News/Views

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.

How Many Megapixels?

(commentary)

A few years back an Olympus executive made the statement that digital cameras really only needed 12mp and implied that Olympus wouldn’t go further than that with m4/3. Of course, we’re at 16mp now with m4/3, so that didn’t exactly work out as expected, did it?

But the question keeps coming up, and will come up again in September when we see at least one of the current 16mp mirrorless producers move to 24mp (and, of course, Canon APS and Nikon 1" are already at 18mp, while Samsung is at 20mp APS, and Sony is at 24mp in APS and 36mp in full frame). 

What do we really need in terms of megapixels? Do we need to go further than we currently have? 

That answer isn’t particularly easy to come up with, as it turns out. 

Let’s start with the “optimal” shooter. This person has the lenses they need, composes carefully in the field, understands their camera’s dynamic range and how to maximize it, and is a good post processor of raw data. What can they currently do with 16mp (m4/3 and APS)?

  • Print to 15” with no resizing (e.g. presenting the printer with 300 dpi) 
  • Print to ~24” with good resizing techniques
  • Easily shoot to ISO 1600 without worrying much about noise, probably ISO 3200 with care
  • Shoot at 4 fps, maybe faster depending upon the camera, 
  • Shoot with anywhere from adequate to very good focus capabilities, also depending upon the camera

Do these users need more than 16mp? Likely not. Looking at the above list, most everyone in the optimal shooter category would probably say that would want better focus (bullet 5) or perhaps better low light capability (bullet 3) before more pixels (bullets 1 and 2). 

What would they get from more pixels? Larger print sizes, basically. Possibly more edge acuity at the same print size. Though these would have to balanced against issues that might arise from using smaller photosites, e.g. noise. Sensor technologies do get better with regularity, so the noise issues would probably be mitigated somewhat with time. 

So the question becomes this: how many of you really want to print bigger than you currently are? You landscape photographers don’t get to vote on this as you could almost always use stitching to create larger images and image stacking to deal with dynamic range, and that would arguably give you better results than more pixels on the existing sensor. I don’t see a lot of hands go up when I ask this question these days. Not nearly as many as I did 10 years ago, when most hands went up. 

My hand also doesn’t go up. I’m perfectly happy with what the Olympus E-M1 gives me when hiking deep into the backcountry. If anything, my focus has shifted to what lenses I’m carrying and why. Same would be true if I were using a Fujifilm X-T1 for these hikes. The Sony A7 would be more than enough at 24mp full frame, too, though given that the A7r is almost an identical camera, the temptation is to go with its 36mp. Note that I didn’t: I returned the A7r and only kept the A7. Enough pixels are enough, and the A7 has better focus performance and doesn’t have the shutter slap issue of the A7r. 

Okay, what about the “non-optimal” shooter? 

First, I guess I have to explain what I mean here. The biggest category of non-optimal shooter is what I call the “heavy cropper.” They take shots with wider-than-needed lenses and then attempt to discover the picture via cropping in the digital darkroom. Yes, I know there are times when you simply have to shoot this way—many sports shots I make require cropping simply because I can’t be in the position with the necessary lens to get the shot I really want. But I’m talking about the person who tends to shoot casually with the kit lens, tends to stand back from their subjects, and when they get home they look to discover whether there’s a better shot in the one they took, and thus starts cropping. Do they need more than 16mp?

In one sense, yes. If you’re taking a 4608 x 3456 pixel image and using crop tools to make it 2400 x 1800, then you’d probably rather have 24mp or more to start with. Maybe. 

Are these non-optimals printing large? Probably not. Most are sharing via the Internet as far as I can tell. But even in the example I just gave they could get an 8” print without resizing and probably an 11” print with resizing. 

To a large degree, the Olympus executive was right: 12mp is a good stopping point for many. If you’re using all those pixels, you can easily print an 8x10” print, probably do quite fine to 11x14”. 

