News/Views

Last Week on Other byThom Sites (thru Feb 28)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (February 20-28) 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.

Latest Strange Sayings

From time to time I quote something I read in the photography Internet world that just is strange, and needs clarification (or sometimes refutation). Here are the latest ones that stopped me cold while reading an article:

"Pretty much almost as fast." [reviewer comment about GFX100S autofocus]

Oh dear. A qualifier to a qualifier. The way you have to read this is "the GFX100s is almost as fast. Pretty much." Meaning it isn't as fast, and even that statement is qualified. It also doesn't help that the writer hasn't identified the lenses and exposure at which this comment was determined. Close reading says he was comparing to a Canon R, not exactly known for its focus prowess, but lens and exposure would have something to do with this, too.

No doubt focus performance is very hard to quantify. Speed to acquire focus and focus tracking accuracy intersect, for example. You can sometimes have one without the other. The problem with comments like this one are that they're subjective based upon unknown circumstances, and then the fan boys start to amplify the comment because it fits their world view. 

Many of us grew up in the world of manual focus. Any autofocus that works decently is a step up from what we were doing in the 70's. Every decade, those autofocus systems have gotten better (and more complex, which can make them really useful if you master them). Today's autofocus systems, across most current cameras and brands, are all "pretty fast." Some are "almost as good" as others ;~). 

Bottom line: there was no content in that statement. Yet it was still quoted by others...

"Just stop down the lens a bit more so DOF covers the eyeball." [serious comment about Eye AF by a reviewer]

Let's be clear: focus only occurs on one plane, period. "Subjectively acceptable"—are we really going to argue that is a thing we desire?—is what DOF is all about. What's subjectively acceptable to one person in one context is not acceptable to another person or in another context (e.g. large print versus small Web use). Moreover, there are subtle brain cues that rely on the focus plane position that I'm not totally willing to ignore. 

To me, when you start trying to compensate for a camera feature (focus plane accuracy in Eye AF mode) by relaxing your standard—and that's what you're doing here—you're moving deep into compromise versus optimal. I want camera tools that allow me to quickly and easily get optimal results, not camera tools that allow me to quickly get compromised results. 

Now you may be different. As I've noted before, one of the reasons why Sony's mirrorless AF system got so much early praise is that the "all automatic" modes did a better job for the more casual and periodic camera users than the more nuanced-and-needing-user-attention systems that the sophisticated DSLRs did. It takes study and practice to make a tool work as well as it can for you. A lot of photographers don't want to spend the time necessary to do that. Even some pros don't have the time to do the study, though they often get plenty of practice ;~). 

"We think that [the division between] stills and movies is less and less, nowadays." [dpreview interview with Sony's Masaaki Oshima]

Well, yes, we can see that in Sony's development, particularly now that we have the FX3 and the A7S Mark III, which are basically the same camera in video and still shells. But I'm pretty sure that the majority of the still photographers don't want to hear this particular statement, and moreover it's self-serving in Sony's case, as they're trying to protect both still and video businesses. 

I'd argue that, given the FX3, the A7S Mark III is poorly designed. Why? Because it should be really handling the "stills first" customer better, while the FX3 should be handling the "video first" customer. In other words, I don't think the separation of the two is big enough. 

"[the] article is filled with technical jargon that will go over many heads [sic]. For instance, the article specifies that: 'Sony presents a 50.1Mpixel, 4.16μm-pitch, back-illuminated stacked CIS with a pipelined column-parallel kT/C noise-canceling sample-and-hold circuit and a 14b delta-sigma ADC achieving 1.18e-RMS random noise at 250fps.’ Did you get all of that? No, me either. Still, I do know this means the sensor is an absolute technological marvel." [well known photography site]

I'm seeing a lot of this lately: just throwing out tech mumbo-jumbo that the writer doesn't actually understand and then proclaiming that it means something important. They have no clue what the mumbo-jumbo actually meant, but because it was published and marketed somewhere, it must be important, right?

It's getting tougher and tougher to understand the low-level aspects of semiconductors. We're talking about things that are documented in nanometers and electrons and have near quantum relationships at times. One of the latest techniques to show up in image sensors is something called Deep Trench Isolation, which if we were to scale that to your backyard, would mean digging a 6" wide trench thousands of meters deep. I just spent two months going through documents like the one referenced by this author in preparation for an upcoming presentation I'm making, and I'm having to have engineers peer review my work to make sure I didn't miss something. 

