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.

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. 

Sony Reports Quarterly Earnings

Sony has once again reorganized its many component parts into "logical" divisions. Actually, to some degree, the new divisions make more sense than any previous organization they've used. 

The net result, however, is to bury some key data deeper away from where most can see it. Both image sensors and cameras are affected by this. Image sensors now are in a unit called Imaging & Sensing Solutions (I&SS), while cameras now go into a unit called Electronic Products & Solutions (EP&S). The former isn't much more than a name change that places a greater emphasis on imaging (formerly the group was called Sony Semiconductor). The latter buries still cameras further from direct observation because they're now lumped with TVs, audio and video equipment, and mobile communications (plus some miscellany). 

You have to go deeper in the published materials to find out what might be happening in cameras. It's a bit different than the completely rosy picture that Sony Marketing and the Fanbois (sounds like a band name) have been trumpeting:

  • Dollars taken in: down 11.4% compared to last year's same quarter.
  • Dollars taken in: up 21.6% from the dismal previous quarter.
  • Unit volume: down 20% compared to last year's same quarter.
  • Unit volume: up 33% from the dismal previous quarter.

As I (and almost no one else) reported before, Sony camera sales were not at all immune from the January to March 2019 slump in the camera market. You can see that clearly in their numbers if you know where to look. Sales rebounded in April to June 2019, but not back to last year's numbers. As well as Sony has been doing—particularly in full frame—they are not immune from market contraction.

Unfortunately, it's now impossible to tell from the quarterly financials what's happened at deeper levels, like camera inventory, R&D investment, and so on, because those numbers are now all consolidated for all the units within EP&S.

One small tidbit from the financials: the image sensor fabs are 100% booked. This is a bit of a problem for cameras, actually. Even if there were demand that suddenly propelled camera sales upward, it would be difficult to fulfill it. I'm pretty sure there's a built-in contraction expectation in Sony Semiconductor's—uh, excuse me, I&SS's—production of the larger sensors going into dedicated cameras. The use of more than one image sensor in modern smartphones is what is driving the fab utilization, as is industrial and automobile image sensor usage.

Mirrorless Notes

Some random notes about mirrorless at the moment.

Strategy. At the A7Rm4 introduction, Sony did their usual data-less graph showing that Sony was number one in full frame market share (units) and sales (dollars) in the US from October 2018 to May 2019. That's for both DSLR and mirrorless together (e.g. all full frame cameras).

When I say data-less, there's no scale on the graph. You could be #1 and have 34%, another competitor 33%, and the third competitor 32%, after all. Indeed, the situation seems to be something closely akin to that, at least here in the US. 

But this got me to thinking about strategy. Nikon clearly is operating on a different strategy than Canon and Sony. Nikon has for some time now been trying to manage contraction. Their clear goal seems to be to try to keep as many dollars and as much margin as possible while letting go of their previous market share strategy. 

I made an analogy a few years back that Nikon was still on the accelerator despite the fact they were entering a hairpin curve at the end of the straightaway. Well, they somehow managed the turn, but now they're not really trying to accelerate again as they're afraid of the turns ahead. 

At this point, it appears that Nikon has sold over 100k mirrorless full frame cameras, and I can see from my book sales that this has been a relatively constant demand (e.g. no big spikes, no big dips over the entire period). D850 sales seem to be doing okay, but on a slow decline. D610 and D750 sales have softened considerably. Overall, Nikon seems to be taking in only slightly less money than last year, and at good margin. In other words, they probably believe their strategy is working.

Sony has always had aspirations to beat Canon. That first showed up in statements from executives when Sony bought the Konica/Minolta assets back in 2006. But for a long time, Sony didn't have a cohesive strategy of how to get there. Give Sony full credit for figuring it out and iterating their way to where they are today. At least for full frame. 

Canon, frankly, seems in a bit of a panic. There's a disorganization to their efforts that's clear when you analyze their product line management. I've outlined this before (M doesn't lead to R, R cameras and lenses mismatch, and much more). 

What surveys are showing me is this: a lot of folk are still waiting. They wonder when Canon's strategy will become clearer, or Nikon will extend beyond two models. Or they're waiting to see some perceived problem fixed (e.g. Canon dynamic range and lack of IBIS, or Nikon 3D Tracking AF). 

The problem with both Canon's rushed strategy to hold Sony off and Nikon's strategy to just micromanage their contraction is that neither helps those folk still waiting to make decisions. In the absence of that, the only clear strategy at the moment is Sony's, and that's continuing to give Sony solid short-term success. 

Thing is, short-term success has a tendency to turn into long-term success. So Canon has to worry that Sony might stay ahead of them in full frame sales, and Nikon has to worry that they might get relegated to third place in a three company race (the three combine for almost three-fourths of all cameras made, and an even higher percentage in full frame). 

Lenses. Hmm, I just looked at my calendar. Five months left in the year. Four promised Nikon Z lenses left to be delivered in the year. Does this mean we get one big dump or a lens-of-the-month drop? 

