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.

Sony FE Now at Almost Two Dozen Lenses

Today Sony announced two more FE lenses for their A7/A9 mirrorless cameras: the basically pre-announced 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, and the unexpected 12-24mm f/4. This brings to 23 the total number of FE lenses that are available directly from Sony (Zeiss and others also make their own FE lenses).

bythom sony 1635onbody

The 16-35mm f/2.8 is a GM lens that Sony has talked about previously, but shared no details on. At 1.5 pounds (680g) and US$2200, you pretty much have to need the f/2.8 and fine attention to optics to justify it. Still, it rounds out the f/2.8 GM line, so we now can shoot 16-200mm with a set of three lenses, much like you find in the full frame DSLR world.

bythom sony1224onbody

The 12-24mm f/4 G is a little unexpected, pushing the FE system into the really ultra-wide zoom realm. At US$1700, it's definitely not a budget lens, so the 16-35mm f/4 OSS is likely to remain the primary choice of many for a wide angle zoom.

Overall, the Sony FE lens set is a little bunched up. It seems likely that users would only buy one lens from each the following groups:

  • 12-24mm f/4, 16-35mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/4 OSS
  • 24-70mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/4
  • 70-200mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/4
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6
  • 28mm f/2, 35mm f/1.4, 35mm f/2.8
  • 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 50mm f/2.8 macro, 55mm f/1.8
  • 85mm f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8, 90mm f/2.8 macro, 100mm f/2.8

We're still missing the wider primes and the longer telephoto choices, at least directly from Sony. Still, most A7/A9 shooters now have plenty of choices from Sony across the primary lens set.

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Canon is Coming, Canon is Coming

And I now believe, so is Nikon*...

Coming to what, you ask?

If Canon Rumors is to believed—the current rumor has a low rating for reliability, but it's something I've also heard—Canon is targeting a full frame EF mount mirrorless camera for 2018, probably for Photokina. The tricky thing here is the EF mount: not a new mount, which means that any such mirrorless camera will probably look much more like a DSLR than any of the current mirrorless models. But that also means that it will take all those 100m+ Canon lenses that have been produced to date. (I discount the Sigma SDs here, which also uses a DSLR instead of mirrorless mount, because they don't look at all like DSLRs ;~)

But I don't think Canon will be alone in this approach. Nikon has been in fervent rethink mode for awhile now, and what I hear out of Tokyo is that they seem to be coming to the same decision: an F-mount full frame mirrorless camera for 2018, with the F mount intact. We very well could have a Photokina showdown between the giants then, as they try to reassert themselves across the entire interchangeable lens camera market with their huge lens sets.

Thing is, the longer Canon and Nikon waited to fully compete in mirrorless, the more their options turned to one: maintain the DSLR mount. That's because if you have to buy new lenses, then the legacy lock that Canon and Nikon have with their 200m+ lens installed base disappears. And the longer you take to enter the mirrorless market with a new lens set, the more the other mirrorless makers have their own lens set advantage.

Fujifilm, for instance, has a strong basic lens set that's only really weak at the telephoto end. m4/3 can top that, with pretty much everything in place someone would want except tilt/shift lenses. And Sony is certainly getting closer and closer to filling out their FE lens set (see today's other story).

Thus, I think it's wrong to expect Canon or Nikon to create any new full frame mirrorless system from scratch. Both companies probably need full frame mirrorless to hold Sony off from making any inroads into the duopoly.

Canon, of course, has already dipped a toe into mirrorless with the EOS M, creating the mirrorless equivalent of EF-S and backed with a few new lenses. But looking at the size of the EOS M cameras versus their G X compact series and even other mirrorless cameras, I'm guessing that Canon sees EOS M as their eventual entry product. Basically the gateway drug to their DSLRs and eventual higher-end mirrorless offerings.

Nikon badly stumbled at the same task when they dipped their toes into the same mirrorless waters. While the Nikon 1 could have been that same gateway drug to DSLRs, Nikon chose to use a far smaller sensor and not to use DSLR accessories or controls. They did just about everything they could to make it "not an entry to DSLRs." Then they priced the simple, little cameras higher than more than half their DX DSLR lineup at the time. After six years they have virtually nothing to show for that, and it would take a complete redo of the Nikon 1 to even begin to fix all the problems they made for themselves.

I've long said this day is coming—and technically it still is as we're not to Day Zero yet—as both Canon and Nikon have to eventually evolve out of the DSLR mirrorbox to the simpler-to-build, easier-to-align, fewer-parts world of mirrorless in order to keep costs down. It's remarkable that Nikon can profitably sell a really good DSLR and lens for US$400, but that's pushed them to the extremes of what they can do. Ultimately, doing the same thing in mirrorless would cost them less and thus make them more profit, even at that same low retail price.

