News and commentary about the mirrorless camera world (latest on top). Click on News/Views in the gray menu bar above to see the full list of recent articles and folders containing older ones.
The NX300 got upgraded to version 1.2 today, with lots of bug fixes and two performance increases: autofocus speed and shot-to-shot speed.
Olympus updated the firmware for most of their m4/3 cameras today. The primary change is support for the new VF-4 viewfinder that was announced with the Pen E-P5. Some of the Pen models also got a stability tweak for touch operations during playback:
- OM-D E-M5 — version 1.7
- E-P3 — version 1.4
- E-P2 — version 1.3
- E-P1 — version 1.4
- E-PL5 — version 1.2
- E-PL3 — version 1.4
- E-PL2 — version 1.4
- E-PL1 — version 1.3
- E-PM2 — version 1.2
- E-PM1 — version 1.1
Note: I've begun adding "current firmware" numbers to the camera and lens database. Right now that's only complete for the Olympus and Nikon cameras, but I'll be filling that out over time.
Pentax today announced the Q7 mirrorless camera, the replacement for the Q10. Huh? 1, 10, 7? Is this some kind of math IQ test where we're supposed to guess the next number? (Q16 ;~)
The big news here, if you can call it big, is the change from a 1/2.3" sensor to 1/1.7" sensor. That's a change from 4.29 x 5.76 (24.7 square mm) to 5.7 x 7.6 (43 square mm). Essentially, Pentax is keeping up with the compacts, where at the high end they've been moving from 1/2.3" to 1/1.7" sensors (e.g. Canon Powershot G15, Nikon Coolpix P330, Nikon Coolpix P7700, Panasonic LX-7, et.al.).
That's probably a good way to think about the Q: compact camera image quality with interchangeable lenses. The Q is most popular in Japan, where smallness is indeed a sought after factor. Many in Japan consider the Q "the smallest DSLR," though it doesn't have an EVF or OVF.
I've updated the sansmirror site to include the Pentax Q lenses, by the way. As the Q becomes a more competent camera, it's important that I treat it equally to the others on the site. But note that the sensor change also is changing the equivalent focal lengths (from about a 5.6x crop to 4.6x). The original 5-15mm Q kit zoom was about a 28-85mm equivalent, but with the new sensor that moves closer to a 24-70mm equivalent.
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I haven't quite figured out Samsung's methodology for announcing things. It seems random and arbitrary. Today they put an official announcement on their Web site of the 10mm f/3.5 fisheye lens, one that was on their lens roadmap for this year but otherwise unspecified.
Well, it's well specified now, with all the details and sample images on their Web site, though no price or ship date (just a "ships second half of 2013). The lens is small. Real small. It sticks out of the camera a bit less than an inch. This has to make it the smallest 180° diagonal fisheye we've seen. Readers of my other sites will know I've long had a fascination with this type of lens. It rose to fame with Nikon's 35mm film version (16mm f/2.8) in the mountain biking and extreme sports photography market. Since then, we've seen many other companies make similar lenses. It's a very useful lens to have in your bag, especially when it's as small as the Samsung version is, though you don't use it a lot.
Here's one of my images taken with such a lens, defished in Photoshop:
So sign me up, Samsung. I'll make room for it in my bag.
No press release I can see, but Nikon this past week updated the FT1 software to version L1.10 so that continuous autofocus is now supported for AF-S lenses mounted on the FT1 adapter. This is something we Nikon 1 users have been asking for, and it seems that for once, Nikon has delivered.
All is not perfect in the kingdom, though:
- You must make sure that your Nikon 1 camera has the current firmware in it first before attempting to update the FT1. If you don't do this, you may brick your FT1 (brick is a slang term used to indicate an electronic device has become a paperweight with no functions).
- Third party lenses seem even less compatible than before. Note that Nikon says "AF-S lenses" in their update notice. Only Nikon makes AF-S lenses. Nikon has never tested third party lenses with their cameras or accessories, and leaves it to those third parties to ensure compatibility. With the original FT1 firmware, many Sigma lenses didn't work as expected. With the new software, I'm hearing about far more failures of third-party lenses. My recommendation would be that if your third-party lens is working with the current FT1 software that you avoid updating and talk with your lens maker to see if they're checking compatibility.
