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.

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. 

Why? 

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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Sigma's Different Approach to Full Frame

Sigma today announced a number of interesting things—FE and L mount lenses, and the DC DN primes now in EOS M mount—but the product that probably caught the most curious attention was the development announcement of the Sigma fp camera.

bythom sigma fp45mm

Sigma has long been the most entrepreneurial of the Japanese camera makers, willing to take risks in search of customers. The fp is another in their oddball approach to cameras. Despite a 24mp full frame sensor—and surprise, it's a Bayer sensor—the camera is barebones and one of the smallest mirrorless bodies out there (422g with card and battery, and only 4.4" wide).

What's striking is how bold Sigma's approach here is. They've built the camera in a way that emphasizes video over still use (no EVF, multiple tripod sockets arrayed around the camera, no flash, etc.). Yet it still should prove to be an adequate still shooter, assuming you don't mind framing from a rear LCD. Cinema DNG Raw recording should net you over 12 stops of dynamic range in video, and recording is supported over the USB 3.1 connection. It's little touches like that last one that show how forward-thinking Sigma was being.

There's a plethora of bolt-on accessories (grips. plates, etc.) that are enabled by rethinking the camera straps (!). At each camera strap position there's instead a tripod socket. Shipping with the camera are small screw in strap eyelets, but you're free to add other options via those connections. It's a bit like having a minimal cheese plate built into the camera.

The all electronic shutter is something I've been predicting for awhile, as it removes one of the last mechanical parts from cameras and lowers overall manufacturing costs. And yes, Sigma's done just that: remove the physical shutter. That obviously has implications on shooting under frequency-based lighting, but it also simplifies the body and design parameters. 

And one of those body parameters is using the aluminum casing as a giant heat sink. It's likely to be a very hot soap bar body under stress—though there is significant venting—but it wasn't designed to hand held by the body only. 

The fp uses the L mount, which is a bit of a contradiction at the moment, as most available L mount lenses are quite large (the lens on the camera above is the new Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L). 

No price was mentioned, and a lot of details are still missing in the specifications, but the camera should be available in early fall.

Canon Matches Camera and Lens Better

I've been a harsh critic of Canon's mismatched RF products: low-end bodies and high-end lenses. Today, that problem began its inevitable demise.

bythom canon rplens

RP Facebook post: I'm finally in a relationship!

Canon introduced the 24-240mm f/4-6.3 RF lens. This new consumer superzoom will be available in September for US$900 on its own, or in a kit with the RP body for US$2200 (no savings in the bundle!). 

You can read the specs on the lens in the link, above. But I was struck by two statements in the Canon press release:

"...an excellent option as an all-around travel lens that provides attractive features for a wide variety of image capture." Right. It's a consumer lens for a consumer body, because consumers have long shown their allegiance to slow-aperture superzooms because of their convenience. Ironically, consumers buy ILC products and then pretty much ignore the IL. The US$900 price is a bit steep, though. Canon themselves has been selling an RP+EF lens kit for US$1700 (the 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6). That seems more the right price for an entry level option. Thus, the new lens offers a higher-end option for consumers, so Canon's still not quite where they need to be.

But here's the quote that should raise eyebrows: "the recently announced EOS RP full-frame mirrorless camera [and] the compact and lightweight portability of the RF 24-240mm rivals that of a Canon APS-C camera system with a comparable EF-S lens." Way to market against yourself, Canon. The example they give is not exactly equivalent (the EF-S lens would be 30-320mm equivalent), and US$1350 in price. The fact that Canon would want a user to consider a US$850 more expensive product, though, is illustrative of the problem they have. 

Canon pretty much dominates the low-cost consumer camera market these days. But almost all variations of that are contracting in market size. Certainly the DSLR (EF-S) side is. No doubt that Canon would like to transfer as many of those folk who are left upwards a notch. 

Okay, but the press release fails to say why someone would want the full frame RP over the crop sensor T7i (their example camera). 

Doh! This is sloppy and poor marketing, and not something I expect from Canon. There's a simple point to make here: the full frame equivalent should do better in low light, which is the reason why you'd want it and might pay more for it. 

