News/Views

The Dealer Shelves Are Bare. So Should Yours Be.

Nikon Z9: not in stock

Canon R(many): not in stock, or low in stock

Sony A(all): low in stock

Fujifilm X-H2s: about to be out of stock starting with first shipments in mid-July ;~)

OMDS OM-1: not in stock

Panasonic GH-6: in stock

With one exception, all of the most recently introduced cameras are not available in quantities that allow them to meet demand. Worse still, many slightly-less-recent cameras are in low supply and are drifting in and out of stock. Despite the yen's recent plunge against the dollar, prices aren't going to drop on all these high demand, low supply cameras any time soon, because the camera companies can't make enough of them.

Yet the number two buying season for cameras has just been entered (US Memorial Day kicks off the buying season for summer holidays). I'm getting a lot of "what do I do" questions from people that were anticipating a purchase prior to their upcoming vacations. 

A great deal of the buying angst has to do with bragging rights. My sites have about 1m unique visitors a year, and I'd judge that about 10% of those are "gotta keep up with the Jones's" types, not photographers that have a real need for a new, state-of-the-art model. If I didn't have to "keep up" in order to accurately report what is and isn't possible in photography these days, I'd be perfectly happy with even four- and five-year old cameras. 

While I continue to review the latest-and-greatest offerings—two new cameras and six new lenses sit on my desk at the moment, with several more coming—in terms of my own photography, I'm fairly set now. The Z9 stabilized my Nikon closet, and after paying some attention to exactly which camera(s) and lenses I keep picking up to use, I've taken to cleaning out the majority of gear I owned. 

It really is this simple: if you're not able to take great images with recent cameras and lenses, something's wrong. Yes, I can find marginal differences between my best Canon, Nikon, and Sony gear, but I'm simply not picking up those other items just because of a marginal difference. There's something to be said for mastering a smaller set of really good equipment. 

For instance, just in the Z System, I've now got the choice of 24-70mm f/4, 24-70mm f/2.8, 24-120mm f/4, 24-200mm f/4-6.3, and 28-75mm f/2.8. All of these cover the mid-range in a zoom, and every one of these is a better lens than I was using in the F-mount for the same mid-range work. Do I need all five? No. I'm about to narrow that down to two, though I'm a little torn on which two. (If i were deciding today, it would be the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 24-120mm f/4; but the f/2.8 is only in there for some client work. If it were just me doing personal projects in retirement, it would be the 24-70mm f/4 and maybe the 24-200mm f/4-6.3. Thus, my current indecision.)

Let me try to give you a way of thinking about photography gear today: stop sampling and wasting your dollars and instead use your money to purchase the very best you can afford in one system. Don't think that you need every lens in that system. Seriously consider what you would really carry and use regularly, then whittle that down to the very best, too.

In any mirrorless system and one DSLR system available today, I can identify a truly great all-around camera and a very modest quiver of lenses that would do everything I need to do photographically. For example, here is my great all-around camera list at the moment (the X-H2s is provisional):

  • Canon RF — R5 body 
  • Fujifilm RF — X-H2s
  • Fujifilm GF — GFX100s
  • Nikon DSLR — D850
  • Nikon Z — Z9
  • Sony Alpha — A1

Tell me a type of photography you can't do well with any of those cameras. There really isn't one (though, yes, some are better at certain niches than others, and the GFX100s leans heavily in one direction). 

I'll leave the lens choices to you to figure out, but if you start stacking more than four lenses in your kit, I'm going to start tut-tutting you. First, you can't really carry more than two or three at one time, and second it's clear that you've gone down the rabbit hole of chasing marginal returns. (Okay, I just did the test for myself: I determined that there are five lenses I need in my Z kit. But that's because I do a huge range of photography. I don't actually carry five lenses with me at any given time; more typically three or fewer.)

I'm making a wager, though, that most of you reading this don't have just one camera and four lenses. One of yesterday's emails was from someone that had five cameras and almost two dozen lenses. Talk about "focus." 

Of course, it's your hobby (or profession) and you're free to do what you'd like. But maxing out your credit card to try out the latest and greatest probably isn't advancing your photography very fast, is it? What advances your photography fastest is instruction and practice. I take it as a personal point of pride that everyone that comes to one of my workshops leaves a better photographer (and post processor) no matter what camera, lens, and software they came with. (Which reminds me, there's one opening in my November two-week Galapagos workshop available.)

So, are you guilty of stocking too much gear? I'll bet your are. I can tell you that most of the people I work with who have oodles of equipment available to them start their photographic day confused about which bits they should be carrying and using. It should be crystal clear, not confusing. I spent the last two weeks recently in Botswana with just one camera and one lens. One. Not confusing at all ;~). And I don't believe my photography didn't suffer at all. If anything, it got better during that period as I learned every nuance of getting the best I could from that camera/lens combo.

Which brings me to this: yes, this is the time of year when we're getting new camera and lens announcements and many of you are buying new gear in anticipation of upcoming vacations and holidays. Before you do that, I suggest you go all Konmari on your gear: find the unnecessary things and send them to new homes where they can be loved.

______________________

As with many of my articles, I wrote this one several weeks ago, then edited it earlier this week for posting. By coincidence, Mike Johnston over at The Online Photographer just happened to throw a lot of darts at a similar target this week, though from a different angle. Read this, then especially this

Low Margin Versus High Margin

Let's say that Nikon is correct about future camera buying, what does that imply for the entire industry?