Canon R is much the same way. Four more lenses promised for 2019, and five months to do it. Going back to strategy, these are all high-end lenses for the two lower-end cameras Canon has produced to date. So the mismatch seems like it will extend for awhile unless there's a high-end body that comes out this year (I'm not betting on it; early 2020 seems more likely).

Timing. Let's face it, most people don't use their cameras all the time, and the majority of people generally buy cameras only at certain times of the year. 

In terms of shooting, it's generally events that drive buying. The big event at the moment, of course, is "summer vacation." 

This year I've been hearing from a lot of people about missed opportunities. One place that's easy to see is with the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF lens (yes, a DSLR lens, but it also works fine on the mirrorless cameras). We're just about to get to the point where supply is high enough for that lens that you'd be able to find it (somewhere) in stock pretty much on demand. The backorder list has cleared at many dealers. 

The problem, of course, is that here in the US we don't do the European thing (where August is vacation month). In the US vacations spread out between Memorial Day (end of May) and Labor Day (start of September). That means that a lot of folk that wanted a 500mm for their vacation couldn't get it in time. Guess what's going to happen with demand? ;~)

This isn't the only "miss." To some degree, the A7Rm4 is another miss, as it doesn't appear until after the vacation season. The net effect of announcing it in the vacation period is FUD (e.g. people won't buy another high-megapixel camera until they see what that Sony one does). 

Having worked in tech for so long, I know that hitting target dates is always troublesome. You often get into "take out features/performance" decisions or you are late and you miss your target date. Couple that with the fact that sometimes building new manufacturing capacity (or changing it) can also put deliveries below where you want them, and you have the reason why product managers get gray hair early. 

I'm going to turn this around, though. You know your buying season. Some of you try to do upgrades before a big vacation—say an African safari—or at certain times of the year (birthday, mother/father's day, graduation, or Christmas). 

The thing you have to do is discount the "coming soon" stuff (ignore the FUD). When you're making buying decisions, you have to make it on what's actually available. That sometimes means that you won't be at the leading edge of tech, but if you haven't figured it out yet, you need to recognize this: tech keeps moving. Incessantly. Relentlessly. Constantly. It is impossible for anyone to buy perfectly on each tech change, and each tech change tends to be incremental, anyway. (Well, okay, if you're in the 1%, maybe you can buy on every change, but you won't stay in the 1% if you constantly churn money that way.)

Moreover, I'd say you need some time before an event or vacation to get to know your new gear before relying upon it. Thus, you shouldn't buy a new lens at the end of June for a vacation starting in early July. And definitely not a new camera.

In a perfect world, the camera companies would be dropping all their new gear in two periods: February to April (for the mother/father's day, graduation, and early vacation crowd), and September/October (for the holiday buying crowd).

Wait, why not August to October? I've written about that before: Europe is on vacation in August and not paying attention to product announcements, and the same is true here in the US through Labor Day; other areas of the world have slightly different timing, but we're talking about nearly two-thirds of the serious camera buying market here.

To some degree, the camera companies do target those periods. They just miss sometimes. That's okay. In two year's time, they'll be another drop that advances technology some more. 

I've long suggested that you upgrade your camera every other iteration (e.g., for the longest continuous line that's easy to describe, that would have been D70, D90, D7100, D7500, but not D80, D7000, or D7200). Obviously, when you're considering moving from DSLR to mirrorless, it isn't quite so easy (though I'd point out it goes D800, D810, D850/Z7 at the top end, so maybe the D810 owner doesn't make the mirrorless switch yet, while it might make full sense for the D800 owner). 

Too many people—and yes even the camera company marketing departments—get all hung up on Latest and Greatest (or most recent announcement). I'd suggest both you and the camera companies do a bit more thinking about the long-term, because the serious photography marketplace that's left and still buying cameras is filled with buyers that have been in the market for decades. You can sometimes make them jump to something new faster, but that comes at the expense of the next new thing.

The Train. I've written before that the camera engineering teams will simply keep iterating forever. There's always something that they can improve. Faster, More, Better. That will continue until the company stops making cameras, basically.

To those that have been updating regularly, that's a bit like a train. You rode through stop one (D1) to stop three (D3) and past stop five (D5) and are still on the train (or perhaps changed trains at the last station so you're now on the mirrorless line.

The question you have to ask yourself is "do I want to keep riding this train?" We don't know how many more stations there are or exactly where it will go. On the DSLR side it seems that there might not be many more stations left, but on the mirrorless side we're pretty much all on the first (or early) stations and seems like that line might go on (seemingly) forever.

Question is, do you want to go where the train is going?

I mention that because I'm seeing a raft of conflicting statements generated by the Sony A7Rm4. For example: "I want Nikon to make a 61mp camera now" versus "I have no desire/reason to go to 61mp."