Along with the FT1 update, Nikon also updated the V1 firmware to 1.3, V2 to 1.1, J1 to 1.3, J2 to 1.1, J3 to 1.1, S1 to 1.1, and the GPS firmware to 1.02. The camera firmware updates all add FT1 continuous focus support, 32mm f/1.2 support, and some additional small changes and bug fixes.
Hasselblad is currently on a world tour showing off the final Lunar (blinged out Sony NEX-7), but it appears that Willoughby's is already listing them as in stock and ready for sitting a long time on shelves at Amazon.
The problem, of course, is that Hasselblad is taking a US$1100 camera, having someone in a back room apply "Italian Design with Swedish Tradition" to give you a big hand grip and ugly knobs, then popping a US$7000 price tag on the result.
"Reinterpreting the appeal of a myth—the legendary 500C of 1957, the first camera to go into space." Okay, that sort of explains the name, but the design looks nothing like the 500C, nor is the Lunar likely to go into space itself any time soon. Sorry, but the connection is completely lost on me. Sure, you made a camera that once went to the moon. But the designer of this concoction seems to be from the moon. And how is the 500C a "myth"? Is Hasselblad trying to tell us the moon landing was phony and shot on a Hollywood set?
Nor is "the lens…faithfully reproduced" as it is just a stock Sony E-mount kit lens. How Olive Wood, Mahogany, Carbon Fiber, Tuscan and Black Leather figure with the space-pedigreed 500C, I have no idea, but of course you couldn't charge US$7000 for a camera where the lining, focus screen, and hood were removed. The original cameras in space were stripped to make them light, not blinged up to make them look good should our astronauts have met up with aliens.
Since the Lunar is a really a stock NEX-7, I'm not giving it a separate page on this site. But if you've got money blowing a hole in your pocket…
As I noted in The Danger of Colors, faddish cameras are a bad sign. Basically we have camera companies saying "we don't have any real innovation because these things are commodities now, but if you want to fit into the Beverly Hills scene, we can give you something that'll go with your ensemble really nice."
Back when Pentax first started the whole "any color you want" craze for cameras, I wrote about the risks of pursuing that strategy and how it was one indicator that cameras had become commodities and were no longer being judged much by their performance.
This week I was reminded of one of the other consequences as vendors started trying to unload their Nikon J2 cameras. Consider this list at Amazon US (for comparison sake, Nikon's suggested retail price is US$549.95):
- Black J2 with 10-30mm lens: US$352.99
- Orange J2 with lens: US$299.99
- Pink J2 with lens: US$399.99
- Red J2 with lens: US$299.99
- Silver J2 with lens: US$354.99
- White J2 with lens: US$349.00
Now, not all of those are being sold directly by Amazon, but even amongst the ones they do stock Amazon's price varies considerably with color.
So I guess there's a lesson here: buy the black or silver version if you're buying early, as it will hold its price better and thus likely sell for more used. Buy the least popular color when a model is being closed out for a new generation, as it will cost the least.
Note that there is currently a US$100 difference between color choices at the moment on the J2. That represents a discount of 25% on the least costly color versus the most. 25%. There's no difference in features or performance or image quality here, just a painted shell color. That's what I call faddish. There's no basis other than fashion for that differential.
Now think about this from a dealer's point of view. Sticking just with Nikon, the current color variations in the Coolpix through DSLR models would require a dealer to stock several hundred camera SKUs (stocking units) in order to be able to serve any customer request. Know any camera dealers that do? I don't. That fact alone should have told the camera makers that color options were a very bad idea. Note that even Apple doesn't do color variations except on things that sell in tens of millions of units, and they're using daily data from their many stores to balance color production.
