News/Views

The Sweet Spot is Still Sweet

Let's see, if I'm to Keep Up With The Joneses, this week I'd need to be forking out US$12,500 (plus probably some more for new lenses). That's US$6500 for a Sony Alpha 1 and US$6000 for a Fujifilm GFX100s. The Sony would give me a state-of-the-art speed camera (sort of) and the Fujifilm would give me a state-of-the-art pixels camera. 

The question is this: do I really need those? More to the point, the question is: do you really need those?

Probably not. There's plenty to love straddling what I'd call the sweet spot:

  • Canon — R5 and R6, maybe a 5D Mark IV
  • Nikon — Z6 II and Z7 II, or D850
  • Panasonic — S5 and S1R
  • Sony — A7 Mark III and A7R Mark IV

That spot ranges from US$2000 to US$4000, basically. Buy a generation behind or something like the Nikon Z5 and you're not very far off the sweet spot for less money. 

As much excited talk that Fujifilm and Sony generated this week, realistically these are fairly low volume cameras, and you're not going to spring for them unless you have one heck of a lot of disposable income you don't spend carefully, or you have a real, compelling need that's filled by one of those two cameras. (Yes, I'll be reviewing both. The A1 should arrive first at my office, sometime in March, so let's hope that vaccinations and pandemic decompression arrive soon so I can really put it to its paces.)

What's frightening is that I'm pretty sure that additional expensive, lower volume, higher-end cameras are on the way this year. 

In one sense, we live in marvelous times. Pick a lane, any lane, and you can create images better than we've ever been able to before. When the D800 came out in 2012, it really was a seminal camera without peer. Today, we have a lot of peers that are even better, all in that sweet spot. And if you have a speciality need—low light, speed, pixels, etc.—there's a more targeted camera for that, too.

Personally, I'm chomping at the bit to get out and about and back into the image-making business. I'm not going to be complaining about gear when I do, as my choices are broader and deeper than they've ever been. 

I'm sure you're eager to do more photography the way you're used to, too. But do you really need more than an R6, Z6 II, S5, or A7 Mark III offer? And if you do, are you sure you need more than an R5, Z7 II, S1R, or A7R Mark IV offer? (And that's just in full frame; some of you would probably be just as satisfied in the APS-C sweet spot.)

Those are the questions you need to ask yourself at the end of this week of high-end product announcements. I know how I think you should be answering... ;~)

On the Other byThom Sites This Week (Jan 28)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (January 21-28) include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

sansmirror.com  — covers all mirrorless cameras

This list of postings on the gear-specific sites is provided about once a week on bythom.com. If you're a time-sensitive junkie, you need to point your RSS reader to the News/Views page on each of my sites, as that will push to you all the latest articles as they appear.

Thom's Product Plans for the Camera Companies

I've been getting incredible feedback from my articles so far this year. As I've noted in the past, my audience skews mostly towards high enthusiast and pro photographers. I do get a constant stream of low-end consumer folk who poke around the sites for a bit and then disappear, but there's a hard core group that keeps coming back that currently numbers in the tens of thousands. And they have opinions ;~).

Okay, so I've been in this dialog with a wide variety of readers now for a long time. That led me recently to think through what it would be that I would do if I were the product manager at each of the four largest camera companies. Herewith are my thoughts on cameras (lenses are a different story for a later date):

Canon

I get the sense that Canon panicked and is going to panic again when they see the result of their panic ;~). They've sort of announced that EF is over, they've strongly hinted that DSLR is dead, they haven't really done anything much to move M forward, and their most recent move is all-in on RF full frame to replace DSLR. 

The wave of emails I got last week that basically said "why did Canon abandon DSLR, I still want one" was extremely telling to me. None of those want a Rebel (Kiss in some markets). They want a 7D Mark III or 5D Mark V for the most part, maybe a 6D Mark III. They were saving up to buy one and they feel that Canon slipped a wrench into that by essentially saying "buy a more expensive R5/R6 and new lenses." That's a no-fly zone for the crowd sending me emails, it appears. Which means that RF might have fewer full frame customers long term than EF. Or at least customers that wait longer than Canon wants them to wait.

Here's my plan for a "perfect" Canon 2021-2022:

  1. Quickly reduce Rebel/Kiss to the S3 and let it die from there.
  2. Let M die a natural death by replacing with RF models. Yes, the low end can be called Rebel/Kiss. Or New Rebel, Lasting Kiss. 
  3. Launch a pair of high-end APS-C cameras simultaneously: 7D Mark III and RC7 (C for crop; Canon can come up with their own naming scheme, I'm not partial to mine). 32mp, fast frame rate, performance oriented. 
  4. Launch the 5D Mark V using the R5 internals. 
  5. Launch the R1 to match the 1DX Mark III and compete with the Sony A1.
  6. Replace the R and RP with one or two lower end RF full frame models.

Total lineup — DSLR: S3, 7D Mark III, 5D Mark V, 1DX Mark III; Mirrorless: Rebel RC1/2, RC7, R1, R5, R6, R8, R9. Twelve cameras max, two mounts (EF and RF). 

Biggest problemMaintaining volume. Canon must keep DSLRs going or else lose that market to Nikon. Meanwhile, Canon must get plenty of mirrorless traction to pass Sony. Failure at one of those things is problematic, but failure at two of those things means a dramatic change for Canon.

In my scenario, you transfer the lower end of the market to the mount you'll use from here forward (RF). Before some of you complain that this will make the camera bigger, please look at the Nikon Z50, which has a bigger mount but is still ridiculously small. It would require, however, that Canon transfer the EF-S/M lenses to RF, but that shouldn't be a big problem. 

For the enthusiast and pros, you basically say: choose your poison; we make the same basic camera in DSLR and mirrorless, so you can transition now or later, your choice (better lenses become the carrot to transition). You could even say something like "DSLR iterations will become fewer and take more time in the future, we suggest everyone move to mirrorless at some point, but we're not abandoning our DSLR customer." 

The thing about product categories that die off is this: you either need to be first and completely out of there and first to the new product category, or you need to let the category die a natural death. The first clause doesn't apply to Canon (or Nikon), so the second clause is what you have to do. When I wrote Canon "panicked," this is what I mean. Once they figured out that they had to have a clear transition plan, they yanked the chain on DSLR and went all in on mirrorless. The reason why that is wrong is that their customers didn't do the same thing or plan to do the same thing. The ones that really wanted mirrorless already bought into Sony Alpha. The rest wanted to manage a transition at their own speed.

My fear with Canon is that the R5/R6 are a short-term win, but the rest of the line doesn't get enough momentum to keep Canon from contracting. 

Fujifilm

I still like the two-stop straddle that Fujifilm is doing with sensor sizes (APS-C and MF). At this point, they're pretty much all in on that, as it would be near impossible to make any change of commitment and keep their smaller user base intact. 

The problem I see with Fujifilm is that they're not very settled on their body designs. There's too much of a scattershot and changed-our-minds approach going on there (Pro, T, S, E, H, and sometimes A). Camera bodies (and the control systems on them) should be mature, well thought-thru, and highly nuanced at this point. And you don't want to be changing them all the time. For the number of units Fujifilm is selling, they have too many consumer choices. That adds R&D costs they shouldn't be putting into body/control design at this point. 

With the Medium Format (MF) cameras, there's a little less confusion, but bodies are still unsettled there, too. So before I get to the specifics, I'd say this: whatever the X-T5 is, that should inform every one of the other cameras Fujifilm makes. It's okay to do one simplification for the lower end, as Nikon does, but six different styles is four too many. Moreover, the MF bodies should be on the same plan as the APS-C ones. 

So, my plan for Fujifilm:

  1. T is the high-end body design, S is the low-end body design. 
  2. Quickly remove the A's and the T-200. Replace both with a single low-end S-derived body.
  3. Don't iterate the E or Pro. If you just have to have an offset rangefinder style body, only have one, and make it all-enthusiast driven. (Of course, they just iterated the E, so they're already off the rails.)
  4. Faster and more aligned iteration of the T#, T##, and T### bodies, which also need to have a clear differential between each. The problem I see is that Fujifilm can't really get to 8K video with the current sensor. So maybe X-T5 is new sensor, X-T50 is old sensor with some feature/performance drops, X-T500 is old sensor with basic features/performance.

Total lineup — APS-C: X-T5, X-T50, X-T500, X-S10, X-S100; MF: GF-S50, GF-X100. Seven cameras, two mounts (X and GF). 

Biggest problemThe market isn't getting bigger, so they're losing market share while iterating too many products. That's asking for a GPM problem. It's possible that they can grow in the post-pandemic year due to pent up demand, but that still doesn't solve their long term problem. Lean and Exceptional. That should be the Fujifilm product line mantra.

Nikon

Similar to Canon, Nikon has to navigate the DSLR to mirrorless migration carefully. They have too many DSLR-loyalists who want another DSLR iteration rather than be forced to mirrorless. 

Nikon seems a little less panicked than Canon, and slightly more organized. I hear from some contacts within the company that they have at least talked about something similar to what I'm about to suggest. The problem Nikon has is that they can't figure out how to communicate with their user base (both directions). They seem to be more fearful than panicked. Fearful that they'll make a wrong choice. Better communication with customers would lessen that fear.

Okay, so here's my choices for Nikon to consider:

  1. D3xxx, D5xxx are end of life already, transition them out quickly. 
  2. D7500 is last call; phase it out of production. It's not high enough in the enthusiast/pro market to survive as is, and it's too close to the level that will carry forward.
  3. D780 is probably last iteration. Lower the price a bit, tell people that it will be maintained as long as demand warrants.
  4. Bang #1: D570 and Z70 simultaneous announce, slightly staggered ship. Essentially the same update using the new 20mp sensor (yes, there's a newer version coming, though it won't be a dramatic change). Eventually transition to a new sensor in the 30-36mp range.
  5. Bang #2: D880 and Z8 simultaneous announce, slightly staggered ship. Essentially the same update using the new 8K capable 45mp sensor (yes, there's a newer version coming, though again it won't be as dramatic a change as some want). Eventually transition to a new sensor in the 80mp range.
  6. Put some love into firmware updates. The D6, D780, Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, and Z50 all would extend their lives very nicely with a solid set of updates.
  7. If you just have to have a lower, more consumer end to the product line, then the formula is this: Z30 and Z50 II. The Z30 is just under the current Z50, the Z50 II is just above (maybe IBIS?). But don't shoot for US$500. Let someone else have that customer.

