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.

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