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Does Mirrorless Make You Better?

There's a misguided notion that the only reason why DSLRs are getting abandoned and mirrorless emphasized is that this is what the camera makers want to happen. To some degree, I'm guilty of adding fuel to that fire by pointing out—as far back as a decade ago—that mirrorless was probably inevitable as it allows the camera makers to take out complexity in parts and manufacturing. 

But the notion that the camera makers themselves are in full control of the transition is, at the minimum, not complete, and potentially misleading, as well. 

Thing is, a dedicated camera is not something anyone other than perhaps a photojournalist, an event photographer, or some pros with corporate clients needs. If the working professionals were the only ones buying cameras, the market would be so small that we'd have only two or three companies selling products, and they'd be at least twice the current costs, probably higher. 

Two other customers in the market are more important in the long run than the pros: enthusiast/hobbyists, and true consumers are driving the market, particularly when they get convinced they need a camera (e.g. the old Kodak "protect your memories" guilt marketing). Those two groups have far more influence on what happens in terms of moving from one platform (film SLR, DSLR) to another (DSLR, mirrorless). If those groups don't see the benefit to them, such moves don't happen. Or more likely: they are attempted, but don't take root.

DSLRs solved a clear problem for the enthusiast/hobbyist/consumer: suddenly they could near instantly verify that the photograph they took is the one they wanted. We joke about sports photographers "chimping" with the first DSLR cameras, but as it turns out the ones that benefited most from instant image review were the non-pro group. That ability was a clear benefit to them, and they started buying dedicated cameras in record numbers very quickly. That led to a dramatic increase in units sold in the first decade of this century, and probably saved a few camera makers from oblivion along the way.

The question in the headline is essentially this: do mirrorless cameras have that same kind of impact that DSLRs did? Do the enthusiasts/hobbyist/consumer groups get enough clear benefit that they essentially endorse the platform switch from DSLR to mirrorless and generate new sales for the camera companies?

My answer is mixed. Yes in several aspects, no in another. 

First, let's start with the benefit side. There have been several, though they're not free from argument as to their importance:

  • WYSIWYG — Mirrorless elevates chimping to real time. The viewfinder fairly represents the final image.
  • Size/Weight — Taking out parts also let the cameras get smaller and lighter. This crowd never really liked large five-pound necklaces.
  • Focus — Focus anywhere in the frame was new and useful. Used correctly, it gets rid of the focus-and-recompose delay.

I'd argue that those three things were enough to make the transition to mirrorless inevitable. It was a slow transition, though, taking over a decade before mirrorless unit volume exceeded DSLR unit volume. However, as more crossed over and began touting the benefits, the transition eventually gained enough momentum that the two dinosaurs of Canon and Nikon had to make the switch, too. 

But let me be clear, this wasn't an early round KO by mirrorless. DSLR users are still fighting, though the camera makers have mostly moved on. 

In retrospect, the transition point was when Sony gave up on SLT types of DSLRs and eliminated the pellicle mirror. Doing so let them get to all three of the benefits I point out above instead of just one. To Sony's credit, once that Alpha decision was made, they ran with it as fast as they could, and created a lot of marketing noise as they did. Which is how the mostly DSLR user base started hearing about the fact that there might be benefits from a new platform compared to their existing one. 

Over the decade, I documented a lot of this. I discovered Samplers, Leakers, and Switchers, all of whom had been dedicated DSLR users, but in their exploration of alternatives eventually became mirrorless users. At one point I found through surveys (mostly of Nikon DSLR users) that leaking was driving about 5% of the camera purchasing going on at the time. But 5% sustained eventually eats up the 100% ;~). The Rule of 72 says that this 5% leak would take only 14 years to become 100%, remarkably close to the time it actually will end up taking.

If it weren't for the supply chain issues going on, I believe that we'd see a faster transition now, and DSLR sales dwindle even faster. That's a bit ironic. I'd have thought that part supply issues would have just had Canon and Nikon leave DSLRs totally behind, but there's something I'm not understanding about the supply chain that's kept them moving enough parts into DSLR production that we're still within sight of the 50/50 transition point. I suspect that it's that to get back on top in mirrorless, Canon and Nikon need the next generation in parts (stacked sensors, faster image processors, etc.), and those have been difficult to get on fabs in quantity, let alone to drive down in price. But it'll happen.