Total lineup — DSLR: D570, D780, D880, D6; Mirrorless: Z30, Z50 II, Z70, Z5, Z6 II, Z7 II, Z8. 11 cameras, two mounts (F and Z).

Biggest problem — Timing and communication. Every Nikon launch or announcement these days is read by hundreds of thousands of palm readers trying to figure out what it means overall. Somehow you have to say this: cost-conscious consumer should be mirrorless; high-end enthusiast and pro can choose DSLR or mirrorless and get a great product either way.

Sony

Sony, of course, went through all the angst of transitioning from DSLR to mirrorless long ago. Note what I wrote above about being first to the product category transition. Sony just never could get leverage on the DSLR Duopoly and decided their only choice was to try to dominate a smaller pond that should become the larger pond eventually. Wise decision, and as I've pointed out many times, classic Ries and Trout

Moreover, Sony decided to fully leverage, so they transitioned their existing pro video line to the same mirrorless mount as the still cameras. Another solid move, and one that's now positioned themselves as the one to beat in "imaging".

Of course, just because you're the one to beat doesn't mean you can't be beaten. My problem with Sony is that they haven't fully fixed some of their UX issues while some of their products now seem long-in-the-tooth. Sony wasn't able to keep the "new technology!" hype machine running quite as effectively as they did at one time (A1 notwithstanding), and some of their hype is now looking misplaced. It's tough to race ahead and then stay ahead. I also sense another break that's starting to hamper them a bit: Nikon seems to be relying upon Sony Semiconductor less, and if that continues, then it means that some shared sensor costs suddenly go away for Sony Imaging. 

Sony has a mature lineup, so adjusting it is really just doing correct iteration. Here's my plan:

  1. Make up your mind about A5###. It's either the entry point and needs iteration, or it should be end-of-lifed permanently.
  2. Reduce the A6### lineup to two models. With the four biggest players all in APS-C mirrorless, you need faster iteration of key models. That would be the A6100 and A6600. The problem with those two models isn't so much the performance, it's the UX. It's time for a A6200 and A6700 rethink to bring them more in line with the A7 models.
  3. Sony needs an A5. Badly. You can't have Canon (RP now, R9 later) and Nikon (Z5) price undercutting you so severely in current full frame and expect to hold share. Selling older A7's at prices that kill the GPM isn't going to cut it. The Nikon Z5 is a better camera than the Sony A7 Mark II, even though Sony is giving up dollars selling that older A7 at extreme discount. Goal: hold serve.
  4. The A7 needs to iterate to Mark IV as soon as possible. It probably needs to sneak higher in specification/performance. Call it 30mp and 6K video.
  5. The A7R Mark IV needs a rethink. Is it a generalist camera or a specialist camera? In its current iteration, I'd argue specialist. I think this is firmware/UX mostly, but I could be wrong.
  6. The A7S Mark III is fine for now. The A7C isn't. It's too high priced for what it is, and it suffers from the #2 problem since it's based on the A6###. 
  7. The A9 Mark II is fine, as is. Some more firmware updates would help. 
  8. The A9R should be next, as Canon has stolen the 8K mantle and Sony probably doesn't want to do 8K in an A7 line camera. 45mp/8K is the goal, the R5 (and Z8) is the target. (Sony's launch this week is basically my point here, just labeled A1 instead of A9R.

Total lineup — APS-C: A5100?, A6200, A6700; Full frame: A5, A7 Mark IV, A7R Mark IV/V, A7S Mark III, A9 Mark II, A9R (maybe A7C Mark II). 10 cameras, one mount.

Biggest problem — Playing defense on all fronts now. When they entered APS-C mirrorless, they were mostly alone. Then Fujifilm came on strong. Then Canon poked a toe in the water. Today? Sony has to defend APS-C against Canon, Fujifilm, and Nikon. I suggest a lean lineup and fast iteration. Meanwhile, when Sony entered full frame mirrorless, they were also mostly alone. Then Canon and Nikon poked a toe in the water. Then Panasonic (and even Sigma). Now Sony has to defend full frame against Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic. The full frame market is where the profit dollars are (APS-C is where the volume dollars are). I say that Sony is a bit vulnerable in the part of full frame that has the biggest group of users at the moment, and they need to quickly fix that.


What 12K Does to Us

Earlier this year I wrote about what the implications of 8K video were for our cameras. You're going to start seeing some of that soon, I think. It certainly will become clearer by fall (the Tokyo Olympics were the target). Full frame at 33-46mp is going to become more the norm.

But wait, there's more.

What are the implications of 12K video?

Yes, I heard you groan. Yet 12K is certainly coming. I've heard now from three different sources about two different camera makers headed that direction. So first of all, let me reiterate this: transistor size continues to go down, and bandwidth continues to go up, and these both will change unrelentingly until we hit some real physical limits. Computers will get to those limits first—though Apple's bundling the RAM into the processor just made a dramatic change that turned heads—while cameras are actually lagging what is possible. But computers aren't there yet, so cameras aren't even close to what can be done at the moment.

Photo diodes—those are the bits of a sensor that converts photons into electron holes—don't really benefit from size reduction, thus there wasn't any urgency on the part of image sensor makers to use smaller process sizes. At least until the smartphones came along. Also, you really needed CMOS to fully take hold to get into the process reduction pipeline. Well, we've been there for awhile, and we're now regularly seeing image sensor process sizes drop (though again not nearly close to how small they could be). 

Trying to do more in a smaller space means heat, and heat has implications for getting accurate image data, which we've seen with Canon's R5 trying to do state-of-the-art 8K. But to an engineer, that's just one more problem to solve, and thus, it will be solved.

8K is 33mp, while 12K is 80mp. More interestingly, 80mp full frame is 36mp APS-C (which means APS-C could do 8K when full frame is doing 12K). 

One company is already at 12K: Blackmagic Design (BMD) and their Ursa Mini Pro 12K. The 80mp sensor of that camera is essentially APS-C! BMD also uses a non-Bayer array, something we're likely to see more of as pixel counts get higher and higher.

The next 18 months are going to be interesting. The camera makers are all going to take a significant step forward, every one of them. Some, like Canon, have started that step (8K) but have more steps coming. Some, like Nikon haven't yet taken that step but not only will, but are also working on a bigger step for the end of that time frame. 

Finally, I should point out something I missed before all you still photographers complain that video doesn't do anything for you. It does: it provides more pixels. But it also provides something else. Actually, I had sort of noticed this but didn't actually follow through in documenting it. Did you know your Z6 II can take stills at 30 fps (eventually 60 fps)? It can, at 4K resolution. I had a small note in my books on the recent Nikon cameras that there was another set of two still image resolutions (1080P and 4K, basically) that were enabled by using the video mode, but didn't really detail what that did. Well Nikon made a couple of changes and finally got around to detailing a high-speed shooting method that relies on this. Download the PDF in the previous link and look for Split-Second Shots (where Nikon uses 1080P and 120 fps in their example, but it works in any video Frame Size/Rate, so you can also do 4K 30 fps). Focus isn't guaranteed, but for several of the things I tested this with, focus worked just fine. 

Hmm. 8K at 30 fps? 12K at 24 fps? Those are interesting possibilities even for still photography. 

The Tech Train travels tirelessly (say that three times, fast ;~). We're about to reach another stop.

Update: as a few have pointed out, the specific pixel count for 8K and 12K is open to some interpretation, as there are UHD, DCI, and other potential interpretations, plus if you're going to have on-sensor image stabilization, you need to account for sensor movement, too. Perhaps it's my Nikon experience showing a bit in the numbers I use here. Nikon, more so than most of the other camera companies, has a long history of pixel interpolation. In other words, they over sample or under sample at times. The D1x JPEGs were an extreme example of that, but we've seen variations on that in many Nikon cameras. Given that we don't have a three-color 4K/8K/12K solution, there will always be demosaic involved, sometimes over sampling, sometimes under sampling, and sometimes binning. So no matter what pixel count you pick for your 8K or 12K camera, there's not exactly a one-to-one relationship going on in final pixel values. At minimum, you have one-to-two in the luminance channel and interpolated color (e.g. 4:2:2 or 4:2:0).

Meaningful Improvement

Read the title of this article again. 

Once more. 

Let it settle in. 

Got it? Good, let's continue.

The question everyone should be asking themselves these days is simple: what will provide a meaningful improvement to my photography? It's really a simple question, but it's an open ended question, isn't it?

So let's break it down a bit:

  • You
    • Technique
    • Experimentation
    • Practice
  • Gear
    • Camera
    • Lens
    • Accessories

Most people seem to think that they can just keep getting improvements by buying new cameras. Indeed, that's the way the camera companies market their new gear. Sometimes a new camera really does provide a real, meaningful improvement. The Nikon D3 was one of those cameras for me, the D800E another. On the Canon side, the 1DS and 1DX both tended to do that for me. With Sony, it was the A7R Mark III. 

But not every camera will do so, and thus people tend to go "dormant" on improving their photography. Truly. I've watched this time and again, with everyone from true consumers to top pros. Oh, sure, a few then move to lenses to improve something, but it's still the same crutch: gear makes you better.

I'd argue that you should spend equal time (and implied money) to all six of those subcategories I list. Note that half of them have nothing to do with buying anything. Thus, today I issue you a challenge: demonstrate that half your effort on improving yourself as a photographer is based upon something other than gear. 

Indeed, I'd go further. Ban yourself from buying anything for three months. At the end of those three months assess whether your photography got better or not. If it didn't, you're relying upon the crutch of gear worship. 

I write this today because we're right on the cusp of the next round of "ooooh aaaah" announcements coming from camera companies. Some, like Fujifilm and Sony will be first out the gate, while others might seem to take a little longer but will make the next leapfrog within twelve or so months (as I've written before, new sensor tech is always a little iffy on exact timing). 

Your gear temptations will be under full intensity soon, but just owning some buzz-worthy equipment isn't photography

The pandemic makes things even more problematic, as many of us can't get the kind of time and practice we need to push ourselves upward in photography. Personally, I'm spending my "down" time a bit more on post processing, making sure that I've caught up to everything that can be done in that realm. I'm also looking through a lot of old images—I came across a few wild images I didn't even remember taking (back in 1981!)—and trying to assess whether I can see what it is I can't yet do (that alone is a topic for another article). 

So. Enjoy the product announcements this week. But think bigger (and longer) picture (pun intended).  

CIPA Photo Study

CIPA just published a study that was conducted of digital camera users in Japan last October. I'm going to not comment about the study for the moment, but simply point out that studies like this often drive product development in Japan. 

