Just before Christmas I got a pretty good deal on the Nikon V1 (I paid more than I need have since the price dropped even further after I got mine). I ended up picking up the V1 with the 10-30mm kit lens (which is a pretty decent macro lens in case you’re wondering) and the FT-1 adapter, allowing me to use my F-mount lenses — notably my 70-300mm VR — with the V1.
My previous blog post shows three photographs I took with the V1/70-300 combination at the zoo, but this was all hand-held and pretty terrible. I’m actually surprised any of the pictures were usable at all (a few of the red panda pics were lovely). On my second excursion I brought my new monopod (a Christmas present). Definitely better but (a) I need more practice with a monopod and (b) an 810mm (effective) lens probably needs a tripod.
When I pixel-peeped at the unretouched image I noticed some chromatic aberration. Loading the image in iPhoto fixed it automagically. So I added a tiny bit of saturation, retouched two tiny blemishes (not the camera’s fault — the cheetah had some gunk stuck in its fur), and performed a single unsharp mask.
To my eye it’s sharp — not quite tack sharp, I think the pixel density of the V1 sensor is beyond the lens’s resolving power (but it looks like the 70-300VR should do just fine on a 24MP FX sensor) — and the background looks fine. Not bad.
My current camera bag is pretty hefty. It’s the size of a large laptop bag, divided into compartments and pretty much full with two Nikon bodies (D5000 and D7000), and five lenses (35mm f1.8, 18-200mm, 11-16mm, 70-300mm, and a Lensbaby Composer). There are a few other small items, such as an SB-400 flash and an IR remote shutter release. Sometimes I carry a compact tripod. The D5000 usually has the 35mm or the 18-200 and sits in the “quick access” compartment — the D7000 is barely able to pass through quick-access compartment’s opening.
If I were to rank the lenses in my order of preference, it would be:
35mm (also great for my daughters, since they don’t know how to deal with zooming)
11-16mm (I have no clue how to use this lens, but it is great fun)
18-200mm (even though it’s second from the bottom, it’s a damn fine lens)
The Lensbaby is a stupid toy.
I’m not that serious a photographer — I don’t need a “backup body”, but I don’t tend to sell my old stuff so it just accumulates. Even so, the D5000 is hardly the bulkiest item in the pack, and I really like it, especially for odd-angle shots. Also, my daughters can manage the D5000’s body (kind of) but the D7000 is just a bit too big and heavy for them. Also, I don’t want them to drop it.
So, I’ve been sorely tempted by Micro four-thirds, and having seen several Olympus OM-D E-M5’s in the “wild”, they’re very small, neat, attractive, and apparently well-made cameras. And they’re tiny. The idea of switching to M43 has become very tempting. I even resigned myself to an EVF.
So: how much will it cost to switch? Let’s start with a “fast prime” system, since fast primes are what makes Micro four-thirds so compelling.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 $999
Zuiko 12mm f2 $800
Panasonic (Leica) 25mm f1.4 $540
Zuiko 75mm f1.8 $900
Not bad. When I mentioned this to a colleague who is also an avid photographer, he said “wow, about the price of an FX body”. My thoughts exactly.
Let’s compare the cost for Nikon.
Nikon D600 $2100
Nikon 24mm f2.8 AF-D $360
Nikon 50mm f1.4 AF-D $330
Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-G $500
Let that sink in for a second. A D600 with three very credible primes costs a total of $50 more than a similar Olympus / Panasonic system.
Clearly, this is going to be a lot bulkier than the Micro four-thirds option, but it will be much smaller than my current DX kit and, frankly, pretty awesome. It actually makes simply going for a D800 (with the same set of lenses) seem like a pretty reasonable idea.
While we’re at it, here’s the cost of the equivalent Canon system.
Canon 6D $2100
Canon 20mm f2.8 $490 (the 24mm f2.8 is twice the price and not especially well-reviewed – go figure)
Canon 50mm f1.4 $360
Canon 85mm f1.8 $370
That’s not much more.
