The rush of product announcements is over, the collective giddy fanboy-like enthusiasm has died down somewhat, and presumably some serious business is being discussed in the back meeting rooms and dingy service hallways of the exhibition hall in Cologne, or over giant pretzels at the local bierhaus. It’s about the right time for a bit of serious reflection and commentary on some of the more interesting announcements from the last week.
The beginning of full frame for the masses.
The Nikon D600 and Canon 6D are squarely aimed at the space which the Nikon D70 and Canon 300D battled over nearly eight years ago; enthusiast-level cameras with serious image quality and a reasonably good feature set. Granted, the price point is a bit higher, but then again, inflation has moved things along somewhat, too. I actually think both of these cameras are far more capable than the average user needs, but people will buy them anyway. Commendably, Nikon actually had cameras in stock, and for sale at dealers on the day that was announced; this seems to be a rare exception in days of ‘pre-announcements’ months ahead of actual availability. And there weren’t any shortages, either – my dealer (admittedly one of the largest in Malaysia) got 60 bodies, compared to two(!) D800s. The D600 is an extremely refined camera that has no major issues anywhere – and I’m pleased to see that QC is much better this time, too; even though the camera comes from Nikon’s Thailand plant instead of Sendai. I’ll be doing a full review the D600 in the coming days, so stay tuned.
Breaking away from the traditional fixed limitations to camera software.
Nikon’s S800C is the first attempt by a large, traditionally-camera (I don’t count Samsung) manufacturer at doing quasi-open firmware; I think its success will depend on two things – the ecosystem around apps, and the level of integration with normal photographic functions. I don’t think it makes sense to have a camera that’s touch-screen only, which requires you to navigate some menus before you can even take a picture; instead, perhaps the ‘camera app’ could be loaded and running over the base OS by default, with other functional configurations loaded as required. They’ll need to retain buttons, too. And I have no idea how Android handles image processing, especially for very large files.
Wireless, wireless, wireless
Nikon, Canon and Olympus have gone big on wireless file transfer this year, each taking slightly different approaches. Nikon’s is dongle based, and allows ftp of files to any server, which is great for working professionals; Canon’s is built into camera (why aren’t they all like this?) – I haven’t used one, so I can’t comment on functionality. Olympus is card-based and requires an app on a tablet or smartphone to work, but is very well integrated with social media. I think the strategies actually represent their respective companies quite well; Nikon is still conservative and photographic-focused; Canon is a bit gadgety, and Olympus’ target market is very much the blogger and casual user. I hope that at some point the wireless standards will be sufficiently fast and well-defined enough to allow transfer of any file to any other device, or direct upload from the camera itself; Olympus’ implementation seems to work the best of the lot (as far as speed and multiple users go) – unfortunately there’s no way of having it send anything other than a jpeg to a tablet.
There were a slew of offerings here: the Fuji X-E1, Panasonic GH3, Sony NEX-6/ NEX-5R, Olympus E-PL5 and E-PM2. It’s clear that smaller sensors are here to stay – remember sufficiency for the masses – and viewfinders are becoming an increasingly rare spec. The X-E1 is probably what the X-Pro should have been in the first place; I honestly found the hybrid finder in the X100 gimmicky after a while, and landed up using the EVF most of the time for more precise framing. If AF is improved as much as they claim, Leica will have competition on its hands, but then again, they probably won’t mind because they’ll just sell more lenses. The GH3 now occupies top spot in the M4/3 pyramid, and appears to be a notch above the OM-D in both spec and price. The asking money – $1299 – isn’t cheap at all. Fortunately, sensor quality in the new M4/3 cameras more than justifies it. Sony is more of the same – a cheaper NEX-7, and an evolution of the NEX-5. The hybrid AF technology with phase detect points in the imaging sensor itself was surprisingly low-key; I would have thought that something this useful would be deserving of more fanfare. Olympus’s lower-end cameras have been updated with the innards of the OM-D (though not the 5-axis gyro stabilizer). The E-P3 remains in the lineup for now, though I don’t see why anybody would buy one given the price and older sensor. I’ve got an E-PL5 here for testing, and it’s a pretty impressive camera – this is what the original E-P1 should have been. It’s fast, responsive, very nicely built, and pocketable with the body cap lens; I’ll have a full review up in the coming days.
Sony’s different approach to mirrorless has meant some unique value propositions at the low and mid range, and a slightly odd product at the high end – the A99 shares a base sensor with the D600, but is positioned at the price point of the D800E. At that level, you get higher fps than either camera, an excellent EVF, but a slightly odd control layout and user interface. General operation is fast enough, but I have no idea whether tracking AF is up to speed with conventional DSLRs or not; this has traditionally been a weak point of Sony cameras. I don’t think the package is compelling enough to attract new photographers to the brand, but videographers might be convinced by the quality of the output; the RX100 is seriously impressive, and that sensor is a fraction of the size of the A99’s. I still don’t think EVF’s are anywhere near good enough for critical applications, though; it’s not so much about resolution as dynamic range. I previously had a hands-on preview here.
It seems that they’ve come back with a vengeance: first the 2/135 APO, and then the 55/1.4 Distagon, not to mention AF lenses for the X-Pro and E mount – a 12/2.8, 32/1.8 and 50/2.8 macro. It seems odd that they would skip over the much larger M4/3 market at first, though the relationship with Sony might have something to do with it. On the SLR front, although most of the lenses are capable of excellent results on even the D800E, the 50/1.4 Planar and 85/1.4 Planar have left much to be desired. It’s interesting to see that the 55/1.4 adopts their wide-angle Distagon formula; I suspect this is going to be an outstandingly good lens – it had better be, given the size (82mm filter!) and likely price. It’s apparently the first in a range of very high resolution DSLR lenses that will sit above the current ZF.2/ ZE line.
