News/Views

The US$1000 Crop Sensor Mirrorless Camera

Today I'm posting two new mirrorless camera reviews. One for the Fujifilm X-S10 and the other catching up with the Canon M6 Mark II. (I've also changed the Reviews/Books section of this Web site so that cameras, lenses, mirrorless, DSLR, and film SLR have their own dedicated pages. It should be easier to find the review you're looking for now.)

If you restrict the B&H search function to US$800 to US$1200 these days, you get the following crop sensor mirrorless camera choices (some are kits, some are bodies):

  • Canon M50 Mark II 
  • Canon M6 Mark II
  • Fujifilm X-E4
  • Fujifilm X-S10
  • Fujifilm X-T30
  • Nikon Z50
  • Olympus E-M1 Mark II
  • Olympus E-M5 Mark II
  • Olympus E-M5 Mark III
  • Panasonic G7
  • Panasonic G85
  • Panasonic G9
  • Panasonic G95
  • Sigma sd Quattro
  • Sony A6100
  • Sony A6400

Yikes! A very crowded place to be considering a camera. Even a full frame mirrorless Canon RP body sneaks into this search. 

So let me give you a bit of advice here. I've reviewed five of those cameras fully, used ten of them, and am familiar with the pluses and minuses of the other six. 

You can make a very quick cut by just deciding if you're going m4/3 or APS-C. 

That's not quite as straight forward as it seems: m4/3 uses a 4:3 aspect ratio while APS-C uses 3:2. I personally don't like the squarer 4:3 ratio and tend to use 16:9 aspect ratios on all my m4/3 cameras, though that gobbles up some pixels. Meanwhile, m4/3 has a more complete lens selection available than APS-C, and that might tempt you. 

APS-C sensors are currently "better" than m4/3 ones. Perhaps not by as much as the APS-C users think, but more than the m4/3 users think ;~). Two of the APS-C makers (Nikon, Sony) have options that would let you grow into full frame using the same lens mount. 

But the real "decider" to me is going to be the user experience (UX). 

Some of you will prefer simpler, more automatic cameras, others ones with a rich set of user options and controls. Moreover, there's considerable difference between all of these cameras when it comes to the handling side. I'd argue that if you're not 100% comfortable with the handling of a camera, you're not going to be happy with your choice long term. Thus, Canon users will gravitate towards Canon, Nikon towards Nikon, and Sony towards Sony. A local camera store that stocks multiple brands is your friend here. You're going to have a visceral reaction to holding and framing with each camera, and that first impression is usually accurate. 

Okay, with that out of the way, what are my choices? Here is my preferred subset of the above list and why I think you might consider each:

  • Canon M6 Mark II — It's simple, but it's flexible and extendable. It arguably has the best image sensor of the crop sensor bunch. If the few M lenses appeal to you and you've been a Canon user before, this is your choice.
  • Fujifilm X-S10 — Surprised? In many ways, this is Fujifilm's "most complete" design yet. That's not to say it has every feature or performance capability, but that everything about the camera feels right for most uses. The image sensor is great, and you've got lots of lens choices. 
  • Nikon Z50 — This little camera keeps getting under-estimated, probably because of its 20mp sensor. Yet that sensor is excellent, and the Z50 really feels and operates like a very miniature DSLR. The two kit lenses are excellent, compact, and about as good as kit lenses get.
  • Olympus E-M1 Mark II — Surprised again? This was one of Olympus's best efforts, and still shines today with all the firmware updates. At the close-out pricing, it's a bargain. 
  • Panasonic G9 — This may be the most complete camera of the bunch. My only real problem with it is the camera size versus the sensor size, so make sure it's the combo of that you want. 
  • Sony A6400 — A solid choice but in a strange, uncomfortable for some, body. Make sure you can live with the UX. If you can, your big decision really is what lens to match it with. I don't like the Sony kit lenses. The Tamron 17-70mm f/2.8 might be the better choice, but that's pricey for people shooting at this price point.

There's not a dud in that list of six. But they are all very different from one another. The Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic are the most DSLR-like, but different DSLRs ;~). The Olympus is the most rugged and has been in my gear closet since it first came out. The Nikon two-lens kit is the best value and the one I travel with the most these days.

You have great choices here. Take the time to figure out the right one for you. 

Sigma Adds L to fp

bythom sigma fpl

Sigma today announced the fp-L, a 61mp version of the unique fp camera. I'm not entirely sure why. 

Oh, there are improvements from the original fp, including a new detachable EVF, the addition of phase detect to the autofocus system, USB Power Delivery (but not with the EVF attached), and a few other small bits and pieces. But it's the 61mp image sensor that makes me wonder about this camera.

The fp you may recall, can take stills but is really a small, powerhouse video camera. In that sense, the 61mp sensor—almost certainly the one that powers the Sony A7R Mark IV—is confusing. With its slow 1/10 second rolling shutter, motion gets easily jellied and frequency-driven lighting will often be an issue. Meanwhile, as a 61mp stills landscape camera, there's not much on offer to make the fp-L all that attractive for that, either, other than the sheer pixel count. 

As has been the case with pretty much every Sigma camera, the fp-L is idiosyncratic. 