Let's first recap what Nikon said last week: (1) the entire market for interchangeable lens cameras will be only about 4.5m units in four years; and (2) 66% of that market will be mid- and high-end models for pros and hobbyists. 

Nikon two years ago began diverging from their old market-share strategy. Canon is still trying hard to win 50% of the market (in terms of units), so is still using the old market-share strategy. Sony and Fujifilm have unclear strategies, though it appears that Sony is beginning to opt for Nikon's approach. 

So let's look at Canon first. With the current market between 5-6m units, Canon still retains half. At 6m units, that's 3m cameras sold. But at least half of those are entry-level models. If Nikon's correct—and they've been consistently good forecasters in terms of market direction—then four years from now Canon will be selling 2.2m cameras, and if Canon continues to pursue market share, half of those are going to be entry-level models. Canon would likely lose market share in the mid- and high-end model lines. Indeed, both Nikon and Sony need to succeed at mid- and high-end in order to stay in the camera business under Nikon's forecast. Thus, Nikon and Sony are going to be aggressive in the high-margin products. 

You can already see that with the Z9. By cutting a significant cost (shutter) Nikon has placed a flagship model well below the typical flagship model price. I expect Nikon to continue that trend down line, while raising the bottom end of the lineup they sell (done by eliminating the true consumer DX products). Nikon's pretty darned good at meeting clear targets, and it seems they have a clear target: sell as many units in four years as they do today (700K), with all of those being higher-margin, higher-end cameras. If they're successful at that—and I believe they will be—that leaves 2.3m high-end units for Canon, Fujifilm, and Sony to share (OMDS and Panasonic will take a small piece, too, but the real high-end battle will be between four makers (Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, and Sony). 

Here's an approximation of what the low-end/high-end share splits might look like four years out if Nikon is right and Canon pursues their current strategy:


Note how distorted that looks when you think about low-margin (low-end) products versus high-margin (high-end) products.

Nikon already adjusted their overhead and manufacturing to allow them to keep unit sales flat, move all those units to the high end, and to retain clear, solid profit margins. Nikon is the lean player now, but powerfully lean. Think marathon runner, not football lineman. 

If Canon pursues the 50% overall market share strategy they've been on (forever), that means they'll likely produce nearly 1.5m low-end consumer cameras and perhaps fewer than 1m high-end, high margin cameras. Yes, they'd outsell Nikon overall in unit volume, but the low margins they'd get on all those true consumer cameras wouldn't make them much more profitable than Nikon, if at all. Or more profitable than Sony. Canon hasn't really written off production capacity, and it's currently spreading R&D over three mounts and four lines of products in pursuit of their "dominate via market share" strategy. Because Canon uses only their own image sensors for interchangeable lens cameras, they're also constrained by what they can do at their own semiconductor fab. All the new fabs coming on line don't help them. 

I believe Canon's still trying to pay back their huge fab investment via market share: the more cameras they can amortize their recent semiconductor factory investments over, the better. I'd say there's high risk to Canon that the market actually falls below Nikon's 4.5m projection, at which point Canon's economics simply won't make sense and they'll have to write off facilities and investments. Note that virtually every other camera manufacturer other than Fujifilm and Canon has already had to do that, though some have been sneakily doing so in dabs hidden by other related products as opposed to the big write downs Nikon and Olympus made. 

One of the things that made the Japanese camera companies so hardy when it came to basic economics is the stagflation that ran rampant in Japan for decades. Banks found that it was better to loan money at 1% to big companies with a strong chance of paying them back than it was to do anything else with that money, as interest rates sat at near 0% for a long, long time, and the banks could just borrow more. One has to wonder whether stagflation will continue, though. Last month Japan's consumer price index went up above the 2% target that the Bank of Japan set many years ago but seems to never achieve. 

Unfortunately, I think the Bank of Japan is dreaming. They're trying to keep monetary policy intact as Japanese consumers—and that means all those folk working for the camera companies in Japan—are not getting raises to keep up with even that modest inflation rate. Something has to give under the current scenario, and that could get ugly in the rapidly declining camera market. The only good news on the macroeconomic front is that the yen has fallen against the dollar recently. Where you could get 114 yen for a dollar at the start of the year, today you'll get 128. That makes exports that were cost in yen look better overseas, and one reason why you're seeing companies move more inventory recently into the US for sale.

Of course, any economic forecast is going to be wrong. Mine, Canon's, and Nikon's included. Generally economics is really good at seeing and forecasting trends, but not in being able to predict specific numbers. A good economic forecast of any type would be any that falls within +/-4% points of what actually happens.

But that brings me back to product margins. There's simply not a lot of margin in a US$500 camera. Dealers take 15-20%. Wholesale takes 25-30%. Sales and marketing take at least another 10%. So you have to make a profit by producing that US$500 camera for an out-of-the-factory cost of US$225. Things look so much better for a US$2000 camera, even though some of your parts costs will be higher (but not high enough so that you can't get far better profit margins). Which is why Nikon and Sony are targeting cameras at that level, mostly. And why Canon and Fujifilm will likely eventually have to do the same. 

Which brings me to this: I've written for some time that Canon's M line is a dead-end. No amount of juggling by Canon could keep that from not being the case, particularly when they made the wrong mount decision in 2012 when they first came out with it. (Note that Nikon also made the wrong mount decision with their CX line in 2011, but also look at how fast they realized that and discontinued it.) The problem today is that Canon can't afford to put any additional R&D money into M, as the overall trend for consumer cameras like that is down. Spending more money on low-margin products that are being squeezed out of the market is not shareholder-friendly. I expect Canon will try to milk the M for as long as they can, but that's going to look more and more problematic on their bottom line.