The thing is: not a single maker—even the one that suggested they would stop—has stopped upping the pixel count in their cameras. To some degree, that’s because there’s a marketing war going on. 24 is better than 16. IS is better than none. Smaller is better than larger. In almost every realm you look at with cameras, the camera makers are looking to find simple to understand bullet points that allow them to market against competitors. Everyone understands numbers, right? Bigger is better. 

Which brings us to the problem. In DSLRs Canon is at 18mp minimum, and Nikon is now pretty much at 24mp minimum (the pro D4s and the oddball Df notwithstanding). Those two companies sell a majority of the interchangeable lens cameras, and that hasn’t changed since the 1980’s. So if you’re going to sell against those power brokers, you need to be able to say “we can match them” plus “we have other attributes that are better” (usually smaller, lighter). 

So the mirrorless makers (except for Sony and maybe Samsung) are in a quandary. You really need 24mp to match Nikon DSLRs. You really need fast phase detect autofocus to match DSLRs. Those two things are currently perceived as “lagging” in most mirrorless cameras. So selling a mirrorless camera becomes more about do the benefits (size, weight, lens lineup, etc.) outweigh the duopoly consumer DSLRs’ benefits (megapixels, focus speed, etc.)? 

The answer at 12mp and contrast detect autofocus was mostly “no." The answer at 16mp and nascent on-sensor phase detect autofocus has been “almost.”  That’s still a problem when the mirrorless cameras are trying to command a premium price. Which means we’ll see 24mp cameras with improved autofocus from the mirrorless cameras soon. Sony’s already basically there with the A6000, though they shot themselves in a toe by coming out with the new FE mount, which slowed E mount lens development to a halt. 

I’d tend to say that 16mp was enough. But that won’t stop the floodgates of more megapixels. Photokina in September will take at least one, and as many as three of the current mirrorless players, up to 24mp. 

The situation some users seem to be in reminds me of the old Cat Stevens song:

But sometimes you have to moan/
When nothing seems to suit you/
But nevertheless you know/
You’re locked towards the future

Then I found my head one day/
When I wasn’t even trying/
And here I have to say/
‘Cause there is no use in lying

Yes, the answer lies within/
So why not take a look now?/
Kick out the devil’s sin/
Pick up, pick up a good camera now

Oh, wait, he sang “book" not “camera.” Still, it seems like good advice. While some of you are waiting around for 24mp, there’s nothing at all wrong with the 16mp cameras we’ve got today. It’ll take far more than a change in a number to change that. 

Why Sunny 16 is Still Important

(commentary)

Before we had light meters in cameras, we had Sunny 16: set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed to 1/ISO in mid-day sunlight. That method of exposure still works, but we have very sophisticated light meters in cameras these days, so many think we don’t have to worry about Sunny 16 any more. 

So why do I say it’s still an important thing? Simple: it helps you evaluate systems and lenses and their potential usefulness from just specifications. 

This came up recently with the Nikon 1 and the 70-300mm lens. At 300mm it’s really 810mm equivalent in a very small package. But it’s also f/5.6 on a small sensor. The first thing I do when I hear about a new lens/system like this is do the Sunny 16 calculation. 

My measured ISO on the V3 is 100, not the 160 listed by the camera. So in sunlit subjects I’m expecting an exposure of f/16 at 1/100. Well, 1/100 isn’t nearly good enough for an 810mm equivalent lens, even one with VR. So let’s run that up to 1/800. Three stops (1/100->1/200->1/400->1/800). Okay, so we have to run the aperture down three stops: f/5.6 (f/16->f/11->f/8->f/5.6). Eek. 

What the Sunny 16 calculation tells me is that the V3 and 70-300mm combination is right on the margin for sunlit subjects. If I’m going to use that lens in the shade or edge of day, I’ll be boosting ISO, stat. ISO 400 is as far as I usually want to go with the V3 for best results, and that’s really about ISO 250, and I’ll end up with just a little over a stop better off. Using my old Nikon Field Guide Sunny 16 rules, that means I’m wide open at a solid shutter speed in heavy haze to maybe thin, high cloud cover. In open shade and moderate overcast, I’m going to have to boost to ISO 1600, which is about as far as I want to push the V3’s sensor. 