I can see how the original fp makes for an interesting and potentially useful addition to a videographers' bag. It's small size and excellent video capabilities make a lot of sense for certain types of work where you need to be discrete and portable (though as you "rig up" a video camera, the body size becomes less important). But the fp-L doesn't really tick any new critical boxes for me, so I'm not sure what Sigma's intention is.

It's a Tough Market

This "Nikon is failing" posts just keep showing up, the latest round due to the recent posting of new BCN+R numbers out of Japan. I go into detail about that on the zysystemuser site today and why I don't put much credence in those numbers or what they mean about Nikon mirrorless, but there's a more general thing that needs to be said.

Pretty much the entire market is failing if the definition is "struggling to show growth and/or make a profit". Okay, maybe Fujifilm is showing volume growth, but that's mostly in the X-A5 thru X-S10 level cameras. I'm not sure if the sub-US$1000 camera market is holding up overall, though. The collapse of consumer DSLRs hasn't been met with a commensurate increase in consumer mirrorless. Simply put, fewer people are buying lower end products than before. 

I'm pretty sure that all of the camera companies are now spending most of their effort targeting the higher end market, which is why we're hearing about A1's, R1's, and Z9's and those companies pushing their other full frame offerings. While that's a smallish subset of the previous overall market (say 20% of the 2019 volume as a rough ballpark top end guess), it's the group that still buys cameras and more often now than the disappearing consumer-camera crowd. Moreover, there's probably enough profit margin to keep those products iterating and the camera companies operating—though now smaller than before.

Olympus and Nikon have both taken a real ax to the assets and bureaucracy they built up in the first decade of digital. In Nikon's case, as their CFO has just said, the goal was to cut costs and overhead enough so that they could maintain profitability on the lower volume they're now producing, even if that continues to drop some. I'm pretty sure that similar analysis and downsizing plans have been going on at Canon, Panasonic, and Sony, too, though two of those companies could disguise lower volumes due to their overall corporate size and how much their video business shields what's happening in stills. 

It's a tough market for everyone right now. Every camera company has a product or two (or few) that is doing decently and generating good profits, but that doesn't typically spread across all their products. It's probably going to take breaking the pandemic's lock on the economy and travel before we see big smiles on Japanese executives' faces again. In Canon and Nikon's case, it's going to take even more transition to mirrorless, too. 

All that will happen with time. 

Some New Lens Muffins for You

Sony today announced three new "muffin" lenses for full frame Alpha cameras: the 24mm f/2.8G, the 40mm f/2.5G, and the 50mm f/2.5G. "Muffin" refers to a compact lens size that is not exactly pancake (near flat), but one that is about the size of a small muffin (a fist full). 

All three of the new compact lenses are close to the same exact size, cost US$599, and include lens hoods (plus the lens cap fits on the hood, too). 

Are We Going Backwards, Forwards, or Nowhere?

As a companion to my "How is this better for customers" article, I thought it appropriate to ask where are we at overall and whether that's moving us anywhere. Are things better or worse?

The answer to that question is quite nuanced depending upon what you're up to photographically, but I'd tend to say the overall answer for me is we're not moving at the moment. 

Let's start with the forward direction. It's easy to see that going from the original 2.5mp DSLRs to even 12mp was a big step forward. 12mp to 24mp somewhat less so. 24mp to whatever you're shooting at the top today, even less so. While pixel counts keep moving forward, it's sort of a Zeno's paradox, in that our progress towards the "ultimate" resolution reduces in impact with each step we take, and we'll soon be taking very small steps that aren't differentiated enough to be worth taking. But here's the thing: for most of you, 24mp is enough. That'll produce a 20" print at 300 dpi. Are you sure your needs are higher than that? Because sometimes you move forward just because you can, not because you need to.

In terms of backwards, I look first at complexity and understanding. My Complete Guides keep getting longer (now over 1100 pages) mostly because more features and options keep getting added to our cameras, so there's more to explain. I keep hoping I'll figure out the Simple Idiot's Guide to a camera and that it'll be 100 pages max, but given that I can identify hundreds of decisions a photographer has to make for each image, I'm thinking that's like a paragraph per decision, and that still wouldn't make things simple. Much of the excitement over Face/Eye detect autofocus today is that many people now find that they can set an all-automatic focus mode and get better results than they used to with their older gear. Not perfect results. Just better than what they were able to do when they had to make all the decisions (and in real time).

In terms of nowhere I come to the ultimate question: does the latest and greatest camera allow me to take better photos than I'm currently taking? My personal answer is no, it probably doesn't. For sports that progress stopped with the Nikon D5 (and probably would with a Sony A9 Mark II, as well). For landscape that stopped with a D850, the right lens, and maybe some stitching. And I'm not sure the rest of my needs weren't already satisfied with a model earlier than those two cameras.

Most of us aren't going forward, so we're not buying. The camera companies keep iterating, but with less buying by customers, they then go backwards. 

Maybe there's an answer hanging just over the horizon where we can't yet see it. But until I do see it, I'm going to concentrate more on taking photos than buying gear. Your mileage may vary.

You Asked for It

Here's something you thought I'd never get around to doing: an assessment of eight current tripods

Now obviously I can't test every possible set of legs out there, because if you type "tripod" in a B&H search, you'll get 1193 possibilities. 