The article in question goes on to make a claim that probably doesn't exactly mean what they think: that the Sony A1 sensor is capable of 44 fps and that Sony arbitrarily limited it to 30 fps because it would need a bigger heat sink. Most image sensors these days have multiple readout capabilities, some of which exceed what is actually used in still imaging. The reason they do that is that there are different downsides to each of the readout options, and camera developers choose an option for a specific purpose and result. "Faster" on an image sensor usually means that you either have heat mitigation issues you need to manage—which the article in question does mention—but you also can also encounter other significant problems. For instance, many image sensors have to drop the bit rate on the embedded ADC when dealing with the maximum fps the sensor is capable of in order to get accurate Digital Numbers, and in some cases higher speeds mean more rolling shutter. 

Like lens design, sensor design is a game of balancing tradeoffs. Adding stacked capability to an image sensor—essentially providing a quick off-ramp for data to another piggybacked semiconductor that can do other things with that data—is part of that balancing act. 

There's no doubt that the image sensor in the Sony A1 has a lot of great tech in it, and that this technology enables the more extreme capabilities of that camera. But citing a technical document statement and then making a broad claim against it which mostly amounts to fan-dom needs to stop. 

"[PERGEAR 10mm f/8 Fisheye] Worth More Than Toilets." [bing translation of a bing translation]

A lot of us covering the photography field sometimes have to resort to using on-line translators in order to see what's happening in other places around the world. But those translators can be really odd at times. I encountered this particular headline—which of course immediately caught my interest—that was generated when something that appeared in French was translated to Japanese and then offered to me in English. 

Generally I try to get someone who knows a language better than I do to help me figure out what non-English statements are actually saying, but I do sometimes have to rely on the online translators to figure out what it is that I might need to have a better translation of. And that leads to a lot of amusement at times. 

In case you're wondering, the gist of the original review was that the PERGEAR was better than the other "lens cap" lenses, which were not as good.

Hello World

Yesterday was supposedly the birthday of main(){printf("hello, world\n");}

When my site goes silent, even for a day or two, I get the inevitable "are you okay?" emails. Well, if I weren't, I probably wouldn't be able to answer an email ;~).

Yes, this site has been quiet this week. Working on two books, two upcoming online presentations, 16 product reviews, and more means that if something isn't happening requiring news or commentary, I'm going to devote my time to those things. Oh, and I've been shoveling a lot of snow lately, too ;~).

Despite this being a trade show week—CP+ in Japan, typically a big show with lots of product announcements)—the camera industry has been mostly quiet. The pandemic, supply chain issues, lack of travel capability, and more means that all the camera companies are playing things closer to the vest this year. Nikon, in particular, seems to be out of stock of a lot of key products, so personally I'd rather have them addressing that then announcing new ones that I can't obtain. 

I've posted a few new product bits over on sansmirror.com that came out of CP+ if you really need to read something I've written this week. Otherwise, enjoy the silence, shovel your snow, get an appointment for a COVID-19 immunization, or something else useful. 

Solving the Firmware Problem

Nikon's recent Z6 II and Z7 II firmware updates (now available to download) illustrate a problem that all tech companies have, but one that is now plaguing the camera industry.

The Z6 and Z7 are still for sale new on the market. Did they get the appropriate pieces of the new Z6 II and Z7 II firmware in their own firmware update? No. In particular, one small fix that added EXIF information that Final Cut Pro could pick up and display. The remaining things in the update pertain solely to the II models, but that particular issue is one that the original cameras also have. So why didn't we get a firmware update for that? Again, Nikon is still selling those cameras as new; they've not been taken off the market. And frankly, even if they were no longer sold I would argue that this is a fix that should be made.

Nikon isn't the only camera company having this problem. I've seen it with Fujifilm, OM Digital Solutions, and Sony, as well, and I suppose if I looked closely enough, I could find it endemic to all the makers. Even crossing outside of cameras, the problem persists. Samsung just sent a press release on their latest phone that they'd provide security updates for only four years (technically, that's three less years than the company would be committed to repairing said phone). Apple is quick to relegate older OS versions to the "no longer updated" heap, though lately they've tempered that a bit, and you at least still see security updates that go back two or more versions.

