. Hot-swapping of one battery is possible, and the design is said to retain and extend the weather sealing of the Z6/Z7 bodies. 

    Blah, blah, blah. The MB-N10 is not the right solution to any problem. If it's more power you need—the one job the MB-N10 does—Nikon should have just made the Z6/Z7 capable of shooting when powered via the USB-C connector on the camera. If it's a vertical grip you want, well, you got a grip without any controls, which makes it useless.

    Sadly, serious time-lapse shooters will probably have to buy this battery grip.

  • The ML-L7 Bluetooth Remote Control. Nikon finally snuck this thing onto the market recently after it lingered in manufacturing limbo for awhile. And guess what? The preferred remote control for the Z50 is...wait for it...the ML-L7. I've been waiting for a camera to test it with, and finally, here's something other than a Coolpix Lens Monster that uses it. 

  • New Lens Road Map. Nikon added eleven lenses to their Z mount lens road map (the two DX lenses announced with the Z50 should be in that count, but others aren't counting them ;~). Other than the three DX convenience zooms, these new lenses fall into four categories:

    1. Compact primes. Finally. Nikon has decided that small might be beautiful after all. We get 28mm and 40mm lenses, which kind of straddles the DX/FX focal length needs. Still both are going to prove to be immensely popular on all the Z cameras, even though they're not S-Line. So much so that someone at Nikon is going to go "Doh!" and slap themselves in the forehead. Maybe the entire management team. Problem is, Samyang is probably going to beat Nikon to compact primes as they move their FE mount work to the Z mount, and Samyang has more focal length choices. So there's another possible "Doh!" and head-slapping moment for Nikon: they get there too late with too little.

    2. Micro-Nikkors. Oh, Nikon. Once again we get the 60mm and 105mm focal lengths. Apparently there are lot of folk doing copy stand work still under employment at Nikon (e.g. the 60mm is a derivative of the original 55mm Micro-Nikkors, which with their short working distance were really designed to copy large format flat artwork on a big copy stand). The first two Z macros should have been 105mm and 200mm, in my opinion. But at least we'll finally get some native macro lenses that work with the Focus Stacking feature of the Z6/Z7. Note that only the 105mm is an S-Line lens, so that just makes it even more of a head scratcher why Nikon thought a 60mm model was necessary.

    3. FX Convenience zooms. We get an S-Line 24-105mm and a non-S-Line 24-200mm. That sounds about right. The success of both will depend upon their apertures and pricing. What's missing is the convenience telephoto zoom, so the 70-300mm AF-P on an FTZ adapter is going to have to hold that position for awhile longer.

    4. Telephoto zooms. Here come some serious telephotos, finally. We get a 100-400mm S-Line and a 200-600mm that isn't. These seem to be the 80-400mm and 200-500mm equivalent for the mirrorless side. 

    The thing that's missing from the new road map is exotics. The recent 120-300mm f/2.8, 180-400mm f/4, and 500mm f4 PF seem to indicate that Nikon's still targeting F-mount for the big statement lenses I call the exotics. I don't have a problem with that. All those lenses seem to work fine on the FTZ adapter, and I don't see the point of cutting off those who are fully committed in the F-mount at this point for an extra piece of integrated plastic instead of an FTZ adapter. It does suggest that a Z9-type camera isn't coming in 2020, though. The F-mount D6 will have to hold serve in the wildlife/sports/PJ markets for the time being. 

    One thing I'm already hearing from Nikon users is reinforcement of what I've been saying for over a decade now ("publish a roadmap"): the roadmap is full and well-considered enough that many of the Z-mount skeptics are now more seriously planning if and when they'll make the switch. Funny how that works. Let your customers into your basic plans and strategy, and they stop complaining and start making their own plans on how they'll get to your new products. Some industries (autos, mobile phones) do this by having yearly new models, with some hinting and foreshadowing of might be changed. The camera industry? Until mirrorless, they just thought consumers were mindless soles that would just buy whatever they put out. Nikon was last to mirrorless. Nikon was last to roadmaps. See, it wasn't so difficult, was it, Nikon?

  • The NOCT. I've already written my say on the NOCT, and nothing's changed since getting a closer look at it. I will point out that this is likely going to be a lens you find at rental shops. The videographers tend to rent expensive gear rather than buy it, and if the NOCT really produces a look as dreamy as suggested, it will be a popular rental with some video users.

Which brings us to the Z50. 

Simple version: Nikon got it mostly right. This is going to be a broadly appealing camera, and it's at a good price point.

That's not to say that they got everything right. I'm not sure why we need the Scene exposure modes when we already got the extension of the Picture Controls with the Creative Picture Controls on the Z6/Z7 and now Z50. Nikon needs to pick a lane here. 

Nikon's marketing seems to indicate that they're pushing this camera towards consumers, even though they say it's an Enthusiast camera. I think consumers are not who will buy it. It's clearly an enthusiast's camera when you look at it carefully, and it's going to provide a low-cost sampling point for the serious D300/D500/D7xxx/D600/D7xx/D8xx user to try the new Z mount. Indeed, I'd suggest that they do, as the Z50 with the primary kit lens is an excellent choice as a small walk around, travel camera that you keep with you all the time.

Moreover, this is another magnesium chassis with decent weather sealing, much like the Z6/Z7. Nikon avoided the plastic-feel build that a lot of its competitors use. 

Enthusiasts are going to be griping about a few things, though:

  • No thumb stick, and no touchpad control of focus points while looking through the EVF. This means we're back to the Direction pad to move focus (or your eye is away from the viewfinder). And the Direction pad isn't well positioned or built for this, as Nikon knows full well from the early DSLR era. 
  • No Wireless Commander mode for the built-in flash. The camera supports Wireless, but only via infrared and only with a Commander-capable flash in the hot shoe.
  • The lack of a remote port that supports the DM-MC2 type remotes and accessories (including the radio wireless WR-R10). The Bluetooth better work right on this camera.
  • The change in battery. Yep, a new battery and charger. Just when we were getting fully standardized in our travel bags, here comes another wrinkle to deal with.
  • No enthusiast DX lenses. Once again you have to look to the FX lenses for "more" than the consumer convenience zooms, and then the lack of on-sensor VR and the size of those lenses starts to detract from the pleasant, small usefulness of the Z50.

That said, Nikon has just proven that Sony still needs to do some work on making those small Alpha cameras fully ergonomic. The Z50 basically feels like a near perfectly downsized DSLR. Nikon's excellent ergonomics have been scaled quite well, and the body is instantly familiar to any long-time Nikon user. Here's the sentence that caught my eye in Nikon's press materials, which shows that they understand this: "Premium construction in an ergonomically compact camera." 

Almost certainly a Z30 is coming (I know it was prototyped). Personally, I'm not sure it should be Nikon's next priority. Stripping down the Z50 to hit a Z30-type price point is going to start impacting many of the things that the Z50, Z6, and Z7 have done right, I suspect. I'd say leave that market to Canon to pursue with their dead-end M200 type cameras and do something else that appeals to those that have a long history with Nikon.

And that would be a Z70/Z90 type of camera. Something that adds to the solid foundation that the Z50 provides us. Look at that griping list above, and you start to see how such a camera would shape up.

Update: Nikon may be more clever than we gave them credit for. After thinking about it, consider this lineup:

  • DX entry: Z30 (a Z50 without the EVF, a few other simplifications)
  • DX enthusiast low: Z50
  • DX enthusiast high: Z70 (in the Z6/Z7 body and adds the things that come with that: on-sensor VR, top LCD, better rear LCD, better EVF, XQD/CFexpress)
  • FX entry: Z5 (in the Z50 body with a full frame sensor [yes, that works]). Because of the Z50 simplifications, it can be cheaper than the Z6 and compete with the RP.
  • FX enthusiast low: Z6
  • FX enthusiast high: Z7

Add a pro Z9 and you have a full range of bodies with lots of parts/manufacturing overlap. Then as you iterate, you push the Z6 to 36mp, the Z7 to 60mp and you have more differentiation from the entry FX body. Likewise, you can roll a new, higher pixel count sensor in the Z70 to add differentiation, too. 

Nikon's re-thinking the mirrorless re-entry certainly put more than an extra year into the wait before we got to see what they were up to, but they may have used that year wisely and gotten a great deal of lineup rationalization all ready to roll. (Now watch Nikon mess this up! ;~)

The 58mm f/0.95 NOCT Finally Appears

Nikon today officially announced the 58mm f/0.95 NOCT lens for the Z mount cameras. This lens seems to trigger a lot of bimodal discussion, and that started with the original development announcement. It’s time to put a few things in context. 

bythom nikon noct

First, let me describe the lens. It's a big beast, weighing in at 70.6 ounces (2000g). Yes, over four pounds. It's really designed as a showcase piece, with Nikon trumpeting edge to edge sharpness, even wide open. Typically, lenses at f/1.4 and faster tend to be weak at their maximum aperture, with lower contrast and other compromises made. This is a no-compromise design, inside and out. Like the original NOCT, the new lens also controls coma and spherical aberration in ways you don't see in other lenses.

We get a new Nikon optical technology, Arneo coating. This is an anti-reflective coating that works with Nano coating to further reduce ghosting and flare. Nano coating removes ghosting from light coming in diagonally, Arneo removes it from light coming in perpendicularly. 

Bundled with the lens is a Pelican-style carrying case.

That all sounds interesting until we get to the price: US$8000. 

Now, let’s get to the arguments. 

One big complaint has been “why were engineers wasting time on the NOCT when we needed Nikon to produce other lenses that would be of more use to us?” 

First, while Nikon has been marketing this lens as a statement of possibilities that the new Z mount opens up for optical designs, it actually doesn’t push design anywhere near as far as it could. If Nikon wanted to test the limits of the mount optics as far as they could, we’d be down around f/0.5, which is a place we’ve never really been before.

Nikon appears to have chosen an option here that has a somewhat better balance between possible and useful, though there’s plenty of argument on the Internet about that usefulness. So let’s delve into that. 

