Photokina Observations 

Photokina is a great place to observe, even though I often have to do that from afar. The press conferences, the press releases, the order of announcements, who's involved, small details that some gloss over, they all tell a story beyond just "Company X announced Y."

So some observations from this Photokina:

  • Nikon brought the heavy-hitters. I don't remember the top executives being front and center at the last few Photokinas. I saw Gokyo-san at Photokina 2014 standing away from the booth observing, but he wasn't available to talk to anyone but a few top press, and otherwise invisible. This year, Nikon's press conference featured the CEO, Ushida-san, and the head of the Imaging group up front and center (Gokyo). Of course, they were only repeating the road show they've been doing since the Z series launch, but you could see that they were finally not so awkward in rolling out the PR-lines. (Actually, everyone seemed to bring their heavy hitters, including Sony.) But...
  • Nikon's top PR line doesn't make sense. The Mirrorless Reinvented header just doesn't fly. The three attributes that make that up (new optical performance, superior image quality, and future proof) do all add up to an overall message: Nikon Cameras Reinvented. Of course, they found they couldn't say that, because it would essentially say that DSLRs are over, wouldn't it? It isn't so much that Nikon reinvented mirrorless cameras, they reinvented themselves.  New mount, new optical design freedom, faster communications, fewer parts, more automated production, and so on.
  • Looking more and more like the D500 followup is a Z5. Jordi Brinkman, Product Manager at Nikon Europe, seems to give some credence to this notion in his interviews at Photokina. Coupled with the rumors that Nikon prototyped such a camera and those three un-identified lenses in the 2020 portion of the Nikon lens roadmap, and we have further clues. The current 35mm f/1.8 Z could serve as the normal lens, the 14-30mm f/4 Z would still be a wide angle (to normal) zoom for a crop sensor camera, which means that really Nikon only would need a solid mid-range zoom (e.g. 16-70mm f/4 Z-DX) to get DX off the ground in mirrorless at the high end. Of course, that still leaves unanswered what Nikon will do about the D3500 and D5600 followups. 
  • Panasonic and Nikon are the ergonomic winners so far in full frame. I like what Panasonic has done with most of their controls. The cluster of four controls your thumb might want to control are easily distinguishable by feel, despite being close together. I'm not as pleased about the line of three buttons behind the shutter release, or the on/off switch, which looks like it could get accidentally flipped too easily. My first response? Whoever designed the back should be given a shot at redesigning the top. Still, I can see me using the S1 cameras in winter, where I can't see myself using my Sony A7Rm3 in winter. Nikon, of course, mostly cribbed from their own notes and came up with something that's very D850-like with some modest simplifications. Given the target user, that's appropriate, I think, and Nikon didn't "break" anything of importance. Canon, meanwhile, seems to be off exploring random thoughts. We have the DSLR shutter/top dial, the EOS M5 configurable dial, no rear thumb dial, but a new touchbar that's going to need palm rejection. The on/off switch is now a dial for some reason and in a different place. Both the line of top buttons and the thumb grip buttons seem wrongly positioned. It just felt awkward in my hand. Controlling focus and focus position means moving my thumb quite a distance, as there's no joystick next to the AF-On button (and that button has moved too far to the right). In total, the Canon R feels under-developed to me. 
  • Sony was in damage control. Sony's press conference headed by Tanaka-san was interesting, because it was all FUD. Twelve more lenses we can't tell you anything about. We're going to make Eye AF work for animals, too, via AI algorithms. A series of additional statements that extended their technology platforms and their stated goal of Citius, Altius, Fortius, or whatever their multi-pronged sensor-driven improvements would work out to be in Latin. What they didn't talk about was UI/ergonomics. That would have been classic FUD that had some resonance. There are quite a few people out there that think the primary thing holding Sony from hitting a true grand slam—four full frame cameras, remember?—isn't the tech side, it's how we humans interact with all that tech.
  • Sony had a point Canon needs to deal with. Tanaka-san also said that all of Sony's activity revolves around a single mount (APS-C, full frame, video). That appears to be the announcement of the death of the original A-mount, folks. But more importantly, Canon is in a weird place right now, with different and somewhat incompatible mounts for those three basic cameras (EF-M and RF, in particular). I leave Nikon out of this point because I'm pretty sure they'll just use Z for crop sensor in mirrorless, and thus are in a transition similar to the one Sony made. Note also that the L-mount already has APS-C lenses and cameras (Leica CL and TL). So it's really Canon that has the confused mount situation at the moment.
  • XQD adds another player. Panasonic has done with the new S1 cameras what Nikon did with the D500/D850: XQD plus SD card slots. Let people transition with what they have, but if they're really interested in all that data moving fast, you need XQD and its future CFExpress lane. Given that Panasonic was one of the originals who defined SD, this should tell you something about card futures. We're going to see more of XQD/CFExpress moving forward. You have to wonder, for example, what Fujifilm is going to stick in that 100mp medium format camera. 
  • Better mounts seem to have stalled the curved sensor idea. Or maybe curved sensors just aren't practical yet from a cost standpoint. But it's interesting that as we've moved to full frame mirrorless the notion of curved sensors being the next big optical improvement seems to have diminished in the industry. Canon and Nikon are touting large elements placed close to the sensor with different optical designs up front that change the ray bending to minimize some of the problems of projecting the world onto a flat surface. In terms of interchangeable lens cameras, a curved sensor would imply all new lenses. Everyone's currently in a rush to do new lenses for the new mounts that have already appeared for flat sensors. No one really wants to introduce yet another new mount.