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But Nikon for the moment seems more focused on the high end, so I expect them to roll with a full frame mirrorless product next. And with the F mount up front. They must defend the F mount or they pretty much have nothing now, given the KeyMission, DL, and Nikon 1 fiascos and the ever-cooling Coolpix.

All this is, if true, good news for mirrorless users. Choice always is good, and having the two duopolists finally playing hardball is going to mean everyone has to up their competitive game. The fact that we might get two of the biggest lens sets out there added fully into the mix means that all the other players need to quickly round out their own lens sets, too.

It's been a bit of a strained time recently in mirrorless. We lost Ricoh/Pentax and Samsung completely. Nikon simply stopped Nikon 1 development by all appearances. Panasonic seems a little on the struggling side outside the GH5, and the Sigma sd line seems to have not even been noticed. We did get forays into medium format mirrorless, but that's well out of most folk's pay grade.

But if I'm right, 2018 should see us have a full range of competitors all trying to get your attention with a wider range of choices than we've ever had. I can imagine Photokina 2018 having 100mp medium format mirrorless, at least a trio of full frame mirrorless players, and plenty of other action as everyone scrambles to be King of the Hill. We're probably coming into the prime for mirrorless now. Once the dust settles out of the super-charged competition, we're probably going to see fewer iterations that take longer cycles to complete.

*Yes, this is a change from my previous thoughts about what Nikon is up to. From everything I can tell, Nikon started down the line of doing a crop sensor (DX) mirrorless system to be followed by a full frame (FX) one. But about the time that the Nikon 1 line was due for some more updates, Nikon seemed to go into rethink mode. Through most of 2016 there seemed to be no clear signals out of Nikon of how they were going to move on with mirrorless. Late in the year I started hearing the full frame mumblings again, and in the giant set of planning meetings that accompany the year end results that happen early each spring, those mumblings have gotten louder. I'm pretty sure now that a full frame mirrorless system is in the works at Nikon. That also corresponds well with their "focus on high-value add products" strategy statement.

Sony Pro Support

With the recent addition of the A9 to the A7 lineup, Sony has now added a a new Sony Imaging Pro Support program that includes mirrorless camera users. You'll need a minimum of two full-frame bodies (even though the image on their site shows one full frame and one crop-sensor body ;~), and three Sony Zeiss or G Series lenses to join. You'll also have to be a full-time professional photographer and provide work samples to prove that.

In return for meeting the qualifications you'll be given a dedicated phone and email support desk to reach (7am-4pm Pacific Time), a 3-day turnaround and discount on repairs, loaner cameras/lenses (limitations), invitation to special events, and three free camera/lens maintenance services a year. Shipping is covered both inbound and outbound on repairs.

By the way, if you're a Sony user and haven't discovered the AlphaUniverse Web site, you should check it out (it's in my Mirrorless Web site links; if you've got other links you think that should be there, let me know). You'll find learning resources there, can see the work of the various Sony Artisans, and check for local events you might be interested in. For example, those of you in the Denver/Boulder area might be interested in an A9 launch event at Mike's Camera in Boulder on the 15/16th.

April Showers Bring May Discounts

It's one of those times of year again. Typically cameras tend to get promoted heavily in Spring (for Mothers/Fathers day, graduation, summer vacations) and then again at Christmas.

We're entering the first of those periods, and pretty much every mirrorless camera maker has new promotions started. As I often do with Nikon promotions on the dslrbodies.com site, I'm going to call out a few things that caught my attention in the latest rebate/discount lists. (Note: if you use any of the links in the headers, they'll take you to a page on this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H, which includes all the active rebates. But other than some small bundled items or future discounts that B&H adds, any official dealer should be able to offer you the Instant Savings/Rebate.)

Canon[advertising link]

  • The EOS M5 I like (see review) has a US$50 discount on it (plus 2% B&H future purchase award), no matter whether you select body only or the body with kit lens. Add the 18-150mm lens instead and the discount increases to US$280. My problem with the 18-150mm is the wide end: it isn't really wide, being something near 30mm equivalent on the Canon APS-C sensor. But couple that with the very good 11-22mm EF-M lens, and you've got a smallish two-lens kit that goes from very wide angle to strong telephoto.
  • The EOS M6 also has a discount with the 18-150mm, but the EVF on the M5 is well worth the extra US$100, don't fall for the M6 unless you're given a real extra incentive to opt for it. The EVF is worth way more than the implied US$100.

