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.

Fujifilm Announces the New XT

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

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

bythom fujifilm xt4back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Nikon Z Firmware Wish List

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

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

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

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

The Model Conundrum

The recent introduction of the E-M1 Mark III has everyone thinking about Olympus camera models the wrong way (looking backwards, not forward). Clearly, the next model Olympus will bring out should be the E-M10 Mark IV. 

But think about that for a moment. If that's what happens, we then probably have four Olympus models with basically the same sensor/brains. The bigger problem comes two years from now: what exactly would a E-M1 Mark IV (or the next E-M5 or E-M1X) look like? Moreover, does Olympus have enough volume to sustain four models all running the same modest increments of technology?

Basically, whatever you think of their current lineup, Olympus has a future model conundrum. But so do most mirrorless camera makers.

Sony, for instance, is in a similar position. With a declining market size, do they dare offer additional models in their lineup, and if so, where would they be positioned? Adding new models in a declining market isn't efficient. You need to have the right number of models for your volume, correctly positioned from each other.

So it's probably worthwhile to go through the makers at the moment and see where they are and whether they have anywhere to go:

  1. Canon — Canon seems to be settled into a four model APS-C lineup (M5, M6, M50, M100). For full frame, the pre-announcements and rumors have it they'll soon add two models (R5 and R6). The RP still seems to fit with those long term (entry full frame), while the R seems more likely to go away. Pioneers have it rough ;~). 

    Given that Canon is a market share leader in interchangeable lens cameras (ILC), I'm pretty sure they'll pursue becoming the leader in mirrorless as it turns into the dominant component of ILC as DSLRs continue to wilt. Thus, Canon very well may throw more models into the mix in the future. Clearly, an R1 (1Dx equivalent) is likely, probably in 2023/2024. I strongly suspect an R7 (or R10 as I refer to it below), too (APS-C mirrorless replacement for 7D). 

    With R models, Canon hasn't quite hit the conundrum point that others have because they have DSLR models they still need to transfer over. 

    It's the M line that seems very suspicious to me. Sustaining two different, incompatible mirrorless lens mounts doesn't work, as far as I'm concerned. If I were running the show, it would be R1, R5, R6, RP (full frame) and then using their current numbering system a new group for APS-C of R10, R50, R60, R100, all using the RF mount. But maybe Canon will define their lines as ones with EVF (R1, R5, R6, RP, R50, R70) and ones without (M6, M50, M100). Yeah, I don't like that and you shouldn't, either. That's model conundrum squared to me. You're making APS-C upgraders switch mounts, and thus open up their choice to the competition as you do so.

    Summary: Canon is not yet in model conundrum, they're in model confusion.

  1. Fujifilm — Given its small market share, I'd argue that Fujifilm already has too many models (at least in the XF lineup). Moreover, it really needs to conform model numbers more so that product generations are more readily understood. Thus, it really should be X-A400, X-T400, X-T40, and X-T4 as their primary products. I'd argue that the X-Pro line hasn't gone anywhere and won't in the future, though it is a unique camera that a few won't want to see go. X-H rumors come and go. Maybe it will return with a second model, maybe not. But I don't see how Fujifilm avoids the Olympus conundrum problem if it does: X-Pro, X-T, and X-H have huge overlap now, and probably would in the future, too.

    Then we have the GF medium format cameras: GFX50, GFX100 is probably all we need. Having that third model in there (R and S versions of the 50) isn't a big issue given the high price, low volume nature of MF, though. As is happening right now, Fujifilm is using the GFX50R as "gateway drug to MF" (e.g. that body is currently US$3500, the lowest price of any MF by a significant margin, and you can get a US$500 lens for it, too). Hook 'em and upgrade them. 

    Fujifilm, like Olympus, has probably hit the model conundrum problem head on, though. They don't need any additional models and probably should cut a few models, so now the problem is how do you make an X-T5 (and its siblings) stand out and attract more customers in the next generation? That's the conundrum facing everyone. Some just got there sooner.

  2. Nikon — Like Canon, Nikon is in transition. However, Nikon hasn't proliferated mirrorless cameras yet, so it has no real model conundrum in the near term. With only a Z50, Z6, and Z7 on the market right now, Nikon has clear room for at least four new mirrorless models.

    So let's break that down. In APS-C (DX), a Z30 that goes up against Canon's M6, and a Z70 that brings a top-end DX camera back into the mix (D7500/D500) should be givens. In full frame, a true entry (Z5) and true action camera (Z9) are also likely givens, and there's still possibly room to sneak a high pixel count pro Z8 in there, too. 

    Nikon's delay actually probably helped it a bit, because it allowed Nikon to get its strategy straight for their DSLR-to-mirrorless transition. Coupled with Z lens announcements, Nikon more so than any other camera maker is in a position to constantly be bringing something "new" to the mirrorless market, and for quite some time. They're further away from model conundrum than any other maker.

  3. Olympus — At 340,000 units a year and likely still heading lower, Olympus needs to get better at model differentiation and probably lose a model in the process. Technically, they've sort of been doing that latter bit: the Pen-F and E-PM series seem to be dead ends where "all sales are final."

