Mirrorless Camera News and Commentary

News and commentary about the mirrorless camera world (latest on top). Click on News/Views in the menu bar above to see the full list of recent articles as well as folders containing older ones dating back several years.

Sony Announces A6300, FE Lenses

(news & commentary)

a6300 N wSEL1670Z right

Sony today announced the long-awaited successor to the A6000, surprisingly named the A6300. No, we didn’t get a 28mp sensor, IBIS, or some of the other things that were rumored ad nauseum across the Internets. Instead, we got a well-considered iterative update with a few very key differences from its predecessor:

  • A new 24.2mp APS sensor using the copper wiring structure we first heard about in the Fujifilm X-Pro2 announcement. That is what enables the 4K video capabilities of the A6300: a 1.6x crop UHD mode that reads the entire active sensor area instead of sub-sampling. 
  • Video at 4K/UHD is recorded at 100Mbps (with a UHD Class 3 card), and 1080P gains a 120 fps mode at 50Mbps. S-Log support is available.
  • The focus system has been improved with a slightly higher 425 phase detection points, faster and higher density focus tracking, and a new 120 fps EVF mode that provides continuous view at up to 8 fps. (Focus tracking is partly dependent upon you keeping a subject aimed properly, thus the linkage I made here.)
  • The EVF got an upgrade to 2.4m dot OLED, along with that new continuous view mode. 

Besides those larger changes, there are a few other modest incremental changes in the camera, though nothing I saw as being special enough to call out (see the A6300 data page for full details). 

What’s disturbing the Sony fans is that the A6300 didn’t provide sensor-based image stabilization. The reality of the mirrorless situation is that cameras without sensor-based IS put extreme pressure on lenses to have IS. Sony already has a bit of a problem with missing E-mount IS lenses, in my opinion. Sure, the kit lenses have it, as do a couple of others, but some primes don’t, nor will you be able to stabilize adapted lenses, one of the features that Alpha users seem to like. 

I’d also say that the lack of touchscreen and any new direct AF sensor control is a bit of a disappointment, as well. Sony’s menus could use a touch screen to navigate through, and a touchscreen is useful for video focus, too. Plus autofocus, whether fast or not, needs user control to help the camera understand what is the subject. 

As usual these days there’s the “world’s fastest AF” claim in the press release. The footnote indicates this is among ILC cameras with an APS-C sensor based on Sony research. But see my previous point: it’s not necessarily how fast the autofocus is, but rather whether it is focusing on the right thing quickly. Without a fast method of putting the AF sensor at the place I want focused, the focus isn’t fast in my opinion ;~). 

Also as far as I can tell Sony is starting to make the same crop-sensor mistake that Canon and Nikon did: low-ball the crop sensor choices, especially on lens choice. This is especially galling with the A6xxx models, as they are highly competent and very small cameras. They simply don’t have the lens support that would make them truly compelling (while still producing a small total system).

The A6300 should be available in March for US$1000 (body only), or US$1150 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Meanwhile, Sony introduced a new line of lenses for the FE mount (these lenses will also work on the A6300 and other APS Sony mirrorless cameras). This new line is called GM (stands for G Master, which are designed to higher standards) and includes:

bythom sony 24-70 f28 GM
bythom sony 85mm GM

This finally breaks the f/4 zoom barrier the FE mount had, and adds another fast prime to the mix. Caution: these are big lenses. The size advantage of the A7 bodies starts to go away when we start putting f/2.8 mirrorless lenses against f/2.8 DSLR lenses. 

These are also expensive lenses, and the two f/2.8 zooms don’t yet have a ship date (the 85mm ships in March). 

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Can We Make Sansmirror Better?

Sansmirror is now in its fifth year as a one-man operation. I didn’t intend it to be that way. 

One of the reasons to split my original site up was that I was hoping to find other voices to add to the new sites like sansmirror.com. Wouldn’t it be great if we had Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Nikon 1, m4/3, and Sony experts writing regularly for this site in addition to the things I’ve been producing?  

Unfortunately, my travel schedule was hectic for several years and though I sought out a few potential co-authors, I wasn’t able to close the deal with the two I found that I wanted to hook. Much of that was my fault, as I have this tendency to disappear into the wilds for weeks on end and that makes it tough to get negotiations wrapped up. 

I’m still looking for a few key contributors to this site. If you’re seriously deep into one of the aforementioned mounts, if you’re a good writer, and if you want a highly visible place to present your voice and your work, please contact me and let’s see if we can find something that works for both of us. The good news is that I’m office bound for awhile, so this time I’m around to tie up any loose details.

I’m not looking for quantity of content. I’m looking for quality and accuracy of content. I’m not looking for people whose opinions are the same as mine, but I’m looking for writers whose opinions are well-considered and well-supported with examples and logic. I’m also looking for people that can help keep the camera and lens databases accurate and complete for the various mounts, and perhaps expand those databases to include accessories.

Maybe I find the right few contributors, maybe I don’t. I’m happy with how the site has progressed over time. I just feel it could be better, deeper, and wider than it is with a little of the right help. If you’d like to help make that happen, drop me an email to kick off that discussion.

Which Mirrorless Now?


As long-time site visitors know, I got into shooting with mirrorless back in 2009 when m4/3 blossomed into multiple models from multiple vendors. Specifically, I was looking for a small/light product I could carry with me alongside my DSLRs when I didn’t want to be always changing lenses on bodies (e.g. wildlife and sports). 