Thus, I had to try to pick a representative subset of all tripods while setting some parameters. I set a maximum price of US$600 and tried to pick a sample of carbon fiber-based products from different makers that ranged from smallest travel tripod up through largest field tripod I'd consider for travel. For the latter, I'm thinking of the person who goes into the field with a big lens and maybe a gimbal head. For the former, I'm thinking of someone who is focused on minimum size and weight with a small mirrorless camera.

That resulted in this set of candidates:

tripodspackedsizejpg

Again, here's the article: Tripods Today. Read and enjoy. (Warning, you'll be reading for a long time...)

A big thank you to B&H (this site's exclusive advertiser) for lending me so many products for such a long period of time. 

How is This Better for Customers?

After sorting through all the emails regarding my article on NikonUSA's NPS staff cutback and all the online fora discussion of same, I decided it might be useful to present a more generic piece that might help you analyze what's really going on and what to do about it.

My basic summary is this: look at any news or announcement (or even rumor) and ask yourself "how is this better for me, the customer?" That generally boils down to a very few things:

  • Money — paying less is better for you, paying more is not.
  • Performance — getting more performance for the same price is better, getting less is not.
  • Features — getting additional features is better if they'll be of use to you, but not if you won't use them.
  • Information — the more we know about a product and how it works, the better off we are, while the inverse means we're worse off.

The problem the camera companies currently are facing is that (1) they want more money from you, (2) performance goes up very little now above an already high and capable bar, (3) most new features aren't solving real photographic problems customers have (let alone the biggest problem), and (4) as staff and support get cut less information comes out beyond the obvious marketing messages.

In terms of NikonUSA's recent NPS changes, for instance: they want money from us, but with staff reductions they've likely cut performance and information. How is this better for the customer?

It isn't. 

And as I look back on all the various announcements and press releases from 2021 so far, I'm not finding a lot of things that pass the "better for the customer" test. Yes, the Fujifilm GFX100s passes, mostly because of the far lower price should you be in the mood for a 100mp MF camera. Yes, the Sony A7S Mark III and FX3 pass the test because they give you essentially the same capability in two completely different forms, one of which will likely be better for your use case. Nikon's Z9 development announcement is an example of how information might help a customer (confidence that Nikon is moving forward in mirrorless, and sooner rather than later). 

But the number of things that don't pass the "better for customers" test is far longer. I'm not convinced that the Fujifilm X-E4 passes the test given the X-S10. How is another so-similar choice better for the customer? I'd argue that putting that same engineering effort into a single product instead of two should work better for customers than what we got (and no, this isn't the same as the Sony example I gave in the previous paragraph, where there was an extremely clear difference in form and use case). 

I've written this before, and I believe it 100%: the camera companies' problems are self-imposed, and not due to a sudden lack of customers. The lack of customers is because of the failure to create products that are "clearly better for the customer." 

Indeed, if you look back at the primary "surges" in sophisticated camera demand (e.g. ILC), they all occurred because of a "better for the customer" attribute:

  • Exposure automation
  • Autofocus
  • On camera review of result (digital)
  • Real time view of likely result (mirrorless)

Some other "big" things also helped boost sales, such as image stabilization. But every one of those did something that made things clearly better for customers. They solved customer problems. 

So here's my challenge for Bo Kajiwara, the man running NikonUSA who just got promoted to a corporate VP position as well: exactly what have you done that made anything better for the customer? But my challenge doesn't just apply to one person, it applies to an entire industry. I'm seeing the usual "we'll do that feature/performance because our competitor is doing it" but not much looking at the customer to see what they actually would need or embrace. 

I outlined and described in detail one of those things a dozen years ago in articles on this site, in presentations to executives in Japan, and more: cameras have to communicate easily and effectively to thrive in the 21st Century. For the most part, they still don't do that easily, and often they don't do it effectively even when you jump through all the hoops and manual interactions that are necessary. Amazingly, Nikon has all the component pieces to do what we need, but simply has no clue how to execute them properly. Canon ditto, though some of their parts do come a little closer to what's needed. And it was only with the just introduced Sony A1 and Experia Pro we started to see what closer integration might really look like (and by the way, Sony, why isn't the Experia Pro listed as an accessory on the A1 pages on your Web site? You hint at it in the features lists, but the Experia Pro isn't in the accessory list ;~).

So my challenge to the entire camera industry is this: how is your next product or policy better for the customer, and are you effectively communicating that? 

I suspect I should probably just add a "Does/Doesn't" sentence to each news article in the future, as in "X's announcement does/doesn't seem to clearly make things better for the customer." Someone needs to hit these camera company executives over the head with the hammer.

It seems absurd that the camera industry just iterates along as usual and wonders why sales are lower than before without actually addressing the real problem. That problem is clearly in how the industry views, values, and treats customers. Unfortunately, this is reminiscent of the US automotive industry in the 70's and 80's (and some say beyond), and we all know how that story worked out. 

Customers stop buying because they're not getting what they want (or need). 

The NPS Conundrum

bythom nps

NikonRumors is reporting that NPS staffing in the US and Canada was cut recently. If true, this would be the third round of NPS staff layoffs in recent years I'm aware of (NR suggests current staffing is 5 in the US, while it was 14 two years ago). Meanwhile, earlier this year Nikon began charging for NPS in the US, at least for the equipment loan, clean and check, and discounted repair portions of the program. 