At 58mm, f/1.2, and 5 feet we have about a quarter of an inch depth of field on a 45mp camera printed to 20". I use that as an example because f/1.2 seems to be what people are asking for—we’ll get a Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Z mount prime in 2020—and it’s already illustrative of a point. You need a lens motor that can move a lot of glass fast and very, very precisely to achieve correct focus with such small DOF. We’re already talking about a distance offset equal to focusing on the retina of a subject versus their eyebrow at f/1.2. At f/0.95 precision focus gets even tougher with even narrower DOFs while moving big chunks of glass. 

58mm NOCT cutawayx

Note how big and dense the glass is in the NOCT.

Nikon went to manual focus on the NOCT partly for that reason: moving that much glass fast and that precisely would have really bulked up the lens and made it unusable. You'd also either have to put up with hunting or inaccuracy, as even static human subjects might be moving in and out of the narrow focus plane at f/0.95. Who actually would want such a lens? 

As it turns out, videographers and filmmakers. And they won’t want fly-by-wire focusing, they want highly precision manual focus. Which is exactly what the NOCT provides. (Though Nikon totally missed something here by not putting a gear ring on this lens.)

It seems to me that Nikon had a tough choice here. If they went all-in for what was possible in the new Z mount, we’d be getting a even more mammoth lens that nobody would want to use. If they didn’t do something beyond the usual state-of-the-art primes, they wouldn’t have anything they could point to that illustrated what is possible down the pike. 

What they choose was a lens that’s in between those two points, one that yes, is big and heavy and has manual focusing, but one that actually might find a small user base, particularly in the video world. I’m doubting the NOCT will have a big impact on the still photography world, though as always with “new stuff” you’re going to find some top pros trying to figure out how to use the NOCT to do some work that helps them stand out from the pack.

So exactly how does such a lens stand out? Well, obviously I haven’t tested it yet, but given Nikon’s claims, examination of shots from the Nikon Ambassadors, and the likely impacts: (1) nice bokeh that doesn’t degrade elliptically into the corners; (2) a really gentle and smooth transition from focus plane to out-of-focus; (3) acuity well out towards the corners, even wide open; plus (4) higher contrast than we’ve gotten from any f/0.95 lenses shot wide open before. Oh, and zero coma in the corners, which is one reason why Nikon highlighted its use for astrophotography.

When they launched their full frame mirrorless line, Canon quietly gave a presentation to subsidiaries, some press, and a few partners about what the RF lens mount provides in optical design that the old EF mount didn’t. In Canon’s case, the primary mount change is that they’ve reduced the flange distance (the throat opening doesn’t really change; remember, Nikon’s Z mount has an even shorter flange distance and a bigger throat opening, so everything Canon says applies even more so to Nikon’s new mount.)

The big takeaway from Canon’s presentation is what happens at the rear of the lens, and how light rays bend less with certain optical designs. You end up not doing as much ray correction, particularly near the back of the lens, and lens elements can be bigger there (which has an impact on size of lens elements up front). Canon is using those differences to also do what I’d call more demonstration lenses than practical ones (e.g. the 28-70mm f/2). You also clearly see this new design focus in the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 S, which has very large rear elements with modest light bend, and a modern front optical design.

But clearly the word from both Canon and Nikon is the same: the relaxed constraints of the new lens mounts allows their designers to use new and interesting optical formulae that produce lenses of size, quality, and ability that we haven’t seen before. 

So we’re back to the complaints about the NOCT: is it practical? 

Simple answer, no, not for most people who’d buy the Z cameras. But I don’t see that as much different than the Nikkor 19mm f/4 PC-E in the F-mount, actually. That tilt/shift lens is stellar, so much so that I had one architectural photographer write me saying that the acuity was so high that it produces images that look fake and more like line renderings (we’re just not used to that level of acuity in photographic imagery).  

Personally, I’m happy that Nikon pursued the NOCT. In doing so, they almost certainly were learning aspects of how their new mount works and how they might optimize for that in future lenses. Will I buy it? Nope. It's not a lens that really comes into play for the photography I tend to do (I should note I already have an original NOCT and the 58mm f/1.4 in F-mount). Will you buy it? Probably not, for the same reasons. I’d put the new NOCT in what I call the “exotic” list (high-priced, high-performance, special-interest lenses). In fact, it really belongs in the "highly exotic" list, a very short list that includes such lenses as the Nikon 6mm f/5.6 fisheye, and maybe the 8mm f/2.8 fisheye that is most noted for being the eye of HAL 9000 in 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Is it insane that Nikon produced the NOCT? Not at all. It gives us a better understanding that the new mount has promise for future lenses. Not that we really need that. The 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 S lenses are the best lenses Nikon has ever produced at those focal lengths, and arguably are in the discussion of best 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm you can buy. The 24-70mm f/4 kit lens also turned out to be about as good as the best 24-70mm f/2.8 pro lenses at f/4, which is also saying a lot, and the 24-70mm f/2.8 turned out even better. 

So the NOCT, now announced and soon to fall into two or three shooters’ hands, is welcome, but not for most of us. It’s a halo product, and a pretty dramatic halo at that. 

All that said, I think this is another miss by Nikon. The Z mount is capable of a lens down to at least f/0.55, possibly more. If you're going to produce a lens that's a halo product showing everything that's possible in the new mount, then you should go all in. Nikon didn't. For some reason they went part-way. 

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Nikon Z50 Announcement

Nikon today announced the Z50, their first APS-C mirrorless camera, as well as two Z-mount DX lenses for it. 

bythom nikon dx

The Z50 uses the D500/D7500 sensor with phase detect autofocus cells added, meaning this is a 20mp camera using a very well-established and high-performing sensor.

Nikon's using the term "insanely small, amazingly bold" in at least some of its marketing material. Indeed, the Z50 is smaller than the Z6 and Z7: a bit (0.3") smaller in width, depth, and height. But I wouldn't call that insanely small, even with the remarkably small kit lens (see below). Ultimately, the Z50 will be regarded as "smaller" if customers perceive the entire system they pack as taking up less space, which I think Nikon succeeds at here. 

From a pragmatic standpoint, Nikon is also using the term DX still, so this is the start of the Z DX system. More on that in a bit, too.

The design looks like a Nikon 1 V2 mated with a Canon EOS M and adopted some genetic material from the Nikon D5000. By that I mean it's a squat little DSLR-like body with a big EVF/flash that hangs off the front and back of a slim body, and which uses the old D5000 tilt down 180° rear LCD idea that has failed over and over again in practice to truly excite anyone. 

I think the idea is that this allows handheld selfies (there's a lot of Instagram references in the marketing materials). But think about it for a moment, the lens has to focus to about a foot-and-a-half to make that work at all, and you're going to see a lot of arm in your shot at 24mm equivalent when you do. For vlogging, the problem is worse. Most serious vloggers are going to want to put the camera on a gimbal or stick, and that restricts the usefulness of the tilting LCD. Nikon did make it so that most buttons and camera controls are disabled in the 180° flip, so that you don't accidentally miss-set something while handling the camera that way. The touch screen is still active, though.

That flip down LCD seems like a slightly lame nod to the Instagram crowd to me. In practice, I'll bet we see few using it, and I'll bet that the folk that buy this camera are going to complain about the lack of fully adaptable tilt (e.g. up/down).

Some people are liking the overall body design (other than the flip down LCD), some seem to think it's a little too busy and frumpy. My take is that the Z6/Z7 seemed that same way to many when photos of it first appeared, but in practice, most people seem to think the Z6/Z7 design is decent once they handle the camera. I suspect the same will prove true for the Z50.

The Z50 features Nikon's dual Command dial ergonomics and a significant hand grip, which is good news for all those complaining about the soap bar designs of many of the small cameras. Likewise, Nikon's kept a wide array of their usual buttons (including two front Fn buttons) and paired that with a new on-screen set of quick task touch areas that function as buttons. Unfortunately, quite a bit of cheese (buttons) is moved on the Z50 from the Z6/Z7, which is disappointing. 

(I would have voted for the DISP and i button to move to the LCD panel while leaving everything else the same. Unfortunately, sometimes new designs have trickle-down effects: the button on the left of the EVF became the Flash Release, so now you have a button starting to migrate. When it migrated to where the Playback and Delete buttons were, then the complete cheese shuffling began. I think Nikon does themselves a disservice every time they think that "consumer" = different customer, and that moving stuff like that is okay.)

There's a bit of simplification from the Z6/Z7: we lose the Drive Mode plus the dedicated zoom buttons, which move to the LCD touch panel; no top LCD panel; we lose one Custom U# position and gain new EFCT (Effects) and SCN (Scene) positions, which is consistent with the consumer cameras; there's no thumb stick. We do gain the ML-L7 Bluetooth remote control, though, which I think is going to be more important than the flipping LCD.

This isn't really a stripper, entry-level camera like the D3xxx DSLRs were, and probably sits somewhere between the D5xxx and D7xxx lines in terms of capabilities and handling. Nikon's even brought back the pop-up flash over the viewfinder.

In terms of technical specs, the camera will shoot 11 fps, the EVF is 2.36m dot, which is down from the Z6/Z7's 3.7m dot one and has about .7x magnification (Nikon's marketing is starting to do the CIPA cheat, claiming 1.02x magnification and ignoring the crop), the rear LCD goes back to the lower cost 1.04m dot one, and the mechanical shutter is only good to 1/4000 (and 1/200 flash sync). Some of those specs are downgrades from the Z6/Z7, but I think appropriate for the price point and market of the Z50.

At US$860 for the body only or US$1000 with a 16-50mm kit lens (keep reading), the Z50 is priced just a bit over the old, and I mean old, D5xxx price point. That price basically puts the Z50 up against the Canon M6m2, the Fujifilm X-T30, and the Sony A6400. When looked at that way, the new Nikon body looks pretty competitive. The camera and lenses will be available "in November."

Meanwhile, we get two Z DX lenses: the 16-50mm f/3.5-6.3 VR and the 50-250mm f/4.5-6.3 VR. Yeah, no sensor stabilization in the Z50. It appears that Nikon will put that into the Z DX lenses they produce instead, much like they did with DSLRs. These two kit lenses are collapsible, further emphasizing the small/light nature of the Z50 for travel. The f/6.3 long end apertures are a bit disappointing, but given how compact a Z6 with the 24-70mm f/4 already is, I can see exactly why Nikon went for making the Z DX system much more compact by compromising a few things like aperture.