Here it is seven years later, and everyone—including a company that appears to be leaving the camera business—has a mirrorless option. This poses the interesting question: what if I had waited until now to pick up a mirrorless model to supplement my DSLR gear?

Let’s get a few players out of the way quickly. Warning: this will be brutal and ugly. I wouldn’t pick Leica, I wouldn’t pick Nikon 1, I wouldn’t pick Pentax Q, and I wouldn’t pick Samsung NX, all for different reasons. 

  • My problem with Leica is that at this point I have no idea what they’re doing. M, SL, TL, which one do they want me to buy? They’re all quite different. The M is a dream with small primes in the mid-range, but I don’t want to carry a bunch of primes in my convenience camera. The SL and TL have mid-range zooms that just seem a little to kit-like in their aperture capabilities, and the single SL zoom I could get at the moment is big, big, big. I’m also wondering whether if I buy into one of these lines whether the mount will still be here tomorrow and still be growing new lens support. Remember the R?
  • The Nikon 1 has been five years of promise, with very little actual delivery. The price wasn’t right, the noise quality wasn’t right, the lenses weren’t right, the controls weren’t right, the implied advantages weren’t realized, styles and controls wandered from model to model, and more. Nikon took a couple of good things—especially a DSLR-level focus system—and managed to make those non-competitive. The problem I have today is that the thing I’d want a Nikon J5 for—extreme portability—is matched by a compact camera with near identical controls, an EVF, the same sensor, and a better lens in the mid-range. Advantage squandered by Nikon. Every time I do the calculation with the Nikon 1 system, it works out to the same thing: too little for too much. Now I know that some Nikon 1 fans will immediately pounce on me with gushy praise for things like the 32mm f/1.2 (85mm equivalent). Yes, excellent lens. Too pricey for the system. Doesn’t solve my problem.
  • Meanwhile, the Pentax Q has the controls right, but it just is trying to make a sensor that even serious compacts don’t tend to use any more pull more weight than it can. The Q system is pretty limited in terms of lenses, too. There’s just not enough there to push me into wanting one. 
  • Samsung, on the other hand, arguably came as close as anyone in building a DSLR-like mirrorless system. State of the art everywhere from sensor to video capabilities. Only it didn’t sell, and now we all believe Samsung is headed for the exit door. I’m not going to bet on something that looks like it’s being abandoned by its maker. 

I told you it would be brutal and ugly. 

Remember, I’m trying to keep at the top of the pro game in my photography. Even for the more casual camera I carry around with me to fill a gap instead of a lens for the big DSLR—for example my use of an m4/3 camera with a mid-range zoom for non-telephoto shots when I’m carrying two DSLR with lens bazookas on safari—I want performance. I want a camera that’s going to get me as close to what I get with my pro DSLR bodies as possible, but I want it smaller, lighter, with excellent controls and performance. Nikon and Pentax are okay on the smaller/lighter thing, but different aspects of the control and performance leave something to be desired. Meanwhile, the Leicas and the Samsung NX-1 are as big and heavy as one of my smaller DSLRs. Oops. 

Moving on: we still have that basic conundrum that I need to solve. You just saw it a bit in the last paragraph: small/light versus performance. There’s no doubt in my mind, for example, that the Sony A7 sensors are at the top of the performance game. The AF system on the Mark II models has matured into something quite usable, too. So I’m going to pick Sony A7’s, right? 


I keep a Sony A7 bag packed these days. But I think of it as my "light-duty" DSLR bag, with the emphasis on light. A couple of A7 bodies with the three f/4 lenses packs smaller and lighter than the same with my DSLRs, but produces big time DSLR quality. So I use my A7 kit over my DSLR kit specifically when I need the combination of those two things. But as a supplement to my DSLR kit, it makes less sense. Remember, that’s how I got into mirrorless and what I’m basing this article’s premise on: supplement to DSLR kits. Just an A7 body and mid-range zoom lens puts me well over two pounds. 

I’m also going to dismiss Sony APS (E-mount), despite the very good A6000 (now A6300) body. Why? Lenses, that’s why. Not the lenses I need or want to produce a highly capable small/light camera with top performance.

The astute among you know that I’ve now narrowed things down to Canon, Fujifilm, and m4/3. So which one would be my pick today if I were making the same decision I did in 2009?

  • I really want to like the Canon EOS M line. More so than the Nikon -1-to-Nikon-DSLR relationship, the Canon EOS M seems much more a smaller sibling of the EOS DSLR line, and that’s really what I'm looking for, a smaller sibling to what I’ve got. On the other hand, Canon keeps making the same camera, only with slight variations, and we don’t really have much in the way of lenses. In particular, I’ve got basically one choice in what would be the key optic for me, and that’s the kit lens. Focus performance isn’t up there with state-of-the-art, either. So, close but no cigar.
  • I really like the Fujifilm X line. To Fujifilm’s credit, they exited the DSLR market and then returned years later with a smaller, better, and quickly morphing mirrorless variation that has a lot of photographic wisdom in it and performs much like a DSLR. Where I get stuck with the Fujifilm system as an add-on to my DSLR gear is that, with the lens I want on the body I want, I’m back to a two-and-a-half pound weight round my neck; might as well carry the A7. And I can get to that same size/weight with a smaller DSLR. Sure, I could just pick one of the small primes and one of the smaller bodies, but then I’m wondering why I wouldn’t just use a Sony RX1, or Sony A6300, or maybe a Ricoh GR? 
  • So we get to what I chose in 2009. You guessed it, it’s probably what I would choose in 2016: m4/3. As a supplement to my DSLR kit, I can give up a bit of performance—mostly low light performance—to get a small, light combination to take on safari with me (or to sporting events, etc.). What small, light combination is that?  Probably the Olympus OM-D E-M10II (390g) with Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 lens (305g). But I can come up with smaller and lighter variations that don’t give up a lot. Still at 24.5 ounces (695g), with the combination I just mentioned I’ve got a pretty darned competent mid-range that might even fit into my larger jacket pockets. That’s about as big and heavy as I want to go with a supplemental camera, but at that boundary I’ve got something that shoots incredibly well. 