That Sony sensor train isn't going to stop. I fully expect them to go another 20% further in linear resolution in a couple of years (e.g. somewhere at or above 100mp full frame). What I'm hearing now is that more folk want off the train than before.

Indeed, if you've been paying attention, the train has been getting less crowded over time. Back in the 6mp-12mp days every car was packed and every station platform was packed with more people wanting to board. Today, though, the passenger cars have plenty of seats available and the stations we're passing now don't seem to have a lot of patrons waiting for the train.

Just a few random thoughts in these dog days of summer.  


More Sampling is Always Better

It seems that the Sony A7Rm4 has raised the same questions I get every time we get cameras with more pixels: have we out-resolved lenses? Are more pixels useful?

US CA SantaClaraSwim 6-20-2014 1Dx 05816

Let’s start with the last question first: yes, more pixels are useful (each of the above images is four times as many pixels as the previous). This is always true if you’re aspiring to best-possible-data and best-possible-results. Assuming that all else is equal, in the analog to digital world more sampling (more pixels per inch) is always better than less sampling (fewer pixels per inch).

In theory, more sampling gives you a closer approximation to the actual real world data. This was easy to understand with audio. The classic example was to show a sine wave sampled at different frequencies. If your sample is low enough, you might only see the peak and valley values and nothing in between. If your sample was high enough, you start to see the shape of the sine wave and can clearly distinguish it from other kinds of waves.

That said, in a perfect digital camera world, your camera would take multiple images (which factors out the quantum shot noise), focused at different distances (which builds a deep focus box instead of plane), exposed at different values (providing better shadow and highlight information), and pixel shifted (to remove the Bayer demosaic aliasing). And it would do that with as many sample points (photosites) as possible. 

But what if something is moving in that scene? Well, your post processing software would have enough object recognition capability to detect the moving ones and pick (and perhaps build) the best stable view of each, while still using all the other data it could for the non-moving pieces. 

So, yes, I’d rather have 61mp than 45mp, and 45mp than 36mp, and 36mp than 24mp. All else equal. Likewise I’d rather have focus stacking than not, HDR than not, and pixel shift than not ;~)

Meanwhile, we have the resolution issue, particularly with lenses. Most people use a surrogate for resolution, and it’s a poor one: MTF value at some line width. Moreover, the manufacturers almost all only show MTF values as calculated, and at fairly low detail levels of 10lppm and 30lppm. Many independent testers find that their printed test chart dictate the maximum number that can be obtained. That all provides a number. That MTF number is NOT resolution. 

Does the above chart show good resolution or bad? 

Resolution is actually determined by a compound equation. That means that a whole chain of things are used to actually calculate total resolution, including but not limited to sensor pitch, lens MTF, demosaic aliasing, and more. 

What I tend to talk about is which of the many factors is the one most limiting the resolution capability of any imaging “system.” With the top level modern lenses and full frame sensors, it’s not the lens. Not yet, at least. And certainly not at the central area of the lens.

The real question you need to answer in both sampling and resolution is whether or not you can see the difference. I think we passed that point for most people some time ago, maybe at 24mp full frame with a 21st century lens. The 20% increase in linear sampling of the 61mp sensor over the 42mp sensor is not enough for some people to clearly see, and because resolution is a compound factor, if you put a lower cost, older, and/or lesser designed lens on the 61mp camera, you very well might see no change. 

There’s a reason why everyone is redesigning lenses. What used to be the primary gating element in the resolution equation (the sensor) has slowly evolved into what we have now, and it no longer as much of a gating element.

Think of film for a moment. While there were some strides made towards reducing grain size, there still seemed to be a fairly narrow and finite limit to what could be done. Grain reduction did not progress in nearly the way we’ve seen digital sampling increase. You could design a perfect lens and the film structure might simply be the gating element that would dictate what result you could attain. This led to lens designers emphasizing other aspects of their lenses than absolute resolution.

Image sensors for digital cameras are no longer close to being the gating element. Back when the D1 was the first DSLR at 2.5mp, yes, the sensor was a primary gating element of total system resolution.

Meanwhile, the new Sony camera has 3.76 micron photosites. We have image sensor technologies in smartphones that are under 1 micron. What that means is that we could probably create a full frame sensor that has four times the linear sampling ability as the A7Rm4! (Moving all that data quickly would be the issue that keeps you from doing it.) In other words, we have a long way we can still improve with the image sensor portion of the resolution equation. That’s why lens design has upped its game: the optical design groups—Canon and Nikon being two with a deep and wide ability here—don’t want to find themselves a limiting element (pardon the pun) in what cameras can or can’t do.

There’s a ton of emphasis on sensor importance these days, mainly because almost anyone can understand that 12>6, and 24>12, and 42>24, and so on. Worse still, many don't understand linear versus area math, and make erroneous statements about the bigger number.

Sony is primarily an electronics company (as opposed to optical like Canon/Nikon), so it isn’t at all surprising that they lead with their core and highlight the electronics (sensor).