The question mirrorless users should be asking themselves is this: what's the next major transition point? Nikon's Z9 seems to suggest the loss of the mechanical shutter, and I'm pretty sure all the camera makers would love to lose their mechanical IS platforms, too. Cards seem so old school in this age of moving things through the cloud. And, of course, more machine learning can make that WYSIWYG/Focus benefit into WYWITFP (What You Wanted In The First Place). 

Life doesn't stand still in technology products. If you're a mirrorless camera owner today, you're in the golden period of mirrorless: you have plenty of choices, they all perform quite well, and they all pretty much live up to the promises that mirrorless was making for you in the first place. The camera makers will continue to refine those products—but not make large advances—right up until the next platform shift occurs. 

Prices Going Up (Your Third April 1st Warning)

Sony has now added a note in Japan that they're raising prices there on April 1st (and likely elsewhere) for the A6400, A7C, ZV-E10, and various RX and compact cameras. No specific amounts were mentioned for these products, though the minimum price increase Sony mentioned was 3%. 

This April 1 price increase is starting to be a trend, though at the moment it seems to be regionalized:

  • Nikon Northern Europe is raising prices on everything except sport optics and the Nikon Z9.
  • Canon is raising prices on some RF and EF lenses that haven't already seen a price increase.
  • Leica is raising prices worldwide.
  • Tokina, Kenko, and Zeiss have also indicated that they'll be raising prices.

While the April 1 date seems collusive, it's probably more a reflection that most of these companies are using fiscal years that start on that date (though not Canon). Moreover, they all work with subsidiaries that are judged on a quarterly results basis, so a mid-quarter rise that doesn't happen across all regions simultaneously generally is avoided, if possible.

Conversely, while prices are going up, buying incentives have been going down. While each manufacturer has a few products on instant rebate or other discounts, compared to previous years 2022 has been pretty spartan in those offerings. 

I don't see the situation changing in 2022.

Well, I take that back: first, I see the trend becoming worldwide instead of regional. Second, I see demand increasing in 2022, but supply continuing to be restrained and having to be repriced due to supply chain pass-throughs. That's a recipe for more price increases, fewer instant rebates, or both. At least on the mirrorless side of the businesses. Canon and Nikon may make one last push to empty the DSLR shelves this year, but I don't think either will be making the same type of push on the mirrorless side.

Canon Goes Long With Lenses

Canon announced the long-expected 800mm f/5.6L and 1200mm f/8L lenses. Full details of the lenses are on the data pages, as usual (links above). These lenses aren’t for the faint of heart, at US$15,000 and US$20,000, respectively, so most of you are just going to say “wow” and move on to reading about something else.

What’s interesting to talk about is the way the Canon RF lens lineup is developing, and how it’s getting temporarily distorted. Of the 23 current lenses, 14 reach 100mm or better, in some cases like the new 1200mm, far better. 

Multiple factors seem to be causing this. First, with EF (DSLR) lenses being discontinued, the exotic lens designers and manufacturing group find themselves needing new product to regenerate the revenue that the old EF exotic lenses used to. Sony’s recent emergence as a key sports and wildlife platform makes for another competitor that’s moved quickly and nimbly, and eaten away some of Canon’s trusted press and pro users. Canon has been quick to shore up the RF exotic line, though that doesn’t come cheap for the customer.

Then there’s the M/RF mount duality. Clearly Canon isn’t going to take the M mount much into telephoto territory, if it decides to take it anywhere. To date they haven’t taken it into much more than just a handful of small, inexpensive, consumer-friendly options. But the RF cameras are full frame, so Canon needs substantive telephoto focal lengths to attract the cost conscious sports or wildlife photographer, among others. The f/11 DO lenses are one example of Canon’s approach there, but bolstering those options with more expensive (and far better) exotics is a bit of halo marketing, too. 

Could it also be that Canon will stay all full frame in the RF mount? The wide angle and telephoto options offered so far give them the flexibility to do so, though there are persistent rumors that an R7 is an APS-C camera. What if, instead, it’s a low-cost full frame camera? 

Canon is the biggest camera player with about 50% of the interchangeable lens camera market, and they seem to be the most disorganized in their strategic direction. But make no mistake, the 400mm f/2.8L, 600mm f/4L, 800mm f/5.6L, and 1200mm f/8L are a statement that shouldn’t be ignored. Still missing is a 300mm f/2 or f/2.8L and 500mm f/4L, but I have little doubt we’ll see something in those focal lengths soon.