Indeed, the 16-50mm is smaller than many "compact" primes. In its collapsed position it barely sticks out at all. How Nikon managed to get VR into such a small space is probably an interesting technology bit we'll eventually learn about. The 16-50mm is claimed to be 4.5 stops CIPA, the 50-250mm is 5 stops.

The Nikon crowd (and the competitor's fan boys) are talking a lot about the Z50 already. The camera is being pre-judged by almost every one of those forum posts you see. Just like the Z6 and Z7 were. So let's do a better evaluation of the pluses and minuses:

What Nikon Got Right

  • APS-C finally makes it to Nikon mirrorless. I've been writing for some time that this had to happen. You need a lower-priced feeder system, and DX DSLRs don't feed full frame mirrorless particularly well. But let's be clear, Nikon got to APS-C mirrorless seven years after Canon and Fujifilm, and nine years after Sony. That's a huge head start to give competitors. 
  • The kit lens goes to 24mm equivalent at the wide end. After producing 18-xx lenses for the DX-sized sensor almost forever (in digital camera years)—which is a 28mm wide equivalent—Nikon has finally given us something that can be truly said to go wide angle. 
  • The frame rate wasn't stifled. At 11 fps, the Z50 is out of D3xxx/D5xxx territory and into D500 territory. The sensor tech Nikon is using enables fast offload of the data, and for a change they didn't limit a lower end model arbitrarily. At least not in frame rate.
  • The ergonomics look better than the Sony A6400, while the specs and price look similar. It's too early to tell without doing extended shooting, but on first handling it appears that Nikon didn't sacrifice ergonomics for size. Like the full frame Z's, Nikon's claim to fame continues to be making good handling cameras that put controls where the photographer needs/wants them. Sony has started cleaning up the controls/grip on the A7 series, but still has menu and naming confusion to deal with. 
  • Nikon didn't use up the single digit names. I know that single-digit Z# for full frame and double-digit Z## for crop sensor seems wrong to a lot of people, but I think this is the right choice. It provides for fairly extensive (1-9, and 10-90) model potential. Not that I think we need nine full frame and nine APS-C cameras. Probably three or four of each is more than adequate. But with a single digit used for both, that would leave no room for shoe-horning in another model if the market could sustain it. Coupled with Mark II type nomenclature, this naming system should work fine for the number of cameras Nikon is likely to produce, and it clearly differentiates the lines (where D500 and D850 don't, for example). 
  • It's ready for 2019 holiday shopping (barely). It's going to be interesting to see how Nikon positions this new entry against all the Nikon DSLRs they need to need to still sell. But the real point here is that Nikon can finally begin to stop the last big leak (which was DX shooters moving to Canon, Fujifilm, or Sony mirrorless APS-C). 

What Nikon Got Wrong

  • At launch, really wide angle support is lacking. 21mm full frame equivalent is currently as wide as we get in the Z lens lineup at the moment (with the full frame 14-30mm f/4 S). That's something that will need to be corrected quickly. Yes, you could stick one of the DX wide angle zooms on an extra cost FTZ Adapter, but that sort of misses the point of APS-C versus full frame in mirrorless. APS-C absolutely needs to provide true system compactness and simplicity. 
  • The lack of in-body VR is a bit of a problem. Note that recently I wrote about solving user problems, not adding features/performance. Thing is, in-body VR really does solve a problem for a number of users who simply can't hold a camera steady enough in all situations (and that goes double for video). Especially on a small, light camera. Of course, in-body VR is a big expensive part, as well as something that adds weight, bulk, and battery consumption. In all likelihood this is a bean counter decision. I hate bean counter decisions as they tend to compromise what would be a better product. The problem is doubly concerning because virtually all of the existing and known future Z mount full frame Nikkors you might use on this camera lack VR. Those amazing 50mm and 85mm primes? Not stabilized on a Z50, right where most people would want and need it. The only good news here is that the direct competition doesn't have sensor-based IS at this price point. If product marketing had won instead of the bean counters, it would have been because the right camera at this price point with IBIS would be perceived by customers as better and therefore be an easier sell.
  • The new battery seems like a mistake. Sticking the SD slot in the smaller grip's battery compartment meant that the EN-EL15 was out of the question. Nikon has a long history of issues supplying new camera accessories quickly to market demand, which includes batteries and chargers, unfortunately. We'll see how fast we can get extra batteries for the new camera, but history doesn't predict well for Nikon here. That the new EN-25 battery also has a lower Watt Hour rating than the EN-EL15 isn't encouraging, either. And, now we need a new charger, too: MH-32.
  • The product number may be wrong. If indeed the Z50 is supposed to slot in at the D7500 equivalent spot as Nikon seems to want to imply, Nikon marketing messed up. The name should be Z70 so that people understand the line this new product sits at the end of. The D70 DSLR was one of Nikon's best-ever selling products, and that group of users has been one of the more diligent about upgrading (though many have no upgraded to full frame). Meanwhile, the D50 DSLR wasn't so venerable or well liked (and the eventual D5xxx were generally overlooked by serious shooters because of its compromises). You just don't want people thinking this is the mirrorless version of that. Silly mistake, though Nikon might be thinking that they will iterate multiple models above the Z50. Still, that would have left Z80 and Z90, so exactly how many models was Nikon planning for? The entry camera should be the Z30, this camera should be the Z70, and if Nikon gets around to a D500-type of camera to match their flagship full frame, that should be the Z90 (which would match the likely Z9). 

Not a Big Deal

  • 20mp sensor instead of 24mp. We're talking about 5568 versus 6000 pixels across the long axis. You can't see a 7% increase in resolution. Truly. Given that Nikon is using a current and proven photosite technology, I'm fine with the sensor decision. 
  • f/6.3 versus f/5.6 on the long end of the lenses. Yes, this is a third of a stop, and no one wants to lose light with smaller sensors. But it's also only a third of a stop. I watch people make exposure errors greater than that all the time. In terms of focus performance, mirrorless isn't like DSLRs, where f/6.3 starts to be a focus performance problem.

Overall, the Z50 looks less like a D7500 done mirrorless than a dead-on Sony A6400 competitor. I think that's a bit of a mistake, but it's not a fatal one: Sony is indeed the one competitor that Nikon needs to match or exceed, and Sony's engineers have mostly been mailing in their A6xxx updates, in my opinion. 

Spec by spec, the Z50 matches up decently against the A6400. Not perfectly, and certainly not clearly exceeding the A6400, which is pretty much the same thing that Nikon did with the Z6 versus the A7 and Z7 versus the A7R. I personally don't like the fact that Nikon didn't exceed Sony on any of these cameras (other than ergonomics). Perhaps that wasn't possible on the development schedule once Nikon made the all-in push to mirrorless. 

Long term, Nikon will need to start showing where they're better than Sony, not equal to them. That's as much a marketing problem as it is a technical one. For example, I and many others believe that the Z6 sensor produces easier to post process raws than the same sensor in the A7m3. The A7m3 has bigger files, bigger gaps in the raw data, and the compressed version of Sony files can produce clear artifacts on high contrast edges, for example. Marketing that difference would be tough to do for a good marketing organization; it's impossible for Nikon's.

Finally, we have to talk about lenses (buzz, buzz ;~). In DSLRs, none of the major players created a full lens lineup for their crop sensor cameras. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all stuck pretty much to consumer spec zooms with DSLRs. In the mirrorless world, that won't work so well, primarily because one-and-a-half of the competition already has a full lens lineup. (The one is Fujifilm, the half is Sony.) Moreover, another crop sensor competitor, m4/3, has a fuller lens lineup. 

Along with the camera introduction, Nikon released a new lens road map for the Z mount. That includes one additional DX lens (18-140mm) and raises the question of whether or not Nikon is once again seeing crop sensor as "just consumer."

On the other hand, Nikon did add a 28mm and 40mm compact prime lens to their Z lens schedule (full frame lenses that could be used on Z DX). So maybe they're trying to play the game a little trickier this time.

As far as I'm concerned, Nikon now needs a full set of Z lenses for APS-C. Above and beyond what Nikon has announced they're working on, at a minimum I'd put that at:

  • 14mm f/2.8 (~20mm equivalent)
  • 16mm f/2.8 (24mm equivalent)
  • 23mm f/2.8 (35mm equivalent)
  • 35mm f/2.8 (50mm equivalent)
  • 10-20mm f/2.8-4 (15-30mm equivalent)
  • 16-50mm f/2.8-4 (24-75mm equivalent)
  • 50-135mm f/2.8-4 (75-200mm equivalent)

Note I'm being relatively relaxed on aperture here, which some of you may object to. There's a reason for that: the APS-C Z's have to live in a system size world that's clearly smaller than the full frame Z's. I would argue for smaller lenses over faster lenses. Moreover we have 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 S lenses that can provide faster aperture if that's what you really want.

I worry that Nikon will once again make some fundamental mistakes with crop sensor: (1) that crop sensor is only about consumer convenience zooms; (2) that serious shooters only want full frame; and (3) that full frame f/1.8 lenses can suffice for crop sensor, too (e.g., they don't need that 35mm f/2.8 because they already have a 35mm f/1.8 S; at 50mm and above, that's possibly true, but below that, no). 

All said, Nikon's finally made it fully to the mirrorless party. They still have their work cut out for them—additional camera models, more lenses, new flash/accessories—but we can now see the shape of things to come. Nikon's targeting reasonably sophisticated users with solid first generation products and promising more. 

I suspect the Z50 will sell better than most people predict. Being last to the APS-C mirrorless market gave Nikon a chance to dial in their design so that their first iteration stands up strong against everyone else's fourth through eighth generation. At US$1000 for the basic kit, the Z50 is actually priced a little bit competitively for Nikon. 

Final comment: Nikon's left broad room at both ends of the DX camera spectrum. Their original strategy plan for DX mirrorless was two entry cameras. They've instead come to market with one in the middle. I have no doubt we'll see a low-end model appear under the Z50 to eventually replace the D3600. And I suspect we'll see a higher end model to replace either the D7500/D500 or to be the new D300/D500 pro-camera-in-DX form (I vote for the latter). But as with F-mount DX, I think that Nikon needs to pay more attention to the lens selection they produce. Two consumer convenience zooms aren't going to cut it (buzz, buzz). 