    Still, that leaves E-PL10, E-M10, E-M5, E-M1, and E-M1X, the latter three of which are starting to look a lot like the same camera in slightly different variations. I'm not sure what actual problem the E-M1X solves over an E-M1 with its optional vertical grip, for instance. 

    I'd judge Olympus to be in full model conundrum at this point. Because they're not changing image sensor specs much, they don't have a low-resolution and high-resolution model pairing, nor do they really have a speed differential between models, current and past, either. So it's tough to figure out what their next model might really be. Both for us, as customers, but for them as engineers, too.

  4. Panasonic — When I went to the Panasonic sites to see how they regarded their camera lineup—yes, there seem to be multiples, both globally and regionally—what I found was a mess when it came to trying to figure out what it thinks its current model lines are. 

    Sure, the full frame mirrorless seems pretty easy to figure out: S1, S1R, S1H. That's basically Panasonic's equivalents to the Sony A7, A7R, and A7S (though Panasonic emphasizes different video features on the S1H than Sony does on the A7S). Panasonic's also now talking openly about what would essentially be an entry full frame body, too. That would fill its full frame lineup and put it in model conundrum mode for the next generation.

    m4/3 is little more problematic. Here in the US it seems like the lineup goes GX9, G7, G85, G9, GH5, GH5s, and I'm a little confused by that muddle in the middle. It feels like it should really go GM10, GX10, G10, GH6. Still, in m4/3 Panasonic has run into the same basic problem as Olympus: it's in model conundrum mode no matter how it slices those models.

    Given their volume, I think Panasonic's being ambitious with full frame and not clearly focused with its m4/3 offerings. I can't imagine that its current lineup is even close to efficient in producing sales. 

  5. Sony — Sony is easy to define at the moment in terms of models: A6100, A6400, A6600, A7, A7R, A7S, and A9. Only a lot of older versions of those clog up the shelves, too, which just makes a mess of the marketing. You want to be careful about getting people buying by price—older models at discount—because that tends to drive pricing expectations for new models downward to the point where you can't sustain profit margins.

    In full frame, Sony is in near model conundrum. It really doesn't have an entry full frame model (or appropriate entry lenses for it; no, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 is not something Sony wants to keep putting in users' hands). So, in that respect, Sony has one new model to explore. Elsewhere in full frame, not so much. The A7, A7R, A7S, and A9 define the upper end of the market pretty well these days. I can't help but think that Sony will bump sensors to make the model mix look like it's still fully iterating (as Sony did with the A7R in the recent Mark IV update). Do we really need a 35mp A7, 100mp A7R, 24mp A7S? I'm not sure that's solving any real problem for photographers. Yet that's how I believe Sony will solve its model conundrum problem: more pixels, more fps, more other things.

    For the crop sensor line, Sony has three 24mp A6### cameras that I can't keep track of how they actually differ. That's full on model conundrum, and similar to Olympus' problem with the top three E-M's. To me, Sony's lineup should probably be 24mp A6###, 26mp A7###, and ?mp A9###, and with some clearer differentiation in other features/performance. Perhaps the A7### and A9### are a DSLR-style body (EVF centered), for instance. Moreover, without updating the 35-year old—in dog and ILC years—A5### model, Sony is ceding the low-end EVF-less market to Canon and Fujifilm, basically. 

    Summary: Sony full frame is in a near model conundrum state that will trigger more megapixel increases, while crop sensor is just in a massively confused state.

Yes, I'm being harsh in my assessments here. But the reality of the overall ILC market is that it is still downsizing and the mirrorless market is not growing. Not having clearly differentiated models with clear upgrade paths is a surefire way to make the market slow even more. Why? Because the key users you want to upgrade every other generation or so will not do so when your models stagnate and enter conundrum stage.

This has been the key criteria in tech products for some time: clearly differentiate, evolve, and revolutionize, or the product line dies.

Where's the System?

The Japanese camera makers all pretty much refer to mirrorless cameras as "compact systems cameras." So here's a question: what do they think the "system" is?

It's clear that everyone understands that a system has bodies and lenses. After all, these are "interchangeable lens cameras" (ILC as CIPA refers to it). But is that it? Bodies and lenses are the whole system?

I'm going to pick on Nikon today because I know their "system" so well now that I count Nikon product model numbers to go to sleep. But what I'm about to write pretty much applies in similar ways to all the so-called compact systems cameras from every manufacturer.

Let's start with flash. Nikon punted. Heck, they even removed features.

Grips? Nikon punted. Sorry, cameras aren't used vertically any more.

Remotes? Nikon dithers and fails to stock what they do make.

Bellows? Nope, macro lenses are all you need.

Arca plates? Nikon doesn't realize that every serious shooter is using them.

Power? Missing AC accessories, missing powered-from-USB cameras.

Software? Rebranding Silkypix is not the same as creating useful software.

Workflow? See software, but also note that camera makers basically throw up their hands once you've actually pressed the shutter release. What happens after that if they support something, like SnapBridge, has marginal performance, at best.