The full frame camera also has 100% viewfinder coverage. It has 4K video and a few more pixels. So it seems like there were several things Canon could have marketed as making the RP case over a T7i, but failed at. (I checked Canon's Web site: "Excellent Low-light Performance" is bullet #5, so it's not as if Canon marketing didn't know why someone would choose the RP over the T7i, they just failed to say it. Again, marketing fail.)

You want to know who will gain market share in cameras in the future? The company that fixes their marketing first. As it sits right now, all of them have issues with their marketing messages.

At least Canon will soon have a lens that better matches the RP camera's market. Hopefully, they'll figure out how to market it correctly.

Let's Dip Into the Hype and Myths

"People who say they don't need eye AF are doing their clients a disservice."

Apparently I've been doing my clients a disservice for over 40 years. Who knew? Thing is, even in the manual focus days we found ways through practice, et.al., to get eyes in focus. The folk that are running around saying that a camera is a failure because it doesn't have an automatic feature are basically indicting themselves: they think the automatic feature now gives them parity with those who have been doing the job for years. The same was said for automatic exposure, automatic focusing, and a host of other automatic features. 

Don't get me wrong. The addition of a feature (e.g. optional Eye Detect AF) is always welcome. It gives me another option to use. But in order to use it effectively, you need to make sure you know how it really works. My experience with the Sony A7/A9 cameras, for example, is that this feature can be helpful at times, and it can produce problems at others.

One real issue with Eye AF is that it often doesn't focus on the eye. Oh, it centers the focus sensors on the eye area, but typically the eyebrows and especially strong eyelashes tend to be the focus point that is actually chosen, not the eye itself. With fast lenses, particularly telephoto ones, the DOF is shallow enough to see a degradation of the acuity of the iris and pupil. 

This is one of those "close enough for me" kinds of things that you have to be careful about. It very well may be that close enough is good enough for you. But frankly, you don't need a US$2000+ camera if you're into "good enough" shooting. And on gear that expensive I demand and expect features that will allow me to nail focus exactly where I want it to be. On mirrorless cameras, one of my issues still is that manual focus override by wire is not nearly as easy to get right as it is with the DSLRs.

"You need a dual slot camera to be safe."

Hmm. Where does that stop? Three slots? Four slots? Two slots with offsite backup via Wi-Fi? ;~) 

It's only been recently that we've gotten two slot cameras. Quite frankly, the mismatched two slot cameras (XQD+SD, CF+SD, or mismatched SD tech ala Sony) I think do as much harm as good. They tend to be like having a throttle limiter if you use the second slot for Backup (and that's the only shooting option that truly makes sense for dual slots in the arguments people are making for why they need two slots). 

Personally, I'd rather have performance and reliability, which means a single XQD over a mismatched dual slot anything. Sure, Sony recently introduced "tough" SD cards, which should help improve SD card reliability, but we still have the mismatched slot speeds to deal with and the way the Sony cameras perform (or fail to perform) when the buffer fills and needs emptying using the backup option. 

Again, an option is nice to have. But it would really be nice to have the option optimized (matching slots). I shoot with two cards in my D5 (matching slots, though I don't use Backup, I use Overflow). I don't shoot with two cards in my D500, D850, or A7Rm3 (mismatching slots). Your mileage may differ, but you don't see a lot of pros running around saying that they've lost images due to total card failure that they couldn’t recover from. 

Indeed, I wrote an article about card failures not too long ago. Short version: too many people think cards are "forever" and just want to use that original SD card they bought 10 years ago and have been using in their old camera forever without doing any integrity checks on it. Nope. This is like thinking you drive on the same tires on your car forever. ALL cards have basically the same write limits. Like all media, they can develop low level formatting or sector errors. Use them long and often enough and they will fail. Everyone should be regularly formatting, rotating, and retiring cards. That and buying quality cards in the first place is your best protection against losing images. There are no "bargain" XQD cards; they're all quality cards. There are "bargain" SD cards, and you have to wonder what shortcuts they're taking in sourcing and testing the chips.

"More focus points is better than fewer."

For a really slow shooter willing to take the time to be precise where they put focus, probably true. Landscape photographers are in second heaven with their ability to pinpoint where focus is achieved on mirrorless cameras. In reality, though, if you're shooting any moving subjects, the more points you have when you're trying to force the focus to a specific area—as opposed to an all-auto mode—the more likely you'll still be moving the focus position when you should have been taking the shot (I often take my focus positioning choices down to 11 or half on my Nikon cameras for that reason). 