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My View on the Sony A9 Mark II

It really seems like the Sony fan view of the world has just experienced a large disturbance in the Force. 

a9 v a9ii

Personally, I thought the changes to the original A9 that Sony made with the Mark II are well considered, and useful for the type of photographer that would really need such a fast/sports-oriented camera. I look forward to testing out that hypothesis. So many of the things I was complaining about at Kando 2.0 in 2018 have been dealt with it almost feels like Tanaka-san and company actually listened to me. 

The Sony forums across the Internet, though, are filled with disappointment (or more) about the A9m2. Here's my response: not every camera that is released is the one for you. If it was, then you'd be switching cameras every two weeks ;~).

Sony clearly wanted a camera that would match up well against the Canon 1DXm2 and Nikon D5. Moreover, a camera that would show off the benefits of mirrorless over the old DSLR way. That camera was the A9, launched in 2017, and originally targeted at making a big impact at the Korean Winter Olympics. 

The A9 had almost no role at those winter games. Why? Because some of the things that were important or useful to the pros shooting those games just weren't there yet. I'm not just talking about available lenses (the 400mm f/2.8 was only in prototype then). The FTP on the original A9 had issues that made it not work with some of the agency servers. The camera didn't report serial numbers in the EXIF data, which is how a lot of the agencies track their shooters. And more. Quite a few of these little "gotchas" showed up in February 2018, and most of the action images you saw from those games were again shot on the pro Canon and Nikon bodies. 

To Sony's credit, they've released firmware updates to deal with most of those bits and pieces that involved software—we're now on firmware 6.0—and if we were all headed to PyeongChang right now, the A9 would do a lot better than it did in 2018. I'd still have a tough time finding the AF-ON button with gloves on, though ;~).

The A9m2 now fixes a lot of the hardware issues that came to light since the original model first appeared, including that AF-ON button. So things bode better for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics for Sony. As I noted, I look forward to trying out the new voice-to-text capability, as that could be something that takes the traditional sports camera a step further. 

In my opinion, Sony has done the right thing: they've taken the second best sports camera on the market—I still regard the Nikon D5 as the best—and improved it in many of the things that the shooter that truly cares about this type of camera should embrace. Of course, we still don't know what the Nikon D6 and Canon 1DXm3 are going to look like, and both will appear before the next Olympics, so there may still be catch-up that Sony has to do. 

But catching up, they are. As I've written before, if I were coming out of college today and wanting to specialize in sports photography, the likely best choice for me today that doesn't bust the starting-out budget would be a Sony A9 (original model, not the Mark II). The next best alternative would be a Nikon D500.

So I don't get all the negativity on the various Sony fora across the Internet. Let me directly address the primary complaints:

  • The A9m2 should have been 36mp. This nonsense comes out of pure fandom about sensor tech and rumor mill click-baiting. "Move the bar!" they chant. (Okay, they yell in all caps. ;~) The problem is that sports photographers don't want or need that particular bar moved. Just the opposite, actually. You might note that the Canon and Nikon pro sports cameras lag the consumer/prosumer cameras in pixel count. There's a reason for that: our deadlines are amazingly tight, and every extra pixel we have to move slows us down. Moreover, the clients using our work aren't demanding more pixels, as the primary uses actually all will have them downsizing what we do send them.
  • The A9m2 is terrible news for wildlife shooters. Uh, why? Because it isn't 36mp? ;~) Sports and wildlife photography have many similarities, but also several differences. Many want more pixels on their wildlife cameras because they aren't getting close enough to the animals or don't have the right lens. Frankly, I'm perfectly happy at shooting wildlife with 24mp full frame (see today's article on dslrbodies). But a more curious fact lies in the way of this complaint: no camera maker is really making a wildlife-oriented camera. Wildlife shooters are using either sports cameras or general purpose cameras for their work, and dealing with the compromises/consequences that derive from that. I'm not sure the camera companies actually hear the wildlife photographer clearly, and that includes Canon and Nikon as well as Sony. 
  • The A9m2 should have had the A7Rm4 EVF. Uh, maybe? I'm not sure that you can drive the higher resolution EVF the same way the A9 EVF is run, and it's important that you retain that low lag, blackout-free feature in any update to the A9. There's a limit to how fast you can move the technology bar without pushing price way, way up. The EVF is one of those places.
  • The A9m2 needed better video. No, not really. Thing is, if you're shooting NCAA or pro sports, you're likely highly restricted in shooting video due to licensing rights. Moreover, the places you'd use such video don't need anything better than what the A9 can do today. Sony sells a full line of video gear, and has other models in the A7 lineup that have more emphasis on video.
  • The A9m2 is a terrible upgrade for A9 users. Really? You're spending US$4500 on a new camera every two years? You either have an infinite bank account or you're not amortizing gear very well for your business (and you'd have bought an A9 over the A7m3 because you had a business need, IMHO). I've written this for well over a decade: in the digital age: skip every other generation of camera upgrade. You'll do just fine, trust me. Your A9 didn't stop working (and the firmware upgrades make it a far better camera than it was when you bought it). You replace your camera when you need to, not because the camera maker is at the corner again with the latest batch of the drug you're addicted to.  

The primary complaints seem to center around (1) Sony didn't do enough; and (2) This isn't the camera for me. 

Yeah, that last one: if you're complaining, the A9m2 isn't the camera for you. Simple as that. For some of us, though, Sony was clearly paying attention to our complaints and took a decent-sized step in addressing them. 

Here's the real reason why you're hearing so much dissatisfaction about the A9m2, A7Rm4, A6100, and A6400 updates: Anonymous Sony fan boys are having a difficult time finding some supposedly compelling tech to rally behind and shout their claim that "Sony is the Bestest." 

Next thing you know, they'll be asking for the coach to be fired. 

Seems to me the Sony team is doing just fine. 

Sony A9 Mark II Announced

Sony today surprised everyone with a press release type announcement of the A9 Mark II model. Frankly, I'm surprised, particularly given what changed with the camera, which really needs demonstration to show off.

bythom sony a9ii

Let's talk about what didn't change: still the same 24mp sensor with 20 fps electronic shutter, and with the same 693-point phase detect autofocus system as before. Sony mentions some tweaks and refinements that play into the sensor, exposure, and focus systems, but none of these really rise to the level of what I'd call interesting. Put another way, those changes wouldn't compel me to move from the original A9 model.

Physically, the camera gets a few noticeable changes. The weather sealing has been improved, particularly on the bottom of the camera. The grip has been subtly improved again, more matching the A7Rm4 changes. Indeed, we get the "better" AF-On button, thumb stick, and exposure compensation lock button first seen on the A7Rm4. Having been using the A7Rm4 for awhile now, I can say that Sony seems to be finally getting a handle on the...well...handling of their cameras. 

To me, there are two changes that attract my attention.

First, the mechanical shutter has been improved and will do 10 fps and with less vibration. The new shutter is tested to 500k cycles, which is sort of the pro standard that Canon and Nikon established. One thing that I found in shooting with the A9 with a lot of sports was that I didn't use 20 fps (all electronic shutter) for various reasons. So the improvement on the mechanical shutter side was one that I asked for, and I look forward to testing it out.

The more important change, though, is some interesting workflow bits and pieces. Many will look at the 1000BASE-T Ethernet, 5 GHz Wi-Fi support, and USB 3.2 Gen 1 data transfer mechanisms as workflow improvements, as basically every way you can get an image off the camera wired or wirelessly has been improved. Moreover, both card slots are UHS II, so one slot isn't going to slow all that down (unless, of course, you put a slower UHS I or older card in it ;~). 

More interesting is that the A9 Mark II now has voice memo capability. This is something I've enjoyed on my Nikon DSLRs since the D2h pioneered it over a decade ago. That said, Sony picked up on something I asked for that Nikon never did: automatic voice-to-text translation into the IPTC fields. Yes, it takes Sony's Imaging Edge application to do that, and Sony's description of its optimal use really centers around using the built-in FTP server, but it's a start. Moreover, this links into the new Transfer & Tagging capabilities of the camera, which allow you to embed IPTC data.

All in all, the A9 Mark II looks like a reasonably solid evolutionary update to hardware features. If Sony makes the same commitment to firmware updates over its lifetime that they did to the original A9, I think this will turn out to be a well-rounded camera, and one that appeals to all those agencies sending photographers to the 2020 Olympics. 

Your move Canon, Nikon.

Will the Drawbacks Go Away?

I've been clear for some time that mirrorless is the way virtually all interchangeable lens cameras will go. Again, the reason is that mirrorless designs reduce parts and manufacturing complexity, and thus cost for the manufacturers. Indeed, the clear future transition to mirrorless was one reason why I split my Web presence to create this dedicated mirrorless site back in 2009. 

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about whether the DSLR is dead and mirrorless is the future. Well, here's the short version: No, DSLRs are not dead, and yes, mirrorless is the future.

Some of that has to do with the fact that there are still some drawbacks to mirrorless, some of that has to do with the fact that DSLRs are more than capable of doing the job that most photographers need done and most people have no need to replace their DSLR and lens sets.

So today I want to discuss the issues that many people say mirrorless cameras still have that need to be addressed (I might disagree ;~). Let's tackle each of those individually.

