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.

Nikon Z Firmware Update and Service Advisory

The 2.00 version of the Z6 and Z7 firmware appeared from Nikon today. The primary feature changes:

  • Eye detect autofocus was added. This is really an extension of Face detect in Auto Area mode, not a separate mode (faces are still detected, and then focus is shifted to the eye when they are detected).
  • Low light autofocus has improved. The Z6 shoots to -3.5EV and the Z7 to -2EV under normal circumstances (ISO 100, f/2). When set to low light, these numbers extend to -6EV and -4EV, respectively.
  • Exposure is no longer restricted in Continuous High (Extended). Previously, exposure was set to the first image in the sequence. Now all exposures get full exposure assessment.
  • Shutter type can now be automatic. The camera can automatically switch between mechanical and electronic shutter based upon shutter speed.

In addition, a number of other minor changes and bug fixes were made, as well. Note that the changes in the Z firmware had Nikon updating the Capture NX-D, Camera Control Pro, and ViewNX-i software, as well. 

All the new firmware and software can be found on Nikon's central download center.

Meanwhile, Nikon has initiated a Service Advisory for some Z6 and Z7 camera bodies. Apparently the sensor VR function does not function properly in some bodies. You can enter your serial number to see if your camera is affected.

Now that the new firmware is out, I'll work on completing my Z6 review (I've been holding off on that to see what impacts this major firmware update has on the Z experience). Fortunately, my Z6 is not affected by the service advisory.

Credit Where Credit is Due

We're now at a stage with the mirrorless market where we can better evaluate how various strategies have played out. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so here we go:

Winners

  • Fujifilm — While their business is still modest in size to the Canikony trio, at least it appears to be modestly growing in these times of contraction. Where credit goes to Fujifilm is in their straddling of the main trend (full frame mirrorless). By keeping with APS-C and introducing Medium Format, Fujifilm's strategy is to niche on either side of all the full frame push, and that's worked as Sony has mostly ignored APS-C other than to tech innovate the A6xxx body bit by bit, but virtually nothing else. I'd give Fujifilm further credit for rounding out a full line of crop sensor lenses on their own, too. How long Fujifilm's strategy works now that Canikon is fully in the mirrorless market, I don't know. But for now, things look fine.
  • Sony — They made the classic Ries/Trout call and made a committed move away from DSLRs some time ago. Moreover, they made a correct call to emphasize high value product (full frame) over lower end (consumer APS-C). That last bit has upped their position to #2 globally in terms of ILC sales dollars, I believe, passing Nikon and getting close enough that all of Canon management is staring at Sony in shock. All good things, and the reason why I put them in the winners category. Like Fujifilm, it's unclear how long the Sony strategy will play out for them. I doubt they have much to fear from Nikon—though Sony Semiconductor definitely wants Nikon to do well for obvious reasons—so it's Canon you have to watch to see if there are going to be clear chinks in the Sony armor. Good thing for Sony that Canon is a mess right now (see below). But you can't count on things staying that way.

Losers

  • Olympus — They abandoned DSLRs earlier than anyone (the right call for them). What they haven't done is build that into a defensible business with staying power. Indeed, they stalled at around 500k units a year and are now down to 340k units for their past fiscal year (and continuing to shrink as their product line doesn't match consumer demand). Olympus peaked at near 8% ILC market share and is now down to 3.3%. Clearly, this isn't because of the build quality of the product, feature set, or the breadth of the product line (e.g. full set of lenses). The failure can only be attributed to camera bodies that aren't priced or designed "right" to compete in the broader market—witness the E-M1X—coupled with the marketing of same. I'd say that Olympus has repeated the same mistake in cameras at least four times over my lifetime, so there's something systemic in their internal strategy versus market acceptance execution. 
  • Pentax — I'm not even sure I could call them a hobby business any more. Pentax has taken a couple of minor stabs at mirrorless (K-01 and Q), but neither seems like a serious attempt to sell product or grow the business. The Q seemed like a DSLR scale model, but had lenses with the word "Toy" on them, while the K-01 seemed like an Art School project gone wrong (sorry Marc, you mailed this one in). The fact that none of you reading this are using either one says something important, I think ;~). Even more strange is that Ricoh, the company that bought Pentax from Hoya (which bought the original Pentax company), continues to insist on making cameras under the Ricoh name. Simply put, Pentax (Ricoh) has no mirrorless strategy, yet mirrorless is the only segment of the camera market that isn't contracting. Nor do they even seem to have a coherent "camera" strategy, given that they can't agree on a brand name. Thus, one has to conclude that Pentax (Ricoh) wishes to contract even more. Which the market will gladly help them do.