So we have two things here. If you're manually controlling the focus point, you need a very quick way of moving it. Quickness is often better than Precision in this case. If I can just get the focus to the head of the flying bird or the running player, I'll be all right (particularly as I often give myself a bit of DOF to fail in). If your subject is static, the more points you can move to is obviously useful, though this can make you work more slowly.

The automatic modes—noticing a trend here?—are where things get crazy. If the Canon system is really evaluating 5000+ points while the Nikon is only looking at 200+ points (Z6), you have to wonder whether all those extra points actually are doing the right thing. The Canon might move the focus more discretely than the Nikon, obviously, but sometimes you don't want to be seeing the trees instead of the forest. 

Which brings me to this: it's all about shooting and figuring out what the tool does, then optimizing your use of it. You always want to do that, no matter what the specs say. 

One final point here: I was amused to get into a discussion with someone last week who was touting an all automatic focus feature and how it was better and always worked. I asked them if they'd ride in an all-automated vehicle with no user controls. Nope. And the reason why? It might not always work. Hmm. So automated cameras always work right and automated cars don't? (Yes, I know that there's a different scale of risk here.)

Software engineers develop algorithms for automatic performance that try to deal with as many of the common cases as possible. It's when you get out of the common cases that things start to go haywire with automated routines. The more you shoot, the more you're likely to encounter uncommon cases where having a human in charge is preferred to automation. Here's your new mantra: Automate, but verify.

"On-Sensor Image Stabilization (IBIS) is a must."

Another automated feature statement?

Image stabilization is situational in terms of its help, but yes, it can be very useful in those situations. Where the stabilization is done isn't necessarily as important as anyone thinks it is. In the lens means you're putting more complexity, cost, and fail points in the lens, but potentially putting the rotation at the optical center, which is probably where you want it for telephoto lenses. IBIS means you're putting more complexity and heat where you don't want it, plus more fail points in the camera, but every lens is then stabilized. 

A lot of the Sony full frame users don't realize that their cameras can be capturing about 1% less than a true full frame. Why? To allow for the motion of the sensor during IBIS there's a very small bit of crop (48 pixels on the long axis to be exact). Is this crop a problem? No, but if it's there and they don't know about it, what else don't the users know?

See my article about image stabilization.

What I see as far more important than where the stabilization is done is in how easy it is to enable and disable. If the function control is buried in menus, then people just turn it on and use it all the time, even in situations where they probably shouldn't (generally high shutter speed use or where they are truly concerned about bokeh [yes, IS tends to impact bokeh; that's a long story for another day]). 

Since we keep talking about automated modes in this article, I need to put a straw man proposal out there: it's fine and useful to have automated modes, as long as there is a clear and easy to use ability to manually turn them on and off (or in some cases, modify their behavior). We don't want all automated, and we don't want all manual. We want a perfect blend where we can let the camera do the heavy lifting when it's appropriate, but immediately take control back when it is not. I'd argue that this—quick manual override or adjustment—is far more important than how well the feature does or doesn't work in the first place.

"Brand X (usually Sony) is the technology leader."

This is usually written by someone who is just reading marketing statements and doesn't actually know a lot about the underlying technology and where it came from, particularly things that might be buried deep in the ISPs (BIONZ, DIGIC, EXPEED), or in the sensor (BSI, Dual Gain, Dual Pixel, etc.). People making this kind of statement usually don't know the actual origins of the technology. Image sensor stabilization, for instance, was invented and patented by Hewlett Packard, back when they made cameras just after the turn of the century. It got to Japan via HP's manufacturing partner, Pentax. Pentax has long been a technology provider to other camera makers. Doh!

Leads don't stay leads long, either. Canon and Sony, in particular, are big elephants with deep R&D and product marketing teams that are constantly evaluating what each other is doing, and looking for technologies invented elsewhere that might be useful to them in the future. But the R&D budgets at Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic aren't to be scoffed at, either.

Sure, it's great to be first with a feature or performance spec, but those things don't actually last all that long as a product advantage. 

Finally, the tech marketer in me makes me want to force everyone to write feature/benefit statements for all those technology bits being trumpeting. Okay, so Camera A has X feature. What's that mean in terms of a true user benefit? 

