News/Views

Canon Release or Nikon Release?

I noticed that B&H (initially; apparently that changed) put the Canon 14-35mm f/4L announcement in their first panel position and the Nikon Zfc announcement into the second panel position. Interesting prioritization.

So, lot’s happening. I’ve posted six Nikon Zfc-related articles over on zsystemuser.com. So just go to the News/Views page there and start reading. The Zfc data page and 28mm f/2.8 data page are also live. I’ve also recreated most of those things over on sansmirror.com, but the primary thing to note there is the new Canon 14-35mm f/4L data page. Oh, and the Sony A1 got a firmware update to 1.1 to deal with a number of small, but important-to-fix issues.

What is a Corner?

As I do after I finish my own testing of a lens and have finished writing up my findings, I look to see what others say, as I like to understand what likely feedback I will have to deal with (e.g. “Reviewer X says it's better than that.”).

In doing so recently, I noticed something very specific that makes most reviews un-comparable. You’ll see the terms “center”, “mid-frame”, and “corner” all the time, and often reporting very specific numbers for those “areas.” One review I looked at had a visual example of where they sampled. Their corner was not even close to my corner. 

bythom whereisthecorner

This triggered me to look more closely at a number of review sites. I’m not going to name names here, but what I found was a whole lot of inconsistency. Sometimes even within a single site’s testing. I found one site where “corner” was 20% away from the actual corner (e.g. 80% from center). And a site where “center” wasn’t even measured in the center! 

Corners are really important. That’s because if you draw a line from the center of the frame to the exact frame corner and measured at 100 equally-distanced points along that line, you’d get a strong sense of how the entire imaging circle works. Some lenses hold central MTF levels quite a ways along that line, then degrade quickly. Some lenses degrade slowly over the entire line. Some lenses have artificial results: they degrade, then the improve, then they degrade again (probably due to aspherical elements).

A corner usually produces the worst case result from a lens test. Not only are you in the outer bounds of the image circle, but field curvature and other problems may come into play. That’s particularly true now that we have so many aspherical elements being used. What most people don’t realize is that there is a wide range of precision in the polishing of aspherical elements: you’re putting complex curves into the outer glass edge(s), and the degree of precision you do that with is one of those compromise choices (high precision requires more sophisticated equipment and more time). 

When I measure a lens to try to understand its performance attributes, I measure at true center, DX frame corner, just inside the left/right frame edge (on center axis), and a spot that’s about 5% in from the absolute corner (on a line drawn from center to corner). I try to be consistent about this, but I could be off by a couple of percent of the frame over all my tests. Still, I believe my results to be pretty self consistent and repeatable. 

But even if we were to get every tester to agree to the definition of center, mid-frame, and corner, we’d still have problems. The biggest one I see is that most only test at convenient distances. Convenient being defined by “size of chart dictates distance” and “infinity.” I keep seeing wide angle lens test charts where I wonder how they did them (they either had a ridiculously large chart or where using a ridiculously close focus distance). You pretty much have to move to a very large slant line chart to do MTF tests on wide angle lenses, and you need to reposition that chart for each test because it doesn’t come close to filling the entire frame (even my 4’ chart). And once you start repositioning the chart for each test, you need to worry about chart alignment.

Lens testing isn’t easy. Comparing one lens test to another is…well…impossible. Reader beware.


The Perils of Certainty

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s rare that I identify specific settings for a photo published on this site. I sometimes do when I’m making a comparison, thus reveal the setting that changed between two examples. But for everything else, I rarely identify anything, despite the fact that EXIF and XMP these days would let me pretty much document every last detail (certainly hundreds of details).

Why my reluctance?

It has to do with what happens when I (and others) do publish specifics: readers believe that these are SuperSettings that they should use, and they copy them religiously, with absolute certainty that it will improve their photography. This use is without regard to what the settings actually do and whether they are appropriate for the situation they’re photographing. Let me state it emphatically: I can identify hundreds of decisions you make just prior to taking a photo, and hundreds more if you’re going to post process it. It is almost 100% true that my decisions wouldn’t be the same as yours—otherwise why do we need individuals pursuing photography?—yet those that seek settings want to use them as substitutes to their decision making.

Over a decade ago I made a mistake in a settings file that I supplied with a book: I accidentally left the Copyright option set to my notice. Within weeks, photos were showing up all over the Internet with my Copyright notice, photos that I hadn’t taken. Worse still, when I looked at those photos, nothing had been changed from the file I had supplied. And yet, casual examination of those photos showed that many settings should have been changed.

I publish two “configuration guides” (for the Sony A7 Mark III/A7R Mark III and the Sony A1). I’m pretty careful in those guides to explain why I suggest various settings, and when you should be making changes to my suggestions. I consider those books as being helpers to get those complex cameras to an initial configuration that meets their owners’ needs, and I imply (and explicitly state a few times) that the readers' choices will change as they use the camera more and tailor it to their specific work. These two Sony books are actually an experiment on my part in providing my thinking about how to configure a new camera when you might not be a long-time user of that brand/genre. 

If what you want is to study other photographer’s settings, you can find plenty of sites on the Internet that reveal some, many, or virtually all the details for a photo. But let me throw this out: when I visit those sites, I almost always find settings that (1) raise my eyebrows; (2) are arguably poor choices; and (3) aren’t what I’d have set. And when I see others visit those sites I see that they have an opposite reaction: (1) oh, that’s different than what I’m doing; (2) that’s arguably better than my choices; and (3) I’ll just use that setting in the future.

Which brings me to this article’s title: the peril of certainty.

I see photographers trying to embrace certainty all the time when they should be doing the opposite:

  • Set the focus system to All Auto All the Time. The camera will get it right.
  • Set the aperture to f/11 (or worse f/16 and f/22, which are likely diffraction impacted). The depth of field will get it right. Or: everything needs to be in focus.
  • Set Auto ISO; set High ISO NR to ON or HIGH because noise is so horrendous it should always be avoided or eradicated.
  • Use Clarity, often at levels in the teens (Adobe numbers). Crank up the mid-tone contrast, because mid-tones always need a lot of contrast.