I hear the grumbling. I can see hundreds of you firing up your email clients to send me a Trump-like burn. The swearing level worldwide went up a bit as you read this article. I get it. But do you? 

The premise here was not repeat not to tell you what the best mirrorless camera you can get today is. It wasn’t even to tell you what mirrorless camera you should get (which most of you should notice isn’t the same thing as the previous sentence). I’m not talking best here. I’m simply walking you through the logic I’d be using if I were making the same decision here in 2016 that I went through in 2009. I have some very specific demands and needs, and I’m trying to apply what I know about the products in the market today to see if I need to make a different decision. 

As it turns out, I probably don’t. 

Indeed, going through the exercise makes me realize that there really isn’t a situation where I’d use my Nikon J5 over the Sony RX100. Almost no situation where I’d use my V3 over an m4/3 camera. There really isn’t a situation where I’d use the Fujifilm X-T1 over my smaller DSLRs. But there are situations where I’d tend to use my Sony A7’s over my Nikon DSLRs. 

I’m one to put my money where my mouth is. I’m in the midst of reducing my kits of many of the mirrorless systems down to a known good lens I can test any new cameras with, and not much more. I’d rather own things I’m using regularly than things that mostly sit on my gear shelf. 

Bravo Olympus


Long-time readers of my sites—some of which have been with me for 15 years or more now—know that I call a spade a spade. If I dislike something or think a wrong decision has been made, I clearly and sometimes loudly point that out. 

Since a lot of people don’t hear when I make praise for something, I thought for a change I’d separate that out into a separate article, even if in the grand scheme of things what I’m about to praise is a modest, minor feature.

Olympus has discovered and embraced Arca Swiss mounts. Bravo. 

Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff have made entire companies out of the Japanese vendors' inactions, particularly related to how you stabilize a camera. Virtually every serious photographer I know uses Arca Swiss plates and clamps on all their stabilization systems. Why? Simple: it’s the one system that, with everything locked down properly,  you get as near a fusing of metal as you can. Joints are bad for stable support, and loose ones especially so. Arca Swiss essentially removes a joint. 

So to Olympus: the recent 300mm f/4 has a tripod collar that has an Arca Swiss plate built in. Not only does that remove an extra piece—add on plate to the lens foot—it’s the right way to design a lens foot. 

bythom olympus pen-f grip

Now, with the Pen-F, Olympus has introduced an optional hand grip that also has a built-in Arca Swiss plate at the bottom. Not quite as great as built-into the body, but still, here we have a camera manufacturer recognizing what we’re likely to do in terms of adding accessories for a change. 

So bravo Olympus. You actually noticed what a large proportion of your customers were doing. Indeed, with the new high-megapixel pass mode of these recent cameras (e.g. 50mp on the Pen-F), we’re absolutely going to put our cameras on a strong support system, and for most of us that’s going to be Arca Swiss. 

Credit where credit is due: this is the type of decision/feature we want. I wish I could write that more often.

Since some Fujifilm user will write in to complain that I’m not heaping the same praise on Fujifilm, please note that Fujifilm didn’t add Arca Swiss to their telephoto tripod collars, and I did indeed previously write about and praise the add-on grips they produced that had Arca Swiss plates built in. 

Update: one person noted that an Arca Swiss plate on the bottom can be hard on the hand, as you could have a dovetail edge sticking out. True. But the Olympus grip is a right-hand grip: it’s designed for holding the camera with your right hand, and I don’t think the dovetail sticks out past the front of the camera. The only way your left hand would likely be impacted by the plate is if you had it under the camera and were strongly gripping with the left hand. 

The Olympus Pen-F Reappears

(news & commentary)

bythom olympus pen-f front angle

Olympus today announced the Pen-F, a new camera that’s more rangefinder style than DSLR, and which competes fairly directly with the Panasonic GX-8, which has a similar form factor. 

The original “Pen” dates to 1959, when Olympus first introduced a "half-frame" 35mm camera that was a more compact and light film SLR. It didn’t actually split a 35mm film roll in half; instead it used the Hollywood format for 35mm film, which today we’d probably refer to as Super35 format. Still, you’d get twice the number of shots with a standard 35mm film cartridge on a Pen as did other film SLRs. In some ways, the original Pen F foreshadowed the crop sensor designs of the digital era. 

In 2009, Olympus gave us the “Digital Pen,” the first model of which was the E-P1. Since then we’ve had a long series of other Pens, four in the EP series, five in the PL series, and two in the PM series. All these cameras, however did not have built-in EVFs (some had optional EVFs). 

I mention the history for a reason: Olympus appears to be rejiggering their use of the Pen term again. This time we have a Pen-F, which is directly imitating the original film Pen F (1963) name, and has a lot of styling cues from that camera, including that dial on the front of the camera below the shutter release. Too bad Olympus missed the 50th anniversary ;~).