That said, I've been working on something for awhile now that I think will be telling. Once we hit the full brunt of summer I'll be able to report my full set of data. But consider this: if I had a white Nikon V1 and a black Nikon V1 and was using them outside on a tripod for hours in the middle of a hot sunny day, would there be a difference between them? ;~)
Colors do matter, but not in any sense that the camera makers are promulgating. Based upon the data so far, silver is probably your safest color choice, as it best balances reflectivity and value retention.
At the end of last month Panasonic presented more detail on how they would be restructuring the company moving forward, and that has revealed more about what's happening with their camera efforts. In addition, the Japanese business press has been running interviews with executives subsequent to that presentation, which has given us a few more details to ponder.
Short version: Panasonic will drop the simplest compact cameras from their lineup and grow the mirrorless camera sales.
The longer version reveals some problems. As with Olympus, Panasonic is predicting a serious increase in unit shipments of mirrorless cameras this year, despite the fact that mirrorless camera sales have stalled in the marketplace so far. Overall, Panasonic thinks they'll sell nearly the same dollar amount of cameras in the current fiscal year as they did in their previous fiscal year, despite significantly reducing their reliance upon compact cameras. One primary way they think they'll reduce losses is by reducing fixed costs.
As others have pointed out, the SG&A costs at many of these money-losing camera divisions are way out of line with those at Canon and Nikon. At Olympus, the number is nearly double Canon's. At Panasonic, we can't get to the SG&A solely devoted to cameras due to the way they report their financials with the reorganization, but the group that the camera business is now in has very high SG&A costs, too.
Reading between the lines of the Panasonic presentation and interviews I note two things that were repeated over and over: Panasonic believes that much of the uniqueness of their mirrorless product is linked to video with compression being one of their key technologies; and that in the group that cameras are in they are still saying they will eliminate any "business" not returning an operating profit of 5% by 2016. Mirrorless cameras does not seem to be one of the businesses they are talking about here, but I have to wonder if compact cameras are. As with Olympus, losing a big chunk of compact camera sales puts a huge pressure on the remaining camera sales. Canon and Nikon have stronger DSLR sales to fall back on; mirrorless is still only about 20% of the interchangeable camera marketplace, and the Olympus/Panasonic pair don't claim as much of that 20% as Canon and Nikon do of the remaining 80%.
The implication in all this is that Panasonic will have to cut back on headcount in support of camera products. We've already seen Olympus quietly cutting down repair, marketing, and support staff for cameras in the US, for example. Panasonic will likely be doing the same.
Meanwhile, Panasonic also had a few things to say about their sensor business (which is in another group). With the sensor business now moved into a new Automotive and Industrial Systems division, they appear to be targeting mostly medical, automotive, and security applications for image sensors moving forward. While others have reported that Panasonic won't be making m4/3 or other camera sensors in the future, I can't find any statement from the company or one of its executives that confirms that. The best I can find is that they want to reduce the "audio/visual" portion of their semiconductor businesses considerably as a percentage of the overall business. AV sensor usage is also conspicuously missing in virtually all discussions of future products and strategies. They certainly don't see image sensors in still photography cameras as being a growth opportunity.
Panasonic is in a worse position than most of the camera companies. Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, Ricoh, and Sony all have other highly profitable groups to rely on while they deal with the camera slowdown. Nikon is still profitable in cameras, so they're basically just trying to keep the camera sales decline from eroding their sales and profit too much. Panasonic, however, is a different case. By their own admission, they have four big problems: weak overall financial condition, poor cash generation, high business volatility, and a poor return on investment. The last three of those make it harder to fix the first.
Panasonic's CEO seems dead set on sticking by his "5% profitability" line in the sand. He's already begun closing down businesses that don't meet that goal and have no possibility of doing so any time soon. It seems clear that more businesses will be shut down at Panasonic if they can't get to that 5% number within the next 12-18 months. More so than any other camera company, I worry about Panasonic's ability to come out of the camera sales slump intact. No, that doesn't mean I think they'll drop mirrorless cameras. But I do suspect that they're moving their target within mirrorless. All the talk about video abilities overwhelms the talk about still capabilities in their presentations and interviews. Moreover, the compact camera side of the business seems highly likely to be downsized considerably and maybe even shut down fully.