You’d think that for fast zooms the advantage would be more decidedly in favor of Micro Four-Thirds, but not really.
Certainly the Panasonic 12-35mm f2.8 zoom is $1100 is far cheaper than $1900 for the 24-70mm f2.8 Nikon (and even more for its Canon counterpart). But there’s no f2.8 ultra-wide zoom for M43, and the Panasonic 7-14mm f4 is $900 versus $1300 for the far more versatile Nikon 16-35mm f4 (and $850 for the Tokina 16-28mm f2.8). Finally, the Panasonic 35-100mm f2.8 isn’t available yet but Amazon has it listed for $1500 — less than the $2400 Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR II, but more than the $1000 Nikon 80-200mm (without VR).
So, M43 comes to $3500 versus $3750—$5600 for Nikon FX depending on your choices, but no matter which options you take on the Nikon side you end up with better glass and more DOF control. The M43 options are far less bulky, though.
But there’s no way I’m going to buy $3500 or more worth of lenses, and certainly not all at once.
Finally, I like to have a long telephoto lens and the options for Micro Four-Thirds are actually quite depressing. The two longest lenses are the Panasonic 100-300mm (200-600mm equivalent) f4-5.6 which is pretty poor and doesn’t focus close at all. Then there’s the Olympus 75-300mm (150-600mm equivalent) which is a bit sharper, focuses somewhat closer, but is slow (f4.8-6.7) and $900. Now, it’s pretty hard to find inexpensive lenses beyond 300mm for full-frame DSLRs, but the IQ of even a cropped image from the FX camera will tend to exceed that of a M43 camera and it will be easier to frame the shot. (A 400mm lens on an FX camera cropped to APS-C is effectively 600mm.) The Nikon 80-400mm is around $1700, but the Sigma 150-500mm is around $1100 and is better regarded than the M43 options.
I should also add that the Olympus has in-body image stabilization, whereas the D600 doesn’t and neither do any of the primes listed. Even so, the Nikon is a freaking FX camera with a DxO sensor score of 94 and a giant 100% coverage optical viewfinder. And judging by how often I end up resorting to the 18-200mm for difficult shots, I’ll probably end up getting either the 28-300mm or the 24-120mm Nikons, and — again — the Micro four-thirds equivalents are not inspiring.
Quick Dismissal of the Other Options
Probably my favorite alternative is the Fujifilm XE-1.
XE-1 Body $1000
18mm f2 lens $520
35mm f1.4 lens $520
60mm f2.4 lens $600
I think it’s pretty astonishing that an XE-1 system (or an X-Pro1 system for that matter) ends up being considerably cheaper than the comparable M43 system.
The problem is that there’s not much more to the lens range (and no serious telephotos for the foreseeable future, to begin with), autofocus is the weakest feature (and I have high-speed twins), and RAW-processing remains an issue. No question the cameras look great and Fujifilm is definitely making great choices in terms of lens rollout (compare it to Nikon 1!) but in the end I think it’s just too limited (and then there’s the whole EVF thing). I guess the X-Pro1 has an optical viewfinder (and I cut my teeth on rangefinder-style 35mm cameras) but do I really want parallax and glowing crop lines?
There’s always Leica. Haha. Not bloody likely.
The Panasonic GH-3 looks like a great body, but in the end it has the same pros and cons and will probably be more expensive than the OM-D E-M5.
The Sony A99 is the ugliest damn thing I’ve ever seen, costs almost as much as the D800, uses that accursed translucent mirror technology, and has a borked lens selection. Also, I’ve been burned by both Minolta and Sony in the past. On the other hand, the RX-1 is almost the camera I was pleading for in Full Frame or Bust, but it’s also $3k, has a focal length I don’t care for, an orange ring with advertising on it, and no viewfinder. The sample shots I’ve seen on dpreview aren’t exactly tack sharp either.
So, despite everything, it looks like Nikon (or perhaps Canon) wins this round. Once you realize that you can turn a D600 into a complete FX system for about $1200 it simply makes all the other options seem ridiculous. The only real question is whether to upgrade to the D600 or wait for a successor with built-in GPS and WiFi (or a successor to the 6D with a 100% viewfinder and — hopefully — a better sensor).