I don't want a camera, phone, computer, or car that is abandoned by its maker long before I stop using it. If a tech company wants customer loyalty, they're going to have to step up and make a real commitment to keeping firmware/software secure, bug free, and complete for a known period of time, not the short period of time that some bean counter says has expired. 

Yes, this is difficult. It requires resources that the tech companies would rather use elsewhere, and it has real costs in order to do. As customers, we have to support those companies financially in order for them to do it, and there are only two ways that happens: higher up-front prices, or on-going costs. 

So I'm going to propose a solution. Neither you nor the camera companies are going to 100% like my solution, but the fact that both sides will suffer some pain over it means that it's probably the right solution:

  • COMPANY will provide timely security, bug fix, and feature completion updates for a PRODUCT for a period not less than that for which they must guarantee to provide repair (7 years after last manufacturing of product in the US, which I believe is still the worst case). CUSTOMER may have to pay a fair, annual firmware update fee to have access to those updates after warranty for PRODUCT has expired. 



Weekly Site Update Summary (thru Feb 19)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (February 15-19) 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.

Older Bodies

I've noted on some of my other sites, mostly notably zsystemuser.com and sansmirror.com, that supply chain issues are limiting availability of a lot of the most recently-introduced cameras at the moment. I did note, however, that there are two older cameras that are still quite viable on deep discount at the moment, and in stock. 

First up, we have the Olympus E-M1 Mark II (nope, not III). With the most recent firmware updates, this camera performs quite well. Maybe not state-of-the-art autofocus, but still very usable for most types of photography. With some learning and care, I've managed to use it for birds in flight with some success (but again, not state-of-the-art compared to the Sonys). This is a really well-built camera that can survive rain and more, and once you've spent the time to figure out how to configure it, you'll find it very much like a DSLR in terms of shooting without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Current price new is US$999, which makes it somewhat of a bargain. You simply can't find a better built camera that's highly capable at that price. Yes, it's m4/3, so it's not going to be a low-light champion, but the m4/3 optics are excellent, and with some of today's raw converters, particularly DxO PhotoLab 4 running on a fast computer, you can manage that noise, too. I don't know how long this camera will last at this price [advertiser link], but I consider it a bargain at that price, and still a camera you should consider. 

Meanwhile, B&H is selling the highly capable Sony A9 at a rock bottom price of US$2998 [advertiser link], and they throw in a flash and some accessories, too. The Mark II model really only rounded off some rough edges for working pros who were using some of the more advanced features, such as FTP. In terms of the basic camera, a firmware updated A9 is still a powerhouse that will let you shoot at up to 20 fps without viewfinder blackout, and with very good focus performance. When the Mark II came out I wondered whether or not I'd use the new features and tweaks, and the answer to that is "not really." For the privilege of getting a Mark II over the original, you'll pay US$1500 more. For most people, it's not worth the extra money. Note that the original A9 is only on sale through February 21st, so you don't have a lot of time to opt for that bargain. 

While I point to B&H pages on this site, I note that most other dealers have the same bargains going at the moment (though perhaps with different kits in the case of the A9). 

Plenty of other older cameras are on sale at the moment, as well. The ubiquitous Sony A6000 with two kit lenses is US$300 off through February 21st, making for a complete kit at less than US$700. Still quite a good camera, though a little fussy in the UX for some.

What I'm trying to point out here is this: there won't be many bargains in the newest, latest, gee whiz toys the camera makers have, and you may find that you can't even find those in stock. But cameras—yes, even mirrorless cameras—have been quite good for some time now, and those older cameras are turning into real bargains as they get closer to their end of life points. If you're in the mood to purchase a camera, it's probably worth it to take some time browsing through your favorite dealer's Web site and see what they've got that might quell you GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). I'm pretty sure there are some real bargains sitting on those shelves. I've only pointed out two of them that stood out to me here, but there are more.

New Nikon Sensor

Curiously, after being mostly quiet on the scholarly conference circuit, Nikon has returned this week with a presentation at the International Conference on Solid State Circuits (ISSCC). Even more curious is the sensor Nikon describes.

bythom nikon sensor


Would you believe an 18mp, 1", BSI-stacked CMOS sensor capable of 1000 frames a second, HDR-type dynamic range extension (to 134dB, or 22+ stops engineering DR), and a pixel size of 2.7 square microns? The experimental chip described was apparently fabbed on a 65nm stepper, which is generally smaller than being used for large sensors at the moment.

