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This page of the site contains the latest 10 articles to appear on bythom, followed by links to the archives.

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Technology moves incessantly onward, so it's easy enough to predict that today's state-of-the-art camera will be superseded by tomorrow's. My advice has long been consistent to those trying to keep up with such on-going updating: buy every second generation, not every generation.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The problem comes when a platform looks like it will be superseded by a new one, meaning all the cameras in the platform are likely to go away.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 EF-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 ;~).

The Camera Market Shift

I've written about this before, but it's time once again to put some numbers on things.

In the last five years, you'll see the clear "mirrorless is here" signal.

  • 2017 — DSLR 356b yen, 7.6m units; Mirrorless 221b yen, 4m units
  • 2021 — DSLR 91b yen, 2.3m units; Mirrorless 325b yen, 3.1m units

Note the value shift. Mirrorless value—despite the lower overall volumes—is now about where the DSLR value was five years ago. You can see that more clearly in the average unit price:

  • 2017 — DSLR 47000 yen; Mirrorless 54300 yen
  • 2021 — DSLR 40700 yen; Mirrorless 104,500 yen

Yep, the average selling price of a DSLR has declined ~20% while the average selling price of a mirrorless camera has about doubled. 

Ask yourself this: why would a camera company want to sell a US$500 camera now? It would take incredible volume results for that US$500 camera to make any real difference to the camera maker's bottom line (and that's assuming they could keep the margins intact). 

The new "bottom" is more likely 2x, or US$1000. Yes, we'll continue to see some products under that mark as the makers test whether there's enough price elasticity effect to regenerate volume, but so far that hasn't happened. I expect the lower cost interchangeable lens cameras to "age out in place." That means that they'll still be available, but they won't undergo any significant updating. US$1000 cameras would be the lower mark where you might see feature, performance, or innovation gains now, and realistically, the camera makers really want to do that closer to US$2000. 

I think we've seen the bottom of the value numbers for the camera makers. Somewhere around 1,000,000m yen is now a realistic size for the overall camera market (bottom was 673,000m yen). But the number of units producing that number is less than half what it used to be. So 2x is a good rule of thumb to think about how things have changed in the last five years: 2x the cost and 1/2 the volume. 

For some companies, such as Nikon, they'll be significantly smaller than they were five years ago, though operating with more traditional profit margins (currently running about 14%). Some companies, such as Fujifilm and Sony, will be significantly larger than they were five years ago, though the former is still very shy on profit margin. Canon probably will end up where it has always been ;~). 

True, nothing new to see here. We've been in a ten year period of contraction, though—even through the veil of the pandemic—it's now looking like the market has found a new baseline size. Recessions will have us under the baseline, economic growth periods might generate some growth from the baseline.

I still believe that my forecast from several years ago is within a reasonable margin of error: 6m ILC units is where we'll eventually get (almost all mirrorless), and 4m units is the bottom of what is sustainable. 

Entering Quiet Time

It seems that the camera makers are mostly concentrating on releasing lenses, so I have my work cut out for me: I'm seriously behind on reviewing a number of lenses. 

So I'm going to spend much of the next weeks doing a lot of field testing and trying to get a number of lenses off my "in progress" list for reviews. I also have a number of photos I need to produce for a project that's gone on too long. 

Thus, instead of spending the month of April writing Web entries, you'll find me mostly behind the lens working on catching up on things that got delayed for one reason or another the past year. If the Web sites seem a little quiet, don't worry, I'll be back with lots more as spring winds down and summer lurks. 

Don't Bet on Firmware Additions

One thing I had hoped for when both market demand and the pandemic began slowing down new camera releases was that we might see camera makers take some engineering staff and backfill outstanding feature requests (e.g. firmware updates). Technically, that would increase the shelf life of the products, something all the camera companies will need to do given the slow rollout of new products.

Unfortunately, of the last 100 mirrorless camera firmware updates I've tracked, only 30 added what I would call a significant feature, though many of those were simply providing something that had been previously promised (i.e. announced but unavailable at launch). Truly new features, such as Nikon's Portrait impression balance—which is curiously missing in the Z9 despite having been added to the Z6 II and Z7 II—were fairly rare in firmware updates. 