  • Viewfinder image is lagged. This issue is real, but somewhat overblown. It shows up mostly when you try to shoot action, particularly with burst shooting. Technically, there's a solution, though it's on the costly side because it's all about internal bandwidth and processing speed. That extra speed is used to synchronize the capture and view, something akin to genlock, which has been around for a long time with dedicated broadcast video cameras. Another solution filmmakers and videographers have used for years is to keep both eyes open and learn to react to the left eye's timing and use it to control the pan. Unfortunately, this doesn't tend to work for some camera designs—some big camera/lens combos get in the way of the left eye seeing clearly—nor does it work for left-eye dominate folk. Samsung's NX1 probably had the best synchronization of capture and view so far, with the Sony A9 being right behind. But others have pushed from 30Hz to 60Hz to 120Hz viewfinders with shorter delays. Today, the lag on most new cameras is pretty short. Short enough that it isn't a real issue on static subjects and minor motion, and only becomes an issue when you shoot a burst of action, particularly with a subject that forces you to pan/tilt. Note that DSLRs don't have a lag to their display, but they have blackout between images, which also can also cause you to lose tracking of moving objects. The best of the DSLR bunch, such as the Nikon D5, have very short blackout periods, which makes it fairly easy to follow action. My expectation for mirrorless is that lagging viewfinders will just continue to be less of a problem over time as more bandwidth is built into the sensor and electronics of the mirrorless cameras. We already have cameras—the Sony A9, for example—that work fine with erratic, fast-moving subjects.
  • Viewfinder view is artificial. You might be surprised to learn that there are many different viewfinder technologies that have been used already, with more to come. Most mirrorless cameras are using a 1/2" display (LCD, LED, OLED, etc.), but the way the "dots" are arranged and updated can be (and is) quite different. The lower cost displays often have what is known as "color tearing" because they're using sequential updating of the primary colors, not simultaneous. Some people have eye/brain systems that are susceptible to low refresh or backlight brightening technologies, too. The best EVFs today tend to be OLED with high simultaneous refresh, and feature at least an XGA level of "pixels" (dots versus pixels is a subject for another day). The tricky part is making those pixels not look artificial, despite the mirrorless camera showing you what the final image will look like. Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony all do an excellent job of that these days. Some of the Olympus and Panasonic cameras also hit that level. But this will only get better in the future. We've still got a ways to go before it will look 100% natural to most people. My expectation is that we'll get more pixels and higher refresh rates before we get "perfect" artificial views. That's because what we're seeing in the EVF is being processed by the camera's ISP, and right now those key chips are getting updated on about two year cycles.
  • Focus system is not as precise. This is a tricky one. Technically, a DSLR's focus system isn't precise, either, though for a different reason. The geometry of the very "short" phase detect systems built into camera sensors doesn't allow for the same level of precision and discrimination as the geometry of the DSLRs (though DSLRs have some alignment and quantity of light issues they have to deal with). I'm surprised at how fast the camera companies have learned to deal with this without always having to resort to a contrast focus step. I suspect it will get better in the future, as a larger data set allows you to use statistical analysis to "guess" the precision. Still, there are some small issues with on sensor PD that need to be dealt with in mirrorless systems. And those will all be resolved by more complex and intelligent algorithms. Which requires more bandwidth and speed internally. My expectation is that we'll soon have very competent AF systems in every new mirrorless model, even low end ones (e.g. the recently introduced X-A7 has moved the Fujifilm low-end up near their high-end). As data speed and processing power increases in the cameras, algorithmic and AI approaches will quickly fix the few remaining focus issues with mirrorless.
  • Electronic shutter rolls. Most DSLR users weren't aware that they had a rolling shutter. They do, because above the flash sync speed the shutter is actually a moving slit, but that's generally a fast enough movement to not be noticed in the recorded data. Mirrorless cameras haven't quite gotten there yet. The A9 comes the closest, but still falls a bit short. Most of the current mirrorless cameras are somewhere in the 1/15 to 1/30 range for electronic shutter roll (DSLRs are typically 1/200 to 1/250). Beyond the mere rolling, there's also the issue of what happens due to the interaction between frequency-based lighting and the frequency-based electronic shutter that needs to be dealt with. These issues have gotten better over time, but are still not close to where we need them to be. They'll get there. And yet again, we'll need more bandwidth and speed internally to deal with it. My expectation is that we'll get to near DSLR parity on the high-end cameras in a generation or two in terms of rolling shutter. Frequency-based lighting is going to take some clever technology to deal with, so it may be awhile more before we really get the ability to always sync our shutters with our lights.
  • UX is wrong. Most mirrorless has gone the way of making the equivalent camera smaller (hey Panasonic, what are you doing? ;~). I'm not sure why, but that seems to have broken the ergonomics teams at most camera companies. Small, hard-to-find buttons, cramped controls, proliferation of controls anywhere a bit of empty real estate can be found on the body form, and more faults all showed up on virtually all cameras (though Nikon probably did a better job at not messing things up than most of the others; the Olympus OM-D E-M1 also seems to have gotten things right). I find it a bit amusing that it took Sony four generations of cameras to let me find the AF-On button with light gloves on, but I still see really poor UX choices by a lot of the camera companies, all of which should know better by now. We've got 80 years+ of knowledge about what kinds of controls do and don't work, we've had 80 years+ of studying the hand position on cameras (and eye position, too), we've had 30+ years of studying on-screen interactions. And yet, here we are with mirrorless cameras still coming out that have less-than-acceptable ergonomic issues. (Aside: this is a constant mantra with me: the Japanese camera companies have been particularly poor at dealing with solving the biggest user issues, and those often are ergonomic or workflow related, not electronics related. Yes, Apple gets things wrong from time to time, but they're the model we really want camera companies to look closely at: solve user problems with electronics, not create products with electronics and let the customer figure out how to solve their problem.) My expectations are that, to survive in a low-volume market, any remaining camera company is going to need to pay more attention to ergonomics. The ones that do will survive, the ones that don't will get shunned by users.
  • Battery performance is bad. The image sensor is always on, the EVF (or real LCD) is always on, the image stabilization may always be on, plus we need more bandwidth and speed internally to do all the things that need to be done. All those things end up requiring power. The DSLRs definitely do have an advantage in that they can more easily and more often go quiescent, and thus preserve power. I have little doubt that the electronics companies are all working on dealing with this issue. I note, for instance, that Apple's latest CPU/GPU/AI/ISP (!) chip, the A13 Bionic, automatically turns off pieces of itself that aren't being used and even has a very low-power set of cores it can drop to for background use when instant computation and performance isn't necessary. We'll see more of that sort of thing in cameras, too. Plus battery technology is about to improve, as well. Still, of all the issues I present here, power is the one that I find the most troublesome today. We're at a stage where I can usually get by with two batteries a day with most of mirrorless cameras, but I really would like to get that to one. My expectations is that mirrorless cameras will tackle this in small pieces, though at the same time. In other words, make the battery a little more powerful/efficient, lower the power requirements of any chip by a bit, find ways to put some parts in low power mode at times when they're not being stressed, let the user power the product from USB, and so on. We also seem to be on the verge of some battery breakthroughs, as well, which might help, too. 
  • Lens choice is restricted. m4/3, Fujifilm, and Sony users might protest about this, but realistically only the m4/3 would have a clear argument that they have little to no choice restriction with lens sets. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that m4/3 can hold off the ever-better smartphones (more on that in another article later this fall). Fujifilm and Sony, meanwhile, have done an excellent job with the wide-to-200mm lens ranges, but I'd argue that they still have a lot to fill in the >200mm range to be complete. Canon and Nikon started from scratch last year, and are scrambling to catch up, though the fact that EF (Canon) and F (Nikon) DSLR lenses seem to work without compromise on their adapters means that there's a lot of choice for those transitioning. Given that the overall size of the market is going to be far smaller for on-going mirrorless than it was for DSLRs at peak, there are some real challenges moving forward with lens sets. Can you get a reasonable ROI on a lens that might sell 15k units over its lifetime? Tilt/Shift, serious macro, exotic telephoto, cine, and even really fast primes—primes that push the limit that can be done with a mount—all tend to fall into this category. The only reason we tend to get a lot of cine lenses is that companies are basically just repurposing existing lenses with accurate stop markings and gearing, which doesn't involve as much investment as doing a completely new lens design. That said, the good news is that the Japanese companies have experience with low volume lens production. The bad news is that you may pay more for such lenses when they do appear. My expectations are that everyone will quickly fill their 14-200mm range with primes and zooms that overlap and give you plenty of choices. (Well, okay, Canon EOS M? Totally unknown if Canon will ever get the message there.) Both Canon and Nikon can count on their exotics working fine with their adapters, so we'll probably see them tend to take a cautious approach to extending out beyond 200mm, but Sony has no choice but to quickly fill their gaps (currently the biggest gaps are a fast 200mm, 300mm, and 500mm prime). 

Overall, serious mirrorless products are healthy today, and going to get healthier and more compelling as the above issues get fleshed out. Meanwhile, entry DSLRs are going away fairly fast (at least in terms of selling to consumers), but actually remain a very good value. High-end DSLRs are so well fleshed out that they could last today's shooter much of their career even if they bought a new one today. On top of that, the drop in new DSLR sales volume coupled with the slow transition to mirrorless is reducing customer cost on the DSLR side, particularly to someone willing to buy used or at the trailing edge of camera generations. 

So many of the articles, forum posts, and other speculation I see tries to frame the DSLR and mirrorless segments as a "battle" with a clear winner. Quite frankly, the consumers are the current winner. You have the choice of really competent product either way you go, there's a clear transition path for those that want to take it, and prices on the side that most claim is "dead" are actually quite compelling (particularly if you dip into the used lens market) for product that is as good or better than the side that's being claimed as the "winner." 

I still write, for instance, that the Nikon D850 (DSLR) is the best overall camera you can buy in the market today. It's so Swiss Army Knife in its abilities, but professional at the same time, that it's a very compelling body. If I weren't trying to document what's happening in the camera market, I could have just stopped with buying a D850 to supplement my D5 and be happy for what likely remains of my shooting career (which I take to be probably 10 years). And yes, the Nikon Z7 and Sony A7Rm3 (I've just started using the Sony A7Rm4, but my initial impression is similar) is right near where that D850 is, just in a mirrorless form. 

Frankly, I see me (and you) as being the winners right now, not a specific technology. 

A Nikon Mirrorless Safari

bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z7 74074

Sun not really out yet in this area, but she was...

During my month off in August I journeyed to Africa with a couple of friends on a low-key, no expectations trip. 

Okay, you never have no expectations when you go to Africa to shoot wildlife, but I've got enough images in my files from 25 years of doing this that I can just go and enjoy what happens, not need something particular to happen.

I chose to do an experiment this year, as I often do when I travel for pleasure instead of a work-specific purpose: I decided to shoot entirely using Nikon mirrorless. In particular, a Nikon Z6 and Z7. No D850, no D5, just two Z's.

A number of reasons backed this decision: (1) people don't think mirrorless can do safari well; (2) I wanted to travel as light as possible but stay full frame; (3) I wanted to compare my most recent Nikon DSLR experience in Africa with Nikon's new mirrorless gear; (4) I'm still waiting for Nikon to get its marketing act together and tell everyone what their cameras can actually do, so I just decided to just do so myself ;~).