Why 1"? Probably for economical reasons. You don't want to start sophisticated sensor development with full frame because to do that requires multiple stitching passes on the stepper, and we have two different layers (image portion, and stacked portion) already being dealt with. In other words, solve one problem at a time. But more importantly, it appears that Nikon might actually have created this sensor specifically for industrial use, which would be a new market for them (they currently don't supply such sensors that I know of). 

The presentation describes new technology that appears to be derived from one of the four Nikon sensor patents I've been following. 

Hopefully this will bring to rest the notion that Nikon doesn't have a sensor design group. They do. It's active, and has been active since 1988. 

What any of this means for dedicated cameras is unclear. However, the fact that Nikon is dabbling in multiple advanced sensor technologies isn't a fluke. They've been doing that for as long as I can remember, they just tend to do it quietly ever since the D2h "fiasco." 

Tokina 11-20mm f/2.8 Lens on Sale

B&H is having one its periodic one-day price reductions on this excellent lens. [advertiser link]

If you don't have a wide-angle zoom for your DX or EF-S camera and are looking for one, US$100 off (19% off) is a very nice reduction.

The question that always comes up is this: 11-16mm or 11-20mm? Frankly, I've not found a lot to distinguish between the two, so I tend to recommend that you let price help you decide. Today only, the 11-20mm is the lower priced model, so it would be the one I recommend to you. 

As for the older models versus the newer atx-i models, I've also not found anything different between them optically. The atx-i models have a slightly more modern build, and perhaps a very slight advantage in water repellence (I don't believe the older models had a water-phobic front element coating).

Upcoming byThom Events


You asked for more of me. Be careful what you wish for. 

On March 30th (5pm PST) I'll be giving a Zoom lecture that's a big expansion of my old Chasing Galen story. I'll reflect on the eight years I traveled with Galen Rowell and some of the primary lessons he taught, using examples—both good and bad—from my collection of slides taken on those trips ;~). Yes, you read that right, film slides. 

During this pandemic I re-hooked up my Coolscan 5000 and have been going over many of the images I took during the 1994-2002 period and getting some of them into my digital database. Can't say I've found all the good ones, as there are over 15,000 slides to go through, and I can only manage a handful a day and keep up with all my other self-imposed work, game-playing, and napping ;~).

Galen Rowell photographing in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru. What's he photographing? Well, you'll have to attend the event to find out.

The Creative Photo Academy (the teaching arm of Paul's Photos) is hosting this one-time, US$49, Zoom-based event: Chasing Galen, and Learning From Him as I Did. Use that link to sign up. If somehow you end up not being able to attend live, the event will be recorded and available to you to view for a month afterwards.

-----------------

Meanwhile, the pandemic has disrupted my workshop schedule for over a year now. That said, the Botswana, Africa workshops are still on my calendar, only they've been rescheduled for April 2022 (originally, they were planned for April 2020). These two workshops are already over half full, and thus there are only a handful of spots left open. If you're at all interested in them, you should download the PDF brochure and contact Lisa at Wilderness Travel to talk about signing up.

Someone misses you and wants to know when you're coming back...

I've once again added the Workshop page (and sub-pages for the individual workshops) back to the header. At the moment, these two Botswana workshops are the only ones I have planned at the moment. 

Due to all the postponements to travel that have occurred, many of the facilities I use can't tell me about availability further out yet, as they've been pushing previously booked clients into postponed dates. A word to the wise: if you're really interested in International travel in the 2022-2023 time frame, you're going to have to consider taking a risk and booking now. Once the floodgates of travel re-open, all the postponed tours are going to be sitting there eating up much of the availability, and I expect demand will exceed supply in many places. 

As outlined in the brochure, because of the non-refundable deposits now required for these workshops we strongly advise you get Trip Cancellation insurance. When you sign up with Wilderness Travel they can help you find appropriate insurance. 

Elsewhere on byThom Sites (Feb 6-14)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (January 29-February 5) 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.

One From the Vault

Happy Valentine's Day.

bythom INT EC Galapagos 203


"Often seen as an affectionate platonic greeting, a peck on the cheek can have multiple meanings and is a sign of affection." From What His Kiss is Really Saying. Of course, he/she might interpret things differently ;~).

Deleting Images

My teaching partner and I have this on-going discussion (argument?) about images: do you delete any images or not? If so, when and how? Short answer: everyone will have a slightly different take on this.