The original digital Pens initially sold well, but in more recent years they really only sell decently in parts of Asia and for a couple of years now Olympus has had the problem of overproduced inventory of them.  I’ve seen the most recent E-P5 on clearance in some places at less than half it’s original list price, though currency swings have affected that somewhat, too. Still, if you ask any dealer that sells the Olympus m4/3 line, they’ll tell you that the OM-D models are their main bread and butter here in the US.

Which makes the Pen-F curious: it has an EVF like the OM-D models, and it inherits most of the things that the OM-D models have introduced, including the 50mp Hi-Res mode first seen in the E-M5II. So why would we want a Pen-F instead of a new OM-D? 

Well, the Pen-F is the first of the Olympus m4/3 models to get the Sony 20mp sensor. It also uses the rangefinder-style offset EVF, which some photographers prefer, as their nose doesn’t hit the rear LCD.  

I’m not sure what to make of the Olympus m4/3 product line at this point. Oh, the lenses have slotted in very nicely, and we’re getting more coming, which means that the full system should round out as good as any we’ve seen. No, it’s the cameras that seem lack a solid differentiation point. Why do I want a Pen-F instead of an OM-D? Why do I want a Pen-F instead of a GX-8? Those are tricky questions that don’t seem to be answered very well by Olympus.

Even in the OM-D line, I sometimes scratch my head about how an E-M1 and E-M5II are supposed to be different. And the E-M10II is basically a slightly stripped version in a smaller and lighter body. It really feels that Olympus is engineering resource constrained. E-M5 established the OM-Ds, but then the E-M1 and E-M5II progression seemed merely like leapfrogging. Might as well have kept the same body and controls and made an E-M5, E-M5II, and E-M5III as far as I’m concerned. 

But now we have the Pen-F basically joining into the leapfrog game, only with another different body style. No doubt we’ll get the 20mp sensor and something else new in the E-M1 Mark II, but the differentiation in terms of actual capabilities in all these model switches is just muddled the way Olympus is doing it. It just feels like there are too many models in too narrow an arbitrary space. That said, the Pen-F has a bit more of a retro look and feel to it, and that alone may appeal to some.

So what do we get in the Pen-F that’s new? 

As I noted, Olympus has moved to the Sony 20mp m4/3 sensor with this model, giving us 5 fps with autofocus tracking as the top speed. The mechanical shutter now goes to 1/8000, with an anti-shock mode capability up to 1/320 second. The raw buffer at 5 fps is 250 shots, so basically un-confining. Plus, of course, the body style difference from the OM-D models. One thing that’s highly welcome is that Olympus seems to have gone to a round eyepiece on the viewfinder, and one that won’t get easily dislodged and lost as we’ve experienced on virtually every earlier Olympus m4/3 body. 

The most glaring omission with the Pen-F is weather sealing, and that’s already gotten a lot of discussion and angst from the m4/3 faithful. The other omission that is getting considerable commentary from the Olympus faithful is that phase detect autofocus is missing. That’s not a terrible loss, as the primary time the Olympus models use phase detect is with the older 4/3 lenses, but still, that makes the Pen-F a little less backwards compatible.

Finally, there’s price. As I write this, the very competent E-M10 Mark II is US$749, the E-P5 is US$799, the E-M5 Mark II is US$999, and the E-M1 is US$1099.  But the Pen-F tops all of those at US$1199 for the body.

Most of the rest of the Pen-F is recognizably the same as the most recent OM-D models, including the 50mp high resolution mode. 

With the Panasonic GX-8 also being 20mp and rangefinder style, I’m sure the question will come up: Pen-F or GX-8? Here are some of the differences that you might notice between the cameras:

  • The Pen-F has the 50mp high resolution shot mode for still life
  • The GX-8 has a swivel EVF
  • The Pen-F is somewhat smaller and lighter
  • The GX-8 shoots 4K video

Whether that’s enough differentiation to split the smallish market for the rangefinder style m4/3 camera or not, I don’t know. Obviously, there are performance differences and JPEG rendering differences between the two, but frankly, they seem much more similar than dissimilar to me. 

One thing that bothers me a bit about the Pen-F design (and the GX-8) is the non-aligned EVF and lens. With an aligned EVF/lens—e.g. DSLR style—when a subject moves laterally in front of you your response in panning the camera is in line with the eye.  With the off-set rangefinder style cameras—e.g. Leica style—the eye-hand coordination is just a bit off kilter. For most subjects that’s not a big deal, but I do find that I have to “relearn” my rotation habits a bit when I’m shooting fast moving subjects with an offset design.  Not a big thing, but it’s a real, though subtle, issue.

Personally, I like the “look” of the new Pen-F and many things about it, but it’s not likely to be the m4/3 camera that ends up in my bag. Once Olympus brings the 20mp sensor to an E-M1 update, that’s much more likely going to be the camera in my bag. Still, there’s no arguing that the Pen-F seems a little more retro cute and seemingly well specified. 

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Fujifilm Announces X-Pro2 and More

(news & commentary)

Welcome to the land of 24mp APS, Fujifilm. 

bythom fujifilm x-pro2 back

The X-Pro2 hasn’t exactly been a secret. Plenty of leaks occurred during the prototyping and testing cycle, then Fujifilm Australia had a premature e-postulation. So the word has been slowly getting out. With this news story, the actual press embargo is over and we can tell you about the camera.

What’s different? The big news is the 24mp X-Trans sensor, moving Fujifilm up to the level that Nikon and Sony have been at for APS/DX sensors in terms of pixel count, but with the X-Trans layout potentially giving a slight acuity edge. (Again, for those of you who aren’t aware of X-Trans, it’s a different layout than Bayer, and one that has more luminance data than color data compared to Bayer. If you want a lot more discussion of X-Trans, see my original X-Pro1 review.)