Which leads me to this: are you buying a camera for its specs or for its usage?

Now that we have four players all producing multiple full frame mirrorless cameras, I can see those different cameras appealing to different people for different reasons. Rather than arguing over which specification is better, maybe it would be more useful to examine the customer need and figure out which camera is better for that customer.

There's room enough in the market for all three major players (and six total if you count the L mount). Personally, I don't care if Canon, Nikon, or Sony turns out to sell more than the others. I think they'll all see plenty of customers, and I'll continue to do what I always do: evaluate each tool for the problems I have to solve. 

To give just one example, Sony isn't really the choice at the moment if you need tilt/shift lenses. Both Canon and Nikon have a full line of tilt/shift lenses that work pretty much exactly the same on one their new mirrorless cameras as they do on their DSLRs. So if I'm into architectural shooting, for instance, the Nikon Z7 with the 19mm f/4 PC-E mounted on the FTZ adapter seems like a pretty good choice, as would a D850 DSLR. (Yes, I know I can get an adapter to mount a Canon tilt/shift lens on a Sony. The key words in this paragraph were "pretty much exactly.")

On the other hand, the A7m3 with one of the Samyang small prime near-pancakes (24mm, 35mm, and now 45mm) seems like a really good choice for silent, unobtrusive street shooting compared to my big DSLRs. 

Right tool for the job. That's the discussion you should be looking for, not whose marketing brochure has more "technology wins" in it. 

"Canon and Nikon can't match Sony's relentless launch pace." 

Hmm. Have you actually looked at what that "pace" is? About two years+ between generations of an individual Sony mirrorless camera. Pretty much the same as Nikon did with the D8xx series ;~). What Sony did that caused this "faster" myth to spread was very nicely position their mirrorless launches so it seemed they were announcing something new every quarter, sometimes every month. By positioning A7, A9, A6xxx, and RX launches very carefully, and by emphasizing the new technology in each of those, Sony always had a new technology message that hits again and again. Realistically, though, it was a multi-year transition from DSLR-type cameras to mirrorless that was happening.

That seemed particularly different compared to Nikon, who mostly went into silent running mode after the big and loud D500/D5 launch in early 2016, with really only the D850 introduction in 2017 being played up. Coolpix and other minor updates like the D7500 didn't attract much media attention, and weren't really pushed heavily by Nikon marketing. 

Canon was more active in the recent period than Nikon, but still not with a lot of dramatically new technology; they were more about making sure their current technology was in everything you could buy (e.g. the dual-pixel, 24mp, APS-C sensor is now in compact cameras, mirrorless cameras, and DSLRs). 

Chalk this one up to Sony's good marketing and messaging. But if you're expecting that we won't see the same two year+ iterations on the Canon R and Nikon Z systems, I'd guess that you’ll be wrong. Moreover, these are completely new platforms: we're going to see additional models over time and more technology added, too, much like Sony rolled the three A7 models (and A9). 

Put another way, in the coming couple of years, it's probably going to look like Sony is doing updates, while Canon and Nikon are releasing entirely new product, about the opposite of the last few years.

Particularly when it comes to optics, watch for Canon and Nikon to also start making bigger splashes than Sony (after all, they're deeply rooted optics companies while Sony is more deeply rooted as an electronics company). Both the RF and Z mount open up some new design territory that I’d guess Sony will have a tougher time directly matching in the FE mount. Indeed, Sony's already been heavy on the marketing defense about lenses, trying to dull the Canon/Nikon messaging before it has time to set in.

That said, I'm very happy with the Sony lens offerings now (the first few lenses were problematic, but Sony's got the rhythm now). The Sony G and GM lenses, in particular, have all been very good. As good as I really need right now if I'm to be honest. I don't think Sony has to be defensive at all. 

Summing Up

The Internet tends to get all tied up with specific new features and technologies. Marketing messaging is all about FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). I'd say that you should spend much more time looking at your actual uses, and making sure that the products you buy enhance those particular uses. In other words, that the features/technology provide a benefit that you actually will gain from.

Sometimes new technology does align with use cases. One thing that I think the camera companies discovered by accident is that most people were focusing-and-reframing, but counting on the camera to do the heavy lifting. 