Let's look at Nikon's original Z6/Z7 System Chart, shall we?

bythom nikon system

And that was only casual labeling. The details get far worse. For instance, while the microphones Nikon makes are low in quality, the amp in the cameras is poor, too, so better mics don't necessarily sound better. (Did you notice that the MB-N10 wasn't there? Now that it is here, what does it really add to the system? A second battery, basically.) 

Note the two things that didn't get comments from me: camera bodies and lenses (and I could have written about all the lenses that don't exist yet ;~).

Even with lenses, Nikon has missing elements (pardon the pun): teleconverters, adapters for screw-drive lenses, extension tubes, and more. They will sell you Neutral Clear Filter that isn't very useful, though.

Simply put, Nikon isn't making a "system" just because they say they are. They're boxing up some cameras and lenses and selling them as consumer items. They're mostly ignoring the total ecosystem and workflow that cameras require to be truly useful.

That's triggered a real problem for the camera makers. During the rapid build up of DSLRs from 1999 to when they peaked in 2012, volume increased dramatically, and dramatically from where it was at the end of the film SLR era. Cameras went from being speciality items that you bought rarely but augmented constantly with system additions, to consumer standalone items that were being gobbled up every generation or two as they dramatically improved over time, and available from big box and other consumer convenience outlets. System be damned, we'll just sell you a new camera, said the camera makers.

In the mad rush to 18m+ ILC units a year what was lost was the sense that a camera is the heart of an entire ecosystem, and that extending and refining that ecosystem was actually important to the key buyers at the heart of the market. A group that doesn't add up to 18m new purchasers every year, by the way. Which is just one reason why we're now falling back down towards the 4m-6m units a year level, and maybe lower. 

Almost all of those still buying in the ILC market want complete systems, not cameras micro-iterated every two years ad finitum. Yet all camera makers have mostly lost that thread. About the best we got of ecosystem building and extension was m4/3 and Sony licensing their lens mount to third parties. Hey, look what happened with that! Actual new products appeared that extended those systems (at least at the lens level). 

So what's missing in terms of camera companies extended ecosystems?

  • Flash never evolved
  • Studio lighting isn't embraced
  • 1/4" screw threads for support is about all we get
  • Sensor data is kept proprietary and must be reverse engineered by software companies
  • External power systems didn't advance, as they did with video gear
  • Filters are still things you screw into the end of a lens and cause flare
  • Communications with external devices is slow and poorly supported
  • Remote control is via poorly-coded mobile device apps now, not useful standalone tools
  • Data backup is a user problem

The issue is simple: photographers aren't the customers that the Japanese camera makers see. If they had actually seen photographers and talked to them at any length, they'd be fulfilling more photographic demands in their systems and making both the central product (camera) as well as the rest of an extensive ecosystem that extends the product into higher usability.

When all is said and done and we look back at the digital camera era, we're going to see clear and avoidable mistakes that the Japanese camera makers made. Not understanding what an ecosystem is will be one of those critical mistakes.

(Disclosure: on my resume you'll find a job title of Senior Evangelist, a role that originated at Apple and which, when used properly, has made the central component being produced by a company much more than the sum of its parts. Almost the opposite of evangelism is NIH [not invented here]. NIH is the approach of the Japanese camera makers.)

Thom Answers Mirrorless Questions

"Does Sony really have the advantage now in full frame mirrorless? Specifically, are they getting all the technology first?"

No and maybe. 

There's this strong urge to try to simplify things down to winners and losers, and the fan boys flaming the forums don't make this any easier to decipher. 

Let's start with where I think the Sony Alpha models' strengths lay: (1) aggressive sensor technology adaptation; (2) the (slightly) best mirrorless let-the-camera-do-it-all, hands-off autofocus [that's not the same thing as "best autofocus"]; (3) the A9's no blackout EVF; and (4) getting to mirrorless before Canon and Nikon. Actually, #4 is probably the most important of the four. Nikon isn't far behind with #1 and #2, and #3 is really a cost decision as much as anything else; the technology is known and available to all.

Sony's weaknesses have been in areas where they still need to play catch up to the DSLR Duo: file size and handling, ergonomics, menu organization, weather sealing, and more. Surprisingly, I see better and more flexible 4K video from Nikon and Panasonic off the same sensor Sony uses, too. 

The point of the last two paragraphs is simple: Sony may be one of the leaders in mirrorless sales, but there are still many things that they need to improve in their products. I'm impressed at how much Panasonic got right in their full frame cameras, and at how well Nikon did out of the box with their serious mirrorless endeavor (the Z6/Z7 twins). Canon still seems to have been less focused and is still casting about, though rumors and the just pre-announced R5 suggest this is about to change. 

Thing is, every mirrorless camera maker has a different To Do List they need to aggressively keep pecking away at. Technology is moving fast, the overall camera market is collapsing fast, market shares are shifting, and the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition is now in full swing. You can't sit still with that much happening. The heart of the digital camera market has changed from a still growing but mature one (2005-2012 DSLR) to a flat, more immature one (post 2017 mirrorless). 

I do see Sony as being aggressive on technology. They've been hit-or-miss on that over their corporate history. Sometimes their technology pushes have been right for the time/market, sometimes they haven't been. Often they fail to make the technology truly usable by the customer (pixel shift, anyone?) But I'd guess that any new technology that comes down the pipeline that might improve cameras is going to be jumped on by Sony at this point.

