Mirrorless Camera News and Commentary

News and commentary about the mirrorless camera world (latest on top). Hover or tap on News/Views in the menu bar above to see the full list of recent articles as well as folders containing all older ones dating back to 2011.

Will the Drawbacks Go Away?

I've been clear for some time that mirrorless is the way virtually all interchangeable lens cameras will go. Again, the reason is that mirrorless designs reduce parts and manufacturing complexity, and thus cost for the manufacturers. Indeed, the clear future transition to mirrorless was one reason why I split my Web presence to create this dedicated mirrorless site back in 2009. 

Lately there's been a lot of discussion about whether the DSLR is dead and mirrorless is the future. Well, here's the short version: No, DSLRs are not dead, and yes, mirrorless is the future.

Some of that has to do with the fact that there are still some drawbacks to mirrorless, some of that has to do with the fact that DSLRs are more than capable of doing the job that most photographers need done and most people have no need to replace their DSLR and lens sets.

So today I want to discuss the issues that many people say mirrorless cameras still have that need to be addressed (I might disagree ;~). Let's tackle each of those individually.

  • Viewfinder image is lagged. This issue is real, but somewhat overblown. It shows up mostly when you try to shoot action, particularly with burst shooting. Technically, there's a solution, though it's on the costly side because it's all about internal bandwidth and processing speed. That extra speed is used to synchronize the capture and view, something akin to genlock, which has been around for a long time with dedicated broadcast video cameras. Another solution filmmakers and videographers have used for years is to keep both eyes open and learn to react to the left eye's timing and use it to control the pan. Unfortunately, this doesn't tend to work for some camera designs—some big camera/lens combos get in the way of the left eye seeing clearly—nor does it work for left-eye dominate folk. Samsung's NX1 probably had the best synchronization of capture and view so far, with the Sony A9 being right behind. But others have pushed from 30Hz to 60Hz to 120Hz viewfinders with shorter delays. Today, the lag on most new cameras is pretty short. Short enough that it isn't a real issue on static subjects and minor motion, and only becomes an issue when you shoot a burst of action, particularly with a subject that forces you to pan/tilt. Note that DSLRs don't have a lag to their display, but they have blackout between images, which also can also cause you to lose tracking of moving objects. The best of the DSLR bunch, such as the Nikon D5, have very short blackout periods, which makes it fairly easy to follow action. My expectation for mirrorless is that lagging viewfinders will just continue to be less of a problem over time as more bandwidth is built into the sensor and electronics of the mirrorless cameras. We already have cameras—the Sony A9, for example—that work fine with erratic, fast-moving subjects.
  • Viewfinder view is artificial. You might be surprised to learn that there are many different viewfinder technologies that have been used already, with more to come. Most mirrorless cameras are using a 1/2" display (LCD, LED, OLED, etc.), but the way the "dots" are arranged and updated can be (and is) quite different. The lower cost displays often have what is known as "color tearing" because they're using sequential updating of the primary colors, not simultaneous. Some people have eye/brain systems that are susceptible to low refresh or backlight brightening technologies, too. The best EVFs today tend to be OLED with high simultaneous refresh, and feature at least an XGA level of "pixels" (dots versus pixels is a subject for another day). The tricky part is making those pixels not look artificial, despite the mirrorless camera showing you what the final image will look like. Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony all do an excellent job of that these days. Some of the Olympus and Panasonic cameras also hit that level. But this will only get better in the future. We've still got a ways to go before it will look 100% natural to most people. My expectation is that we'll get more pixels and higher refresh rates before we get "perfect" artificial views. That's because what we're seeing in the EVF is being processed by the camera's ISP, and right now those key chips are getting updated on about two year cycles.
  • Focus system is not as precise. This is a tricky one. Technically, a DSLR's focus system isn't precise, either, though for a different reason. The geometry of the very "short" phase detect systems built into camera sensors doesn't allow for the same level of precision and discrimination as the geometry of the DSLRs (though DSLRs have some alignment and quantity of light issues they have to deal with). I'm surprised at how fast the camera companies have learned to deal with this without always having to resort to a contrast focus step. I suspect it will get better in the future, as a larger data set allows you to use statistical analysis to "guess" the precision. Still, there are some small issues with on sensor PD that need to be dealt with in mirrorless systems. And those will all be resolved by more complex and intelligent algorithms. Which requires more bandwidth and speed internally. My expectation is that we'll soon have very competent AF systems in every new mirrorless model, even low end ones (e.g. the recently introduced X-A7 has moved the Fujifilm low-end up near their high-end). As data speed and processing power increases in the cameras, algorithmic and AI approaches will quickly fix the few remaining focus issues with mirrorless.
  • Electronic shutter rolls. Most DSLR users weren't aware that they had a rolling shutter. They do, because above the flash sync speed the shutter is actually a moving slit, but that's generally a fast enough movement to not be noticed in the recorded data. Mirrorless cameras haven't quite gotten there yet. The A9 comes the closest, but still falls a bit short. Most of the current mirrorless cameras are somewhere in the 1/15 to 1/30 range for electronic shutter roll (DSLRs are typically 1/200 to 1/250). Beyond the mere rolling, there's also the issue of what happens due to the interaction between frequency-based lighting and the frequency-based electronic shutter that needs to be dealt with. These issues have gotten better over time, but are still not close to where we need them to be. They'll get there. And yet again, we'll need more bandwidth and speed internally to deal with it. My expectation is that we'll get to near DSLR parity on the high-end cameras in a generation or two in terms of rolling shutter. Frequency-based lighting is going to take some clever technology to deal with, so it may be awhile more before we really get the ability to always sync our shutters with our lights.
  • UX is wrong. Most mirrorless has gone the way of making the equivalent camera smaller (hey Panasonic, what are you doing? ;~). I'm not sure why, but that seems to have broken the ergonomics teams at most camera companies. Small, hard-to-find buttons, cramped controls, proliferation of controls anywhere a bit of empty real estate can be found on the body form, and more faults all showed up on virtually all cameras (though Nikon probably did a better job at not messing things up than most of the others; the Olympus OM-D E-M1 also seems to have gotten things right). I find it a bit amusing that it took Sony four generations of cameras to let me find the AF-On button with light gloves on, but I still see really poor UX choices by a lot of the camera companies, all of which should know better by now. We've got 80 years+ of knowledge about what kinds of controls do and don't work, we've had 80 years+ of studying the hand position on cameras (and eye position, too), we've had 30+ years of studying on-screen interactions. And yet, here we are with mirrorless cameras still coming out that have less-than-acceptable ergonomic issues. (Aside: this is a constant mantra with me: the Japanese camera companies have been particularly poor at dealing with solving the biggest user issues, and those often are ergonomic or workflow related, not electronics related. Yes, Apple gets things wrong from time to time, but they're the model we really want camera companies to look closely at: solve user problems with electronics, not create products with electronics and let the customer figure out how to solve their problem.) My expectations are that, to survive in a low-volume market, any remaining camera company is going to need to pay more attention to ergonomics. The ones that do will survive, the ones that don't will get shunned by users.
  • Battery performance is bad. The image sensor is always on, the EVF (or real LCD) is always on, the image stabilization may always be on, plus we need more bandwidth and speed internally to do all the things that need to be done. All those things end up requiring power. The DSLRs definitely do have an advantage in that they can more easily and more often go quiescent, and thus preserve power. I have little doubt that the electronics companies are all working on dealing with this issue. I note, for instance, that Apple's latest CPU/GPU/AI/ISP (!) chip, the A13 Bionic, automatically turns off pieces of itself that aren't being used and even has a very low-power set of cores it can drop to for background use when instant computation and performance isn't necessary. We'll see more of that sort of thing in cameras, too. Plus battery technology is about to improve, as well. Still, of all the issues I present here, power is the one that I find the most troublesome today. We're at a stage where I can usually get by with two batteries a day with most of mirrorless cameras, but I really would like to get that to one. My expectations is that mirrorless cameras will tackle this in small pieces, though at the same time. In other words, make the battery a little more powerful/efficient, lower the power requirements of any chip by a bit, find ways to put some parts in low power mode at times when they're not being stressed, let the user power the product from USB, and so on. We also seem to be on the verge of some battery breakthroughs, as well, which might help, too. 
  • Lens choice is restricted. m4/3, Fujifilm, and Sony users might protest about this, but realistically only the m4/3 would have a clear argument that they have little to no choice restriction with lens sets. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that m4/3 can hold off the ever-better smartphones (more on that in another article later this fall). Fujifilm and Sony, meanwhile, have done an excellent job with the wide-to-200mm lens ranges, but I'd argue that they still have a lot to fill in the >200mm range to be complete. Canon and Nikon started from scratch last year, and are scrambling to catch up, though the fact that EF (Canon) and F (Nikon) DSLR lenses seem to work without compromise on their adapters means that there's a lot of choice for those transitioning. Given that the overall size of the market is going to be far smaller for on-going mirrorless than it was for DSLRs at peak, there are some real challenges moving forward with lens sets. Can you get a reasonable ROI on a lens that might sell 15k units over its lifetime? Tilt/Shift, serious macro, exotic telephoto, cine, and even really fast primes—primes that push the limit that can be done with a mount—all tend to fall into this category. The only reason we tend to get a lot of cine lenses is that companies are basically just repurposing existing lenses with accurate stop markings and gearing, which doesn't involve as much investment as doing a completely new lens design. That said, the good news is that the Japanese companies have experience with low volume lens production. The bad news is that you may pay more for such lenses when they do appear. My expectations are that everyone will quickly fill their 14-200mm range with primes and zooms that overlap and give you plenty of choices. (Well, okay, Canon EOS M? Totally unknown if Canon will ever get the message there.) Both Canon and Nikon can count on their exotics working fine with their adapters, so we'll probably see them tend to take a cautious approach to extending out beyond 200mm, but Sony has no choice but to quickly fill their gaps (currently the biggest gaps are a fast 200mm, 300mm, and 500mm prime). 