My entire mirrorless kit fit into a Kiboko 2.0 16L [advertiser link; very good bag if your gear will fit in it]. Normally I have a hard time fitting all my DSLR gear into the much larger Kiboko 22L and my briefcase.

I took: Z6 and Z7 bodies, two FTZ adapters, 70-200mm f/2.8E and 500mm f/5.6E PF lenses, a flash, more batteries than I needed, more cards than I needed, plus a bunch of miscellaneous bits and pieces, including a 100 watt hour battery to charge things, all in the Kiboko. Total weight: 27 pounds. The bag fit easily into overheads, even on an Embraer 145, which is the 1-2 seat single aisle configuration with only one overhead bin (over the 2 seats) that's among the most restrictive regional jets you'll encounter. 

First off, the trip was insane. Off-the-charts insane. You're not even going to see my best shots from this trip in this article because I haven't gotten around to processing them. We encountered so many lions and leopards we lost count. We watched multiple hunts and multiple kills. One pride of lions insisted on camping out with us for the first four days. You could literally shoot them almost from your tent. 

bythom INT BOTS Savuti 2019 Z7 74892

These lions were sleeping when a Kudu accidentally walked up to them. The lions then went into the most amusing crouch you've ever seen, trying to hide themselves from the approaching kudu by melting into the savannah. Unfortunately, that didn't work; the kudu figured things out and ran off. At which point all the lion heads came up. This, by the way, isn't the full pride. There are five additional lions not in this photo.

We had lion cubs galore, two-week old leopard and hyena pups, and sightings you normally don't get, such as the Aardwolf. Eagles kept killing things on our watch (doves and springhares). We not only saw the illusive Sitatunga, we photographed them mating. And I've now gone from thinking getting one lilac-breasted roller taking flight isn't a challenge at all, but four-at-a-time might be. 

bythom INT BOTS Savuti 2019 Z7 75420

No, this is not a composite photo, nor is it Photoshopped. Believe it or not, I now have one, two, three (above) and even five lilac breasted rollers in a single flight shot. Insane.

Heck, at one point we gave up trying to get a photo of a rhino we saw in the distance—extremely rare in Botswana—to chasing an African Wild Cat. Add in servals, those aardwolves, and bat-eared foxes, and you start to get the idea: the wildlife was on full display to the point where the antelope species, giraffe, and most prey got ignored by us unless it was being chased by something. Heck, even the predators were always chasing themselves.

bythom INT BOTS MoremiKhwai 2019 Z7 70958

Had the Nikon Z's failed me, I'd be furious right now, because in 25 years of going to Africa I haven't seen such an amazing parade of animals. Instead, I'm perfectly happy. These images speak for themselves.

I've yet to see Nikon marketing pick up on most of the following, so let me cite a number of the "pros" of using the Nikon Z system on safari:

  • The EVF coupled with magnification makes a better-than-spotting scope (or binoculars) scanning device.
  • The EVF allowed me to see what I was doing during near pitch black conditions (I shot the mostly nocturnal Hyenas at ISO 25600 successfully, for example; the following shot was almost an hour after sunset).
bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z6 72570

  • The EVF allowed me to see what I was shooting in bright conditions (the rear LCD can wash out in bright sun, and the DSLR viewfinder can wash out shooting into the sun, too).
  • The smaller size of the gear I was using allowed me to juggle two complete systems in the front seat of the Land Cruiser where I had very minimal space available (lens choice helped here).
  • 500mm on a Z7 is also 750mm at DX crop on a Z7 (and 20mp), as good as you'd get from a D500.
  • Complex metering situations, such as lions in foreground at sunrise, are far easier to evaluate when you're looking at what the camera is actually going to do (e.g. Custom Setting D8 set to On). 
bythom INT BOTS Moremi 2019 Z6 69615

  • Doing "manual focus touchup" when you have grass in front and in back of a subject is simple: magnify, adjust the manual focus ring with peaking enabled, shoot. Note that in the following shot, most of the Z's Autofocus Area Modes would pick up the foreground bush. Easily corrected.
bythom INT BOTS Moremi 2019 Z6 70840

Prior to setting off on this trip with the Nikon mirrorless gear, I heard from several friends about all the "negatives" I was about to experience:

  • Batteries would be an issue. Nyet. I averaged a bit less than one battery a day in each camera over two weeks, with an average of about eight hours out shooting each day. Total number of shots worked out to about 10,000. Very easy to keep up with charging the batteries (disclosure: we've added a heavy-duty and dedicated converter system with AC plugs in the vehicle I use, so we can also charge while we're shooting). I had brought six batteries with me, but didn't need them all. Rotating the two in the camera with two additional ones via the charger was enough to keep me going without interruption or concern.
  • Dust would overwhelm me. Nada. First, I didn't change lenses partly to combat this, but despite a massive sand storm one day and Botswana's notorious dusty environs—currently in a drought which is making them more notorious—I ended up with far more sand up my nose than on my sensor. Despite having brought sensor cleaning gear, I never had to use it while there.
  • I'd miss sequences due to focus issues, particularly birds in flight. No way, Jose. Oh, as always on safari there were a few "misses" where I couldn't control the AF system to do what I wanted it to fast enough. But that happens sometimes with the DSLRs, too. That said, I'd love a day with the focus engineers at Nikon, because after an intensive session like I had, I've got very strong ideas on what needs to be added or changed to make the Z's even better. I've got a few sequences of images that illustrate where something is harder to get right on the Z's than on the DSLRs. But I also have thousands of perfectly focused images, too. Biggest real issue is one I've noted in my review, book, and other comments: you can't combine AF-ON with an AF Area Mode change (e.g. on thumb stick press).
bythom INT BOTS Moremi 2019 Z7 69967

  • The cameras wouldn't hold up to a beating. Nope. I treated my Z's no differently than I do my DSLRs on this trip (which is to say, roughly). At times, there was a camera on the floor bouncing around as we moved. I did little to nothing to keep gear from being tossed around. I also didn't return them to a bag at night; after a quick external dusting, they sat on the floor of my tent until the next morning. The Z's stood up to this test just fine. 
  • The eye detector in the viewfinder would foul and cause issues getting to the LCD display. Okay, if you call blowing on it a problem. Literally. That's all I did. One well-aimed blow pretty much always got the monitor display right back. If you're not a blow hard like me, carry a small eyebrow brush with you.
  • Using a D850 would be a better idea. Nein. My shooting partner in the vehicle was using a pair of D850's. He got some shots I would have liked, I got some shots he would have liked. But it had nothing to do with which cameras we were using.
  • The Sony mirrorless would be better. Nnyaa (in Setswana). It would only be go sa tshwane (different). I probably would have picked the Sony 100-400mm lens instead of the Nikkor 500mm, giving up some reach for flexibility. In my experience I'd probably also have many more "almost perfect focus" in capturing motion with the Sony instead of the "dead on focus" shots like I got with the Nikon. 

I'll be doing more of a follow-up on this in the future. I'm also trying to arrange a B&H Event Space talk that will go into much more detail. 

But bottom line: going all Nikon mirrorless didn't cause me any issues, and I'm very pleased with the results. Why Nikon can't get that message out clearly, I don't know. I do note that the other pros I know using the Z's are also happy with them, too. 

bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z7 73062

APS-C Gets Some Love (but not marketing)

Just before my month-long break I caught up with the mirrorless market by putting out three reviews of various Fujifilm APS-C cameras (X-T30, X-T3, X-H1). When I posted those and ran off into the bit-less wilds for a much needed break, I knew it wouldn't be long before the APS-C wars began heating up.

Sure enough, just about coincident with returning from Africa, here came Canon with the M6 Mark II announcement, and Sony with the A6100/A6600 and two new APS-C lens announcements. Fujifilm, meanwhile, is lurking in the wings with another camera announcement, and I don't expect it will be long before Nikon pops up with APS-C mirrorless, too.

So we're back to talking about whether or not APS-C is still relevant in the collapsing photography market. Short answer: yes, it absolutely is, but the camera companies don't seem to know how to market it.

Case in point, at Sony's presentation of the A6100 and A6600 Mark Weir made the point that Sony was creating APS-C cameras with the same five attributes they've been promoting in their full frame cameras (speed, compactness, image quality, battery life, lens). Really? If they're the same, how do people distinguish what to buy? Just price? Then everyone would buy the least expensive option, wouldn't they?

Aside: why is the A6xxx naming different than the A7 naming? The A6100 really should be the A6000 Mark II, the A6400 should be the A6300 Mark II, and the A6600 the A6500 Mark II. This kind of intentional confusion is clearly aimed at the embarrassing problem of still having to sell the older cameras alongside the new ones. Plus we only have A6200 and A6700+ now left as possible future names.

Let me help with that marketing message: APS-C should be even more compact, less expensive, and emphasize all-automatic abilities over full frame. APS-C is for the masses, who don't want to spend a lot, carry a lot, or set a lot. What do you give up by going APS-C over full frame? Low light image quality, maximum pixel count, and perhaps handling attributes due to the smaller size camera.

One problem is that APS-C and full frame are only a stop apart (theoretically). That doesn't seem like a lot of performance to give up (all else equal), yet it also seems like it might be important at times (particularly with kit lenses). Sony seems to have stopped at 24mp in APS-C—which, by the way, I fully support, as more pixels produce very little gain, and almost no useful gain—which gives them something to point to with full frame now that the A7R is 60mp. 

Canon, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have gotten that message. The M6 Mark II's 32.5mp on APS-C simply isn't going to look different than 24mp. 6960 pixels across the horizontal axis versus 6000 is not enough linear resolution gain to be visible, and we're pushing diffraction impacts to the point where they take most of what you gained away. But certainly 32.5 is a bigger number than 24, so Canon's marketing will be playing that up big time, I'm sure. Does Canon have a significant selection of EOS M mount lenses that are up to 32.5mp sensors? Not really. Oops, product marketing own goal.