I should really cost the Sony NEX system as an option.
NEX-6 Body $850, but I’d be inclined to pay an extra $150 for the folding 16-50mm “power zoom” kit lens. (The NEX-7 is $1200 for the body; I don’t care for the $1350 kit lens option.)
16mm f2.8 Prime (and it’s a pancake) — $250
35mm f1.8 Prime — $450
50mm f1.8 Prime — $300
And there’s a 55-210mm f4.5-6.3 telephoto zoom — $350
Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 6 and three primes — $1850
Total (strict apples-to-apples) for NEX 7 and three primes — $2200
Add the compact zoom and telephoto zoom — $2350
Perhaps I should stop dismissing Sony’s NEX cameras out of hand. The lens selection remains limited, but it’s less limited than Fuji’s and they’ve got their bases covered now (there’s even a 10-18mm ultra-wide zoom now), and Sony has by far the best video capability (60p) along with every gimmicky feature you can think of.
Compared to a year ago, the idiots who claim to weigh up everything really carefully and then simply buy the camera with the most megapixels are now buying Nikon D800s (instead of Canon 5D Mk IIs) while the people who want a serious DSLR that handles well and has “good enough” resolution and IQ are buying Canon 5D Mk IIIs (instead of Nikon D700s). Similarly, Nikon has the only 24MP DSLR on the market (unless you count Sony SLTs, but in any event Nikon’s 24MP camera is its entry-level while Sony’s are its top-end models — go figure).
The funny thing is, I think the D600 is perhaps the least interesting thing happening right now. (Assuming it’s happening.)
In the mirrorless world, Olympus went from being the company that defined the category and then couldn’t build a body with a decent sensor to the leader of the pack — with the estimable (and — in person — astonishingly small) OM-D M5 whose sensor looks to be at least on par with the D7000 (which may not be the best APS-C sensor around but is damn close). The only fly in Olympus’s ointment is that Fuji has just announced a price-competitive smaller sibling to the X-Pro1 that seems to be better than the OM-D M5 in every respect but video (and if you really care about video you’re waiting for the Panasonic GH-3).
So, my low noise compact table has morphed. I’ve replaced Leica’s M-system (which Fuji has reduced to something with no plausible use case) with Fuji’s XF system. Not only did Fuji announce an incredibly compelling new body (along with a firmware fix that makes the X-Pro1 seem a lot more attractive) but they announced two news lenses, a fast ultra-wide prime and a one-stop-faster-than-typical kit zoom (18-55mm f2.8-4). If you look at Fuji’s lens roadmap you’ll see that it also plans wide and telephoto zooms, again faster-than-typical. At. Freaking. Last.
The Panasonic column is kind of empty right now because its obvious exemplar hasn’t been announced. I’ve replaced the GX-1 with the G4, but the G4’s apparently somewhat superior sensor hasn’t been graded by dxomark. (Note that the GH-2’s sensor is by far the best rated M43 sensor dxomark has published results for, and the OM-D M5 looks significantly better based on what I’ve seen.)
Despite all the turmoil, some things remain unchanged.
There are still no great lens options for the NEX family unless you like buying Zeiss glass (and focusing manually). To my mind, this makes NEX appealing to gadget nuts (not a small demographic!) but leaves the enthusiast market to M43 and Fuji.
There’s still not a single compelling lens or body option for the Nikon 1 family, even though Sony has shown us that it can get people excited by sticking a faux fast zoom on a sensor with the same size and double the pixels. Imagine if there were an f1.8 lens for the Nikon 1 at launch? Or if one were announced at Photokina? Sigh. How about a Nikon V1 but with more control dials and a proper hot shoe? The more I’ve thought about it and compared pocketable cameras, the more it seems to me that Nikon’s choice of sensor size was visionary, it’s just that its execution has — thus far — been deeply flawed.