Overall, serious mirrorless products are healthy today, and going to get healthier and more compelling as the above issues get fleshed out. Meanwhile, entry DSLRs are going away fairly fast (at least in terms of selling to consumers), but actually remain a very good value. High-end DSLRs are so well fleshed out that they could last today's shooter much of their career even if they bought a new one today. On top of that, the drop in new DSLR sales volume coupled with the slow transition to mirrorless is reducing customer cost on the DSLR side, particularly to someone willing to buy used or at the trailing edge of camera generations. 

So many of the articles, forum posts, and other speculation I see tries to frame the DSLR and mirrorless segments as a "battle" with a clear winner. Quite frankly, the consumers are the current winner. You have the choice of really competent product either way you go, there's a clear transition path for those that want to take it, and prices on the side that most claim is "dead" are actually quite compelling (particularly if you dip into the used lens market) for product that is as good or better than the side that's being claimed as the "winner." 

I still write, for instance, that the Nikon D850 (DSLR) is the best overall camera you can buy in the market today. It's so Swiss Army Knife in its abilities, but professional at the same time, that it's a very compelling body. If I weren't trying to document what's happening in the camera market, I could have just stopped with buying a D850 to supplement my D5 and be happy for what likely remains of my shooting career (which I take to be probably 10 years). And yes, the Nikon Z7 and Sony A7Rm3 (I've just started using the Sony A7Rm4, but my initial impression is similar) is right near where that D850 is, just in a mirrorless form. 

Frankly, I see me (and you) as being the winners right now, not a specific technology. 

A Nikon Mirrorless Safari

bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z7 74074

Sun not really out yet in this area, but she was...

During my month off in August I journeyed to Africa with a couple of friends on a low-key, no expectations trip. 

Okay, you never have no expectations when you go to Africa to shoot wildlife, but I've got enough images in my files from 25 years of doing this that I can just go and enjoy what happens, not need something particular to happen.

I chose to do an experiment this year, as I often do when I travel for pleasure instead of a work-specific purpose: I decided to shoot entirely using Nikon mirrorless. In particular, a Nikon Z6 and Z7. No D850, no D5, just two Z's.

A number of reasons backed this decision: (1) people don't think mirrorless can do safari well; (2) I wanted to travel as light as possible but stay full frame; (3) I wanted to compare my most recent Nikon DSLR experience in Africa with Nikon's new mirrorless gear; (4) I'm still waiting for Nikon to get its marketing act together and tell everyone what their cameras can actually do, so I just decided to just do so myself ;~).

My entire mirrorless kit fit into a Kiboko 2.0 16L [advertiser link; very good bag if your gear will fit in it]. Normally I have a hard time fitting all my DSLR gear into the much larger Kiboko 22L and my briefcase.

I took: Z6 and Z7 bodies, two FTZ adapters, 70-200mm f/2.8E and 500mm f/5.6E PF lenses, a flash, more batteries than I needed, more cards than I needed, plus a bunch of miscellaneous bits and pieces, including a 100 watt hour battery to charge things, all in the Kiboko. Total weight: 27 pounds. The bag fit easily into overheads, even on an Embraer 145, which is the 1-2 seat single aisle configuration with only one overhead bin (over the 2 seats) that's among the most restrictive regional jets you'll encounter. 

First off, the trip was insane. Off-the-charts insane. You're not even going to see my best shots from this trip in this article because I haven't gotten around to processing them. We encountered so many lions and leopards we lost count. We watched multiple hunts and multiple kills. One pride of lions insisted on camping out with us for the first four days. You could literally shoot them almost from your tent. 

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These lions were sleeping when a Kudu accidentally walked up to them. The lions then went into the most amusing crouch you've ever seen, trying to hide themselves from the approaching kudu by melting into the savannah. Unfortunately, that didn't work; the kudu figured things out and ran off. At which point all the lion heads came up. This, by the way, isn't the full pride. There are five additional lions not in this photo.

We had lion cubs galore, two-week old leopard and hyena pups, and sightings you normally don't get, such as the Aardwolf. Eagles kept killing things on our watch (doves and springhares). We not only saw the illusive Sitatunga, we photographed them mating. And I've now gone from thinking getting one lilac-breasted roller taking flight isn't a challenge at all, but four-at-a-time might be. 

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No, this is not a composite photo, nor is it Photoshopped. Believe it or not, I now have one, two, three (above) and even five lilac breasted rollers in a single flight shot. Insane.

Heck, at one point we gave up trying to get a photo of a rhino we saw in the distance—extremely rare in Botswana—to chasing an African Wild Cat. Add in servals, those aardwolves, and bat-eared foxes, and you start to get the idea: the wildlife was on full display to the point where the antelope species, giraffe, and most prey got ignored by us unless it was being chased by something. Heck, even the predators were always chasing themselves.

bythom INT BOTS MoremiKhwai 2019 Z7 70958

Had the Nikon Z's failed me, I'd be furious right now, because in 25 years of going to Africa I haven't seen such an amazing parade of animals. Instead, I'm perfectly happy. These images speak for themselves.

I've yet to see Nikon marketing pick up on most of the following, so let me cite a number of the "pros" of using the Nikon Z system on safari:

  • The EVF coupled with magnification makes a better-than-spotting scope (or binoculars) scanning device.
  • The EVF allowed me to see what I was doing during near pitch black conditions (I shot the mostly nocturnal Hyenas at ISO 25600 successfully, for example; the following shot was almost an hour after sunset).
bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z6 72570

  • The EVF allowed me to see what I was shooting in bright conditions (the rear LCD can wash out in bright sun, and the DSLR viewfinder can wash out shooting into the sun, too).
  • The smaller size of the gear I was using allowed me to juggle two complete systems in the front seat of the Land Cruiser where I had very minimal space available (lens choice helped here).
  • 500mm on a Z7 is also 750mm at DX crop on a Z7 (and 20mp), as good as you'd get from a D500.
  • Complex metering situations, such as lions in foreground at sunrise, are far easier to evaluate when you're looking at what the camera is actually going to do (e.g. Custom Setting D8 set to On). 
bythom INT BOTS Moremi 2019 Z6 69615

  • Doing "manual focus touchup" when you have grass in front and in back of a subject is simple: magnify, adjust the manual focus ring with peaking enabled, shoot. Note that in the following shot, most of the Z's Autofocus Area Modes would pick up the foreground bush. Easily corrected.
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Prior to setting off on this trip with the Nikon mirrorless gear, I heard from several friends about all the "negatives" I was about to experience:

  • Batteries would be an issue. Nyet. I averaged a bit less than one battery a day in each camera over two weeks, with an average of about eight hours out shooting each day. Total number of shots worked out to about 10,000. Very easy to keep up with charging the batteries (disclosure: we've added a heavy-duty and dedicated converter system with AC plugs in the vehicle I use, so we can also charge while we're shooting). I had brought six batteries with me, but didn't need them all. Rotating the two in the camera with two additional ones via the charger was enough to keep me going without interruption or concern.
  • Dust would overwhelm me. Nada. First, I didn't change lenses partly to combat this, but despite a massive sand storm one day and Botswana's notorious dusty environs—currently in a drought which is making them more notorious—I ended up with far more sand up my nose than on my sensor. Despite having brought sensor cleaning gear, I never had to use it while there.
  • I'd miss sequences due to focus issues, particularly birds in flight. No way, Jose. Oh, as always on safari there were a few "misses" where I couldn't control the AF system to do what I wanted it to fast enough. But that happens sometimes with the DSLRs, too. That said, I'd love a day with the focus engineers at Nikon, because after an intensive session like I had, I've got very strong ideas on what needs to be added or changed to make the Z's even better. I've got a few sequences of images that illustrate where something is harder to get right on the Z's than on the DSLRs. But I also have thousands of perfectly focused images, too. Biggest real issue is one I've noted in my review, book, and other comments: you can't combine AF-ON with an AF Area Mode change (e.g. on thumb stick press).
bythom INT BOTS Moremi 2019 Z7 69967

  • The cameras wouldn't hold up to a beating. Nope. I treated my Z's no differently than I do my DSLRs on this trip (which is to say, roughly). At times, there was a camera on the floor bouncing around as we moved. I did little to nothing to keep gear from being tossed around. I also didn't return them to a bag at night; after a quick external dusting, they sat on the floor of my tent until the next morning. The Z's stood up to this test just fine. 
  • The eye detector in the viewfinder would foul and cause issues getting to the LCD display. Okay, if you call blowing on it a problem. Literally. That's all I did. One well-aimed blow pretty much always got the monitor display right back. If you're not a blow hard like me, carry a small eyebrow brush with you.
  • Using a D850 would be a better idea. Nein. My shooting partner in the vehicle was using a pair of D850's. He got some shots I would have liked, I got some shots he would have liked. But it had nothing to do with which cameras we were using.
  • The Sony mirrorless would be better. Nnyaa (in Setswana). It would only be go sa tshwane (different). I probably would have picked the Sony 100-400mm lens instead of the Nikkor 500mm, giving up some reach for flexibility. In my experience I'd probably also have many more "almost perfect focus" in capturing motion with the Sony instead of the "dead on focus" shots like I got with the Nikon. 

I'll be doing more of a follow-up on this in the future. I'm also trying to arrange a B&H Event Space talk that will go into much more detail. 

But bottom line: going all Nikon mirrorless didn't cause me any issues, and I'm very pleased with the results. Why Nikon can't get that message out clearly, I don't know. I do note that the other pros I know using the Z's are also happy with them, too. 

bythom INT BOTS Khwai 2019 Z7 73062

APS-C Gets Some Love (but not marketing)

Just before my month-long break I caught up with the mirrorless market by putting out three reviews of various Fujifilm APS-C cameras (X-T30, X-T3, X-H1). When I posted those and ran off into the bit-less wilds for a much needed break, I knew it wouldn't be long before the APS-C wars began heating up.

Sure enough, just about coincident with returning from Africa, here came Canon with the M6 Mark II announcement, and Sony with the A6100/A6600 and two new APS-C lens announcements. Fujifilm, meanwhile, is lurking in the wings with another camera announcement, and I don't expect it will be long before Nikon pops up with APS-C mirrorless, too.

So we're back to talking about whether or not APS-C is still relevant in the collapsing photography market. Short answer: yes, it absolutely is, but the camera companies don't seem to know how to market it.

Case in point, at Sony's presentation of the A6100 and A6600 Mark Weir made the point that Sony was creating APS-C cameras with the same five attributes they've been promoting in their full frame cameras (speed, compactness, image quality, battery life, lens). Really? If they're the same, how do people distinguish what to buy? Just price? Then everyone would buy the least expensive option, wouldn't they?

Aside: why is the A6xxx naming different than the A7 naming? The A6100 really should be the A6000 Mark II, the A6400 should be the A6300 Mark II, and the A6600 the A6500 Mark II. This kind of intentional confusion is clearly aimed at the embarrassing problem of still having to sell the older cameras alongside the new ones. Plus we only have A6200 and A6700+ now left as possible future names.

Let me help with that marketing message: APS-C should be even more compact, less expensive, and emphasize all-automatic abilities over full frame. APS-C is for the masses, who don't want to spend a lot, carry a lot, or set a lot. What do you give up by going APS-C over full frame? Low light image quality, maximum pixel count, and perhaps handling attributes due to the smaller size camera.

One problem is that APS-C and full frame are only a stop apart (theoretically). That doesn't seem like a lot of performance to give up (all else equal), yet it also seems like it might be important at times (particularly with kit lenses). Sony seems to have stopped at 24mp in APS-C—which, by the way, I fully support, as more pixels produce very little gain, and almost no useful gain—which gives them something to point to with full frame now that the A7R is 60mp. 

Canon, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have gotten that message. The M6 Mark II's 32.5mp on APS-C simply isn't going to look different than 24mp. 6960 pixels across the horizontal axis versus 6000 is not enough linear resolution gain to be visible, and we're pushing diffraction impacts to the point where they take most of what you gained away. But certainly 32.5 is a bigger number than 24, so Canon's marketing will be playing that up big time, I'm sure. Does Canon have a significant selection of EOS M mount lenses that are up to 32.5mp sensors? Not really. Oops, product marketing own goal.

Moreover, everyone's been waiting for Canon to introduce some truly new sensor tech. They apparently did with the M6m2 (and DSLR companion 90D), but I'm having a difficult time seeing any details other than the ubiquitous "it's 32.5mp!" Funny thing is, the new sensor appears to have better dynamic range than the lower pixel count one it replaces in the images I've analyzed, plus very little rolling shutter. I'm not seeing that described in Canon marketing. Seems like another miss to me.

Let's face it, smartphones have turned out to be the carry-everywhere camera. The competent-enough-for-most-purposes choice, with a lot of workflow help/reduction in getting images shared. 

Dedicated cameras have to offer something more than that to survive, but they also have to be properly positioned and marketed, too. Particularly at the low end, where APS-C is almost the new low threshold.

APS-C offers far more image quality than smartphones, and almost as much as larger cameras. APS-C offers far more lens choice (except you, Canon). APS-C packs a lot of quality into small packages that are nearly pocketable (except you, Fujifilm X-H1, et.al.). APS-C should have pricing advantages over full frame (how true is that of the Sony A6600?). A properly designed APS-C camera is going to be more compact than full frame, and rely a bit more on useful automation than constant user control.

But more than anything else, APS-C should be more approachable to the masses and more able to share photos without a lot of extra work. I'm not sure anyone's got that "approachable" bit right, and I know no one's got the "easy sharing" bit right. 

None of these new APS-C options pass the "mom test." Worse still, they don't even come close to passing the "marketing to mom test." If the camera market only consists of older men with disposable income who like to brag about the size of their major asset, then the camera market is doomed. 

APS-C has a place in photography, at least for the time being. I sometimes wonder if the camera makers have any idea what that place is and whether they'll ever discover that place before it disappears. 

I've seen this problem before in tech: too much pursuit of the technical often makes you lose sight of the usefulness (to a potential purchaser). I'm not convinced that any of the camera companies are going to get their APS-C message across to the audience that they should be hitting. But it's nice to see that APS-C development is still on-going ;~).

Rounding Up the Fujifilm XF Cameras

When Fujifilm re-entered the ILC market with the X-Pro1 in 2012, I have to admit that while I was impressed with the hybrid optical/EVF viewfinder, the rest of the camera felt a performance laggard to me. I also had serious qualms about the X-Trans sensor design, as well.

Fujifilm then wandered around with some X-E, EVF-only rangefinder designs. It wasn’t until 2014 and the very DSLR-like X-T1 that it felt to me that Fujifilm was starting to get back to where they were early in the DSLR era with their S-Pro cameras. Indeed, the X-T1 seemed to go further, drawing more upon classic ILC designs than before. 

bythom fujifilm xf

From left to right: X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, X-T100.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been five years, but we’ve now had three X-T#'s, three X-T#0’s, an X-H1, and even an X-T#00 filling out this SLR-like line. That’s a lot of iteration and extension in the SLR-like space in a very short period of time. I’ve been a bit behind in reviewing models for a couple of camera companies, and decided that the Fujifilm APS-C mirrorless lineup was a very good place to start trying to correct that. 

