Stock or No Stock?

One of my periodic amusements is database surfing to see what I might find. 

So, what mirrorless cameras (body only) are in stock at B&H right now, and which aren’t? The “aren’t" list is pretty short for the major providers, so let’s reveal that (things can and probably will change by the time you read this, obviously; I’m just taking a snapshot in time):

  • Canon R3
  • Canon R6
  • Canon M50 Mark II
  • Fujifilm X-T4
  • Fujifilm X-T30 II
  • Fujifilm X-Pro 3
  • Fujifilm X-E4 (silver)
  • Nikon Z7 II
  • Sony A1
  • Sony A7S Mark III

Surprised? Yeah, I was, too.

With the exception of the M50 and the best-looking X-E4, it’s all high-end or just-introduced bodies that are out of stock. It gets a little more complicated with kits, but I’d judge the same to be basically true: it’s mostly high-end gear or just introduced gear that’s out of stock. 

I don’t know if that will stay true through the holiday buying season about to hit. I have this suspicion that we’ll see a broader and deeper set of products you can’t buy. 

Canon Officially Announces the R3

For top pro cameras, consider this:

  • DSLR era: Nikon first, Canon second, Minolta (Sony) last.
  • Mirrorless era: Sony first, Canon second, Nikon last.

That Canon would move second was actually predictable, in both cases. But it also reveals something else.

Nikon had slumped so far in the film SLR era that they needed to be first mover with a pro body to change the status quo (and did). Once Nikon started moving top pros from film to DSLR, Canon had to immediately respond, and did so quickly. At the beginning of the mirrorless era, Sony wanted to get out of their third place ILC funk badly enough that they became the first mover with a true top pro body (which they iterated into from the A9). Once Sony made their big move and clearly began attracting pros, Canon had to respond quickly. Just as before.

The question is what did Canon respond to? I believe that the R3 is actually a response to the A9/A9 Mark II. Timing wise, it can’t be a response to the A1 (not enough development time, and wrong specs). Which is why Canon’s initial top pro mirrorless camera comes out with the R3 name and not R1. And why it’s not an 8K camera with high pixel count, but instead a 24mp full frame 6K camera (4K oversampled). And why it's US$5999 and not higher priced. Canon is moving second, but Sony has been moving fast enough that Canon’s response is not leap-frogging, as the Canon/Nikon game used to be played.

bythom CANON r3

So what is the R3? 

Well, the R3 is a slightly downsized and mirrorless incarnation of the 1DX, basically. Strongly built weather-proof body with integrated vertical grip and controls. Big battery. Controls suitable for use with gloves. FTP over LAN as well as wireless. 30 fps blackout-free viewfinder (12 fps mechanical shutter), dual pixel autofocus, sensor-based image stabilization, and much more. All the pro-caliber features, but fronted with Canon’s RF lens mount, not an EF one. 

The story that gets everyone's attention, though, is the image sensor in the R3, which is 24mp. At the time Canon started work on a stacked image sensor, the top pro cameras were 20mp, 20mp, and 24mp (Canon, Nikon, Sony). The progression had been 12mp to 16/18mp to 20mp. So 24mp probably seemed like the right idea to Canon (they could have probably pushed upwards to 32-36mp, but that might have seemed like a big leap to keep the perceived high ISO capabilities intact). In essence, Canon thought 8K was further out for the photo journalism and sports photographer than it turned out to be when the R3 sensor development likely started. To some degree, the R3/R5 combo may have been more of an attempt to echo Nikon's D5/D850 success, while dealing with that upstart Sony. 

As much as some will deride the R3 for “not exactly matching” the Sony A1, from a Canon 1DX user’s standpoint the R3 still represents a much needed dual move forward. In terms of sensor and performance, the R3 seems like a clear step forward from the 1DX Mark III, so Canon can still encourage their DSLR pros to start their transition to mirrorless. The R3 is also a step up in key ways from the R5 and R6 for some uses, so Canon will almost certainly end up with photographers who have both the R3 and an R5 in their bag, much like Nikon ended up with D5/D850 photographers in the DSLR realm. So "success", if that's what their target was.

From a Canon user standpoint, the R3 is a solid top of the lineup. No doubts on that, at all. That's called "holding serve."

For someone with no brand affiliation, unfortunately the R3 doesn’t seem to top the Sony A1 in anything other than body build. Thus, I’m sure we’ll see an R1 two years out. Whether Sony can continue to stay in front of Canon will be an interesting story to watch (e.g. A1 Mark II versus R1), but I suspect that things will flush out much like they did with Canon/Nikon DSLR: the two brands will first be close together at some future point, then start leapfrogging. 