For instance, the new full time tracking modes actually play into that, though that's not how they were designed to work. In other words, I see lots of Sony users keeping the focus sensor in the center, framing the center on what they want to keep in focus, starting the tracking (e.g. AF-ON button) and reframing, believing that the camera will still follow the thing they initially focused on. It does, so the user is happy. 

I'd point out that focus-and-reframe means the chance for missing a moment in time, though. I'd rather be able to specify the thing to focus on by pointing to it while holding the framing constant, which is how the tracking methods were all designed to work. (This is why I prefer thumb-on-LCD to move the focus cursor rather than thumb stick or Direction pad, by the way. I can do that faster and more reliably if implemented well.)

So how's all this help you today? After all, we're currently in a period where we don't expect a lot of new product to be available (fall will be the next big product drop time).

Price. 

We're in a period where the camera makers are unloading inventory, particularly of older product. Buying a generation behind (or at the tail end of a generation) can produce large discounts, but still net you a very usable product. But only if you don't get caught up in the hyping of features and technologies. It very well may be that a discounted older camera might let you happily shoot for several years without reducing your ability to create great images. 

Back when I was in college, I use to have a button that said Question Authority. These days, that button would probably read Question Technology. The promoters of technology today have a vested interest in selling it to you, whether you need it or not. Only you can determine whether you actually need it.

Pro Gear Revisited

Earlier, I wrote about what I felt constituted full frame mirrorless pro gear. Today I'll take up the crop sensor portion of the mirrorless market.

Professionals use their gear almost every day, they use it heavily, they rely upon it to get accurate and best possible results, and they expect it not to break despite often heavily abusing it. Cameras and lenses get transported to and from venues a lot, not always in protective cases or with care. Even studio gear tends to get pushed around a bunch as you deal with new or multiple setups.

You'll note that "image quality" generally isn't necessarily at the top of the pro's need list, though any working pro these days wants to produce images that are well above the level that the average consumer user can produce. 

While I started this straw man proposal of what gear qualifies as pro with full frame, it's time to look at the other options, as full frame isn't the only option. Today we look at the crop sensor options.

m4/3

The Olympus/Panasonic twins have been producing pro-level gear for some time now. On the Olympus side, that really started with the E-M1, while on the Panasonic side I tend to feel that started with the GH2. Today I'd put the following m4/3 bodies in my pro gear straw man:

  • Olympus E-M1X
  • Olympus E-M1m2
  • Panasonic GH5
  • Panasonic GH5S
  • Panasonic G9

Those Olympus cameras are a bit unique in that they really will put up with a lot of abuse, to the point of using them in the rain without extra protection, something I'm even a bit leery to do with my Nikon D5 (which survives just fine in moderate rain). Beyond the overall kit size and weight savings, one reason I adopted the E-M1m2 for backcountry shooting use is the fact that I didn't have to take any extra precautions should I be caught in a rain storm while well away from the vehicle.

Both companies have a long line of lenses that I would say qualify for pro status, as well. Olympus even makes that easy to see by labeling them "PRO". I'd tend to throw a few additional lenses into that mix, most notably the 12mm f/2, 45mm f/1.8, and 75mm f/1.8. With Panasonic, there's no marketing nomenclature that I can use to point you the right direction, and I'd have to admit that I haven't kept up with all the Lumix lenses; you're on your own to make a determination there. But a lot of the higher end Panasonic lenses I've used definitely qualify here.

One question I get is whether m4/3 is really competitive in terms of image quality any more. The sensors seemed to have maxed out at 20mp, and their small size puts them at a disadvantage to larger size sensors in low light. 

I have mixed feelings about that. I actually don't mind the 20mp sensor in my E-M1m2—the one m4/3 camera I still keep in my gear closet—but only up to the point where I can keep the ISO at 1600 or less. I also tend to use the faster, highest spec lenses—even though that cuts into the smaller/lighter theme a bit—to mitigate my need for higher ISO values. I have no qualms shooting at base ISO with an m4/3 sensor. I have real qualms with using them at high ISO values. Whether your "break point" is the same as mine (ISO 1600) would depend upon your tolerance for noise reduction impacts on your image data. In general, pros tend towards high acuity, which means they don't like noise reduction.

APS-C

Okay, time to put my flak jacket and hard hat back on and hide behind the wall again...