Thus you’ll see that I’ve now posted reviews of the X-H1, X-T3, and X-T30 in addition to my already posted review of the X-T100. I've also added some more Fujifilm lens reviews, as well (more on lenses at the end of this article). 

With all this review catch up, I decided I should also write a short article that went beyond the reviews to give a better sense of where I think Fujifilm is overall with their APS-C camera lineup. 

Leaving out the X-Pro2, which is due for an update and is likely only going to appeal to a very specific type of shooter, the core of the Fujifilm lineup from bottom to top goes like this:

  • X-T100
  • X-T30
  • X-T3
  • X-H1

The H1 is above the T3? 

Yes, in my mind it is. It’s a very impressive camera that I believe is at the top of the Fujifilm heap. Curiously, the X-H1 didn’t sell well at it’s original price, and thus has recently found itself sale priced below the slightly newer X-T3. 

One issue that Fujifilm faces with pricing is the APS-C sensor size they use in the XF line. With full frame bodies now starting at US$1300, the US$1600+ that Fujifilm wanted to charge for the top end of its line became an issue. The X-T3 came out at a price US$100 below that of the X-T2 it replaced, despite having a new sensor and more performance, so it’s clear that Fujifilm itself was aware of their dilemma. 

I’ve written about the “camera squeeze” before. At the top end we have truly remarkable full frame and now medium format cameras. The bottom end of full frame keeps reaching downward in price, putting a squeeze on the top end of smaller sensor cameras. We have Sony promoting one-generation-old A7m2’s at the US$1000 (or less) sale price, while Canon with the recent RP at US$1300 list price has already also offered some modest discounts. We’re going to see more and more full frame activity just above the US$1000 point.

Meanwhile, at the bottom, smartphones slowly get more and more competent and keep gobbling up entire camera categories. First it was very small sensor, inexpensive compacts that caved in, but that nibbling has now reached to just below the 1” sensor cameras, and I don’t think it will stop there. 

The net net is that many people feel that they get a very competent camera when they spend US$1000 for a new smartphone. If they want an excellent-performing full frame camera, that’s now at or under US$2000, depending upon promotions (e.g. Nikon Z6, Sony A7m3). But they also have good options that are less expensive than that. Current full frame prices for a solid, new camera range from US$1300 to US$2000.

Meanwhile, Fujifilm is competing against one of the most venerable crop sensor cameras ever made, the D500. That Nikon DSLR is currently running at US$1500 as I write this, but has been as low as US$1300 “with extras” at times.

This is a long-winded way of saying that Fujifilm is trying to squeeze a lot of SLR-like product into a narrowing price window. Given that the X-H1 apparently didn’t sell up to expectations, you have to wonder if there will be an X-H2. Even though Fujifilm is a deep-pocketed company where cameras are only a minor blip on their financials and thus can tolerate a bit of financial underperformance, I’m pretty sure that Fujifilm is entering into a period where they need to whittle down their lineup a bit. 

At present, we’ve got seven “current” XF cameras (X-A5, X-E3, X-T100, X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, and X-Pro2), slotted from about US$500 to US$1700 for body only. That’s more than enough. I believe having that many products in the smartphone-to-full-frame gap also introduces marketing issues, as well, as I’d defy most salespeople to correctly identify the weaknesses and strengths of each one and why a prospective customer should buy a specific one.

Moreover, Fujifilm is overstocked at the higher price points, and the models aren’t quite distributed right in the middle points. While the high-volume Canon and Nikon APS-C DSLRs tried to carve price points every US$100 or tighter at one time—using previous generation bodies to fill in the gaps—I don’t think that’s the right approach in a contracting market. The camera companies do that to clear inventory and sensor commitments, and they think that this is “working.” Realistically, though, we’re in a market with deep overstocking of product, poor clarity between products, and a lot of confusion facing buyers that haven’t done much research when they walk in the door.

I personally see something like US$500, US$750, US$1000, US$1250 as the current (and only) logical APS-C price points given the squeeze happening at the two ends. And probably those two inner points shouldn’t be linear, but curved slightly more towards the lower boundary (e.g. US$500, US$700, US$900, US$1250). Moreover, I don’t know how long you can get away with five or more models in that squeezed realm. 

But all that would be arguing in the weeds, where I want to show the forest here. The forest says that APS-C basically sits from US$500 to US$1300 now. Anything else and the product would have to be distinguished far from current cameras in some way.

So where’s that leave us with Fujifilm’s current lineup?

Well, that X-H1 is at US$1300, and I think that’s the right price for such an excellent APS-C camera. As much as Fujifilm would like me to write that it’s the equivalent of a D500, I don’t believe it is. It falls short in a couple of ways, though it also does a bit better in a couple of others, mostly associated with build quality and IS. Meanwhile, the D500 tends to get its benefits from a better AF system and a wicked solid frame rate and buffer, coupled with a wide range of desirable lenses in the telephoto realm, which frankly, is where most people buying a high performance APS-C camera are going to want to tread.

(To Fujifilm: one reason the X-H1 underperformed is the lens lineup. At the high APS-C level, Fujifilm just doesn't have the extensive telephoto lens lineup that's necessary to fully attract wildlife and sports shooters.)

At the other end of Fujifilm’s lineup, the US$450 X-T100 is a screaming bargain these days. While it has plenty of areas where it isn’t state-of-the-art or a high performer, what US$450 camera is full featured and beefy? The 24mp Sony sensor inside is well-proven to be excellent in capability, and Fujifilm exposes enough features and control in the base model that someone knowing what they’re doing can extract remarkably good image data out of the X-T100 (Hint: if you want a camera to convert to IR and you’re a Fujifilm user, this is the one I’d do that with. Okay, maybe the X-A5, as well, if you can live without the EVF).  

The camera that surprised me this round of testing was the next model up, though, the US$900 X-T30. 

To describe why, I need to devolve into another discussion revolving around APS-C: size. Final camera/lens size and weight, to be particular. 

With highly competent full frame cameras hovering just above, a good APS-C product has to have some clear and significant selling benefit. The Nikon D500 I already mentioned gets its big selling benefit from being a smaller, far less expensive D5. It’s optimized in much the same way as a D5: slightly smaller sensor pixel count to preserve high ISO capability, really fast frame rate with excellent autofocus performance, plus a deep buffer backed by a fast card mechanism.

There are other ways to stand out. And I think key among them is the size/weight thing. Hanging a five-pound weight around your neck and carrying it all day while traveling is no longer compelling ;~). I’m not sure it ever was, but we put up with it because of the image potential coupled with the fact that everything else was also that big and heavy. 

APS-C sensors have enough image potential in them for most people for most purposes, but their smaller size can (and should) also be reflected in smaller body and smaller lenses. 

And that’s where the X-T30 comes in. It’s a very small, light body with a lot of capability. Couple it with the right Fujifilm lenses—the surprisingly excellent 15-45mm f/3.5-5.6 comes to mind as a reasonable general purpose lens—and it will fit in a jacket pocket or a very small accessory bag, making it a compelling travel camera. Quality would easily best your smartphone, you have the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, you’re not encumbered by much size or weight if you choose lenses wisely, and you also haven’t spent as much money as a low end full frame user. 

This is exactly where Canon is trying to live with the EOS M, and I believe that it’s where the best part of Fujifilm’s efforts tend to lie, too. I can definitely recommend the X-T30 to a lot of folk, particularly with the smaller prime lenses and zooms in the Fujifilm lineup.

Which brings us to the X-T3 and X-H1: both are essentially DSLR-sized cameras. Their build quality adds weight and bulk. The thing that people tend to be interested in doing with these cameras is compete with the full frame shooters. They expect top-of-the-line focus, frame rate, buffer, and viewfinder performance, and much more. 

The problem is that the window at the top is even narrower than the overall APS-C window. By the time you get to the US$2000 point, I believe that you have full frame cameras that can do everything most people would want. Moreover, if you start sticking on faster lenses on the APS-C to match the full frame image performance, what I keep finding is that you’ve lost much, if not all, of the size and weight advantages with APS-C. You may have even lost a lot of the price advantage, too.

Thus, you have the X-T3/X-H1 starting to compete with the Sony A7m3 and Nikon Z6, and this is only going to get worse as the full frame makers start doing more dramatic discounting to keep volume moving.