That said, I'm not sure cameras need more cutting edge technology at all. They need to catch up to the current technology (e.g. Wi-Fi 5, 4G, USB-3.1), and they need a lot of polishing of rough edges. If there's to be a true consumer market for cameras in the future—as opposed to just a small number of serious enthusiasts and pros—cameras need to get smarter and simpler to understand and use, too. I don't see those things in Sony's wheelhouse (though admittedly, most of those aren't in anyone's wheelhouse, it appears).  

Here's how I tend to watch the companies:

  • Canon — I watch them because of their size. They're the biggest player in cameras, have the most to lose, and have the biggest transition to make. So far, what I see is disarray and a lot of poor, contradictory decisions. Still, if anyone manages to preserve the consumer camera market, it's likely to be Canon, so you have to watch to see if they find something that "sticks."
  • Fujifilm — I watch them because a lot of their designers and engineers actually take photographs. They also clearly listen to (at least some) photographers. Thus, they tend to make good decisions about what's important to a serious photographer. Corporately, cameras are an ego thing at Fujifilm: last century they made themselves into one of the two biggest players in photography (Kodak was the other), and they'd really like to get back to that position. They won't, but that doesn't make them unimportant.   
  • Nikon — I watch them because I'm a long time Nikon user and still have mostly Nikon gear. While they don't have the photography-centric staffing that Fujifilm does, Nikon tends to make solid basic decisions. That's because they're top-down, consensus-driven engineers. I personally don't think they have enough true customer interaction or take enough of the right risk, but if you look at what they've done throughout their camera-making history, they've always made strong centric choices. Thus, you might say that I watch Nikon to see where the center of the market really is.
  • OlympusI watch Olympus because they have clever engineers who every now and again think completely outside the box or tackle a problem no one else has thought of. That's given us things like a really strong five-axis IS approach, pixel-shift shooting, live composite shooting, and more. That said, their sensor choice (size) now has boxed them in, the corporate financial scandal put the camera group in real peril at exactly the wrong moment in time, and their Nippon-centric approach, sales, and style is not serving them well globally.
  • PanasonicI watch them because they keep making interesting and good decisions. I originally questioned the GH models due to their size, but they had a secret sauce: serious video cred (and as a serious 4K video camera, they were considered small ;~). Like Fujifilm, you get the sense that Panasonic has a lot of actual photographers and especially videographers in their design/decision teams.
  • Sony — I watch them because they start as a strong and leading electronics company, and electronics are now key to cameras. Yes, image sensors are a strong point for them, too, though I'm pretty sure that the division that makes them wants more customers than just Sony Imaging, so will sell them to anyone for the right price. Sony dabbles in a lot of other electronic areas, as well. What Sony hasn't done is to get all their ducks in a row. It wasn't until last year that they even thought to make their smartphone camera team and dedicated camera team work together. I'm not sure that has actually produced anything yet, though you think it would have. Given that Sony is the only one of the camera makers that also makes smartphones, you have to watch Sony to see if they figure out the connection.

Now for the rub: cameras are now just like pretty much every other electronics device. It's the software that's important, not so much the hardware. Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm really watching any of the camera makers to see what state-of-the-art software they can do. Sony's dipped into machine learning with their focus system (as has Olympus), but there are plenty of software issues with their cameras still (what, no lossless compression?). 

"Which should I get, the 35mm f/1.8 S or the 50mm f/1.8 S (or maybe even a 35mm and 85mm?)?"

This type of question comes up a lot these days because people are buying basic lenses again due to transitioning to mirrorless. In this case, it's a Nikon Z question, but I've seen Fujifilm, m4/3, and Sony variants of it. In most cases, the questioner only has the budget for one lens, so they ask the "which focal length" question. Particularly of primes. 

There's probably a whole lecture/workshop worth of material in answering such questions. Most often this particular type of question comes up with someone shooting event, street, or travel photography. They want a prime for fast aperture and overall optical capability. They speak in singular ("prime" rather than "primes") for multiple reasons: (1) they don't have the money for or don't want to buy multiple lenses; or (2) they realize that putting a prime on the camera is a commitment.

That last word is really, really important when considering a lens, particularly for event or street shooting. Things are happening around you. Using a prime you've basically committed to a focal length (and that's perhaps forcing you towards a certain perspective, too). Whatever happens in front of you, you're going to photograph with the focal length that's on your camera, because if you have to change lenses, you very well may miss the moment you wanted to capture. 

Which is one reason why people buy zoom lenses ;~). 

When people ask me about a particular focal length versus another, they're usually not talking about how sharp the 35mm is versus the 50mm, for example, even though they sometimes phrase it that way. They're really trying to decide on what to commit to in terms of angle of view and perspective.

I can't actually answer that question for you—again, "should I get the 35mm or the 50mm?"—because my photographic style is different than yours. 

So here's a thought: take your zoom out, tape it at one of the focal lengths you're considering and shoot with it for an hour or more. Now tape it at the other focal length and repeat. I'll bet you know the answer to your question now ;~).