Stability, slight performance enhancement, and bug fixing was the primary focus of most of those last 100 firmware updates across the mirrorless manufacturers. All things that would have come up through the customer support system as complaints. So I guess they do listen, though that listening seems carefully filtered.

As I was doing my counting, an email came in that said "I think Nikon and Canon stopped innovating 15 years ago: we just keep getting higher-resolution sensors all the time. That's all. Not fewer dials, no touch-panels for focus and spot-metering, no important reduction in weight and size, no actual silent shutters, extremely expensive lenses, silly and clumsy pop-up flashes or none at all."

While I don't agree with some of the details in that email, the underlying premise is indeed one that's becoming more and more common in comments about dedicated cameras these days: where's the real progress from a photographer standpoint? For the most part, new things are dribbling out rather than gushing out, and much of that is just some refinement of something that's already good enough (e.g. more pixels). 

In putting together my Z9 review and book, I've been looking very closely at what Nikon thinks "is the new flagship." There are, indeed, a few new paths being paved with the Z9. The lack of a mechanical shutter and the (mostly) blackout free viewfinder were two nice steps forward, though not without penalty. The subject detection in the autofocus system has taken a leap forward, but I still need to control it. 

However, coupled with the steps forward Nikon's left a bit of a mess behind. Besides not implementing some of the things they've pioneered in other cameras—the aforementioned Portrait impression balance is just one—their attempt at improving the menu system mostly fails. Yes, toggle on and off was a nice touch (literally). No, having viewfinder items sprawling across three menus and two Custom Settings groups is not. For some unknown reason, the Z9 menus now change the word "images" to "pictures," which just makes some menu names get longer in a design that doesn't like long names. The bank system and settings saving hasn't really been improved in 15 years, and it needed fixing 15 years ago, not bandaids like Extended menu banks. Features such as Multiple exposure and HDR overlay (the new name) have had abilities removed. Indeed, looking through the Z9 menus you find that the so-called flagship doesn't really add anything, kept things that needed fixing, drops things that people were using, and then muddles everything up with some new disorganization of a system that had been one of the better organized. 

I have a list of over 40 things that need addressing in firmware on the Z9 to clean the mess up, and another two dozen feature requests. What are the odds that I'll see all of the issues dealt with, let alone any added features? 

You'd think that the odds would be high. After all, a flagship tends to have to endure for four years on the market, and the market has slowed considerably, so maybe it's longer now. However, I think the odds are low. First, Nikon still needs to provide the features announced with the Z9 that aren't yet available (mostly in the video side of the camera). Second, I'm not sure they clearly see how to simplify, organize, and add to the UX of the camera. Moreover, how do you address the fact that you have a button and dial that do the same thing (Release Mode), but the hardware implementation of the dial isn't complete? 

Curiously, we have Nikon making the wrong solution to the right problem, too. The whole WR-R11a came about because the old WR-R10 kept breaking when the camera was roughly handled. At least it bends when hit now ;~). But why isn't the whole wireless remote system just built into the flagship in the first place? And only four channels? 

While I'm picking on Nikon and the Z9 here, I could do the same thing for virtually every camera on the market right now. And Lloyd Chambers recently pointed out a feature—Frame Averaging—that ought to be in every camera, but only exists in crude form in a few. As he points out, it's low hanging fruit. Apparently so low hanging that Nikon once picked it, but now prefers to go looking for a ladder.

I'm not holding out for any significant firmware updates to come along, though. The Japanese camera makers are all in "sell a box" mode, and that means that they think they have to come up with a new product in a new box. The problem is that their imagination and their understanding of the customer that's still buying seem to be incredibly lacking. 

When Fujifilm was in a race to catch up with Canikony, Fujifilm was issuing firmware updates regularly with new features. Many customers misunderstood that to be a commitment to improving existing products. Nope, it was a race to catch up in the feature race, and to be able to check all the same marketing tick boxes as Canikony. 