Fujifilm[advertising link]

  • The just-introduced X-T20 already has a small (US$50) discount on it. Much of the goodness of the X-T2 (see my just-posted review) is in the X-T20, but at just above half the price.
  • Likewise, the recently announced X-A3 model is also on sale, giving you a two lens kit for just US$699. That's pretty darned good for a near state-of-the-art 24mp APC-S sensor-based system. The downside? No EVF. So this becomes a possible compact camera replacement for some.
  • The rest of Fujifilm's rebates are for previous generation gear. Given that Fujifilm just went from 16mp to 24mp and improved their focus system considerably, I'd tend to stay with the current gear.

Panasonic[advertising link]

  • The GX-85 is a pretty decent rangefinder-type mirrorless camera with a lot of capability in it (as usual with Panasonic, 4K video, for instance). With the new discounts, you get a two-lens kit for about US$700. I'd judge that to be a good price for that camera. While I haven't reviewed it, I did borrow one for a couple of weeks and found it to be much like the other recent Panasonic cameras using that 16mp sensor: very good image quality, pretty photographer friendly, excellent video, and excellent build quality.
  • If you want 20mp, the similar but slightly more upscale GX8 bodies are now under US$1000 and coupled with a free kit lens.
  • Meanwhile, the outgoing GH4—a staple among 4K videographers on a budget—now breaks the US$1000 mark. Not a bad price for a darned good 4K video camera.

Sony[advertising link]

  • A ton of savings here. I'm going to call out the ones that I believe are the real bargains.
  • First up we have the A6300 two lens kit, which gets you about 24-300mm equivalent in a pretty small package, and at a good price. At US$350 off it's worth thinking about if you want a small, portable mirrorless system. Yes, the A6500 has more tech in it, but the A6300 is more than a competent camera (see review). Besides, if you really want the A6500 and that lens bundle, you can pony up more than US$500 and get it on discount, too. Still, I think the A6300 is more the sweet spot for this type of camera. If you're looking for bargains, the A6000 is also available with the two-lens bundle for US$800. So pick your poison. For most people, that would be the A6300, IMHO.
  • Most of the A7 series discounts are mild or big bundles of stuff. I suspect we'll see more discounting on that series in the future as we near the Mark III models appearing. The original A7 (no r, s, or Mark II) is now under US$1000, which might attract those experimenters willing to sample the Sony system. But now that we've seen the changes in the Mark II models and what might be on tap for future ones with the other recent Sony introductions, I'd tend to say avoid the original body unless you think you'll just eventually use it as a backup.
  • The 70-200mm f/4 FE lens has a US$100 discount. Very reasonable price for a very good lens. If you don't have this or the f/2.8 version in your FE kit, you don't have a flexible telephoto lens with strong optical performance.
  • Most of the FE lenses Sony is offering at discount have modest rebates: I don't see any particular bargains there other than the 20% savings on the 50mm f/1.8, but by all means take advantage of discounts while they're available if you need those lenses.
  • With the E lenses (APS-C crop for the A5xxx and A6xxx) models, there are three lenses that have discounts you should note: the very good 10-18mm f/4 OSS is US$100 off, which is a 12% discount. The already modest priced 35mm f/1.8 OSS and 50mm f/1.8 OSS have US$50 discounts. All three of these lenses should be in any A6xxx kit.

This article is a bit of an experiment. I generally don't tend to post pointers to sales. So if you liked this and want more articles like it more often, please let me know. Likewise, if you'd rather I didn't do this, let me know that, too.

Mirrorless Had a Good First Quarter

The CIPA shipment numbers are out for the full first quarter of 2017. That allows us to look at the data in a little better light. I don't put much faith on individual month data, but when we look closely at how larger periods have fared year-to-year, we get more reliable patterns to discuss.

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The first quarter of each year is an interesting one. Two trends tend to drive the quarter's numbers: (1) how much the camera companies are trying to clear excess Christmas quarter inventory; and (2) new camera introductions.

In terms of inventory, I was surprised that Nikon basically restrained from much in the way instant rebates and sales during the first quarter. Traditionally, they've been active in doing so in the past, but this year they seemed to have completely backed off, and I'm pretty sure it impacted their numbers and the CIPA DSLR shipments.