All of which is to say, as I began testing the X-T3 and X-H1 they had very high bars they needed to clear. To their credit, they mostly do, but they’re very near the top end of what APS-C is going to manage in the future, I think. That pricing pressure that forced the X-T3 to list for less than the X-T2 originally did is only going to increase. Don't be surprised if an X-T4 has to list for less than the X-T3 did when it first came out. It's either that or it needs to get up to the D5/A9 level of performance at a lower price.

bythom bayer vs xtrans

Bayer pattern on left, X-Trans pattern on right. Pay close attention to the red photosites. Do you see how they're evenly spaced and lined up in Bayer? Now look at the alignments in the X-Trans pattern: you should see that diagonals offset a bit, while there's not even spacing on the vertical/horizontal axis. On the other hand, there's more green (luminance) information in X-Trans.

Meanwhile, it's time to address X-Trans versus Bayer again. Dr. Bayer himself explored many other filter patterns beyond the one that his name is associated with, including some X-Trans-like ones. Bayer came to the (arguably correct) conclusion that the RG/GB layout was the most efficient. You can make more complex layouts that gain some specific benefit if you have enough pixels, but each of those have their own demosaic problems to solve and can introduce additional liabilities, as well. Basically, non-Bayer patterns may turn out better at one thing, but then turn out worse on another. 

Fujifilm sacrificed color information for luminosity information in opting for X-Trans. They're not alone in that. Many of the camera companies have been quietly degrading Bayer filtration strength in ways that sacrifice some color information for more light reaching the sensor. 

Fujifilm made a big claim early on about elimination of color moire by using X-Trans. They then backed off that to just claim a "reduction" when many of us pointed out that their statement wasn't true. X-Trans does reduce production of color fringing in most instances, but it came with another problem: color pollution on fine detail. I demonstrated that in my X-Pro1 review, but here's the thing: both Bayer color fringing and the X-Trans color smear tend to happen at such a low level of detail that most people never see it. As sensor pixel counts go up—X-Trans has gone from 16mp to 26mp—that "low level" tends to get buried deeper (unless you use extra pixels to print larger). Moreover, with tuning of the demosaic, you can mitigate either problem further. 

Indeed, that's exactly what's happened over time: the X-Trans demosaic routines in raw converters have gotten better even as megapixel counts have gone up. This reduces and masks the effects of color smearing. Curiously, the Adobe converters are still among the worst in rendering fine detail in X-Trans images, but they still do a credible job now, and more pixels means you're less likely to see those effects pop way up into visibility. 

So X-Trans has become a bit of a non-issue over time. Is it a benefit, though? I'm not convinced it is (other than for those making black and white conversions from the underlying data, due to having more luminance data to work with). You get a few percent more luminosity data, but that's simply not enough to narrow the dynamic range gap to full frame sensors significantly. 

In essence, we're down in the weeds when we start trying to evaluate Bayer versus X-Trans at APS-C sizes. Indeed, the Bayer sensor in the Fujifilm X-T100 tends to produce pretty much the same level of results as the older 24mp X-Trans sensors in the X-T2 generation cameras, but without any low-level color smearing (another reason why I recommend those Bayer Fujifilm's for IR conversion; the Bayer pattern doesn't complicate the resulting data).

One problem that Fujifilm users haven't figured out yet, though, is this: doing pixel shifting with X-Trans will be a bit of a challenge. Because of the big GGGG box in the center of the larger X-Trans repeating layout, you'd have to do a more sophisticated shifting to get RGB data out of each site. (I suppose that there might be a clever shift possibility that's useful, but it might require more demosaic trickery.) That has impacts on file size and motion artifacts, which is probably why Fujifilm hasn't added that feature to their cameras.

Still, I'd tend to say that today X-Trans isn't as much a liability as I thought it once was. But nor is it a big gain as Fujifilm marketing suggests. They've simply taken a slightly more complicated filtration route that produces slightly different pros and cons in the underlying sensor data to produce what turns out these days to be nearly the same result (at least assuming you use an optimal converter).

Finally, one thing I've noticed quite a bit as the full frame mirrorless market matured and Canon and Nikon joined in is this: I get more and more email from "former" Fujifilm users. Those folk mostly switched from Nikon DX when Nikon basically ignored the DX lens situation (and serious mirrorless cameras, too). Fujifilm's more traditional camera designs—dials, mainly—and complete APS-C lens lineup, particularly in primes, appealed to those Nikon DX users that felt ignored. 

Unfortunately, many didn't stay Fujifilm users. Quite a switched again for Sony or Nikon full frame mirrorless once it matured (or appeared on the Nikon side). This indicates to me that Fujifilm caught some trend that was present for awhile, but then didn't fully satisfy it. I'm not entirely sure what the missing element was, but in exclusively using so much Fujifilm gear recently I have to say I did feel like I was going a little bit backward. 

Tracking focus performance in all the Fujifilm models was slightly behind what I'm used to now in mirrorless, and other little things tended to make me more aware of the camera than I like to be while shooting (again, small buttons that are hard to find by feel should be outlawed). Adjusting two dials to change exposure modes is slower than the modern alternative. None of these things are deal stoppers, at all, but I did notice them (and others). 

That said, Fujifilm at the moment has a very nice line of XF camera choices using APS-C sensors, coupled with a mostly full line of APS-C lenses that is only missing some telephoto choices now. A nicer and more complete lens line than anyone else in APS-C. Perhaps too extended on the camera side, though, and needing some careful product line management choices when iterating the coming 4-generation cameras, but still, what Fujifilm is doing with XF is very nice overall. 

Thus, if you're a serious general purpose APS-C shooter, I'd say that today Fujifilm is your best choice. That's because:

  • In the DSLR world, Canon (EF-S) and Nikon (DX) basically went "all consumer," and mostly serve up low-cost convenience cameras and lenses. Where Canon and Nikon do have higher end products (e.g. 7Dm2 and D500), they haven't supported them with a full lens set: they seem to target those only to birders and sports action shooters using full frame lenses.
  • In the Canon mirrorless APS-C world (EOS M), the emphasis seems to be on very compact cameras with modest build quality, and again only with consumer convenience lens choices. Just to be clear: I'd choose an Fujifilm X-T30 over the Canon M5, mostly because of lens choice (but also partly because of sensor and lens performance). 
  • In the Sony mirrorless APS-C world (E mount), you have one basic camera that has been updated into four (A6000, A6300, A6400, A6500), and you may not like that camera design at all. Lens choice originally looked like it would fill out, but Sony abandoned that work to produce more full frame lenses, so your overall lens choice is more limited with Sony than Fujifilm; serious Sony E-mount lens choices are seriously more limited than Fujifilm XF. Indeed, lenses like the Sony 16mm f/2.8 may look like equivalents to Fujifilm lenses, but when you measure their performance, the Fujifilm lenses win every time.

So what it really boils down to is this: are you a serious APS-C shooter? 

I'm not sure what would define you as such a photographer any more, unfortunately. As I noted above, full frame camera pricing is coming down (as did the size/weight), so Fujifilm finds themselves in a squeeze. As I noted, the X-T3 and X-H1—the most desirable of the Fujifilm bodies—start to get close to as big and heavy as the lightest full frame offerings, particularly when you load the Fujifilms up with faster lenses. It would be difficult for me personally to justify an X-T3 over a Z6 or A7m3 because of that. 

What I keep coming back to are the X-T100 and X-T30, for different reasons. The X-T100 is an out-and-out bargain when it comes to price/performance. A great sensor on a truly consumer body, but at a very affordable price. I've had an X-T100 kicking around in my bag for awhile now, particularly once I found out how good the 15-45mm kit lens is.

But the X-T30 impressed me, too. True, the build quality isn't as robust as its bigger brothers. But it's a smaller camera and thus also highly travel-worthy. If you pick the right lens(es), it also doesn't become the huge neck-weight or require the bag volume that DSLRs got their reputation from. 

Fujifilm's built a solid lineup of APS-C cameras and lenses. I can certainly recommend them, particularly if you fall into one of the camps that value particular aspects of the XF system. The large and growing prime set will be very tempting for many, I'm sure. I've yet to find a dud among those (which is more than I can say for Sony E-mount). 

Moreover, each generation of Fujifilm's cameras has made clear strides forward in features, handling, and performance, to where today they essentially form APS-C state-of-the-art (the Nikon D500 notwithstanding). 

