Now that the dust has settled on the biannual equipment celebration that is Photokina, we can (somewhat) more objectively opine and speculate on a) interesting individual releases and company activities and b) the industry as a whole. What I’m seeing are three trends:
- The effects of the sensor monopoly held by Sony, which aren’t good;
- A few courageous companies pushing the envelope wildly;
- The conservative ones iterating in ever small increments.
I actually believe this is a signal of the start of maturity and perhaps a bit more rational sense for photographers as a whole – or, perhaps not. There wasn’t really anything from anybody that made me itch and reach for the wallet, and I suspect the same is true for most people; partially because a lot of the more interesting releases already happened (5DIV, D5, D500, X1D, X-T2, X-Pro2 etc.) earlier in the year, and partially because just about everybody is dependent on one sensor maker.
The DSLR world hasn’t moved on much, if at all. Sony released the A99 II, which puts the A7RII’s sensor into a translucent-mirror body; great for SLR fans and those holding on to older A mount lenses, but for one problem: the A7RII itself is back ordered just about everywhere because Sony can’t even produce enough sensors for its own consumption. I suppose we can count the Canon 5DIV in the Photokina releases too; it advances significantly on the autofocus and video fronts, but by all accounts the sensor still lags behind the 2014 D810 in raw performance (resolution, dynamic range, noise etc.). Whilst the dual pixel raw technology is interesting, all evaluations show that it’s of limited use because there is significant image quality degradation whens the focus plane is shifted post-capture: this is of course to be expected since doing so requires both computational interpolation and unequal signal from one pixel or the other (which means, amplification, noise, possible purple fringing etc.). On the other hand, I suspect this is going to be a killer feature for videographers: the focus puller’s job just became redundant in a lot of cases, and making perfect racks and tracks just got as simple as touching the screen.
Nikon, meanwhile, has probably been focusing on the action cameras for the Olympics, at the expense of the D810 line – I suppose given limited resources and sensor supply limitations, it makes sense seeing as though that camera still pretty much sits at the top of the heap as far as single-shot image quality is concerned (the RGB-stacked Pentax K-1 with the same sensor is obviously going to win if there are no holds barred; let alone something like a 100MP MF or the Hasselblad H5D-200MS multishot). That said, the camera is definitely showing its age in autofocus performance and general ergonomics compared to even its siblings; a moderate refresh with some of the componentry (AF, processor, touch screen) from the D5/D500 line would make a huge difference to the D810’s competitiveness. More disappointingly, the promised DL series of 1″ cameras still hasn’t shown up. I suspect once again sensor supply has a role to play here.
Things get more interesting on the mirrorless front. Video seems to be the underlying focus, with Panasonic developing 6K in the GH5, and Olympus 4K in the E-M1.2 – with a 10x higher bitrate than the current camera, which should mean significantly better video quality. It’s also a blazing fast sensor, with wide coverage of PDAF photo sites, 18fps RAW shooting, supposedly no to low rolling shutter and a handheld (?) high resolution mode. Canon’s M5 might be interesting if they can really deliver the claimed performance, but it boggles the mind that after this many iterations, the whole thing still looks and feels one generation behind the competition. Fuji’s GFX 50S is the headline, of course: medium format mirrorless, claimed all-new sensor, and pricing below that of the Hasselblad X1D (probably still higher than the Pentax 645Z, which has undoubtedly higher production costs because of the finder optics). Operation and image quality remain unknowns as the camera won’t be available til next year. Finally, I think it’s patently clear that this is NOT the same camera as the Hasselblad; it’s twice the thickness and has a different flange distance mount, for a start. What I find funny is the usual slew of forum smart-alecs firstly panning the X1D for being a Fuji clone, and then now panning the Fuji for every other reason they can find.
Even though they compete in a broadly similar price category, I see these two cameras appealing to very different audiences. The Fuji is a complete system for somebody moving up from a DSLR or smaller format mirrorless, and has the same sort of DNA as the X-T2 and X-Pro2. The lens selection looks sensible, and no doubt the short flange and focal plane shutter is going to see a lot of adaptors become available (plus people discovering some lenses like the Otuses will comfortably cover 44x33mm). However: it’s still not that small – 35 FF DSLR-sized, judging by the pictures and dimensions – and surprisingly thick. On top of that, flash sync is a mere 1/125s, which is not an issue for landscape shooters, but will be problematic for strobists. On the other hand, the Hasselblad is much smaller – about the size of a Leica M – has a much more minimalist control set, and relies on legacy H system lenses to complete the lineup; it does however offer 1/2000s leaf shutter sync and no focal plane shutter. I see this as the camera for MF shooters moving downwards for portability.