The list is nearly infinite. I encounter “but I was told to do this…” all the time. The common denominator is the belief that you can set something and forget it. Heck, I’ve seen the “set and forget” mantra used in articles, books, and teaching so much it probably originated before mankind discovered fire. Anyone that tells you this is invoking a simplification that will almost certainly be proved to be incorrect at some point in the future. 

The correct mantra to use is “think and set.” Think about what you’re trying to do (show). Consider the implications of specific settings. Maximize settings to what you’re trying to do. 

Of course, trying to juggle hundreds of decisions in real time (timing, focal length, focus point, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, just to name a few big ones) is hard. You can’t always take the time to evaluate everything, so you take shortcuts or get things wrong. Thus, you also have to prioritize: what’s the most important thing to get right for this photo? For sports, that may be timing. For landscapes that may be composition or lighting. For events it might be focus. For architectural photography it might be “level and straight.” 

So yes, all of us want a “base” of settings from which we will then vary. But here’s the thing: my base of settings differs depending upon what I’m photographing, and I reconsider those before every session. One reason why I said the Sony A1 got settings right was that that camera is the first to allow me to name 10 different baseline settings and keep them on a storage card. So I can get certain baselines set fast and reliably. But even after doing that, I go through a thought session where I challenge whether I need to be making any changes. And when I’ve got the camera to my face, I’m making further changes as warranted.

In other words, there’s no certainty that any setting is the right one until you fully examine the situation you’re trying to document and make some decisions accordingly. 

Camera makers don’t seem to understand any of this (the Sony A1’s excellent settings abilities notwithstanding). One reason why so many people gravitate towards using their smartphones as their camera is that they’re okay with Apple and Google using AI to adjust everything and figure out final pixels, even if that means changing or even inventing some. Apple and Google get that “more right” than the non-thinking camera user does, and there are now literally billions of non-thinking camera users. The Japanese camera makers basically gave up on this audience (why did BSS go away, Nikon?). So why would that audience buy a dedicated camera?

But then why aren’t camera makers making it easier for the thinking photographer? The Sony A1’s settings is one counter-example, but I can think of plenty of things that would help me make and adjust spontaneous settings that aren’t available (raw histogram, anyone?). 

A Bit of Buying Advice

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re going to have continued shortages of product in the near term, particularly for ones that are just announced and released. I now know of almost a dozen cameras and lenses whose original launch schedule has been pushed back because of the issues that keep emerging. Issues that have nothing to do with design and test, but simply the ability to manufacture them in quantity.

Even some older products are also going to see shortages if dealer inventories clear much more than they already have. I’ve heard that some existing body+lens kit bundles are likely to change due to parts shortages, and it should be obvious that a lot of higher demand products are going in and out of stock constantly, indicating that supply isn’t quite keeping up with demand. 

Here’s another trend that’s happening: companies are micromanaging the parts they do get, so they might put a short-in-supply part into a more expensive camera and let a less expensive one go out of stock for awhile. That alone will probably kill the consumer DSLR (and it would have killed the compact camera if it hadn’t already died). This is going to get worse. I think far worse, but I’m hoping for just worse. 

Nothing seems to be changing in the tech supply/delivery chain very quickly. Indeed, in terms of shipping constraints, parts constraints, and more, I just keep hearing from my friends still in the industry that worse news, with worse problems are coming, not better news or problems being solved yet. This seems to be true throughout tech, but low volume products such as cameras and lenses are going to struggle more with the supply/delivery chain issues than higher volume ones like smartphones and computers. 

I’m going to be providing some specific buying advice about several different market “slices" in the coming weeks, but I thought it best to start out with some broad statements:

  • If it’s in stock and you need it, buy it. Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Inventories are low all over for high-demand products, a little better for older products that are past their peak demand. Still, it’s becoming clearer that once those boxes leave the dealers’ hands for customers, getting new inventory to replace them is starting to take longer and be less reliable. Waiting for “sales” could trigger a long wait on your part. I’ve already seen things go on instant rebate that were out of stock at most dealers on the day the rebates started. A lower price doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get the product.
  • If it’s out of stock and you need it, get in line. Nikon has mostly conditioned its faithful to this: wait lists have been common for popular new Nikon products throughout the digital age. The question has always been “which line?” I’m a fan of supporting good local dealers for pre-orders (no this isn’t really in conflict with my site’s exclusive advertiser, B&H; there’s room for both brick and mortar as well as Internet sales; indeed, B&H is a local dealer in New York City, so your getting in line from afar cuts into B&H’s ability to deliver product to its local customers). It’s reasonable to require a small deposit to get in line, but it’s also reasonable for that local dealer to be honest with you about where you are at in that line and honor that position, too. With Nikon, in particular, there’s good reason to use a local dealer for out of stock items: NikonUSA’s policy of spreading meager arriving inventory equally across all dealers with orders in place before filling big orders or catering to the mass channels tends to mean that you can get an out-of-stock product from your local dealer quicker than the mass market channels.
  • If you don’t really need it, consider taking a buying timeout. There are people who do need some products—for a project, for a job, for an already scheduled trip, to replace lost/damaged gear, etc.—and you’ll make it easier for those folk to get what they need by not gobbling up something you don’t really need but just have some lust factor for. That’s doubly true if you’re just going to stick that new gear into your closet for use when you’ll get around to it. I’m a little tired of the me, me, me culture that’s spawned. Showing a little consideration for others isn’t all that difficult, is it? (Disclosure: I’ve purposely held off on a couple of reviews so as not to create a new run on what I know to be very tight inventories for a couple of products. And yes, as B&H can tell you, the minute I put a “highly recommended” on something, there’s a clear increase of orders for that product at B&H, enough to distort the wait lists or inventory status. Thank you for your respect for my writing and your support of it, by the way.)