Unknowns

  • Canon — The biggest camera player is now in full transition to mirrorless. It's an incredibly awkward transition, to say the least, as EOS M doesn't lead to EOS RF, the RF cameras don't match the RF lenses, and there doesn't seem to be any consistent UX in what Canon is doing with mirrorless yet. And will Canon Cinema cameras be left in the EF mount? Yikes Canon has a lot of messy things to clean up. However, it's too early to say whether that mess will trip up our market leader, or whether it's just a short term result of trying to move faster than they were really ready to. I'd say things could go either way for Canon: (a) they lose their clear dominance over the other players because they can't clean up the loose ends fast enough, or (b) they get everyone in the Imaging group on the same page and executing back on the same cross-supportive strategies again to keep their dominance. The awkward thing for Canon is this: both Nikon and Sony have essentially eaten away Canon's full frame dominance, particularly in the US. If people's dollars are votes, Canon isn't leading full frame any more. And remember, full frame mirrorless is the primary trend line in cameras that's working.
  • Nikon — Nikon now seems on the "Slim Sony" plan: transition to mirrorless much like Sony did, but just start with the meat in full frame and skip over APS-C for the moment. It's just too early to tell completely how well that's going, though I'd say that Nikon overall hit somewhere between Mark II and Mark III on their first try (and skipped the poor lens phase). Nikon's sales might not completely disrupt Sony, but it's clear that Nikon is moving a reasonable volume of Z hardware now and has the built-in profit margin to be more aggressive moving forward. The problem for Nikon is that they're probably a year late to when they should have started this transition, and no one yet knows how they're going to handle the sub-US$1000 market (if at all). So Nikon gets an Incomplete on their score card, but with a note that says "work turned in so far looks good."
  • Panasonic — I'll give Panasonic full credit for this: they make cameras that seem much more like cameras than technology or engineering experiments. Clearly, they've got photographers in their design teams, and Panasonic is less likely to experiment with non-traditional UX than anyone else except perhaps Nikon. Further, I'll give Panasonic full credit for building a two-platform position (m4/3 and full frame). This allows them to avoid trying to do the "everything for everyone" product, which is a near impossibility to start with. If I had to grade Panasonic solely on product, I'd put them in the winners category. What's 100% unclear, however, is how they're actually doing in the market. Panasonic, like Sony, wants ROI on everything it does to the point where they'll eventually jettison businesses that don't meet high standards. We have no idea whether cameras actually turned their ROI around as asked to by the corporate CEO. The comparatively small Panasonic camera group been shuffled around within the huge company so that it's impossible for the outside world to tell how they're doing, which I take to mean that the company is giving the camera group some time to deal with their financial number problems. So, like Nikon, Panasonic gets an incomplete, just for a different reason. The note on their score card says "consumers seem to like many of the products they've done recently, but they need to reach more consumers to make that click." 

We have three other small players who you can't really judge strategy on. Hasselblad is a very small player, with a very narrow niche. They have little momentum, but they've almost always had little momentum.  

Leica has always played a high-end luxury niche game with a resulting low-volume in sales. One thing that I took as a disturbing recent sign, though, is that we're seeing products like the Leica SL with lens bundles showing 32% discounts. That's a bit unheard of for a current product in Leicaland. I take that to mean that Leica is feeling some market pressure, much as the rest of the camera companies are. As the Canikony trio play further up-scale themselves, Leica is going to have a tougher time finding customers, I think.

Finally, Sigma is going to do in cameras whatever they feel like, when they get around to it. That's always been the case. They tinker with cameras, apparently, because it's a nice diversion from staring at optical charts all day. Most of their cameras are on sale right now, though, which means that they probably have the same inventory issues everyone else has run into after the dismal first quarter. But there's really little strategy to judge in Sigma's camera group. As I noted, they just do what feels right to them, regardless of the economic signals consumers send back.

From a user's standpoint, I like what Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are doing. Clearly Fujifilm and Sony are having some financial success with that in a very down market. (Nikon and Panasonic are still unknowns in terms of financial success in mirrorless, but anecdotally they seem to be doing okay.) 

I'll make no attempt to hide the fact that I don't like what Canon has been doing overall so far in mirrorless. Oh, some of their products seem quite good—I really like the M5 for example, though I'm less enamored by the M lenses; the opposite is true for RF where I really like the lenses so far but not so much the bodies—but I'm not getting the feeling that I want to be a Canon mirrorless user from the mismatched products and UX. I need a clearer signal from Canon as to what their future really looks like.

Likewise, I want to like Olympus so much, but they keep making awkward moves that don't really resonate with me (and apparently lots of other folk), nor do they seem to acknowledge or address the shortcomings they have in their products. Stop changing colors and fonts in the menus, Olympus, and finally get around to actually helping us use them! The PL series seems to have never progressed anywhere, the Pen F is one and done, while the E-M1X isn't the type of camera I want with an m4/3 sensor in the first place. The three DSLR-like cameras in the middle that I like and which best reflect Olympus' historic position (E-M1, E-M5, E-M10) seem to iterate oddly (E-M5), or not with enough iteration between models (E-M10).

It seems to me that long-term staying power in the mirrorless market is going to be predicated on getting the camera and the customer experience right (or more right). One of the reasons why I like what Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony are doing is that I see clear indicators that they are trying to do just that. I feel good about the mirrorless future of all four of those brands. 

The other brands? The jury is still out for me. Moreover, as the ILC market continues to contract, it's unclear how many camera brands can really survive if the market contracts all the way down to the size it was at the end of the film era. 

This is the time of year when corporate management in Tokyo is communicating to the full staff just what they expect moving forward and want they want them to do. Promotions, or lack of promotions in many cases, are being used to emphasize that. 

Of course, given that the typical design cycle for a new camera is two years—and four for the very top technologies—there's a danger that products get out of sync with both the market demands and corporate expectations. I won't point fingers, but I think that's true at as many as half the camera companies right now. If contraction of the market continues, it's going to eventually be true for all. 

So, being a winner in strategy so far doesn't necessarily mean you stay a winner. Ditto for losers. 

That's the thing about tech products: you can't stop to assess where you are, you have to keep moving towards where you think you need to be. To me, that's the real issue with the camera companies: photographically, I'm not sure they have a strong sense of where they should be. The current trend of going up-scale and pushing full frame isn't really driven by the user base needs, it's driven by financial needs (if you're going to make fewer products, the profit margin has to be bigger). 

Software Alliances

Fujifilm users in the US can now get a free copy of Skylum Luminar by entering the serial number of a Fujifilm lens (update: for new lenses that you buy, not for all lenses you've bought).

This is starting to be a trend. We already have free Capture One Express offers for Sony users and Fujifilm users (with discounts to the full pro version). Back when Adobe was still offering stand-alone Lightroom, Leica bundled that with their cameras.