Panasonic Announces GH6 — Goes Their Own Way

So the GH6 is finally here and the details now known. As you might expect from a GH-labeled camera, it has a high emphasis on the video side of its abilities.

bythom panasonic gh6

Right up front we see a surprising difference: Panasonic is using a different image sensor than OM Digital Systems did in the OM-1, with the first bump in resolution we've seen in a long time, to 25.2mp (with no low pass filter). That produces 5776x4336 images (due to the 4:3 aspect ratio), probably not a number you've seen before. Not a big bump, obviously, but this enables some of the things that make the GH6 unique.

Let's start with the video, since it's what Panasonic wants to emphasize. The big news here is 5.7K 60P and 4K 120P, both at 10-bit, plus 1080P/240. The V-Log-/V-Gamut combo is included for the first time in m4/3, as is ProRes 422HQ compression. As usual, anamorphic support is included. Dual gain ISO is present, with the normal video range being 100-12800, and the posted range 800-12800 (HLG happens at ISO 250 or 2000 base). The devil's in the details, as usual, with video, as the 4:2:2, 10-bit, and various compression possibilities vary with resolution and frame rate chosen. But suffice it to say that Panasonic has pushed the GH6 significantly beyond where the GH5s was. 

The viewfinder stays the same, though the Rear LCD gains some dots (now 1.8m). The thing everyone was anticipating—phase detect autofocus—didn't happen, with Panasonic sticking to their DFD contrast-based autofocus technology. Sensor-based IS is now specified as 7.5 stops CIPA. 

The mechanical shutter maxes out at 8 fps with full capabilities, 14 fps if you lock focus. The electronic shutter goes to 1/32,000 second and allows 20, 60, and 75 fps, but only with focus locked to the first frame. Battery life is a minimum of 330 images, and up to 850 images with power save and SD card use. Which brings this up: two card slots in the GH6: one CFexpress Type B, one SD UHS-II. Panasonic promises direct record to SSD capability is coming in the near future, via the USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 port. 

The body itself—already the biggest of single grip m4/3 cameras—grows a bit with the GH6 over the GH5, with a more pronounced hand grip being the primary contributor. That also means the weight goes up to 739g. Apparently Panasonic cameras are like American humans, and gain girth and weight as they age. That said, for the capabilities and performance, the GH6 is still one of smallest video cameras you can buy. 

Speaking of which, the price is now US$2199, and the camera will be available in March.

Commentary on the announcement: So it seems clear that OM Digital Solutions and Panasonic continue their coopetition and bifurcation of the m4/3 market. The OM-1 seems more suited to the wildlife photographer, the GH6 seems more suited to the videographer. But both can do both. 

One problem, of course, is whether or not the GH6 pricing makes sense against some of the full frame competition. Is there enough there there to hold off US$2000 full frame cameras that have near equivalent video capabilities? (Hint: probably. What no one is talking about is that the next round of full frame camera updates may have to charge more given the sudden inflationary patterns being seen.)

I'm sure we'll see more "is that enough to save m4/3" articles and comments in the near term. Technically, no camera or camera company is "safe" at the moment due to the supply chain issues. The parts shortages are forcing them all to put most of their energy into the top-end cameras that are low quantity volume in the first place. While this preserves profit margin on lower sales volumes overall, it doesn't really do anything to shore up the finances of any the camera companies. Growth is elusive and fleeting, and by emphasizing higher-end products, the mass market is quickly forgetting dedicated cameras and just using their mobile phones. 

But most of the comments I see about who will survive and who will leave the camera business are backwards. For instance, Nikon and OM Digital Solutions are often the most oft-mentioned death bed candidates. But both those companies performed the massive downsizing that allows them to thrive on very low volumes. Both are emphasizing the up-scale models, too, so profitability is there. And both have to continue to figure out how to sell cameras profitably long-term because that's so much of their overall business. Fujifilm, Panasonic, Ricoh, and Sony are different. They are massive conglomerates who have to keep their sales and bottom lines growing in order to fully satisfy shareholders. Products that dip below certain corporate-mandated thresholds for various financial measurements tend to get jettisoned, as we've seen in the past with both Panasonic (sensors) and Sony (computers). (Canon is somewhere between Nikon and Sony in all this: cameras are large enough that they can't really consider jettisoning them, but the overall company is big enough that it has to have all divisions producing growth and profit to keep shareholders happy.) 

At the moment, all of the camera companies, including the m4/3 twins, are managing to swim in the smaller pool. I don't see that changing any time soon, though I do wonder how many still-focused cameras Panasonic will produce this generation; video is their superpower, and the GH6 caters to that. 