Notice that the new R10 is basically US$1000 and the R7 is US$1500. The M50 is US$600, and the M200 even less. The M6 Mark II, the highest camera in the M lineup is US$850. Do the math. Take 20% off for the big dealers. Take another 30% off for the wholesale (subsidiary costs). Take another 10% off for marketing and sales costs. Now what do you have to make the M50 for? US$270. And I'll bet you that it's actually far worse than that (once higher internal costs are fully accounted for, including that fab, R&D, and more). No, I don't think that's sustainable for Canon. If their volume becomes more than 50% low-end products like the M's and the chart I show above, it will just eat away at their bottom line as camera sales continue to decline. Meanwhile, Nikon and Sony will be posting higher profit margins. 

Let's face it, cameras are becoming niche. More and more niche every year. The things I'd pull a dedicated camera out for over my highly competent smartphone keep declining. And I'm more demanding in those niches over time, wanting faster frame rates, better focus, additional specialty lenses, and more. 

No, Nikon has made the right call. Sony seems to be making the right call. Fujifilm's mostly been adding higher-end gear to their lineup (GFX models, upcoming X-H2 models), so I think they've figured it out, too. The only Japanese camera company still racing down the wrong track is Canon. My advice to them? Bite the bullet and quickly amputate their market share strategy. Yeah, that'll end up with a big, one-time write down, but Canon really needs to go all in with RF (both stills and cinema), and they need to concentrate 100% of their energy in US$1000+ cameras now. Anything else simply dilutes their earnings, which will eventually generate the usual shareholder revolt that forces them to do what I suggest, anyway. 

Smartphones Crush Cameras, Again

The CEO of Sony Semiconductor was quoted last week by Nikkei as saying in a briefing session: "We expect that still images will exceed the image quality of single-lens reflex cameras within the next few years." Nikkei's headline says that year is 2024.

Of course, there's a bit of self-interest in that statement, as Sony Semiconductor is currently on a campaign to get more image sensor design wins in future smartphones. This is a bit of a reversal from the recent past, when Sony suggested that smartphone image sensor usage would taper off and no longer be as much of a growth driver for them.

The devil's in the details, as usual. While image sensor improvements will play some part in smartphone image quality increases, the real improvements come mostly from extra processing, as Apple and others have been demonstrating for years. 

Too many photo sites are unfortunately promoting Shimizu-san's words as "the demise of interchangeable lens cameras" (ILC). Sorry, but no. 

Actually, Nikon's Investor Relations presentations last week told us what the real situation is likely to be with ILC: 

bythom nikon ilc

Essentially, the higher end of ILC holds its own, with little to no growth over the next four years (note that someone at Nikon corporate was just as confused about their fiscal years as most of the press: the actual years being referred to here should be labeled FY22 (which ended with 2.7m high-end units on the year ending March 31, 2022) and FY26 (which ends in March 2026).

If you go back and look at my predictions from several years ago, I wrote that the ILC market was likely to bottom out at 4m units (and that was just a modest update of my 2009 prediction on an upcoming "smartphone squeeze"). It appears that Nikon now agrees with me. ILC is headed for a similar situation that happened in the last decade of film SLR dominance: stagnated sales levels.

There's a difference this time, however: in the 1990's sales were near flat or slightly declining across all levels of ILC, from entry-level to pro. This time, only the entry-level is going to be slowly wiped out by smartphone competence, while the higher end cameras will continue on with stagnated sales levels.

What's that mean for you? I'd put it this way:

  • Sub US$1000 ILC models will slowly disappear over the next five years, even if we adjust the US$1000 number for inflation along the way. The development costs just can't be recovered well with declining volume. For Nikon, in DSLR terms that means the D500, D780, D850, and D6 would be the only models that could survive out to 2026, and even that list will likely be winnowed in the next four years. In mirrorless terms, it means that any Z50 update has to hit higher (e.g. Z70 level and US$1400+), and it and the Z5 II would be the new bottom of the lineup. No Z30 is likely to appear, though I wouldn't be surprised to see a Zf come out instead of a Z5 II at the low full-frame price point.
  • The success of the A1 and A7 updates, the R6/R7, and the Z6 thru Z9 models mean the camera companies are going to put most of the development at those levels and higher. By "success" I mean return on investment. Nikon, for instance, can build a Z7 II far less expensively than a D850, so their margins went up considerably for essentially the same specification of camera. US$2000 and up cameras are what is being targeted in that pro/hobbyist market where the customer is still buying.
  • APS-C models really have to take on the model that the D300 originally established: nearer to full frame performance characteristics but at the reduced cost associated with the smaller image sensor*. The Canon R7 and the upcoming Fujifilm X-H2s are just the first of those. 
  • Video will continue to be a key development area, as (again from Nikon's presentation statements): "the number of users motivated by 'video shooting' has more than tripled over the past 6 years." The tricky part here is that the (lack of) ease at which you can record video on an ILC and get it directly to social media is holding up more adaption by younger users, which is going to be a problem that is increasingly important for the camera companies to solve as their older, established customers die off.
  • It's not surprising that you're seeing Canon and Nikon emphasizing frame rate, sophisticated focus, and telephoto lenses in their recent offerings. These are things that smartphones have a tougher problem matching. Sure, a single still image taken of a landscape or even indoor scene can be improved by solid computational add-ons in a smartphone. But 45mp, high dynamic range, clearly focused, telephoto-necessary imaging is still easily the reign of ILC. It's not surprising that six of Nikon's first Z-mount lenses and eight of Canon's initial RF lenses are substantive telephoto offerings. We'll see more of that, not less.