In terms of new cameras introduced during the quarter:

  • Canon — 2 DSLRs, 1 mirrorless
  • Fujifilm — 1 mirrorless
  • Nikon — 1 DSLR announcement, but not shipped in the quarter
  • Panasonic — 2 mirrorless
  • Pentax — 1 DSLR
  • Sony — nothing

But more to the point, there were at least four mirrorless cameras that didn't really start shipping in volume until the first quarter of 2017. Thus, there wasn't a lot new of high interest or value shipping on the DSLR side during the quarter, but quite a bit of fairly new and high interest mirrorless (EOS M6, Fujifilm A10, X-T20, GFX, Hasselblad X1D, Olympus E-M1 II, Panasonic GX-850, and GH5). Thus, don't get too excited by that unit volume rise you see in this year's mirrorless shipments just yet.

I mention value for a reason. While the shipment numbers for the first quarter showed strength in compacts, lenses, and in mirrorless, across the board the more interesting thing was the increase in value of those shipments: compacts up 6.9%, DSLRs up 4.3%, mirrorless up 38.6% (how much of that was the E-M1, GH5, and GFX?), but lenses down 0.5%. Think cameras are going more upscale and getting more expensive? You're probably right, they are.

Sony's reported camera sales also tell you the same story: 8.5m, 6.1m, 4.2m units sold in the last three fiscal years, with the current year being predicted at 3.8m units. Yet the current year's sales are predicted to be 10.4% higher. Fewer cameras being sold for more money. That's the mantra the Japanese companies are all embracing now.

That doesn't mean there won't be under US$1000 cameras. But I suspect far fewer of them, and you're going to definitely get pass-me-down technology from previous cameras in that market at best case.

Sony's A9 Marketing Push

The Web site sonyalpharumors posted a marketing-use only document for the new Sony A9. If this briefing document is accurate—and I believe it is—it produces a bit of head scratching for me.

Here's the document sonyalpharumors posted:

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If we go back a few years, we see Sony executives outlining a strategy of "more." It started in Sony Semiconductor for sensors, but was quickly echoed by the Sony Imaging group. Essentially the sensor group started talking about sensors that had the highest resolution, the lowest light capability, the fastest bandwidth, the greatest video capabilities, and more. Sony was going to pursue these things individually at first, then in combinations as they attempted to "revitalize consumer electronics."

In looking back at some of the Sony Semiconductor presentations, I see these specific things as goals: "highest sensitivity," "lowest noise," "lowest power", "highest bandwidth," "ultra-high-speed," "widest dynamic range", and "highest pixel count."

It's not surprising that we see cameras from Sony that mirror many of those sensor goals. The A7rII targeted "highest pixel count," the A7s targeted "highest sensitivity and lowest noise," and now the A9 targets "ultra-high-speed."

But the Sony marketing document shown above is a bit odd, in that it is a bit inconsistent. I'd say the major competitors for a speed-oriented camera are the Canon 1DxII, Nikon D5, Nikon D500, and Canon 7DII, in roughly about that order. That Sony thinks that the A9 competes with the Canon 5DIV, Nikon D750, and Nikon D810 is strange.

Moreover, I see no real reason why I'd need an A9 for landscapes or portraits, which is in Sony marketing's target audience listing. The fact that "advanced amateurs" are also targeted is probably the clue that gives everything away, and I'm not sure what that says about the A7II and the A7rII. A lot of companies fall into the trap of marketing their latest product too broadly and forcefully, often at the expense of their previous products that are still available. There's a bit of that going on here. I would guess that Sony would be happy if customers bought any Sony camera, but there's a bit of an over push on "buy an A9" in what they've been doing since launch.

It seems that Sony marketing is in a bit of a slippery area here. Sony really doesn't have the lenses to legitimately claim they're going to target the 1DxII, D5, or even the D500 for outdoor sports or wildlife shooting. Speed in the camera is not useful if you can't image the subject properly. Indeed I've written articles about how I'd take less speed and the right lenses over the opposite.

That said, I'm actually looking forward to taking an A9 with the new 100-400mm to Africa, or maybe the Galapagos later in the year. It would in some ways be a repeat of my Shooting With Just a D7200 experience a couple of years ago in that it's not necessarily an optimal combination for the places I visit, but would certainly reveal just how far Sony has come.

But I digress. I find it interesting that there are only two competitive features listed for the A9: speed and silence. In most sports and wildlife photography, silence isn't really needed. There are some exceptions, like golf, but in those we don't really need the speed.

Speed—in context of the A9—appears to mostly be the 20 fps and an uninterrupted 60 fps viewfinder, coupled with a few things that a faster data stream might enable. Sony makes a claim about focus—"foolproof AF/AE while traditional SLRs can only challenge such AF/AE performance improvements"—that needs reliable field testing to even begin to be believed.