So, nice job Fujifilm. You've carved out a small piece of the market and mastered it. I hope you can hold onto it.

One final thought: you may note that the three big, Japanese, third-party lens makers (Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina) aren't doing much in the XF mount. Zeiss initially did, but that was because of direct interest and help from Fujifilm in getting more lenses out of the gate. Since those initial Touits, we haven't seen anything else from Zeiss. 

You do see a number of the smaller, manual-focus-only lens makers changing out the mount area of existing designs to support Fujifilm, as that's a rather easy, low-cost thing to do and broadens the market for their offerings.

But here's the rub: as much as you Fujifilm fans enjoy your cameras, there aren't enough of you yet. Couple that with Fujifilm themselves filling out the lens lineup, and there aren't enough dollars on the table for serious investment in new lens designs for XF from others. 

To me, you have to like what Fujifilm is doing, because Fujifilm is likely supplying both the camera and lenses you'll purchase. That's one reason why I tried to get some additional Fujifilm lenses reviewed in this batch of camera reviews: the two really do go together. And the sum of those two parts is overall excellent, something I can't say about EOS M or Sony E. 

Sony Reports Quarterly Earnings

Sony has once again reorganized its many component parts into "logical" divisions. Actually, to some degree, the new divisions make more sense than any previous organization they've used. 

The net result, however, is to bury some key data deeper away from where most can see it. Both image sensors and cameras are affected by this. Image sensors now are in a unit called Imaging & Sensing Solutions (I&SS), while cameras now go into a unit called Electronic Products & Solutions (EP&S). The former isn't much more than a name change that places a greater emphasis on imaging (formerly the group was called Sony Semiconductor). The latter buries still cameras further from direct observation because they're now lumped with TVs, audio and video equipment, and mobile communications (plus some miscellany). 

You have to go deeper in the published materials to find out what might be happening in cameras. It's a bit different than the completely rosy picture that Sony Marketing and the Fanbois (sounds like a band name) have been trumpeting:

  • Dollars taken in: down 11.4% compared to last year's same quarter.
  • Dollars taken in: up 21.6% from the dismal previous quarter.
  • Unit volume: down 20% compared to last year's same quarter.
  • Unit volume: up 33% from the dismal previous quarter.

As I (and almost no one else) reported before, Sony camera sales were not at all immune from the January to March 2019 slump in the camera market. You can see that clearly in their numbers if you know where to look. Sales rebounded in April to June 2019, but not back to last year's numbers. As well as Sony has been doing—particularly in full frame—they are not immune from market contraction.

Unfortunately, it's now impossible to tell from the quarterly financials what's happened at deeper levels, like camera inventory, R&D investment, and so on, because those numbers are now all consolidated for all the units within EP&S.

One small tidbit from the financials: the image sensor fabs are 100% booked. This is a bit of a problem for cameras, actually. Even if there were demand that suddenly propelled camera sales upward, it would be difficult to fulfill it. I'm pretty sure there's a built-in contraction expectation in Sony Semiconductor's—uh, excuse me, I&SS's—production of the larger sensors going into dedicated cameras. The use of more than one image sensor in modern smartphones is what is driving the fab utilization, as is industrial and automobile image sensor usage.

Mirrorless Notes

Some random notes about mirrorless at the moment.

Strategy. At the A7Rm4 introduction, Sony did their usual data-less graph showing that Sony was number one in full frame market share (units) and sales (dollars) in the US from October 2018 to May 2019. That's for both DSLR and mirrorless together (e.g. all full frame cameras).

When I say data-less, there's no scale on the graph. You could be #1 and have 34%, another competitor 33%, and the third competitor 32%, after all. Indeed, the situation seems to be something closely akin to that, at least here in the US. 

But this got me to thinking about strategy. Nikon clearly is operating on a different strategy than Canon and Sony. Nikon has for some time now been trying to manage contraction. Their clear goal seems to be to try to keep as many dollars and as much margin as possible while letting go of their previous market share strategy. 

I made an analogy a few years back that Nikon was still on the accelerator despite the fact they were entering a hairpin curve at the end of the straightaway. Well, they somehow managed the turn, but now they're not really trying to accelerate again as they're afraid of the turns ahead. 

At this point, it appears that Nikon has sold over 100k mirrorless full frame cameras, and I can see from my book sales that this has been a relatively constant demand (e.g. no big spikes, no big dips over the entire period). D850 sales seem to be doing okay, but on a slow decline. D610 and D750 sales have softened considerably. Overall, Nikon seems to be taking in only slightly less money than last year, and at good margin. In other words, they probably believe their strategy is working.

Sony has always had aspirations to beat Canon. That first showed up in statements from executives when Sony bought the Konica/Minolta assets back in 2006. But for a long time, Sony didn't have a cohesive strategy of how to get there. Give Sony full credit for figuring it out and iterating their way to where they are today. At least for full frame. 

Canon, frankly, seems in a bit of a panic. There's a disorganization to their efforts that's clear when you analyze their product line management. I've outlined this before (M doesn't lead to R, R cameras and lenses mismatch, and much more). 

What surveys are showing me is this: a lot of folk are still waiting. They wonder when Canon's strategy will become clearer, or Nikon will extend beyond two models. Or they're waiting to see some perceived problem fixed (e.g. Canon dynamic range and lack of IBIS, or Nikon 3D Tracking AF). 

The problem with both Canon's rushed strategy to hold Sony off and Nikon's strategy to just micromanage their contraction is that neither helps those folk still waiting to make decisions. In the absence of that, the only clear strategy at the moment is Sony's, and that's continuing to give Sony solid short-term success. 

Thing is, short-term success has a tendency to turn into long-term success. So Canon has to worry that Sony might stay ahead of them in full frame sales, and Nikon has to worry that they might get relegated to third place in a three company race (the three combine for almost three-fourths of all cameras made, and an even higher percentage in full frame). 

Lenses. Hmm, I just looked at my calendar. Five months left in the year. Four promised Nikon Z lenses left to be delivered in the year. Does this mean we get one big dump or a lens-of-the-month drop? 

Canon R is much the same way. Four more lenses promised for 2019, and five months to do it. Going back to strategy, these are all high-end lenses for the two lower-end cameras Canon has produced to date. So the mismatch seems like it will extend for awhile unless there's a high-end body that comes out this year (I'm not betting on it; early 2020 seems more likely).

Timing. Let's face it, most people don't use their cameras all the time, and the majority of people generally buy cameras only at certain times of the year. 

In terms of shooting, it's generally events that drive buying. The big event at the moment, of course, is "summer vacation." 

This year I've been hearing from a lot of people about missed opportunities. One place that's easy to see is with the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF lens (yes, a DSLR lens, but it also works fine on the mirrorless cameras). We're just about to get to the point where supply is high enough for that lens that you'd be able to find it (somewhere) in stock pretty much on demand. The backorder list has cleared at many dealers. 

The problem, of course, is that here in the US we don't do the European thing (where August is vacation month). In the US vacations spread out between Memorial Day (end of May) and Labor Day (start of September). That means that a lot of folk that wanted a 500mm for their vacation couldn't get it in time. Guess what's going to happen with demand? ;~)

This isn't the only "miss." To some degree, the A7Rm4 is another miss, as it doesn't appear until after the vacation season. The net effect of announcing it in the vacation period is FUD (e.g. people won't buy another high-megapixel camera until they see what that Sony one does). 

Having worked in tech for so long, I know that hitting target dates is always troublesome. You often get into "take out features/performance" decisions or you are late and you miss your target date. Couple that with the fact that sometimes building new manufacturing capacity (or changing it) can also put deliveries below where you want them, and you have the reason why product managers get gray hair early. 

I'm going to turn this around, though. You know your buying season. Some of you try to do upgrades before a big vacation—say an African safari—or at certain times of the year (birthday, mother/father's day, graduation, or Christmas). 

The thing you have to do is discount the "coming soon" stuff (ignore the FUD). When you're making buying decisions, you have to make it on what's actually available. That sometimes means that you won't be at the leading edge of tech, but if you haven't figured it out yet, you need to recognize this: tech keeps moving. Incessantly. Relentlessly. Constantly. It is impossible for anyone to buy perfectly on each tech change, and each tech change tends to be incremental, anyway. (Well, okay, if you're in the 1%, maybe you can buy on every change, but you won't stay in the 1% if you constantly churn money that way.)