*As I've been writing for over 15 years, the image sensor is the most expensive part of an ILC, and you simply can make an APS-C image sensor at at least 1/3 the cost of a full frame one (all else equal), and probably as much as 1/5 the cost depending upon what technologies are in the image sensor. When you add in the 3x (rule of thumb) implied cost to consumers from parts cost to manufacturers, you get a huge differential in retail price between APS-C and full frame (again, all else equal). You can increase that differential by pulling out a few additional costs here and there, as well. Thus, a US$2500 APS-C camera might match up against a US$4000+ full frame camera fairly well in terms of specifications, though it will still have a one-stop disadvantage in terms of equivalence. 

The Coming Platform Discontinuations

One of the on-going discussions I see—and the subject of much angst in my In Box—is that of anticipated platform discontinuations. 

Technology moves incessantly onward, so it's easy enough to predict that today's state-of-the-art camera will be superseded by tomorrow's. My advice has long been consistent to those trying to keep up with such on-going updating: buy every second generation, not every generation. It's rare that I advise otherwise (takes a remarkable breakthrough product, basically). 

The problem comes when a platform looks like it will be superseded by a new one, meaning all the cameras in the platform are likely to go away. Several such platforms exist today:

  • Canon M — The new RF-S cameras and lenses seem to indicate that Canon has figured out that they need to match Nikon and Sony in offering their new mirrorless lenses to fit on both crop sensor and full frame bodies. The last M update—the very mild M50 Mark II—happened in October 2020, and the last new M lens was in 2018. By all appearances, Canon is no longer updating the M line.
  • Canon EF-S — The crop sensor DSLRs last got an update in February 2020, and the last new EF-S lens dates all the way back to 2017. As with M, it looks that Canon is no longer updating the EF-S lineup.
  • Canon EF — A trickier proposition, though the last new EF lenses were back in 2018. However, those lenses were updates to serious, pro optics, and 1DX Mark III appeared in 2020. Many of Canon's Cinema series still use EF optics, too. All of the Canon full frame EF camera line is still available, and while a number of EF lenses have been discontinued, plenty of options still exist to buy new ones.
  • Nikon F-mount DX — Nikon's last crop sensor DSLR body update was in 2018, and a relatively minor one at that (mostly centered on cutting out costs). Plus we have to go all the way back to 2016 to find the most recent DX F-mount lens introduction. Nikon's been quietly phasing out F-mount DX lenses, so the choices available today are relatively weak. It seems clear that Nikon made the choice to put DX DSLRs to pasture some time ago.
  • Nikon F-mount FX — A much different story than the above platforms, though still one that sparks caution among many: Nikon put out the D780 in 2020 and the D6 in 2019, which is more "DSLR activity" than any of the competition. Moreover, the five-year old D850 still is a solid all-around camera choice, which shows just how much ahead of the pack it was when launched. The current FX camera lineup of D780, D850, and D6 is a very solid one. The last F-mount lens was the 120-300mm f/2.8E in 2020, a spectacular and versatile lens that every mirrorless lens mount is jealous of. Ditto 2018's 500mm f/5.6E PF and 180-400mm f/4E. Yes, Nikon's been removing older and poorly selling F-mount lenses from the lineup, but the lens lineup is still pretty robust as I write this. Still, the Z9 and the onslaught of Z-mount lenses in the last three years says that the DSLR FX platform probably isn't long in the legs.

Those five platforms represent tens of millions of units in the "active" installed base. I put "active" in quotes because the definitions for that in the industry vary considerably. Did you use your camera once this year? Every month? Constantly? Just how much time are these cameras in these platforms spending in the closet, and why, is an important question for Canon and Nikon to answer, because it dictates how they go about trying to transition their user base via marketing.

Despite the "death is near" vibes for these five platforms, can a case be made for buying into one of them today? 

Absolutely. Consider:

  • Canon M — Really small bodies and lenses. The new RF APS-C cameras can't match the pocketability of the M's. And the M6 Mark II's sensor is pretty APS-C state-of-the-art. Hard to top the M6 Mark II with a couple of well-chosen lenses for portability.
  • Canon EF — The 1DX Mark III and 5D Mark IV remain excellent, pro-level products. The existing base of EF lenses will take you anywhere you need to go, and you might be able to save money by dipping into the used market for them.
  • Nikon F-mount DX — The D500 is still, as I write this, the best all-around APS-C sensor camera you can buy, though it's hold on that title is now nebulous. The D7500 is a very competent smaller brother to the D500. And the D3500 may have been the best APS-C entry camera ever made. The lens situation, however, is getting grim.
  • Nikon F-mount FX — As noted above, this is the platform that seems like it has the longest legs of these soon-to-be-discontinued ones. Three solid bodies, plenty of still available lenses (plus more in the used market).

But the angst I see from readers is real. "Is it advisable to buy into one of these platforms?" they ask. 

Here's my answer: yes if your window of use for the product is five years or less. A D850 at US$2500 is a strong deal for a very good camera that's tough to top with other brands/platforms. You'd have a real difficult time finding a better camera for that money (and buying a camera in a different platform might make you have to re-invest in lenses). 