Those two things seem in direct dissonance. Most of us in NPS were hoping that the new paid membership plans would increase communication and service, but if staff is being cut, I sincerely doubt that will happen. NPS still feels like a shell without a center to me. It seems unlikely that I'll renew a paid NPS plan next year if things continue as they have. I paid for the new NPS program over two months ago. Not a peep out of Nikon since (let alone the promised but unspecified "welcome gift"). Now a downsizing?

I just logged into my NPS account again and found things to be pretty much the same as before: earlier this year the site changed so that it is mostly about clicking buttons to submit requests. I'm not sure what's "premium, dedicated, priority, enhanced, or elite" about that (Nikon's description, not mine). While there is an NPS phone number you can call, clicking on the "contact" button still says "A member of the NPS team typically responds within 3 business days." 

Nikon needs to come to grips with what it means to have customers. They still don't seem to have figured out what it means to be in a consumer-facing business (as opposed to business-to-business, and even there The Economist once reported that Nikon didn't know how to do that, which is one reason the Precision division lost customers to ASML). Nikon's stated goal is to mostly serve the enthusiast/pro levels of the camera market. That's exactly where outreach programs and "membership" is generally most effective, and NPS could and should be an effective tool in that regard. 

Meanwhile, this week I got two different emails from recent Nikon camera purchasers who described a "problem" they thought that they had, and which Nikon customer service answered incorrectly about. This has been a common thing during the entire digital era, but it feels like it is starting to get worse again. 

One of the things that happened in the tech industry that I disagreed with when I was still running such operations was the trend to monetize or de-cost customer support. The bean counters started looking at the costs associated with good customer support and either asked to curtail it or have it bring in income. Neither is the correct answer. If you have a high support volume, then something is wrong with your product and your selling process. High customer support costs tell you that you need to fix something in the product, the way it is documented, or the way it is sold. But when you separate out support from development, as most tech companies keep doing, all you end up really doing is endorsing bad product decisions. Seen any bad product decisions from the camera makers lately? ;~)

We've seen a lot of customer-facing changes out of Nikon as their Imaging business contracted. Lens warranties are no longer International, but regional, for instance. The impact of virtually every one of Nikon's continual changes is that the customer is worse off, but Nikon thinks they've saved some yen. The customers look at these changes negatively and buy less, which promotes another round of cost cutting that again will directly impact the customer. This then becomes a slow downward spiral that at some point can't be recovered from. 

As much as I believe Nikon engineers are excellent and will continue making better and better products, that's going to become irrelevant at some point if the current trend towards backing away from customer interactions continues. Nikon needs more customer interaction and communication, not less. Moreover, automated interaction isn't actually interaction.

My criticisms and complaints about NikonUSA over the years have had a consistent undercurrent: since job promotions and salaries have a clear bottom and top limit in the way the subsidiary is constructed and managed, I'm not sure that NikonUSA employees have ever felt that exceptional effort would get clearly rewarded. Meanwhile, the head of NikonUSA, Bo Kajiwara, was just promoted to a corporate VP position in addition to his current job. So the cost cutting gets acknowledged with a promotion of a Japanese executive, but what's happening at the customer level isn't improved.

My guess is that NPS has a year to prove itself under the new paid-tier program or else it will have to change substantively. The start so far seems like that we're now just paying for what may end up less. That's not going to work. Nikon is on record as saying they want to sell mostly to enthusiast/pro type users. Their actions don't really line up with that so far, and I'd place them more on the enthusiast side than the pro even then. Moreover, trying to play the influencer game at product launches is sort of the opposite of true enthusiast/pro interaction; these users already know what it is they want and how to evaluate that and want more direct communication.

As much as every action Nikon makes seems to get reported and amplified by the Internet, other companies are quietly downsizing their staffing and programs, too. So don't think this rumor represents a Nikon-only problem. It's just not getting reported as quickly or loudly. 

Which brings us to a discussion no one wants to have: what's the solution? 

At its most simple: produce lower volume, sell at higher cost, provide better customer connection. 

But think about that; downsizing your pro support program (and not disclosing that, or the reason for doing so, let alone what it will actually mean) is a dissonance to your need to escalate price paid for a product. A typical reaction I'm getting these days is "they want me to pay more and give me less help?" 

Yes, that's exactly what the camera companies would really want. The question is whether that would be sustainable. I'd argue no, and a strong no at that. And again, this is not just a Nikon problem, it's a Canon, Fujifilm, OM Digital Solutions, Panasonic, and Sony problem, too. I've seen variations lately on the "staff winnowing and restructuring" from all of them.

Quite frankly, a few extra million dollars put into proper, well managed, and carefully amplified customer communication and support would stand out like a sore thumb in today's camera market, and be incredibly well received to the point of boosting sales. As bad as things have been, we're still talking about a US$6.2b (that's billion) overall global market in 2020, and likely to grow in 2021 if the pandemic does die down as expected. I thought Sony Kando was going to be the example to point to in terms of customer involvement, but going virtual in 2020 sort of broke that spell.

Personally, I'm willing to pay a higher price for a better product, but "better product" includes better documentation and support. I'm pretty sure the Nikon engineers will make a better product, but it's what happens after they complete their work that worries me.