We’ve had disruptions before. The quake/tsunami/flood of 2011 was one such, but there have been others. The difference this time is in how fast the camera companies can get back to “business as normal.” I’m predicting normal is not going to happen in 2021. I’m hoping that it will happen before the spring/summer buying surge in 2022. 

So, put a little more thought into what you really need, and what would really elevate your photography, and concentrate on that while we wait for “normal.” 

Update: One of my long-time readers pointed out there’s a fourth option that makes sense, and I agree: 

  • Consider renting. This works great for short-term or one-time needs (e.g. once-in-a-lifetime safari), and some local dealers make that more tempting for any need by giving partial or full credit on rentals against future purchase. If you don’t have a local dealer that can help with a rental, consider my friend Roger Cicala’s company, LensRentals. I’ve used them a few times, and have had many workshop students who’ve used them, and recommend them wholeheartedly. The one thing I’d caution you about renting is this: always make sure that you get the gear early enough that you can try it and make sure there aren’t any issues prior to your counting on it. For a long safari, for example, I tend to recommend that people receive their rental at least a week before they leave, so that they can practice with it and make sure it’s what they really need (I’ve had people rent a 300mm and then discover that they really wanted a 500mm, for example; a practice trip to the zoo would have revealed that). 

Update 2: Another good reader suggestion: The flip side of your buying advice is to sell unused or redundant gear now.

The Big News This Week

Over on sansmirror I've been busy trying to catch up with things (I'll concentrate more on that in July when I'm back full time in the office).

Lies That Live On

Virtually every camera maker has at one time or another made a proclamation that they were going to concentrate more on higher-end, higher-priced products. And yet, here we are talking about Fujifilm X-E4, Olympus E-P7, and upcoming Nikon Z30/Zfc and Sony ZV-E10, plus other lower-end products. 

The problem—from the camera maker perspective—is that every time they push harder on the upper end products, they lose volume. Every one of these companies was built for producing volume, which is one reason why you’ve seen Nikon and Olympus have to do massive write-downs of non-performing assets as their sales volumes slipped. Those won’t be the last write-downs we see, I suspect. Stated simply: the camera maker manufacturing plants were designed for building millions of units, and the companies are currently only selling hundreds of thousands. 

Moreover, everyone has now realized what I wrote a number of years ago about trying to move upscale (i.e. sell fewer units at higher prices). It’s not just price elasticity of demand that starts to get in your way, it’s that you no longer generate new low-end customers for later up-sell. Which means that, over time, your unit volume will continue to reduce. Producing only higher-priced products and trying to push your existing customer base into them is typically a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Some camera makers are already at the tail end of their short-term win.

Thus, every camera company needs a “how do we attract new customers” strategy. Right now, some of the brands seem to concentrate on stealing customers from another brand. Okay, but that’s basically a zero sum game. Once stolen, you become the biggest target ;~). 

Technically, there should be a clear migration path for people who like to take photos: mobile device users discover limitations of their small camera(s), and want to move up (preferably to something compatible with their workflow). They buy a dedicated camera, but eventually outgrow that and want something even more sophisticated. This creates a wide pyramid of customers, with the bottom (and by far biggest area) being mobile device users, the top (smallest area) being the high-end ILC users, and a largish area in between that doesn’t necessarily have to be all ILC. 

The pyramid


The camera companies have been telling the lie for some time that they want to get out of (most of) that middle group. It’s easy to market a high-end camera that’s well differentiated from what can be done with a mobile device, but it gets harder to differentiate the closer you get to that bottom of the pyramid. 

Nevertheless, the camera makers are lying to themselves if they think they can abandon that middle ground that includes low-end cameras. Doing so means that you have to sustain on very low volumes, and over time that reduces the number of customers you have that you can up-sell later. 

Meanwhile, the camera companies also still use the old Japanese CES product line formula. That means that yes, you create lower-end products, but you arbitrarily remove features from them (fewer controls, fewer choices, fewer options, etc.). Except that doing that will make the task of getting a mobile device user to buy a low-end dedicated camera (i.e. move up the pyramid) even more difficult. For virtually every camera maker I can point to arbitrary feature/performance limitations in their low-end products that shouldn’t have been made, because it makes the task of attracting that middle pyramid dweller more difficult. 

Worse still, Canon and Nikon have been strongly reducing options for lower end cameras, in particular, lenses. EF-S, DX, and M are all distinguished by “we won’t make a lot of lenses because if that customer wants more choice, we’ll just up-sell them to EF, FX, RF.”

Unfortunately, one of the reasons why the camera makers limit functions, features, and options in the lower models is to keep someone they might be able to sell a higher-priced product to from picking the lower-cost one. I’d argue that these companies haven’t been fully rationalizing their product lines in order to do that correctly, and that the first and most important job they have is to make a sale in the first place. If you can push that sale up to a higher level, great, but you can’t do things that make the sale less likely to happen. Yet that's exactly what Canon and Nikon have done, and others are doing it, too.

So yes, sub-US$1000 crop sensor cameras is a product area that every camera company needs to pursue. None are doing it particularly well in my opinion, though Fujifilm has certainly been very active in this area lately. 

Do camera companies need a lot of choice, features, and options in their low-cost product line? No, but it has to the right set of things to come close to optimized sales. 

I have no idea yet what Canon is doing, as they’re all over the place still. Sony seemed to have this figured out at the start of the A5000/A6000 era, but now is making me scratch my head trying to figure out what they’re doing now. Nikon is weening itself from consumer DSLRs but not yet clear as to what will happen with consumer mirrorless (one crop sensor camera and two lenses are not a product line, per se). So Nikon’s done a toe-dip back into the low-end water, but nothing more so far. Fujifilm has been all over the low-end with the X-A#, X-T#00, X-E# and now X-S10 models providing a lot of options, but frankly, I'm confused as to which model they really want me to buy and why.