Moreover, I'd say you need some time before an event or vacation to get to know your new gear before relying upon it. Thus, you shouldn't buy a new lens at the end of June for a vacation starting in early July. And definitely not a new camera.

In a perfect world, the camera companies would be dropping all their new gear in two periods: February to April (for the mother/father's day, graduation, and early vacation crowd), and September/October (for the holiday buying crowd).

Wait, why not August to October? I've written about that before: Europe is on vacation in August and not paying attention to product announcements, and the same is true here in the US through Labor Day; other areas of the world have slightly different timing, but we're talking about nearly two-thirds of the serious camera buying market here.

To some degree, the camera companies do target those periods. They just miss sometimes. That's okay. In two year's time, they'll be another drop that advances technology some more. 

I've long suggested that you upgrade your camera every other iteration (e.g., for the longest continuous line that's easy to describe, that would have been D70, D90, D7100, D7500, but not D80, D7000, or D7200). Obviously, when you're considering moving from DSLR to mirrorless, it isn't quite so easy (though I'd point out it goes D800, D810, D850/Z7 at the top end, so maybe the D810 owner doesn't make the mirrorless switch yet, while it might make full sense for the D800 owner). 

Too many people—and yes even the camera company marketing departments—get all hung up on Latest and Greatest (or most recent announcement). I'd suggest both you and the camera companies do a bit more thinking about the long-term, because the serious photography marketplace that's left and still buying cameras is filled with buyers that have been in the market for decades. You can sometimes make them jump to something new faster, but that comes at the expense of the next new thing.

The Train. I've written before that the camera engineering teams will simply keep iterating forever. There's always something that they can improve. Faster, More, Better. That will continue until the company stops making cameras, basically.

To those that have been updating regularly, that's a bit like a train. You rode through stop one (D1) to stop three (D3) and past stop five (D5) and are still on the train (or perhaps changed trains at the last station so you're now on the mirrorless line.

The question you have to ask yourself is "do I want to keep riding this train?" We don't know how many more stations there are or exactly where it will go. On the DSLR side it seems that there might not be many more stations left, but on the mirrorless side we're pretty much all on the first (or early) stations and seems like that line might go on (seemingly) forever.

Question is, do you want to go where the train is going?

I mention that because I'm seeing a raft of conflicting statements generated by the Sony A7Rm4. For example: "I want Nikon to make a 61mp camera now" versus "I have no desire/reason to go to 61mp."

That Sony sensor train isn't going to stop. I fully expect them to go another 20% further in linear resolution in a couple of years (e.g. somewhere at or above 100mp full frame). What I'm hearing now is that more folk want off the train than before.

Indeed, if you've been paying attention, the train has been getting less crowded over time. Back in the 6mp-12mp days every car was packed and every station platform was packed with more people wanting to board. Today, though, the passenger cars have plenty of seats available and the stations we're passing now don't seem to have a lot of patrons waiting for the train.

Just a few random thoughts in these dog days of summer.  

More Sampling is Always Better

It seems that the Sony A7Rm4 has raised the same questions I get every time we get cameras with more pixels: have we out-resolved lenses? Are more pixels useful?

US CA SantaClaraSwim 6-20-2014 1Dx 05816

Let’s start with the last question first: yes, more pixels are useful (each of the above images is four times as many pixels as the previous). This is always true if you’re aspiring to best-possible-data and best-possible-results. Assuming that all else is equal, in the analog to digital world more sampling (more pixels per inch) is always better than less sampling (fewer pixels per inch).

In theory, more sampling gives you a closer approximation to the actual real world data. This was easy to understand with audio. The classic example was to show a sine wave sampled at different frequencies. If your sample is low enough, you might only see the peak and valley values and nothing in between. If your sample was high enough, you start to see the shape of the sine wave and can clearly distinguish it from other kinds of waves.

That said, in a perfect digital camera world, your camera would take multiple images (which factors out the quantum shot noise), focused at different distances (which builds a deep focus box instead of plane), exposed at different values (providing better shadow and highlight information), and pixel shifted (to remove the Bayer demosaic aliasing). And it would do that with as many sample points (photosites) as possible. 

But what if something is moving in that scene? Well, your post processing software would have enough object recognition capability to detect the moving ones and pick (and perhaps build) the best stable view of each, while still using all the other data it could for the non-moving pieces. 

So, yes, I’d rather have 61mp than 45mp, and 45mp than 36mp, and 36mp than 24mp. All else equal. Likewise I’d rather have focus stacking than not, HDR than not, and pixel shift than not ;~)

Meanwhile, we have the resolution issue, particularly with lenses. Most people use a surrogate for resolution, and it’s a poor one: MTF value at some line width. Moreover, the manufacturers almost all only show MTF values as calculated, and at fairly low detail levels of 10lppm and 30lppm. Many independent testers find that their printed test chart dictate the maximum number that can be obtained. That all provides a number. That MTF number is NOT resolution. 

Does the above chart show good resolution or bad? 

Resolution is actually determined by a compound equation. That means that a whole chain of things are used to actually calculate total resolution, including but not limited to sensor pitch, lens MTF, demosaic aliasing, and more. 

What I tend to talk about is which of the many factors is the one most limiting the resolution capability of any imaging “system.” With the top level modern lenses and full frame sensors, it’s not the lens. Not yet, at least. And certainly not at the central area of the lens.

The real question you need to answer in both sampling and resolution is whether or not you can see the difference. I think we passed that point for most people some time ago, maybe at 24mp full frame with a 21st century lens. The 20% increase in linear sampling of the 61mp sensor over the 42mp sensor is not enough for some people to clearly see, and because resolution is a compound factor, if you put a lower cost, older, and/or lesser designed lens on the 61mp camera, you very well might see no change. 

There’s a reason why everyone is redesigning lenses. What used to be the primary gating element in the resolution equation (the sensor) has slowly evolved into what we have now, and it no longer as much of a gating element.

Think of film for a moment. While there were some strides made towards reducing grain size, there still seemed to be a fairly narrow and finite limit to what could be done. Grain reduction did not progress in nearly the way we’ve seen digital sampling increase. You could design a perfect lens and the film structure might simply be the gating element that would dictate what result you could attain. This led to lens designers emphasizing other aspects of their lenses than absolute resolution.

Image sensors for digital cameras are no longer close to being the gating element. Back when the D1 was the first DSLR at 2.5mp, yes, the sensor was a primary gating element of total system resolution.

Meanwhile, the new Sony camera has 3.76 micron photosites. We have image sensor technologies in smartphones that are under 1 micron. What that means is that we could probably create a full frame sensor that has four times the linear sampling ability as the A7Rm4! (Moving all that data quickly would be the issue that keeps you from doing it.) In other words, we have a long way we can still improve with the image sensor portion of the resolution equation. That’s why lens design has upped its game: the optical design groups—Canon and Nikon being two with a deep and wide ability here—don’t want to find themselves a limiting element (pardon the pun) in what cameras can or can’t do.

There’s a ton of emphasis on sensor importance these days, mainly because almost anyone can understand that 12>6, and 24>12, and 42>24, and so on. Worse still, many don't understand linear versus area math, and make erroneous statements about the bigger number.

Sony is primarily an electronics company (as opposed to optical like Canon/Nikon), so it isn’t at all surprising that they lead with their core and highlight the electronics (sensor).

But it takes two to tango (actually more, but that ruins the metaphor ;~). Optics have to run in lockstep with sensor capability in order to push the overall ability upwards.

Short version: if you’re not buying top lenses, you probably shouldn’t be buying high megapixel count cameras. And vice versa.

The “good enough” point for most full frame purchasers is almost certainly the 24mp cameras and a modern convenience lens (e.g. 24-105mm f/4 for Sony FE, 24-70mm f/4 for Nikon Z). Your FOLO (fear of losing out) is what makes you think you need 61mp. 

Finally, one thing I haven’t pointed out: I don’t think Sony has done anything to reduce their file sizes to the level that Canon and Nikon have. That means you’re going to be generating one heck of a lot of data if you shoot the A7Rm4. The next complaints we'll start hearing will about having to increase their card size, memory, and computer processing power just because they bought a new state-of-the-art camera ;~).

It may not seem like it reading the popular photography Web sites, but do you know what the most popular camera/lens combos have been for quite some time now?

I'll wait for your answer...