Announcing The Complete Guide to the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II

The first edition of my Complete Guide to the Nikon Z6 II and Z7 II is now available for purchase. You'll find it in the books section  the zsystemuser.com Web site. And yes, there are enough differences between the original cameras and the new ones to justify having a separate book. The last time I tried to cram more than two cameras into one book it became a mess of qualified statements and tables trying to point out differences. I prefer—and I think you will too—the clarity of simplicity and directness. I also suspect that the cameras will deviate some as Nikon updates firmware in the future, too.

My review of the Z6 II will probably come next week, as I'm still testing one aspect of the camera and the weather is not cooperating. Indeed, the weather has been holding back a bunch of reviews, as have the pandemic and some family matters. The log jam should start breaking soon, including something I've been promising for several years now...

Sony Announces the 50mm f/1.2GM

Sony today announced the US$2000 50mm f/1.2GM lens for the FE mount. Sounds like a great lens, though I'm not a fan of 50mm as a focal length.

Full details on sansmirror.com

Market Share Versus Profit

BCN+R—a Japanese retail sales tracking company—presented its 2020 numbers for cameras, and as usual people are jumping on the market share data and many are making proclamations that are misleading. 

In particular, the "Olympus is doing great" sentiment (23.4% of mirrorless market) and the the "Nikon is failing" claims due to it's 4.6% market share of mirrorless in Japan) seem to be the most vocal. I haven't seen anyone bother to try to plot out the total ILC market shares (Nikon holds 44.8% of the DSLR market in Japan). Update: after I originally wrote this over the weekend, RC Jenkins did something similar to that on NikonRumors.

Indeed, the market share numbers look a little different than you're seeing from other "news" sites if you consider all ILC in Japan:

  • Canon — 31.1%
  • Sony — 20.2%
  • Olympus — 17.2%
  • Nikon — 11.8%
  • Fujifilm — 8.8%

Still not great for Nikon. But not really great for anyone ;~).

But there are two other things that have to be considered in all this: average selling price and regional distribution. 

Nikon has mostly concentrated on selling high priced models lately, and for good reason, the margins are better. Moreover, the low cost DSLR market is the one type of camera sale that is collapsing, and Nikon, like Canon, built a huge volume there. Despite the unit volume collapse, Nikon executives have pointed out that Nikon Imaging has returned to profitability on an operational basis, and I believe that's due to pushing higher end models over lower cost ones. Meanwhile, Nikon also appears to be distributing more of that high-end product into the markets whose sales ticked up faster after the initial pandemic-induced drop. 

As it turns out, both those things were probably a lucky choice on Nikon's part. A number of electronic parts used in digital cameras are in short supply now and constraining production for everyone, not just Nikon. So, which would you rather do: (a) use the few parts you have on hand for higher priced models that are selling well, or (b) use up all your parts quickly trying to chase market share?

Personally, I'm not worried about Olympus or Nikon. The market has forced them to reevaluate and focus. Both have jettisoned non-performing assets and tightened their belts, and Olympus Imaging, in particular, seems to have appropriate capitalization for its size for a change (Nikon always has). 

Canon is the one that's still trying to work through things, in my opinion. They are undergoing the same consumer DSLR collapse as Nikon, but they also have incompatible mirrorless offerings that long term must be resolved. The RP versus R5 introductions were almost the marketing equivalent to whiplash, and I'm not sure either is quite the product that Canon needs in that position. 

Sony's growth spurt is basically over now that everyone is playing in the mirrorless pond. And I still don't understand Fujifilm's model strategy; it's getting quite confusing, actually. 

Personally, I think the future for all the camera manufacturers lies in getting their product lines in order. You need a range of models—probably no more than six—and you need to have them reasonably differentiated in both features/performance as well as price. I don't think the <US$1000 market is sustainable, yet much of the current volume, particularly from Canon, is under that. Multiple mounts is not really sustainable. Multiple formats is not sustainable unless one is really high end (e.g. Fujifilm's APS-C and MF split is probably okay).

Call it this (using full frame):

  • Entry US$1000 — examples: Canon RP followup, Nikon Z5 eventual price
  • Performance Entry US$1500 — examples: Sony A7, Nikon Z6
  • Mid-range US$2000-2500 — examples: Canon R6
  • Pixel-density mid-range US$2500-3500 — examples: Nikon Z7, Sony A7R
  • Pixel-density high-range US$3500-4500 — examples: Canon R5?
  • High end flagship US$6000+ — examples, Nikon Z9, Sony A1

Hook someone low, eventually get them to move up. 

The problem with doing more models than six is simple: volume isn't particularly high for any remaining niches. When you make a specialized camera, say the Sony A7S, the problem is that you may not generate enough new volume to justify the ROI. That said, the two companies that can most easily justify such cameras would be Canon and Sony, as they are major video players who might attract crossover customers. Likewise, higher end DSLRs would be another short-term niche that two companies might be able to justify making a model or two for (e.g. Canon and Nikon). 

____________

Bonus: nothing has changed in my opinion of what Nikon, for example, should do. They're the only ones positioned to be able to still profit off a camera like a D500 or D850 followup, however minor such an update might be. I'm pretty sure they should create such followups just to milk the high-end DSLR market a little longer while the mirrorless line gets fully fleshed out. And I still believe Nikon should make Z DX, though not below the Z50 level. What's needed is the D500 equivalent (DX version of the flagship, which now would be the Z9, so call it the Z90), plus maybe four or five key lenses (wide angle and mid-range zoom, basically).  