This isn't a topic you should approach lightly, though. You really should take some time to think through what you're doing and why. That's what I'm going to try to get you to do today.

The usual argument "for" deleting images has to do with storage. A few make the argument that it also is about time (e.g. amount of time it takes to ingest, handle, backup images). 

My argument is that storage is cheap, and if you're using the right cards, card reader, and drives (Thunderbolt 3 SSD, baby), time isn't typically an issue. That said, I've been going through over 15,000 slides recently to look for images for an upcoming presentation I'm giving, and I'm understanding the time issue a bit differently today as I look at page after page of slides on a small light box trying to find the right images, while ignoring all the images I'll likely never use. (With digital images and products like Lightroom, good categorization and keywords would help you breeze through this task.)

I'm a "keeper." Okay, I throw away the images I accidentally take of my feet or pants legs while running from one end of a stadium to the other, but if there's a subject in the image, I keep it. Including any out of focus ones in a sequence. Why? Two reasons: 

  1. I can go back and look through a shooting session and see my errors. Bad images help me figure out what problem I was having and then I work to solve it. I'll be the first one to admit that I make mistakes. Plenty of them. However, I also look closely at my errors and try to figure out how to improve. It's much tougher to improve when you just vaguely remember you had a problem and think you might know what it is, compared to when you have the evidence right in front of your eyes and can test assumptions against it.
  2. Software has gotten better at correcting errors. Missed exposure and focus can amazingly be "corrected" far better than you thought it might be when you actually took the image. Image stabilization didn't exist back when I took a lot of those slides, and some of them have a bit of motion blur to them. If you've got enough computer horsepower and the right software, it's amazing how much you can recover these days. Had I thrown those marginal images away when I took them, I'd be kicking myself today.

What the heck happened here? Right in the middle of a dozen nicely framed images was this one. Patagonia winds, that's what happened. A nice 60 mph gust (note the water drops in upper left) hit my setup just as I was pressing the remote. The slightly circular blur is because I grabbed one of the legs so the camera didn't hit the ground. But having this image in my files was useful. I kept looking at the effect of the slightly circular blur, and then set off on a long series of attempts to find a subject that worked with that (more on that later).

So let me put a few points out for you to consider in your debate about how aggressively you delete images:

  • If you haven't optimized for speed, you should. Whether you keep all your images or just half of them, using slow cards, slow card readers, and slow drives is just going to frustrate you and keep you wondering if you should be more aggressive about deleting images. Remove the temptation. I've seen people who could have saved more time just by having faster speed gear when compared to all the time they spent deleting images. Oh, and invest in really fast viewing software, such as Photo Mechanic or FastRawViewer. Lightroom is not all that fast for massive image reviews.
  • In camera deletion is still something to avoid when possible. It used to be that deleting in camera caused all kinds of file system errors with digital cameras. Despite every camera maker using some derivative of DOS in their file system, that was all recoded in Japan from scratch and the camera makers had to relearn all the lessons learned stretching way back into the DEC PDP era (from whence much of the FAT idea came from). Today I still find that card errors can occur with deletion, particularly in two scenarios: (1) deleting from a full or nearly full card; and (2) deleting from a card that's been in multiple different cameras without having been reformatted.
  • In camera marking can be your friend. Some cameras allow you to put ratings or protection marks on images. If you take a lot of images at a time (or don't ingest your card for days at a time), having the images you like that you marked while shooting and using software during ingest that will pick up that mark is your time saving friend. I use this method all the time when photographing sports: between plays I'll chimp and mark images to push quickly (sometimes I'll do it immediately via SnapBridge, but more often I just grab the marked images at halftime and push them then). 
  • Can you recreate the image you're deleting? I go exotic places and take photos of ephemeral things. If I miss focus or exposure a bit, if I shake the camera, if something partially obstructs the view, when possible I'll take another image (assuming I noticed my mistake). But if not possible, I still want that image around, due to #2, above: I've learned over 30 years of working with digital images that I can get more out of images I thought completely lost with the latest, greatest hardware and software. Something obscured? Content-aware fill. Something slightly out of focus or camera moved? Piccure+. Underexposed and noisy? Topaz Denoise AI or maybe DxO Prime. Tilting buildings and horizons? LR/ACR Geometry. On the other hand, if I can easily go and get the correct image—often the case with static objects, such as buildings—then maybe that's the better use of my time as opposed to a "fix session" in Photoshop. 