The camera companies need to come clean: they need to attract middle-of-the-pyramid customers and they don't know how to do that any more. Meanwhile, they lie to the investment community ("pursuing high-end customers"), they lie to customers ("our APS-C products are a full line") and they lie to themselves ("we've got this figured out."). It's time to stop the lying. 

Are You Losing Interest?

I've had a 50-year career dealing with images in some way or another. That's been as the photographer, the editor, or the consumer of images (for marketing and PR purposes). While it takes more to make an image stand out to me today—including for my own work—I still find myself interested in capturing, viewing, and commenting on images.

But let's be honest, not all of you are in that same category. 

Over time, it's somewhat natural to lose interest in one pursuit (e.g. photography) and have that eclipsed or supplanted by another. For most practitioners, photography is more hobby than work, and hobbies come and go. Or at least ebb and flow.

Lately I've encountered more and more people who say "I'm not using my camera as much any more," and thus consider themselves moving from the interested to the not interested category when it comes to photography. Some of this is just the usual burnout that happens over time. Moreover, that burnout is fueled by our being inundated with more images than ever. 

I'm amused to find myself on planes full of people who are sitting there looking at (mostly) photos on their mobile phones, swiping, up, down, left, and right ridiculously fast. Even images on social media that temporarily halt the non-stop scrolling/swiping for a moment seem to only last on the screen for the few seconds that it takes to find the Like button and use it.

Susan Sontag hypothesized many years ago that a photograph becomes the memory of an event. In 2014, a psychologist published a small study that had participants visit a museum and take photos of just half the paintings they saw. Turns out that people remembered the paintings they didn't photograph better than the ones they did. Subsequent studies all say the same thing: taking a photograph impairs people's memory of an event or place. 

The trigger for this is apparently something called cognitive offloading. If our brains are forced to take something in, they work to try to save that information. But if you take a photograph, the brain thinks it has free rein to not store the memory, because you have a photograph ;~). 

I think of this a different way. My job as a photographer is to capture and show something to be remembered. I believe that's actually one of the things that separate the pros from the amateurs much of the time: the pro is trying to find the story, understand it, then figure out how to convey it before they press the shutter release. If you do that, your memory isn't typically impaired because you're doing the same thing that people do when they store memories. I remember most of the times when I've decided that I needed to capture a particular photograph for a particular reason. That's because I studied and analyzed the situation before I started taking images. 

I clearly remember taking this photo back in 1994 because of the preparation. Galen (Rowell) turned to me and said "we can't waste a sunset, we only get a finite number of them." But we were in a place where there wasn't an obvious image. This led me to carefully think about where we were, what we had to work with, and what I might be able to convey. I was actually thinking about what I wanted to remember, and I decided that was the dust in the air at near sunset. And that dust was generated by vehicles kicking up the Savuti sand. So here it is over 25 years later and I not only remember where we were, but the discussion I had, the thinking I was doing, and how I came to take this image.

In sports photography, I'm thinking like coaches: what's the situation, what's the opponent doing, what is the play that counters that? All before I bring the camera to my eye to photograph the play that ensues. Sometimes the coach and I don't see eye to eye and I'm following/anticipating the wrong thing, but more often than not my knowledge of team tendencies and abilities has anticipated the right thing. For those photographs, I can often remember the situation (third and eight, deep in own territory, behind in the game, etc.) when I see the photograph again.

The corollary here is "the unthinking shot." This is the conflict I have with those that get all excited because their camera can take 30 fps without worrying about buffer. They start their sequence early, end it late, and rarely think about the play. Somewhere in the hundreds of images they end up with for the play will be something useful ;~). But does it tell the story of the game? Often not, because the resulting image is really a random moment in time taken randomly. 

All those studies about photography impairing one's memory of an event point to something I've been preaching for a long time: take in the situation and assess it before putting the camera up to your face and pressing buttons. Think story. Anticipate moments. Take everything in. Then, and only then, start making photographic decisions. 

Yes, it's possible that you may miss "peak moment" by doing this. Often on safari the tendency of the group I'm with is to immediately start taking photos as we approach something interesting, and a few times that's paid off. I, on the other hand, am trying to understand what's happening, how it's likely to evolve based upon past observations and animal behaviors, and where the best place to be is for that situation. I take far fewer images than most on safari, but I also have a high rate of interesting and compelling images, many of which tell a story.

The true best balance for a photographer is something else I've written before: above all else, take the shot. Since moments in time are truly ephemeral, spontaneous situations call for a spontaneous reaction first and foremost. However, once you've satisfied your index finger's first impulse, you need to step back, think, observe, and analyze. There's almost always a better shot lurking, but to get it requires your brain to be fully functioning, not just reacting. 

You can take it too far either direction: (a) you just react spontaneously on impulse and take images without thinking; or (b) you spend too much time analyzing, checking settings, trying to understand what's happening and you don't take any images at all. 

One of the things I love about safari is that while we get a few events that happen wicked fast and then are no more (a), most of the time understanding animal behaviors and ground situations can help you get ready for and take long sequences of useful images (b). We once sat at an odd location for almost two hours because we realized that the lilac-breasted rollers were actually starting to show mating behaviors. Actually, we observed this might be about to happen as we drove by a shabby-looking tree while looking for lions, but soon decided that this might be our best bet for interesting late morning images, so we headed back and sat for a bit. Sure enough, things started to get birdy-intense and once you understood how the mating ritual worked, it was easy to frame up the camera and then wait for something to happen.

bythom INT BOTS Savuti 2019 Z7 75420a

No, this is not a Photoshop composite, it's a competitive mating ritual. I can tell you exactly where that tree is (again in Savuti; today seems to be a Savuti day). 