One final thought... Much of vitriol and exaggerated speech on the Internet about success/failure in the camera business is just misdirected anger. People are artificially trying to put "good" versus "evil" labels on everything these days, and that has spilled over to all debate. Reality is much more nuanced. The economics currently say that all of the top six or so camera companies will survive, though almost none of them will be the same size as before. Certainly the economic situation could change, but today, as I write this, neither Nikon nor Olympus (cough OM Digital Systems) is going to go away. 


Presentation Reminder

Just a reminder that I'll be presenting my Chasing Galen lecture on March 30th at 5pm PST at the Creative Photo Academy via an online Zoom meeting. Cost of admission is US$49. You register at Creative Photo Academy directly. If you can't attend the live session, you'll also receive an email with a video link to the presentation that's good for 30 days. 

This is an expansion of my Chasing Galen essay, with many more illustrations from the 1994 to 2000 period (all slide film, now scanned). I'll outline several of the Galenisms I learned as I followed him through America, Africa, and South America. (For example, why is Galen's tripod not fully extended in the shot above?)

At present I don't plan on repeating this lecture, though if there's enough interest I might create a followup with additional lessons learned.

Elsewhere on byThom Sites

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (March 8-12) include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

sansmirror.com

  • Post CP+ — Just a quick followup note as the trade show didn't focus all product announcements as usual

Sony updated the A9 Mark II and A7 Mark III with firmware updates

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.

Photoshop Gets Significant Updates

Quite a few bits and pieces have changed in the latest Adobe Photoshop offerings. I tend to not cover every last update, as Adobe has been doing a lot of small bug fix and security updates lately, but Photoshop 22.3 and Camera Raw 13.2 have just enough changes to get above my "news" bar.

Photoshop itself gets a big lift on the macOS version, where Apple M1 Silicon is now supported, and a clear and obvious speed boost is the result. Adobe also did some refinement of the line and rectangle tools, which have been getting tweaks for awhile but never quite struck me as yet right. Closer, still not perfect.

Camera Raw gets a lot of changes. The one that is most talked about is the new Super Resolution version of the Enhance function. Basically doubles the resolution of your image, though I see some clear low-level color issues on raw files I'm trying to figure out how to mitigate, and like many resolution boosters you can find artifacts you might need to clean up. But Camera Raw also gets some additional Lightroom-like features, allowing you to filter images on the film strip for example. You can now also control which develop panels appear and what order they appear in.

As usual, if you're a Creative Cloud plan subscriber, the Creative Cloud installer app should be showing the updates available to you.

Crazy Rumor Specifications

We've always had the problem of new product rumors predicting features and performance far in front of what is likely to be actually produced. Customers' imaginations get all wrapped up in speculation based upon things they hear out of the R&D world. 

Pretty much every savvy product management team in tech is living at least five years forward of today, and they dip as far forward as ten years. What they're trying to do is predict what a technology that is likely to make it out of the R in R&D will be capable of doing in a customer-facing product, and when it will move from R to D. Apple is incredibly good at that, but so are quite a few other companies, including several in the camera market.

Every now and then, we get major forward pushes with tech, and those rumored specifications about a coming product actually turn out to be somewhat, if not fully, true. We're in one of those periods right now, actually, as it relates to image sensors. 

The basic "capture photons and convert accurately to charge" thing reached a peak in recent years and will need a technology breakthrough not yet available in order to improve. That led to two things: more investigation of alternatives to the conventional sensor structures, and a push of research into other as yet unsolved problems. One of those unsolved problems was bandwidth. That shows up as lack of global shutter and inability to pull huge amounts of data off the sensor quickly (needed for things like 4K 120P or 60mp+ at reasonable frame rates).

It's that latter thing that's been going from R to D lately: bandwidth improvement. You see it in the Sony Alpha A1, but you see it even in cameras like the Canon R5 and R6. You're going to see it even more evident in coming months.

Thus, when a rumor appeared about the Canon R1 being 85mp, global shutter, and 20 fps, I didn't immediately dismiss it as did many others. To do that would probably require smaller process size—Nikon just demonstrated 65nm process in a sophisticated sensor with high bandwidth—and a stacked sensor design (also something Nikon just demonstrated, and which Sony has done on the A9 and A1 models). 

Where the Canon R1 rumored specs don't quite line up is in another area: global shutter and quad pixel PD being able to generate 15.5 stops of dynamic range. Even expressed as engineering DR (signal to noise ratio of 1:1 to saturation) I find that a little difficult to believe for a global shutter where every pixel is playing two roles. But it's not out of the question. Nikon's recently announced 1" stacked sensor project shows one possible solution.

I've written for a long time that "more sampling is better, all else equal." Well, if you're going to standardize on a full frame sensor and have essentially a 100% fill factor, quantum shot noise is going to be the same on a 45mp sensor as it is on a 20mp sensor (assuming equal size output). We'd all rather have the 45mp sensor if "all else is equal." (At least we should all want that ;~). Thus, we're about to get top-end pro speed cameras that jump well up from the 20mp they've been at (1DX Mark III, D6). 

Therefore, the A1 being 50mp wasn't a surprise, and I've written that I believe that Nikon's D6-like mirrorless camera will be 45mp (or 47.4mp in Nikon-speak). Canon going to 85mp with the R1 would be a push beyond what the others are doing, but still in the realm of possible. Indeed, for an R1 to stand out from the existing R5 it's going to have to have "something extra."