More M4/3 lenses
Olympus 60/2.8 Macro, 15/8 body cap lens and 17/1.8 announcement; Schneider’s 14, 30 and 60mm primes and Panasonic’s 35-100/2.8 were all announced. Serious glass is a good sign for system maturity. Whilst I won’t be buying the 17, Schneider 30/ 60 or Panasonic 35-100, the Olympus 60/2.8 macro has proven to be one of, if not the best lens I’ve used on M4/3, and one of the best macro lenses ever, period. I’ve acquired one for myself, along with the 15/8 body cap – it’s a fun toy, makes my E-PM1 an interesting pocket option, and is a very good street shooter thanks to huge DOF and a mechanical focus lever. Being a 28mm lover, the Schneider 14mm is definitely on my list, though the expected price tag is eye-watering. I think they will have to lower prices for this range of optics to be a success; I simply can’t see any quantity of people willing to pay this much for lenses relative to the cost of the rest of the system.
Enthusiast compacts with small sensors are still going strong
There were several announcements in this category: the Olympus XZ-2, Canon S110/ G15, Nikon P7700, Panasonic LX7, and Fuji XF1. All were evolutionary rather than revolutionary; the most exciting thing was the mechanical lens on the rather compact (and surprisingly large 2/3″ sensored) XF1. I think for this category of camera to survive, they’re going to have to get smaller and more versatile with lenses, or cheaper; Sony’s RX100 makes for stiff competition given its much larger sensor and reasonably fast lens – and it’s compact. I see the Canon S110 and Fuji XF1 doing reasonably well because of their size; the LX7 has that f1.4 lens; the rest are probably going to wither.
Aside from the new, confusing naming, Leica did what we expected them to do (and probably should have done quite some time ago) – brought live view to the M, along with a much improved LCD. Although I’m sure they’ll sell in droves anyway, what will make or break this camera as a professional tool won’t be price – rather, the quality of the sensor from the new Belgian supplier, as well as the reliability of the electronics and other parts. At least we don’t have to worry so much about rangefinder alignment; however the EVF makes things somewhat ungainly and also impossible to use flash or a thumb grip (not that that will work anyway, with the ergonomic modification and extra control dial). The M also loses one of its windows – frame lines are now LED illuminated, which is a big deal because it means much easier viewing under difficult light conditions. The M-E is a stripped down M9; I suppose there were a lot of leftover components to use up. I’m curious about the color, but that’s about it. The S has received a supposedly new sensor, though the pixel count remains the same; let us hope image quality is improved, then.
The wildcards: Sony RX1 and ‘that Hasselblad’
Perhaps this section should have been called ‘the good, the bad and the ugly'; or ‘beauty and the beast’. The RX1 appears to be a masterpiece of innovation, even though the camera isn’t as small as it appears to be, and the price is rather high. I think it’s now only a matter of time before we see great compact full frame cameras in the vein of the older Ricoh GR1v and Olympus Mju II. That can only be a good thing for those of us who don’t always want or need to carry around a D600. The Hasselblad Lunar, on the other hand, is either a masterpiece of capitalistic genius which will make them a boatload of money from the taste-challenged Middle Eastern and Chinese markets, or the beginning of the end for the brand. I suppose this is what happens when a bunch of financiers who don’t understand photography take over a camera company; for shame. Granted, Leica is doing the same thing with its rebranded Panasonics, but at least they look better than the original versions. The Lunar is so hideously ugly that it appears to have been designed by a five-year-old, rendered by a fifth form graphics design student, and then posted on April 1st. Except, it wasn’t, and it seems that nobody within Hasselblad can see that the emperor’s new clothes are missing. Having said that, a technology partnership with Sony makes perfect sense: look at the technical prowess required to create the RX100 and RX1. If anything, they could breathe new life into medium format. However, rebranding the company’s existing cameras is definitely NOT the way to go.
A note on marketing strategy
For whatever reason, companies seem to choose to announce all of their products at the same time – this is stupid. As a result, none of the products individually get the attention they could otherwise have managed if the announcements were spread throughout the year; Photokina should be an industry show where things are on display and the reps are there to answer questions and do business. I’d consider myself a fairly avid follower of the industry in general, and yet I keep finding things that I simply overlooked in the deluge of announcements – the Nikon P7700 was something I wasn’t even aware of until today, for instance. And the Zeiss and Schneider announcements got lost against the noise against the Hasselblad Lunar. Fifteen minutes of fame, yes – it just doesn’t make sense to fight with your competitors for the same fifteen minutes so that everybody at best gets five seconds each. Leica did it right with their May 10 event; I suspect the impact was much stronger than at Photokina, and they certainly got more attention in the blogosphere.
Overall, the theme for this year has been evolution and lenses; there are a lot of solidly interesting products out there, some of which I’ll review, some of those in turn which I’ll buy – but the list isn’t that long, probably just the Schneider 14/2, Zeiss 1.4/55 Distagon and 2/135 APO. I don’t see anything dramatically different or improved over what we’re currently using, but better lenses are always worth lusting after. MT
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