Update: spelling correction

OM Digital Solutions Launches the OM-1

bythom om1

OM Digital Solutions turns out to be first to officially iterating its high-end m4/3 camera, now dubbed the OM-1, despite Panasonic having long ago pre-announced their still to arrive GH6. I can't say for certain yet, but the image sensor behind both models is almost certainly the Sony Semiconductor IMX472. That new image sensor is both BSI and stacked, features 3.3um pixels, and opens up a new range of "speed" options, which Olympus and Panasonic appear to be tackling slightly differently.

The OM-1 is mostly based on the existing E-M1 chassis, with a few updates I'll get to in a moment. Technically, this could be called the E-M1 Mark IV, but it's wise that OM Digital Solutions is now trying to establish its own branding. As usual, the lens mount is m4/3. 

Inside the OM-1 we have that new 20mp image sensor, so let's get to what that enables first. 

For still photography, we get up to 120 fps still photography (though the buffer is less than a second at that rate), faster and improved focus, and small improvements to a number of OMDS unique camera capabilities (such as handheld high-resolution photography). Strangely, mechanical shutter has declined to 10 fps (from 15 fps). Technically, the data integrity of the sensor is still 12 bits, but frankly, I'm usually happy with anything that has good raw integrity at 11 bits or more; as many have discovered along the way, 14-bit capabilities don't really offer anything useful above base ISO values, anyway, at least not on current generation image sensors.

As with the recent Canikony offerings, we have the promise of blackout free EVF, which is now a 5.76m dot OLED one. 

On the video side, the new sensor adds quite a bit—which is why Panasonic wanted it for the GH6—though it is surprising Olympus has stopped at DCI 4K 60P video. The video specs look a little dated for a flagship camera (LongGOP instead of All-I, for instance, though we do get H.265 compression and HLG now), and the external HDMI connector necessary to do raw video is a micro HDMI, which videographers won't like. 

Of course, all the previous Olympus IP has moved on to OMDS and shows up in the new camera: We still get IP53-rated splash proofing, things like starry sky AF, Live Composite, Live Time, and both the handheld and tripod high resolution modes (50mp and 80mp, respectively). Sensor-based IS remains at 7 stops CIPA.

There's a new battery, BLX-1, with more capacity but the same form factor as the BLH-1. The Rear LCD has increased in resolution to 1.62m dot.  We get both an AF-ON and AEL button, but most of the other buttons are the same or very near where you expect them. The command dials have become more Nikon-esque (embedded in body as opposed to sitting on top). The hand grip is a different size and shape, more like the E-M1X. These changes make the OM-1 slightly bigger and heavier than its predecessor, with a strong emphasis on slightly. 

Price is US$2199, and the camera is scheduled to begin shipments in March, making the OM-1 the first significant camera introduction of 2022. Along with the OM-1, OM Digital Solutions also announced the 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO II and 40-150mm f/4 PRO lenses, both US$899, and both about the same size and weight.

Next up (on February 21st) will be the GH6 implementation using (I believe) the same image sensor. 

So, some commentary on the news: I think Olympus m4/3 fans will be relatively happy with the OM-1. I've already noted a few saying that the OM-1 looks to be what the E-M1 Mark III should have been, and I'd tend to agree. The Mark III really didn't up performance and specification over the Mark II in enough ways to make even the more eager among us update. I think the focus and EVF changes alone will do that with the OM-1, and the 120 fps electronic shutter frame rates will attract some, though they come with footnotes and caveats. Little things, such as both card slots being UHS-II are also better aligned with the "flagship" status. 

As to the image sensor, it's again a Sony Semiconductor one, but this time OM Digital Solutions is getting some technologies that have eluded m4/3 for awhile now. BSI should produce a (very) small improvement in dynamic range, though I worry a bit about how the BSI will interact with OM's traditional thick UVIR filter stack over the image sensor. Dual gain and better read noise performance are characteristics of the current Sony Exmor sensors, and that's another small area where we might see an improvement.

I have questions about the focus system, though. Sony (and the Nikon cameras that use Sony sensors) all use row-based phase detect but OM Digital Solutions is talking about cross-type focus sensors. I suspect that the actual chip may use the original row PD pioneered in the Nikon 1 and now present in virtually all Nikon and Sony mirrorless cameras, but that Olympus has merely opted to show sensor areas as "cross." Still, this should be a big improvement over the original Olympus-style PD-on-sensor, which had fewer dedicated focus sensor positions with largish gaps. 