A Couple of Quickies

Just noticed that the Father's Day sale has the Nikon Z6 down to a price of US$1399 [advertising link] while the Z5 is still US$999. That's a remarkably good price for both cameras, and good way to sample Nikon Z mirrorless at a relatively low cost. Of course you still need a lens, but most of the Z mount lenses are on sale, too.

Meanwhile, over on dslrbodies.com I've posted a few new articles:

And on zsystemuser.com:

  • Retro to the future — do we really need a retro-designed Z camera?
  • I've also done some mild site cleanup and updating, including bringing a couple of charts up to date

Thom's Bag Sale

Thom's finally getting around to doing his year end gear closet cleaning, and discovered a bunch of camera bags he's no longer using. The following items are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Send an email to me (link in footer in Copyright message) indicating your interest, and I'll reply with how to complete the order. I can send to US addresses only, unfortunately.

B1 Kata One Man Band. Pro video case. Closest to what eventually became the CB-300. Blue outer exterior (about 18x13x8"), yellow easy-to-see interior with accessory pockets and camera strap. Designed to carry and protect a full rigged out video camera with accessories. Trolley flap for travel, four exterior pockets, heavy-duty and weather resistant zippers. Shoulder strap and multiple grab handles. In like new condition. No longer have the camera it was carrying. US$100 includes shipping.

B2 — Wandrd Duo Daypack. Good size (20L) for simple mirrorless kit. Black. Weatherproof materials and zippers, dual side access with full bag open also, fits up to 16" MacBook Pro in inner sleeve. I've replaced zipper pulls with highly visible yellow ones (the black ones you can't find). Very little usage, like new. US$100 includes shipping.

B3 — ThinkTank Spectral 15. Shoulder/Messenger style bag that's a good size for a mirrorless set. Internal divided area has a zippered top as well as foldover flap. ThinkTank claims 10" tablet plus 15" laptop in two built-in areas, but it's a little tight with the MacBook Pro 15" (fits, but tight). Black. Like new, very little usage. US$79 includes shipping.

B4 — ThinkTank Airport Airstream. Wheeled compact bag with pull out handle. Holds 2 DSLRs, 3 lenses, 2 flashes; or up to a 400mm lens. Black. Laptop outer sleeve, rain cover, includes cable and lock for case, TSA lock for main case. In excellent shape. US$129 includes shipping.

B5 — ThinkTank Spectral 10. Shoulder/Messenger style bag that's a good size for a small mirrorless set. Internal divided area has a zippered top as well as foldover flap. Are for 10" tablet (no laptop area). Black. Like new, very little usage. US$59 includes shipping.

Is CIPA Half Full or Half Empty?

The latest CIPA camera shipment numbers pose a dilemma for those trying to analyze them: for the first four months of 2021 both value and volume are up for ILC and lenses from 2020 year-to-date. But they're still down from 2019. 

  • Half Full — the pandemic is still on-going, as is a parts shortage and a shipping crisis. Thus, any recovery is excellent news and indicates strong on-going demand.
  • Half Empty — many of the world economies are doing just fine at the moment, so on-going demand for cameras should be nearer equal to pre-pandemic, but obviously isn't. 

The regression analysis says "half empty": we'll hit somewhere near 6m units in 2021 (+/-300k), but that's still down ~25% from 2019, which itself was down 22% from 2018. Moreover, some of 2021's demand is likely leftover from the 2020 pandemic year slowdown, where the first half of that year was clearly depressed by the virus lockdowns. 

That said, nothing's changed. Canon, Nikon, and Sony are pretty much in the same positions as they were and still a strong Triopoly in ILC. None of those three is going to go out of business given the current news. Indeed, at the current CIPA run rate for cameras in 2021, they all should make a profit in their camera groups. 

My sense is that the on-going market demand is below 6m units a year. I've previously written that I believe that the market bottom can go to 4m with the camera companies surviving, but anything below that is where things start to get problematic. So, at least for the time being, I don't think we have anything to worry about in terms of company survivability. 

Safe Choices

It’s that time of year when students are graduating, and this triggers a fair amount of camera buying, both as gifts as well as for oneself. (It's also Father's Day coming up, and that adds to the early summer buying.)

Buying decisions are a little different for someone starting out with a completely new system versus someone who’s had a system (or systems!) for awhile and looking to update

So before getting to my advice for those leaving school and just starting their photographic career, let me first repeat my advice for those who already have an interchangeable lens camera system: don’t switch brands. Seriously. 

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve found who chase the greener grass only to find it was probably on the side of the fence they started on. Basically, you have to ignore—at least for a reasonable amount of time—any new technology or feature or lens or whatever that Brand X just announced. If that’s truly something useful, the Brand you currently own will get around to it. Maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe several years from now, but they will. 

Yes, Canon and Nikon waited a bit too long in transitioning to mirrorless. But that’s now full swing, so be a little more patient if the specific thing you want isn’t in a C or N skin yet. It will be.

The reason you don’t switch brands at every chance is simple: having to relearn and adjust to virtually everything. Photos are spontaneous moments in time, and if you’re fiddling with settings, menus, or trying to figure out what button to push you’re going to miss that moment. Within brands, we now have a high degree of consistency (though Sony is still changing menus and names of things). Nikon, for instance, is still recognizably using the control system pioneered in the N8008 in 1988. If, like me, you’ve been using that system since then, changing to anything else slows you down and makes you miss moments. If you stick with a new system long enough, obviously you get used to that, but I’ve watched people switch systems every two years and never learn one system well enough to fully master it. Don’t be that person.

So, again, if you’ve been using a Canon, Nikon, Olympus, or Sony system for a long time, you probably should just stick with what you’ve got.

However, today we’re talking about new customers (graduating students), who don’t have any muscle memory from dedicated cameras. Any new camera you hand them will be as foreign as the next. 