Why the five years caveat?

Simple: repairability. The worst case scenario is basically this: camera makers will repair equipment for up to about 7 years after they cease production, due (mostly) to California warranty and merchantability laws. Own a D800? Guess what, NikonUSA no longer repairs them. Heck, they won't even do a maintenance and cleaning of them except under extraordinary circumstances. That's because they stopped making the D800 back in 2015 (or maybe 2014, hard to pinpoint the exact date). 

So let's take that US$2500 Nikon D850 you might buy today. Divide by 5. That means you effectively are buying a camera for US$500 payments each of the next five years. And it can be repaired if you drop it, or fixed if it stops working. Try to stretch that out to 10 years, and suddenly you can't guarantee that you can get it repaired during your use lifetime. (Aside: I'd strongly suggest that D800/D800E users consider a D850 upgrade at this point. That would be a big improvement in capability and handling that should net you another five years of satisfaction.)

My 5 year mark is a little arbitrary, but safe. 

So here's how you evaluate whether to invest in a new goodie in one of those five to-be-discontinued platforms: if you believe you can get five years of use out of it and the price is right, go for it. If you don't think you'll get five years of life out of it, or the price is too high, don't buy it. Simple as that. (Note that prices might drop come next holiday season, or maybe even the up-coming Father's Day, assuming the supply chain loosens a bit.)

And yes, the same applies to any new platform you think you might transition to: you really need to believe that a big investment in a new state-of-the-art camera and lenses is going to get you through five years of active use. Remember my every-other-update policy? Well, the most aggressive of the makers tend to hit that mark every four years, and most within five, so you'll see that my advice lines up.

Process Specifically, Not Generally

First in a series of Post Processing 2022 articles.

For some time now—years—I've been teaching a different approach to post processing images to the one that most of you are using. Adobe's latest addition of masking tools should definitely make you stop using the approach you're using and switch to mine, but...

Wait, what am I babbling about today? 

What I teach in raw conversion is essentially a simple notion: the difference between treating an image generally, or treating parts of an image specifically. 

The tried and true method of processing an image using an Adobe converter (Lightroom, Photoshop) is basically this: 

  1. Open the image (Lightroom Develop module, Photoshop ACR).
  2. Adjust the exposure (e.g. Exposure, Highlight, Shadow sliders).
  3. Set sharpening and other parameters.
  4. Done.

Not so fast there, buddy. I'm pretty sure you're abusing your image data in Step 2.  In so doing, you're creating a sub-optimal result. And you probably don't want to do #3 across background out-of-focus areas. Ever wonder why you want to apply a Gaussian Blur to the background you just sharpened? ;~)

Right. Don't apply global changes, apply specific changes to specific problems using masking. Before Adobe added the masking tools to Lightroom and ACR, I used layers to do what I'm about to suggest. Those of you with long memories may remember folk like Vincent Versace showing off their processing with dozens of layers. Well, specific processing as opposed to general processing is why they were doing that. The nice thing about masking is that it is non-destructive, so you can change your mind later (Photoshop users need to consider using Smart Objects).

For example, the following two images show the way I see most people processing their image (the generalized approach). First, here's what an image looks like brought into ACR:


This image looks dull and underexposed, so a few common sliders are mushed aggressively:


First you slide to the left (highlights); then you push it to the right (shadows); put your hands on other sliders, add image-wide sharpening and we're done for the night. [Okay, not exactly Rocky Horror Picture Show re-write, but you get the idea.] This is the right way to do things (generic targeting), yes? 

Nope. Here's my quick and dirty processing using my version of post processing conversion logic (specific targeting):


Only one slider seems to have been moved! That's correct, because I only changed one thing generically on the entire image (lifting the shadows across all areas). Everything else was done specifically. That means I changed the sky with masking, I changed the giraffe with masking, I changed the giraffe's eyes with masking. I dealt with specific problems in the image with specific tools (which don't show up here because I'm not showing you the individual masking steps).

We haven't even gotten to some of the other things I use in ACR (Color Mixer, Color Grading, Detail, etc.). All I've dealt with so far are some basic tonal adjustments. Yet you should see that my example is better. It has more contrast, more color, delineates the giraffe better, and more. (No, I'm not arguing that this is a particularly good image. I actually chose a blah image to work on because it illustrates my point more easily.)

What I'm suggested here is no different than we used to do in the darkroom. Often we'd print a "base" exposure, let it dry so we could see what was happening in tonalities clearly, then mark it up with a Sharpie to suggest which areas needed less (dodge) and which areas needed more (burn) exposure. In our subsequent prints with burning and dodging we were dealing with specific areas, not the overall general print.

So why don't you want to do a generic (all pixels controlled the same) conversion, then later use Lightroom or Photoshop tools to adjust specific things? Because you're locking in pixel values that are sometimes more difficult to change, or will show the evidence of such changes when you make them (e.g. increased noise in an area). 

Note the sky in my specific-processing (third) example: you'll have a tougher time later getting that blue if you demosaic everything as in the generic (second) example, because you locked in that muddy cyan color in the pixels. Now when you try to change that after the generic processing, you'll have problems with the sky behind the out-of-focus branches on the right: it'll become obvious you're changing sky values.

So first lesson in post processing: make your conversions specific to observed problems, not generically across the entire image.

Also posted in Technique/Post Processing 2022. Please link to that version.