As the camera market contracts, there's a mutually beneficial relationship that can occur between the software providers and the camera companies. The camera companies get a "feature" they can promote that costs them very little per unit and seems to add considerable value to their product. The software companies get exposure to more users, at probably a lower marketing cost than doing it directly themselves.

Canon, Nikon, and Olympus so far are all going it alone and have their own dedicated software product they want you to use. But those products all tend to behind the state-of-the-art in terms of conversion and cataloging software abilities. 

Long term, the cost of "doing it yourself" is going to get re-evaluated by all the camera companies. Doing your own software is now a cost without a return, basically. And all these companies need to jettison costs as the market continues to contract. 

I expect to see more and more of this kind of approach to software by the camera makers. If I were running a photography software company, I'd be looking for ways to make a bundle arrangement a complete no-brainer to the camera companies. Phase One and Skylum seem to get that. 

New Other Discounts

The disastrous first quarter coupled with the usual desire to push gear during the second busiest time of the year for camera sales—Mother's Day through Graduation—has everyone introducing discounts. I've already outlined the Canon and Nikon mirrorless deals, here are the rest of the mirrorless camera makers:

Fujifilm

  • Most XF lenses have discounts ranging from US$50 to US$250. 
  • GF lenses have discounts of up to US$500. The GFX 50R body has a discount of US$500. GFX body+lens kits have discounts of US$1000.
  • The X-T100 has a discount of US$100 (both body only and kit). See my review of the X-T100.

Advertiser link for Fujifilm specials

Olympus

  • Many Zuiko lenses have discounts ranging from US$50 to US$200.
  • The E-M10 Mark III has a discount of US$200, putting it well under US$500, and ironically, the same price as the Mark II.
  • E-PL9 body and kits have a discount of US$150.
  • The E-M1 Mark II kit with the 12-40mm and 40-150mm f/2.8 lenses gets a US$800 discount.

Advertiser link for Olympus specials

Panasonic

  • The GH-5 body is discounted US$500 to US$1500.
  • The GH-5S body is discounted US$300 to US$2100.
  • The GX85 kits have US$300 to US$500 discounts.
  • The G7 kit has a discount of US$300.
  • A number of m4/3 lenses have discounts of US$50 to US$100.

Advertiser link for Panasonic specials

Sony

  • The big discount remains the A9, with a US$1000 special savings. See my review of the Sony A9.
  • The A7R Mark III US$400 discount remains. My review of the A7Rm3.
  • The A7S Mark II gets a US$400 discount.
  • The A7R Mark II gets a US$200 discount.
  • The various A5100, A6000, and A6300 kits get discounts of at least US$100.
  • The RX100 Mark VA gets a US$100 discount. See my review of the RX100m5.
  • Most E-mount lenses have discounts ranging from US$50 to US$200.

Advertiser link for the Sony specials

So What Stands Out?

This is a great time to pick up lenses from pretty much any mount. This is the time of year other than Christmas when we tend to see significant savings on lenses. These US$50+ instant rebates will come and go probably three or four times during the year; most of the ones currently in effect last until June 1st.

Videographers have to look at those GH-5 bodies. Those are really good prices for highly competent 4K video cameras. The Fujifilm X-T100, Olympus E-M10m3, and Sony A6000 are also now under the US$500 mark (body only), so if you're looking for a well-endowed but very small camera, now's a good time to look at those.

And, of course, anyone looking to get into high performance sports cameras without spending a fortune needs to take a strong look at the Sony A9 at its current price. A really good camera that leaves room to buy some lenses compared to buying into the traditional Canon 1DXm2 or Nikon D5.

New Canon Mirrorless Pricing

Canon is also in the dealmaking mood. Here's what's happening in the Canon mirrorless world. First full frame:

  • EOS R — US$300 instant savings brings the price to the old Nikon/Sony 24mp price of US$2000, and includes the EF-EOS R adapter for free. Note that you have a couple of choices at B&H. If you add the 24-105mm f/4 RF lens, you get an additional US$200 savings.
  • EOS RP — You get a free EF-EOS R adapter with the body only, the body+kit lens (24-105mm f/4) gets a US$200 discount.

I'm still evaluating the R models and lenses, so can't really comment about whether I think these are fair, good, or great values.

And for APS-C crop sensor models:

  • EOS M50 — US$100 savings on the body only. US$200 savings on the body plus 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens. US$320 savings on the body and both the 15-45mm and 55-200mm lenses. The Video Creator Kit with the M50 gets a US$250 discount.
  • EOS M100 — Same as the EOS M50: US$200 savings on the body plus kit lens.
  • EOS M5 — US$200 savings for the body only, or with the 15-45mm kit lens. US$380 savings if you pick the body plus 18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 kit lens instead.
  • EOS M6 — Same as the EOS M5: US$200 savings on the body and basic kit lens kits, US$380 if you pick the superzoom lens kit. US$350 savings on the two lens kit (15-45mm and 55-200mm). 

Does anything stand out to me in the M lineup? Yes, the M5 is now basically a US$580 body or US$700 complete kit (my review of the Canon M5). That's a really good price for a highly competent APS-C camera that's small enough for jacket pockets. I'm not a fan of the M6 and M100, and the M50 just feels like a de-contented M5 with not enough discount to me. 

I'm not a huge fan of Canon's zoom lenses in the M mount (other than the wide angle zoom), but the few small primes they make are great. My advice? Get the 22mm f/2, maybe the 32mm f/1.4, the 11-22mm wide angle zoom, the basic 15-45mm kit lens, and supplement telephoto from the EF lineup using the mount adapter.

Canon's discounts at the moment are more modest than Nikon's. After all, the RP is already the lowest price full frame mirrorless camera, and the M models have been living under the US$1000 barrier for awhile now. 