Based on the lenses it’s adding to its range, Samsung gets it too. I think Samsung’s biggest obstacles are (a) that it gained an early reputation for crappy sensors, and photographers have long memories and (b) all the good lens brands are taken (Panasonic has Leica, Sony has Zeiss, and Fuji, Nikon, Canon, and Olympus (Zuiko) are credible in their own right), and photographers love their lens brands. Samsung might consider cutting a deal with Voigtlander (or perhaps buying Pentax from Ricoh).
Something else worth thinking about is the importance of video as a feature. I suspect the still camera makers who are trying to chase the videographer market are shortly to discover that specialists will eat their lunch. In the end, workflow is an even bigger issue for video than still photography, and a dedicated video camera offers ridiculous advantages over high-end still cameras with a ton of crap bolted onto them — the Black Magic Cinema, for example, simply records video directly onto an SSD (housed internally). I’m not sure a the GH3 (when it’s finally announced) is going to look too compelling next to one of these (especially if, per typical, it’s hard-to-find and overpriced).
Sensor Size (mm2)
Sensel Size (µm2)
Guesstimate 65-70 (looks over one stop better than NX-100)
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure
Burst Focus “pray and spray”
60fps (for 1s)
60fps (for 0.5s)
It’s like a Leica (or the X-Pro1), only better, smaller, and cheaper
IQ, Sweep Panoramas
Does everything, no real weaknesses.
In-body image stabilization, weather sealing
Phase Detect autofocus on sensor
Weak video spec
Lens and sensor quality
Poor focus tracking
Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Looks, metal construction, hard controls
Novel UI that you love or hate
Pro video shooting
Hard Controls on a Retro Body
Notes: I’ve made a number of edits, fixing typos and making other minor corrections, and updating entries in the table, notably the Samsung NX lens options. (Later edit: I’ve entered the scores for the OM-D EM-5, which I have to say were a tad disappointing, and entered the X100’s scores for the XF system since it’s likely the exact same sensor.)
Canon has announced the 6D, its own $2000 full frame body. Unfortunately, while they got the memo on WiFi and GPS (yay) they seem to have lost the plot when it came to viewfinder coverage (97%), autofocus system (11 focus points, one cross-type), and continuous shooting speed (4.5fps). It’s also vaporware. While the “one-liner” is that it’s a full-frame 60D (the way the D600 is a “full-frame D7000”) it lacks the 60D’s flip-out rear LCD. I wonder if this is a product Canon started rushing to market when the D600 rumors began coming thick and fast. Canon also announced the G15 — the latest in the G-series ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor premium compacts with a fast-throughout-the-zoom-range lens. (That said, the Nikon P7700 holds its own in comparison — its lens gets a bit slower at the telephoto end, but its telephoto end is 200mm vs. 140mm equivalent.)
Olympus has announced two new micro-four-thirds bodies at entry-level prices but with the OM-D E-M5’s apparently top-notch imaging core. Olympus also announced the XZ-2 — a successor to its well-regarded XZ-1 ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor compact.
Sony has managed to confuse everyone by announcing a full frame NEX video camera (but no still-oriented sibling), a $2800 (body only) full-frame pellicle SLT-A99, the NEX-6 (16MP and two dials vs. 24MP and three dials for the NEX-7), and $2800 full-frame compact with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens. This latter seems to me like a vanity project, and I don’t think Sony has the brand caché to pull it off — after all the Leica X2 is $2000 and has more brand caché, while the Fujifilm X-series cameras are probably better and cheaper in objective terms. Meanwhile, Sony continues to release bodies like crazy, while having a pretty spotty selection of lenses (although frankly the full-frame lens options for the SLT-A99 look pretty good to the lens options for the NEX cameras). To its credit, Sony has finally released a folding kit zoom for the NEX bodies meaning you can actually have a pocketable camera vs. a tiny body with a huge lens.
Pentax has announced a new K-5ii (minor revision of the K-5) and Q10 (minor revision of the Q).