DSLR versus Mirrorless Focus Differences

Particularly now that we have the Z9, it's time to go back and make some points about autofocus and how it differs between the Nikon DSLRs and the Z System cameras. The Z9, in particular, starts to eradicate the last remaining DSLR advantages.

So let's examine a series of focus traits and see where we stand:

  • Focus precision — A slightly mixed story. On static subjects, the Z cameras focus more precisely than the DSLRs, and particularly so as you move from f/4 lenses to faster lenses (especially true of f/1.4 and f/1.8 primes). That said, the geometry of the DSLR system's math is a little more precise, though the DSLR focus system doesn't always take advantage of that. With moving subjects, the DSLR cameras long held the advantage. At least until face/eye detect, and now the Z9's subject detect, came along. The Z9 I'd now say is slightly better than the D6 for many moving subjects, but those two cameras are both in a category that almost no other cameras match to start with. (No, a Sony A7 Mark IV doesn’t match a D6, as much as some will insist.)
  • Focus speed — Nikon has always been dinged on focus speed. Technically, Nikon cameras do tend to think just a little more about where to put focus before doing so than do Canon cameras (and to lesser degree, also Sony). This gets talked about often as "focus acquisition" speed, though there are other variables in that general category (e.g. lens motor performance). Here, I see a lot of variability across cameras and lenses, even within Nikon's lineup. The D5/D6 distinguish themselves from the D500/D850 in getting to initial focus, probably because they have a faster, dedicated focus CPU to do the work. All the Nikon cameras, DSLR or mirrorless, do have a tendency to miss initial focus if the lens is far off the actual focus distance when you press the button (which is why I've always suggested keeping your lens pre-focused at about the distance you expect to be photographing). The Z9 is better at this than the Z6/Z7 cameras, but more like a D850 than a D6. In some cases, I can see the exact way the Z9 is thinking with subject recognition turned on: recognized human, now see upper body, now face, now eyes, let’s stick with the eyes. In good light with well distinguished subjects, that sequence is near instantaneous, but in poor light with partially disguised/turned subjects, not so much. In terms of the camera part of focus speed, the D6 and Z9 and nearly equal in most cases, though those cameras are ever so slightly slower to initial focus than the Canon R3/R5/R6/1DX. So slightly that it's extremely difficult to measure, but it's a real thing that's different between Canon and Nikon. 
  • Focus tracking — When Nikon added 3D-tracking to the DSLRs with color and pattern awareness, tracking objects—even ones that went outside the focus region briefly—became uncanny. Initial attempts on the Z cameras (called Subject tracking) didn't quite provide the same level of assurance. 3D-tracking on the Z9, however, brings mirrorless much closer to the DSLRs in this respect, though not perfectly so. I see "tracking drift" on occasions with the Z9 that I don't see with my D6, which either tracks or doesn't. Also, the CSM #A3 options have a real impact with some AF-area modes on the Z9, but not for 3D-tracking. Finally, on a Z9 if you start 3D-tracking on an out-of-focus subject, it doesn't track as well (probably because the color/pattern it noted aren't the same in focus as they are out of focus).
  • Dynamic and Group focusing — Most Nikon users don't fully understand these two AF-area modes, so let me cut to the chase: mirrorless and DSLRs seem about equivalent with their Dynamic-area focus choices these days, but DSLR still has the advantage of Group focus. What's that advantage? A real guarantee of closest subject priority within the focus constraint box (and a wide choice of those boxes on a D6). Nikon has confused the closest subject priority on the Z system cameras: if a subject is found, it won’t use close focus as a priority. If a subject is found, it will usually use close focus as a priority, but not always (bright backgrounds are a distraction).
  • Short axis focus discrimination — Another DSLR win, particularly on cameras such as the D6 where all focus detection is bidirectional (both horizontal and vertical axis covered equally). All of Nikon's mirrorless cameras use the old Nikon 1 system: rows of focus-aware photosites, and those rows are spread apart by 12 pixels. That means that focus information on the mirrorless cameras is mostly discriminating on the long axis. The problem is this: if you try to focus on part of a subject that doesn't have much long axis detail but has short axis detail, the Z cameras don't focus as well, if at all. The top DSLRs don't have this issue. 
  • Focus in low light — A tricky question (see also Focus precision, above). The DSLRs often seem to focus fast in low light, but certainly not precisely with truly fast aperture lenses. This has a lot to do with the outer image circle areas that influence the focus decision: the fast DSLR primes have a lot of spherical aberration and other traits that provide false clues to the focus system (and if you’re not using the fastest aperture, a lot of the DSLR primes have focus shift in them). The fast Z-mount lenses tend to have much better behaved outer image circle optics, and the on-sensor geometry (no mirrors and alignment) also favors them. A Z system camera with a fast lens set properly tends to focus in situations where my eyes can't. I can't really say that with my DSLRs. However, here's a caveat: the Z system cameras need to have the exposure at the focus point set right. Underexposure at the focus point makes them focus more poorly than the DSLRs.
  • Focus region — Because of the DSLR phase detect system geometry, accurate focus is restricted to a narrower region of the frame on full frame cameras than on mirrorless cameras. The D6 expands that out to almost the area described by the rule of thirds points, which means that you're only covering about the central 11% of the frame. All the Z cameras cover about 90% of the frame, a decided advantage (assuming you can move the focus sensor to your subject fast enough ;~).
  • Focus magnification — A clear mirrorless win. You can magnify the viewfinder instantly while composing with the Z cameras—at the expense of slowing the viewfinder frame rate down—but you can only magnify images you've already taken with the DSLR. (Technically, you could use a physical magnifier accessory on the viewfinder with a DSLR, but those are a clumsy option and not very practical except for perhaps, macro photography.) Mirrorless gets a bonus. On a Z9 you can both magnify the area in the viewfinder and use focus peaking simultaneously.
  • Focus aperture — (Before we drop into this subject, I need to point out that most phase detect systems are "best" at around f/4, for reasons I won't go into here. The phase detect "sweet spot" tends to be from f/2.8 to f/5.6, with apertures outside that range starting to add complications that impact focus.) This is a clear win for mirrorless. DSLRs always focus at maximum aperture, which is fine until you start adding teleconverters to slow lenses, or try to use a really fast lens (see Focus precision, above). It's not so fine if the lens has any focus shift to it (different focus achieved at different apertures with the same focus element position). The Z cameras focus at the aperture you set up to f/5.6, so focus shift influencing your results would only happen at apertures above f/5.6. But the Z cameras also aren't filtering the light through a partially silvered mirror, so they also tend to work for focus at incredibly small apertures. Most DSLRs stop focusing around f/8 as a maximum aperture because enough light doesn’t get to the focus sensors. I've used f/16 lens (equivalent via teleconverters) and still had my Z camera acquire focus with no trouble (note that this intersects with low light, though; you can't expect f/16 to find focus with the light at -6EV ;~). 
  • DOF viewing — With DSLRs we had a DOF Preview function, but this dims the viewfinder incredibly in order to show you that, and that's distracting and problematic for some. The Z's give you precise DOF viewing (with Apply settings to live view set) up to f/5.6. Above that, you have to resort to a different tactic to see DOF, but you can see it in the viewfinder without dimming.