In terms of mirrorless lenses:

  • 22mm f/2 M is US$230 after US$20 savings. A great lens at a very good price. Every M user should have this lens. My review of the Canon 22mm f/2.
  • 11-22mm f/4-5.6 is US$350 after US$50 savings. A very decent wide angle zoom at a very reasonable price. Every M user should have this lens. My review of the Canon 11-22mm f/4-5.6.
  • The rest of the M lenses all seem to be staying at the base price for the moment.
  • 35mm f/1.8 RF gets a US$50 discount down to US$450. 
  • 24-105mm f/4L RF gets a US$200 discount down to US$900.
  • 50mm f/1.2L RF gets a US$200 discount down to US$2100.
  • The 28-70mm f/2L RF lens stays at list price.

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New Nikon Z Pricing (thru June)

Update: Starting May 20 NikonUSA added a free FTZ adapter to the following savings (effectively lowering the prices I note below by US$150 more).

NikonUSA today announced instant savings on the Z series cameras:

  • US$200 off the Z6 in any form (body only, filmmaker's kit, body+kit lens)
  • US$600 off the Z7 in any form (body only, body+kit lens)

The FTZ adapter is no longer included free, but there's a US$100 saving on it when purchased with a body. 

The camera makers really want to confuse you with options and pricing these days, as confusion makes it easier for them to sell you (an ironic twist to how our brains work). Let me give an example:

The Z6 body has been bundled with the FTZ Adapter recently, meaning that you get US$2250 worth of gear for US$2000. With the new savings, that same combo is now US$1950. 

So, while the US$200 discount looks like something bigger, in reality for most Nikon DSLR users opting into the Z system, it isn't, it's a US$50 discount from where we've been.

On the other hand, the Z7 is now running a significant discount compared to before: a Z7 body and FTZ adapter were US$3400, and now they're US$2950. 

Launch
First
Promotion
Second
Promotion
Current
Promotion
Z6 + FTZ US$2150 US$2000 US$1950 US$1800
Z7 + FTZ
US$3550 US$3450 US$2950 US$2800

So, play close attention to the pricing games that are being played (and will be played by everyone soon). Making the jump from one form of discounting to another masks the real pricing that's going on.

Back in the still-functioning DSLR era I used to make a point: initial release of a product was at MSRP. First discounts ranged from 5-15% depending upon demand. Near end of life produced 25% discounts. We're seeing a bit more variability and volatility today, but the basic premise is still the same. If you buy on release, you pay full price. If you wait six months or more, you'll pay a discounted price. If you wait until model end-of-life, you'll pay an even lower price.

Some advice if you're considering the move to the Z system:

  • Get the body with the 24-70mm f/4 lens kit. That lens is excellent, and there's no way you can replicate the implied pricing that it has in the bundle after the fact. 
  • If you're buying from B&H, note that they tend to have two or three options for any Z option you want (say, body only). Those options include free accessories, some of which you may value.
  • If you have any Nikkor lenses other than screw mount autofocus lenses—even old manual focus ones—you're almost certainly going to want the FTZ adapter. Also look closely at the lens road map for the Z system. If the lens you really want isn't in that list, you're going to end up dipping into the F-mount to get it, and for that you need the FTZ adapter. Something tells me that the FTZ adapter isn't always going to be "on sale."

This sale runs through May and June.

Bonus content! Some foreshadowing: the 14-30mm f/4 is turning out to be a quite good lens, but it isn't thrilling me. The 24-70mm f/2.8, on the other hand, is the best 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor I've seen. 

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The Mirrorless Lens Conundrum

My 24-70mm f/2.8 S-line lens for the Nikon Z cameras showed up recently, as did everyone else's. Nikon's shipments immediately started triggering the "should I get the f/2.8 or the f/4 lens" type of questions in my In Box. 

bythom nikkor 24-70mm

This type of question isn't new. In the DSLR full frame world, we've long had the primary zoom lens trio—wide angle zoom, mid-range zoom, telephoto zoom—available in f/2.8 and f/4 variants. (In the crop sensor world, we tend to get only one higher end choice from the DSLR makers, with everything else being variable aperture kit lenses.)

In that full frame DSLR world, the differential between the two aperture choices tends to be relatively modest and repeatable. In both the Canon and Nikon zoom sets, the f/2.8 lenses perform better optically than the f/4 lenses at f/4, they can gather another stop of light (obviously), but they're heavier and more expensive. In almost every case, the tradeoff most people get down to is that stop of light for increased size and price, though. 

For example: in the Canon DSLR world the 70-200mm f/2.8 is US$2100 and the f/4 is US$1300. For Nikon, the 70-200mm f/2.8 is US$2800, the f/4 is US$1400, or half the price (you don't get the optional tripod foot, though). Because of those pricings, the Nikon DSLR user is much more tempted by the f/4 lens than the Canon DSLR user. At least they were until the f/2.8E came out and just blew the socks off optical expectations for a telephoto zoom.

In the mirrorless full frame world, things have been a little different. The Sony 24-70mm f/4 (US$900) is not a particularly good lens, while the Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 (US$2200) is an excellent lens. Meanwhile the Sony 12-24mm f/4 and 16-35mm f/2.8 don't match up in focal length (both are excellent, though the 16-35mm is better at the equivalent focal lengths and apertures). Finally, the 70-200mm f/2.8 and f/4 in the Sony lineup basically mimic what you find in the DSLR world: substantive price differential, reasonable size/weight differential, modest optical differential.

Canon and Panasonic don't yet really have any "pairs" for the basic three zooms in their mirrorless systems yet, but Nikon is now delivering two 24-70mm lenses. So the question has started to come up: which one? (Note: I've reviewed the f/4 version very favorably, and I'm just starting my review process on the f/2.8 version, so what I say here is very preliminary.)

