New Cameras Shows Future Directions for Semi-Pro Users

A new post on the upcoming cameras from Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm and Samsung are now posted in Techgoondu. This post I won’t rehash the specifications but to really dwell into the marketing / product strategy judging by the models that are released.

I will say now that whatever I post here is not the result of talking to the PR people or the executives of the various brands during product launches. Even if I asked, they won’t say that much too since those information will be considered as commercial confidential secrets.

Those people who know me will thoroughly understand my background. I am trained in Marketing and also in Applied Information Technology. My IT background started because of my ignorance with all things tech then, I was led to buy things that was way too expensive and unnecessary. Whatever I said or answered to questions when it comes to products, it is always from the perspective of need versus want, value versus extravagance.

In the end, what I said may be tinted with my past experience but my heart is always to tell people to get what they need, not what they want. The fact remains, I talk cock sing song here (as a good friend from the photography industry has described my blog as so) is to help, so long they lend me their ears (eyes).

Ok with that out of the way. Here are my thoughts will all the new cameras coming out this year that culminates with Photokina 2014 in Germany.

Candidates for the Semi-Pros and their Key Features

Sony A7s took the honours to push the A7 system forward. Its winning feature is the ability to shoot in the dark and to shoot 4K video albeit recording via an external device.

My conjuncture at this point that Nikon comes out with its new D750 is partly because the sensor from Sony a7 is readily available. So that makes it easier to adopt and come out with a new model. What’s really nice is how small it has become. We have seen the Df and wish it was better and the D750 can be seen as what the Df should be in terms of size.

Canon 7DM2 builds on what is proven and made it better. It is a through and through sports photography machine with dual SD cards so one can machine gun without worrying about the lack of space. Better focusing and better tracking. This is tough to beat.

Fujifilm XT1 to me should be rebranded as X-Pro2. That’s what the camera is designed for: Pros and the ability to fully use adapted lens via its split screen focusing system. And I will also say people love full frame because of the size of the OVF and Fujifilm did try to emulate that using a super big EVF. A lot of people has seen the benefit and switched camps.

Samsung NX1  at the current moment is the enigma of the lot. Experience shows specification and actual image quality ain’t the same thing. For example, X100 got a paltry 73 on DXoMark but is a run away success to some professionals. It can also shoot good 4K videos judging by the sample video of Madagascar if it is of any indication.


Full Frame versus Crop Frame (APS-C) Sensors – A bit of history and current happenings.

If this question was posed 10 years ago, the fight, if you can call this a fight, would surely go squarely to FF camp very easily. The science behind it is valid then as it is now. More real estate means more light collection, more light collection means better data collection, better data collection means better colour management and thus better image quality output.

The head was turned when Fujifilm presents the X100. For the very first time, the image quality that comes out of the RGB sensor is nothing short of breath taking. Some people even compared the IQ of the X100 (16MP) to Nikon’s D700 (12MP).

Judging by my eyes then (and now), the X100 APS-C sensor was not hindered by the size and for the first time in a fairly long time, the processor is able to eliminate the problems associated with smaller sensor.

All of a sudden, another war has erupted on top of the mega pixel war: the sensor size war.

The history of crop sensor is now more than a decade old. In bid to expand the DSLR pie, Canon and Nikon introduced the crop sensor market or in Nikon term the DX format.

Canon has it all pretty figured out when it comes to crop sensor offerings in its lineup.

Canon users who are using crop sensor bodies have a good upgrade path. They can buy the entry level 700D to learn photography, 70D when they are better at it and then upgrade to 7D when they decided to earn some money through photography, all the while they can keep their crop sensor lenses be it from Canon or 3rd party lens manufacturers.

In comparison Nikon’s entry level D3000/D5000 are able shooters but require lenses that has motor to drive the focusing mechanism and such lenses are about S$200-300 more expensive than the non motor driven ones.

In the past, I would recommend beginners to get the Nikon D80/D90 and then upgrade to D300s 1 to 2 years down the road. With the current line up, the entry level cameras can only upgrade to at most the D7100 prosumer level DSLR as there are no current model to replace the D300s.

If one wants to use a better camera body that is pro centric like the D300s, the only recourse is to dump the whole DX lens and just get the full frame D610/D750 bodies but they are consumer bodies by way of control.

Of course DX lenses still can be used on such full frame bodies but it will be truncated. For example I can force the use of Tokina 11-16mm DX ultra wide angle lens but only at 16mm focal length on the full frame body without having any dark corners.