The real heart of the Olympus m4/3 system hasn't changed with this new camera, though, and that's a very good thing. In essence, OM Digital Solutions has modernized the OM-1 to be much more competitive with the bigger sensor players without sacrificing anything that made them interesting and useful. The OM-1 is still remarkably small, light, and rugged, but packed with technological features that appeal to many. 

The real question for me is whether the focus system has improved to the level of the current Canikony top offerings. Because the value of that small system for sports, birding, wildlife, and backcountry work will depend upon that being there. The real problem with m4/3 recently has been focus performance—both for Olympus and Panasonic—versus the technologies now packed into the Canon, Nikon, and Sony offerings. You sell cameras these days—at least the bulk of your sales—by making things easier for people, and cameras quickly get retired to the closet when they can't focus fast and reliably for every situation that confronts them. 

One problem, of course, is that come spring, all the mirrorless camera companies will have stacked BSI sensor wonders without viewfinder blackout and with high frame rates. m4/3 will be without 8K video in that contest. But it may be the lowest cost option, too. 

So, the question comes up. Chief Technology Office Kataoka-san was quoted in an Asahi interview as saying OMDS planned to launch products that will "wow" us. That word got picked up by a lot of fans and fan sites, and I think will now come back to haunt the OM-1. Is it wow? Doesn't feel that way to me. It feels like m4/3 is staying up with what the Big Three are doing. The usual geeky new thing and technology that only Olympus, uh OMDS, does doesn't seem to be present in the OM-1. That doesn't make the OM-1 bad—it's an impressive update that brings the OM line back into the mirrorless present—but I'm not seeing a clear wow. Maybe I'll see it when I test it.

From a market standpoint, the OM-1 will definitely hold serve with its core high-enthusiast base. 

Usually, By This Time...

In the last two decades, January has usually provided us with a plethora of new cameras, and because of the home field CP+ trade show in Japan being held at the end of February (or in early March sometimes), we also usually get a huge dollop of rumors by now, as well.

This year?

Canon R5 C, Leica M11, and a lot of 2020 and 2021 product that tends to be out of stock. Panasonic's GH6 seems to have had a longer gestation time than expected. CES (Consumer Electronics Show) came and went with no new cameras. Ditto Imaging USA. 

Oh, a few rumors exist. Mostly OM Digital Systems launching their new "wow" camera at CP+ in late February, and Fujifilm going stacked APS-C sensor in May at their next Fujifilm X Summit (but curiously, not in January on their X (10th) X-iversary; guess they're going to celebrate all year ;~). 

If you dig around in the rumor outlet malls, you might find hints at three Canon, two Nikon, and two Sony cameras for 2022. But that's awful meager diggings. All total 2021 produced only a bit more than a dozen new mirrorless cameras (do we count the same camera introduced with a few different parts due to supply chain issues?). Canon only had one mirrorless announcement in 2021, Nikon two, with Sony being the prolific player at five (though two of those were those different parts users). 

The strange thing is that the final 2021 numbers for interchangeable lens camera sales appear to have come in around 5.4m units (2020 was 5.3m), and that was despite the parts shortages, the supply chain, and the shipping issues that came up. The whispers in the business press in Tokyo indicate that every camera maker thought they could have sold significantly more cameras in the year had they had them to sell. Canon had originally forecast that units should hit 6m in 2021, so there was a clear shortage that impacted everyone. 

Meantime, the average selling price of the units that were sold in 2021 went up. That's clearly because the camera makers shifted to higher margin products as they started having to ration parts and shipping. Yes, it's also because the meat of the market the camera makers want you consuming is full frame mirrorless. It's not surprising that Sony shut down virtually all their APS-C production but almost none of their full frame manufacturing when the squeeze hit them. 

I've heard of things being prototyped and tinkered with from all the camera makers well beyond what it seems like we're going to see announced this year. For example, it appears that Canikony is rethinking APS-C at the moment, but not really ready to commit to anything. 

Basically, 2022 is looking more and more like the year of US$2000 and up. Nikon's good with that. They already committed to a smaller unit volume of higher end products. Sony's pretty happy with that, as they have a full line of products sitting in that range that are regularly inching upward in tech, and thus staying competitive. 

As we wait for the COVID-ravaged tech industry—other than Apple—to get back fully on their feet, it's probably a good time to just go find somewhere 6' (2m) away from others where you can practice your photography with what you've got (and what you could augment it with that's still in stock in stores today). That's what I'm trying to do, though weather and a few other bits of fate are trying their best to stop me.