Bottom line is this: Panasonic is the company to watch carefully, as they're the canary in the coal mine. They're the only one of the Japanese camera companies that currently appears to be trying to fully address years of slothful organizational bloat and are actively closing down businesses that underperform. If they keep their still camera group going, all the Japanese companies will, I think. If Panasonic takes an ax to that group (or even just the compact camera part), others may follow.
Note, however, that Panasonic has a reasonably healthy pro video group, and like Sony, that group has slowly started to use some of the mirrorless bits in their offerings. The Panasonic AG-AF100, which is a m4/3 professional video camera, is getting a little long in the tooth, but with Blackmagic Design now using the m4/3 mount, I suspect that we'll see Panasonic make additional offerings in the pro lineup that align with their mirrorless offerings. As they noted in their presentations, they definitely have the video-capable lenses for that (e.g. silent while focusing, and tuned for continuous video focusing). That's one reason why I don't think the mirrorless group within Panasonic is in any immediate danger: they have a strong basis from which to build on there, unlike what's happening with their compact cameras.
(news and commentary)
I've been digging some more into statements made recently by Olympus executives regarding how they expect to get back to break-even in cameras, and several sources have provided me with some additional translations of materials that have only appeared in the Japanese market.
Nikkei.com is reporting that Olympus now says the break-even point for profit with mirrorless cameras is 1m units, and the goal for this year is to boost sales 20% to 730k units. Thus, it won't be until their next fiscal year that they actually believe they'll get to break-even with mirrorless (which tends to contradict what they said at their full year financial results review, where they said they'd be break-even for all cameras, even the rapidly declining compacts in the next two quarters of the current year). [I've added Olympus' new statements to my Claims to Remember page.]
To achieve this new claim, Olympus would have to manage a 28% market share worldwide this year to make their goal, a 39% market share to achieve break-even. I should point out that two very large financial investment firms both predict that Olympus won't manage even 730k units this year (can't really say any more than that, as their reports are private and the specifics are for paying customers only). I actually would tend to dispute those analysts: Olympus is fully in control over how many cameras they ship and book as sales. They could simply produce-to-the-numbers and claim victory. Of course, that's what got us to the current situation: both Panasonic and Olympus clearly overproduced to demand, and you see that reflected by all the overhanging inventory that has been remaindered at significant discount (and probable write-down losses) to both companies. I don't think they want to repeat that costly mistake.
There's also an interesting smoke-and-mirrors thing going on in the CIPA numbers and the numbers that the camera companies are talking up with the business community. Remember, CIPA numbers come from the camera makers themselves. Let's look at a few of those numbers:
- Actual CIPA sales-to-date project to — 3.4m units
- CIPA forecast for year — 4.9m units
- Previous year CIPA actual — 3.9m units
So the camera companies are forecasting 26% growth in mirrorless camera sales, but the current market is actually 13% down over the first third of the year. Now here's where the smoke and mirrors come in: a number of companies are going around claiming that they have X% market share (let's use 25% as an example, as one company is claiming they're currently at that number). Great, so they multiply 4.9 by .25 and you imply they'll sell 1.25m units. But what if the actual sales-to-date is more accurate than the original CIPA forecast? Now we're at 850k units. As I noted above, Olympus is saying that it will take 1m units for them to get to break-even. So if this were Olympus that I was using as an example (;~), the difference between the CIPA estimate and the CIPA actual so far is the difference between significant profit and significant loss.
Thus, we find that with the more naive and Japan-friendly press, the camera companies—and believe me, that's a plural here; this isn't limited to one company's practices at the moment which is why I didn't name the one claiming 25% market share—use the self-interested CIPA forecast to pretend things are rosy, but the savvy financial analysts are starting to note the huge discrepancy between "expectations" and "reality" and putting that in their market reports to their paying audience. You'd have to think that the accounting departments at the camera companies are seeing the same thing the analysts are. But the real issue is that we've now got some investors shorting stocks based upon the discrepancy. As more Western investors put money into the Nikkei stock exchange with the lure of the now in decline yen, we've got a lot of Big Money looking at the consumer electronics world and wondering what the reality of the situation is.