The hybrid EVF/optical viewfinder and the rear LCD display get pixel updates (2.36m and 1.62m dots respectively), which is welcome.  The X-Pro2 features two card slots, but only one is a fast UHS-II capable one.  Fujifilm added a new film style, Acros, as well as a new compressed raw file format. We also get a new shutter with 1/8000 top speed and 1/250 flash sync (as opposed to 1/4000 and 1/180), plus some new focus capabilities, WiFi, and additional video frame rates.

Price is US$1699 for the body only and availability is scheduled for the first week of February. Or you could just pick up an X-Pro1 on the cheap right now from this site’s exclusive advertiser (US$499 [advertiser link]) ;~). 

Overall, this appears to be a moderate update to the original flagship of the X lineup: sensor, focus, viewfinder, shutter upgrades, but otherwise very recognizable to the original X-Pro1. Fujifilm’s been on a long march to get their X bodies up to the levels of APS DSLRs, and with this update, they’re closer than ever. 

Along with the X-Pro2 Fujifilm also announced the US$699  X-E2s, which is mostly firmware and internal updates that improve the performance of that camera, particularly focus. 

Plus we also got a new telephoto lens, the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. At US$1899 this new big lens promises to put you back into DSLR territory in terms of size, weight, and price. Note that all Fujifilm cameras will require an update in early February to use this lens.

bythom fujifilm 100-400mm

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m4/3 Gets Big (and Expensive) Glass

(news & commentary)

Both Olympus and Panasonic today officially announced their latest telephoto offerings for the m4/3 crowd. Hold onto your checkbooks…

bythom olympus 300mm
bythom panasonic 100-400mm angle

Both lenses have additional image stabilization (in addition to sensor-based, if any), which is something I pointed out quite some time ago: the longer the focal length and narrower the angle of view, the less effective in-camera stabilization is. But the addition of lens stabilization also makes these two telephotos more complex and costly. Olympus claims six stops of stabilization with the 300mm f/4 and their OM-D cameras.

Both appear to be excellent performers on first examination, and now give m4/3 owners the “exotics” they’ve been desiring for awhile. 

Nikon Needs to Fix the Nikon 1


I’ve been both a fan and critic of the Nikon 1 since it first came out. The original J1 and V1 suggested that Nikon could do two incredible things: make cameras very efficiently and cheaply, and provide DSLR-like performance attributes (particularly in terms of focus and frame rate). Those two things underpinned our expectations and excitement about the Nikon 1 line.

Unfortunately, Nikon chose to price these cameras to consumers way out of line with their costs. Ridiculously out of line, as it turned out. So, one of our possible excitements turned out to never be acted on until Nikon went into a fire market sale of leftover inventory. Worse still, with the later J models Nikon moved away from their ridiculously simple designs and went back to their old Coolpix habits of making more complex, harder to manufacturer, more expensive products. So now the J5 looks and feels like a Coolpix, is made like a Coolpix, and won’t ever have that original Nikon J1 pricing flexibility. Sad.

Okay, how about excitement two? Well, focus and frame rate performance has indeed been exceptional on all the Nikon 1 models, even the underwater AW1. But focus is only one of the things a photographer needs to control. Those other things we want to control turned out to all have silly, incomplete, and dysfunctional designs, which persists today. Indeed, Coolpix-like designs that limit what you can do and which try to make decisions—almost always bad—for you. Nowhere is that more evident than the Auto ISO implementation on the Nikon 1 models, which is not only missing the most useful choices, but is almost virtually guaranteed to set a shutter speed too slow to get a sharp shot. Wait, isn’t focus performance about getting great, sharp shots? Why would you allow Auto ISO to change those into terrible, unsharp shots? 

With 1” sensor, fixed-lens Coolpix models about to be announced, Nikon is now about to box themselves into an even deeper corner. It’s as if they were painting the floor, discovered that they might be painting themselves into a corner with no exit, but kept painting anyway. Ugh. 

So what’s this corner that Nikon is in? 

Well, a 1” Coolpix model now has to compete with the Canon G series, the Panasonic FZ1000 and perhaps the LX100, and the Sony RX10/RX100, all of which are 1” or  larger in sensor size. Technically, that means they need fast lenses (f/1.8-2.8 worst case), they need 4K video, they need full user control, they probably need EVFs. Wait, the J5 doesn’t have much in the way of fast lenses, doesn’t have 4K video, doesn’t have full user control, and doesn’t have an EVF, not even an optional one. So a “perfectly competitive” Coolpix with a 1” sensor is likely to look better than a Nikon J5. Oops. Well, they could make the 1” Coolpix not so competitive. Oops. 

Technically, Nikon needs a Coolpix P### with a 1” sensor that’s at least 24-70mm f/2.8, has 4K video, has the Nikon 1 autofocus, has decent enthusiast-level user control, and either a built-in EVF or optional one. What makes me think Nikon would price that at  US$1000? ;~)

The J5, that’s what. To keep the J5 price point intact, such a Coolpix would have to be more expensive than it, by a good margin. But at US$1000, it’s now competing with the V3: oops I did it again. And such a Coolpix looks better than a V3—using my definition in the previous paragraph—at the same price. Nikon hates putting products out that might cannibalize another of their own products, indeed, that’s implicit in the organization of their design groups. (It’s also the wrong choice, as I outlined in my recent article on dslrbodies.com.) 