Moreover, everyone's been waiting for Canon to introduce some truly new sensor tech. They apparently did with the M6m2 (and DSLR companion 90D), but I'm having a difficult time seeing any details other than the ubiquitous "it's 32.5mp!" Funny thing is, the new sensor appears to have better dynamic range than the lower pixel count one it replaces in the images I've analyzed, plus very little rolling shutter. I'm not seeing that described in Canon marketing. Seems like another miss to me.

Let's face it, smartphones have turned out to be the carry-everywhere camera. The competent-enough-for-most-purposes choice, with a lot of workflow help/reduction in getting images shared. 

Dedicated cameras have to offer something more than that to survive, but they also have to be properly positioned and marketed, too. Particularly at the low end, where APS-C is almost the new low threshold.

APS-C offers far more image quality than smartphones, and almost as much as larger cameras. APS-C offers far more lens choice (except you, Canon). APS-C packs a lot of quality into small packages that are nearly pocketable (except you, Fujifilm X-H1, et.al.). APS-C should have pricing advantages over full frame (how true is that of the Sony A6600?). A properly designed APS-C camera is going to be more compact than full frame, and rely a bit more on useful automation than constant user control.

But more than anything else, APS-C should be more approachable to the masses and more able to share photos without a lot of extra work. I'm not sure anyone's got that "approachable" bit right, and I know no one's got the "easy sharing" bit right. 

None of these new APS-C options pass the "mom test." Worse still, they don't even come close to passing the "marketing to mom test." If the camera market only consists of older men with disposable income who like to brag about the size of their major asset, then the camera market is doomed. 

APS-C has a place in photography, at least for the time being. I sometimes wonder if the camera makers have any idea what that place is and whether they'll ever discover that place before it disappears. 

I've seen this problem before in tech: too much pursuit of the technical often makes you lose sight of the usefulness (to a potential purchaser). I'm not convinced that any of the camera companies are going to get their APS-C message across to the audience that they should be hitting. But it's nice to see that APS-C development is still on-going ;~).

Rounding Up the Fujifilm XF Cameras

When Fujifilm re-entered the ILC market with the X-Pro1 in 2012, I have to admit that while I was impressed with the hybrid optical/EVF viewfinder, the rest of the camera felt a performance laggard to me. I also had serious qualms about the X-Trans sensor design, as well.

Fujifilm then wandered around with some X-E, EVF-only rangefinder designs. It wasn’t until 2014 and the very DSLR-like X-T1 that it felt to me that Fujifilm was starting to get back to where they were early in the DSLR era with their S-Pro cameras. Indeed, the X-T1 seemed to go further, drawing more upon classic ILC designs than before. 

bythom fujifilm xf

From left to right: X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, X-T100.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been five years, but we’ve now had three X-T#'s, three X-T#0’s, an X-H1, and even an X-T#00 filling out this SLR-like line. That’s a lot of iteration and extension in the SLR-like space in a very short period of time. I’ve been a bit behind in reviewing models for a couple of camera companies, and decided that the Fujifilm APS-C mirrorless lineup was a very good place to start trying to correct that. 

Thus you’ll see that I’ve now posted reviews of the X-H1, X-T3, and X-T30 in addition to my already posted review of the X-T100. I've also added some more Fujifilm lens reviews, as well (more on lenses at the end of this article). 

With all this review catch up, I decided I should also write a short article that went beyond the reviews to give a better sense of where I think Fujifilm is overall with their APS-C camera lineup. 

Leaving out the X-Pro2, which is due for an update and is likely only going to appeal to a very specific type of shooter, the core of the Fujifilm lineup from bottom to top goes like this:

  • X-T100
  • X-T30
  • X-T3
  • X-H1

The H1 is above the T3? 

Yes, in my mind it is. It’s a very impressive camera that I believe is at the top of the Fujifilm heap. Curiously, the X-H1 didn’t sell well at it’s original price, and thus has recently found itself sale priced below the slightly newer X-T3. 

One issue that Fujifilm faces with pricing is the APS-C sensor size they use in the XF line. With full frame bodies now starting at US$1300, the US$1600+ that Fujifilm wanted to charge for the top end of its line became an issue. The X-T3 came out at a price US$100 below that of the X-T2 it replaced, despite having a new sensor and more performance, so it’s clear that Fujifilm itself was aware of their dilemma. 

I’ve written about the “camera squeeze” before. At the top end we have truly remarkable full frame and now medium format cameras. The bottom end of full frame keeps reaching downward in price, putting a squeeze on the top end of smaller sensor cameras. We have Sony promoting one-generation-old A7m2’s at the US$1000 (or less) sale price, while Canon with the recent RP at US$1300 list price has already also offered some modest discounts. We’re going to see more and more full frame activity just above the US$1000 point.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, smartphones slowly get more and more competent and keep gobbling up entire camera categories. First it was very small sensor, inexpensive compacts that caved in, but that nibbling has now reached to just below the 1” sensor cameras, and I don’t think it will stop there. 

The net net is that many people feel that they get a very competent camera when they spend US$1000 for a new smartphone. If they want an excellent-performing full frame camera, that’s now at or under US$2000, depending upon promotions (e.g. Nikon Z6, Sony A7m3). But they also have good options that are less expensive than that. Current full frame prices for a solid, new camera range from US$1300 to US$2000.

Meanwhile, Fujifilm is competing against one of the most venerable crop sensor cameras ever made, the D500. That Nikon DSLR is currently running at US$1500 as I write this, but has been as low as US$1300 “with extras” at times.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Fujifilm is trying to squeeze a lot of SLR-like product into a narrowing price window. Given that the X-H1 apparently didn’t sell up to expectations, you have to wonder if there will be an X-H2. Even though Fujifilm is a deep-pocketed company where cameras are only a minor blip on their financials and thus can tolerate a bit of financial underperformance, I’m pretty sure that Fujifilm is entering into a period where they need to whittle down their lineup a bit. 

At present, we’ve got seven “current” XF cameras (X-A5, X-E3, X-T100, X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, and X-Pro2), slotted from about US$500 to US$1700 for body only. That’s more than enough. I believe having that many products in the smartphone-to-full-frame gap also introduces marketing issues, as well, as I’d defy most salespeople to correctly identify the weaknesses and strengths of each one and why a prospective customer should buy a specific one.

Moreover, Fujifilm is overstocked at the higher price points, and the models aren’t quite distributed right in the middle points. While the high-volume Canon and Nikon APS-C DSLRs tried to carve price points every US$100 or tighter at one time—using previous generation bodies to fill in the gaps—I don’t think that’s the right approach in a contracting market. The camera companies do that to clear inventory and sensor commitments, and they think that this is “working.” Realistically, though, we’re in a market with deep overstocking of product, poor clarity between products, and a lot of confusion facing buyers that haven’t done much research when they walk in the door.

I personally see something like US$500, US$750, US$1000, US$1250 as the current (and only) logical APS-C price points given the squeeze happening at the two ends. And probably those two inner points shouldn’t be linear, but curved slightly more towards the lower boundary (e.g. US$500, US$700, US$900, US$1250). Moreover, I don’t know how long you can get away with five or more models in that squeezed realm. 

But all that would be arguing in the weeds, where I want to show the forest here. The forest says that APS-C basically sits from US$500 to US$1300 now. Anything else and the product would have to be distinguished far from current cameras in some way.

So where’s that leave us with Fujifilm’s current lineup?

Well, that X-H1 is at US$1300, and I think that’s the right price for such an excellent APS-C camera. As much as Fujifilm would like me to write that it’s the equivalent of a D500, I don’t believe it is. It falls short in a couple of ways, though it also does a bit better in a couple of others, mostly associated with build quality and IS. Meanwhile, the D500 tends to get its benefits from a better AF system and a wicked solid frame rate and buffer, coupled with a wide range of desirable lenses in the telephoto realm, which frankly, is where most people buying a high performance APS-C camera are going to want to tread.

(To Fujifilm: one reason the X-H1 underperformed is the lens lineup. At the high APS-C level, Fujifilm just doesn't have the extensive telephoto lens lineup that's necessary to fully attract wildlife and sports shooters.)

At the other end of Fujifilm’s lineup, the US$450 X-T100 is a screaming bargain these days. While it has plenty of areas where it isn’t state-of-the-art or a high performer, what US$450 camera is full featured and beefy? The 24mp Sony sensor inside is well-proven to be excellent in capability, and Fujifilm exposes enough features and control in the base model that someone knowing what they’re doing can extract remarkably good image data out of the X-T100 (Hint: if you want a camera to convert to IR and you’re a Fujifilm user, this is the one I’d do that with. Okay, maybe the X-A5, as well, if you can live without the EVF).  

The camera that surprised me this round of testing was the next model up, though, the US$900 X-T30. 

To describe why, I need to devolve into another discussion revolving around APS-C: size. Final camera/lens size and weight, to be particular. 

With highly competent full frame cameras hovering just above, a good APS-C product has to have some clear and significant selling benefit. The Nikon D500 I already mentioned gets its big selling benefit from being a smaller, far less expensive D5. It’s optimized in much the same way as a D5: slightly smaller sensor pixel count to preserve high ISO capability, really fast frame rate with excellent autofocus performance, plus a deep buffer backed by a fast card mechanism.

There are other ways to stand out. And I think key among them is the size/weight thing. Hanging a five-pound weight around your neck and carrying it all day while traveling is no longer compelling ;~). I’m not sure it ever was, but we put up with it because of the image potential coupled with the fact that everything else was also that big and heavy. 

APS-C sensors have enough image potential in them for most people for most purposes, but their smaller size can (and should) also be reflected in smaller body and smaller lenses. 

And that’s where the X-T30 comes in. It’s a very small, light body with a lot of capability. Couple it with the right Fujifilm lenses—the surprisingly excellent 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6 comes to mind as a reasonable general purpose lens—and it will fit in a jacket pocket or a very small accessory bag, making it a compelling travel camera. Quality would easily best your smartphone, you have the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, you’re not encumbered by much size or weight if you choose lenses wisely, and you also haven’t spent as much money as a low end full frame user. 

This is exactly where Canon is trying to live with the EOS M, and I believe that it’s where the best part of Fujifilm’s efforts tend to lie, too. I can definitely recommend the X-T30 to a lot of folk, particularly with the smaller prime lenses and zooms in the Fujifilm lineup.