Okay, I lied. I'm going to comment about one statistic: 37% print photos on a home printer compared to 14% posting them online. No wonder the smartphones are eating the camera makers' lunch. If you design products to survey responses, you actually design them to the bias in your survey (both questions and customer). I'll say it for the nth time: you generate product/business growth by finding and solving previously unsolved user problems, then correctly marketing the solution so that the users know their problem—which they often didn't realize they had—is now solved by buying the right product. 

Moreover, sometimes you accidentally solve the problem without realizing it. Quite a few mirrorless camera sales aren't because the camera is mirrorless, but because the resulting camera (and lenses) are smaller and lighter. The user problems solved by mirrorless are primarily twofold: seeing the image as it will be recorded before pressing the button (e.g. Live View), and smaller and lighter product with the same capability of an equivalent DSLR. 

Type of Buyer Comments

I was a little surprised at how many emails I got in response to What Type of Buyer Are You? That article really was really more of a short thought piece trying to point out that the camera makers and the camera buyers aren't fully aligned, using a slightly tongue-in-cheek categorization.

Not only were your comments back to me plentiful, but many of them were long essays. I was struck by one comment, which I'll shorten and edit here:

"I am a #2 and would have bought a 7D Mark III or 5D Mark V almost instantly, depending on the improvements. That way, I would not be facing sacrificing my existing investment to get into mirrorless. I could have moved into mirrorless gradually. Now, all bets are off. I am waiting and looking around."

Here's another similar one:

"I want to replace a dated full frame 6D. If canon had given me some 5D Mark IV body update with a movable LCD at a reasonable price I would have snapped it up. For my workhorse camera I would be equally fine with a DSLR as a mirrorless.  I tried the RP...the dynamic range is pathetic. I tried the R, the interface was so....weird and slow.  I might consider the R6 if they priced it at 2,000, even though I’d really rather have more megapixels for landscapes. But no, Canon wants to gouge us for another $500. And there’s no way I can afford an R5. So, can Canon really wonder too much why I hold on to my hard earned money and sit on the sidelines or consider switching brands?"

Precisely my point, and I do think I've been consistent on this. There are a handful of DSLRs that, were they upgraded properly in the right time period, would continue to sell in enough volume to justify producing. It would be interesting to do the work to figure out what those models are, and we could argue about a few on the margin, but I'm near certain that both Canon and Nikon have at least two, and probably three or four, models that should live on. 

Unfortunately, the dearth of DSLR updates is sending a signal to DSLR users about their future, and many of them are just sitting around and waiting to see what happens, as you can see from the above comments. So the camera maker doesn't sell a new DSLR, nor do they sell a new mirrorless camera. And, of course, Nikon isn't able to supply their new mirrorless models to meet the demand that is there, which makes for a double whammy on the bottom line.

The problem for Canon is the somewhat clear marketing messaging they've been making lately. They've said in far too many ways that their future is entirely mirrorless. They're going to regret that. Partly because they now have a huge portfolio of DSLR models that they've sent "don't buy" signals on, partly because EOS M isn't compatible with their main (RF) mirrorless thrust long-term, partly because they have only two highly competitive models in the full frame lineup, and partly because no matter whether they "fix" and totally align their mirrorless products, Canon is going to see a huge volume decrease for the foreseeable future. Canon will likely have to do the asset write-off thing and incur a loss at some point soon.

The problem for Nikon is conflicting, incoherent, and non-existing marketing messages. In essence, they're making the same mistake they made 10 years ago with their conflicting, incoherent, and non-existing marketing messages surrounding DX and FX. Internally, Nikon wanted everyone to upgrade to or buy FX. That's the reason that the D600 (low cost FX) was created and no D400 (high cost DX) appeared. Then someone finally got it into their brain that one of their biggest successes was the D3/D300 combination intro, and eventually we got the D5/D500 echo. 

That dual launch is actually what Nikon needs to do today, except with DSLR/mirrorless. Nikon hasn't actually linked the Z6 and D780 in their messaging, but they're essentially the same camera made as mirrorless or DSLR. Let the user decide if they're ready to transition or not, and Nikon would have them covered either way. The same thing should be true of a Z7 and D880, as well as a Z70 and D580. 

It's really only the lower end consumer customer that couldn't care less if a camera is mirrorless or DSLR. They just want a near all-automatic product that does things they can't do with their smartphone. If you want to pursue the low end, clearly an all mirrorless lineup is the way to go there. But abandoning your DSLR customer at the enthusiast/pro level is dangerous. 

There's too much panic going on in Tokyo and not enough rational thinking. As I've suggested for a long time now, Canon and Nikon rode the consumer DSLR horse far too long and it has now rolled over and died on them (but that's not true of the high enthusiast/pro horse). Moreover, the messaging coming out from the camera companies is causing additional problems. Rather than easing customer anxieties, both Canon and Nikon are now increasing them. 

Lest Sony fans attempt to gloat, Sony has its own problems, and it won't actually be nearly as good for them if Canon and Nikon weaken more than they have. The camera market needs three strong companies with great products and clear messaging to survive long-term. As I noted a couple of years ago, I expected the rock bottom of the camera market to be 4m units of ILC a year. Below that would be a disaster. In 2020 the market got very close to the 5m mark with no flattening of the decline in sight (I think it stayed above 5m, but we won't know for another few weeks). Of course, 2020 was an unusual year due to the pandemic. I actually believe that 2021—assuming the pandemic comes under control and travel resumes sometime during the year and the camera companies don't implode under their own anxieties—will show some growth in camera sales over 2020, perhaps strong growth (6m+ units isn't out of the question). 

Still, we're awfully close to the limbo bar being knocked over and the dance stopped. 

It's time for the camera companies to man up (person up?) and get not just their product lines rationalized but their marketing messages clear, strong, and persistent.

A No-Brainer Deal

bythom affinity photo


Photoshop for US$25 without a subscription? That's a bit what Affinity Photo seems like with their current 50% discount (and 90-day trial). And yes, it can support Nik Collection 2.5 by DxO. 

If US$25 seems to inexpensive for you, you could also spring another US$50 for the Affinity Photo Workbook, a hardbound book that walks you through the interface, core editing skills (think layers, masks, and more), and then drops into a number of project and technique examples.

I get nothing from promoting Affinity Photo. I happen to use it mostly on my iPad (yes, there are macOS, Windows, and iPad versions), and I like it. I also know a lot of you gave up on Adobe when the Creative Cloud subscription model was introduced but are still looking for something to do pixel edits and layers with. There's no risk here: use the 90-day free trial and see if Affinity Photo is what you were looking for. Make sure to check out their tutorial page for extra help.

What Type of Buyer Are You?

It seems that a lot of folk are confusing themselves by not understanding where they fit on the time continuum of products. 

As I see it, you're one of three basic buying types (careful: tongue in cheek):

  1. Future Framer — You hang on the rumor sites as if your life depended upon it. You constantly discuss cameras that don't exist yet. You see your "next camera" as solving some small, probably esoteric problem that won't really make your photography better. You seek bragging rights for what's in your gear closet. 60mp full frame isn't enough and anything less than a perfect lens gets your scorn. You'll pre-order the latest and greatest if it is hyped enough.
  2. Present Practitioner — You have a relatively current camera and related gear, perhaps with some gaps that you would fill if the price/timing was right. You spend most of your time trying to get the best out of what you've got, because you know it is capable of a lot more than you're currently achieving. If you've fallen a bit behind in gear, you're looking at products that are already on the market that will get you up to current capabilities.
  3. Completed Consumer — You needed a camera, so you bought one. You don't need another as the one you have is fine for what you do. Maybe you'd buy a replacement if yours broke, was stolen, or lost.

I'm seeing a lot of #1's these days on the Internet, while I see a lot of #2's when I'm out taking photos ;~). It's getting rarer and rarer to see #3, as they are the ones that are most likely to use a smartphone or just not bother with taking photos at all any more. 

It's not just users that are confused. The camera makers are confused, too. 

Fujifilm, Olympus, and Sony all abandoned DSLR early, as they simply couldn't make any inroads into the DSLR Duopoly. They all chose to play in the smaller mirrorless pool that would likely be the future bigger pool. Pentax dipped a toe into the small pool and immediately retreated to doubling down on their existing DSLRs, but then didn't make much of a step forward with those. Canon and Nikon both dabbled at the small pool (M and CX) while cranking hard on the big pool before eventually deciding they needed to make a full transition from DSLR to mirrorless. Canon basically said "we're giving up on DSLR" while Nikon equivocated in their usual corporate non-speak. 

The reality today is that there are still two markets, DSLR and mirrorless. In 2021 the DSLR and mirrorless pools will now switch sizes, with one still being the big pool (mirrorless) and the other being the smaller pool (DSLR). Yet Canon and Nikon, who own 97% of the DSLR pool seem to think that they should just get out of that pool completely. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And that's because of customer #2, above. 

I've written this before: it's worth iterating some compelling DSLR products, just not an entire line. For Canon, that would have been the 7D Mark III and 5D Mark V, and perhaps another camera or two. For Nikon it would be the D580 and D880, and perhaps a better D7800 that didn't take away features but instead added some. All of those cameras would continue to sell in reasonable (small pool) quantities if marketed to buyer #2 properly. 

The problem with making both DSLR and mirrorless models, especially ones that might overlap, is that it requires real marketing messages from the makers. You have to be able to target and inspire the remaining #2 DSLR crowd, and you have to be able to target and inspire the new #1 mirrorless crowd. It seems that both Canon and Nikon are incapable of resolving that in their corporate offices, though, let alone communicating it to users. 

A Pleasant Nikon Surprise

bythom 0005

That's a MacBook Pro 13" screen shot, not an iPad one!

Here's one you probably weren't expecting: a free and reasonable wireless camera-to-computer connection, at least for M1 Macintosh owners. I'll throw in a caveat that I've only tried this on a Z6 II at the moment, but I suspect it works on all the SnapBridge cameras.

  1. In the App Store on your M1 Mac, search for and install the Nikon WMU App. Note that you have to click iPhone & iPad Apps underneath the Results for "WMU" (not leave it at the default Mac Apps).
  2. Start WMU on the Mac.
  3. On your Z6 II go to the SETUP menu and select Connect to Smart Device. Under Wi-Fi connection, select Establish Wi-Fi connection. The camera will tell you a connection is established, and then show you the SSID and password for that network.
  4. On your M1 Mac, select the network SSID you were given in Step 3 (it might be under Other Networks). You'll have to enter the password the camera displays (your camera's serial number).
  5. Now click on the Take photos button on WMU on the M1 Mac and you're controlling the camera. 
  6. Alternatively, skip Step 5 and click on the View photos button on WMU on the M1 Mac and you'll get some options
    1. Further click on Pictures on Z 6_2 (in the case of my Z6 II). 
    2. Select some photos (click on each). 
    3. Click Select (lower right corner).
    4. Click Download.
    5. Select the option (Original, recommended size, or VGA size) and click Download.
    6. The photos are now in the Latest Downloads tab, where you use the Share menu to put them where you want them (Add to Photos is one of the options, and what most of you would want to do).