"What does mirrorless still need to tackle?"

That's an overly broad question, so I'm going to to isolate it to just the image sensor for now, since that is the key component that enables mirrorless photography. I see several key areas that need addressing:

  • Less rolling shutter — the "electronic" shutter of most mirrorless cameras still has a long way to go before it matches what the mechanical shutters do with motion. Completely losing the mechanical shutter is a likely desired goal of the camera makers, as it reduces costs and complexities. But to get there we basically need a global shutter, not just that faster rolling shutter we also haven't yet gotten. Global shutters unfortunately produce extra electronic noise in their current forms, so you'd lose dynamic range capability, which is the opposite of what most of us want. 
  • Flash with silence — a global shutter would solve the problem here (though see above), but we could also just use better syncing of light output with image sensor timing when an electronic shutter is used to keep the camera silent. That may mean a redesign of how "flash" works, much like we got with things like Nikon's Auto FP flash for DSLRs.
  • Two axis phase detect — Olympus does both horizontal and vertical discrimination in their on-sensor phase detect, but that is currently done with fewer actual sensing points. Canon sort of gets this from their dual-pixel approach (all pixels do phase detect, though I think they're all oriented the same). Nikon and Sony are highly sensitive on the long axis, but not very sensitive on the short axis. I suspect we have a ways to go before we get everything out of phase detect on sensor that we can.
  • More true monochrome options — Bayer filtration reduces overall resolution due to the demosaic involved, plus less light reaches the photo diodes. Those of us that work in B&W from time to time really want more cameras like the Leica M Monochrom, which drops the Bayer filtration and gives us both benefits out of the same sensor and camera.

Note that I didn't say "more dynamic range" or "more pixels." Frankly, I don't need either at the moment, though I certainly wouldn't reject it if given more. I somehow doubt you need more, either. Right now both DR and pixel count are becoming more about bragging rights than actual need ("my car has a V12...").  

And Now in Development, the R5

bythom canon r5

The old development announcement strategy seems to be en vogue these days as the duopolists try to turn their big boats and use FUD* to keep people from jumping ship. Today, we get an announcement about the Canon R5. 

Basically, the rumored specs seem to have been right. The upcoming R5 looks to be Canon's serious 5D update in mirrorless clothing:

  • Sensor-based IS
  • New 8K video capability in newly designed sensor
  • 20 fps burst capability with electronic shutter, 12 fps with mechanical
  • Dual card slots 

Not a lot else was announced about the upcoming camera, though. The photos show an articulating display, a thumb stick next to an AF-On button, the return of the rear vertical dial, and basically a more DSLR-like design/style than the original R. The new sensor has been rumored to be 45mp—which lines up well with the 8K capture—though there's no confirmation from Canon of that.

If the R5 weren't enough to FUD about, Canon also teased a 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 L lens (there's that f/7.1 again!), as well as 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. Moreover, the FUD is vague in date ("release during 2020"), though Canon did say that samples of all the FUD products will be on display at WPPI in Vegas and CP+ late this month. Given that, you'd have to guess late spring deliveries. 

I should point out that it's interesting that both Canon and Nikon are now consistently bundling DSLR announcements with mirrorless announcements, and vice versa (Canon also announced the Rebel 8i DSLR). Both companies appear to be trying to say that you can have it your way. Of course, so far the nuance gets in the way of that: the current Canon RF products aren't the same as the DSLR products (e.g. R versus 5DmIV, though the upcoming R5 seems to suggest that we'll get there), and even in Nikon's world they're not exactly equivalent (e.g. Z6 versus D780 or Z7 versus D850). 

*FUD = Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. It's a form of marketing that attempts to get people from buying competitor products because "it's coming..."

Olympus Announces the Mark III E-M1

Olympus is now giving you basically three choices of the same camera (E-M1, E-M1X, E-M5). Yes, there are some clear differences between the three, but Olympus is cutting things pretty slim and reusing a lot of the same parts and technology.

bythom oly em1iii

In some ways, that's good. Someone looking for a solid 20mp m4/3 DSLR-style camera with a deep feature set can pick the lower cost version with lessor construction, lighter weight, and some features missing (E-M5 m3), or the original high-end market camera in its latest iteration (the E-M1 m3), or a version of the same with an integrated vertical grip (E-M1X).

The question that comes up is this: does Olympus have enough volume to justify this three-similar-cameras approach? I'll address that some more in a bit, but first, let's get to the details of the latest camera. 

The E-M1 m3 differs from its predecessor in these ways:

  • TruePic IX processor has dual quad-cores (up from one)
  • IBIS has increased sensitivity to 7 stops CIPA (7.5 with some lenses)
  • 50mp handheld high-res shot feature
  • The focus system has been reworked to add eye detect, performs better
  • A thumb stick has been added for positioning the focus cursor
  • Focus wrap-around is now allowed when moving the cursor (can be turned off)
  • Face/Eye recognition has been improved, and includes face selection
  • Starry Sky AF has been added for astrophotographers trying to focus at night
  • Live ND has been added (basically multiple exposure, first in the E-M1X)
  • The shutter is now tested to 400k activations, up from 200k
  • 1080P at 120 fps
  • Electronic IS for video in addition to IBIS
  • OM-Log400 is a new style for video shooting
  • View Assist restores full color gamut to BT.709 on display when using Log
  • Camera and lens firmware can be updated via mobile app (OI.Share)

The good news for E-M1 m2 users is that the cheese hasn't moved (e.g. controls), and we get a new piece of cheese (thumb stick). 