So just from using the Sunny 16 rule and my dynamic range tests on the camera, I can tell that the 70-300mm will probably work for me on safari in Africa during the day, but will start to push me into tough-to-process results or too-long shutter speeds at the edge of the day. Which is why Nikon really needs to make a 26-75mm or 25-100mm f/2.8 lens for the Nikon 1 series. At least then I could switch lenses, lose some focal length, but gain back ISO when shooting at the edge of day. Of course, with the FT1 I can just bring my 24-70mm f/2.8 FX lens and get the same thing, but it’s a big heavy lens and I lose all but the center AF sensor by using the FT1. 

The 70-300mm has an odd ramp of aperture with focal length, by the way. It immediately jumps from f/4.5 to f/4.8 when you move from 70mm. Then it has a long slope until it hits f/5.6 at about 175mm, at which point it is f/5.6 for all longer focal lengths. 

Sunny 16 is your friend. Try using it more often to calculate whether products will be appropriate for your use. In the case of the V3 and 70-300mm, I’m thinking the 70-200mm f/2.8 on the FT1 might be a better choice for shooting that’s not outside in the sun. Even the 70-200mm f/4 gives me more flexibility than the 70-300mm CX. 

Don’t get me wrong, though. The 70-300mm is a welcome lens for CX. It’s mostly a friendly weather, mid-day lens, though. Knowing that before you head out the door to some exotic place might help you make the right lens choices. 

Nervous Speculation

(commentary)

If you filter out the fan boy type responses and just look for the more general attitude, I think you find an overall nervousness about mirrorless. It’s expressed in various ways, but it typically manifests itself as a question about the future viability of a sensor size, a camera design, or a brand. 

For example, the Nikon 1 will die because it uses too small a sensor. Or the Pen designs will go away because they didn’t sell well. Or Olympus will leave cameras completely and m4/3 will die.

First, let’s get one thing straight: interchangeable lens camera sales peaked in 2012. This year it’s looking like they’ll be only 73% of 2012’s shipments from the Japanese companies. Many see that mirrorless camera shipments are holding relatively flat from last year and get excited by the fact that this year’s decline is mostly attributable to DSLR shipment decline. 

The truth of the matter is this: flat is not good. With the possible exception of Sony—and it’s only possible because Sony doesn’t break out mirrorless sales, so we have to give them the benefit of the doubt—none of the mirrorless camera makers appear to derive profit from their products. So flat means continued losses. And the declining overall interchangeable lens marketplace means that future prospects don’t look exactly rosy, even if they could take share away from DSLRs. 

Many of the mirrorless camera makers have had camera groups in decline and unprofitability for many years running, so they’re overstaffed and have too much infrastructure for their current and future camera sales. It’s possible that employment reforms will take hold in Japan soon, allowing these companies to downsize (actually: rightsize), but that still doesn’t fully address the issues. 

Am I nervous about mirrorless camera prospects? Not really. It seems clear to me that DSLRs will morph into hybrids and eventually truly mirrorless. DSLRs need to shed parts costs and manufacturing complexity. The Sony A7 models are exactly what the future of DSLRs look like, only with higher focus and frame rate performance. Sony has a small window of opportunity with the A7’s before Canon and Nikon do something similar. Whether they manage to take hold of it or not is another story. Given the slow frame rates coupled with 11-bit compressed raw data, I’d say that they’re setting themselves up for a future problem if they don’t fix those things fast. Plus focus performance needs to be better and more under user control. 