So what do I recommend to those folk?

Basically, there are probably three safe bets for the long-term future: full frame mirrorless from Canon, Nikon, or Sony. I don’t see the RF, Z, or FE systems going away any time soon, and they'll be the pillars of mirrorless that last the longest. No one knows what comes after mirrorless, nor does anyone have any idea when that might come. (I’d bet 10 years and fully computational, but neither of those things are fully predictable at the moment).

Thus, if you’re dipping into a system for the first time, you’re going to choose between RF, Z, or FE. 

With a caveat. And it’s an important caveat to consider. Full frame is not exactly a low-price entry into cameras (though the excellent Nikon Z5 body sits currently at US$1000). Maybe you only have US$1000-1500 to get you started on a “full” system (body, some lenses, a few accessories). If so, you just got trapped in the Cropped Sensor Zone. 

This highway leads to the shadowy tip of reality: you're on a through route to the land of the different, the bizarre, the unexplainable...Go as far as you like on this road. Its limits are only those of mind itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, you're entering the wondrous dimension of imagination. Next stop....The Cropped Sensor Zone."

The Cropped Sensor Zone (CSZ) is indeed different, is indeed sometimes bizarre, and contains plenty of unexplainable decisions by camera companies. Aspect ratio differences, sensor size differences (even at so-called APS-C), color filtration differences, incompatible lens mounts, lack of full lens sets, and much more plague the CSZ. Decisions you make entering the CSZ may turn out to be dead ends (I’m looking at you Canon M). 

While a lot of graduating students may end up entering the CSZ, I would suggest that they do so with care. I’m going to say there are really only three reasonably safe CSZ choices here in 2021:

  1. Fujifilm XF — The good news is that there is a full line of cameras, looks like there will be a full line of cameras for the foreseeable future, and there’s a reasonably large choice of lenses available. The bad news is that this is culdesac. If you’re happy with what you can eventually do in the culdesac, great. But you may have to leave the neighborhood to do something else down the road. Fujifilm’s “upgrade” is from XF to GFX, and there’s no lens compatibility when you make that upgrade. So, if you buy in with an X-S10 with the goal of eventually getting to an X-T4 level camera, great, no real problems. If you buy an X-E4 thinking maybe some day you'll get a GFX, not so great.
  2. m4/3 — The good news is that you have multiple providers of bodies and lenses, so a large choice of options from low end to high. Again, this is a culdesac, though, because moving out of m4/3 to something else later is a big switch. But if m4/3 satisfies you, you have a huge range of choices to grow into. I do think that m4/3 needs to show some image sensor change—we seem stuck on older Exmor type 20mp sensors—but if you’re good with what we have now, there’s hope that things will improve downstream. 
  3. Sony E — Sony’s APS-C system is the only mature one that has a natural path out of the CSZ: full frame with the same lens mount. Of course, Sony's CSZ camera choices are limited and a bit too one-dimensional, but there’s nothing wrong with the A6### cameras and lens choices for someone starting out.

So, if you’re thinking of gifting someone into the CSZ (or making that decision yourself), I’d suggest that you look at Sony E first. It’s the safest bet, and allows people to grow further without relearning everything from scratch. 

Which brings us back to full frame mirrorless. If the needs are 100% immediate and they have some specific needs in terms of lenses, Sony FE is probably the place to go. Only problem is, Sony doesn’t have a true entry camera at near the US$1000 price point in full frame. Sony will point you to previous generation cameras at deep discount or the CSZ, but don’t take that bait. Sony has been maturing their system (performance, controls, menus, you name it) fairly rapidly, so even one generation back results in buying a camera with “issues.” 

If you can’t afford to buy into Sony FE at the A7C or A7 Mark III level, I’d say you need to go to the number two choice, which is Nikon Z, and in particular, the Z5 (though the older generation Z6 makes a reasonable choice, too).

Nikon has a lot left to do in the Z line, but that’s mostly lenses, accessories, and a few gap-filling models they need to create. Nikon has mature performance and technology already, and the current cameras are just fine for someone starting out. Just understand that you’ll grow with a growing system, not enter into a mature system. 

Wait, what about Canon?

Canon’s my third choice for someone entering into full frame mirrorless from scratch. It’s not anything particularly problematic with the Canon RF mount, it’s a lot of small things that add up as a bit of a mess still. The R and RP, which are the two lowest cost models, don’t reflect where Canon already has matured RF to, so unless you can afford an R6, you’re going to have some re-learning and adjustment ahead, methinks. And the R and RP are using older DSLR-recycled image sensors, to boot (disclaimer: so is the Nikon Z5). Moreover, while Canon has some nice RF lenses already, I’m not getting the same sense of clear approach to sub-lines of lenses, but more a scattershot of lots of different options. Those may or may not fulfill your need, today or in the future. 

That said, I’m not going to fault anyone being gifted or gifting themselves a Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE system to get their photographic (and probably video) journey started. Good choices, all, just that I have a clear priority to my suggestions there: (1) Sony, (2) Nikon, (3) Canon, in that order. 

I wouldn’t fault someone picking Sony E (APS-C) as the entry point, either. I”d have a few questions for someone picking Fujifilm XF or m4/3, but assuming you can answer those questions successfully, you’re golden, too.

So what’s that leave as “don’t buy this” for someone starting out? Actually not much:

  • Canon DSLRs
  • Canon M mount mirrorless
  • Nikon DSLRs
  • Pentax DSLRs

Even with the Canon and Nikon DSLRs one could make an argument that buying a top-end model and just feeding off the existing lens sets in both the new and used markets, could keep you mostly happy for a decade. 

Still, it should be clear to long-term users that something shifted in terms of “safe choice.” The safe choice used to be Canon DSLR with Nikon DSLR a close second. Now it’s Sony mirrorless, with Nikon Z probably second, while Canon has slipped to third due to having things still left to do in rationalizing the RF line.