Yes, it's more convoluted than we'd like it to be, but the WMU App was apparently dirt simple enough that it works as an iOS app on an M1 Macintosh. Doh! 

No, SnapBridge doesn't work ;~(. Only WMU. 

Other byThom Sites (Jan 20)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (January 16-20) include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

sansmirror.com  — covers all mirrorless cameras

dslrbodies.com  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLRs

This list of postings on the gear-specific sites is provided about once a week on bythom.com. If you're a time-sensitive junkie, you need to point your RSS reader to the News/Views page on each of my sites, as that will push to you all the latest articles as they appear.

Artificial, or Just Intelligence?

Many cameras and software products these days are claiming artificial intelligence (AI) is built in. Unfortunately, that term doesn't mean much on its own. Most companies are using "AI" as a marketing term, not as a precise description of some technology that's being done behind the scenes.

Artificial Intelligence is really a catch-all term for a lot of very different data analysis and transformation approaches. Many actually use something more precisely called machine learning (ML), which is a process by which the "AI engine" is trained (programmed) using many passes on a set of different inputs. Edge or object recognition is often done via ML, for instance, because you can tell the system "that's a cat, that's not a cat, that's a cat, that's a dog which is not a cat," and so on. With the right number of passes (too many actually tends to lower the results), the ML system begins to be able to do this on its own with some high (but not perfect) degree of accuracy.

But that's not the topic of today's article. What triggered me was an example used for a new program, which claimed to create useful compositions from your image data. One example they showed had two vertical elements within the scene, and, you guessed it, it created a vertical composition.

Now I happened to start out mostly as an editorial photographer. I developed this "AI" in my brain because my photo editor hit me over the head when I didn't give them the same basic photo as a vertical, as a horizontal, and as a vertical with a free space area at the top for the magazine's logo. Adding detail shots was the next challenge from said photo editor.

"If you're not bringing me back at least five or six different choices for use in different ways in the magazine, I'll find another photographer," he said to me.

So I'd wander around looking for photos for the magazine, find something that I felt needed capturing, and then do essentially what he said: find the vertical in the scene and shoot it for both a full page use and a cover use, find the horizontal in the scene for use as a double-truck (two-page spread) or a half page opener, and find the details within the shot that were important. 

I call this Intelligence. Or maybe Human Learning ;~). 

Okay, now I can get to my point: many of you are simply wanting automatic functions to do the work you already should be doing. The reason for that is that you're overwhelmed by the process of taking and presenting a photo. You'll take "close enough" or "good enough" because you can't get to a higher level on your own. 

This is really what separates the smartphone crowd from the dedicated camera crowd, or should. Dedicated cameras can (and should do more to) open up all the possibilities for an image that we're capable of capturing. Unfortunately, the camera companies keep getting caught up by the fact that more people will buy the "good enough" automatic functions than the advanced functions that you, the photographer, needs to control precisely in order to get exactly the "right" image. 

I've written this before, but it's worth repeating here because it illustrates the issue: if you don't want to take the time to fully master a high-end autofocus system, the current Sony Alpha cameras probably do the best job of guessing what it is you want and getting "close enough" results. You'll see people claim that the Sony cameras get perfectly focused results in bursts on moving objects. They don't. They get "close enough for the person writing that" results. Under control of someone who really knows what they're doing and moves between focus choices based upon training, the Nikon D6 is the best focusing camera I've encountered. The top Canon's (1DX Mark III, R5, R6) come very close. The Sony A9 Mark II is a visible step behind, and some of the other Sony cameras a step beyond that.

Anyone that's followed my writings on the Internet about photography for the past 25+ years—yes, it's been that long—knows that I always seek out best. Not just best in equipment, but best in me, as well. I write about optimal data capture and optimal data processing, basically. The pandemic has been a real problem for me because the types of things I need to do to stay my best in the field are harder (or in some cases impossible) to practice, let alone perform for money. So as the pandemic wanes, I'll have some real work to do in order to get back into top shooting shape.

And that's going to involve improving my Intelligence (or again, Human Learning). If you don't practice things, then you don't develop the muscle/brain memory necessary to keep those skills polished. 

I'm not against AI, ML, or automated features. At times they have their uses, and for some they produce better than they'd otherwise get. But marketing these things is a bit like putting you on a Holy Grail quest. What you seek, you might not find. Here's another (strained) metaphor: there's no free gourmet lunch, but sometimes you can find an inexpensive and "okay" meal that suffices for now.

The Wayback Machine

bythom INT FR Paris NotreDame4edit


That's me back early one morning in February 2001 on the Quai d'Orleans. I was working at creating a cover image for a photo magazine using the Nikon Coolpix 990. This "selfie" was taken with my Nikon F100 and 14mm lens on a tripod using the self timer, and judging how well lit I am, I'm guessing I had a Speedlight snooted on me providing fill flash. 

Why was I restricting the flash output to just me? Because this area is not only unlit this early in the morning, but it's also decidedly dim due to the embankment behind me. There'd be no motivation to seeing light in this area naturally. At the same time, I didn't want me to just disappear as a shadowy blob. Given another chance at this shot, I'd probably pull the flash output down another third or half stop. And then some photo editor would probably ask the creative department to pull me back up a third or half stop ;~). 

This is a tricky situation (how much fill light to give a subject in shadow). I'd argue that since I'm an integral part of this image, you can't let me disappear or get muddy. On the other hand, at this level of flash I'm about the brightest thing in the scene, which is a little on the unnatural side. 

NikonUSA Changes NPS

Nikon Professional Services (NPS) members late yesterday received an email announcing changes to the NPS program in the United States. Whereas the program used to be entirely free, now we have one free and two paid tiers to the program. 

In some ways, the program is simpler, but in the details are some strange idiosyncrasies of what gear does and doesn't qualify you for the program now.

The free "Pro" program—still only for professional photographers who qualify and get past the gatekeeper—requires you to have at least two Nikon bodies and two Nikkor lenses. The primary changes to the free program are that you no longer can get free loaner equipment and you don't get repair discounts. The US$149 "Pro+" program adds equipment loans (up to 5 items), free checking and cleaning (3 times), a 20% repair service discount, and overnight delivery on repairs. The US$299 "Platinum" program ups the number of loans (10) and check/cleans (5), and increases the repair discount to 25%.

As many of you are aware, I've long advocated that Nikon move to a paid program (Canon and others already did). In theory, this would allow us to speak with our wallets, among other things. Virtually every professional photographer understands costs and value. The old NPS program had no cost, but it returned very questionable value. 

I'm not sure that the new program is tuned correctly. NPS Priority Purchase (PP) is still part of the free program. It probably shouldn't be, as it distorts distribution of product too severely at times. Personally, I would have put PP in the Platinum category, or limited Priority Purchase to some very specific items as well as the number of times you can use it for free.

Early reaction is mixed if I'm reading my emails, direct messages, and Internet posts correctly. My position is this: you were getting something for free, now you might not be getting that (loaners and repair discounts, both of which have costs to NikonUSA). The question you have to ask yourself now is whether you get something of value (services) for value (cost). This allows us to vote with our wallets, basically. Thus, my advice is simple: if you don't think the Pro+ or Platinum tier offers enough value for the cost, don't join it. 

But my advice to Nikon still stands: NPS really doesn't need the P, it should really just be Nikon Services, available to all. And it could be more nuanced and differentiated in the tiers, with the top tiers not only paid but only open to clear professionals. 

Finally, there's this: NikonUSA waited until renewals were due before announcing the changes. Actually, renewals were supposed to happen in December, but got postponed while NikonUSA sorted out the details. Thus, the first that members heard of the changes was in an email to them announcing the changes and telling them to renew. Once again class, what is marketing? Marketing is managing expectations. No expectations were managed here. Just another "here it is, take it or leave it" from Nikon. That's not embracing customers, and in this case, key customers. So while I don't at all mind the changes to the program, I do mind the way it was handled. 

_____________

Update: as more responses came in, I decided that there were a few more things I wanted to say.

Here are the things Nikon still needs to improve:

  • The qualification process is still opaque. Obviously, with expedited repairs and cut-in-line Priority Purchase, just letting anyone into the program—particularly when those things are free—would be problematic. But it's still unclear who really qualifies as a "professional" or not, and how you get past that gate. 
  • While NPS has long provided "loaners," that process is even more opaque. I know some who got a loaner while others who asked for the same lens were told that that lens wasn't even in the loan pool. It's totally unclear what's in the loaner pool. Moreover, at times the pool gets tied up by a few selected and privileged workshops (how's that work?). I'd prefer that Nikon just publish what's in the pool and each item's availability status via a Web database accessible by NPS members. If someone abuses the loaner pool—and I've heard plenty of examples of that, too—just revoke their NPS status. 
  • One of the "perks" is a "dedicated NPS Representative." Do you know who yours is, and have they ever reached out to you? Didn't think so. My understanding is that this is basically really "regional NPS staff assignments." Given that NPS staffing has been cut back in recent years, I'm also not sure that there's enough remaining staff to serve us if we really need help.
  • Likewise, "member-only webinars, product launch events, and virtual meetups" isn't something that I don't recall ever being invited to, so either this is new or it's the usual NikonUSA "if you know about it you're in" sort of perk. 

In other words, while Nikon has categorized a bunch of perks, many of these are all opaque, vague, or completely unspecified (what's a "premium welcome gift"?). Now that Nikon's asking for money, all of us are going to be looking at what we actually received when December 2021 comes rolling around and NikonUSA wants us to charge our credit cards again. I suspect that NikonUSA is going to find that a lot of cameras come in for free cleans and checks in late 2021 as NPS members realize that they haven't gotten US$149 or US$299 of value back. 

Capture One Pricing

Capture One Pricing continues to be a subject that keeps popping up in my In Box this week.

People want to know "why" the pricing and promotion seems to be so heavy handed with Capture One. Basically, equity capital. PhaseOne, the originator of Capture One software, turned into one of the most Western style companies in the camera business in terms of management. Phase One took on equity investors in 2004 (Silverfleet Capital), and were pushed hard to become more efficient and growth oriented. Silverfleet themselves point to Phase One as one of their more successful investments, and claim that the software side had at an annual growth rate of 38% when Silverfast sold their investment in 2019 to Axcel (and Phase One managers). While Silverfast pushed Capture One hard, Axcel is doing so harder, as they have to justify their purchase.

