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. 

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