But it takes two to tango (actually more, but that ruins the metaphor ;~). Optics have to run in lockstep with sensor capability in order to push the overall ability upwards.

Short version: if you’re not buying top lenses, you probably shouldn’t be buying high megapixel count cameras. And vice versa.

The “good enough” point for most full frame purchasers is almost certainly the 24mp cameras and a modern convenience lens (e.g. 24-105mm f/4 for Sony FE, 24-70mm f/4 for Nikon Z). Your FOLO (fear of losing out) is what makes you think you need 61mp. 

Finally, one thing I haven’t pointed out: I don’t think Sony has done anything to reduce their file sizes to the level that Canon and Nikon have. That means you’re going to be generating one heck of a lot of data if you shoot the A7Rm4. The next complaints we'll start hearing will about having to increase their card size, memory, and computer processing power just because they bought a new state-of-the-art camera ;~).

It may not seem like it reading the popular photography Web sites, but do you know what the most popular camera/lens combos have been for quite some time now?

I'll wait for your answer...

...waiting...

...waiting...

It's 24mp APS-C with a kit lens, and by a large margin. 

Why? Because it's "good enough" and far cheaper than a 61mp full frame camera and a high-end lens. 

Update: a few smart folk pointed out that there are limits in digital sampling where you probably won't get additional benefit; that the signal will be well enough sampled. My point is that we haven't hit that yet. Not even close, that I can see. So for the time being, more sampling is always better still.

The Full Frame Game is Fully Afoot

Sony’s announcement of the A7Rm4 seemed a little early—cameras won’t be available for almost two months—but that’s not totally unexpected. The full frame mirrorless game now has six players, and trying to get a quiet period where you can garner all the attention is going to get tougher and tougher. 

That’s because it’s also clear that we’re going to have full lines of full frame mirrorless cameras: Sony 4, Nikon 2 (eventually 4), Canon 2 (eventually 4), Panasonic 3, Sigma 1 (eventually 2), and Leica some random number depending upon how many times you count all the nearly alike M models  :~). 

With a standard two-year development cycle, that means that we’re also close to the point where we could have a new full frame mirrorless camera announcement every month. Add in lenses, and that’s definitely true.

Sony’s A7Rm4 announcement was a bit unusual in that Sony seemed to neglect trumpeting their “we’re winning” numbers (e.g. “#1 in full frame value). Overall, it appears that the announcement might have been pulled away from another event for some reason. Sony Kando 3 is coming up in a month, for instance, and for a late September release camera, that would have been the right time to do an announcement given that there are both press and public days to Kando 3.0, with a ton of social media activity coming out of that event (Canon/Nikon: have you caught onto that, yet?). But then, Sony has lots of balls to juggle right now, and they are probably planning on juggling a different ball at Kando. 

Still, get used to the whiplash. We just had the “smallest full frame” camera announced (Sigma fp) and now we get the “highest pixel count full frame” camera introduced. More quick change announcements are coming.

The Canikony triopoly sells three-quarters of the dedicated cameras bought each year. No way are they going to stay quiet now as the market continues to contract. And each is going to look for windows in which they can get their announcements out without the others stepping on them. We’re in Sony Time right now, but this fall I fully expect there to be a Nikon Time and also a Canon Time. 

Why? Well consider this: of the twelve dpreview news posts in two days, six were about some aspect of the Sony A7Rm4. If you look carefully at Google or Twitter hashtag trends, you see the immediate blip of attention that happens if you get your launch strategy dialed in with the right sites and influencers. But if you overlap with another competitive announcement, the blip is smaller.

Meanwhile, from a sensor standpoint, it’s difficult to keep up with what’s going on, partly because Sony Semiconductor hasn’t been quick to update their sensor pages and some sensors have disappeared from what’s left. We used to have 24mp, 36mp, and 42mp choices (plus Nikon made some changes to produce a 45mp variant). Now it appears that officially we have only the 24mp IMX410 (used in the Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, Sigma fp, and Sony A7m3) and the new 60mp IMX455 (used in the Sony A7Rm4). 

This is, of course, not exactly true. Sony Semiconductor will make just about anything for a price; their published list of available sensors is simply an off-the-shelf set of choices that conglomerate all the recent Sony Semi intellectual property. And making a previous sensor—e.g. the old 36mp sensor—continues to happen until no one is buying it any more. That said, there’s rumor of a new 36mp version that brings it up to Sony Semi’s current IP, but I can’t find official acknowledgment of that.

Is there something different in the 60mp sensor from the 42mp and other full frame sensors? Yes, a couple of small things. The ADC supports 16 bits (though at full frame rate the sensor only supports 14-bit). It also uses the improved dual gain mode first deployed in the 26mp APS-C sensor (used as a base in the Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T30). 

Meanwhile, Canon supposedly is hard at work on a complete redo of their sensor lineup, but we’ve yet to see what that means. The M, R, and RP use older DSLR sensors; Canon’s next technology doesn’t yet exist in a camera, though I’m pretty sure it’s still progressing for deployment soon.