Nikon didn't make this easy. The 24-70mm f/4 is one of the best "kit" lenses you'll find. At the kit bundle implied price of US$600, it very well may be the best mid-range zoom by a large margin at that price point. Even at the retail price of US$1000, you just don't find many zoom lenses that good at that price point. I'd say that you're being somewhat foolish if you buy a body only in the Nikon lineup instead of the body+24-70mm kit. Moreover, in terms of size and weight, the f/4 version keeps the basic body+lens combination substantively smaller and lighter than you're used to with full frame DSLRs.

But...

The 24-70mm f/2.8 is a better lens, even just based upon some early initial shooting. As much as I like the f/4 zoom, the f/2.8 is so far looking optically better at the same focal length and aperture combos with very few exceptions. (The f/2.8 seems to have a small bit of waviness to its sharpness at a few apertures and focus distances, though, where the f/4 doesn't; so there are points on the frame at a couple of focal lengths where the f/4 can top the f/2.8. That said, the vast majority of the frame on the f/2.8 is going to produce better results than the f/4 at the same focus distance, aperture, and focal length. Why the waviness in the f/2.8 acuity? Probably due to the aspherical elements and how they interact with the optical path as they move.)

Which brings us to: why do you want f/2.8? Two things: (1) a stop more light capability; and (2) a stop more DOF isolation ability. You really have to figure out how much those two things are worth to you (in any brand zoom pair, but particularly in the Nikon 24-70mm duo, as the price difference can be as much as US$1700). Moreover, the f/2.8 version is substantively heavier than the f/4 version, though it's still smaller than you may be used to with DSLR 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses.

There's no question in my mind at the moment that the perfect travel combo for the Z's right now is: 

  • 14-30mm f/4
  • 24-70mm f/4
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-P on FTZ

(For you Sony users:

  • 12-24mm f/4
  • 24-105mm f/4
  • 70-200mm f/4)

That's a highly competent and reasonably small kit that covers an incredibly wide focal range.

The conundrum is this: what if you do sometimes (or often) value that extra stop of light and DOF isolation (plus a bit more optical quality)? By this time next year, we'll have 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses in the Nikon line, and we already have 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses in the Sony lineup. Thus, you should be thinking about this now, not later.

I can't really answer the question for you, as there are clear tradeoffs you have to come to conclusions about. I can only make sure that you ponder your circumstances carefully and provide as much information as I can to help you make your decisions. 

In both the Nikon and Sony travel kits I mention above, we've never had it so good with full frame. That's six lenses that produce really strong results; better than the kit-lens results we got in DSLRs through those same focal ranges, IMHO. But it's also starting to turn out that the f/2.8 zooms are pushing beyond what we got with the DSLRs, too. 

Thus, the conundrum is multiple. There's the usual f/2.8 versus f/4 decision, but we're also starting to see a differential between DSLR and mirrorless in these lenses, too. The future is so f/2.8 bright, I gotta wear shades (yes, a Timbuk3 reference).

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Things I Find Strange in the Full Frame War

We're slowly getting more and more details from the camera makers in terms of their overall product positioning as they all get settled in with their full frame cameras and we get hints on what's coming. Yet as I see, read, and hear these details, they still leave me scratching my head at times. 

Here's a list of some of the items that are confusing me.

Canon R and RP

  • If the first camera is the mid-pack R and the RP is a more entry, consumer one, then what's with the f/2 zoom, the upcoming f/2.8 zooms, and all the high-end lenses we know about so far? I get a sense of mismatch when I consider the RF lenses and the R bodies we're likely to have before the end of 2019. Sony's long head start seems to be giving Canon product management a case of the "fits" here. Sony, of course, started with consumer-type lenses and then broadened to the faster, more pro optics. Does Canon think starting with more consumer level bodies but more pro level optics somehow negates Sony's head start? 
  • What's the UX really going to be like? We've already got two very different bodies in terms of the user interface. Is Canon in reconsider mode? If so, why?
  • As I've already mentioned several times, I still don't get the M and R relationship. The basic implication is that if you buy into M you'll have to abandon all that and rebuy into R if you want to move up. Okay, so two things: (1) are you sure that's what you want to do Canon? and (2) where is the full M lens set? There will be M users who don't want to buy up, but without a full lens set they'll find themselves stuck.

Nikon Z

  • As great as the video capabilities are—particularly the Z6—I'm still scratching my head as to why no lenses match up for video. Oh, there are some surprises under the covers, such as the parfocal adjustments that are being made by the camera with varifocal lenses like the 24-70mm. Yeah, that's good (though why didn't that become a clear marketing message?). But have you actually tried manual focus video with a Z camera and Z lens, Nikon? Everything breaks down at that point, and we all run to older manual focus lenses that have geared rings. You don't have any of those, either, Nikon. Where's the all-in video bet? Halfway doesn't hack it. Video ILC requires both a camera and a lens.
  • Canon has done a better job of describing what their new mount flexibility does for them. We've not seen the lens nor the explanation that tells us why you picked such a close, wide mount (though there were hints in the CP+ interviews). And no, the NOCT is not the answer, as it's way too specialized and not of interest to most of us. 
  • The future firmware update announcement was interesting, but raises new questions. Proof will be in the doing, not the saying. I'm not convinced that the Eye AF thing is anything other much more than a narrowing of Face Detection AF. Welcome, but not exactly earth shattering. The real issues most of us have seen with the Z focus system have nothing to do with whether somewhat static people were being focused correctly. I worry that this is "feature checkbox" product development and not true performance optimization. Can we get a clear indication from Nikon that 3D Tracking needs to be fixed?
  • US$2000 can't be the entry point for Nikon mirrorless, can it? Nikon started with the number 6, so they have 1-5 to slot under the Z6. However, note the lens road map: nothing truly consumer in lenses could appear until at least 2020. What will Nikon's real response to the RP be? Obviously a Z5 (lower spec EVF/LCD, SD slot, no top LED, 1/4000 shutter), but what's the lens?