So if it seems a little quiet in the sans mirror world at the moment, you're correct, it is. 

Canon Adds to the R5

Canon has added a new model to the RF lineup, the EOS R5C. 

bythom canon r5c

Basically start with an R5 and then make changes that solidifies it more as a hybrid (stills/video) camera: inclusion of a cooling fan (for unlimited 8K video time), numbered labels for configurable video buttons, separated (switchable) stills/video modes, new video capture options including HDR in HLG, anamorphic desqueezing, wave form display, and a timecode socket for synchronizing cameras. Lost in the translation: sensor-based VR and the camera gets far deeper in size to accommodate the cooling system. Cost is US$500 more than the original R5.

So what we have now is Canon offering up the same basic camera two ways: 

  • R5 — A stills-optimized camera that can perform sophisticated video for short periods in a pinch.
  • R5C — A video-optimized camera that can be switched to operate like a bulkier, sensor-IS-less R5. 

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Sony Sidelines More Production

The Sony A6600 and A7C have joined the "production temporarily halted" list for Sony, while the A7 Mark II and A6100 are apparently now officially out of production. While there is some conflicting information circulating, this seems to mean that:

  • No longer produced: A5100, A6100, A7 Mark II, A7R Mark II.
  • Temporarily halted: A6400, A6600, ZV-E10, A7C.
  • Still being produced: A1, A7S Mark III, A7R Mark IIIa, A7R Mark IVa, A7 Mark III, A7 Mark IV, A9 Mark II.
  • Unknown status: A6000.

In the US, the ZV-E10, A6100, A6400, A6600, A7C, A7 Mark II, and some A6000 kits still seem to be in (declining) stock. But in some areas, notably Europe, that's not true; those cameras are simply not available in some countries. 

The interesting aspect of this is that Sony has essentially cut off new supply of all APS-C (crop sensor) models in favor of the full frame ones. This appears to essentially cede that market to Canon, Fujifilm, and Nikon for the time being, which seems unusual from the market share leader. However, Sony is in a much tougher fight over full frame now with Canon and Nikon making inroads there, and the profit margin is better in the full frame cameras.

The question I have is whether Sony is using the parts supply crisis to hide a rethink and refresh of its APS-C line, or whether Sony has decided that crop sensor is less important than before and can be winnowed. 

2021 in Full Frame Lenses

I'm always looking for a new way to look at the year end and try to make sense of what did or didn't change. All three of the largest camera companies introduced flagship mirrorless cameras this year (Canon R3, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1), and that would be one way to look at the year. 

However, these are system cameras, and often it's the system itself that is most important, not one camera body. So today we're going to look The Year in Lenses. Canon and Nikon are playing catch-up, Sony is playing fill-in-the-blanks. With this article I'm going to restrict myself to the Big Three and full frame, but I'll likely have a different article for the crop sensor market in the future. 

Important: I don't have enough experience with the Panasonic bodies and L-mount lenses to comment cogently on them yet. My initial impression is that Panasonic is making quite good gear, but it doesn't have much sales traction in the market.

This year's lenses were:

Canon RF

  • 14-35mm f/4L zoom (US$1700)
  • 16mm f/2.8 STM compact (US$300)
  • 100mm f/2.8L macro (US$1400)
  • 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS (US$650)
  • 400mm f/2.8L IS (US$12000)
  • 600mm f/4L IS (US$13000)
  • Total Lenses to Date: 12 primes, 11 zooms

Nikon Z

  • 24-120mm f/4 S (US$1100)
  • 28mm f/2.8 (US$300)
  • 40mm f/2 (US$270)
  • 50mm f/2.8 macro (US$600)
  • 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S (US$2700)
  • 105mm f/2.8 VR S (US$1000)
  • Total Lenses To Date: 11 primes, 9 zooms

Sony FE

  • 24mm f/2.8G (US$550)
  • 35mm f/1.4GM (US$1400)
  • 40mm f/2.5G (US$550)
  • 50mm f/1.2GM (US$2000)
  • 50mm f/2.5G (US$550)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8GM OSS II (US$2800)
  • Total Lenses to Date: 23 primes, 17 zooms

Things aren't quite as lopsided as many people think. We have Sony at 40 lenses (but note my comment, below), Canon at 23, and Nikon at 20, with each having put out six full frame lenses in 2021. 