Am I nervous about m4/3’s prospects? Not really. Yes, an m4/3 sensor has an image quality disadvantage to an APS sensor, especially if we think that sensors need to be 24mp+. But it’s not a large disadvantage, and the smaller lens sizes of m4/3 are an advantage. In my view, m4/3 is “sellable” against APS. However, that also means you have to be good at marketing. I’m a little disturbed by steps backward here in the US by both Olympus and Panasonic in terms of the marketing and sales of their m4/3 products. That needs to be reversed, I think. 

The products I’m most nervous about in mirrorless are the Canon and Nikon ones, actually. Both seem to be more test shots and placeholders than the type of product they likely need long term. That suggests that there could be major changes down the line for those systems. Or perhaps in the case of the Nikon 1, it might mean that a DX-type of mirrorless camera introduction by Nikon would more strongly push the Nikon 1 towards consumer focus. 

The problem is the declining interchangeable lens camera market, though. How long and how far that decline goes will have a large factor on what happens next. Note that we have about nine major players chasing 14m unit sales right now. What happens if those unit sales hit 10m? Or 8m? Or even lower? The pond is currently getting smaller, and the big fish are going to get more active as they get hungrier. Curiously, no one seems to want to get out of the pond. 

Personally, I think the near future for mirrorless is more of the same, with a slightly lower iteration rate until Canon and Nikon clear up their intentions of how they’ll shift from DSLRs to hybrid or mirrorless. So by maker, here’s my sense of things:

  • Fujifilm — Will continue to iterate in APS, and more at the higher end than the lower end. So more pixels, a better X-Pro1, maybe an X-T1 simpler brother, more lenses. The X-A1/X-M1 didn’t really sell to expectations, so I’d expect consolidation there. 
  • Leica — Already made their big move with the T. Now it’s about more lenses for the mount. Also, the M is due for another refresh and more modernization. 
  • Olympus — Pens will get downplayed and mostly focused on Asian markets, I think. But we’ll continue to see OM-D iterations as they try to find the right combination to create true sales volume for them. The problem for them and a number of other mirrorless companies is that US$1400 is a price too high, so you have to figure out how to get into the right price range. The E-M10 was a first attempt at this, but I don’t think they’ll stop there.
  • Panasonic — Panasonic has gone niche. Only the GM1 and GH4 seem to be getting their full attention, and those are cameras that cater to very specific groups. I don’t see Panasonic returning to more generalized mainstream products any time soon, if ever. They appear to want the cameras they produce to be unique. That doesn’t bode well for the G, GX, and GF cameras. I think they’re gone. 
  • Pentax — Talk about your hobby businesses. At this point I’m not sure why Ricoh bought Pentax. Here’s what to look for: what’s Ricoh’s message at Photokina in September? Nothing really new? Then Pentax is still at the margins and not likely to ever break into the mainstream choices again. A dramatic and clear vision of the future? Then welcome back, Pentax. I’m betting on the former, not the latter.
  • Samsung — Having more success than you think (their numbers don’t show up in CIPA statistics, so you need to have access to retail sales numbers to see that they’ve done better than expected). They’ve already pretty much announced their next target: high end, more pro like. And they’ve already started leaking their next generation APS cameras, too. They’re iterating cautiously, but consistently. I don’t expect any big surprises from them, but I also don’t expect them to pull back in any way.
  • Sony — Has probably the broadest approach given that they’re supporting two mounts and two lines of cameras (APS and full frame). The thing that impresses me most isn’t the performance of the cameras, but that Sony has gotten the manufacturing and parts simplicity right. They very well may have some pricing advantage because of that. They certainly do with the A7’s versus other full frame cameras (e.g. DSLRs). They continue to be aggressive on iteration, and I don’t see that changing in the near term. However, at some point, all this has to add up to real profit and ROI; the overall Sony company is right now one where movies, music, and insurance are propping up consumer electronics. That can’t go on forever, and Sony realizes it. They desparately need more lenses and far better marketing. And they need those before Canon and Nikon make any bigger move in mirrorless. 