The real complaint I keep getting is the old "value for money" one. Simply put, many Capture One users are feeling like new features, performance, and camera/lens support lags what they expect for what they're paying. 

Just to be clear, here's the current situation:

  • Full Capture One Pro — US$19/month (annually) or US$299 for version 21 perpetual license
  • Full Capture One — US$19/month (annually) or US$179 for version 21 perpetual license
  • Capture One for BRAND — US$14/month (annually) or US$199 for version 21 perpetual license

The company also promotes a lot of +Styles packages that increase the confusion and prices, and the monthly subscriptions cost more (US$24 and US$19, respectively) if actually paid monthly. 

It's a lot to decipher. 

Personally, I don't have a lot to say about the prices. Yes, they're aggressive, but you can be the judge of whether they present real value return for you. And, of course, Capture One is very likely to keep running promotions as they did (excessively) in the 2021 holiday season, so there's that.

The real problem I see is the confusion that Capture One has sown. In December I had no idea what the actual price of upgrading my license really was. I received three different offers (that were as much 2x apart in savings!) and had already heard rumors about upcoming price changes. I had no idea how to value their product, and thus did not upgrade. 

What I find ironic is that Capture One is doing the micromanagement of pricing changes (mostly upward) that everyone was sure that Adobe was going to do with the Photography Plan. As it turned out, no. The Photography Plan has been stable, and we're now getting a reasonable stream of new features and performance along the way, as well. Jumping from Lightroom/Photoshop to Capture One just because of Fear of Creative Cloud (FOCC) turned out to be a false escape.

Businesses want your money, as they need it to survive. You vote with your money, determining their survival. It's really a simple proposition. The way I call it: Capture One has gone out of their way to make it not so simple, confusing to understand, and with pricing getting more attention than the features of their product. I see exactly why everyone is complaining. 

Meanwhile: Capture One 21 version 14.0.2 was just released, and it has the official support for the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II cameras as well as the Panasonic S1M, S1RM, and S5 cameras, the GFX 100 pixel shift files, and some bug fixes. 

The Baseline

I've been writing about "the squeeze" now for over a decade. The squeeze is about the range from the bottom of the dedicated camera market to the top of the viable consumer-oriented dedicated camera market getting smaller.

At the bottom end, smartphones have been constantly moving upwards in capability, slowly gobbling up the potential for the very low-cost, low-end, dedicated cameras. At the top end, Medium Format really sets costs at a point where you can't make enough volume to sustain a large, healthy camera group. 

Thus, where the range used to be US$200 to US$6000 for dedicated cameras with reasonable selling rates in the first fully digital decade, now we're in a position where the "viable reality" is US$500 to US$4000, and the bottom end of that is suffering greatly and declining rapidly in volume. 

To some degree, the image sensor is dictating things. On the old 8" wafers used to make sensors, the best possible case was going to always say that a full frame sensor would be 4x to 5x the cost of an APS-C sensor. That APS-C sensor was about the largest size you could make without making multiple passes for each layer of the sensor, so full frame sensors took longer on the fab and had more things that go wrong with them. Moreover, the yield goes down with full frame for multiple other reasons, including wasted space on the wafer. For a while, sensor prices were going down. These days, due to low volume, they're going back up.

For a long time most of us analyzing the camera market concluded that you couldn't make a <US$1000 full frame camera viably. A few things have happened since, which makes that potentially possible today, though margins would be very, very tight. The bulk of the dedicated camera sales, even today, are in the US$500-1000 range, so there's some willingness from the camera makers to get to US$999 full frame (witness Canon RP), but it's not a comfortable position.

Then there's another thing that happens to influence things: user expectations increase. 

When automakers first introduced innovations such as air conditioning, those cost extra and weren't on most of the models they built. Over time, more people opted for AC, and over even more time, it became an expectation that an automobile always came with air conditioning. The same was true for air bags (plus safety regulations eventually required them), backup cameras, and other items that started as options. That process is on-going. Consumer Reports, for example, is now advocating that every automobile have the full suite of safety electronics (e.g. blindspot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, etc.). 

Which brings me to this: in any product category that has a history (as opposed to being the first of its kind and establishes a new category) eventually we get a "baseline" of expectations that need to be met in order to have an appealing product. So what's the baseline for dedicated ILC (interchangeable lens cameras) these days? Good question.

Let me put a stake in the ground and suggest that this is the current baseline:

  1. Sensor. Minimum of APS-C. Minimum of 20/24mp. 
  2. Image files: JPEG and 12-bit raw.
  3. Stabilization: IBIS. (Alternative: every lens in the mount stabilized.)
  4. Frame Rate and Buffer:  6 fps. Minimum of 20 shots, especially for JPEG.
  5. Video: 4K 30P, 1080P/60. Time-lapse.
  6. Viewfinder: Optical or 3m dot EVF at 60 Hz.
  7. LCD: 3" 1m+ dot, tiltable or pivoting, touchscreen-enabled.
  8. Focus: Face/Eye/Animal detect with other options. Widest possible area for focus.
  9. Body: Weather-sealed, hand grip of some sort, reasonably full set of accessible/customizable controls.
  10. Other: USB 3.1 and Bluetooth/Wi-Fi connectivity. Hot shoe and/or flash. Remote trigger capability.
  11. Lenses: Full set of lenses available for mount. Full set means: kit zooms (3), superzooms (2), fast zooms (1-2), compact but fast primes (3-5), macros (1+), telephoto options (2+).

I'd also suggest that there are size/weight considerations that come into play with the baseline product, as no one wants it to be large, heavy, and bulky. 

So, my contention is that any product that doesn't meet those baseline minimums isn't a viable entry-level camera any more. Even more important is this: if you want to stand out from the competition, you need to do better than the baseline. Yet even more important: the entry DSLRs that are dying off come very close to meeting this baseline, so that baseline really is moving up and you'd better be prepared for that. 

The Nikon Z50 is a good case in point. It fails at #3 and #11. So it's what I'd call barely a baseline camera. It's a really good camera in actual use, but we're talking about market viability here: it's tough to sell a marginally baseline camera, particularly as the expectations keep rising. The cameras that people already have—all those D3xxx's for instance in Nikon's case—are also incredibly close to the baseline, so what do those customers need a new camera for? Moreover, as the volume of sales gets lower, you need to move the baseline price up (otherwise you're the definition of a contracting business that will ultimately fail if contraction continues indefinitely). 

Which, of course, is why the Z5 is a better baseline for Nikon. It does meet all the requirements I set (and exceeds or extends them in a number of ways). But a Z70 might do the same.

This isn't an idle conjecture on my part. Every camera maker is stressing over where the bottom of their lineup should be and why. What feature set? What performance? How many would we sell? At what margin? Will that product live on or is it a one-shot as the baseline moves up? Does it appeal enough to new-to-market customers? Will it get upgraders who have waited? How does that product lead into our higher-end products? 

The problem is that the camera makers got hooked on volume, and built capacity to fulfill it. (Fujifilm is one possible exception here, as they backed away from the market, then re-entered again later.) Olympus never managed to make their on-going volume targets, and fell ruthlessly below their own minimum viability to carry on. The group that took on Olympus Imaging—now called OM Digital Solutions—has far lower volume targets and doesn't carry the overhead of overbuilt expectations. They're below my baseline bar for #1, which means that they need to raise the baseline elsewhere to compensate. 

The devil is in the details. Just having Wi-Fi connectivity isn't enough. The ease of use and usefulness of that connectivity has to be higher than it is today, as the smartphones slowly gobbling upwards will keep pushing the baseline higher. It's important to note that the baseline isn't just a gaggle of specs: it needs to also represent solutions to user problems. That's why IBIS has gotten added to the baseline; it solves a problem users had. Ditto face/eye/animal detect. 

The tricky part for camera makers is that the baseline will keep moving up. It went from no video to 720P to 1080P to 1080P slow motion to 4K, and it will eventually get to 8K. Will things like pixel shift become new baseline features? Camera makers themselves keep upping the pixel count as a baseline. 

The Camera Maker Dilemma

I've written extensively about why the lower-end of the camera market is causing issues for the camera companies. With word that the D3500 and D5600 have finally dropped off Nikon's production lineup (though still available for the time being), there's little doubt in my mind that the tri-opoly of Canon, Nikon, and Sony are all wondering about what they should do with their APS-C (crop sensor) cameras.

On the one hand, crop sensor cameras can be produced at lower prices and thus trigger volume that best utilizes those big manufacturing plants each of them has put in place over the years. On the other hand, those lower prices can quickly cut into gross profit margin in ways that are destructive if the market keeps collapsing in size. 

Let's make some assumptions and see how that maps out. I'm going to posit a camera that sits sort of in the middle range of APS-C pricing. Further, I'm going to say the all-in costs on producing such a camera are US$400. That includes cost of goods, R&D, manufacturing, and facility depreciation, among other things. Please note I'm pretending that this represents Nikon's fully burdened cost. It doesn't really matter how accurate that number is. I'm just putting a stake in the ground so that we can see what happens as volume and price change for such a product. 

One word of caution: the camera makers build their charts from the company outward; I'm building from the customer backward because, well, you're a customer and you see things from that viewpoint The difference between these positions is that the camera companies will tend to base everything on GPM to establish what the price of a product is. I'm starting with the price we see at retail and working my way back to a calculated GPM using some of the numbers I know about how pass-along pricing of the distribution network works.

So here's a highly simplified spreadsheet to show what happens:

bythom costprofit

Typically, a products company wants gross margins in at least the 40% range, which happens to be somewhere between my two rightmost columns. If we price the product initially in the right-most price column (US$1200) and offer discounts over time that reduce it down to the third price column (US$900), then we're probably going to have a lifetime GPM that is in the range we want it to be.

To date, the camera companies have mostly centered on reducing cost of goods (which effects line c: in the chart). At some point, however, continuing to do so weakens the product by making it do less or be of lower quality, so you can't do that forever. It is a reason why mirrorless is preferred by the camera makers over DSLR: the same basic camera built as a mirrorless entry will cost less to make than the DSLR one; the mirrorless version has fewer parts—most of which benefit from economies of scale—and mirrorless has fewer manufacturing steps and alignments.