The way the Nikon lineup is shaping up seems to suggest beginners to get the full frame DSLR since the DX range do not have a clear future into the Pro arena. Would people buy a S$3k camera kit like the D610 to start learning photography? Kind of steep ain’t it?

Seeing Nikon’s unwillingness or inability to support their crop sensor customers adequately, the other manufacturers saw a gap and provided alternative solutions and Micro four thirds (Olympus/Panasonic), Sony and Fujifilm took the initiative and have a foot hold in the crop sensor market. Thom Hogan, an famous and avid Nikon user and reviewr has a good article on this brand migration that  you can read it here.

How’s it is Shaping Up Now

With this year’s launches, two camps have emerged,

Sony+Nikon versus Canon/Fujifilm/Samsung

It is a given that Sony and Nikon are on one side because Sony is the supplier for sensors to Nikon. Even the D750 sensor shares the same one with the A7 and the D810, the A7R. Goes to show Nikon’s direction is in some ways being dictated by the sensor that it can buy from.

The APS-C side of things has gone interesting too. Canon 7DM2 has 20.2 MP, Fujifilm XT1 has 16MP and the Samsung NX1 has a whopping 28MP.

Again Samsung NX1 sensor is also an enigma when it comes to real noise control as we usually assumes that bigger pixel photosite means higher Signal to Noise ratio and that leads to better data and results in less ISO noise. There are sample shots of noise at various levels and it looked quite good despite squeezing more photo sites unto the crop sensor.

What Fujifilm and Samsung has shown is to throw a spanner on things we almost held it as religious truth when it comes to sensor size – big sensors means better IQ which is slowly but surely being debunked as processing technology, data transmission (Samsung NX1 uses copper as an example) and demosaicing algorithm improves by leaps and bounds.

Even small cameras with small sensors such as Sony RX100 and Fujifilm X30 has shown that small doesn’t mean bad.

The other thing that APS-C sensor do have is that extended reach due to the crop factor when it comes to bird and sports photography without sacrificing image quality by much.

A fact that is largely ignored is that APS-C can actually be quite good to the point some media outlets do use them. So why the fixation with Professional tools need be full frame sensor? I think it is time to change that thinking and realise that there are professionals that can and do shoot with APS-C and found to be good enough for their needs.

I am however still concerned with the need to increase Megapixels and I feel anything beyond 16MP is not going to be a huge improvement for consumers. For FF, 20-24MP seems to be the best sweet spot and if people are worried about 4K video capture, the resolution needed is 8847360pixels or about 9MP. Anything that needs to downscale would inevitably mean losing image data. How many of us are willing to swap out 4TB hard disks every year if each picture file is at least 20-50MB depending on file format?

Controls

In terms of controls, any photographers worth their salt can control any cameras given to them and shoot good pictures. However when it is a working tool then direct controls are essential. You wouldn’t want a CVT in a F1 car or having indicator lights on it too since racers won’t use them or not fast enough. It just doesn’t make sense for a racing car.

That’s why Nikon D750 is a product that has so much potential as THE D700 replacement but fall flat when probed further. Granted that the controls are not as bad as say the D3000 or D5000 but those who are used to Nikon Semi-Pro cameras that has Pro controls, the D750 is to me a fundamental slipped up. In the end what is D750 in the scheme of things in Nikon lineup? Is it a pro camera with consumer control or a pro’ish camera for the consumers? Who is it selling to?

In terms of direct controls, the Fujifilm XT1 controls is the most direct that gives a lot of controls. It is good but still not there. Why? Modern photography has come to the point that ISO is a setting that has to be fluid too. Although ISO is a setting we won’t touch as much as the Aperture, Shutter or if one relies on Priority modes more, the Exposure Value compensation but still it is a control that I would prefer to be fluid. Somethings is good to be Kiasu but locking the ISO knob is just lock one too many. The lack of tactile feedback of the 4 way button just broke the deal for me. Honestly I am looking forward to what XT2 can do.

As for the rest of the field, they have taken what was essentially proven and didn’t improve them on much. Samsung NX1 at least has taken leaf from the pro bodies and adopt it which is the good thing. What I don’t understand is Scene mode in the mode dial for a Pro body? Odd too.

Seriously, how good a camera is depends on how easy the camera can be controlled directly without having any combination buttons and/or flick of the wheel. And Pro cameras with scene modes is like having a racing car with training wheels.

In the end, the manufacturers should ask themselves who are they selling the camera to?  A clearly demarcated product with the requisite features is much easier to market and has less confusion to use who provides advice to learner photographers.
OVF versus EVF

The battle between OVF and EVF has reached another level judging by the cameras that are out vying for attention. Physics dictate that no matter what, straight optics will be faster than an image recorded and then projected unto the screen, in this case a small video screen in the form of the EVF.