That said, Goldman Sachs, I believe currently lists Olympus as a stock to "buy." But they also seem to believe that there won't be significant losses out of the camera group moving forward.
It seems that every time I write about all these data points, claims, and numbers, a number of people attack me, not the data. Attacking the messenger is a common ploy on the Internet these days. Why anyone thinks that achieves anything useful, I have no idea. Okay, consider me shot. Gee, I'm still reporting what I see. Feel better, though?
So why do I write these stories? Because we're all trying to figure out whether to put our hard-earned money into what are expensive systems. If you look around, you can already see a number people complaining that all the fire sales on mirrorless camera inventory overhang has basically depressed the used market: people aren't getting the amount of money out of their old camera they expected when they decide to upgrade. That's true for DSLRs, too, though a bit less so. I'm a little concerned that the mirrorless companies are essentially conditioning the consumer to wait for fire sales. Nikon 1? 80% off. Panasonic GF/G/GH? 50% off. Olympus Pen? Free last generation cameras with purchase of lens. The list goes on.
Personally, I want to see Olympus succeed. I've got a fair amount invested in their gear, and I enjoy using it. As I've noted elsewhere, the OM-D E-M5 is my usual choice for long backcountry hikes. But it definitely worries me when they continue to say one thing and the market numbers seem to be saying something entirely different. You can't make reliable decisions from made up data. You can from real data. I didn't start this site to gloat as mirrorless dies and DSLR rules the world (not going to happen, see my previous story on this, especially the last part). I started this site to provide reliable, useful information about mirrorless cameras and to foster a debate about what that information means and how you can use it.
Unfortunately, in this market environment, we have to worry about the longevity of every camera maker.
If I were in charge of Olympus, here's what I'd do: I'd come clean. As in: "We're not making money at cameras, but we will continue to invest in them because we believe that long-term, we not only can make them profitable, but distinctive from our competition in ways that are meaningful to consumers and eventually increase our market share. We pioneered dust reduction, multi-axis IS on sensor, and much more. Our products are already great and will get better. But we failed to market them well, we failed to cut costs enough, we failed to see the quick collapse of the compact camera market soon enough, and thus we have a number of short-term issues to work through. Fortunately, we're a small part of a healthy, profitable company, and have the time to work through these things. Starting today we promise to give everyone accurate accounts of how we're doing and what our real forecasts and assumptions are. To that end, I can say that we shipped 590k, or 15% of the mirrorless cameras, in the last fiscal year. We had originally projected that to grow to 730k with the market growth originally estimated by CIPA, but the reality is that the market isn't yet growing again. Thus, to make any gains in mirrorless this year, we'll have to take market share for other tough competitors. That will not be easy, and we're in the midst of reconsidering our original 20% growth projection for the year. We will let you know as soon as possible what our new projections are and how that might slow our return to profitability in cameras." Then, I'd back that with renewed, targeted marketing that's direct, bold, and clearly tells people (what I already know): those Olympus m4/3 cameras are darned good; you should consider buying one.
Canon today announced the long-rumored 11-22mm f/4.5-5.6 wide angle lens for the EOS M system. This is the third EF-M mount lens, and will begin to ship next month. Oddly, the lens is optimized for video, with near silent focus technology and an advanced stabilization mode.
Along with the new lens, the EOS M camera gets new version 2.0.0 firmware. Canon is claiming that the firmware produces single shot focus speeds of up to 2.3x faster when using the kit zoom. No claims of improved speed are made for the 22mm lens, apparently. No specific time was indicated when the new firmware would be available.
For some reason only the UK has gotten an official press release as I write this. The US public relations group hasn't issued one for the US that I'm aware of (I usually get it via email). Also, the Canon sites don't seem to yet have either of the above releases yet.