The reason that we get these breakthroughs in very expensive cameras is simple: you need to pay for the D side of R&D. The thing about silicon is that once you can figure out how to actually produce it, producing another one is cheaper, and each additional one you produce gets cheaper (the old Texas Instruments chart that caught everyone's attention and led to the semiconductor revolution). The R side of R&D is an investment and less expensive than most think. It's that D side that is most costly and which needs to be recovered in product costs. Thus, making an expensive product with a large gross profit margin is where you deploy first. Then as production pricing comes down, you can consider bringing it to the lower products. 

As much as the common Internet myth at the moment is that all the Japanese camera companies are failing and will simply fade out of sight soon, the truth is almost the opposite. Pretty much all of them have doubled down on research, they're getting more aggressive about moving things to development, and the result is (and is going to continue to be) some exceptional products that just blow the socks off the old Nikon D1. And D2. And D3. And D4. And so on. 

Ultimately, the size of the remaining buying market will determine the cost of those products at retail. I've written before that I think the bottom of the market can't be less than 4m ILC units a year without there being casualties, but all signs currently point to 5m units being the bottom that was actually hit. Every camera company will be eager to see if they can push the volume back to 6m units or higher, as there's meaningful profit to be had at that point.

So, when new product rumors hit that seem at first like they are "out of bounds", I'm a little less likely to make that conclusion these days. What I'm hearing, and what I'm seeing, is that all the concurrent problems—smartphones, margin erosion, pandemic, supply chain, etc.—have the Japanese camera companies fully re-energized and working to tackle really tough problems. 

I'll put that into specific terms. While the Internet still is predicting the demise of the former Olympus Imaging group, I'm not at all worried about OM Digital Solutions R&D, or their development, engineering, and manufacturing of new products. My worry about the new entity is how well they'll manage sales and marketing, and particularly so given how much the Japanese home market was the primary outlet for the Olympus product. I'm not sure that OM Digital Solutions can survive with just a Japanese sales and marketing thrust, the volume is just too low to stay fully competitive, and the Japanese consumer market is not as robust as other markets. Thus, I've been paying attention to how OM Digital Solutions is working in the US, Europe, and other markets. So far, so good, but it's unclear how much of that is being driven by the new company rather than the vestiges of the old. 

Is the "crazy Canon R1 specs" just a pipe dream? Yes in the sense that we'd all like to get there, even the Canon engineers ;~). No in the sense that those specifications are the edge of what's likely possible at the moment given all the R&D that's being done in the very areas where that rumor says Canon is pushing. 

Time will tell which is right. The most likely thing is that some of the future R1 specifications are indeed correct guesses by someone,, but not likely all of them. 

Chasing Galen


Recently I put together a two hour presentation for a small photo club on the time I spent in the 1990's under the tutelage of famous adventure photographer, the late Galen Rowell (pictured above on the Bay Area Ridge Trail in 2002). 

I'll be presenting this lecture again—this time for the general public (that's you)—on March 30th at 5pm PST at the Creative Photo Academy via an online Zoom meeting. Cost of admission is US$49. You register at Creative Photo Academy directly.

As most of you know I generally don't write much about how I got into photography or personal episodes from my past, and even my photo technique articles are a little sparse compared to all the gear talk. I'm on a plan to try to correct that, and this presentation—Chasing Galen and Learning From Him as I Did—is one of my attempts to do that (even my mom wants to hear this lecture, as she hasn't heard many of the stories I present). My goal here isn't to tick off highly specific tips and techniques and then demonstrate how you can put them into use as much as it is to serve as a piece that should get you thinking about the many things that Galen prompted me to think about. The goal here is not to tell you how to copy Galen (or me), but how to act as we do when taking photographs.

If this presentation is well received—the club loved it and said "our members website has been inundated with positive feedback" so I'm thinking it might be ;~)—I'll be doing a followup with all the stuff I had to cut out to fit into the two-hour time frame, as well as create some additional lectures that drop into things that aren't just all about gear, but more about the art and craft side of the business.

Now if I can just get my video switcher to stop converting ProPhotoRGB into Rec.709...

Oops. Original photo was reversed in scan.

Another byThom Week (thru March 7th)

byThom also publishes gear-specific Web sites. All gear-specific articles are posted on them. Recent such articles (March 1-7) include:

zsystemuser.com — covers Nikon Z System

dslrbodies.com

Nikon updated the D780 firmware with bug fixes.

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.

Depth of Field Conference

bythom bh dof


It's difficult to believe, but a full pandemic year has now passed and B&H is once again presenting its Depth of Field conference as a virtual experience. The conference starts mid-day today (March 7th) and runs through tomorrow evening.

Lest you forget, this is B&H's two days of learning tailed specifically for portrait, wedding, and event photography. Not only is there non-stop seminars/lectures to partake, but there are challenges, portfolio reviews, and even a virtual trade show featuring Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Solutions, Panasonic, Sony, Sigma, Luxli, Wacom, Nanlight, Ruggard, Oben, Robus, Profoto, Westcott, Adobe, Microsoft, DJI, Nvidia, Generay, Tethertools, LaCie, Seagate, Lexar, ProGrade, SanDisk, Epson, Moab/Carson, LG, Viewsonic, Manfrotto, Dell, Asus, and Godox (also B&H). That trade show is a great place to ask brand or product specific questions, so make sure you take a look at trade show presenter schedule, too. 