I've noted in a lot of the "viewfinder image focus" postings that have appeared on YouTube, et.al., where the boxed area being focused on has things in it that are closer to the camera than the point where I'd really want the camera focusing, and other times the closer thing is what I want the focus to move to. The results I've seen in a number of published frames from Sony's sponsored sports shooting event in New York have plenty of missed and slightly missed focus in them. In fairness, so too would the images from a D5/D500 had Nikon sponsored a similar event at those products' introduction. That's because understanding how the focus system does and doesn't work eventually leads to better capture rates.

So Sony's focus targeting and unexpected object tracking rejection really needs to be tested.

Finally, to a lessor degree, "speed" is the large buffer, though I'll reserve judgment on that until I can shoot sports directly with the A9: buffers have this tendency to look better on paper than in the camera. Indeed, there are already early reports of how slow the A9 is to empty a full buffer. I really don't understand why Sony chose SD over XQD for the card choice in the A9.

Personally, I'm hoping that Sony's A9 claims don't devolve into distracting details that need documenting. While I wouldn't currently consider an A9 a replacement for my wildlife or most of my sports photography given the current lens set, it might very well be an interesting choice for indoor sports, theater, and wedding photography, where the 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens come strongly into play. Indeed, I often want speed in indoor sports more than outdoor, mostly because I'm generally much closer to the action. Of the sports Sony shows in their examples on the product pages, hockey comes to mind as the one place where I'd be most interested in seeing how the A9 does. That outdoor climbing shot? Not so much. (Oh, and the golf shot they posted? Wrong. You don't need silent shooting to take that shot, and I'll bet it wasn't even taken with an A9.)

The A9 is an intriguing camera, and Sony marketing is certainly out in force trying to get who they see as the influencers to write about it.

Fujifilm Pro Services

Fujifilm announced a pro services plan for the GFX in the US, which will begin on May 1st.

bythom fps

This pay-to-play plan is similar to other professional services, in that it includes cleaning services, faster and discounted repairs, and loaner cameras.

There are some odd bits and pieces. Two that caught my eye are the requirement that you join within 30 days of buying the gear in question, and the fact that Fujifilm disclaims providing refunds for almost any kind of dissolution of service. Also, you Alaska and Hawaii folk are not eligible for the service; only continental US street addresses are allowed.

One thing to note: the combination of three-year extended warranty and joining the Fujifilm Professional Services is highly discounted (US$599 instead of US$798). That option doesn't appear on the main page—and I don't have a GFX camera to register so can't see the subsequent pages—so I'm not sure how easy it is to sign up for that option.

Sony Goes Further Upscale with the A9

bythom sony a9

Sony set a new record today in their announcement of the new A9 mirrorless camera. Oh, not the shutter speed, frame rate, or other stuff you might be thinking of; the record they set is in the number of footnotes needed in the first 88 words: 9 (actually 10, since they later footnote something that appeared in those first 88 words).

I always get curious when I see footnotes. Sony is making a lot of claims with this new camera, and the footnotes tell the fuller story that you might miss if you were to read the top level specs.

But let’s get to the basics first. The A9 is a US$4500, full frame, 24mp mirrorless camera that’s pretty much geared for speed. Frame rate? 20 fps. Silent shutter speed? 1/32,000 (though there’s a footnote). 241-frame raw buffer (another footnote). The A9 has dual SD slots (another footnote). A much bigger FZ100 battery that nets a 450 shot CIPA average. A better EVF than anything Sony has done previously, with 3.7m dots running at 120 fps (another footnote). From a spec sheet standpoint, there really isn’t a lot to complain about. Sony’s covered all the bases to make a top end camera. The A9 should ship next month.

The body itself seems like a slightly beefed up A7 Mark II series body, with a couple of changes and additions Sony A7 users will like (a focus joystick, which is absolutely necessary with 693 autofocus points scattered across almost the whole frame (93%), a dedicated focus setting dial, etc.). There’s a two-battery vertical grip option, and a plethora a multiple-purpose buttons on a weather-resistant body.

Inside we’ve got a new 24mp 36x24mm sensor that’s tricked out with BSI (back side illumination) and stacked electronics and gapless microlenses all with copper and aluminum wiring for efficiency. Sony makes a point at the beginning of the press release to call attention to the fact they’re the world’s largest sensor maker (“…a worldwide leader in digital imaging and the world’s largest image sensor manufacturer…”). It’s likely the stacked electronics that enable many of the speed aspects of the camera. That’s because in electronic shutter mode there apparently is no (or little) rolling shutter effect, and in 4K video mode the sensor pulls a full frame 6K data set that the electronics downsize to 4K. It takes lots of on-sensor or off-sensor bandwidth to do both those things, and it appears much of this is being done on-sensor.