Which brings me to a point I've made before: the real problem for the camera makers in a declining market that is mostly mirrorless is in the a. and b. lines, particularly a.). 20% is actually probably slightly higher than the average discount the camera makers are giving on this sort of product to retailers and online vendors. But I'm using it anyway to illustrate my point: let's cut that discount rate in half:

bythom nodealers

In such a scenario, the camera maker can either (1) cut the product price to customer, thus likely increasing demand; (2) pocket more money; or (3) a combination of the two. We haven't made any change to product. We haven't changed the cost of operating subsidiaries (line b.). All we've done is something impacting how the product is sold to customers.

What would that be?

Simple: direct sales supported by more advertising and affiliate program fees. A typical affiliate program fee is 3%, not the 20% the camera makers have been offering the large dealers (note my change to the wording in line a.). That leaves us another 7% to deal with other costs and promotions associated with doing direct sales. 

I've been asking this question for about a decade now: which camera maker is going to be first to completely back away from retailers and go all direct? For a long time we all thought that would be Pentax, but they're still mostly clinging to their old ways, but doing so with far fewer dealers and much smaller subsidiaries. We've seen a few lens makers use Kickstarter-type campaigns—essentially a direct outlet—to get new products off the ground. But we really haven't seen any of the major companies go all in.

OM Digital Solutions, the new company that inherited the Olympus Imaging group, may be the one that does it first. Indeed, if I were their advisor, direct would have been at the top of my list of things to do. The current m4/3 crowd is reasonably loyal, there are strong ambassadors/influencers available, the volume is going to go down in the transition almost no matter what OM Digital Solutions does, and they are going to want to get "closer to" each and every remaining m4/3 user while searching out some new ones.

Note that the camera makers mostly all have been concentrating on the "easy" part of the market. Full frame is sold at a much higher price than crop sensor, but with really only one part that costs significantly more (the image sensor). Thus, it's easier to preserve margins with full frame. Indeed, you may have noticed that other than Nikon—a curiosity since that isn't their usual position—the trend has been towards higher priced full frame products. Lower volume, higher margin is one way to keep the boat afloat, though over time the boat becomes smaller. 

And so I return to my point: crop sensor is the place where the camera makers are all trying to figure out what their strategy should be. Yes, you can push more volume at US$500 than you can at US$2000, but that low-end market is the one in most decline in volume, so margins start to get problematic unless you've really nailed the product lineup. But you and I as customers couldn't correctly tell anyone what "nailing the product" means at US$900-1200 right now, and that's awful close to the full frame entry point, so there's confusion and head-scratching going on all over Tokyo as they ponder the same question. 

It's not helping that we have supply chain issues, a pandemic that's altering spending/saving habits, retailers that may or may not be open to customers in some jurisdictions any given week, and even trade disputes/agreements that aren't fully resolved. Thus, when the camera makers look at their current numbers, they have to try to figure out why they are what they are. Is it a short-term disruption taking away volume that they would otherwise have, or is the problem they're seeing today permanent? They can't even accurately predict when the factors that are adding to their confusion will be resolved. 

I don't quite know what to say (okay, I always have something to say ;~). 

Cameras like the Canon M6 Mark II, Fujifilm X-S10, Nikon Z50, and Sony A6100 live in the "gray zone." They're all very good cameras. They're all I (or probably you) need for a lot of tasks, particularly travel photography. But do they have a future? Hard to say. But for now it's looking like the D3500 and D5600 don't have a future, and I suspect that Canon will decide the same for most of their Kiss/Rebel lineup, as well. 

One word of caution to the camera makers: the expectations of customers for something that costs US$700 (e.g. D5600) is different than the expectations of customers for something that costs US$1300 (e.g. Z5). I've written it before, but this is another clear example of why I write it: as you charge more for something, you not only have to make it more desirable, but you also have to get closer to your customer and make sure you're fully serving their expectations and needs. 

Put another way: we may be seeing the end of the consumer camera and the consumer customer. What would remain is the enthusiast and professional customers, and products for those groups. But enthusiasts don't stay enthusiasts if you don't give them what they want. Professionals move to another provider if you don't give them what they want. In other words, getting rid of consumer cameras won't actually "fix" the problems that the camera companies have, it just changes them to something they traditionally haven't been as good at doing. Eek.


The Thing About Brand Loyalty

No matter what brand camera system you're using, you're going to have complaints. Simple as that. 

The problem stems from a number of sources. For instance, patents and intellectual property may protect a feature or attribute of a particular brand. Though that's a bit less true in Japanese consumer electronics than elsewhere, I still see instances of it, and some of the licensing that is done across competitors is done only as horse-trading. 

But the real issue facing the Japanese camera companies that impacts us as users is simple: lack of volume coupled with lack of customer engagement. Those two things are related. Because the Japanese companies are so bad at engaging customers globally, they don't hear complaints and issues directly or in a timely fashion. The lack of volume means that the cost of engineering something new is high and reduces product margins. Together the whole thing creates a sort of "take what you get" attitude from the camera makers. 

During the last year I tried to compile a list of the "customer complaints" for each mount. In sorting through that, I found two common ones: poor quality control, and degradations in service/repair.

Actually, it's also the way the customer sees the problems. One real problem with quality control is that at 60mp FX—which is about the state of the art in terms of pixel density across all dedicated camera sensor sizes—manufacturing tolerances are exceedingly small. So much so that "perfect alignment" isn't exactly possible. Moreover, maintaining the tolerances we do get is tough given the abuse that many subject their gear to.

Putting it another way: the camera makers have hit a ceiling they're bumping their heads against, something I predicted back in 2009. At the moment, nobody has figured out a way to raise the roof and get some more breathing room. (I'd point out that alignment tolerances aren't the only ceiling that's being hit, but it's the one that's coming up more and more as the most determined users try to figure out how to get the most from their gear.)

Meanwhile, in terms of service, support, and repair, it's okay to move more of that to the Internet, but the problem is that this is almost always done as one-way communication (company to customer), and much of that gets hung up in bureaucracy or translations. When the customer has a question, it isn't answered directly (or is answered wrong in many of the cases where the camera company did decide to reply). 

On reason I maintain my Web sites and create my articles and books is to act as a conduit for "better answers." But I'd be happier if the camera companies would just up their game.

So, on to the specific aggregated brand complaints I compiled in 2020. Here's how I structured the primary complaints that were not feature specific (every brand had feature-specific complaints):

  • Canon M — no M5 update, lack of lens choice
  • Canon RF — sensors on older cameras, overheating on newer cameras, speed up the lens introductions, price
  • Fujifilm XF — various model specific issues, model line clarity, lack of telephoto lens choice
  • Fujifilm GF — too small a volume to have concentrated complaints
  • Nikon F DX — no D500 update, no higher density image sensor, lack of lenses
  • Nikon F FX — D6 didn't feel like a true update, D780 too high priced, lack of compact lenses
  • Nikon Z DX — lack of lenses, no Z70
  • Nikon Z FX — focus feedback (esp. AF-C), missing customizations, speed up the lens introductions, quality control
  • Olympus m4/3 — what's really happening? 
  • Panasonic m4/3 — no GH6, stalled product offerings
  • Panasonic S — focus performance, price
  • Sigma — no new Foveon, performance issues across the board
  • Sony E — A6### ideas seem aged and not improving, menus, lens option issues (e.g. 16mm still needs redesign)
  • Sony FE — A7 update needed, menus, price creep

Jumping from brand to brand as your most important complaint is addressed is both expensive as well as not actually dealing with the real problem. You're just going to find the new brand has something different to complain about. Just as I documented Leakers, Samplers, and Switchers in the 2007-2017 period, I'm now seeing Returners. Returners are people who left a brand because of a complaint only to find that their new brands created new complaints while the old brand finally got around to addressing their problem.

We as customers are going to have to make our voices heard more clearly. The camera makers don't have as many folk "listening" to us due to cutbacks in staffing, so we're going to have to be louder and more directed in our complaints if they're to be heard at all. 

I'm not 100% certain how we do this—and it's something that many readers will realize I began attempting over 20 years ago in regards to Nikon—but if we don't the bean counters in Tokyo will slowly eradicate all enjoyment we do get, and the net result is that we'll stop buying cameras and find new professions/hobbies.  

Looking for Mr. Goodgear

It still amazes me how many "gear" questions I get versus "photography" questions. The FOMO, angst-driven, self abuse people get themselves into because they have a few less pixels or dynamic range is .2 stops lower or the MTF is only 97% at center instead of 99% is not at all useful. Taken to an extreme, it leads to excessive fandom, heated Internet arguments that degrade into name calling, and much smaller bank accounts, all while not producing any better images.

The increasing quality and utility of smartphone cameras has no doubt produced some of the problem. Technically, if all you're going to do is post images on social media, you don't really need any more than a current iPhone or Galaxy can provide. You'd have some limitations to framing, as you're really constrained to something about 12-50mm (equivalent) in terms of focal length, and of course the fact that photons continue to insist on being random means that you either get noise or highly processed images that, when looked at closely, reveal a clear fauxness to them. 

Our goal as photographers is to...well...take photographs. Good ones. Interesting ones. Compelling ones. Storytelling ones. Attention-getting ones. It's not to brag about feature X or performance Y. A great photograph is a moment in time as seen by you and manipulated by you.

Whoa, Thom! Manipulated? 

Yes, manipulated.

“A camera, like a guitar, is just a box with a hole in it. Until it is placed in the hands of a true artist, it will not make music, only noise. What do you want your music to sound like?” – Tim Mantoani

You—or sometimes the camera—make hundreds of decisions when you produce a photograph. Hundreds. Workshop students of mine know that I've identified several hundred such decisions, all of which interact in clear, documentable ways. The least useful decision you usually make—though there are exceptions—is how many pixels you'll use. Or what brand name is etched on the front of your gear facing the subject. At a minimum you should realize that you choose where to point the camera and when to press the button, but if you take a deep dive, you'll find those hundreds of other decisions you're making, as well.

Now don't misunderstand me. I've been pretty clear that I want the best tools possible. That's because I want the most optimal data capture possible. And I want that optimal data capture so that I can produce optimal final results. It's the Ansel Adams' inspired geekness in me that pursues this, partly because I know that to stand out, you have to do the best possible work. 

But I try not to obsess over this, I just try to make sure I'm using the best possible gear while making the best possible decisions using it, or as near as I can get to that.  

Now what prompted this short essay? Obviously a gear post ;~).

An assertion like this: "my Camera X is only getting 25% of the images right, while my Camera Y gets 50%, so obviously there's something wrong with Camera X." Nope, the problem here is almost certainly Photographer Z. They simply haven't learned how to use Camera X or Y, as they should be getting near 100% of things right with pretty much any modern camera. 