Panasonic S

  • Another option in the market is always welcome, but I've yet to see clear messaging that tells me why I'd choose the Panasonic option over the others. A specific feature, such as pixel-shift high resolution is not a system message. We need a strong system message from Panasonic. The closest they came so far is "multiple lens vendors," but I note that Sony already has that pragmatically, and I fully expect to see that with Canon and Nikon, too, as the third party vendors get up to speed with the new mount. 
  • Panasonic now appears to be all-in with DFD focus, as opposed to the phase detect everyone else uses. The question no one is really asking is how that's going to apply to non-Panasonic lenses. To optimize DFD you need lots of data about every lens and its characteristics. Is that really happening, or will only Panasonic lenses get the optimization? (Update: Note that Panasonic says Sigma and Leica lenses will work with DFD. The question is just how optimized that is, not whether or not they work.)
  • Panasonic's pricing was on the high side to begin with. Now with the Canon RP, there's a long stretch from RP to S1. This puts a bit of a damper on potential early sales, which means that the system comes out of the chute just a little slower. Fortunately, Panasonic is in this for the long run, but still, what's Panasonic going to do to push interest early on?

Sony FE

  • To me, it felt that there was a little fear in Sony's marketing and sales methods this past year. Keeping the old A7 models in the market on fire sale pricing, the aggressive holiday pricing on the two top cameras, defensive statements about lens mount choices, and so on. But Sony's real claim to fame with users has generally been hyper fast technology progression. Not been hearing a lot of that lately. The A7Sm3 expectations are piling up because of that. A baby A9 (A7000 apparently an A9-type body with an APS-C sensor) isn't quite the same thing as a huge new step forward. So what's the next step forward, Sony? (And no, the new tracking AF isn't exactly what I'm talking about.)
  • Sony has clearly heard the UX issues (small buttons, sprawling menus, etc.). But we're three generations in with little change (other than additions, which inflate the problem). Sony has certainly heard that Nikon got UX right and I suspect we'll all hear that Panasonic did, too. Lucky for Sony that Canon decided to conduct human experiments in UX and is still casting about. We're still waiting for even a small signal from Sony (buttons easier to use with gloves on would be a start). 

Over a third of the dollars taken in from customers for mirrorless this year should come from full frame cameras. It's extremely important to get strategies and messaging right now that there are four clear competitors (I group all the L-mount companies into one: so Canon RF, L-mount, Nikon Z, and Sony FE). 

Things I Find Strange in the Crop Sensor Mirrorless Market

Now that everyone is playing at the mirrorless camera table, we basically have a duality in product that customers face: (1) full frame and larger sensor models; and (2) crop sensor models (APS-C and m4/3). I deal with what I find strange about the full frame competition in another article. This article tackles the crop sensors. 

Here's a list of some of the items that are confusing me.

Canon M

  • I've written about this before, but the incompatibility of the M and RF mounts in mirrorless is a long-term problem for Canon, I believe. You can't collect a new user at the low-end crop sensor solution (M) and then easily transition them seamlessly to a higher-end full frame solution (RF) later. If an M user has to abandon lenses as well as camera body to upgrade, they can pretty much consider any competitor at that point. And that's doubled by the fact the fact that even the ergonomics don't match from M to RF at this point.
  • Is M solely about the true consumer (lowest common denominator)? Do we ever go beyond where the M5 is today? The M lens selection suggests that we won't. Moreover, several of those M lenses are weak optically compared to the crop sensor competitors, which means that they don't appeal to more sophisticated users. Is M just about picking off people willing to pay US$300-500 for a camera? Sure is feeling that way.
  • The M image sensor is adequate, but not state-of-the-art. This, too, makes the M's look more and more entry-only if not addressed. When does a new APS-C sensor start percolating through the huge Canon APS-C lineup? And will that happen in mirrorless first, or DSLRs? That will send a message to customers, obviously.
  • Overall, I don't get it. The M ought to be the point in the line where Canon grabs smartphone users wanting to move up. But I just don't see the value proposition there at the moment, nor do I see what Canon does with that user once they have them. What is the smartphone user really gaining? That remains clearly undefined in Canon's marketing, but it's also clearly undefined in the product management plan as far as I can see, too.

Fujifilm XF

  • Okay, Fujifilm's all-in with APS-C. They've made that clear with both actions and statements. Moreover, they've made clear that the consumer end is Bayer, the upper end is X-Trans. What I have a difficult time of is exactly pin-pointing which model aligns with which customer and why. At the moment we have: X-A5, X-T100, X-E3, X-T30, X-T3, X-H1, X-Pro2. The lineup doesn't seem fully rationalized to me, and given Fujifilm's small market share, they seem to be pushing too many models. When you couple this with spillover inventory from previous versions (e.g. X-T2), you end up with a huge confusing mess for a customer to navigate through. Yes, I'm aware of the sales techniques that utilize customer confusion, but I'd argue that when you're a distant fourth or fifth in market share, those work against you, not for you. Can Fujifilm clarify their lineup?
  • The APS-C and medium format (MF) combo Fujifilm is promoting is effectively two stops apart, and I'm an advocate of that approach (as opposed to APS-C and full frame, which are one stop apart). While Fujifilm execs are good about talking about this in interviews, their marketing messaging falls far short. In essence, Fujifilm is bracketing the competition. Thus, you need a strong and effective "nearly as good as X [with an advantage X doesn't have]" and "better than X" set of marketing messages. Why those haven't appeared, and why they aren't reinforced after exec interviews, i don't know. 
  • Fujifilm's lens line is now over 30 lenses and growing (though I had to count, as Fujifilm themselves isn't promoting quantity in their messaging very clearly). One thing I'm not seeing from Fujifilm is clear marketing messages helping people understand how to parse all those offerings. As in "we have over 30 lenses and growing: a set of compact lenses for light travel, a set of high performance lenses for high image quality," etc. In other words, logically group things for the customer to understand. I'm not going to be interested in high performance lenses for an X-A5 or T-100, but I'm very interested in compact lenses for light travel. Send me the message that you've got them!