We have three basic APS-C choices at the moment in mirrorless. I'm going to mostly dismiss two of them.

Canon EOS M is fairly easy to dismiss as not being particularly pro. Besides the mostly polycarbonate build quality of the M's, I've found them not to hold up to travel abuse. On the best built of the bunch, the M5, the viewfinder on mine detached and the entire camera needed replacing (which, to their credit, Canon did for a very reasonable fee). I also had a control snap off on one of the lower models. 

Which is a shame. Because the M5 with the 22mm f/2 lens is a very nice, small package with quite reasonable image quality and controls. My problem? Something dedicated like the Ricoh GRm3 or Fujifilm X100F seems to hold up better for this type of use, both are just as compact, and both have arguably slightly higher image quality.

Sony A6xxx models are a little more difficult to dismiss as pro. I've had some minor issues with these cameras holding up under travel stress. That's partly because they're small enough that you want to just throw them into a not-so-protective case and go. I had mount issues with one body I was using. You'll want an LCD protector for sure. The flimsy Control dial on one of my cameras got really unreliable. So the solid body frame/covering build is let down by the smaller details of the cameras, in my opinion.

But the first real reason why I tend to dismiss them from my pro straw man proposal is this: they're a bit on the gimmicky side. The dependence upon the consumer-camera Direction pad to get you access to key features also means that you have to watch for accidental settings when you handle the camera quickly and roughly. And as I noted, I'm not sure the Control dial build quality is up to rough handling in the first place. A little bit of rethink and redo on the A6xxx back panel controls would go a long, long way to making the A6xxx models better suited for high-end use.

The second reason I tend to dismiss the A6xxx models is something I harp about a lot: lenses. (Yes, I could have mentioned this with EOS M, too, but EOS M has more fundamental problems so we didn't need to drop into a lens discussion). 

The 10-18mm and 16-70mm f/4 lenses are about the only ones that fit into the focal ranges most pros would demand and that also have enough robustness and quality to survive rough use. The 16-70mm f/4 seems to have variable sample quality. Mine was right at the margins with that, in that it did mostly fine, but had some clear defects. (At some point, I plan to go back and review the latest A6xxx body, with a new 16-70mm f/4 sample, so take my lens comment lightly at this point.)

For reasons that apparently only those in back rooms in Tokyo fully understand, APS-C cameras just don't/won't get a full high-end lens set if the camera maker in question also has other higher end cameras. Way to self-select your potential customer base. Worse, that particular customer base—people who are buying APS-C to get dedicated camera quality but don't want to spring US$2000 for a full frame body—is the one that is most dissatisfied with the current offerings and has stopped buying. Pros? They'd tend to consider the Canon and Sony models "disposable" in my experience.

Which brings us to Fujifilm. Finally, some gear I can put on the pro side of the hypothetical bar I've drawn:

  • X-T3
  • X-H1
  • So many of the Fujifilm XF lenses it's far easier to list the ones I think clearly don't make the pro grade: 16-45mm f/3.5-5.6, 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6, 55-200mm f/3.5-4.8, 50-230mm f/4.5-6.7.

Why not the X-T30? Well, I'm still evaluating it, but my initial impression is that it's sitting close to the bar, not over it. The X-Pro2 is an older camera I would have to go completely by memory on at this point, so I've not included it here. I"d tend to put the X-Pro2 in the pro column, but here's the thing: the bar keeps moving, and it's been too long since I used that body in order to be confident in my assessment of where it is in relation to the bar.

Which brings up a point: this is my straw man. If "pro level" is really important to you, you should have your own bar defined that a product needs to get above. You really need to do that definition without consideration of product first. Then evaluate the product to see if it gets above that. For example, an indoor architectural photographer probably isn't going to put weatherproof in their straw man. I shoot outdoors in any and all conditions, so I do. 

The two Fujifilm bodies I identified above both seem sturdy and robust, and have deep feature sets that cater to a pro user, all with a UI that puts a lot of user control into the fingers while looking through the viewfinder. If you have to know, my current thinking is that I prefer the X-H1 to the X-T3, other than the placement of that Q button (I'd move the thumb stick slightly up, and put the Q button below it). (Reviews coming soon.)