As many of you know, I'm highly analytical and data driven (though I can also be spontaneous, a rare combination). I want to be able to explore my mistakes and look for commonalities, because when I make the same mistake more than once I know I will make it again if I don't correct my problem. 

Today I'm going to ask you to be a little analytical (and perhaps data driven), and figure out what your real approach to deletion is and if it's the right one. Let me start with a few ideas:

  1. Keep everything, use it to study and discover your patterns (both good and bad).
  2. Keep anything that's not a lens cap or a pants leg or the bottom of the bag shot (i.e. remove only images that have no useful data in them).
  3. Keep only those images you know you can correct today (e.g. modestly missed exposure, wrong crop).
  4. Keep only images you know that you'll revisit and post process.
  5. Keep only "winning" images (those images you think will wow an audience).

I'm a #2. My teaching partner is somewhere between a #3 and #4. 

Today, what number are you? How did you determine that? Is that really where you think you should be? Are there images you remember taking, but deleted and now wish you hadn't? Are you truly aware of what software today can recover and what it can't, and can you imagine what AI software might be able to recover in five years?

Answer those questions and then go back to that last numbered list and figure out which type of Deleter you should be, as opposed to the one you are. Maybe you've got it just right. Maybe you should change. But make sure you know what you're doing and why. Once those pixels are gone, they're gone. 

_____

Also posted in Technique, which is what you should bookmark or use for URL links.

What Will CP+ Bring?

CP+ is the camera trade show for consumers put on by CIPA, the organization that the Japanese camera companies formed to monitor the camera industry and set standards. 

bythom cp+

This year, the "show" runs February 25 thru 28. I put the word "show" is in quotes because CP+ 2021 was shifted to an online-only event due to the pandemic. It's still an important event, as many of the camera companies target their early-in-the-year announcements around this event. We've already seen Fujifilm (GFX100S, X-E4, lenses) and Sony (A1) make announcements, but there will certainly be more. I expect at least two more cameras and a number of lens announcements still likely to be made in the run-up to February 25th. It's possible that, because of the online nature of the show, we'll see a camera maker target February 25th itself. 

Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina have all been relatively quiet lately, so it would be likely that we'll see new lens announcements from them, including, perhaps, some new mount offerings. Pentax still has a crop-sensor DSLR to actually formally launch, of course, having done multiple gender reveal events already. This is the first event—and on home turf, at that—where the newly formed OM Digital Solutions will be active, so don't be surprised to see some significant OMD news. Panasonic will have at least one new L-mount lens (70-300mm), and they've been mostly silent on the m4/3 front for quite some time.

The two companies that have been the most quiet, Canon and Nikon, are the ones I'll be watching most carefully. We're three months past the last Canon lens announcement, and four months past their last ILC announcement (the lame M50 Mark II). Nikon has said that they're trying to act faster, but we're four months since their last camera announcement and five months past their last lens announcement. Both companies badly need a PR punch at the moment, even if not from a top-end product. 

Many of the camera makers run contests and other promotions alongside CP+. For instance, Nikon is giving away six Z6 II+lens kits to Instagram posters using special hashtags with their images during February (open only to Japanese addresses, unfortunately). Also of interest are some of the speeches and discussions, for instance: Keynote: The Past, Present and Future of Sport Photography, and Panel: What Mirrorless Brought to the Industry. But the thing most of us in the press look at are the "state of the market" presentations and publications that typically accompany CP+. Already we've had the projection for 2021 sales (up 13% in ILC). Next up will be the Japanese customer user survey results. 

You can register for the online event at the link at the beginning of the article. It's unclear just what you'll be able to see yet, though it appears that most of the companies will have show-specific sites active. 

This Week on Other byThom Sites (Thru Feb 5)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (January 29-February 5) include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

dslrbodies.com  — covers Canon and Nikon DSLR 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.

Get Ready to Wait

Okay, some of you are already waiting.

What do I mean? Well, every camera maker I've talked to recently—which is a majority but not a plurality—is saying the same thing: they're having to make decisions over what cameras to make in volume. And that's with a pandemic still tamping down demand. Every maker seems to have parts in their supply chain that are in short supply now, and that means that they have to very carefully manage which models they put those parts into (assuming it isn't a unique part). New cameras with new parts are seeing issues, too.