Still, as intriguing as all this sensor iteration and attention is, I’m going to say this: it’s more important that the new cameras get more attention to their ergonomics/haptics/menus and to “useful” photography features. 

Why? 

Because 60mp is only a 20% resolution increase from 45mp. That’s just above the borderline of any visibility to most people. If you were moving from a 24mp camera, you get a 48% resolution increase, which is significant and should be easily seen by most (assuming you’ve got good lenses and shot discipline). But the people buying 24mp are buying it for value, while the “more megapixel” folks are a smaller base and buying to “have the best."

Overall, the pixel count numbers may look bigger and bigger, but the benefits are getting smaller and smaller. The pixel shift capability intrigues me more than the megapixel count, frankly, as when that is done properly you get noise, acuity, and resolution gains all rolled into one, and without added diffraction impacts from increasing the pixel count (assuming your subject is still; I don’t need 60mp+ for a moving subject ;~).

But think about it for a moment: with your current camera can you combine HDR, interval shooting, focus shift shooting, and pixel-shift shooting to build an incredible database to process an image from? Nope. The camera makers aren’t thinking photographically, they’re thinking about how many photons they can collect and convert in a smaller photosite. Not the same thing. 

It’s the serious photographers that are left still buying equipment these days. We need to be demanding more photographically-useful features over pixel count, in my opinion. A 36mp camera that combined HDR/interval/focus-shift/pixel-shift would run rings around a straight 60mp camera for landscape photography, for instance. Which are we more likely to get? ;~(

That said, from the announcement I believe that Sony Imaging made a lot of right decisions. Plenty of detail was paid to things that many of us had complained about on previous A7 cameras. But whether that adds up to a true step forward I won’t be able to tell you until I’ve tested the A7Rm4 this fall (because of my travel schedule, I’d need a camera in early August to do anything sooner, and that’s not happening).

Meanwhile, get ready for more announcements. Many more announcements. At least three full frame bodies and plenty of lenses from everyone in the next six months. 

Sony Adds Pixels to the A7R

bythom sony a7rm4-2

Sony this morning announced the A7R Mark IV (I abbreviate this as A7Rm4). In essence, this camera appears to take the Sony Semiconductor 26mp APS-C Exmor sensor and scale that up to full frame, producing approximately 60mp. Of course, in APS-C crop, the A7R Mark IV will produce 26mp.

While a lot of folk will get excited about the pixel production—especially since there’s a pixel shift capability for up to 16 frames, which can create 19008x12672 pixel 240mp images—the things I’m most happy to see with this new camera are much more subtle.

Take a look at that image, above. In particular, the C3 and AF-ON buttons: they can now much more easily be found by feel and operated when using gloves. Battery life has improved slightly, and the camera can be powered via USB. Sony has also beefed up the lens mount and weather sealing, including fixing the bottom plate vulnerability. The hand grip has been beefed up a bit, too.

Inside you’ll find important changes, too. The EVF is now a 5.76m dot UXGA OLED, retaining the ability to run at 120Hz. I’m also interested in the communication upgrades, including 5Ghz Wi-Fi (in some countries) and USB-C (3.2 Gen 1) that supports an FTP connection, including background transfers. We finally get two matching UHS-II slots. The shutter has been upgraded to produce less shock, as well. 

Video has been upgraded a bit, too, with the APS-C crop producing full pixel production in 4K, and available as S-Log2/3 or HLG graded. Video focus now adds Real-time Eye AF, too.

As always, there are footnotes in the Sony specifications to be aware of. Phase detect focus coverage is only for 74% of the frame. Curiously, there’s a buffer reduction for APS-C (~30 frames as opposed to 68 frames at 10 fps). So I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered other small bottlenecks given how much data is being moved around in the A7Rm4.

In short, Sony appears to have been listening to the UI and design complaints and started addressing them, which I applaud. We still have the issue of menu (dis)organization and naming to deal with, but Sony made strong strides in the right direction.

The A7Rm4 will ship in September in the US, and is priced at US$3500.

Of course, the Sony fans are out in force. I’m already seeing “this will put Canon and Nikon” in the grave posts and comments. What I’d say to that is that Sony’s “lead” is narrowing. We’ll have near-equivalent megapixel counts in mirrorless from Canon and Nikon in less than twelve months. Which is one of the reasons why I say that getting those little things right is much more important. 

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Pro Gear Revisited

Earlier, I wrote about what I felt constituted full frame mirrorless pro gear. Today I'll take up the crop sensor portion of the mirrorless market.

Professionals use their gear almost every day, they use it heavily, they rely upon it to get accurate and best possible results, and they expect it not to break despite often heavily abusing it. Cameras and lenses get transported to and from venues a lot, not always in protective cases or with care. Even studio gear tends to get pushed around a bunch as you deal with new or multiple setups.