Likewise, to say EVF is not going to improve would be folly too and Samsung’s touted 4ms response rate seems very good, almost too good to be true.  I won’t know until I can test them out on real sporting events for both indoors and outdoors.

The day when EVF can take over the function of the OVF is when sports photography can be captured by Mirrorless camera bodies with no problems at all.

Does that mean OVF have no future?

Not true too. Judging by all the old SLR cameras of yesteryears having a small and light camera body that has a mirror box is the norm. It is only because of the need to house a phase detection focusing unit and a more robust shutter mechanism, the mirror box has unfortunately grown in size over the years.

So kudos to Nikon who has done a good job to shrink the box down in the D750. Further miniaturization would surely help in the area in the future models.

In the end, the manufacturers abílity to improve the OVF/EVF with the view of shrinking down the camera body will be the main feature to look out for in the next few months. The critical test for EVF: Sports Photography.

The Lenses

There is no avoiding the fact that the best range of lenses belongs to Canon/Nikon. So buying into these two system won’t cause much of an anxiety, more so when there are 3rd party lenses that fills up niche needs from Sigma, Tokina, Tamron and even Korea’s Samyang (or Rokinon for my American readers).

With the popularity of Fujifilm X mount and NEX mount, 3rd party manufacturers such as Carl Zeiss has introduced lenses for these two systems.

The good thing about Fujifilm is their reputation as a top notch video lenses producer that is used for broadcasting purposes so their lenses are giving fantastic value for money through and through. Furthermore Fujifilm has dedicated themselves to adhere to the lens roadmap and that in itself provided the much needed confidence for Fujifilm supporters to buy into the X mount system. The icing on the cake would be the introduction of the dual f2.8 lenses WR lenses the 16-55mm and 50-140mm come early next year.

The NEX/FE mount on the a7 system however is not that clear and the general impression about Sony’s system that it needed the Zeiss brand to build good lenses. Herein lies the issue, if a system needed an expensive German manufacturer to have good lenses for the system, it inevitably make it more expensive to adopt the system.  Sony’s own G lenses are not bad actually but it also cost quite a lot to own them. The perception of Sony Alpha and FE mounts system is thus an expensive one.  True, a professional would demand the best glass he or she can afford but when a fixed amount of money can get a better quality lens in another system, why choose this system?

At the moment, my observation of A7 users is that they buy the camera body and adapt other lenses to use such as the Mitakon f0.95 or the Canon f0.95 lenses. If the owners are not shooting native FE lenses then something is not ‘right’.

The black horse of the lot now is Samsung. Different from the rest, it introduces the premium S lenses the 16-50mm f2-2.8 prior to the launch of the NX1. It also has the 50-150mm f2.8 on the side lines, most likely to be launch with or slightly after the NX1’s arrival. So from the onset, NX1 seems to hit all the right buttons when it comes to launch and coupled with its much cheaper prime lenses in the lineup, the NX system is starting to look a bit more enticing.

The only thing that need some improvement for Samsung? Its customer support, product and accessories availability not just in its flagship stores but out in other camera shops as wel.

All said, the camera system that can match the crucial focal lengths equivalent to 18-50mm/ 24-70mm and 50-140mm/70-200mm at f2.8 aperture at the widest, it is able to cover most of the types of photography one would indulge in. The inclusion of primes at 35mm, 50mm and 85mm would be great too for certain photography genré. Once a system has all these lenses, the system is more or less complete for majority of uses out there.

The Issue of Bokeh

The fact that some people love some photos is the ability for the lens to let the subject pop out of the frame. The technique used is to have a very shallow depth of field to blur out the area surrounding the subject. This is achieved by having a very fast lens, that would mean having a lens that can open up as wide as possible and the best there is, is the f0.95 lens.

I would say the bokeh issue can be solved for the APS-C at roughly f1.2 (that would equate to f1.8 on a full frame). Even if someone can buy a fairly cheap f1.8 lenses and adapt the lens to the mirrorless APS-C, the shallow depth of field is more than enough to extract the subject out sufficiently to be very pleasant.

In that case, having full frame is not that critical…or put in Zach Aria’s own word: NEGLIGIBLE

And if it is of any help, Fujifilm has already introduced the 56mm f1.2 (35mm equivalent: 84mm f1.8) and for me, I adapted the Samyang 85mm f1.2 (127mm f1.8) and the result of popping the subject with good sharpness from ears to nose is more than enough.