No doubt our gear has gotten more complex, technical, and requires more study than ever before to control it well. The corollary is that we have many more things that we can control, whereas we had fewer things we could do so with in real time before. Consider this: if I was walking through a landscape setting with my film camera in the 90's and suddenly decided that what I was seeing would make a great black and white image, I'd have to note where on the roll I was, rewind the film while still leaving the leader out so I could reload it later, unload the film, put new film in, and then probably change at least one dial manually. Today I can press a button. And, of course, going back to using color triggered the inverse of the process with film, but is still just a button today.

We're going to see new cameras in 2021 that once again push the bar forward in some, perhaps many, ways. They'll be promoted with marketing terms like "more" or "less" (as in "more pixels" or "less noise"). Personally, I want more control (I'd also enjoy them to cost less money, but that's not going to happen very often). 

The real question is this: does a new camera actually improve your photography? For most of you the answer is going to be no because you haven't actually yet managed to do everything you can with your current cameras and lenses. I've written about this before, particularly in "Blame the Equipment." But it's worth repeating the ordered priorities I presented in that article:

  1. Upgrade the photographer
  2. Upgrade the support and shot discipline
  3. Upgrade the lens
  4. Upgrade your understanding
  5. Upgrade your camera

These days I might even put #4 above #3, as most modern lenses are quite good, and understanding them might be more important than having a particular one.

The camera companies believe that their problems are basically all engineering and marketing related. The engineers will continue to add pixels, add features, and increase performance, while the marketeers will try to promote those changes with the biggest bullhorns they can find. 

The question you should always ask though, is "what does this do for my photography?" Moreover, you should always be asking yourself "have I done everything possible for my photography with the gear I have?" If the answer to that latter question is "no", then it's far less likely that the answer to the former question will be "something great." 

One useful thing about the ongoing pandemic and the reduced number of photo opportunities most of you are experiencing is that it gives you more time to contemplate that second question. So let me put that into a homework assignment: 

  • What might you be able to do with the camera and lenses you have that you aren't? 
  • Do you fully understand how your current camera and lenses work? 
  • Do you have a complete and nuanced assessment of what your gear can and can't do? 
  • How often are your photographs disappointing not because of pixels or dynamic range, but because of decisions you made? 

Every year at this time I tend towards self examination. You should, too. We have this tendency to blame something (or someone) else for our own faults, mistakes, and missed opportunities. That's the easy way out. So, to inspire you, a few more quotes:

"A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing." —Albert Einstein

"Screw out the bolts of your life, examine and work on yourself, fix your life again and get going." — Israelmore Ayivor

"Painting what I experience, translating what I feel, is like a great liberation. But it is also work, self-examination, consciousness, criticism, struggle." —Balthus

"What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others." —Confucius

How are you going to upgrade your photography this year? What's the biggest hurdle holding you back from getting more wows when people see your images? Are you making images that are uniquely yours?

I'm betting it's not a new camera or lens that will fix your problems. If it is, I want to know more about that magical piece of gear, because I don't seem to have it in my gear closet. 

The Wayback Machine is Up

bythom US Alaska Denali 8-1994


Finally got around to hooking my film scanner up to my new computer. Of course, I had to test it out ;~). Pulled up an old slide from 1994 (this is Pete's Glacier going up the side of Denali; at least that's what my label on the slide mount says ;~). Seems like the Coolscan 5000 still works. 

Nikon's software doesn't still work, though. So if you want to use one of these old Nikon Coolscans with modern computers and OS's, you may need a dongle or two (the 9000 connection was Firewire) and either VueScan or Silverfast

The pilot of the Helio Courier I'm in was the legendary Lowell Thomas Jr., who had also served as a member of Alaska's Senate and later Lieutenant Governor. He had the knack of being able to put that plane pretty much anywhere you wanted it (including on the glacier), and given that the Courier can fly in control as low as 28 mph (!), he would tend to set you up for very long, slow passes that were perfect for photographers.

Oh, you wanted to know about the camera. I'm pretty sure this was taken with a Nikon N90s. Not sure about the lens, but my vague memory says 24mm.

On the Other byThom Sites (Jan 8)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

sansmirror.com  — covers all mirrorless cameras

dslrbodies.com  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLRs

This list of postings on the gear-specific sites is provided about once a week on bythom.com. If you're a time-sensitive junkie, you need to point your RSS reader to the News/Views page on each of my sites, as that will push to you all the latest articles as they appear.


Nikon Ends International Warranties

Nikon corporate today issued a formal notice of something that had been rumored and pending for some time: Nikon will no longer provide International Warranties for lenses and accessories (cameras long ago dropped the International Warranty). I've updated my "gray market page" accordingly.

In some ways, this is good, but in most ways customers will think it bad. 

First, the good. Nikon now treats all of its products the same. Products are produced and then distributed to individual regions (typically to a Nikon subsidiary). The region's distributor/subsidiary then manages all the warranty/repair for all Nikon products they import. While it might not be obvious, there were implied costs associated with providing cross-region warranties, and gray marketing of products exacerbated that. 

The bad, from the customer's view, is that they can—sometimes unwittingly—end up with products for which no manufacturer's warranty is actually provided. If you buy a gray market product here in the US, for example, NikonUSA will not provide warranty repair or even for-fee repair. 

Long-time readers will know that I called out Nikon's policies on global distribution and repair 25 years ago on the Internet, and have been vocal about it ever since. But my actual gripes date back to the 60's, when Nikon didn't have subsidiaries across the world, but was producing region-specific products that distributors controlled warranties and repairs on. In other words, the situation has never been what I'd call good and customer-friendly. 

For some time now I've been advising people not to buy gray market product. Not because the product is different or bad in some way, but solely because of the issues of getting it repaired, if necessary. That advice doesn't change with Nikon's new policies. If anything, I'd just emphasize my advice. 

I don't believe that Nikon is guilt-free in the gray market problem. Rumors have long existed that Nikon dumped excess inventory into Asia through short-term loans given by the Hong Kong based financial community to local distributors. Those distributors figured out how to arbitrage gray market product effectively, and the story goes that Nikon corporate saw that as a way to "make their numbers" when needed. Meanwhile, Nikon corporate also wants their wholly-owned subsidiaries to "make their numbers," and since warranties and repairs are done within those subsidiaries and represent real costs, the subsidiaries don't want to take on expenses for products over which they have no control and for which the distributor might have paid less than the subsidiary. 

Lumenzia 9

bythom lumenzia

Greg Benz has just updated one of my favorite Photoshop tools, the Lumenzia luminosity masking panel. Lumenzia is enough better than the home-grown concoction I created that I've abandoned my own work.

This isn't a small update, as it features over 170 new features, changes, and bug fixes to the previous 8.5.1 version. Lumenzia also isn't a "just install and use" type of product. Nor is it an AI product that "just does things without user interaction." Lumenzia is one of the geekiest tools in my arsenal, and I've got a number of geeky tools I use. Thus, for someone just starting out with it, I'd tend to recommend that you get Greg's Exposure Blending Master Course along with the tool itself. Greg's an excellent instructor, and his video tutorials will help you understand how you use Lumenzia to its fullest. 

Lumenzia sells for US$40 (updates have been free), and Lumenzia with the Exposure Blending Master Class is currently US$99. An additional Dodging & Burning Master Class can be bundled with the former two for a total of US$197, which I'd consider money well spent for someone who's deep into layering and blending within Photoshop.

Capture One Pricing

Twice in recent months I've written, but then decided not to publish, articles about Capture One pricing. This time I won't second guess myself ;~).

The genesis of today's article is an email the Capture One team sent to registered users of their "for Brand" products this week, announcing a price increase. The Capture One for Fujifilm, Capture One for Nikon, and Capture One for Sony products now increases from US$129 to US$149, or in the subscription model, from US$10/mo to US$19/mo. You do get two activations instead of one now with the "for Brand" versions, though. (By the way, the Capture One Web site does not currently warn about the upcoming price increases.)

These prices are part of the same problem I wrote about twice but didn't publish: someone at Capture One is playing pricing games that doesn't make a lot of sense to customers. Prior to the version 21 release, I received direct offers of 30%, 20%, and 40% off at different times within a three week period. The product's price effectively changed three times, and depended upon which offer I responded to. 

bythom captureone

Is that a Capture One Curve panel or their pricing model? ;~)

Clearly, you don't offer three such rapid price changes without knowing that you're going to do so in advance. Did Capture One "make good" to people that responded to one of the lower discounts that suddenly increased a week later? Not that I know of. In some cases, upgrade offers are now costing more than the original purchase. Yuck. One result is that I'm now receiving emails from readers about Capture One's "predatory" pricing maneuvers. Yeah, that's got to be good for business. 

I dislike MBA-derived micromanaging of pricing, and Capture One seems to have gone full monte on that. 

But there's more going on here then is being reported: I would claim that Capture One doesn't have a fixed price any more due to all the discount and repricing stunts they've been doing. Apparently when they need a cash influx, they discount, and do so with heavy affiliate program promotion (i.e. articles on Web sites that appear to be news, but are really just marketing material regurgitated in return for a cut of the proceeds; in the US, the FTC requires such affiliations to be clearly delineated to the reader, but that's not always done, or not done clearly). When they find that customers have figured out the "least expensive" way to use the software, Capture One seems to make price changes. In other words, there is no fixed value to Capture One because its price is gamed at every possible chance. 

Thing is, with software, you want customer loyalty, and Capture One is making moves that effectively reduce that. I don't particularly care if a software vendor reasonably prices their product as a perpetual license with regular, reasonably-priced upgrades, or whether it is priced by subscription (also with reasonable, predictable pricing). What I do mind is when a vendor is all over the map with pricing, subsets, and long-term policies. Adobe falls into the former category (reasonable), while Capture One is now in the latter (unreasonable), at least in my opinion.

The camera business, and all the businesses that support it, is really tough right now. New users are tough to find, and the active installed base is buying less often (and getting smaller). We've got too many competitors vying for the same customers. The result of that will be some combination of (a) death of products; (b) consolidation of companies; (c) slower and less extensive upgrades; and (d) attempts to vacuum up any dollars that they can find. 

Updated: corrected missing word

National Bird Day

INT Japan 2010 D3 03897


My mom says "more photos" so I'm going to give her the bird ;~):

INT BOTS August 2015 D7200 44143

GIMP Updated to version 2.10.22

GIMP, the free and open-source graphics editor that's sometimes compared to Photoshop, has added HEIC and AVID support, as well as some other small improvements. Note that this macOS version is not yet compatible with macOS Big Sur.