Nikon

  • With the demise of Nikon 1, Nikon no longer has a crop sensor option in mirrorless. Simply put, Nikon failed at crop sensor mirrorless (business wise; how good/bad the products were is irrelevant at this point). Unfortunately, Nikon made their own problems worse by basically ghosting their customers. For several years. Not. A. Good. Thing. So even before we get to them re-entering the crop-sensor market—and yes, they will re-enter because they have to—Nikon has some full on explaining to do. Explaining that's going to run against their cultural instinct (i.e. they are going to have to explain the failure). I have no idea why this hasn't already happened. See my other article on the Nikon 1 today.
  • The fundamental question everyone has is this: what will Nikon's crop sensor products look like? Will they be smaller F-mount DX bodies with a snout? Will they be Z-mount cameras with a massive opening (far bigger than needed for APS-C)? Will there be a new mount (and will it avoid the Canon M problem)? Heck, might Nikon do the Fujifilm thing and pick a sensor size two stops off (e.g. 4/3)? Thing is, I'm not seeing Nikon start to seed expectations at all here. What that does is make the initial announcement require a full-on explanation of why they chose what they chose and how that slots in with their full frame offerings. The previous bullet adds a complication: Nikon has abandoned a lens mount. So if their crop sensor mirrorless isn't F-mount or Z-mount, customers are going to be hesitant unless Nikon can make a clear commitment of what's going to happen. They won't, because that's not their style. They need to, because this is about future customer confidence.

Olympus

  • Olympus execs basically have backed themselves into a corner, and very defensively: "we'll continue to make cameras and they'll be m4/3." Meanwhile, in three short years they've lost 35% of their sales volume and they continue to lose money in making cameras. That's a huge contraction that cannot continue without one of those two clauses in the quote being wrong ;~). I don't fully understand what's happening here. Proper product line management shouldn't be producing this kind of result. So where's the disconnect? Corporate? Product planning? Marketing? Customer interaction? What's strange to me is that—actually for nearly six years—I'm not seeing actions on Olympus' part that show me that they understand how to fix their problem. To wit:
  • Olympus execs also maintain that the unique advantage of m4/3—and I would agree in theory—is "compact and lightweight products that are highly portable." Which of course, is not what the E-M1X really is. To me and many others the E-M1X is indicative of too much engineering and not enough product management. Yes, some 100% dedicated m4/3 users welcome anything better at the top end, but how many folk is that? With barely 3% of the camera market, it's completely unclear to me why Olympus' priority would be a more expensive camera that appeals only to a small subset of those users. Canon and Nikon don't exactly sell 1DXm2 and D5 cameras in high quantities, and I just don't see the E-M1X nibbling into those numbers, so we have bafflement here. Particularly when at the same time the Pen F was discontinued. Olympus needs to explain why they don't have their priorities backwards.
  • Olympus leans far too much on lenses. The usual comment I hear from m4/3 users is that "the lenses make up for the small sensor." Okay, I get that you want to do some of that. I do generally agree that lenses can help compensate for the sensor. Olympus eventually got round to "kitting" (body plus lens combos) that promotes this. For example, the E-M1m2 with 12-40/40-150mm zoom set, or the Pen F with the 25mm/45mm prime set (why no 12mm?). But I don't at all understand the f/1.2 primes they appear to be pushing towards. The 25mm f/1.2 is almost a pound. That's edging far too much away from the "compact and lightweight products that are highly portable" mantra for me. The recent 12-200mm seems like more the direction they need to emphasize (not so much the superzoom aspect, but the trying to build light, portable solutions for any given function, in this case superzoom).

Panasonic m4/3

  • Panasonic came flying out of the gate in mirrorless. They had a top-three market share early on, but that's slowly eroded. And I don't think the SLR-like thrust lately is helping that (e.g. GH5, G9, G85). Those SLR-like bodies all tend to be large for the sensor size (see Olympus E-M1X for the extreme). That's not a problem for one model, but with Canon and Nikon and Sony downsizing the full frame cameras, Panasonic seems to be too close in size while too far away in performance. This is the thing that got 4/3 into trouble eventually. It's a bit like m4/3 has gone an American diet. Where have the more svelte, compact models gone.
  • Panasonic is all-in with DFD focus, as opposed to the phase detect everyone else uses. The problem is that this really works best with Panasonic lenses, so it's one of those lock issues in a mount that promotes unlocked. 

Sony E

  • Sorry, but I don't get it. The A5xxx seems to be gone. The A6xxx has defocused into a messy overlap that makes it impossible to understand model position. I have no idea how to position the crop sensor bodies, and I'd argue that neither does Sony. The A6400 came out as a "vlogging" camera, not as the A6300 successor. What? These are consumer cameras, and they need clear consumer-type of positioning statements. You buy X for Y, A for B, etc. There aren't enough vloggers—and I'm not convinced the A6400 is really for vlogging—for that message to drive camera sales.
  • Lenses, lenses, lenses. It always comes back to that with crop sensors. The big boys (Canon, Nikon, Sony) seem to want to stifle and restrict their crop sensor users so that they are forced to upgrade to full frame to get true lens flexibility. The far smaller competitors (Fujifilm, m4/3) push large numbers and a full line of lenses to compete. When Sony feared Samsung, they were iterating E lenses. Once Samsung went away, so did most of the E lens development, it appears. Sony needs to protect themselves against Fujifilm more if Sony wants to keep crop sensor market share, I think. It's not a problem today because Fujifilm is still not in all shops and not as visible to the casual consumer yet. But as that changes, the problem will be Sony's poor and aging E lens lineup against Fujifilm's growing and excellent one. These are ILC after all, and even the most casual consumer wants more I in the L for the C.  