If one wants to fight how good the bokeh look, then please, are the people looking at the person who is in focused or are they admiring the blur in the photo? Ultimately the subject matter is more important and full frame/crop frame can both do the job well to extract the subject using shallow depth of field.

You can read more of Zach’s stuff here.

The Summary Winner: Canon 7D Mark 2

If push comes to shove and I am forced to the corner and in need of a pro camera right now that don’t cost me an arm and a leg (anything around S$2-3K for a kit start), then the Canon 7D Mark 2 fits the bill.

It has pro features AND pro controls, with 3rd party lens to support its use. I would buy the excellet Sigma Art series 18-35mm f1.8 wide to mid zoom lens (27-55mm f2.7) to start the ball rolling. Events/Sports and anything in between, it can cover the bases.

In short the 7D Mark 2 just cover the bases sufficiently for its users to do what they do best: shoot pictures and at a very sane price USD1799 for the body alone.

The Future Market: Those born in the 60s through 80s.

With aging population the need for a super capable camera in a lighter package is needed to capture as much market as possible. In my own personal experience, there are side comments and lamentation that camera gears are getting heavier. The younger generation like mine appreciate good shooters without the heft. Shooting with the X-E1 and only the kit 18-55 f2-f2.8 lens is in itself a revelation of what possibly can happen if the manufacturers put some thought into the whole package. With more people shooting with mobile phones, the huge weight change is not going to help either.

In fact the modern DSLR weight didn’t change much at all since the late 2000s but those who use the camera have felt the weight more acutely, especially amongs the retirees who will be the main bulk of business in years to come. The fact is that APS-C lens are comparatively lighter and smaller in size except for super fast f1.2/f1.8 lenses (the huge Fujifilm 56mm and Sigma 18-35mm) but still the 35mm equivalents are still bigger and heavier. Sometimes it is how the lens are designed too.

So the market is now shifting to smaller and lighter camera package (that means not just the body but also the lens). Add in the requirement to maintain as much Image Quality as possible, the APS-C has the upper hand unless DSLR makers can drastically make the changes huge and make them fast.

If the old film SLR is of any indication, that’s the standard to aim for full frame cameras. Unfortunately the Nikon Df, touted to follow the old FM body, was unfortunately based on a new camera body and not a dramatic rethinking that most of us are hoping for. D750 is a trend worth following in my opinion.

So How Come No Olympus/Panasonic in this round up

I have yet to get a review set from either of these camera makers despite requests.  That said, nothing solid did come out from these two companies for this market segment too in the past few months. I am putting the EM-10 as more of a mid level camera. And the EM1? Won’t be fair to compare it to the latest tech here.

The Months Ahead

What if I have some time to observe and buy in the future?

Then a few things to look out for

a) EVF performance – the moment EVFs can keep up with the demands of sports photography, you know mirrorless has arrived.

b) Pro features both within the camera and control of the camera. Good fps (anything more than 7 is really not necessary for me), good rendition of skin tone and landscape colours, pro controls (direct access to WB, ISO, A, S, P, M, EV, metering mode, single/multi drive mode), good memory buffer and dual SD/CF card slots. These are necessary if one wants to pander to the Pro crowd.

c) The Megapixel war madness. When is many becomes too much? I really hope sanity reigns here. If I want something to shoot something to paste the side of the bus, the optics and sensor back for a 645 medium format is actually a better tool. Of course 36MP sensor can make it look like an economical solution for such commercial shooters but is 36MP needed for everything a Pro does? Cropping is a legitimate reason buy cropping more than 50% off the original size? Wouldn’t that be better met with a longer lens?

We have survived the last MP war and should have become wiser. I still think without a proper backup/archive system outside the use of Hard Disk drives, relying on HDD for our image archive is at best a mid-term solution. In the meantime, shoot at a resolution that can meet most needs and I vote 16-20MP even with cropping.

If people can go ga-ga over Nikon D4/Df 16MP sensor rendition including the smooth graduation, then 20MP should do the trick. Again, I am talking from someone who would print at most A0 size and have blown up my Alaska trip pictures from my old D200 and found it okay. If D200 tech can print A0, what’s the problem with 16-20MP with new tech?

d) Shooting tethered. No… not sharing photos to the internet. Shoot and then show it up on bigger screen via Wi-Fi. This is a useful feature, one that A7 was not intended to do with its app but I done it much to the delight of the model whom i am shooting. This is something the other manufacturers should look into given that Wi-Fi and Smart devices link up won’t go away so easily.

Exciting 2015!!

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