Update: corrected date for N8008 introduction

Site Updates in Progress

Now that I'm back in the editing chair, I'm updating my other sites. And yes, you may have noticed that the "missing image" problem is now fixed.

Sansmirror:

Zsystemuser:

Update: fixed incorrect link.

Creative Cloud Updates

Adobe seems to have been a little more aggressive about updating things so far this year. I'm not sure if that's good news or bad, as all my Macs seem to be constantly asking to update Photoshop this year ;~).

Today, Adobe dropped a series of updates:

  • Photoshop for iPad adds import/download of brushes.
  • Photoshop Express gets new Retouch features, as well as content-aware healing, face aware liquify.
  • Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Lightroom add Premium Presets (and profiles for the Nikon Z7 II).
  • Lightroom gets Edit Collaboration for shared photo albums.
  • Lightroom adds custom crop ratios.
  • Both Lightroom and Lightroom Classic now get Super Resolution.
  • Lightroom Classic is now native for Apple M1 Silicon.
  • Lightroom Classic gains tethered Live View for Nikon bodies.

Is Sony Now Better Than Nikon?

Okay, this is blasphemy from a Nikon user, I know. But I want to kick off a series of “X better than Y” articles, and given the current hype on the Internet, why not feed fuel to a fire?

Over time, the camera makers—just like competitors in any industry—learn from one another. Or not. When they learn from each other, they do better. When they don’t, they do worse. 

So how is the best Sony camera right now better than the best Nikon camera? You might be surprised at my answer:

  • Named settings files. The Sony A1 can save 10 named settings files to a card, the most any Nikon can do is save one unnamed settings file to a card. I set up my camera different for landscape work than I do for sports work, for instance, and only having one settings file means I end up having to spend time pre-configuring a Nikon before each session. Not so with the Sony. I’ve been hammering on this need for over decade. Only Sony seems to have heard me. Time for Nikon to follow. 
  • Pixel shift photography. Olympus pioneered the use of the IS platform behind the sensor being able to shift slightly to record more information. Pentax uses it to antialias. Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, and Sony all have pixel shift modes. Notable exception from the list: Nikon. Once again Nikon missed a memo from their user base.
  • Sophisticated electronic shutter. The Sony A1 has a bunch of tricks up its sleeve. First off, it has a much faster rolling shutter, which approximates a mechanical shutter. Second, flash can be used with the silent electronic shutter. Third, anti-flicker is much more sophisticated, including being able to set highly incremental shutter speeds (1/247.6 for instance). 
  • Picture Profiles. Everyone has the ability to change the “look” of the in-camera color/tonal/contrast settings. With Sony, that’s usually done via the Creative Look, with Nikon it's with the Picture Controls. Sony adds a second function, Picture Profiles, where there is much more adjustment capability, including Black Level, video Gamuts and Color Spaces (e.g. Rec.2020), the Knee value, and more. This really benefits video users who need to match against other cameras, but it’s of value to sophisticated still photographers, too.
  • Controllable Zebras. Not only does the Sony A1 show Zebras in still photography, but you also can set their values in single digit percentages. Nikon limits Zebra display to video modes for the most part, and isn’t as flexible in the settings.
  • Focus Area mode switch with control. It’s slightly buried in Sony’s menus, but it is possible to customize a button so that it switches your Focus Area mode instantly. Nikon does this with a couple of DSLRs, but only in conjunction with AF-ON. 
  • Grouping of playback images. This one is going to be a little controversial, but you can turn it off on the Sony if you don't like it. When you take a burst of images, you can have them appear together as a group on playback (shows the last image taken with a stack indicator). This requires you to click into the stack to see individual images, but sports photographers find this quite useful, as individual plays are isolated, and they can later chimp a particular play to find the best shot of it and send to their agency.
  • FTP any way you want it. Ethernet, USB tethered, and Wi-Fi all are supported for FTP on the Sony A1. I’m not a huge fan of FTP as it requires a lot of setup to get right, and can be temperamental in use. Sony also has much more ability to configure FTP and save up to 9 different configurations than does Nikon. That’s just enough for all the facilities I use. Getting FTP on most of the Nikon cameras requires an accessory, and the abilities are far more limiting. I’ve been harping on Nikon with “communication” issues for over a decade. They started out ahead, they’re now behind. That means they haven’t kept their eye on the ball for pro users.
  • Customizing buttons is more extensive. The Sony A1 often allows you to set a button customization to virtually anything in the menu system (there are a few limitations). Nikon is paternal and severely limits button customization, in one case only allowing three choices that they somehow determined, none of which interest me. 
  • Viewfinder AF information. The Sony A1 pretty much keeps up with any situation, showing which focus sensors are in use and their status. To some, this is almost overkill, as it means constantly bouncing focus indicators in some modes (you can turn them off). Even on the best Nikon DSLR, the D6, the camera doesn’t keep the user fully abreast of where focus is being done in some cases, and on the Z System cameras, there’s frustrating lag in the focus sensor information. 
  • View by attribute. Here’s how it works on the sidelines with my A1: take photos; when I get time I chimp and mark images; when I get a bit more time, I search by marks (jump) and send each of those to my agency via FTP or my mobile connection. Here’s how it works on the sidelines with a D6: take photos; when I get time I chimp and mark images; when I get to the press room, I download to my computer and search/send the marked images. Which is better? You can jump between protected images or specific rated images on the Sony. I use protected because it’s a convenient pre-programmed button press to protect an image. 

You’ll note that I didn’t write about dynamic range, frame rate, high ISO capability, or a whole host of things that keep getting debated on the Internet. Virtually everything I note above are things that deal with real user pain points and would best be described as items that make something easier or provide additional benefit in the workflow.