However, what Canon, Nikon, and Sony didn't seem to notice is how much customer satisfaction all that feature adding was giving Fujifilm. Fujifilm's reputation was enhanced by simply adding things that were expected. Heaven forbid that any of the camera companies were to start adding things that weren't expected, but useful and welcome!


Update: I don't know how this will turn out in terms of updates, but Nikon has my full list of Z9 firmware issues, plus several specific and repeatable bug reports I've filed. They seem sincere in analyzing these and addressing real issues. That said, my list of firmware additions wasn't commented on. Which sort of supports my point.

Update: redacted a slur in the email quote.

We Don't Need Lots of Consumer Cameras

Here's another reason why you're going to see the primary camera makers head fully upstream with higher-priced models: they don't want to compete with themselves.

One of the oft-ignored aspects of digital cameras is that they've been highly competent for a long, long time. Canon and Nikon, in particular, sold millions upon millions of Rebels/Kisses and DX bodies. Most of which are still capable of taking excellent images. Indeed, the Nikon D3xxx series, which dates back to 2009, is a solid, basic, well-defined entry interchangeable lens camera, of which several million are in circulation.

A question I've gotten from some readers lately has been this: "don't the camera makers have to make entry-level cameras to find new users in the future?" My answer is no, because they can't top what they've done and make the price and profit right. A near new D3300 on the used market is going for US$250 right now. That's the 2014 model that featured 24mp and to this day is still a competitive APS-C based camera. A lot of those sit in closets, and will eventually find new homes. 

What I think will happen is that the big camera makers will likely have to collapse their entry level products down considerably in the future, and they'll still have troubles competing with themselves due to the large installed base of used gear that's virtually as competent that could serve as an entry camera for the cost conscious. If I had a graduating high schooler who I wanted to gift an interchangeable lens camera to I'd be looking at what I could get in the like-new used market for the US$500-1000 range. And in the Nikon lineup I'd be comparing that to the US$1000 or so that a Z50 or Zfc would provide.

A lot of you already know this. The hand-me-down market is huge, and mostly unseen because it doesn't generate revenue for anyone, so why measure it? Yet hand-me-downs are one of the primary drivers of new users of interchangeable lens cameras. Nikon, for instance, would be well served to increase the availability and compatibility of the FTZ adapter, because doing the opposite would undermine one of their better sources of eventual mirrorless purchasers. 

One problem corporations in the consumer markets have is that they get myopic to current sales. They don't see a long-term customer. They see the sale of a box. Some boxes sell better than others, so emphasize those. When you can't sell that box, try a different box. 

I know quite a few of you are averse to SaaS (Software as a Service), but the good part of that is that for a company to survive charging a monthly tithe, they have to embrace the customer. Not only do they have to provide initial value, but they have to provide on-going value and continually enhance that value. Adobe got off to a rough start with Creative Cloud, but I'd say that they got the products eventually percolating correctly. What they've continually gotten wrong is support, which continues to be poor to fair. 

I mention that because imagine this scenario: Nikon declares the D500, D780, D850, D5, and D6 as FaaS (Firmware as a Service). That they undertake to keep customers of those bodies happy by refining, tuning, and enhancing what the camera can do over time. They keep parts in stock so that hardware problems can be rapidly fixed. How many of you would pay US$5/month for that if it were done right? Thought so. Take it one step further: periodically replacing or updating the image sensor or digital board for an upgrade cost.

Unfortunately, Nikon won't even consider such a thing, and they're not a company that has the right personnel and policies to pull it off if they decided these were things to do with the DSLR lineup. Which brings us back to the question of how do the camera companies hold onto existing customers and find new ones? 

I don't think that will be by offering a full line of consumer products, at least any time in the future I can see clearly. Canon and Nikon will have to rely on the hand-me-down and used market introducing new folk to their brands. Fujifilm and Sony will have to rely upon Canon and Nikon getting that wrong, or doing things that turn customers off that got into Canikon this way. 

The days of the lower end of the camera offerings dominating the dollars brought in and going after market share are, at least for the time being, gone. Nikon has just proven that they can be more profitable off lower volume at higher prices. What don't they like about that? So they'll continue that strategy moving forward. Sony seems to be headed the same direction. When will Canon catch on?

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