It's 24mp APS-C with a kit lens, and by a large margin. 

Why? Because it's "good enough" and far cheaper than a 61mp full frame camera and a high-end lens. 

Update: a few smart folk pointed out that there are limits in digital sampling where you probably won't get additional benefit; that the signal will be well enough sampled. My point is that we haven't hit that yet. Not even close, that I can see. So for the time being, more sampling is always better still.

The Full Frame Game is Fully Afoot

Sony’s announcement of the A7Rm4 seemed a little early—cameras won’t be available for almost two months—but that’s not totally unexpected. The full frame mirrorless game now has six players, and trying to get a quiet period where you can garner all the attention is going to get tougher and tougher. 

That’s because it’s also clear that we’re going to have full lines of full frame mirrorless cameras: Sony 4, Nikon 2 (eventually 4), Canon 2 (eventually 4), Panasonic 3, Sigma 1 (eventually 2), and Leica some random number depending upon how many times you count all the nearly alike M models  :~). 

With a standard two-year development cycle, that means that we’re also close to the point where we could have a new full frame mirrorless camera announcement every month. Add in lenses, and that’s definitely true.

Sony’s A7Rm4 announcement was a bit unusual in that Sony seemed to neglect trumpeting their “we’re winning” numbers (e.g. “#1 in full frame value). Overall, it appears that the announcement might have been pulled away from another event for some reason. Sony Kando 3 is coming up in a month, for instance, and for a late September release camera, that would have been the right time to do an announcement given that there are both press and public days to Kando 3.0, with a ton of social media activity coming out of that event (Canon/Nikon: have you caught onto that, yet?). But then, Sony has lots of balls to juggle right now, and they are probably planning on juggling a different ball at Kando. 

Still, get used to the whiplash. We just had the “smallest full frame” camera announced (Sigma fp) and now we get the “highest pixel count full frame” camera introduced. More quick change announcements are coming.

The Canikony triopoly sells three-quarters of the dedicated cameras bought each year. No way are they going to stay quiet now as the market continues to contract. And each is going to look for windows in which they can get their announcements out without the others stepping on them. We’re in Sony Time right now, but this fall I fully expect there to be a Nikon Time and also a Canon Time. 

Why? Well consider this: of the twelve dpreview news posts in two days, six were about some aspect of the Sony A7Rm4. If you look carefully at Google or Twitter hashtag trends, you see the immediate blip of attention that happens if you get your launch strategy dialed in with the right sites and influencers. But if you overlap with another competitive announcement, the blip is smaller.

Meanwhile, from a sensor standpoint, it’s difficult to keep up with what’s going on, partly because Sony Semiconductor hasn’t been quick to update their sensor pages and some sensors have disappeared from what’s left. We used to have 24mp, 36mp, and 42mp choices (plus Nikon made some changes to produce a 45mp variant). Now it appears that officially we have only the 24mp IMX410 (used in the Nikon Z6, Panasonic S1, Sigma fp, and Sony A7m3) and the new 60mp IMX455 (used in the Sony A7Rm4). 

This is, of course, not exactly true. Sony Semiconductor will make just about anything for a price; their published list of available sensors is simply an off-the-shelf set of choices that conglomerate all the recent Sony Semi intellectual property. And making a previous sensor—e.g. the old 36mp sensor—continues to happen until no one is buying it any more. That said, there’s rumor of a new 36mp version that brings it up to Sony Semi’s current IP, but I can’t find official acknowledgment of that.

Is there something different in the 60mp sensor from the 42mp and other full frame sensors? Yes, a couple of small things. The ADC supports 16 bits (though at full frame rate the sensor only supports 14-bit). It also uses the improved dual gain mode first deployed in the 26mp APS-C sensor (used as a base in the Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T30). 

Meanwhile, Canon supposedly is hard at work on a complete redo of their sensor lineup, but we’ve yet to see what that means. The M, R, and RP use older DSLR sensors; Canon’s next technology doesn’t yet exist in a camera, though I’m pretty sure it’s still progressing for deployment soon.

Still, as intriguing as all this sensor iteration and attention is, I’m going to say this: it’s more important that the new cameras get more attention to their ergonomics/haptics/menus and to “useful” photography features. 


Because 60mp is only a 20% resolution increase from 45mp. That’s just above the borderline of any visibility to most people. If you were moving from a 24mp camera, you get a 48% resolution increase, which is significant and should be easily seen by most (assuming you’ve got good lenses and shot discipline). But the people buying 24mp are buying it for value, while the “more megapixel” folks are a smaller base and buying to “have the best."

Overall, the pixel count numbers may look bigger and bigger, but the benefits are getting smaller and smaller. The pixel shift capability intrigues me more than the megapixel count, frankly, as when that is done properly you get noise, acuity, and resolution gains all rolled into one, and without added diffraction impacts from increasing the pixel count (assuming your subject is still; I don’t need 60mp+ for a moving subject ;~).

But think about it for a moment: with your current camera can you combine HDR, interval shooting, focus shift shooting, and pixel-shift shooting to build an incredible database to process an image from? Nope. The camera makers aren’t thinking photographically, they’re thinking about how many photons they can collect and convert in a smaller photosite. Not the same thing. 

It’s the serious photographers that are left still buying equipment these days. We need to be demanding more photographically-useful features over pixel count, in my opinion. A 36mp camera that combined HDR/interval/focus-shift/pixel-shift would run rings around a straight 60mp camera for landscape photography, for instance. Which are we more likely to get? ;~(

That said, from the announcement I believe that Sony Imaging made a lot of right decisions. Plenty of detail was paid to things that many of us had complained about on previous A7 cameras. But whether that adds up to a true step forward I won’t be able to tell you until I’ve tested the A7Rm4 this fall (because of my travel schedule, I’d need a camera in early August to do anything sooner, and that’s not happening).

Meanwhile, get ready for more announcements. Many more announcements. At least three full frame bodies and plenty of lenses from everyone in the next six months. 

Sony Adds Pixels to the A7R

bythom sony a7rm4-2

Sony this morning announced the A7R Mark IV (I abbreviate this as A7Rm4). In essence, this camera appears to take the Sony Semiconductor 26mp APS-C Exmor sensor and scale that up to full frame, producing approximately 60mp. Of course, in APS-C crop, the A7R Mark IV will produce 26mp.

While a lot of folk will get excited about the pixel production—especially since there’s a pixel shift capability for up to 16 frames, which can create 19008x12672 pixel 240mp images—the things I’m most happy to see with this new camera are much more subtle.

Take a look at that image, above. In particular, the C3 and AF-ON buttons: they can now much more easily be found by feel and operated when using gloves. Battery life has improved slightly, and the camera can be powered via USB. Sony has also beefed up the lens mount and weather sealing, including fixing the bottom plate vulnerability. The hand grip has been beefed up a bit, too.

Inside you’ll find important changes, too. The EVF is now a 5.76m dot UXGA OLED, retaining the ability to run at 120Hz. I’m also interested in the communication upgrades, including 5Ghz Wi-Fi (in some countries) and USB-C (3.2 Gen 1) that supports an FTP connection, including background transfers. We finally get two matching UHS-II slots. The shutter has been upgraded to produce less shock, as well. 

Video has been upgraded a bit, too, with the APS-C crop producing full pixel production in 4K, and available as S-Log2/3 or HLG graded. Video focus now adds Real-time Eye AF, too.

As always, there are footnotes in the Sony specifications to be aware of. Phase detect focus coverage is only for 74% of the frame. Curiously, there’s a buffer reduction for APS-C (~30 frames as opposed to 68 frames at 10 fps). So I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered other small bottlenecks given how much data is being moved around in the A7Rm4.

In short, Sony appears to have been listening to the UI and design complaints and started addressing them, which I applaud. We still have the issue of menu (dis)organization and naming to deal with, but Sony made strong strides in the right direction.

The A7Rm4 will ship in September in the US, and is priced at US$3500.

Of course, the Sony fans are out in force. I’m already seeing “this will put Canon and Nikon” in the grave posts and comments. What I’d say to that is that Sony’s “lead” is narrowing. We’ll have near-equivalent megapixel counts in mirrorless from Canon and Nikon in less than twelve months. Which is one of the reasons why I say that getting those little things right is much more important. 

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2019 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

Mirrorless camera news and views for 2019. The stories in these folders were front page news on sansmirror during the time periods indicated:

text and images © 2019 Thom Hogan
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