A Strange Week in Mirrorless

Last week was a bit strange. Four new cameras. Four not-so-new cameras. Only these were the same four in both cases. 

Canon introduced the EOS M50 Mark II, which seemed the weakest launch of the week. Despite reading the press release carefully, it still had me scratching my head as to what really changed. One thing that the rest of the photographic press seemed to overlook is Canon's claim that the M50 Mark I was the best-selling mirrorless camera in the US so far in 2020. Yes, Sony fans, that claim is correct and comes from the same NPD retail data you like to quote from time to time.

So what was really new in the Mark II? Improved autofocus. Vertical video ?!?!. A YouTube live streaming ability (you must have 1000 followers for this to function, so most of those buying the new version aren't going to be able to use that feature short of buying a bot farm to get started).  And the one major change: an articulating LCD instead of a tilting one. Other than that last bit, the Mark II feels like a mild, video-focused firmware update, not a new camera. 

Personally, I was disappointed we didn't see the 32.5mp sensor, which would have been a real boost to the model. But, when you're the best selling mirrorless camera, why not rest on your laurels?  Yeah, that got Apple where they are today with the iPhone, right? ;~) 

At the other end of the spectrum, the Fujifilm X-S10 is an entirely new camera. An entirely new camera that seems to be in the same slot as the X-T30. But the new camera goes back to the more common Mode Dial approach, adds IBIS, and gives us a more DSLR-like hand grip. Meanwhile, rumors of an X-E4 that would also sit in the same price point are already upon us. For some reason, Fujifilm seems to want diversity around the US$1000 body-only price point. This is, of course, good for the consumer who wants choice, but I fail to see how it's good for Fujifilm. 

Again speaking personally, I'd rather see Fujifilm just pick and refine four bodies—we're at seven current APS-C bodies—and focus more energy on lenses, particularly 100mm and beyond. Yes, I know a 70-300mm is coming (announced with the X-S10 as an update to the lens road map). But if Fujifilm really wants to grab those Nikon D500 and Canon 7D Mark II users while staving off the full frame crowd, they need much more action in the telephoto lens game.

Thus, while the X-S10 was an entirely new camera, it didn't really make me feel like there's something new in the Fujifilm lineup. Just another variation. 

Then we had Nikon with the Z6 II and Z7 II models. Which Nikon insists (cough, ain't gonna happen) be written as capital Z space number no space small capital i, small capital i. 

At first they might get dismissed because visually, there's nothing different from the (not) i models. Unlike the M50 Mark II, these (not Mark) II models do have physical differences, but they're all inside. Inside the battery chamber (extra contacts for full control on a grip). Inside on the digital logic board (a second EXPEED 6 processor). Inside under the card slot door (a new CFe slot plus an SD slot). 

Plus a lot of the difference is also in firmware. But look at Canon's changes versus Nikon's. Canon's are mostly marketing bullets only (YouTube!, vertical video!). These almost certainly weren't major user requests. Meanwhile, the more we learn about the Z6 II and Z7 II is that pretty much every change came from user requests. Someone in Tokyo compiled a checklist of things that Z6 and Z7 users complained about and began the process of eliminating those objections. 

I'm reminded of the D810. On paper, the D810 didn't look particularly different than a D800. There were lots of very small things (ISO 64 instead of 100, 5 fps instead of 4 fps, etc.), but nothing that really called attention to itself. Most D800 (particularly D800E) users didn't see any reason to update at the time. 

Then we started using D810s. And all those little things added up to a much better camera. Enough so that I recommended to some D800E users that they upgrade, which is against my usual advice to skip a generation. The Z6 II and Z7 II look like they're going to be similar: small changes making a bigger difference than expected.

That said, it just doesn't feel like we got four "new" cameras last week ;~). DSLRs were the first to go through this "feels like mild change" syndrome. Indeed, we've now had probably had eight years of that, with very few DSLR surprises along the way. That spoke to the maturity of the DSLR cameras in this second decade of the 21st century (and some lack of imagination on the part of the camera companies).

Well, get ready for that in mirrorless, particularly with full frame. In terms of overall goodness, there's nothing wrong with a Canon R6, Nikon Z6 II, or Sony A7 Mark III. If you're complaining about something on those models, you're in the 1%. Moreover, those three companies have variations beneath and above should you be either cost conscious or want "more".  

APS-C is another story. It really hasn't settled out. Even Fujifilm is competing with themselves trying to figure the format out, as the X-S10 shows. Sony's put minimal energy into the A6xxx's and no energy into the A5xxx. Canon is peddling firmware updates now. Nikon stuck an interesting toe in the water with the Z50, and it's done decently, but it's still only a toe. 

Interestingly, what I'm seeing in APS-C "success" is that the buyer mostly wants a mini-DSLR experience. The sales of the M50, Z50, and a couple of the Fujifilm X's all seem to suggest this. So does the success of some of the m4/3 bodies. In Canon and Nikon's case, they are running on a limited lens set, and that puts a top constraint on sales. In the DSLR world, Canon and Nikon were fine with that, as they really wanted the top end to buy full frame. But as new customers disappear and you're selling mostly to existing camera users, the lack of lenses will always kill you. One of the most common complaints I hear is this: "I'd buy a Z50 to carry around all the time with to supplement my [Fill_in_Full-Frame_Model], but the lenses I want don't exist."

Meanwhile, the holiday season approaches. Camera sales are still way down, and older models still line the shelves. We had a strange week, with new models that are a lot like older models. We're about to have a strange month or two.

text and images © 2020 Thom Hogan
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