I found two seminars I absolutely felt I needed to attend, plus a couple of trade show

As usual with a B&H conference, there's a 101 page PDF brochure full of product ads, presenter information, and special values only available during the show. There aren't as many camera and lens specials this year as usual—the supply chain issues are causing shortages—but I noted that the Nikon D500 has a US$100 savings on it, while the Sony A7R Mark IV is discounted US$510 (and the A9 US$1000 discount is back). You'll find most of the bigger savings in the accessories category (storage, cards, lighting, support, etc.). Definitely worth browsing the catalog to see if there's something you want to buy.

Oh, one thing some of you will want to buy is an annual license to the Adobe Photography Plan (US only). Sure, it's still US$120 (e.g. US$10/month), but it comes with a US$20 B&H gift card, which is one of the few ways I've seen this past year on saving on the photography plan. Note that many of the deals like this require that you use the BHDOF2021 coupon code.

The Depth of Field conference is completely free of charge.

Disclosure: B&H is the exclusive advertiser on byThom Web sites.


Nikon Launches New Software

bythom nikon nxstudio1

Nikon today announced a new software product, NX Studio. NX Studio is an integrated program that can view, annotate, process, and edit images and video taken with Nikon cameras. Note that the installer says that NX Studio will remove View NX-I, but it doesn't remove some artifacts of that program (e.g. Dock icon on macOS).

The new program is interesting in a number of ways. First, it carries over a number of Nikon-only things, including their unique LCH capability (you can see that changing the sky in the example below), as well as the old Nik-originated Control Points. Likewise, Nikon's unique EXPEED-type capabilities are all supported (Picture Controls, Nikon's unique Sharpening and Noise Reduction, etc.) while adding more generalized ones (e.g. an Unsharp Mask option besides Nikon sharpening option). 


Digging deeper you find other small details: red-eye reduction, color moire reduction, axial color aberration, PF flare control, focus bracket display, and so on. You can launch Nikon Camera Control Pro from within NX Studio and process images taken while tethered. Much of the program appears to mimic—or at least echo—Lightroom CC. There's a slideshow module, ability to show images on a map using GPS, retouch brush, and XMP/IPTC data entry (including keyword entry). Curiously, NX Studio defaults to the ACES CG Linear color space (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). (Another default is an incorrect default Copyright notice that uses 2016 as the date!)

Again, I'm a little perplexed by Nikon. First, NX Studio's design is a bit like throwing in the kitchen sink, which is definitely going to be off-putting to amateurs. Everything is there: stills, video, image browsing, NEF processing, Lightroom-like capabilities, cloud integration, image ingest (via Transfer 2 installed in the background), and much more. All in a free product that feels a little bit clunky in UI due to all the feature sprawl (we even have tabbed panes within tabbed panes). That said, performance seems decent—though I'm running a state of the art iMac. 

Second, why wasn't this announced at CP+, but instead a few days later? This is a reasonably big announcement, and one that would have been helped by amplification via a trade show and all the attending press. Moreover, the online presentation nature of CP+ this year would have lent itself quite well to a software introduction from a Nikon Ambassador. 

Nikon still appears disjointed and not quite in sync with everything. Accessories are still a mess. DX is a total unknown, with only one recent camera supported by only two lenses. The II generation isn't a clear distinction from the first generation in the Z System, mostly because of marketing issues. Nikon Image Space is still out there, but continues to be an "also mentioned" in only a few product introductions. And, of course, hardware deliveries of recent products are in short supply, with the two most recently announced Z cameras pretty much out of stock, and when they are available in small quantity, it's always with a bundled lens (and now the seminal D850 seems to be headed towards out of stock status). 

My point is that Nikon marketing could have used NX Studio as a rallying point by doing a large-scale introduction at CP+, with supported online events that showed the raw editing capabilities, the organization functions, the video editing, and the Nikon Image Space and YouTube integration. Instead, we get a "press release introduction" with no real tie in to anything the rest of the Imaging Group is doing. I've been hard on Nikon's marketing before, but I've now gotten to the point of "just fire everyone doing Nikon marketing," because they're not adding any value, at all. (And since this is a press release announcement, I'll also point out that the actual press release hasn't reached my email yet, though it has been posted on NikonUSA's Web site. Update: a press release finally was sent out via email at 9:16am EST)

NX Studio requires 4GB of RAM (8GB recommended) for still images, 16GB if you're going to edit 4K video. Supported cameras include all Z System ones, all Nikon DSLR cameras starting with the D1 (yes, there were earlier ones), all Nikon 1 cameras, all KeyMission cameras, and all Coolpix cameras beginning with the E100. JPEG, NEF, NRW, TIFF, MP4, MOV, and AVI files are supported (if created by a Nikon camera). Nikon Image Space is supported for cloud storage of still images, and YouTube is directly available for posting video.

By the way, if you want to bypass NikonUSA's "give us your email and permission to send you information" gate, just go to the Nikon Download Center directly.

 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 © 2022 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2021 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter@bythom, hashtags #bythom, #sansmirror, #dslrbodies, #zsystemuser