The Canon/Nikon Problem

(commentary)

Many have commented about the inability of Canon and Nikon to dominate mirrorless cameras. But it’s not an inability, it’s a dilemma. Anyone that thinks that Canon and Nikon can't build an X-T1 or E-M1 or GH4 competitor is not being logical. Both companies have the resources and ability to do that. And more. Much more. The questions have always been: should they? will they? when?

My point has always been this: at some point they will. We may be near to reaching that point now. But first let me describe the dilemma.

In interchangeable lens camera sales, Canon and Nikon have held a 65% or greater share for some time now. Some believe that it’s been above 70% at the retail level, and that’s absolutely true in some countries. Most of that share is held by consumer DSLR sales. Overall, mirrorless has only been 20-25% of the interchangeable camera shipments from camera makers in the past two years, though this number is rising. And there’s the problem: With Canon and Nikon absolutely dominating the other 75%, producing great mirrorless cameras really only would move those sales from being DSLRs to mirrorless, not increase sales. 

Both Canon and Nikon looked at mirrorless early on as a possible increase in sales. Neither seems to have foreseen what I long ago predicted: the overall decline of all interchangeable lens camera sales. Thus their initial mirrorless strategies were focused mostly on trying to find incremental sales to their DSLR sales. 

Unfortunately, that’s not what was driving much of the mirrorless market. In essence, virtually all mirrorless sales to date have been one of two things: buying a low end mirrorless camera in place of a compact camera, or buying a high end mirrorless camera in place of a DSLR. Trading up or trading down, basically. But who are the two companies that dominate the markets people were trading up or down from? You guessed it: Canon and Nikon. Those two companies are the leaders in compact cameras, and they’re the leaders in DSLR sales. 

Notice that both Canon and Nikon have mostly attempted to position their mirrorless cameras to date as upgrades for compact users. And not very clearly, either. Canon’s EOS M has as its internal competition such cameras as the G15 and G1x. Meanwhile, Nikon has the J1, J2, J3, J4, S1, and S2 all pretty much defined as compact cameras with a larger sensor and interchangeable lens, but at DSLR prices. Why either company thought their strategy would work, I don’t know. They spend considerable sums of money producing extra products that are highly likely to become lost in the squeeze. 

Lest you think this is all good news for Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic, their problem is this: their prices are too high when compared to DSLRs (Canon is currently selling some DSLRs for as little as US$300 with lens here in the US). With mirrorless you’re paying both a small performance penalty but you’re also paying more money for smaller size and weight. Canon and Nikon really needed to put the consumer DSLRs on a diet, and then the problem would have been even more complicated for the mirrorless camera producers. Only Canon tried this with the SL1, but that seemed a half-hearted attempt: why it didn’t completely replace a model in their lineup at the right price point seems strange; it appears Canon wanted to just continue selling existing Rebels and again thought of the SL1 as incremental or supplemental sales (e.g. you might pay more to get a smaller/lighter camera). 

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Sony so far. That’s because they seem to have gone pretty much all in with removing mechanical complexity from DSLRs and creating mirrorless cameras with low parts and manufacturing costs. The A7 models, for example, are clear indicators of where we’re going in the future: DSLR-like, mirrorless, highly parts/cost reduced, high image quality. 

Sony, unlike Canon and Nikon, did decide to compete with themselves and let DSLR sales fall where they may (though I suspect even they thought DSLRs would still do better than they did). The net result of the past 10 years of Sony interchangeable lens camera sales is this: they have basically the same market share as they have had historically, but the bulk of the sales shifted from complex, hard to produce DSLRs to simpler, easier to produce mirrorless cameras. Sony’s failure to take significant market share away from the duopoly has prolonged Canon and Nikon from making such a transition themselves. 

But make no mistake, Canon and Nikon will make that transition some day. They’re likely to do so when they think that they have either equalled or surpassed their DSLR camera performance, or have a new disruptive technology that the others will have a hard time matching. 

That said, high-end DSLRs won’t go away, just as medium format cameras don’t really go away. There are still benefits to be gained from the optical-oriented viewfinder and changes to the way the focus system works with the mirror. If you look really, really hard, you’ll find the patent that I think might presage Nikon’s D5 technology in 2015.