GIMP Web site

Sirui Anamorphic Lens Info Added

Sirui is a small Chinese manufacturer that makes anamorphic lenses (1.33x) for video use. These lenses "squeeze" a wider scene into a narrower capture, and require post production to desqueeze them. What this results in is that 16:9 video turns into a more movie-like 2.4:1 format. Besides the additional scene width, anamorphic lenses have that distinction horizontal flare you may have seen in films, as well as an oval bokeh (as opposed to round). 

What 8K Does to Us

On sansmirror.com I pointed out that the Canon R5 as well as the expected Sony A9 update and Nikon's new high-end Z cameras are likely to be 45mp or so. Why that number?

In a word: video. 

bythom film

Specifically, 8K video, which requires 7680 x 4320 (33mp) for UHD 8K, and 8192 x 4320 (35mp) for DCI 8K. Hey, look, the Canon R5 is 8192 pixels wide, and gives us the extra 3:2 aspect ratio pixels on the vertical axis (5464), for a total of 44.7mp (call it 45 ;~). The reason why I say the Nikon high-end Z camera will be 45mp is that Nikon already has a 45mp sensor (8256 x 5504), so their only real chore was making it "faster", which is a lot easier to do than create an entirely new sensor from scratch. 

Because sales volumes are down, at the high end R&D dollars need to used wisely, and thus the confluence of still and video needs has essentially come to be. This was a bit determined by engineering hurdles. In terms of light collection (and what most of you would probably refer incorrectly as dynamic range), BSI full frame sensors already push against some hard boundaries that have little additional benefit to explore. Yes, you might increase efficiency of the sensor a bit (probably at the expense of color information), and you can tune the voltage conversion gains some, but those of you looking for large-scale noise reduction aren't going to get it because the randomness of photons is already being fairly accurately recorded. 

On the other hand, bandwidth is an area where gains are still possible. If you map the amount of data moved off image sensors over time (bandwidth), you get a fairly predictable plot of increase, and we're not really hitting boundaries yet in what can be done (though heat becomes an issue, as Canon has discovered). While you might prefer a lower pixel count sensor that runs more globally (global shutter as opposed to rolling shutter), the camera makers have currently picked higher pixel count with faster data processing (i.e. rolling shutter, but more data or faster roll). That's because it allows them to sell a camera that's an all-rounder: same light collection, higher still pixel count, ready for future video needs.

I expect in the coming years that 45mp will become the new 24mp for full frame. 

Ah, but what about APS-C? 

Yeah, there's the rub, and every camera company is scratching their heads over this. We have 32mp APS-C sensors (Canon), but that doesn't quite net us 8K. 32mp might net us a very nice oversampled 4K or 6K. But if you're promoting 8K with your flagship products, can you get away with promoting 4K/6K for your lower products?

Personally, I believe you can. Indeed, I'd make that a clear calling card: full frame is superb stills and future proof 8K, APS-C is excellent stills and today's 4K at a lower cost. Pros and futurists would prefer 8K, everyone else should be happy with APS-C. 

If you look back at the first two decades of digital ILC, you find that Canon and Nikon specifically low-balled APS-C over time (eventually near consumer-only) while promoting full frame (pro and prosumer). So this 8K/4K marketing dichotomy isn't exactly something that would be new to them.

The problem—as I've pointed out now for over 12 years—is that smartphones keep gobbling the bottom of the camera market. Good stills and 4K video is something Apple, Google, Huawei, Samsung, et.al., already promote. Thus, a 4K APS-C camera looks "harder to market" against that ever-upward progression from the phone makers. Which—as I've also pointed out for over a dozen years—makes the core difference in ILC, the lenses, a key part of the selling (or not selling) point. An APS-C consumer camera with 24mp and an 18-55mm (slow aperture) lens doesn't appear to sit very much above the smartphone ceiling. A full on APS-C system would (as Fujifilm can claim). There's another failure here, too—as I've also pointed out for those same dozen years—the camera companies simply don't seem to understand how to market their products, and get overwhelmed by the big dollar campaigns Apple and Samsung, in particular, keep throwing at the market.

This is a key moment for the camera companies. I think we can all see how excellent full frame, 45mp, 8K video products might net the camera companies users at the highest price points. But the top potential volume for that is maybe, and I mean maybe, 1m units a year. That's not enough to justify staying in the camera business when it gets split at least three ways. 

To survive, it's the lower end of the market that has to thrive. And APS-C (and perhaps the older 24mp full frame) is where those products will live. Here it comes...wait for it...you can't "thrive" without lenses. Full lens sets that offer a wide range of options. Lenses that are priced, sized, and perform to that lower end customer's expectations. Yes, that means a 24-200mm convenience lens, but not 10 convenience lens choices. It means small travel-ready primes and key zooms. It means strong telephoto options (a place that smartphones will have difficulty reaching). It means a bigger lens lineup than Canon has given us with EOS M or EOS EF-S, that Nikon gave us with DX, or that Sony has given us with E. 

It seems silly that here, twenty years into the digital DSLR and now mirrorless era, I have to remind the three largest camera companies that they're spending too much time and energy on C, and not enough on IL. 

I had a Japanese executive recently say to me "but we only sell 1.6 lenses for every body, and that's never changed" (the actual number these days tends more towards 1.7). I told him this was looking at the market incorrectly. Many of those bodies, perhaps even most, were upgrades. If you look at the camera maker's "best customers," they don't have 1.6 lenses, and they're still buying bodies (and lenses). In the last survey of my site readers, the median was over 10 lenses. So which 10 Canon M-mount lenses would that be? (there have only been 8 M mount lenses produced ;~)

It's ILC. The Japanese camera makers are in the ILC market. That's: Interchangeable. Lens. Camera. You won't get ahead by making only expensive full frame cameras with entirely new sets of lenses. If anything, the trend in camera sales is self-fulfilling: you don't sell it, so we don't buy it. 

Each maker has a different problem moving forward. While their full frame products are on course, their crop-sensor ones aren't:

  • Canon — needs to drop EOS M and make RF cameras with APS-C sensors, and bring out a set of lenses to support that.
  • Nikon — needs a higher-end DX body and more Z DX lenses. Wouldn't hurt to have a Z50 II. 
  • Sony — needs a reimagined A6### lineup, the redesign of a number of key lenses (e.g. 16mm), and to introduce new E lenses.

On the Other byThom Sites

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

sansmirror.com  — covers all mirrorless cameras

dslrbodies.com  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLRs

Rebates Ending

The current Sony instant rebates end Sunday night (Jan 3rd). That includes US$500-1000 off full frame bodies, US$50-100 off various full frame lenses. 

Nikon rebates also end at midnight Sunday. 

I don't know if there will be new rebates, but the supply chain issues might cause makers to be less aggressive for a bit.

Keep the Suggestions Coming

As with any major project that involves thousands upon thousands of pages going into production, some small details and idiosyncrasies still need refining. In a few cases, links broke that I didn't initially catch. In others there is formatting, wording, or consistency that isn't quite correct. I don't always see those quickly, so if you spot something that seems out of line on any of my sites, let me know. I appreciate those emails even when they make me wince at my incompetence ;~). 

Things I've already fixed: correctly numbering Teaching Points, simplifying menus so they don't take multiple lines, correcting dates in the Galapagos COVID-19 article, fixed broken links.

Site Redesign

It's a new year, and it's time for some changes to the bythom.com site. 

First up, you might have noticed that the site is now secure (HTTPS), though given that this site contains no commerce or data entry on your part and consists only of static HTML code that's refreshed daily, it really shouldn't have been necessary. Yes, I know there are malicious techniques to slip into a http-to-https crosslink, but it seems like we're just chasing after the bad actors, not really fixing the Internet. Still, the change was past due, and now that I've moved bythom.com to a new server, I can add the requisite certificates and monitor that easily.

Next, you'll notice that the pages are simpler and devoid of sidebar. That starts with the front page. The site should be much more phone/tablet friendly now. Removal of the sidebar is going to bury some visibility of this site's exclusive advertiser, B&H. Thus, I've added a B&H menu option (top right) so that you can help support this site by starting your shopping experience with B&H from a known bythom page that has proper links that allows B&H to track how their ads are doing. Meanwhile, those who use direct links to my other gear-specific sites will find them now in the footer at the bottom of every page instead of the (now removed) sidebar.

If you're just dropping by from time to time to see what's new, you can do that on the front page (and get a new image monthly), or better, you can do it on the main News/Views page, which is where the most recent 10 posts are visible. If you're using an RSS newsreader, you'll want to point it at this main News/Views page. This new Front Page/News Views structure should now be consistent across all my main sites (I'll eventually get around to doing it for filmbodies, too).

Articles that appear in the News/Views section in 2021 can be found in the month-by-month archives, which is at the bottom of the main News/Views page. As part of the News/Views changes, all the older news articles (pre-2021) are now hidden from direct view. If you really want to access them, see the note and link, also at the bottom of the News/Views page

The Travel section has been completely reworked. I've even added a COVID-19 page to the Galapagos section, as tours have returned to the Islands and you'll need updated information on the precautions that are in place. Note that some of the links to articles in the Travel section may have moved as a result. I've added some new photos, did some updating and editing, and generally improved this area of the site. I hope to expand it as I start traveling again sometime in 2021.

Next up, you'll find that the Technique section that originally appeared on dslrbodies.com is now back on byThom. I'm trying to put DSLR things on the dslrbodies site, mirrorless things on the sansmirror site, Z System things on the zsystemuser site, and general photography things on this byThom site. As part of moving the section, you'll note that I've streamlined, updated, and reorganized the Technique section considerably. If you had links to those articles that reference the technique section on dslrbodies, you're going to want to update them. As part of all this, the front page photo—once a month, not once a week—now leads to new Teaching Points in the Technique section. Given that once the pandemic dies down my schedule is going to go insane, I can't guarantee there will be a new Teaching Point every month, though.

Finally, people keep asking for a single page that points to all of my reviews. As you'll see, there are a lot of those. It almost seems like an infinitely-scrolling list ;~). 

Yes, there's a lot going on. I've tried to make things simpler, look better on mobile devices, and be better organized. I'm sure there are going to be some glitches initially, as trying to proofread a bunch of text and design in a hierarchy is worse than trying to proofread a large batch of text. If you find issues, let me know.

Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: dslrbodies.com | mirrorless: sansmirror.com | Z System: zsystemuser.com | film SLR: filmbodies.com

bythom.com: all text and original images © 2021 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2020 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
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