When Sony announced the A1 I had to make a decision: my borrowing one of the first ones produced for an extended time means that someone isn't going to be able to buy one. If Sony hadn't hyped the A1 quite so much, I might have demurred and just reviewed it later rather than sooner. I did pass initially on the Fujifilm GFX100s, mainly because I don't think it's a big difference from the GFX100 I reviewed in terms of image quality, and I can wait to see what the handling changes do once I'm able to shoot more freely again.

Nikon seems to be emphasizing Z6 II's in their production chain, and that makes some sense. The pricing is moderate but the gross profit margin high. Right now there's enough demand to sell lots of Z6 II's. There's also pent up demand for the Z7 II, as well, but Nikon seems to be prioritizing 6 over 7 for the moment. 

At B&H at the moment, the following high end cameras recently introduced are out of stock: Canon R5, Fujifilm GFX50R, GFX100S, Nikon Z6 II, Nikon Z7 II, and of course the Sony A1. All are high-end cameras which aren't likely to be built to demand for a while, it appears. About the only exception of recently introduced high-end camera intros that is in stock is the Sony A7S Mark III. 

Unless the supply chain gates open and start flooding makers with the parts they covet, I'm betting that we'll see out of stock filter downwards in the model lineups. 

But the problem extends further. One source claiming to be privy to a maker's current decision making claims that a body that probably should be introduced this year and would sell well may get postponed to next year. 

Meanwhile, there's a ton of inventory overhang. By that I mean previous generation models being sold at discounts. In one case, Olympus, there's a distributor that scooped up the Olympus inventory who's trying to unload it while OM Digital Solutions figures out everything from their side for new production and distribution. 

I'd warn the camera makers to look closely at what happened to Nikon when they had huge inventory overhang a number of years ago. At one point Nikon was selling three generations of some cameras (sound familiar, Sony?). The problem is that people buying those models reduce your overall GPM, sometimes considerably so, as you try to unload inventory and parts commitments. They also stall some of you recently introduced product sales, as who wants to buy, say, their full frame camera at US$2400 when a US$1000 one is available? 

There's always been a lot of micromanagement going on in the production/distribution/sales game with cameras. But now the stakes are higher than ever.

I can't predict sales in this environment. My advice is similar to what it has been throughout the pandemic: be careful of just waiting for big sales. The camera makers are dialing up their sales management trying to max out dollars while not killing demand, and juggling variables you and I aren't fully aware of. So it's gotten tough to predict instant rebates and flash sales, and they aren't always on products you might want. For example, Nikon usually has quite a wide variety of product on sale in February each year as they try to manage their final quarter's fiscal numbers. That's not happening this year. A few minor discounts on the lower end and older generation mirrorless gear, a handful of lenses, mostly F-mount. (This, by the way, belies the Internet Myth that Nikon is running out of money and won't survive long. They've got billions in cash sitting around and they're not putting their entire inventory on fire sale. Hmm. If you were about to go out of business because you don't have any money, why would you do what Nikon is doing right now? ;~)

All is not bad news, though it starts with bad news. As happens every time this year, the association the Japanese camera companies all belong to, CIPA, has published their calendar 2020 results and their initial 2021 predictions. 

2020 saw digital camera shipments down 58.4%, with the largest decline in compact cameras, the lowest in mirrorless. The grand total ILC units sold (DSLR and mirrorless) was 5.3m, slightly higher than I expected, but significantly above the 4m figure I say is a floor sales don't dare go through. 

But for 2021? CIPA predicts growth! Indeed, a 13.4% increase for ILC to just over 6m units. 

Now put these two things together: parts shortages are keeping volume down as we start the year. Yet the camera companies all think their sales are going to go up during the year. If they're right, that means that things will eventually work themselves out. We could have a real gangbuster happening by late spring, certainly by the holiday season. 

So, practice patience. Buy what you need to buy, but you might be better off waiting a bit if you can. If the supply chain improves and demand goes up as the Japanese expect, the camera makers are all going to start jockeying for position, and that means more choice and more sales.

The Image Sensor Industry

The image sensor industry is incestuous. Indeed, a lot of the tech industry centered around semiconductors is incestuous. 

Recently we've had another round of misinformation articles (and clickbait headlines) centered around naive understanding and sometimes just outright conspiracy theories regarding image sensors. I'm not going to point to those articles, as they don't deserve pointing to. 