Behind the sensor is a 5-axis image stabilizer that has a claimed 5-stop CIPA rating with a 50mm lens on two axes (another of those pesky footnotes).

So about those footnotes. Some are ignorable, a few are important. For instance, while the buffer and frame per second calculations are correct for one card slot, the second card slot is not UHS-II. Why camera makers think this is a good thing to have differing slots when they are constantly performing integrity checks on the disk tables on cards, I don’t know. Basically you’re always limited by the slowest card in the camera. So shooting to both cards at the extremes of what the camera is designed to do is likely to have some downgrading effect, probably mostly on buffer.

Likewise, that 120 fps viewfinder is actually 60 fps if you want the uninterrupted view with the electronic shutter. Not a terrible deal, but bragging about a spec in one place and then disclaiming for a critical use elsewhere takes away some of the excitement. Likewise, the 1/32000 shutter speed is only available in the Manual and Shutter Priority exposure modes (otherwise you’re limited to 1/16000). Note also that at apertures beyond f/11 focus doesn’t track with the electronic shutter, too.

I think it’s going to take some shooting with the A9 to really get a sense of its ability and how these small disclaimers impact actual shooting. One of the footnotes that concerned me was “25% faster autofocus" than the best A7 model to date. Thing is, I’ve never really complained about the speed at which an A7 focused. It’s the accuracy with which it focuses. Clearly Sony is doing phase detect to initially move the lens and contrast detect to finalize focus. But that finalization is coming off 60 fps data. The thing about the Sony focusing I’ve found is that it is incredibly good at a lot of things, but motion tracking to or from you tends to make for a lot of small misses in continuous shooting. Small misses that net usable images, often because of depth of field, but not tack sharp images.

Sony seems to be trying to say the A9 is a 1DxII or D5 equivalent—especially since they went so far as to copy Nikon’s Ethernet connection, among other things—but the proof is in the shooting. The thing about Nikon’s latest DSLR focus system is that it is fast and precise in tracking rapid and erratic motion. The DSLR phase detect focus design just has more focus discrimination in it due to the geometries involved, so it doesn’t need a second step to verify focus, and the D5/D500 certainly are doing focus calculations far faster than 60 fps with their dedicated sensors and CPU.

Still, any improvement from the A7rII is welcome and definitely will give DSLR users pause. That’s where the lens situation starts to become an issue for Sony, though. We’ve got a 70-200mm f/2.8, but only f/4.5-5.6 70-300mm and now 100-400mm lenses (see below). Sorry Neal (Manowitz, VP of digital imaging at Sony), but I can still “follow and capture the action in ways” with a DSLR that your camera can’t. Make some lenses and your statement has more weight.

So despite all the buzz from Sony that the A9 is a sports-shooter camera, we need to verify that it really does have the necessary focus performance, and Sony needs more lenses for that market ASAP.

I find plenty that’s very appealing in the A9 specs. But I have to wonder from all the footnotes and all the still small-and-hard-to-find buttons whether Sony has fully dialed in a DSLR-killer yet. Testing will tell. Until then, we can all just drool over the plethora of interesting spec points.

bythom sony 100-400

Besides the new camera, Sony also introduced the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens, which covers the full and APS-C frame sizes. While Sony hasn’t yet made a super exotic for the FE mount, this lens is probably right beneath such an effort, being a G Master design with all of Sony’s known flourishes. If the hypothetical MTF charts are predictive of actual performance, this should be a very good lens optically, especially at 400mm.

The 100-400mm lens should be available in June for US$2500.

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Mirrorless Nibbles Away at DSLRs

We're getting near an interesting crossroad.

In the ILC market, mirrorless as a percentage of all ILC cameras has slowly been climbing. For 2013 through 2016 the numbers go 19.3%, 23.8%, 25.6%, 27.2%. I'll bet that mirrorless will cross the 30% threshold this year (2017; for the first two months of 2017 we're at 37%, but that probably won't hold).

bythom cipa feb17

Some of that crossover is inevitable. The DSLR duopoly of Canon/Nikon has something like 20 total DSLR products on the market—a bit more if you count some of the previous generations still hanging out in inventory—but the mirrorless world is generating 20 new cameras a year. The likelihood that Canon and Nikon introduce super interesting new DSLRs in any given year is less than the likelihood of a super interesting new mirrorless product being announced. So the basic marketing message is stacked against DSLRs.