So what’s with the Nikon Z9? Well, it’s going to be last to the pro mirrorless game (though not by much; I believe it's going to be delivered about a month behind the Canon shipment date), so the Z9 is going to need to be truly a top end to hold serve with Nikon pros. Given what we already know and some of the additional things I’ve been told, Nikon’s been aiming for that leapfrog position already, even if it is only a small gain past the A1. That’s going to put Nikon and Sony at 45-50mp/8K versus Canon at 24mp/4K for awhile, which brings us back to why an R1 is inevitable.

You’d think Nikon would have learned from history, but management changes and mandated priorities from top management took the Imaging group's eyes completely away from what worked in the past. Enough so that a few significant Nikon Imaging key personnel moved from Nikon to Fujifilm and Sony while new management dithered, a staffing migration that’s a little unusual in Japan. It appears now, though, that the deep state of Nikon engineering has gotten back into stride; the Z9 should be a strong statement of what Nikon can do.  

Current state of top pro mirrorless cameras:

  • Canon R3 — 24mp, 30 fps, 6K, tough body build, US$6000
  • Canon R5 —45mp, 20 fps, 8K, small body build, US$3900
  • Nikon Z9 —  45mp, 30 fps, 8K, tough body build, US$6500? (unknown for sure, but this is likely)
  • Sony A1 — 50mp, 30 fps, 8K, small body build, US$6500
  • Sony A9 Mark II — 24mp, 30 fps, 4K, small body build, US$4500

Next on our list of things to discuss will be how technologies leak down from the R3, Z9, and A1 to other models in those company's lineups. BSI stacked image sensors seem like they will do exactly that, at least in the upper range of ILC. But what else? I’ll get to that discussion once I’ve had time to use all the new cameras. 

bythom canon 100-400

Along with the R3, Canon announced two very non-R3 lenses (e.g. compact and inexpensive, targeted towards a different user).

The most interesting is the US$649 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS USM telephoto zoom. This lens is a really good example of how you can't have it all (size, speed, quality, price, etc.). Canon has made some compromises that are different than we've seen elsewhere so far, emphasizing small "reach" coupled with inexpensive, but that obviously comes at the expense of glass real estate. In particular, the front elements, which typically determine maximum aperture. We've been creeping up on this for some time: originally f/5.6 was the typical aperture at the long end of less expensive telephoto lenses, then f/6.3, then f/7.1, and now f/8. Smaller apertures mean smaller elements up front, which make for smaller size and less cost. 

Canon, however, has found a couple of things to help compensate for what you gave up, and they both come in the "small reach" category. First, this new compact telephoto zoom focuses to a maximum magnification of 1:2.4, which is getting near macro range. So close in reach is pretty good (though variable on this lens depending upon focal length; again, you can't have everything). Second, Canon allows use of the RF 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters with the 100-400mm f/5.6-8 lens. Yes, an even smaller effective aperture. When you give up that much aperture, you often need higher ISO to retain shutter speeds. Effectively you have a 140-560mm f/8-11 or a 200-800mm f/11-16 lens with the converters mounted. 

Curiously, the 100-400mm and 1.4x/2.0x combos start to render the 600mm f/8 and 800mm f/11 compact RF telephoto lenses Canon makes a bit more moot, as they only gain you a stop while giving up the zoom flexibility. Given the price of US$649 for the 100-400mm, I can see most amateur and casual Canon RF users opting for the flexibility of the zoom over the fixed telephotos. If Canon can replace the RP with a great entry camera, Sony is going to see lower end market share erode quickly.

bythom canon 16mm

The other lens is also remarkable: a US$299 16mm f/2.8 prime in the typical STM guise and muffin size. That sure sounds like it's really destined for an APS-C body (24mm equivalent). But yes, it covers the full frame, too. Canon is playing up the use of this lens in vlogging and Webcam use, as well.

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Fujifilm Shows Their Backside...

Fujifilm's "just one more thing" announcement at their recent Summit was that a new APS-C image sensor is coming, and that it's a backside illuminated and stacked sensor (still X-Trans). The rumors have long been that Fujifilm would use the X-H2 model to introduce a new sensor and new technologies. Indeed, there are rumors of two X-H2 models, and given this new revelation of sensor, I wonder if we'll get an old sensor/new sensor twinning?

Reading between the lines, it appears that Fujifilm is now going more strongly after the old Nikon D300/D500 crowd: a top-end crop-sensor camera that is fully pro in performance.

Both Canon (7D Mark II) and Nikon (D500) have made the mistake—so far—of not defending a strong product position that they once held uniquely. Both company's urge to push serious users to full frame, and now to full frame mirrorless, left them neglecting those unique cameras, and neglect has resulted in not only Canon and Nikon selling fewer of those models as they age, but has opened opportunities for competitors. 