Out of all this, the interesting points for me is that Olympus is seriously raising the bar for Low Noise Compact system image quality (and bear in mind that all its bodies have sensor-based image stabilization), Canon is continuing to cede the mid-to-high-end DSLR market to Nikon, and Sony continues to produce great pieces of engineering without really having a clue what it’s doing.
Oh, and Panasonic announced the GH-3 — weather-sealed for $1300. The price, at least, is right. I’ve updated the big LNC table to reflect what’s now known about the GH-3 (weird resolutions for both its EVF and rear panel).
Leica has announced a successor to the M9, called simply the M. (Their cameras are timeless!) It boasts a 24MP sensor which is speculated to be the same Sony sensor being used in the Nikon D600 (which has a DxOMark score of 94). So Leicas remain the top of the heap for “low noise compacts” if you’re willing to pay and focus manually.
The new Panasonic GX-1 replaces the GF-1 in a way that the GF-2 and GF-3 assuredly did not. (A colleague just bought a GF-1 precisely because until the GX-1 ships in December, it’s pretty much the EVIL* camera body of choice. Naturally my colleague is now drooling over the GX-1.)
Note: * I refuse to use the term “ILC” (interchangeable lens camera) unless it becomes unavoidable, since it’s so vague as to be meaningless. EVIL (“electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens”) is not only funnier, but more accurate, although the term “electronic viewfinder” is a little tenuous given that most of us understand a “viewfinder” to be a peephole rather than a rear-mounted live-view.
The competition for the EVIL segment has been fierce, but for the enthusiast market not so much. What has been fierce is the competition for the EVIL point-and-shoot camera (as exemplified by the Sony NEX cameras, and the Panasonic GF-3). The only camera companies which seem to care about enthusiast EVIL bodies are Panasonic and, to a lesser extent, Samsung (which has included the GF-1 in its list of “things to rip off” when designing NX-series bodies). There’s probably a good reason for this, at least in the US market, since Best Buy is happy to stock quite high-end DSLRs, and point-and-shoot EVIL cameras (like the Sony NEX-series) but conspicuously omits enthusiast compacts including both EVIL cameras like the GF-1 (or even the GF-3) but serious fixed-lens compacts like the Canon S95. So it’s possible that there’s simply not much demand for enthusiast-oriented cameras, especially when low-end DSLRs are so damn good. Or maybe if you spend an hour on dpreview every week then you’re buying your camera online.
What’s shocking to me is that Nikon’s 2.7x crop factor J1 and V1 manage to be nearly as expensive and no more compact than Panasonic’s GX-1 with the newish X-series folding zoom. The whole point of having a small sensor would appear to be to compete on price and lens size. Panasonic apparently understands this in a way that others do not (Olympus, to its credit, has designed a folding zoom for the Pen, but it’s not that small, and it relies on sensor-shift stabilization).
Assuming that the GX-1’s low-light performance is as good or better than last year’s GH-1 (which I believe shares the same sensor) it seems like the slam-dunk winner of this round. No doubt Sony will offer more gimmicky shooting modes, and of course the NEX-7 has 24 MP, while the Nikon 1-series offers its gimmicky video stills and faster continuous shooting (and probably faster autofocus, but the GX-1 seems plenty fast), but in the end, size, handling, and a good choice of lenses wins. (How did Nikon not manage to produce a pancake faster than f2.8? Providing a couple of f1.8, or better yet f1.4 or 1.2 primes for reasonable prices would demonstrate the advantages of a small sensor and allow enthusiasts to shoot fabulous photos of their cappuccinos with gorgeous bokeh.)
I hope we’ll see a nice leather case designed around the GX-1 and 14-42 X-series zoom, one of the huge losses since we all went digital has been the leather case that unsnaps to allow you to shoot without needing to be removed (the GF-1 has several cases along these lines). This let you sling a camera over your shoulder all day and shoot without risking leaving something behind or dropping your camera, and also let you toss a camera into a bag without worrying about it getting snagged on clothing or otherwise damaged. A thoughtfully designed video grip would also be welcome.