So we’re now at the point where both the J5 and V3 need entirely new product designs to get us out of an embarrassing corner. 

Frankly Nikon has needed new product designs for these models for quite some time. Truly embarrassing, though, is the fact that Nikon has been making the same mistakes with CX (Nikon 1) that they’ve made with DX (crop sensor DSLRs). One of those mistakes is that they simply aren’t making a full, useful lens set for people who actually know what they’re doing photographically. Nikon is stuck on the “let’s make kit zooms and superzooms” philosophy for everything that even has a small stink of “consumer” to it. 

The problem is the era where that was okay has pretty much passed. Nowadays the “camera” market is shifting more and more towards enthusiast and high-end users in terms of who’s still buying; true consumer models are drifting rapidly downward in volume. Moreover, high-end is where all the competitors' buzz is, too, which means trying to do the same old consumer zoom thing gets harder and harder to market. 

Personally, I have no problem with overlapping and competing product lines that establish clearly different performance and price points. If I were in charge of Nikon I wouldn’t care if you bought Coolpix, Nikon 1, DX, or FX, as long as you bought Nikon, and as long as I was doing things that kept you a Nikon customer for life. That last bit isn’t happening, either, and extends far beyond product definitions, but that’s a different story for a different day.

I want your Coolpix and DX, or your Nikon 1 and FX (or any other combination you can come up with) to work the same, be set the same, offer the same subsets of options, and to work with the rest of your life the same way (e.g. workflow). So in that scenario how would a Nikon 1 (CX) be different than DX or FX, and how would it be different than Coolpix? Let’s try to rationalize that:

  1. Coolpix is fixed lens only. The definition of a Coolpix is a camera that’s an all-in-one solution, and has little or no add-on options. It’s definition embodies compact in size, but with as much performance as possible. But it’s using a smaller sensor size, so it’s performance won’t match the bigger cameras.
  2. Nikon 1 (CX) is the same thing as Coolpix, only using interchangeable lenses and offering flexible extensions. It’s for someone who wants one small camera, but needs much more flexibility from that camera. It’s still compact in size with as much performance as possible. It’s still using a smaller sensor size. But it offers more options for user growth (lenses, flashes, and other accessories). Perhaps it’s programmable and customizable where the Coolpix isn’t. 
  3. DX is a larger crop sensor variation on the theme. Not smallest in size, but not largest in Nikon’s lineup. Like CX, it offers even more options for user growth. It certainly must be programmable and have reasonably deep customization, and it adds some things that CX doesn’t offer, as well. 
  4. FX is the top of the line, and has everything Nikon has to offer, including the biggest, best sensors. It ups the ante in customization and programmability over DX. But it’s also a larger product centered on Nikon’s legacy glass. 

Would I own two or more of those options? You bet. But not if they aren’t aligned properly, and not if they produce different user experiences. Which is why I own no Nikon Coolpix anymore, and aren’t really using my Nikon 1’s any more, either. 

Which brings me to:

  • A J6 needs to be much like a smaller D3300 or maybe D5500. Yes, there are few controls missing (front command dial, for example). Yes, there are fewer options in the menus. Yes, raw files are always compressed. You get the idea. I’d suggest it needs at least an optional EVF, or perhaps a fully rotating LCD.  
  • A V4 needs to be much like a smaller D7200. Proper enthusiast-oriented controls and lots of them. This is a performance camera with a small sensor, period. Built-in EVF, swivel LCD. Some modest level of programmability and customization.
  • Both new cameras need to communicate fully with the WiFi/Cellular world, and do so well. That means Infrastructure as well as AdHoc WiFi, it means 802.11ac, it means better iOS/Android apps, it probably means Bluetooth and it means more options on what goes from camera to phone/tablet/computer (plus when and why, which is the tip of the programmability iceberg).
  • The lens set needs to be complete and appropriate. Appropriate means “small and light.” Even the current 70-300mm is an example of wrong to me: it should have been a PF lens (phase fresnel), and smaller still. I’m willing to give up some flare control for size on a Nikon 1. More than willing. I’m buying the Nikon 1 for small and compact, with as much performance as possible in that limitation. Short of a 70-300mm PF, maybe then a 200mm f/2.8 PF instead? See how I’m pushing compact and performance together? We also need the 24-70mm fast zoom equivalent and the 70-200mm fast zoom equivalent. That’s a little trickier to do right and make small. But come on Nikon, you’re supposed to have some of the best optical engineers in the world. Others are solving this problem. Why aren’t you? We also need a better wide angle prime than the 10mm f/2.8, though not one that’s bigger ;~). The goal should be 24, 35, 50, 85, 300mm (maybe 200mm or 400mm) equivalent primes, 10-24, 24-70, 70-200, 100-400mm equivalent zooms. All designed with performance and compactness as their critical attributes. 
  • If Nikon wants to continue to make consumer crud in the CX space, great, make an S3 that’s like the current J5, and upgrade the consumer kit zooms with even more emphasis on size. Still, I’d think this would be a hard sell if Nikon did Coolpix and the J6 and V4 right. Consumer crud is going to go away as smartphones continue to nibble upwards (the first decent 28-70mm zoom in a smartphone is going to crush the next level of the DSC crud market).

Will Nikon do all this? 

No. Which is why next year I’ll be writing an “Nikon Still Needs to fix the Nikon 1” article. Sadly, whatever disease the Nikon design and engineering teams have, it’s not responding to treatment. 