So, The Z's are doing quite well compared to the DSLRs post Z9 (and firmware updates for the other models). I look at things a bit differently than this point-by-point view of the world, though. I have a D6 (best Nikon DSLR) and a Z9 (best Nikon mirrorless). Do I feel one is clearly better than the other at focus? No, they're somewhat different, and I have to set and manage them differently. For the sports and wildlife photography that I mostly do, both cameras work exceptional well for me once I've got them set properly. For landscape and macro photography, I'm preferring the Z7 II to the D850 these days, mostly because of focus precision and focus magnification. Your mileage may vary.

DSLR versus Mirrorless Overall

One great thing about working with so many workshop students in a short period is being able to see a wide range of bodies and lenses used on the same subjects in the same conditions. In Botswana I had 18 students, no two of which who were using exactly the same body/lens combinations. 

My conclusion: whether they used a D500, D850, Z7 II or Z9 wasn't a particularly good indicator of which image was best. Ditto with F-mount versus Z-mount lenses. I saw excellent images from pretty much every combination being used. Heck, we had one "tag along" spouse using a Z50 for the first time who caught some excellent images pretty much everyone on the trip would have been satisfied with.

As much as we all obsess with owning the latest and greatest and with the most megapixels, in the end photography really does come down to "being there." To which I'd add my "don't photograph nouns" commentary. Photographs are about what you see and feel, and how you want to communicate that to others, not what some mechanical device does. 

Nothing you buy at B&H (or your local dealer) makes your photography automatically better. I'd argue that buying some new often makes your photography worse until you figure out how to master it, which in these days of 700-plus settable options, might take awhile. 

The good news is that you might not be able to get that "latest and greatest" camera or lens right now due to supply chain and production issues. Wait. How's that good news? Simple: you have more time to master what you've got while paying attention to your photographs, not your gear. 

So, DSLR users, relax: your cameras still take fine photographs. Mirrorless users, you don't need to keep chasing the fastest model: your current version still takes fine photographs. 


Settings Versus Seeing

I generally don't publish camera settings, and the process of putting resizable images on this Web site strips out EXIF information. Thus, I get a constant stream of "what settings did you use?" People see a picture they like, and then apparently want to "copy" it. 

I'm of the strong opinion that knowing what a camera's settings were don't help you much, if at all. That's because for settings to make sense you have to understand what the photographer saw and what decisions he or she was making to capture that. 

I'll use a simple example: a lot of landscape photos these days are captured with what I call "infinite focus." That's particularly been true since focus stacking came onto the scene. The extension of the hyperfocal distance idea has suddenly become "stack focused images from near point to far point." Doing so certainly puts acuity everywhere in the image, but it's not the way our eye/brain works nor is it what we saw while setting up the photo. 

My landscape photography mentor used to chant "near, middle, far" almost as much as he climbed near, middle, and far mountains, but he also didn't want to take out distance clues. Our brain interprets low level of detail as far, high level of detail as near. The analogy I like to use is this: if you can see whiskers, the lion is near; if you're not sure what the distant beige bump in the grass is, then the lion is far away. Why would you try to capture that any other way? 

Okay, there is the notion of contrarianism: do the unconventional to call attention to something. But when you're "copying", you're probably not doing that ;~).

Which brings me to my point. When you demand settings you're trying to understand and duplicate what someone else saw and captured. The thing about photography is that it is not a copy machine, it's a personalization medium. Susan Sontag wrote a whole book [affiliate link; as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases] that dealt with that way back in 1973 (which deservedly won a National Book Critics' Circle Award). One of the key quotes from Sontag's book is "The painter constructs, the photographer discloses."

To disclose, one must first see. 

So what is it you see? What is it you want to disclose? If you can't answer those questions, you not only have no idea how to set your camera, you probably don't even know where to point it. 