I include the full list of changes here for a reason: are these enough to get E-M1 m2 buyers like me to pony up US$1800 for the m3? And how many of those that were waiting for a new camera with many of these features have already bought an E-M5 m3 or E-M1X? That's a good question, I think. It's not a question of whether the E-M1 m3 has a nice complete feature set or high performance. It's whether there are enough folk in the pool willing to swim to the bar for another drink. 

I note that a lot of Oly users are already calling this new camera the E-M1 Mark II Mark II. I'm not sure that's fair. Specifications alone do not make a complete statement about a camera. Back when the Nikon D810 came out, a lot of people were disappointed because, on paper at least, it didn't seem like anything much more than a warmed over D800E. In actual practice, the changes were well considered, more subtle and deeper than could be seen on a spec page, and which made the D810 a clearly better camera than the D800E. 

So I caution people to get too caught up in the specification differences without actually handling and shooting with the new camera. That's something I'll be getting around to later this spring, so I'm going to try to reserve my own judgment here for now.

Still, we have three pretty similar cameras at different price points. The E-M5 m3 body is US$1200. The E-M1 m3 body is US$1800. The E-M1X body is US$3000, though it's been discounted to US$2500 recently. Those are expensive bar drinks for the small sensor camera pool partier, and I'm not sure the changes in ingredients between the drinks justify the price levels. Which also means they're less likely to attract new-to-m4/3 customers. 

So, the basic question is "who will be buying the E-M1 m3 and why?" The answer I keep coming up with is "fewer and fewer people, and because they're loyal to Olympus." 

Aside: Many are bemoaning the fact that Olympus hasn't gone to a BSI sensor. After talking with engineers for a bit about this, I've personally come to the conclusion that BSI wouldn't amount to much, if any, image quality benefit for Olympus. There are quite a few reasons for that, but one key one is telecentricity. The Olympus cameras and lenses have all been designed to present light to the sensor at near perpendicular from the beginning. Any benefit from BSI's increased fill factor would be minimal with a sensor of this size, and the thick filter stack in front of the sensor on Olympus cameras means that you wouldn't get clear benefits from non-telecentric light. As I wrote when Nikon (and Sony) went to BSI for full frame, the real reason for that wasn't image quality, it was more to do with bandwidth. Reversing the sensor and putting the data/power lines below the photo diode layer allows for you to do things that move data faster.

Because of diffraction recording impacts, we probably also don't want more pixels on the m4/3 sensor size, either.

So I'm finding that Olympus has engineered themselves into a corner, at least concerning image sensor. 

Along with the E-M1 m3 Olympus announced the 12-45mm f/4 Pro lens, a somewhat smaller and lighter option than the f/2.8 Pro version, and a bit smaller than the Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 size, too.

Lenses Let Through Less Light

One trend we're seeing in mirrorless is that the transmission properties of a whole breed of lenses are getting worse.

First off, we have everyone designing zoom lenses that are slowly sneaking another third or two-thirds of a stop less light transmission at the long end. Instead of f/4-5.6 as a common aperture capability we now get f/4-6.3, or in the case of Canon's latest, even an f/4-7.1. What happened to f/3.5-4.5, Nikon? And where did f/4-5.6 go? 

Meanwhile, because vignetting can be "corrected" after the fact, I'm seeing lenses with more than two and in some cases more than three stops of light suppression at the corners. You can't perfectly correct vignetting to start with, and most of the makers provide "corrections" that are more like "this is what the lens would be like if designed it the old way." 

So out there in the fringes of our images when we zoom in these days, it could be f/16 land in terms of the amount of light that got through to our pixels. Wide open. 

Perhaps the camera makers don't think we notice this. We do. Even a really good image sensor isn't going to make my image corners pull out noise-free data if this trend continues. 

Ah, but it's only a third of a stop, Thom (or two-thirds in Canon's case). Funny thing is, we have plenty of enthusiasts who are begging for a third of a stop more dynamic range. Now they'll need two-thirds (or a full stop) to be happy ;~). 

Of course, these lenses are being foisted off on the less suspecting consumer, so what do we care? Oh wait, the Sony 200-600mm is an f/6.3 at everything past 300mm. So bird and athlete watchers now get a third of a stop less lens, too.  

Don't get me started about t/stops on these lenses, either. On some of the more consumer lenses I've seen some t/stop creep, too. 

I'm not a big fan of convenience lenses, which is where most of the lenses I allude to fall. But the practice is starting to encroach on focal ranges I might actually want to use. 