You'll note that "image quality" generally isn't necessarily at the top of the pro's need list, though any working pro these days wants to produce images that are well above the level that the average consumer user can produce. 

While I started this straw man proposal of what gear qualifies as pro with full frame, it's time to look at the other options, as full frame isn't the only option. Today we look at the crop sensor options.

m4/3

The Olympus/Panasonic twins have been producing pro-level gear for some time now. On the Olympus side, that really started with the E-M1, while on the Panasonic side I tend to feel that started with the GH2. Today I'd put the following m4/3 bodies in my pro gear straw man:

  • Olympus E-M1X
  • Olympus E-M1m2
  • Panasonic GH5
  • Panasonic GH5S
  • Panasonic G9

Those Olympus cameras are a bit unique in that they really will put up with a lot of abuse, to the point of using them in the rain without extra protection, something I'm even a bit leery to do with my Nikon D5 (which survives just fine in moderate rain). Beyond the overall kit size and weight savings, one reason I adopted the E-M1m2 for backcountry shooting use is the fact that I didn't have to take any extra precautions should I be caught in a rain storm while well away from the vehicle.

Both companies have a long line of lenses that I would say qualify for pro status, as well. Olympus even makes that easy to see by labeling them "PRO". I'd tend to throw a few additional lenses into that mix, most notably the 12mm f/2, 45mm f/1.8, and 75mm f/1.8. With Panasonic, there's no marketing nomenclature that I can use to point you the right direction, and I'd have to admit that I haven't kept up with all the Lumix lenses; you're on your own to make a determination there. But a lot of the higher end Panasonic lenses I've used definitely qualify here.

One question I get is whether m4/3 is really competitive in terms of image quality any more. The sensors seemed to have maxed out at 20mp, and their small size puts them at a disadvantage to larger size sensors in low light. 

I have mixed feelings about that. I actually don't mind the 20mp sensor in my E-M1m2—the one m4/3 camera I still keep in my gear closet—but only up to the point where I can keep the ISO at 1600 or less. I also tend to use the faster, highest spec lenses—even though that cuts into the smaller/lighter theme a bit—to mitigate my need for higher ISO values. I have no qualms shooting at base ISO with an m4/3 sensor. I have real qualms with using them at high ISO values. Whether your "break point" is the same as mine (ISO 1600) would depend upon your tolerance for noise reduction impacts on your image data. In general, pros tend towards high acuity, which means they don't like noise reduction.

APS-C

Okay, time to put my flak jacket and hard hat back on and hide behind the wall again...

We have three basic APS-C choices at the moment in mirrorless. I'm going to mostly dismiss two of them.

Canon EOS M is fairly easy to dismiss as not being particularly pro. Besides the mostly polycarbonate build quality of the M's, I've found them not to hold up to travel abuse. On the best built of the bunch, the M5, the viewfinder on mine detached and the entire camera needed replacing (which, to their credit, Canon did for a very reasonable fee). I also had a control snap off on one of the lower models. 

Which is a shame. Because the M5 with the 22mm f/2 lens is a very nice, small package with quite reasonable image quality and controls. My problem? Something dedicated like the Ricoh GRm3 or Fujifilm X100F seems to hold up better for this type of use, both are just as compact, and both have arguably slightly higher image quality.

Sony A6xxx models are a little more difficult to dismiss as pro. I've had some minor issues with these cameras holding up under travel stress. That's partly because they're small enough that you want to just throw them into a not-so-protective case and go. I had mount issues with one body I was using. You'll want an LCD protector for sure. The flimsy Control dial on one of my cameras got really unreliable. So the solid body frame/covering build is let down by the smaller details of the cameras, in my opinion.

But the first real reason why I tend to dismiss them from my pro straw man proposal is this: they're a bit on the gimmicky side. The dependence upon the consumer-camera Direction pad to get you access to key features also means that you have to watch for accidental settings when you handle the camera quickly and roughly. And as I noted, I'm not sure the Control dial build quality is up to rough handling in the first place. A little bit of rethink and redo on the A6xxx back panel controls would go a long, long way to making the A6xxx models better suited for high-end use.

The second reason I tend to dismiss the A6xxx models is something I harp about a lot: lenses. (Yes, I could have mentioned this with EOS M, too, but EOS M has more fundamental problems so we didn't need to drop into a lens discussion). 

The 10-18mm and 16-70mm f/4 lenses are about the only ones that fit into the focal ranges most pros would demand and that also have enough robustness and quality to survive rough use. The 16-70mm f/4 seems to have variable sample quality. Mine was right at the margins with that, in that it did mostly fine, but had some clear defects. (At some point, I plan to go back and review the latest A6xxx body, with a new 16-70mm f/4 sample, so take my lens comment lightly at this point.)

For reasons that apparently only those in back rooms in Tokyo fully understand, APS-C cameras just don't/won't get a full high-end lens set if the camera maker in question also has other higher end cameras. Way to self-select your potential customer base. Worse, that particular customer base—people who are buying APS-C to get dedicated camera quality but don't want to spring US$2000 for a full frame body—is the one that is most dissatisfied with the current offerings and has stopped buying. Pros? They'd tend to consider the Canon and Sony models "disposable" in my experience.