I'm stunned that Sony didn't jump into this market already. A US$2000-2500 A7000 would have nailed Nikon's DX coffin shut. Of course, at that price, it might have blunted Sony's full frame sales a bit, but I am certain that there's a pro-performance crop-sensor market, and at the moment it's not being served well. Nikon's DSLR D500 is, at five year's old, still the reigning champion and best choice in this space, but it won't be for much longer. 

To keep the crop-sensor performance cameras up with the full frame ones, high bandwidth and more megapixels are going to be needed in the eventual competitors. Fujifilm has now hinted that this is exactly what they're going to do, and have even added a necessary lens to the future fray (road map says 150-600mm).

Windows shut fast in tech markets. While we've heard rumblings that Canon will make a top APS-C RF camera in 2022 and that Nikon has prototyped a Z70/Z90 type camera, one wonders if those are really coming and whether they'll be "enough" if they do come. Canon's already gotten caught flat-footed twice in their mirrorless transition. The M's are old-think and target low with no future compatibility, the first two RF cameras were quickly managed DSLR-conversions. Nikon has no DX strategy for mirrorless that I can tell. Two odd feature-alike-but-style-different cameras and three lenses are not a strategy. 

So, Fujifilm has a shot at the market I say exists but Nikon executives wonder whether it exists. Clearly the target is 30mp+ APS-C, 20/30 fps low/no blackout, high performance autofocus, pro-level features and customization. That level of camera works well for both the sports and wildlife markets, assuming you have the lens set to support it. Maybe it's a US$2000 camera, maybe it's a US$3000 camera in the new lower volume reality, but I'm sure it would sell. 

I'm not sure why Fujifilm pre-announced their intentions here. That seems a bit on the too-confident side unless they know something the rest of us don't. 

I'll take a wild stab at what's going to happen (not a prediction, a guess):

  • Canon will launch first with a top-level RF crop-sensor camera in the first half of 2022. It might not hit all the performance targets necessary to dominate the market, though. 
  • Fujifilm will continue to leak lots of information, and we'll know about the X-H2 second, though it might deliver later than people think (late 2022 or maybe even 2023).
  • Nikon will be third to high-end crop sensor. Will they go straight to higher megapixels and stacked sensor, though? That's the question, and that's the determination of when. 
  • Sony will oddly stay mostly away from this market for the time being, so would probably end up last to launch, which surprises me.

Again, the above is a guess based upon the things I do hear about future crop sensor cameras and where those products are in the current development pipeline. I would caution, however—especially in the case of Nikon and Sony—that sometimes they fiddle with things deep inside their engineering groups and then suddenly have a breakthrough on a key element that then prompts them to push straight to early production. Within both those companies there are lot of products that never saw the light of day because something didn't quite go right during development or they felt they couldn't market the result successfully in the current environment.

So What's Really Different with the X-T30 II?

There's been a bit of inconsistent information that's circulated across the Web about the X-T30 II, and it takes a real long and close read of the specifications to see the absolute differences. Here's what I see the differences as:

  • Bigger buffer. At some settings, the buffer has improved. For instance, at 8 fps with the mechanical shutter the JPEG buffer increases from 90 frames to 105, and the new Compressed Raw offers a higher buffer than before (23 versus 18). Not all settings produce buffer changes, though. Given that, I suspect that this is simply improved internal workflow changes, not a physical bandwidth or card slot change.
  • Increased video recording times. The original X-T30 was quite constrained on video recording times, allowing only 10 minutes in the 4K settings. This has improved to 30 minutes in the II model, plus we got the 1080/240P capability.
  • CIPA battery life changed. Not particularly significant, but the value upped by 10 images to 390. Again, I'd put that to internal processing efficiencies, not a physical change.
  • Rear LCD. I didn't catch this at first, but it appears that the II has a 1.68m dot LCD instead of 1.04m dot. As with some of Sony's recent LCD changes (the "a" models), this is probably a reaction to supply chain limitations; Fujifilm's subbing in a display they can get in quantity for one they can't.
  • Supplied accessories. The AC charger and USB plug adapter disappear from the box and become "optional." 
  • Improved focus tracking. An algorithmic change to the focus system calculations when tracking moving subjects.
  • Low light AF change? This one still needs to be verified, as Fujifilm used the 50mm f/1.0 lens to achieve the -7EV number. I don't recall the exact number Fujifilm claimed on the original X-T30, but I don't think it is at the same level.
  • The Auto mode has been updated. Fujifilm has changed the algorithms slightly on how it creates JPEG files with automatic scene detection settings in play. 

Other than the change in Rear LCD, it appears that most of the camera changes revolve around new firmware. 

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