It's in the type of lenses that each put out that is somewhat intriguing. 

Canon, for instance, put out two exotic lenses in advance of the camera body most would be putting them on. Then we had two odd low-cost lenses that don't make a ton of sense with the current R camera lineup (but might if Canon were to refresh the RP and R). A lot of Nikon Z5 and Z6 owners would give up a card slot for that low-cost 100-400mm, I'm pretty sure, particularly since Nikon still isn't addressing less expensive telephoto options yet. 

Nikon, meanwhile, continues to roll with their very targeted plan of completing lines and filling holes. There's not an odd-ball lens in Nikon's 2021 offerings, and suddenly at the end of the year the Z system line looks a lot more filled out, at least in the 24-200mm range. Despite the 400mm f/2.8 development announcement that pairs so nicely with the upcoming Z9, Nikon seems more concerned about selling reasonably priced lenses to the Z5 to Z7 II crowd. This approach seems to have worked: every one of Nikon's 2021 offerings was a first day sell-out, though several are now starting to be readily available. 

Sony I can't quite figure. The new f/2.5 or 2.8G lenses all look very worthy, but of those 40 Sony lenses I mentioned, 10 of them are variations on 35mm to 58mm primes! Surely there can't be that much demand in that narrow range. Sony still has plenty of lenses that I'd argue need rework, including the original 24-70mm f/4, which should be a staple lens, but no longer is competitive. Sony's weakness now that Nikon has a body to match up against the A1 is in telephoto offerings, not mid-range primes. Despite the mid-range prime bloat, the one thing I can say for Sony is that they've stepped up their optical game from when the A7 first appeared. There's not really a dud among the recent G lenses, and the GM lenses all seem to deserve that extra letter (M for master). Well done.

Canon doesn't have the same optical consistency as Nikon, and recent Sony, IMO. Canon seems to have embraced a low-end, high-end strategy in lenses, but I'm not seeing many lenses in the RF mount that really speak to what can be done in the new mount. Canon's feeling "more consumery" to me lately, despite the R3, R5, and R6 bodies. And that impression is really driven by the lens set. I can absolutely pick out a lens set that works for the R and RP (and R6, I suppose), but what lenses really make the R3 and R5 shine? Too many of Canon's RF lenses feel either like a remake of the EF lens (so why wouldn't I just use an adapter?), or something targeted to sell volume. Consumery. That said, the 100-500mm may be the best in class, while the 28-70mm f/2 is a heavy-but-excellent lens. But all the 24-xx lenses feel luke warm to me. Very good, but nothing stands out. 

Nikon, meanwhile, seems to have "dialed up" their Nikkor game. Not that it was bad in the first place. Quite the opposite, actually. The most recent F-mount lenses for their DSLRs were all exceptionally good, in many cases unmatched, and here they've given themselves a new mount and upped their game. The Nikon Z-mount f/2.8 zoom trio, for one, is the best of the bunch (Sony's a close second). The S lenses all have something optically special about them, but even the non-S lenses are turning out to be really well designed. Moreover, the 24-50mm f/4-6.3 shows that you can design a compact (muffin sized) zoom that's low cost but still performs quite well. And why is it that Nikon, not known for their video, is the one that's correcting for focus breathing in their lenses while Sony, who is known for their video, is playing catch up? 

2022 is going to be a lot like 2021, I think, at least in terms of lenses. Canon, Nikon, and Sony will all put out about the same number of new lenses, with each marching to their own drummer in terms of what they think is necessary in the market. Only Nikon is giving us a road map at the moment (26mm pancake, 85mm f/1.2, 200-600mm f/4.5-6.3?, 400mm PF, 600mm f/4 S, and 800mm PF, plus some DX lenses). What Canon and Sony will do next year is not yet known, though there have been plenty of rumors and a ton of patents on the Canon side. 

Overall, I'm reasonably happy with where we're at in all these full frame mounts, but in the following order:

  1. Sony. Lots of choice. Fair amount of overlap. The GMs are exceptional, the Gs are good. But telephoto beyond 200mm still seems a weak point.
  2. Nikon. Has nicely picked lenses so that they form a coherent, fullish line. The S's are exceptional, the rest is quite good. Nikon still has some gaps to fill in to be fully competitive.
  3. Canon. I keep looking at their lens list, and at first glance it seems right, but at second glance I keep finding a lot of oddities. With three high-end bodies and two aging lower-end ones, the lens lineup doesn't seem well tuned to the bodies. 