Which brings us to Fujifilm. Finally, some gear I can put on the pro side of the hypothetical bar I've drawn:

  • X-T3
  • X-H1
  • So many of the Fujifilm XF lenses it's far easier to list the ones I think clearly don't make the pro grade: 16-45mm f/3.5-5.6, 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6, 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8, 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7.

Why not the X-T30? Well, I'm still evaluating it, but my initial impression is that it's sitting close to the bar, not over it. The X-Pro2 is an older camera I would have to go completely by memory on at this point, so I've not included it here. I"d tend to put the X-Pro2 in the pro column, but here's the thing: the bar keeps moving, and it's been too long since I used that body in order to be confident in my assessment of where it is in relation to the bar.

Which brings up a point: this is my straw man. If "pro level" is really important to you, you should have your own bar defined that a product needs to get above. You really need to do that definition without consideration of product first. Then evaluate the product to see if it gets above that. For example, an indoor architectural photographer probably isn't going to put weatherproof in their straw man. I shoot outdoors in any and all conditions, so I do. 

The two Fujifilm bodies I identified above both seem sturdy and robust, and have deep feature sets that cater to a pro user, all with a UI that puts a lot of user control into the fingers while looking through the viewfinder. If you have to know, my current thinking is that I prefer the X-H1 to the X-T3, other than the placement of that Q button (I'd move the thumb stick slightly up, and put the Q button below it). (Reviews coming soon.)

One small issue with the Fujifilm gear is that their best, most pro-like stuff starts getting on the bigger and heavier side. One topic I need to address soon—hopefully in my upcoming reviews of the X-T3 and X-H1 or in a sidebar to them—is the fact that the Nikon/Sony full frame bodies are about the same size and weight as the better Fujifilm bodies, so the issue of sensor size absolutely comes into play. 

Put another way: what do we gain by dropping a sensor size when choosing a Fujifilm APS-C body over a full frame one? Fujifilm likes to claim that we lose virtually nothing (the X-Trans marketing), but I'm not so sure that's the case. Sensors are a constantly moving target, just like my "pro bar", so require constant diligence in keeping abreast of the what's going on by shooting the same subjects with different gear.

What Constitutes Pro?

A legitimate question is starting to appear now that full frame mirrorless is starting to flesh out: what is it that constitutes "pro gear"? 

Note: this article is really only directed at full frame mirrorless. Opening the subject up to other formats introduces additional topics that would need to be addressed.

It's interesting that Canon, and to a far lesser degree, Nikon, are going through a similar transition to what Sony did early on, and that can be confusing to potential buyers. 

Let's start back with the A7 and the original 24-70mm f/4 ZA FE lens. I wouldn't characterize either that camera or that lens as "professional." The original A7 body was missing a lot, both in features and performance, and had a lot of loose ends to it. It wasn't a bad camera, for sure, but it wasn't the tool that a professional would want to be using daily. Likewise, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens was pretty marginal, and even the step up Sony offered—the 24-70mm f/4 ZA—just didn't perform well outside the very central area. I've got a lot of very smeared corners in shots taken with those combos taken back in 2014. Not pro.

Today, of course, we have the Sony A9 and GM lenses. By contrast to the early Sony full frame efforts: very pro. Far more attention to details that make a difference to a working photographer, and far better performance. For me, it wasn't until 2017 that I felt that Sony was really producing the top level gear I wanted and could count on.

Contrast that to Canon RF. 

Oh my, the RF lenses so far rock. Some of the best optics I've seen. But the R and RP bodies really aren't at the same level, in my opinion. It really feels at the moment like I have to compromise on body to use really great lenses. I—and many pros—don't like compromises, especially when we're paying big bucks to build out a new system.

Nikon is somewhere closer to today's Sony than Canon. The Nikkor S-line lenses are quite good, a couple so good you might put them on the "rock" scale. The bodies are also quite good, about Sony Mark 2.5 or higher overall. Equal to or better than the Mark 3's in some respects, a bit behind in others. 

As many of you know, my mantra is Optimal Data. By that, I mean that I want the best possible pixel data I can obtain in the field. Obviously, lens and sensor quality play into that. But I—and other pros—don't want to have to struggle to get that. Features, controls, and many more things come into play if we want to make that lens and sensor sing the best song that it can.

So I thought it might be a good time to put a straw man proposal out there. Just what are the current truly "pro level" products out there in full frame mirrorless? 

(/Thom puts on flak jacket, dons hardhat, and hides behind block wall...)

Canon

  • RF 24-105mm f/4L IS (yes, it squeezes in, IMO)
  • RF 28-70mm f/2L (though no IS)
  • RF 50mm f/1.2L
  • RF 85mm f/1.2L

Yep, like I wrote above: all lenses, no bodies. 