But I’m not sure that technology will trickle down to the consumer DSLRs this time. I suspect that the consumer DSLRs will move to at least a hybrid system, if not completely mirrorless in the next major generation. 

Here are the primary reasons why:

  • The current mirrorless system providers are nibbling at more and more interchangeable lens camera market share.
  • The overall interchangeable lens camera market size will continue to shrink, making that first factor even more significant.
  • Canon and Nikon need to get significant parts and cost reductions into their consumer interchangeable lens cameras to maintain profit margins. In high tech, consolidation of electronic components is inevitable. What you did with dozens of chips in a previous generation gets done by one in a future one. Electronic components are cheaper than mechanical components long term, and easier to manufacture.

I don’t think 2014 will be the year for this, though. I suspect that the target for a Canon or Nikon DSLR-to-mirrorless transition product is CES in early 2015. Let’s hope that’s true and that they get it right. Competition is good for all players.   

 

Leica M Firmware Update

(news)

Leica made a fairly extensive update of the Leica M (Type 240) camera firmware. Included in the update are:

  • Better lens ID in the EXIF data
  • Live View is now possible with all lenses
  • The video record button can be disabled via a menu setting
  • Horizon indicator is available in Live View
  • New Exposure Simulation function allows Live View to simulate scene brightness or adjust for best visibility (auto adjust)
  • Auto ISO has been improved so that all Auto ISO options are visible when pressing the ISO button; focal length adjustment to avoid camera shake is supported at 1x, 2x, and 4x; Auto ISO in Manual exposure mode is allowed
  • Crop marks for 3:4, 6:7, 1:1, and 16:9 aspect ratios can be displayed in Live View
  • Korean is now a supported language
  • Video recording now uses a shutter speed of 1/25 instead of 1/24
  • Exposure bracketing settings are saved when camera is turned off
  • Direct exposure compensation via dial can be turned on 
  • Focus peaking can be set in four different colors
  • GPS location data is now compatible with Lightroom, and last known position deletes after five minutes, not 24 hours
  • Several bug fixes involving Live View were made, as well as one with the sensor cleaning function

Leica Firmware Download page

So Which Camera?

(commentary)

We had a spurt of high-end mirrorless cameras in the last year: Fujifilm X-T1, Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GH4, Sony A7s/A7/A7r. To those, some might add the Nikon V3 and the Sony A6000. The quick operative question is this: which one do you pick? 

By the end of next week, I’ll have reviewed five of those, and I’m slowly working on getting to the remaining two. I’m going to go out on a limb here and try to synopsize my thoughts about these cameras and why you’d get them:

  • Panasonic GH4 — Why start with this one? Because it’s one of the easier ones to classify. As a DSLR replacement it just doesn’t manage any large size/weight benefit, so you have to ask yourself why you want it over a DSLR. Simple answer: video. While the GH series has gotten better as still cameras over time, they’ve gotten incredibly better as video cameras in that same progression. It seems clear where Panasonic is targeting the GH, therefore. If you’re deep into needing quality video and a still camera, this is your choice. Nothing else in the mirrorless world comes close in terms of the video features and performance. If you really think 4K video is your future, that thought is amplified: the GH4 is probably the most well-rounded 4K video camera at a reasonable price you can find today. As a still camera, it’s very likable, but it’s a 16mp camera in a 24mp+ world, and it doesn’t deliver on the smaller/lighter premise of m4/3. Buy for the video, stay for the stills.