In other medium format news, Phase One now offers a ‘cheaper’ 100MP IQ series back to compete against the Hasselblad H6D-100, which is finally shipping (sensor supply, again) – yet the back remains the same price as the complete Hasselblad camera. Hasselblad also announced an interesting (and very sexy) concept V1D study, which is built around a square cropped 40x40mm 75MP version of the 100MP 54x40mm sensor and X-series lenses plus modularity; I suppose it’s an updated and modernised version of the V system. Personally, I like the idea immensely, but I suspect cost is going to be astronomical if it does go into production. No sign of the rumoured Sony MF or super-flagship FF cameras, yet.
On the lens front, it seems to be business as normal: small iterations, upgrades, and new versions (like a 24-105/4 IS Mk II from Canon, for instance). The Olympus 12-100/4 and 25/1.2 bring versatility and speed to M4/3, but at the penalty of size and price: both are not small lenses, with the latter being larger than the 75/1.8. Sigma’s 500/4 looks to be an interesting alternative to the Canikon big guns if they can solve their focusing consistency issues. Zeiss has been surprisingly quiet: whilst there is a new formula 2.4/85 for Sony E and a trio of Milvuses for SLR mount, only the 2.8/18 is new, with the 2.8/15 and 2/135 APO are optically identical to the ZF.2 series, but with updated coatings and housings. Undoubtedly the passing of Dr. Nasse might have something to do with it.
The really concerning trend I see is in the number of ‘new’ cameras either ‘pre announced’ or launched with warmed over iterations of old sensors, or previously announced cameras with supply constraints and shipping delays caused by sensor shortages (I assume Leica’s instant camera must have been some sort of strange German joke). Sony’s absorption of major industry players has resulted in an effective monopoly; everybody – Sony camera division included – seems to be affected by the Kumamoto earthquake earlier in the year. Cameras that were supposed to ship in April or May (H6D-100) are only shipping now; no doubt the next generation sensors have been pushed back a year further. Here’s my concern: what happens when Sony gets bored of making sensors, like it has done in the past with phones and computers? There are almost no alternative large sensor makers left, and this is an extremely high-capital industry. Probably, only Canon will remain mostly unaffected.
In some ways, this also signals a sort of maturity in the industry as a whole; things are finally settling down to roughly where film was in the 90s. Medium format is somewhat affordable for the moneyed hobbyist, and not just the realm of the big studios. We have choices across the board for form factor and function, where image quality is proportional to recording medium size – that’s to say, everything is pretty close at the pixel level and more pixels on the same angle of view are obviously better. Lenses keep improving, but everybody is benefitting from this; as a whole, the average lens quality now is significantly better than five years ago; it seems the manufacturers are actively developing for higher resolution and future proofing.
One thing that wasn’t picked up on that widely was the YI M1; the camera itself isn’t that exciting, but the entry of a Chinese manufacturer with some major capital behind it should start to worry the establishment. I suspect the photographic market may be a bit too mature for them to acquire any market share unless pricing is very aggressive or they innovate significantly, but it’s still possible that things may go the way of the mobile phone market – look at the emergence of brands like Xiaomi, Oppo, OnePlus and the like. At the consumer end, price sensitivity is still a strong enough motivator to go with an unknown if the delta is large enough.
My own switch to medium format earlier this year has left me in a happy place with my tools, so I haven’t felt the need to upgrade anything; that said, even if I was still shooting the 2014 D810, I’d probably feel the same way. I suspect this is the same for most people shooting with the current generation of hardware, actually (24MP APS-C, 36/42MP FF, 50MP MF, 16/20MP M4/3). I really don’t see anything fundamentally game changing that might make me break out the wallet and offer significantly better image quality: mirrorless MF is good if a) you already have MF lenses, in the case of the X1D, or b) you don’t really use flash or perspective correction lenses, in the case of the GFX 50S. The only thing that is likely to make the list is the E-M1.2 to replace the existing E-M1s we use for video production work. All in all, I suspect that the majority of consumers are either a) not interested because they already have ‘good enough’; b) the hobbyists are either going to get bored because there’s no gear to buy and lose interest in photography in general (already happening) or c) focus on making pictures again. This might not be a bad thing, actually.
From a marketing standpoint, it’s interesting to note that there weren’t really that many major announcements at the show itself – most manufacturers bracketed it or preempted it with isolated launches. This is actually far more sensible than announcing something potentially at a time overlapping your competition – at least it’s far more likely for you to be able to hold consumer interest, even if the trade and media aren’t necessarily present. It’s important to remember that sales are still very much demand-driven: I’ve seen enough dealers start stocking something because lots of people were asking for it (as opposed to selling what they had in stock, or were forced to sell by local distribution channels). This is going to become even more of a trend as the consumer markets shrink, and the high end (read: informed, knowledgeable buyer) grows.
I’m going to leave it to the floor now: do you feel excited, disappointed, or moderately interested but not enough to break out the chequebook? MT
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