In the field at workshops, I teach not apertures and shutter speeds—though we do discuss them on occasion—but finding the thing that you wish to photograph, the thing you want to disclose to others. I'm constantly looking for patterns, for instance, as I find natural patterns as interesting as man-made ones. For instance:

bythom int bots savutikhwai April2022 Z9 18817


These lionesses are trying to figure out which prey to target (and yes, I seem to be one of them ;~). The focus is what it is because the matriarch is in front and probably going to determine where they go next. Trying to get all three in "perfect" focus would be nearly futile, partly because it doesn't disclose the hierarchy, but also because it would promote one heck of a lot of grass into visibility, which isn't what I want to disclose. 

Does it matter what lens I used? (100-400mm, not at 400mm ;~) Not really, unless you want to know how close to the lions I was (close, real close). Does the shutter speed matter? Not really for this image, as everything, including me, was stationary. Does the ISO matter? Also a no, though you might be able to sense it was quite high: this image was taken just after sunset on a cloudy day. 

The primary thing I would point out about the image has nothing to do with camera settings. It has to do with my position vis-a-vis the lions, the perspective, and my waiting for a pattern to appear (they were looking to and fro, so I knew that a pattern would emerge; it's a matter of looking for and reacting to it when it appears). The moment in time I pressed the shutter release and my position were the two key elements that make this image what it is. Neither are really recorded in the EXIF data in a way you could learn anything from (the time stamp and GPS location tell you nothing useful; you couldn't duplicate the image by using those values yourself ;~). 

When people ask me for settings, sometimes I'll provide them. But more often than not I'll ask what it is they expect to learn. What do they think knowing those values will do for them? Most don't have clear answers for that question, which is why I don't generally provide settings.

Let me close by saying this: one of the things I challenged students on during my last workshop in Botswana was this: can you capture and convey the feel of Africa in your photos? It's one thing to get a head shot of a lion. But you can do that at a zoo probably easier than you can from a Land Cruiser in the middle of nowhere. If you spend over ten thousand dollars to get to that middle of nowhere, shouldn't your photographs somehow convey what that place feels like? 

I talk a lot about not photographing nouns. If the subject of your image is "lion," that's a noun. Get that out of your system at your local zoo. What you really want to capture are adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. "Looking for dinner" is a lot different than "lion sitting." And no EXIF data property is going to tell you how to capture that.

Update: Sure enough, some of you are arguing with me ;~). In particular, I've received multiple emails along the lines of: "I need to know the focal length so I can recreate the same perspective." Nope. Perspective has nothing to do with focal length. Knowing the focal length wouldn't tell you the perspective. You'd need to know the distance, which isn't recorded in the EXIF (at least not recorded accurately). I could have used a 24mm lens instead of a 200mm lens and gotten the same perspective (after cropping). I stand by my statement that nothing in the EXIF data actually helps you understand how I got this image, though my comments about looking for patterns actually would.

Oh, and the number two argument: "I need to know the ISO." No, not really. Because this is a relatively low contrast image—taken after sunset—the ISO I used had plenty of dynamic range capability. You might benefit from knowing what ISO range I use on my Z9. That would be 100 to 12,800, basically. However, at the higher ISO values noise is an issue I have to post process for. I deem current software tools are adequate for doing that for properly exposed ISO 12,800 images with the camera.

Also posted in Technique/Essays

34 Days in The Middle of Nowhere

You probably noticed that I've been quiet since the end of March. That's because I just spent 34 days in one of my favorite locations on the planet: Botswana. Almost half the time I spent in the Kalahari (photo below), the rest in the Okavango. Both are exciting places to be in April, even though that's not traditionally considered an "in season" time. 

I intentionally take full breaks from the Internet every year, and being in a tent in the middle of world-class parks and preserves is guaranteed to ensure such a break. During the month+ mostly in tents I had only a couple of small, very slow sips of Internet, just enough to see that the rest of the world was still there.

The interesting thing about taking such breaks is that you get a better sense of where things actually stand, as the noise on the Internet far outweighs the actual information. When you don't hear the noise, you can more easily see the information. I came back to the same 10 questions in my InBox, the same urgent email offers and discounts from automated mail lists, the same trolling and sniping, but almost nothing I can find of note that's new, or even important. Okay, a couple of important lenses were introduced, the manufacturer discounts changed modestly, and I found one or two articles that actually covered a bit of new ground when I did my post break survey. 

However, this year's break made me realize that I need to work on my "game" some if I'm going to continue to provide useful, relevant, new, and interesting information. The good news is that it shouldn't take much to stand out from the crowd that's just doing the same-old, same-old. It appears that most of the photography-related Internet doesn't know what to write anything when no new products are offered and software makers aren't pushing big affiliate incentives to promote a new release.

So you're probably wondering what I might be about to write about. Well, here's a clue: I had a Z9 with 2.0 firmware, a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S, and a 400mm f/2.8 TC S with me in Botswana. Expect some pretty thorough reviews of those coming soon. And not just lab test and quick one day evaluations, but in field, rough tested, heat of battle reviews. Foreshadowing: someone is going to complain that I once again don't give a Highly Recommended rating to a Nikon product they worship. Further foreshadowing: you probably want a Z9 and a 100-400mm if you take trips similar to the one I just did.

Give me a few days to get back up to speed and deal with all the things that piled up while I was gone. We'll have some fun shortly thereafter ;~).

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