But frankly, what more would you want from a DSLR that Canon and Nikon haven't already provided? DSLRs are extremely mature products with very high quality and performance capabilities coupled with near exhaustive feature sets. Sure, we'll see iterations of these products that push them faster, with more pixels, and with even more features. But the real question is how many people would actually find those things useful?

Selling a DSLR today is a marketing problem. I'll give you an example from a different market: I have a very capable 10-year old vehicle that's got fairly low mileage on it and is in excellent shape. It suffices for all the things I need a vehicle for. Why would I want a new one? Well, the auto maker's marketing would have to somehow convince me that there's something missing in my current vehicle that I actually need or would find useful.

Not that those things don't exist. It would be nice to have AirPlay in my vehicle—though I can add that through third-party electronics—and it would be nice to have some of the newest safety changes, particularly the auto braking, lane change warning, blind spot warning, and better back-up systems in the latest vehicles. I'd love to have a hybrid vehicle, too. But have those things risen to a high enough level to get me to abandon a perfectly fine vehicle and pay lots of money for a new one?

That's the DSLR problem in a nutshell. Do I need something better than a D810? Probably not, though I sometimes use a Sony A7rII to have a smaller-than-Nikon-DSLR kit (and as I've noted, it's really the competent and reasonable-sized f/4 zoom set that makes for most of the "smaller" bit), and I'm intrigued-but-not-convinced by the medium format cameras that are appearing.

Mirrorless does add some things that DSLRs are a bit behind the times on. The use of an EVF, for example, provides a more what-you-see-is-what-you-get view of the world on most mirrorless cameras, we also get real-time focus peaking info and exposure histograms, too. All three of those things can be very useful to someone that isn't using their cameras all the time, as they're helpful feedback mechanisms that are faster than "shoot the image, review the image, change the settings, repeat until correct."

But the real issue for Canon and Nikon is this: ultimately it's cheaper to make a mirrorless camera than a DSLR of equal capability. There's no doubt in my mind that both companies will push harder into mirrorless sometime soon. Indeed, the EOS M5/M6 appears to be the first of Canon's truly serious attempt to get a mirrorless product right. Nikon can't be too far behind, though let's hope that we don't see EOS M and M3 type experiments first.

I used the word "crossroad" above and I mean it. It won't happen this year or probably not even next, but I'd guess that mirrorless will have a greater volume than DSLR by 2019 or 2020, somewhere in that range. The exact timeframe will depend upon when Canon and Nikon really ramp seriously in mirrorless and how fast they bring their mirrorless offerings up to DSLR-levels of performance and features.

Don't get me wrong. DSLRs won't go away, particularly at the high end (basically 77D and up for Canon, D7200 and up for Nikon, and especially full frame). Anything you can do in a mirrorless camera you can add to a DSLR, so the claims that mirrorless will someday do things that DSLRs can't is, I think, mostly incorrect. To some degree, Sony's SLTs have already proven that. I'm thinking more along the lines of "hybrid," where the viewfinder itself can flip between optical and EVF. I wouldn't be surprised if the 1DxIII and D6 we get for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are just that: have it both ways.

So the crossroad is this: ILC slowly becomes mirrorless as mainstream, DSLR as smaller high-end niche.

But the road ahead is narrower.

ILC volume shows no real sign of stabilizing: the numbers go 20m, 17m, 13.8m, 13m, 11.6m. They might hold at around the 11m mark this year partly because of all the delayed entries we didn't get in 2016 due to the sensor shortage. I'd also tend to characterize a fair amount of the volume we're getting now as simple customer iteration coupled with sampling. The customer iteration cycle—the time between when they update a current camera to a new one—is growing; currently somewhere above two camera generations and getting larger. The current customer sampling is a bit higher than it will eventually be as things eventually settle down and people pick their horses for the next race. I would not besurprised to find that at the point where we finally hit the crossroad, the overall ILC volume has dropped to 9m units a year.

At current market shares, that means:

  • Canon — 4.5m units a year (currently somewhere around 5.5m)
  • Nikon — 2.4m units a year (currently somewhere around 3m)
  • Sony — 1.3m units a year (currently somewhere around 1.6m)
  • Everyone else — 800k units a year (Olympus alone claims currently at 400-500k)

Given the market dynamics I mention—switch of mirrorless/DSLR dominance, smaller market—Canon's switch to automated manufacturing and now seemingly competent mirrorless camera offerings means they'll be aggressive at keeping that 50% market share. They have the cost factors already in place to do so, they now only need to show that they know how to expand their mirrorless line correctly and usefully, while protecting themselves in the declining DSLR market.