Which brings us to the X-T3 and X-H1: both are essentially DSLR-sized cameras. Their build quality adds weight and bulk. The thing that people tend to be interested in doing with these cameras is compete with the full frame shooters. They expect top-of-the-line focus, frame rate, buffer, and viewfinder performance, and much more. 

The problem is that the window at the top is even narrower than the overall APS-C window. By the time you get to the US$2000 point, I believe that you have full frame cameras that can do everything most people would want. Moreover, if you start sticking on faster lenses on the APS-C to match the full frame image performance, what I keep finding is that you’ve lost much, if not all, of the size and weight advantages with APS-C. You may have even lost a lot of the price advantage, too.

Thus, you have the X-T3/X-H1 starting to compete with the Sony A7m3 and Nikon Z6, and this is only going to get worse as the full frame makers start doing more dramatic discounting to keep volume moving.

All of which is to say, as I began testing the X-T3 and X-H1 they had very high bars they needed to clear. To their credit, they mostly do, but they’re very near the top end of what APS-C is going to manage in the future, I think. That pricing pressure that forced the X-T3 to list for less than the X-T2 originally did is only going to increase. Don't be surprised if an X-T4 has to list for less than the X-T3 did when it first came out. It's either that or it needs to get up to the D5/A9 level of performance at a lower price.

bythom bayer vs xtrans

Bayer pattern on left, X-Trans pattern on right. Pay close attention to the red photosites. Do you see how they're evenly spaced and lined up in Bayer? Now look at the alignments in the X-Trans pattern: you should see that diagonals offset a bit, while there's not even spacing on the vertical/horizontal axis. On the other hand, there's more green (luminance) information in X-Trans.

Meanwhile, it's time to address X-Trans versus Bayer again. Dr. Bayer himself explored many other filter patterns beyond the one that his name is associated with, including some X-Trans-like ones. Bayer came to the (arguably correct) conclusion that the RG/GB layout was the most efficient. You can make more complex layouts that gain some specific benefit if you have enough pixels, but each of those have their own demosaic problems to solve and can introduce additional liabilities, as well. Basically, non-Bayer patterns may turn out better at one thing, but then turn out worse on another. 

Fujifilm sacrificed color information for luminosity information in opting for X-Trans. They're not alone in that. Many of the camera companies have been quietly degrading Bayer filtration strength in ways that sacrifice some color information for more light reaching the sensor. 

Fujifilm made a big claim early on about elimination of color moire by using X-Trans. They then backed off that to just claim a "reduction" when many of us pointed out that their statement wasn't true. X-Trans does reduce production of color fringing in most instances, but it came with another problem: color pollution on fine detail. I demonstrated that in my X-Pro1 review, but here's the thing: both Bayer color fringing and the X-Trans color smear tend to happen at such a low level of detail that most people never see it. As sensor pixel counts go up—X-Trans has gone from 16mp to 26mp—that "low level" tends to get buried deeper (unless you use extra pixels to print larger). Moreover, with tuning of the demosaic, you can mitigate either problem further. 

Indeed, that's exactly what's happened over time: the X-Trans demosaic routines in raw converters have gotten better even as megapixel counts have gone up. This reduces and masks the effects of color smearing. Curiously, the Adobe converters are still among the worst in rendering fine detail in X-Trans images, but they still do a credible job now, and more pixels means you're less likely to see those effects pop way up into visibility. 

So X-Trans has become a bit of a non-issue over time. Is it a benefit, though? I'm not convinced it is (other than for those making black and white conversions from the underlying data, due to having more luminance data to work with). You get a few percent more luminosity data, but that's simply not enough to narrow the dynamic range gap to full frame sensors significantly. 

In essence, we're down in the weeds when we start trying to evaluate Bayer versus X-Trans at APS-C sizes. Indeed, the Bayer sensor in the Fujifilm X-T100 tends to produce pretty much the same level of results as the older 24mp X-Trans sensors in the X-T2 generation cameras, but without any low-level color smearing (another reason why I recommend those Bayer Fujifilm's for IR conversion; the Bayer pattern doesn't complicate the resulting data).

One problem that Fujifilm users haven't figured out yet, though, is this: doing pixel shifting with X-Trans will be a bit of a challenge. Because of the big GGGG box in the center of the larger X-Trans repeating layout, you'd have to do a more sophisticated shifting to get RGB data out of each site. (I suppose that there might be a clever shift possibility that's useful, but it might require more demosaic trickery.) That has impacts on file size and motion artifacts, which is probably why Fujifilm hasn't added that feature to their cameras.

Still, I'd tend to say that today X-Trans isn't as much a liability as I thought it once was. But nor is it a big gain as Fujifilm marketing suggests. They've simply taken a slightly more complicated filtration route that produces slightly different pros and cons in the underlying sensor data to produce what turns out these days to be nearly the same result (at least assuming you use an optimal converter).

Finally, one thing I've noticed quite a bit as the full frame mirrorless market matured and Canon and Nikon joined in is this: I get more and more email from "former" Fujifilm users. Those folk mostly switched from Nikon DX when Nikon basically ignored the DX lens situation (and serious mirrorless cameras, too). Fujifilm's more traditional camera designs—dials, mainly—and complete APS-C lens lineup, particularly in primes, appealed to those Nikon DX users that felt ignored. 

Unfortunately, many didn't stay Fujifilm users. Quite a switched again for Sony or Nikon full frame mirrorless once it matured (or appeared on the Nikon side). This indicates to me that Fujifilm caught some trend that was present for awhile, but then didn't fully satisfy it. I'm not entirely sure what the missing element was, but in exclusively using so much Fujifilm gear recently I have to say I did feel like I was going a little bit backward. 

Tracking focus performance in all the Fujifilm models was slightly behind what I'm used to now in mirrorless, and other little things tended to make me more aware of the camera than I like to be while shooting (again, small buttons that are hard to find by feel should be outlawed). Adjusting two dials to change exposure modes is slower than the modern alternative. None of these things are deal stoppers, at all, but I did notice them (and others). 

That said, Fujifilm at the moment has a very nice line of XF camera choices using APS-C sensors, coupled with a mostly full line of APS-C lenses that is only missing some telephoto choices now. A nicer and more complete lens line than anyone else in APS-C. Perhaps too extended on the camera side, though, and needing some careful product line management choices when iterating the coming 4-generation cameras, but still, what Fujifilm is doing with XF is very nice overall. 

Thus, if you're a serious general purpose APS-C shooter, I'd say that today Fujifilm is your best choice. That's because:

  • In the DSLR world, Canon (EF-S) and Nikon (DX) basically went "all consumer," and mostly serve up low-cost convenience cameras and lenses. Where Canon and Nikon do have higher end products (e.g. 7Dm2 and D500), they haven't supported them with a full lens set: they seem to target those only to birders and sports action shooters using full frame lenses.
  • In the Canon mirrorless APS-C world (EOS M), the emphasis seems to be on very compact cameras with modest build quality, and again only with consumer convenience lens choices. Just to be clear: I'd choose an Fujifilm X-T30 over the Canon M5, mostly because of lens choice (but also partly because of sensor and lens performance). 
  • In the Sony mirrorless APS-C world (E mount), you have one basic camera that has been updated into four (A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500), and you may not like that camera design at all. Lens choice originally looked like it would fill out, but Sony abandoned that work to produce more full frame lenses, so your overall lens choice is more limited with Sony than Fujifilm; serious Sony E-mount lens choices are seriously more limited than Fujifilm XF. Indeed, lenses like the Sony 16mm f/2.8 may look like equivalents to Fujifilm lenses, but when you measure their performance, the Fujifilm lenses win every time.

So what it really boils down to is this: are you a serious APS-C shooter? 

I'm not sure what would define you as such a photographer any more, unfortunately. As I noted above, full frame camera pricing is coming down (as did the size/weight), so Fujifilm finds themselves in a squeeze. As I noted, the X-T3 and X-H1—the most desirable of the Fujifilm bodies—start to get close to as big and heavy as the lightest full frame offerings, particularly when you load the Fujifilms up with faster lenses. It would be difficult for me personally to justify an X-T3 over a Z6 or A7m3 because of that. 

What I keep coming back to are the X-T100 and X-T30, for different reasons. The X-T100 is an out-and-out bargain when it comes to price/performance. A great sensor on a truly consumer body, but at a very affordable price. I've had an X-T100 kicking around in my bag for awhile now, particularly once I found out how good the 15-45mm kit lens is.

But the X-T30 impressed me, too. True, the build quality isn't as robust as its bigger brothers. But it's a smaller camera and thus also highly travel-worthy. If you pick the right lens(es), it also doesn't become the huge neck-weight or require the bag volume that DSLRs got their reputation from. 

Fujifilm's built a solid lineup of APS-C cameras and lenses. I can certainly recommend them, particularly if you fall into one of the camps that value particular aspects of the XF system. The large and growing prime set will be very tempting for many, I'm sure. I've yet to find a dud among those (which is more than I can say for Sony E-mount). 

Moreover, each generation of Fujifilm's cameras has made clear strides forward in features, handling, and performance, to where today they essentially form APS-C state-of-the-art (the Nikon D500 notwithstanding). 

So, nice job Fujifilm. You've carved out a small piece of the market and mastered it. I hope you can hold onto it.

One final thought: you may note that the three big, Japanese, third-party lens makers (Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina) aren't doing much in the XF mount. Zeiss initially did, but that was because of direct interest and help from Fujifilm in getting more lenses out of the gate. Since those initial Touits, we haven't seen anything else from Zeiss. 

You do see a number of the smaller, manual-focus-only lens makers changing out the mount area of existing designs to support Fujifilm, as that's a rather easy, low-cost thing to do and broadens the market for their offerings.

But here's the rub: as much as you Fujifilm fans enjoy your cameras, there aren't enough of you yet. Couple that with Fujifilm themselves filling out the lens lineup, and there aren't enough dollars on the table for serious investment in new lens designs for XF from others. 

To me, you have to like what Fujifilm is doing, because Fujifilm is likely supplying both the camera and lenses you'll purchase. That's one reason why I tried to get some additional Fujifilm lenses reviewed in this batch of camera reviews: the two really do go together. And the sum of those two parts is overall excellent, something I can't say about EOS M or Sony E. 

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