  • Sony A7s/A7/A7r — Sony has given you three nearly identical cameras with the distinguishing trait being the imaging engine (e.g. sensor). The first question you have to ask yourself is this: do you like the body and feature set, and are you willing to wait for more lenses to round out the experience? If you answer no to any part of that, you can move on, I think. If the answer is yes, then the trick becomes picking the version for you:
    • A7s — You don’t shoot where there’s light, and/or you maybe have a strong need for high end video.
    • A7 — The Goldilocks solution: it’s the “just right” camera in the middle.
    • A7r — About the only thing above this camera are Medium Format cameras (and unfortunately for Sony, the Nikon D800/D800E/D810, which do a better job with the same sensor data). The design point is a bit of a conflict: as much resolution as possible in as small and light a package as possible. Things like shutter slap ensue from that. So it’s a trickier decision than you might think. Personally, I think we need an A7r Mark II as soon as possible. It needs to have uncompressed raw and other changes to make sure the camera can deliver all 36mp of goodness to the user.

      Overall, the Sony A7 series is highly promising. Full frame has never been so small and versatile in the digital age (assuming the lenses get here soon). Yet each of the A7 models have some weaknesses against both DSLRs and against other mirrorless cameras (e.g. focus performance), so personally I’m a little wait-and-see about the Sony offerings at the moment.

      The big issue for the A7’s is lens selection. Still minimal at the moment, though Sony seems committed to expanding that. Buy the Sony A7 models if you believe that Sony (and third parties) will create the lenses you need, can deal with the size and compromises of full frame lenses, and are patient. 

  • Fujifilm X-T1 — Looks like a DSLR, functions like a DSLR, but ultimately isn’t a DSLR. That’s my basic takeaway. The focus system, while quite good, is the thing that truly keeps it from really prying the DSLR crowd from their mirrors. So whether you opt for this camera or not will really have to do with how well the focus system functions for you. Short answer: it’s not really a sports camera or a birds in flight camera, though with patience and practice you can make do with it. It has liabilities with fast motion and long continuous sequences. But it is a perfectly acceptable events camera and a great casual camera, especially with the prime lenses. That 16mp X-Trans sensor has never really pushed me into Fujifilm’s camp, though, mainly because I know what a great 24mp APS sensor can do. The JPEG shooting crowd loves Fujifilm’s rendering, and JPEGs are definitely low in noise through a wide range of ISO values. My impression that the crowd that overbought into the Nikon D300 type of camera is the prime purchaser of the X-T1. A good solid performer, and one that should be on every serious mirrorless user’s list to look at. 

  • Olympus E-M1 — Looks like a DSLR, functions like a DSLR, but ultimately isn’t a DSLR. While that seems like a repeat of what I wrote about the X-T1, it actually isn’t, because I think in each of those clauses are some very visible differentiators. Looks, for example: the X-T1 is retro design, the E-M1 is modern design. Functions: the retro design functions differently than the modern design, but they both function well. As for why the E-M1 ultimately isn’t a DSLR: again it’s focus that comes into play, but much differently on the E-M1 than on the X-T1. That’s difficult to describe in a paragraph, so I won’t try here other than to say that the E-M1’s weaknesses are little different than the X-T1’s. In some ways, the E-M1’s focus is a little more well-rounded than the X-T1’s, as it doesn’t burp on continuous sequences the way the X-T1 does, even though it may miss focus more often. Where the E-M1 wins, though, is on lenses. We already have some great telephoto options for it, with more coming soon, and in the 70-200mm equivalent range, the E-M1 is just much more DSLR-like than the X-T1 at the present time. Lenses could change that over time, but right now the advantage swings Olympus’ direction for telephoto. Come for the lenses, stay for the camera.