I've written it before and remind you of it now: a complete lens set consists of:

  • Fast primes (e.g. f/1.2 or f/1.4 these days, and 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm)
  • Smaller, modestly fast primes (e.g. f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8 these days, and 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 105mm)
  • Fast zooms (e.g. f/2.8 at 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm)
  • Smaller, modestly fast zooms (e.g. f/4 at 14-24mm, 24-70/105mm, 70-200mm)
  • A couple of convenience lenses

What Nikon's 24-200mm f/4-6.3 and Canon's 24-105mm f/4-7.1 tell me is that they think they are going to be selling a lot of low-end full frame mirrorless cameras. Maybe. 

I find it amusing that the company that started the whole consumer convenience zoom thing, Tamron, has moved on from that original 28-200mm idea to producing a set of f/2.8 zooms and macro f/2.8 primes for the Sony FE mount. Go figure.

The Nikon Z System, Almost Two Years In

Back in fall 2018, the Nikon Z-mount mirrorless introduction caused a lot of questions to be asked, but not necessarily answered. After all, Nikon had previously dumped their earlier mirrorless system, the Nikon 1. Thus, there were serious questions about commitment and likely success. 

It’s time to relook at some of those questions and also hold Nikon to task on a few things.

First off, Nikon did the right thing by announcing a lens road map with the system, a first for them (the Nikon 1 did not have a road map). Moreover, Nikon has pretty much held to that road map and has now extended it further, building confidence that they are truly committed this time. Given that these Z lenses are not just new optical designs, but also mechanically different, the short delays on a couple of the new lenses we can live with. That’s because the results speak for themselves: every Z lens made so far has turned out to be quite good, maybe even exceptionally good. 

So the lens commitment from Nikon not only seems to be there, but it is rolling along quite nicely and being rounded out with mostly good decisions about focal lengths, with only a couple of exceptions. Optical performance has been excellent, too.

The exceptions. (Everyone get ready to chant…) 

Well, "buzz buzz" is back. ("buzz buzz" is the annoying sound I make in Nikon's ear when they neglect a lens set.) 

The Z50 is a really nice small travel camera, but all we can see right now are three lenses for it (two already out). Nikon—like Canon and even Sony to some degree—is in denial about the lower end market. The best target buyer of a Z50 is an existing, sophisticated Nikon user looking for a carry everywhere camera. 

Example: for my work the full frame Nikons are my go-to cameras. Literally, there’s nothing I can’t do with them. But I don’t always want to carry a five pound camera and lens hanging off my neck, let alone walk around with a big 30 pound plus backpack. The Z50 and kit lenses packs (densely) into a very small bag I can stuff in my briefcase, leave on the car seat, or sling from my shoulder. But that only gets me from 24-375mm coverage in slow aperture lenses. 

Missing completely is any indication that Nikon will make a DX wide angle zoom. Or any wide DX prime. Or any fast aperture DX lens. Buzz, buzz. Again. Not that Nikon is alone in this problem. Canon’s making a slightly different mistake with their M lenses, but has a lot of buzz buzz going on, too. 

Both companies simply can’t compete against the full crop sensor lens lineups of Fujifilm or m4/3, and the fact that they can’t means that they think the Z50 (or M) customer is that more and more elusive casual consumer, who only wants convenience. Canon and Nikon need to be especially wary of Sony here, as Sony at least has a reasonable, if not completely rationalized, crop sensor lens set. The fastest way to cede market share is to not notice what the others around you are doing and why they’re taking your customer away.

So while Nikon Z FX seems to be progressing nicely and I’m comfortable with the pace and quality of lenses we’re getting there, I can’t say the same for Z DX. That’s a mistake Nikon will eventually regret if they don't fix it.

I said “multiple things” up front. Another problem on the lens front does impact FX: no teleconverters. It’s virtually a necessity if you’re going to make a 70-200mm ;~).

I’m pretty sure that there’s some bean counter like product manager sitting in Tokyo looking at the Nikon Z lens road map (!) and then saying: “what do we need a TC for, the only thing anyone would put it on is the 70-200mm. Let’s just sell that customer a 100-400mm.” Dear lord. If this is even close to an accurate portrayal, it just means that Nikon continues to miss a key point: you’re in a consumer business and what the customer wants, the customer wants. Even if they don’t buy it! 

Nikon is a company that grew in the photography business due to word of mouth and perception. Every time that Nikon management gets distracted and looks at cost cutting, efficiency, or tries to expand further into truly consumer products (low end), they seem to forget that. I generally don’t toot my own horn, but just how many potential Nikon customers does Nikon think I’ve stopped from buying by writing something negative about what they’re doing? And I’m just a small, but influential blip on the Internet. Word spreads fast from multiple “informed” sources these days. 

Which brings me to focusing. Not of lenses. Of messaging. Nikon completely lost control of public perception with the Z cameras focus abilities at launch. Completely. One of the biggest marketing failures I’ve seen from them, and I’ve seen plenty. 

By trying to get viral impressions out fast, Nikon dipped into the “I can assess a camera in an hour or two” YouTubers. Well, I’ll say this: you get what you sow. There was some nuance that needed to be navigated on the Z launch when it came to focus performance. Sony was several years in with getting their AF fully up to speed. If you don’t believe me, pick up one of those cheap original A7’s that still can found new in some places (or get a cheaper used one). Not so great, and far worse than a Z6 or Z7. Okay, how about the A7 m2? Better, but still had a lot of issues and not as good as a Z6 or Z7. It wasn’t until the A7 m3 that Sony dialed things in.