  • When you have to publicly claim you're still relevant, you're not. At their press conference, Olympus' Europe CEO Stefan Kaufmann made the statement that "Micro Four Thirds will remain highly relevant..." The fact that you have to make such a statement means that you see that the messaging in the market already says you're not. But if you're going to claim you're still relevant, you need to do more than just claim you are, you need to demonstrate and prove it. Olympus did not. Coupled with Olympus always defending being in the camera business because their camera R&D also drives into their medical business, this should raise people's eyebrows in question. Olympus is completely in a defensive market posture at the moment. For a division that hasn't produced growth and continues to have problems making a profit. All the lights on the dashboard have gone yellow for Olympus, warning that there's a problem. The Check Engine light is on, folks. Olympus needs to check their engine and fix their issues.
  • Are compact cars still relevant? Continuing with Olympus' statements, Kaufmann compared camera sensor size to automobile engine size. Interesting. Has he talked to Ford lately? Here in the US, car sales—not just compact car sales—have tanked against the onslaught of SUV and truck sales. To the point where Ford is discontinuing most of their car production in the US, leaving only the Mustang in the lineup soon. This brings up the actual problem for Olympus: compact cars and their small engines succeeded for reasons beyond being "the best car." Markets demanded them for fuel savings (gas prices) and for space savings (parking in congested cities), not because they were the best transportation. There are markets where compactness of camera is indeed still relevant. But is Olympus designing and catering to those markets? 
  • Marketing Departments Have No Idea How Optics Work. Sony's press conference made a point about how you could create an f/0.95 lens in the FE mount. This, is, of course, a response to Nikon's saying "look at this NOCT that wasn't possible before." Everyone in marketing at Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony needs to go take a crash course in optics. Taught by someone who can explain things in more layman terms. The simplest point is this: the larger the opening the more optical design choices you have; the closer to the sensor you can place (larger) optics (and still protect them), the more optical design choices you have using current technologies. Sony knows that. It's what they do with the RX cameras! (No mount, close to the sensor rear elements.) Personally, I think Nikon made a mistake putting so much marketing time into the NOCT. It's not a practical lens. From a customer standpoint, we want to know what those mount changes mean in practical lenses. The fact that the 35mm f/1.8 S-line appears to be better optically than the 35mm f/1.8G F-mount tells us something much more important, I think. 
  • Zeiss understands the workflow/connectivity we want. The upcoming ZX1 camera from Zeiss is, in one way, just a giant smartphone without the phone. That's because it can connect into the cloud and upload images as you shoot. If that isn't enough, Lightroom CC is fully integrated into the camera, allowing you make raw file corrections in the camera that are applied up into your CC account. Like a smartphone's camera, the ZX1 is just a fixed wide angle lens in front of a sensor with mostly a touchscreen interface for using the camera and working with images (though that's an f/2 Zeiss optic sitting in front of a 37.4mp full frame sensor, not a small thimble of a sensor). You do have direct aperture, shutter speed, and ISO controls, but most everything else happens through the rear touchscreen. The question is how well all this will work in practice. But when I asked for a Communicating, Programmable, Modular camera over ten years ago, apparently someone else at least thought about the "communicating" part similar to the way I did. 
  • FUD is everywhere. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, which is a marketing tactic you use where you don't yet have a product response to a competitor, but when you want to keep potential customers from making decisions today that might not go your way and cut into your later sales. A better way of looking at Photokina is this: what can you buy this Christmas? A Nikon Z6/Z7 and three lenses. A Canon R and maybe three lenses. A Fujifilm X-T3 and its existing lens set. A Fujifilm GFX 50R and the existing lenses. One new Sony FE lens. Maybe, just maybe, some of those other lenses that were introduced (e.g. Hasselblad XCD, Sigma, etc.). What you can't buy is a Panasonic S1/S1R and anything other than the current Leica SL lenses for it in anticipation, any new Panasonic or Sigma L mount lenses, any new Leica L primes, a Leica S3, a Panasonic 10-25mm f/1.7 for m4/3, a Ricoh GRIII, a Fujifilm GFX 100S, a Nikon NOCT, a Sigma sd full frame camera, the new Zeiss camera, and anything new from Olympus or Pentax. If I were Sony (or Fujifilm), I'd just put everything on sale at good discounts this Christmas with a marketing tag along the lines of "buy everything you need today, at prices the others can't match anyway."
  • Self Doubt. And speaking of uncertainty, it seems that the Internet world is filled with doubt about its choices these days. "Should I wait for...?" "Is Brand X going to die?" "What's the best...?" Look, we've been through market transformation before (manual focus to autofocus, SLR to DSLR, crop sensor to full frame, etc.). The big players have stayed big, the smaller players move around a bit in position, but pretty much everyone's still here (though Pentax is conspicuously without a mirrorless camera at the moment). The thing(s) that you like about the brand you selected are still probably intact. Certainly the Nikon D850 didn't become a less capable and interesting camera. Sure, different companies are moving at different speeds, and there's always going to be a feature on "the other brand" that you wish your choice had, but have some esteem, folks. I've shot with pretty much everything in the past 20 years. I'm always worried much more about what I'm doing than what the camera and lens are doing. We've had extremely capable cameras for a long, long time now. Chase photos not technology. 
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