The RP clearly is an entry level body akin to the 6Dm2 in DSLRs. The R is kind of like the 5Dm4 but not. As I've noted before, the R seems like an experiment in UI/UX. While many pros are using the R body, it's because that's all they've got that comes close to what they really want. Most Canon R shooters I've talked to have a long list of things they'd like to see addressed, which is generally not the sign of "pro" level.

Nikon

  • Z6
  • Z7
  • 14-30mm f/4 S (barely, and not for some people)
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S
  • 24-70mm f/4 S
  • 35mm f/1.8 S
  • 50mm f/1.8 S

Hmm, that's pretty much everything Nikon has put out in the Z system so far. With the exception of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the two primes, I'd say the rest is a bit down towards the bottom of what I'd call pro and what some might call prosumer (something we'll see repeated in my straw man a bit later ;~).

I've put this one to the test, though, shooting hired events and sessions just with the Z's. Those three lenses I mentioned are clearly where I would like them to be, the rest close enough that I can call it pro and live with it. The bodies do the work I need, though there are probably two or three things I'd like to see changed/improved.

Panasonic

  • S1
  • S1R
  • 24-105mm f/4 OIS
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 70-200mm f/4 OIS

I don't have a lot of experience with the Panasonic gear yet. I'm waiting until this fall to do a full, thorough analysis with S1 gear in actual shooting situations. But I've handled and shot just enough with these items at Panasonic events and trade shows to come to a strong enough conclusion for a straw man proposal: Panasonic is pretty much trying to be "pro" from the get go, and arguably getting there.

Sony

  • A7m3
  • A7Rm3
  • A9
  • all GM lenses (16-35mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8, 135mm f/1.8, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 400mm f/2.8)
  • most G lenses (24-105mm f/4, 28-135mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4, 90mm f/2.8)
  • a few others (12-24mm f/4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 55mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8)

Some of you might wonder why I don't put the A7Sm2 on the list: the Mark II's were right below my hypothetical bar, but the A7Sm2, in particular, doesn't really work out to be a great still shooter for most of us, IMO. Those that also shoot video would have a different opinion on that, but I'm trying to keep my straw man list to products that we pros would rely on day in, day out, no matter the job. 

(/Thom walks back out in open, takes off flak jacket and removes hardhat)

I did this thought experiment to try to get a grip around all the gear that's been through my hands lately, tying to make sure that I had some basic bar I was considering for just how good and useful it might be.

Sony, clearly, had a head start and is further along. It won't be long before I have to add more Sony gear to my list, I think. (Note there are some recently announced items I haven't really had a chance to use with final production units, such as the two long telephotos just announced.) 

I like where Sony is today. On the lens side I have no real complaints, as I can find optics I'd trust no matter what camera I put them on. The camera side is good, and what I'd call pro level, but boy are them some small things (sometimes literally, like buttons ;~) I'd like to see them address. For my sports work I'd be perfectly happy shooting with an A9. And I was using an A7Rm3 for quite a long time alongside my Nikon D850 DSLR (now mostly done with a Z7).

Nikon, meanwhile, is really tempting me. I'm actually going to try an upcoming dive into Africa solely with Z gear. I think it's at a high enough level to play with the big boys (top DSLRs), but with some careful choices, it saves me size/weight in the Land Cruiser and flight hopping. I'll obviously report on that after I've done it, with all the pros and cons of what happened. But Nikon shot high and mostly hit the target is my current feeling. My sense from the Nikon Ambassadors that I know is that while they're obviously playing to Nikon's marketing needs in using and talking about the Z's, they're enjoying that, not fighting the gear.

I'm also impressed with Panasonic. In some ways, the Panasonic cameras just feel like what we pros were used to with DSLRs. The S1 twins are well thought out and solid performers so far. The only problem? They're a little too much like DSLRs when all is said and done, as they're the biggest of the bodies, and the lenses so far also have a lot of heft to them.

It's with Canon where I'm still scratching my head. Those two RF primes I listed are really, really, really good. But I feel like they're currently let down by the cameras I have to use them on. I should say this: I don't feel like the 6Dm2 is a pro level camera, so with the RP using the same sensor, similar controls with similar performance, the RP isn't going to get me excited. Likewise, the 5Dm4 feels like an aging DSLR these days, so the R with the same basic sensor, a strange set of controls that are not very Canon-like, and similar performance, the R also doesn't get me excited.

I can't imagine that Canon would put out the lenses they did without having a camera body coming that they believe lives up to the same level, so basically I'm in wait-and-see mode with Canon, as are a lot of others.

I don't think we'll have long to wait. The 2020 Summer Olympics are a home game, and where thousands of photographers descend with pro gear trying to cover everything from opening ceremonies to sports action, portraits, street-type shooting, and more. Everyone will be touting their "pro" gear in 2020, so if something's missing today, I expect it to show up soon. 

2019 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

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

2018 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

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


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