The image sensor industry is smaller and more interwoven than people think. First, there are really only three makers of the equipment that is used to make most semiconductors (ASML, Canon, and Nikon). Second, there are only a handful of Universities around the world that have top-level semiconductor programs. Third, the image sensor community has long met in tech conferences where they disclose and discuss new ideas and understandings in detail. And finally, there's a high degree of licensing that goes on behind the scenes (once in awhile you see that clearly disclosed, as in Sony's licensing of Aptina's dual gain technology, but not always). Finally, the billion dollar+ investments to actually build out a fully functional fab to produce a semiconductor (image sensor) means that not a lot of those exist. 

The intersection of all those things makes for a very small world in which little isn't known to one another, and everything merges to the center over time. Moreover, you see people transfer around a bit, too. But the bottom line is that any imaging sensor fab was probably installed by Canon or Nikon (ASML has been concentrating on semiconductors that require process size diminution, such as CPUs). Those fabs are owned by Canon or Sony or typically two or three other parties. The people trying to get mass production image sensors of APS-C sizes or larger are basically Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Panasonic, and Sony. And the people doing the low-level transistor specification, layout, and taping may be one of a few third party firms with the proper tools for the fab machinery, used under the direction of those last five companies. (There is one small side bet: Sigma. For the Foveon sensor, Sigma is using a small for-hire fab in Roseville, CA.) 

If you and I were to start a new camera company, we'd have three basic choices: (1) buy an off-the-shelf sensor; (2) take an off-the-shelf sensor and make low-level modifications to things like timing and gains and have it re-taped by someone for production; or (3) create our own sensor from scratch. The words "design" and "make" are nebulous for #2 and #3; only for #1 would there be a clear designer and maker.

Interestingly enough, Canon, Nikon, and Sony—Sony Imaging, not Sony Semiconductor—make all three sensor choices in varying degrees and have done so at various times (with Canon, they've bought sensors for their smaller cameras, up through 1"). It's the classic "buy versus make" conundrum in a nutshell. Sometimes it's just better to buy and use your downstream goodies to differentiate, sometimes it's better to make and start a new competition point on your own.

I think we can be somewhat clear, therefore, only about one company for ILC today:

  • Canon — makes their own fab equipment, has their own sensor designers, does little outside licensing, and runs their own fab. I think we can safely say "designed and made by Canon" for all the DSLR/mirrorless sensors Canon is using.

By contrast:

  • Fujifilm — currently only specifies toppings to the sensors; may still have some sensor designers (was very active pre 2000); typically licenses Sony Semiconductor sensors that are made by Sony. There's no clear designation you can make about the Fujifilm sensors. They're designed and made by Sony Semiconductor, but with color filter and microlens toppings that Fujifilm designs.
  • Nikon — makes fab equipment for some of the sensor makers; has their own sensor designers; does a lot of outside licensing; but never runs their own fab. Thus "designed by Nikon" is the only thing they claim when they're not using an off-the-shelf sensor, and sometimes that word means a lot, sometimes it means only a little.
  • Panasonic — I can't speak to Panasonic any more, as I lost contact with engineers that would know exactly where they are today.
  • Sigma — has their own sensor designers, farms all the fabbing out to another firm. Definitely a "designed by Sigma" label would be appropriate for all Foveon sensors. For the fp, Sigma appears to use an off-the-shelf Sony Semiconductor sensor.
  • Sony Imaging — (note the distinction on these last two entries) doesn't have fab equipment (directly); has their own sensor designers; runs in close conjunction with their sibling company (below) who fabs their sensors. It's not a stretch to say "designed and made by Sony" for all Sony cameras, though which aspect of Sony does the first part can vary, and there is sometimes IP that came from elsewhere in the "designed by" part.
  • Sony Semiconductor — buys fab equipment (I'm not sure about 2021, but last time I was able to verify, it was from Nikon); has their own designers; is one of the most active at licensing intellectual property from other companies (though a lot of this is not disclosed); runs their own fab. Sony Semi makes off-the-shelf sensors, but it will vary known designs to client specifications. Sony Semi will (sometimes; mostly an artifact of buying the Renasas and Toshiba fabs) fab something that was designed elsewhere. 

Personally, I don't care much about sensor origin just as I don't know care a lot about CPU origin or RAM origin or NAND origin. It's really what you do with the part that is important. 

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