Update: so it seems that some people can’t get their heads around the fact that I believe that the Nikon 1 product line needs an incredible amount of work to stay competitive and the fact that I chose the J5 as my Entry Mirrorless Camera of the Year.  And that’s despite that I also noted that doing so made me “cringe a little bit” and had extended comments about my love/hate relationship with the J5. 

So let me lay a couple of things out. I only consider cameras introduced during the year for the award. The J5 was lucky that a Panasonic GM7 didn’t appear in 2015, amongst other possibilities. The Nikon J5’s “win” was a narrow one, and reflective of my personal choices when going out to shoot. Is the J5 a decent camera? Obviously, but the line that everyone keeps getting ignored in the award article is this: “Nikon makes getting the best out of this camera way more difficult than it should be.” 

That’s actually what makes me cringe about awarding it Best Entry Mirrorless for 2015: “entry” implies a user that isn’t ready to deal with fighting the camera to make it work well. 

There’s a reason why I posted these two articles together (what Nikon needs to fix on the Nikon 1 and the Mirrorless Cameras of the Year). Doing so provides more clarity on my thinking about the J5 and its siblings. It seems that some people have the mistaken belief that if something “wins an award” it is perfect. The J5 is a clear example of that not being the case at all. 

Cameras are so imperfect these days (to the task of taking and sharing images), that one has to choose between far-from-optimal compromises. The reality is that all the folk running around claiming that Camera A or Camera B is the be-all, do-all, just-gotta-have-it camera are wrong. I make no such claims. I call the warts as I see them, and the J5 has quite a few, most of which didn’t need to be there. 

Best Serious & Entry Mirrorless Cameras of the Year


Each year I look at all the new mirrorless cameras that were introduced during the year and pronounce one the Best Serious Mirrorless Camera of the Year, and another the Best Entry Mirrorless Camera of the Year. 

For 2015 the entries were:

  • Serious: E-M5II, X-T10, A7rII, GX8, A7sII, SL, and M (typ 262)
  • Entry: X-A2, GF7, M3, M10, NX500, J5, G7, E-M10

Some might quibble a bit about my categorizations. For example, the Olympus E-M10 is certainly a serious camera with much of the OM-D bones to it, while the X-T10 might be called a more entry-level version of Fujifilm’s high end X-T1. But I categorized these as I did based upon conversations with potential users and purchasers. It’s not scientific, and I almost decided to create an “in between” class. Unfortunately, these days in mirrorless, we’ve got an enormous range of options, and that not only makes the job of splitting these into two groups difficult, it also makes choosing a camera very difficult, as you can find a model pretty much everywhere on the spectrum from no frills to kitchen sink. 

The easiest decision for me this year was in the Best Serious Camera of the Year. I don’t think there’s any question here. While the Olympus E-M5II is a very fine camera, the Panasonic GX8 a very nice change of pace, the Fujifilm X-T10 a nice lower cost option yet still serious entry, and the Leica SL an intriguing and very different option, Sony pressed the pedal to the metal in iterating their A7 cameras both inside and out, and it shows. In the process of taking all three models from their initial presentation to Mark II models, Sony managed to clean up a lot of issues we had. But the real surprise in the A7r Mark II is this: a truly state of the art sensor that delivers on both still and video image quality, plus has focus performance that most people will find fast enough. 

bythom sony a7rii body

The A7rII is not a perfect camera, though. Button positions are still awkward; the menus need more attention to hierarchy, importance, and speed; we still can’t move the focus cursor as directly as we’d like;  battery life can be hideously poor if you’re not careful in your settings; and the body just doesn’t feel great in the hand for long periods. That said, there’s not another mirrorless camera that can match it in image quality, even in lowish light. Very few can match it in focus speed and accuracy (though, as usual, extracting said performance requires careful study of the options). While on the video side we’ve got a very usable 4K video camera (though I’d tend to suggest the A7sII for someone mostly doing video). 42mp on a full frame BSI CMOS sensor using Sony’s latest Exmor technologies is basically state of the art. Now that Sony’s upgraded the firmware so that we can actually get uncompressed data from the sensor, I judge the A7rII to be right up there with my D810 in terms of image quality expectations. 

Wait, did I just imply equal? Yes. But the Sony has 42mp BSI and the Nikon is only 36mp and isn’t BSI. Sorry, but that small boost in pixel count really doesn’t change resolution in any way that you’ll see in your output, and the BSI doesn’t really gain you anything substantive in dynamic range with large photosites. The BSI actually seems to improve some adapted lens use more than anything else (the BSI places the light collection up higher in the sensor and collects more light from severe angles, something that can be problematic with some older wide angle lens designs). 

But equal is great. Here we are almost four years into the 36mp Nikon cycle and the Nikon DSLRs using that sensor are still producing the very best image quality and data integrity you can get in anything smaller than medium format. Sony is clearly matching that with the A7rII. I’d still rate the D810 as the “best all-around ILC you can buy” right now, but the A7rII needs to be considered right behind it. The A7rII is better at (most) video, but the D810 still has nuances to it that make it a better choice for serious still photographers. 

Certainly the appearance of the A7rII changed my camera habits a bit. I’m using my m4/3 gear and D810 less, and the A7rII with the three f/4 zooms makes for a pretty portable kit that produces some darned good images without any big penalties (other than carrying a lot of batteries). Sony’s to be commended for taking an already good camera and pushing it right up to state-of-the-art. I heartily look forward to seeing what they can do with a Mark III. 

The Sony A7r Mark II is my Best Serious Mirrorless Camera of the Year. And clearly so.