One small issue with the Fujifilm gear is that their best, most pro-like stuff starts getting on the bigger and heavier side. One topic I need to address soon—hopefully in my upcoming reviews of the X-T3 and X-H1 or in a sidebar to them—is the fact that the Nikon/Sony full frame bodies are about the same size and weight as the better Fujifilm bodies, so the issue of sensor size absolutely comes into play. 

Put another way: what do we gain by dropping a sensor size when choosing a Fujifilm APS-C body over a full frame one? Fujifilm likes to claim that we lose virtually nothing (the X-Trans marketing), but I'm not so sure that's the case. Sensors are a constantly moving target, just like my "pro bar", so require constant diligence in keeping abreast of the what's going on by shooting the same subjects with different gear.

What Constitutes Pro?

A legitimate question is starting to appear now that full frame mirrorless is starting to flesh out: what is it that constitutes "pro gear"? 

Note: this article is really only directed at full frame mirrorless. Opening the subject up to other formats introduces additional topics that would need to be addressed.

It's interesting that Canon, and to a far lesser degree, Nikon, are going through a similar transition to what Sony did early on, and that can be confusing to potential buyers. 

Let's start back with the A7 and the original 24-70mm f/4 ZA FE lens. I wouldn't characterize either that camera or that lens as "professional." The original A7 body was missing a lot, both in features and performance, and had a lot of loose ends to it. It wasn't a bad camera, for sure, but it wasn't the tool that a professional would want to be using daily. Likewise, the 28-70mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens was pretty marginal, and even the step up Sony offered—the 24-70mm f/4 ZA—just didn't perform well outside the very central area. I've got a lot of very smeared corners in shots taken with those combos taken back in 2014. Not pro.

Today, of course, we have the Sony A9 and GM lenses. By contrast to the early Sony full frame efforts: very pro. Far more attention to details that make a difference to a working photographer, and far better performance. For me, it wasn't until 2017 that I felt that Sony was really producing the top level gear I wanted and could count on.

Contrast that to Canon RF. 

Oh my, the RF lenses so far rock. Some of the best optics I've seen. But the R and RP bodies really aren't at the same level, in my opinion. It really feels at the moment like I have to compromise on body to use really great lenses. I—and many pros—don't like compromises, especially when we're paying big bucks to build out a new system.

Nikon is somewhere closer to today's Sony than Canon. The Nikkor S-line lenses are quite good, a couple so good you might put them on the "rock" scale. The bodies are also quite good, about Sony Mark 2.5 or higher overall. Equal to or better than the Mark 3's in some respects, a bit behind in others. 

As many of you know, my mantra is Optimal Data. By that, I mean that I want the best possible pixel data I can obtain in the field. Obviously, lens and sensor quality play into that. But I—and other pros—don't want to have to struggle to get that. Features, controls, and many more things come into play if we want to make that lens and sensor sing the best song that it can.

So I thought it might be a good time to put a straw man proposal out there. Just what are the current truly "pro level" products out there in full frame mirrorless? 

(/Thom puts on flak jacket, dons hardhat, and hides behind block wall...)

Canon

  • RF 24-105mm f/4L IS (yes, it squeezes in, IMO)
  • RF 28-70mm f/2L (though no IS)
  • RF 50mm f/1.2L
  • RF 85mm f/1.2L

Yep, like I wrote above: all lenses, no bodies. 

The RP clearly is an entry level body akin to the 6Dm2 in DSLRs. The R is kind of like the 5Dm4 but not. As I've noted before, the R seems like an experiment in UI/UX. While many pros are using the R body, it's because that's all they've got that comes close to what they really want. Most Canon R shooters I've talked to have a long list of things they'd like to see addressed, which is generally not the sign of "pro" level.

Nikon

  • Z6
  • Z7
  • 14-30mm f/4 S (barely, and not for some people)
  • 24-70mm f/2.8 S
  • 24-70mm f/4 S
  • 35mm f/1.8 S
  • 50mm f/1.8 S

Hmm, that's pretty much everything Nikon has put out in the Z system so far. With the exception of the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the two primes, I'd say the rest is a bit down towards the bottom of what I'd call pro and what some might call prosumer (something we'll see repeated in my straw man a bit later ;~).