So where did the Z6 fit into the picture when it came out? I’d say somewhere between the m2 and m3 Sony. Where is it today with the 2.x firmware update? I’d say equivalent in all ways except for Nikon’s silly OK button insistence with 3D Tracking.

I’m pretty sure that the 2.0 firmware update was known to be coming by Nikon when they launched the Z6 (and Z7). In other words, they knew that they’d get tagged on face/eye recognition, and were still working on it. If they had done any real customer testing, I’m pretty sure they would have also known that pressing OK is not okay. 

Which brings me to the underlying problem (other than just being bad at marketing): Nikon really needed more than lens road map. They needed (and still need) a product and feature road map. 

This hesitancy to tip your hand via road maps isn’t actually doing them—or any other camera company—any good in a declining market. They fear that the products on the shelves won't sell, but they're not selling anyway. I’ve written it before, I’ll reiterate it again: your most likely future customer is your existing customer. We’re fully in an upgrade-driven market now, not a “see our killer features that the competitor doesn’t/won’t have” one. Nikon (and Canon) built a legacy inertia with 100m+ lenses, flashes, and other accessories that people don’t really want to have to completely replace just to move to a new type of camera (i.e. mirrorless). 

What an existing Nikon user wants from Nikon is this: a solid idea of where they’re going and that they’ll be able to match competitors. 3 cameras and 23 lenses aren’t enough to say that. This devoted and coveted system user wants to be able to better plan and estimate their upgrading. 

I’m one of those who believe that DSLRs still have life to them. Indeed, I’d tend to say that the D780 is almost there: all it needs to keep DSLRs in people’s minds is a flip-down or overlay EVF in the optical viewfinder. At that point, it would be a near perfect hybrid of what’s best about DSLRs and what’s best about mirrorless. Would I pay more for that? Yes, within reason. And such a product would be 100% within Nikon’s reputation for legacy support, keeping those tens of millions F-mount lenses they spent so much time making dominant still relevant.

Thus, I’d have been strongly tempted to make a product/feature road map if I were Nikon. It doesn’t have to be detailed, and you can still hold back some surprises, but something like this:

DSLRs — The following cameras will be updated to our current DSLR/mirrorless standards: D5, D850, D750, D500, D7500. Other DSLR models may be updated if demand warrants it. [By putting that last bit in, you’re almost certainly telling people to pick something else, so demand won’t be there ;~]
Mirrorless — We will move towards feature and model parity with our DSLR lineup, allowing the user to choose between DSLR or mirrorless without giving something up.

I mentioned legacy, and there’s another area where Nikon didn’t quite get it right: the FTZ Adapter. Why there aren’t more adapters—ala what Canon did—I don’t understand. I see three clear adapter options:

  • G/E AF-S/AF-P lenses only. The simplest adapter for most current lens users. (Basically the current FTZ Adapter.)
  • D and screwdriver lenses. More complex, more power hungry, but keeps older lenses relevant. (Sells modestly, but keeps the legacy Nikon user from being pissed off by the abandonment of a class of lenses.)
  • AI/AI-S lenses only. Yep, there’s room for this type of adapter, and it would be useful to some of the faithful; given how simple it would be, this is the one that you for sure put a drop-in filter option into. (Why? Full AI support enables the full PASM exposure options.)

You'll note that having a set of adapters like that would essentially provide full legacy support back to 1979. Isn't that Nikon's reputation? Why would Z mirrorless be "only partially supporting legacy"? 

While I'm nattering about small things, what the heck is going on with flash? Yeah, we get that the red light AF Focus Assist lamps don't work for mirrorless cameras that use the blue rows of the sensor for focus. Did someone not catch that at Nikon? Where's the flash unit that restores AF Focus Assist from the flash? 

The Z cameras are great cameras—I like all three—but they're being held back by small things that are fixable.

But the question many have been asking has been answered: they're here to stay, and they're the future of Nikon ILC. The Z6 and Z7 are essentially at parity with the Sony Mark III models, and Nikon has shown that they're still pushing features and performance into the Z system, so I suspect we'll see Nikon and Sony playing leapfrog at some point soon, much like Canon and Nikon played leapfrog with DSLRs.

The real issue with the Z system almost two years in is basically this: it's still a young, immature system in that there are too many missing components some folk are waiting for before transitioning. I'll close this article by listing those products that we still need to see from Nikon for Z to satisfy those folk that are still on the fence:

  • A Z-worthy Speedlight, one that restores AF Focus Assist
  • A high-end DX body
  • A fuller and well-considered DX lens set
  • A top-end FX body for D3/D4/D5 users to transition to
  • An adapter that supports F-mount screwdrive lenses
  • A 1.4x teleconverter for sure, probably a 2x one, as well
  • PF lenses in the Z lineup

2020 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

Mirrorless camera news and views for 2020. The stories in these folders were front page news on sansmirror during the time periods indicated:

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