  • Sony A6000 — Still a little early for me to come to final conclusions, but the A6000 is an interesting little beast. It’s clearly a modern camera with not nearly as much direct control as the X-T1 and E-M1 bring to the fingertips, but it may be the best of the bunch at autofocus performance across the widest range of subjects. So the A6000 has to be considered by the DSLR user that is thinking that they want a smaller, lighter kit to carry with them when they need to pare down (e.g. walking crowded streets or hiking long distances). But it’s not a DSLR type of camera. The EVF is a big compromise compared to the X-T1 and E-M1, and there’s not a lot of mass in the system, so OSS lenses should get priority. The image sensor isn’t a compromise at all: it’s as good as the 24mp crop sensor DSLRs. This is one of those “good things in small packages” deals. For some, the package will be a little too small and the controls a little to cramped (or missing in a few cases). But that’s not the biggest issue, in my view. The bigger issue is that lenses tend to be big due to the APS sensor size. Not full frame big, but big enough to make the near equivalent m4/3 lenses look svelte. Personally, I’m not a fan of small camera, big lens. Cameras and lenses should be sized appropriately to one another, in my opinion, and the Sony A7 models seem a better, more natural combination so far. Still, there are a few small E-mount lenses that make for a very small A6000+lens combo, so if those are the ones you’re looking at, I can heartily recommend the camera.

  • Nikon V3 — Nikon just can’t seem to tie all the parts together quite right. There’s so much that’s right about the V3 and plenty that’s wrong. However, I’m slowly coming to grips with its quirks and most just ignoring or working around them. The things that it can do that the others can’t (sports action with follow focus at 20 fps, for instance, or 60 fps with a fixed focus), just make it a piece of kit I have to have in my repertoire. Coupled with the ability to use the big DSLR lenses the same way on the body, and it’s in both my sports and wildlife bags every time I go out these days. It just goes to show that if you can deliver a quality or performance feature that the others can’t, you will find takers on a product no matter what else is wrong with it. The GoPro was a good example of that: terrible UI, little control, but it gave you video you couldn’t get a different way. That’s what the V3 is: it’ll get you stills you can’t get with another camera. As an all-purpose camera, it doesn’t play nearly as well, in my opinion. Which is a shame, because it could be the camera I use for casual shooting when I’m carrying the big FX DSLRs. Instead, that’s tending to go to one of the V3’s competitors or a Sony RX100 these days. In other words, the V3 is a specialty camera in my bag, not a generalist.  

So let’s flip this around and look at it from a different angle. What if I were into certain types of photography, what would I pick from this crop?

  • Studio — The Sony A7r would take it with the right lenses. The Fujifilm X-T1 gets honorable mention if you don’t need many pixels.
  • Landscape — The Sony A7 and A7r certainly have to be considered, but the lenses aren’t there yet, and Sony needs uncompressed raw files, too. The Fujifilm X-T1 and Olympus E-M1 have the lens sets, but the X-Trans sensor tends to smear low level color detail and both cameras are 16mp, which means that for big, dramatic prints you’re going to need to resort to stitching. 
  • Sports — The V3, hands down. Only it can’t be night sports or indoor sports without using faster lenses. Fortunately the F-mount adapter can come to your rescue for normal to telephoto fast lenses, though this puts a small compromise on the focus system (center area only). 
  • Event — X-T1 and E-M1 both handle this with aplomb, and have plenty of lenses already for such use. You don’t need a lot of pixels, either, so these cameras fit right in there, too. The Fujifilm gets a slight nod in low light, though the Olympus gets that back if you’re into elaborate flash set ups. 
  • Casual — The Sony A6000 really shines here. When you need a jack-of-all-trades with excellent quality capabilities, it’s hard to argue with the price, size, weight, and flexibility of the A6000. The new Olympus E-M10 comes close, though. 
  • Low Light — The Sony A7s is the winner here, with the X-T1 being another choice further in the distance. I wouldn’t rule out the m4/3 cameras, but then you’re really going to want the fast primes on them to keep them in the running.
  • Video — Another category with one clear winner: the GH4. The race isn’t even close. If you need more than “good enough” 1080P/30 video, your choices boil down to the GH4 and A7s in mirrorless, and the GH4 just has more to the video side than the A7s does. 

And there you see the dilemma: every one of these cameras excels at something, and many do a number of things well. But it’s going to be the mix of those things that drive you to one high-end mirrorless camera over another, I think. 

April-June 2014 News/Views

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January-March 2014 News/Views

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2013 News/Views

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2012 News/Views

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