I also didn’t say “Sony AF is better than Nikon AF.” Frankly, it’s about a draw right now between my Sony A1 and my Nikon D6 (and I hope Z9). To get the best out of any autofocus system requires study and practice. With study and practice I get really nice sequences with focus where I want it from both cameras. Yes, the A1 would be somewhat better than the Z6 II, but they’re different classes of cameras. I get similar focus results from a Z6 II that I do from an A7 Mark III these days. 

One takeaway from this article should be: the camera makers need to pay much more attention to how photographers are using their cameras than they do to small technical advances. Not that we want them to stop tinkering with the electronic capabilities, but we want them to improve the user experience and options more. 

Article also posted on sansmirror.com

Best Landscape Camera?

During my short break dpreview claimed the Nikon Z7 II as the best camera for landscapes, much to the chagrin of Sony fans (and Fujifilm medium format fans who claim they were left out of the competition intentionally).

Yes, you can quibble with me about my use of the words "best camera" in the above paragraph, but dpreview used the words "our pick", "our choice", "our winner", and "best choice", all in three paragraphs.

Here’s the question no one is asking: does dpreview clearly explain why they made that decision? Here’s another question: will NikonUSA marketing actually notice the acclaim and send out some bragging-rights marketing?

Before we go too far, there’s the issue of “best”. Is there such a thing as “best”? Sure there is, but only if you put context on it: clearly described criteria, clearly described and equal evaluation, clearly made conclusions. 

The summary explanation that dpreview presented was “the Nikon’s ISO 64 setting…allows it to capture 2/3EV more light.” I’m not sure that was proven anywhere. ISO, and thus exposure, is a bit of a nebulous thing. Is dpreview sure that they collected more photons at the same aperture/shutter speed, and exactly how did they measure that? And where did they present their theory that “more light = better landscape photos”?  DxOMark, for what it’s worth, rates the Hasselblad X1D-50C and Sony A7R Mark IV at 14.8 in their Landscape test, the Nikon Z7 II at 14.7, so there's the additional needed explanation of how 2/3EV more light can create .1EV less dynamic range ;~).

Meanwhile dprview's stated complaints about the Nikon Z7 II don’t seem to be applicable to landscape photography. Really, we need the AF mode control button on a landscape camera? Worse still, dpreview just deviates from talking about landscape photography completely: “you’ll have to decide whether to use subject tracking, face detection, or a simpler AF area mode.” Hmm. Can’t remember when I needed the focus point to be moving while taking landscapes. Completely missing from dpreview’s fly-by proclamation of winnership is any discussion of things that ARE useful to landscape photographers, like Focus Peaking, EVF magnification, and so on. It’s almost as if they didn’t go out and take any landscape photos (hint: look in the image gallery that accompanies the article).

Meanwhile, the Sony A7R Mark IV—which most people would expect to be picked as the winner—has “Dual UHS-II card slots [which] will be helpful for those shooting fast action bursts of images.” At least there was an uninspiring landscape photo that made it into the photo gallery for that camera.

I could pick apart things even more than I already have, but try as I might I still don’t know why one of these cameras is better for landscapes than the others from dpreview’s article and descriptions.

The funny thing is, I agree with them ;~). 

I thought I was going to use my Sony A7R Mark IV more for landscape work than my Nikon Z7 II, but it simply hasn’t turned out that way. Heck, I thought that Sony’s additional wide angle lens choices were going to push me to the Sony for landscapes, but that didn’t happen even though I’ve now sampled a lot of those lenses. 

My reviews of the Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 S and the Sony 20mm f/1.8G are coming soon (still trying to collect more landscape images with both to complete my assessment). I’m not sure I have a favorite right now. Both are exceptionally good, better than the 20mm solutions I’ve been using. Likewise, both the Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 S and the Sony 12-24mm f/2.8GM are excellent choices, too. Again, I'm not sure I have a real preference. Yes, I know the Sony zoom goes wider, but for my landscape work I’m not finding that to be overly useful.

One thing that drives me towards the Nikon for landscapes is my preference for physically wider images. I don’t like the 3:2 aspect ratio for landscapes, and I hate 4:3 for landscapes. The Hollywood DP in me wants wide, horizontally encompassing images, and for that I’ve turned mostly to the 19mm PC-E and a tri-stitch sequence. Because I can mount the front of the PC-E to the tripod—using an accessory I found in Japan—I can make a three-image horizontal sequence wickedly fast, and not worry about parallax issues during the post processing stitching. The PC-E also allows me to control the focus plane while producing excellent acuity. 

Coupled with the data set that the Z7 II captures—which at base ISO does indeed have a few more photons in play and which is easy to post process—that’s why I keep gravitating towards the Z7 II over the A7R Mark IV. I also have to remember to turn off lens corrections on the Sony, as they are used to change the raw data before it is recorded and can complicate post processing. 

Now I’ll be the first one to admit a bias here. I like the Z7 II for my landscape work because it better suits my landscape work. Simple as that. I wish it had real time zebra display for stills, a pixel-shift mode, and a few other things that other cameras have, but it’s the combination of specific personal biases that have me picking the Z7 II. 

Did dpreview tell us what their bias was that pushed them to declare the Z7 II as their recommended landscape camera? If they did, I’m not sure I detected that. I know they read my site, so perhaps they’ll come back with another article, such as their “Scoring Explained” one to tell everyone how they think (for me at least, that article failed to do so. At least they tried ;~).

Meanwhile, dpreview posted their recommendation on May 27, at 1pm PST. NikonUSA’s Twitter feed hasn’t mentioned the dpreview recommendation yet. I wonder whether they will? 

Nikon Rumors, of course, picked up the recommendation quickly and put up a post about it. I’m surprised Sony Rumors didn’t put up a “They’re Wrong” post. But this just goes to show how information bias actually works in the background on the Internet: publish things that agree with your view, don’t publish the things that don’t.  So, not news ;~).

 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