Almost two-thirds of the dollars taken in by the camera companies for mirrorless this year should come from crop sensor cameras. That's a big number: something just under US$2 billion using estimated CIPA shipment numbers and today's monetary conversion (the actual retail value that the customer pays adds up to a far higher number). 

If you're going to stay competitive in cameras, you need to be taking a substantive slice of that US$2b number. Right now, Canon and Sony are doing just that, while the m4/3 twins of Olympus and Panasonic are sliding. Fujifilm is taking a smaller but growing part. And Nikon will almost certainly be back wanting a big piece.

The funny thing is that everyone seems to have written off crop sensor cameras thinking the market is all full frame. Nope. Full frame is the cream at the top. The bigger portion of the drink is crop sensor, and I'd guess this is the next area that everyone starts to focus on now that they've got their full frame (and larger) aspirations laid out. 

I Have a Prediction About the Nikon 1

As I noted in my other article, Nikon effectively ghosted their Nikon 1 customers for over two years between the quiet introduction of the last Nikon 1 (J5) and the complete discontinuation of Nikon 1 gear. 

The failed DL launch—a compact camera line that used the same 1" sensors—probably had a lot to do with that. Had Nikon been able to spread sensor use over five or six models I suspect that the Nikon 1 line might have continued in some form.

Nikon made a business decision that factored R&D and parts costs against what they thought was the market size. The ROI and profit numbers apparently didn't work for them. In essence, the engineers failed (with DL), which caused the accountants to declare that all 1" would fail Nikon's margin tests, while the marketing department wasn't able to clearly override the accounting group's numbers by demonstrating clear demand-creation capability.

Thing is, that decision wasn't about product. It was about yen. 

When the Nikon 1 first hit the market in the fall of 2011, something interesting happened. Nikon cranked up the marketing engine big time. That was one of only three times I've seen them get marketing relatively on point and in customer's faces during the digital era (the other two times were the introduction of the D40 generation consumer DSLRs and the D3/D300 combo). 

Nikon didn't have much choice. DSLRs were in complete disarray due to the quake/tsunami impacting Japan in spring of 2011, plus the floods in Thailand in late 2011. That had the direct impact of pushing back product introductions (D3 and D700 replacements), probably cancelling some (D400), and had Nikon struggling to limp by with the existing DSLRs as they had to rebuild two primary manufacturing plants and deal with parts supply issues for them, because many of their vendors were also impacted. 

The Nikon 1 was built in China, and with perhaps the exception of a couple of parts—of which there were fewer than 300 in the J1 and V1—was what they could build in quantity, and thus what they had to promote. Which explains why we got such a huge Ashton Kutcher-led marketing thrust.

But that's all prelude to today's thought. Here we go:

Several of the Nikon 1 products are going to be classic and collectable.

As much as you might malign the small sensor and some of Nikon's odd feature and performance choices, one fact remains: the Nikon 1 cameras and lenses are the smallest and nimblest ILC gear you can find with good to excellent image quality. The J5 is pretty close to a Sony RX-100, but with interchangeable lens support, for example. And I like the RX-100 a lot.

So what Nikon 1 products do I think will become classic and collectable? 

I just mentioned the J5. I think that's a given, as it is the best sensor the Nikon 1 has had in the best EVF-less body Nikon made. On the EVF side, I think the V1 and V2 are the clear choices, for different reasons. The V3 is a love it or hate it camera, so much harder to predict. Plus we have the AW1, something that's still unique to this day.

All the bodies were produced in enough quantity that there should be enough around to meet collecting demand. Lenses are a different story. All the lenses were pretty good, but the ones you're going to have a hard time finding because the demand will far exceed supply are: the 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6, the 18.5mm f/1.8, the 32mm f/1.2, and of course the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, which made the Nikon 1 a birders delight (at least in good light). Of those, the wide angle zoom and telephoto zoom are the two hardest to find already. Neither was made in huge quantities to start with. The 10-100mm f/4-5.6 also gets a bit of a nod for collectors, but it's pretty easy to find. 

Seriously, I fully expect to find some Nikon 1 shooters (though rarely) five years from now. There's basically nothing like the Nikon 1 products available today, and they have a high level of performance for their size and weight. As I write this, a V2 with the 10-100mm and 70-300mm would set you back less than US$1000. That's 28-810mm folks. Fits in a couple of (largish) jacket pockets. The RX-100 might cover you in 24-200 now, but below and above that only the Nikon 1 suffices at 1". And the lenses that let you do that were quite high quality.

Yeah. Collectable. And usable. 

There have to be employees within Nikon that wish they hadn't cancelled the Nikon 1. Moreover, that the designers weren't hobbled with some don't-compete-with-DSLRs declarations within the company. It doesn't take much imagination to get to a near perfect pocket ILC with a small stable of very useful lenses. Nikon never quite went that far, though. They hinted at it, they poked around the edges, but they didn't quite get all the meat on the table. And then the accountants came in with their cleaver and lopped off what remained.

So we end up with a slightly flawed and not-quite-what-we-wanted classic only available used. Which will still be interesting five years from now, I think. 


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