I said I wasn't going to cover Panasonic, but there are a couple of things that should be said. Like Nikon, Panasonic is pulling off a highly credible f/1.8 prime lineup (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, with an 18mm coming), a solid f/2.8 zoom duo, a solid f/4 zoom duo, and an odd-but-video useful 20-60mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. Since Panasonic uses the L-mount, they get the benefit of Sigma's set of lenses, as well.

The Latest is Always the Best

Nikon's introduction of a halo camera with reported incredible focus performance—the Nikon Z9—reminds me that I need to further explain something that oft goes overlooked.

The Internet thrives on latest and greatest. Most of the photography sites and videos you might look at are all about generating Dollars Now! To a large degree, influencers have taken over the mainstream photography discussion, and they have very vested interests in hyping something before the truth about it starts to dilute the sales potential slightly. 

So let me start with that last bit: a new camera tends to sell best on first availability. At least in terms of the dollars that come from affiliate programs and other semi-hidden royalty programs available to Web sites and influencers. (Disclosure: none of my Web sites participate in this. My relationship with B&H is a fixed cost advertising contract that does not depend upon how many of the latest product I manage to help them sell, though I suppose if clickthroughs from my sites dropped significantly, I wouldn't be able to maintain that more distanced relationship.)

Thus, what is now happening on the Web is strong competition for eyeballs, which has lead to clickbait type headlines and exaggerated claims. Information has turned into Infotainment, with an emphasis on the entertainment side, not the information side. The camera companies haven't been oblivious to this; they see what's happening and try to take advantage of it.

The reason I bring this up has to do with exactly what Nikon promoted so heavily with the Z9 introduction, and something Sony promoted heavily with the A1 announcement: focus performance. 

Here's the thing you have to be aware of: not all cameras from the same maker have the same focus capability and performance. That seems like it should be a given, but what I keep seeing all across the net are generalizations about brand versus brand, and those blanket statements aren't going to be accurate for all models. Focus is one of those technologies that has been moving forward with every generation of camera. The original Sony A7 introduced back in 2013? Pretty dismal in focus performance compared to the current A1. But the range in focus performance of Alpha cameras over the ensuing time period is more important to understand than you might first think. And make no mistake, it's a range.

For instance, I would say from experience that the Nikon Z6 II's focus system is more reliable and in some cases faster than the Sony A7 Mark III's. That shouldn't be surprising, as the Nikon is a newer camera than the Sony. However, it is surprising to many because the general theme of Internet posts has been "Sony's AF performance is better than Nikon's." Yes, that may be true for an individual, new camera, but it isn't consistently true across all models. And let's not throw in Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic, who are on their own climb to best-possible AF performance.

Not that the Z6 II is perfect at autofocus. It has three specific liabilities that the user needs to be aware of to maximize performance: (1) the AF sensors in the viewfinder lag the actual focus; (2) above 5.5 fps you'll get more random focus performance because you can't keep the camera composed properly on moving subjects; and (3) you can't switch to a different focus mode instantly via a button, should you decide that an alternate mode would be better suited to the subject before you. But for most things, I'd prefer to have the Nikon Z6 II over the Sony A7 Mark III. For instance: the Z6 II locks onto the focus plane tighter for moving subjects than the Sony does. 

I can't speak to the just announced Z9 yet as I haven't had a real chance to use it—nor have I used a Canon R3 yet—let alone for real production work, but right now I'd tend to say that the current AF performance goes something like this minus those two new cameras:

  1. Sony A1
  2. Canon R6/R5
  3. Nikon Z6 II/Z7 II
  4. Sony A7R Mark IV

There's not a lot separating #1 from #2, then a bit of a drop-off to #3 and #4, again where there isn't a lot of separation. (My assessment is made from actual use of these cameras in a range of photography, and from diligent studying of how to extract every bit of focus performance from each. Which means: don't photograph with everything set to Auto ;~).

But where are we really? 

Well, pretty much every current mirrorless camera is as good as—and many are better than—all but the top pro DSLRs of five to ten years ago. Again, you have to study the differences and adapt to the new focus systems to extract all the performance that is possible. But if you do that, you'll find that the current mirrorless cameras provide excellent focus abilities, pretty much across the board.

So don't get too caught up in the Canon R3, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1 focus hype unless you're buying a camera at that level. If you are buying at that level, wait for the real-world evaluations from photographers who try to maximize the performance rather than listening to the quick had-the-camera-for-a-day testers who never really got past setting all-automatic. 

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