  • What Canon needs: more models, more lenses

Sony seems to have taken a slightly different approach in the past few years, moving further upscale and less worried about volume. Thus, their market share hasn't really budged much from where they started in ILC, though their profitability certainly has risen. Moreover, Sony still cameras share the E/FE mount with Sony video cameras (as well as some sensors), so they're getting bigger returns for their R&D bucks. Smart move, overall, though they really would like to get a larger piece of the market.

  • What Sony needs: a model that really breaks through and increases market share (I'd argue that is likely to be APS-C, and to do so they'll need more and better E-mount lenses, and they need to keep the price from creeping up too much)

The remainder (less Nikon, which I'll get to last) of the players are in a very tight squeeze. While m4/3 pioneered mirrorless and was the first to build full systems of cameras and lenses, the m4/3 market share has been in decline.Olympus just can't seem to budge above 500k units/year, and the financial/organizational situation there probably has them now entrenched at or near that level. Panasonic just moved the consumer camera group to the Appliances division in an apparent though unspecified as of yet cost-cutting move, which seems to indicate that they, too, are in a financial/organizational situation that's not going to net them growth.

Fujifilm is growing, but they started late and from zero; their growth has someturbulencethey're likely to hit soon. Still, of the mirrorless players, they're clearly the one making good decisions that are leading to increased sales. Because of that, they're dangerous. They could break out from the single-digit market share to double-digits, and that will mostly come at the expense of Canon, Nikon, and/or Sony.

  • What the other players need: a growing market instead of a shrinking one

Finally, we get to the wild card in ILC, and that's Nikon. Nikon is the canary in the coal mine. They're a company that was part of a strong camera duopoly (ortriopoly if we include compact cameras) that is totally exposed to the market as a company. More than half their revenues come from cameras (it peaked near 75% of their revenues, currently around 60%), and virtually all of their profit for a number of years now has come from cameras. If Nikon trips up oncameras, Nikon is at high risk of total business failure.

I'd argue, however, that even if Nikon trips up on cameras, that really doesn't present a lot of long-term benefit to the other players, nor does it really change the dynamics of the industry. It would take a bit of pressure of the declining market off the other players, sure. But consider this: If Nikon were to go "poof" today and disappear completely, just redistributing their market share would mean we would have Canon at 63%, Sony at 18%, the rest with 9%. So all that happens in that disaster scenario is that the duopoly becomes Canon/Sony instead of Canon/Nikon, and that Canon becomes more of the strong-arm.

So critical to the coming crossroads is one thing, and one thing only: what Nikon does in mirrorless. If they botch that, Nikon will shrink as a player and end up, best case, as a far smaller player making just niche DSLRs that continue to appeal only to all those owning those 100m Nikkor lenses in the wild. Worst case, they get absorbed by someone else, as Pentax was in the late film, early DSLR era.

  • So what does Nikon need? A mirrorless hit, basically. It needs to be priced right (<US$1000), it needs to be spec'd right, it needs to have high quality and performance parameters, and it needs—do I hear a buzz?—a real lens set. I'd argue that it needs more than all that, too. It needs to be a camera that can tie in to social networking easily. Easier than SnapBridge ;~).

Meanwhile, Nikon has another problem: what to do about the mirrorless customers they already have. That's not a small group, though it's not a particularly active buying group these days. Still, the J5 and V3 haven't been iterated in two years, no new lenses have appeared, and Nikon has been totally silent in marketing, too, leaving the two-year old marketing messages pretty much alone while the market changes around them.

If Nikon just says bye bye to the Nikon 1, this gets added to them saying bye bye to the DL models, and who knows what else (cough: KeyMission)? Which means that people aren't going to be terribly interested in what Nikon comes up with next outside of DSLRs because it has a higher likelihood of being abandoned.

All that said, Nikon is still the one to watch. The DSLR era got kicked off by Nikon in a big surprise to everyone else with the D1, and that came at the end of period where Nikon's market share was slipping significantly and they were perceived as being "behind." I have no doubt that Nikon has technological prowess to pull off another surprise. The question is do they have the courage to take that risk again?

But if Nikon doesn't come back into the mirrorless market with guns blazing, just who is going to set the ILC world on fire again? Canon's taking the iterative, protective approach. Olympus/Panasonic made an early impact to get things kicked off, but have lost traction, despite some engineering marvels. Medium format is just too expensive to resurrect ILC cameras, and to a lessor degree, so is Sony FE.

So say what you want about Nikon. We should all want them to succeed in the way they succeeded at the end of the film era: with a surprise that kicks off a new period of growth. Or at least manages to halt the decline.

2017 News/Views

text and images 2017Thom Hogan
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