Oh that it were so easy in the Entry category. What we’ve got here is a real mishmash of products, some which look a lot like the serious entries, but with something in them cut down to better appeal to a true entry consumer. The Canon M3 is Canon’s top end of their mirrorless system, and a large degree it’s kind of like a low-end Canon DSLR without a built-in viewfinder. That should be serious, right? 

All the cameras I placed in this category are there because I see them more as cameras that people will approach much more casually. Some are seriously small, which encourages carrying them all the time and using them for casual photography, even by serious enthusiasts and pros. For example, if you’re an m4/3 user as I am, the Olympus E-M10II is a ridiculously small version of the other OM-D cameras, and not with a lot of compromises taken to get there. 

Most of the cameras in the entry category come as point-and-shooters, through: cameras designed to be used at arms-length and not at the eye (yes, I know you can get an optional EVF for the M3 while two of the group have built-in EVFs). In the end, it was this attribute coupled with smallness that tipped my decision: past Entry Mirrorless Cameras of the Year have been characterized by those two things. Indeed, I’ll be clear that I have a bias here: given that we have some smallish serious cameras, I would simply tell you to buy one of those and skip the entry category except for one thing: the great entry cameras are truly something you can carry with you all the time without burden. The Panasonic GM series—past winners of this award—have an attribute that catapults them above most serious compact cameras with large sensors: they’re pocketable (albeit a large pocket) but have the ability to change lenses with need. 

Which brings me to this year’s winner. I’ll admit I have some qualms with my choice: this is not the clear winner that the Sony was in the previous category. However, this year’s winner is the only one of the group that really compels me to want to carry it everywhere: the Nikon J5. It’s a shame that this camera doesn’t have the lens set that would really distinguish it, though, and that’s one of my qualms. 

bythom nikon j5

The J5 competes squarely against a camera such as the Sony RX100. Indeed, they use versions of the same excellent Exmor sensor. The Sony is more pocketable, the Nikon has interchangeable lenses and arguably the best autofocus system we’ve seen to date in mirrorless cameras. But look at the “kit” configurations: 

  • Sony — 24-70mm (equivalent) f/1.8-2.8
  • Nikon — 27-81mm (equivalent) f/3.5-5.6

Ugh. The J5 is giving up some significant wide angle ability while also giving up as much as two stops of aperture at the other end. On the other hand we can stick a native lens on it that gets us to 810mm (equivalent) while the Sony is just "basic mid-range is all you get.” The Nikon also has fast 50mm and 85mm (again equivalents) that are exceptionally good lenses, and with the latter takes back two stops from the Sony at f/1.2. Moreover, the 30-100mm lens option makes for one of the most compact (and high quality) 81-270mm ILC options you can carry around, and that’s one of the things that tipped my views here. But it’s almost as if the Nikon 1 engineers are having frequent Jekyll and Hyde moments: sometimes the Nikon 1 options are stunning (focus performance, frame rate, the 32mm f/1.2, etc.), while others are “we don’t really care about images” decisions (f/3.5-5.6 lenses, lack of some external controls, terrible Auto ISO capabilities, 15 fps 4K video, etc.). 

More so than any other camera I’ve picked since establishing these awards several years ago, the J5 as Entry Mirrorless Camera of the Year makes me cringe a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, it wouldn’t get this award if it wasn’t capable of great things, things you can’t do with the other entry cameras I considered. The sensor is capable of better-than-you’d-expect image quality when used properly. The lens flexibility in such a small package is outstanding. As noted, this is a small camera that knows how to focus, and do so with fast precision. 

Yet for generation five of the model (J1, J2, J3, J4 came previously), it just doesn’t quite feel as polished and finished as it should. Nikon’s not alone in this, by the way. The Sony RX100 I’m using in some of my comparisons here is a fourth generation camera itself, and after making some quick advances in earlier models, I feel that the Mark IV was not only not an advance, but feels more like a step backward by the Sony engineers. Oh, I should note that the Sony RX100IV is twice as expensive as the Nikon J5, but I don’t consider price in these decisions. The Olympus E-M10 Mark II might be the best bargain of the bunch in this category when you consider the mix of features and performance for the price. Indeed, it was my runner-up choice for this category this year. 

The J5 is more of a love me/hate me camera. The love part comes from what I can actually do with the camera. It punches far above its weight class. The hate part comes from trying to make the camera do those things ;~). Nikon makes getting the best out of this camera way more difficult than it should be. 

As I noted, this category is a real mix of products this year. The Samsung NX-500 has everything that I liked about the NX-1 except the body style and the EVF. Of this year’s entry products, it has the best image quality of the bunch. The m4/3 products in this category are all in the middle of their companies’ lineups, so neither Olympus nor Panasonic truly think of them as entry models, and it shows in features and performance. The Canon products seem to be more of the same from Canon, with the M3 tweaking the M2 a bit, the M10 giving you a lower-specified option at a lower cost. There’s not a lot wrong with the EOS M line that Canon is producing other than we have yet to see a truly top end model, plus the lens selection and focus performance is still disappointing. If you have a Canon DSLR, the EOS M3 actually may be your best choice of a mirrorless entry option.

But, after going round and round with trying to rationalize my thinking, I noted that the camera that I most often would stick in my (jacket) pocket out of this group was the Nikon J5. With the 18mm f/1.8 lens it’s a tremendous low profile and completely silent street shooter. We were spending thousands of dollars to get this level of image quality just a decade ago in an ILC. 

So this year’s Best Entry Mirrorless Camera of the Year is the Nikon J5. 

2015 News/Views

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