I've put this one to the test, though, shooting hired events and sessions just with the Z's. Those three lenses I mentioned are clearly where I would like them to be, the rest close enough that I can call it pro and live with it. The bodies do the work I need, though there are probably two or three things I'd like to see changed/improved.

Panasonic

  • S1
  • S1R
  • 24-105mm f/4 OIS
  • 50mm f/1.4
  • 70-200mm f/4 OIS

I don't have a lot of experience with the Panasonic gear yet. I'm waiting until this fall to do a full, thorough analysis with S1 gear in actual shooting situations. But I've handled and shot just enough with these items at Panasonic events and trade shows to come to a strong enough conclusion for a straw man proposal: Panasonic is pretty much trying to be "pro" from the get go, and arguably getting there.

Sony

  • A7m3
  • A7Rm3
  • A9
  • all GM lenses (16-35mm f/2.8, 24mm f/1.4, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2.8, 135mm f/1.8, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 400mm f/2.8)
  • most G lenses (24-105mm f/4, 28-135mm f/4, 70-200mm f/4, 90mm f/2.8)
  • a few others (12-24mm f/4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 55mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8)

Some of you might wonder why I don't put the A7Sm2 on the list: the Mark II's were right below my hypothetical bar, but the A7Sm2, in particular, doesn't really work out to be a great still shooter for most of us, IMO. Those that also shoot video would have a different opinion on that, but I'm trying to keep my straw man list to products that we pros would rely on day in, day out, no matter the job. 

(/Thom walks back out in open, takes off flak jacket and removes hardhat)

I did this thought experiment to try to get a grip around all the gear that's been through my hands lately, tying to make sure that I had some basic bar I was considering for just how good and useful it might be.

Sony, clearly, had a head start and is further along. It won't be long before I have to add more Sony gear to my list, I think. (Note there are some recently announced items I haven't really had a chance to use with final production units, such as the two long telephotos just announced.) 

I like where Sony is today. On the lens side I have no real complaints, as I can find optics I'd trust no matter what camera I put them on. The camera side is good, and what I'd call pro level, but boy are them some small things (sometimes literally, like buttons ;~) I'd like to see them address. For my sports work I'd be perfectly happy shooting with an A9. And I was using an A7Rm3 for quite a long time alongside my Nikon D850 DSLR (now mostly done with a Z7).

Nikon, meanwhile, is really tempting me. I'm actually going to try an upcoming dive into Africa solely with Z gear. I think it's at a high enough level to play with the big boys (top DSLRs), but with some careful choices, it saves me size/weight in the Land Cruiser and flight hopping. I'll obviously report on that after I've done it, with all the pros and cons of what happened. But Nikon shot high and mostly hit the target is my current feeling. My sense from the Nikon Ambassadors that I know is that while they're obviously playing to Nikon's marketing needs in using and talking about the Z's, they're enjoying that, not fighting the gear.

I'm also impressed with Panasonic. In some ways, the Panasonic cameras just feel like what we pros were used to with DSLRs. The S1 twins are well thought out and solid performers so far. The only problem? They're a little too much like DSLRs when all is said and done, as they're the biggest of the bodies, and the lenses so far also have a lot of heft to them.

It's with Canon where I'm still scratching my head. Those two RF primes I listed are really, really, really good. But I feel like they're currently let down by the cameras I have to use them on. I should say this: I don't feel like the 6Dm2 is a pro level camera, so with the RP using the same sensor, similar controls with similar performance, the RP isn't going to get me excited. Likewise, the 5Dm4 feels like an aging DSLR these days, so the R with the same basic sensor, a strange set of controls that are not very Canon-like, and similar performance, the R also doesn't get me excited.

I can't imagine that Canon would put out the lenses they did without having a camera body coming that they believe lives up to the same level, so basically I'm in wait-and-see mode with Canon, as are a lot of others.

I don't think we'll have long to wait. The 2020 Summer Olympics are a home game, and where thousands of photographers descend with pro gear trying to cover everything from opening ceremonies to sports action, portraits, street-type shooting, and more. Everyone will be touting their "pro" gear in 2020, so if something's missing today, I expect it to show up soon. 

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:

2018 Mirrorless Camera News/Views

Mirrorless camera news and views for 2018. The stories in these folders were front page news on sansmirror during the time periods indicated:

2017 Mirrorless Camera News/Views



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