D90x Approacheth?

With Canon’s new consumer DSLR offering 1080p video (albeit at 20fps), 15MP, and 14-bit RAW, the obvious shortcomings of the D90 are more obvious than ever. I also note that my favorite discount camera store is out of stock on the D80, while Amazon is selling D80s for the same price as D90s. Obvious conclusion — the D90 is replacing the D80 at the ~$700 price point and a successor to the D90 with the obvious deficiencies addressed is on its way.

Canon 500D

Canon has announced the latest in its consumer DSLR line with 15 MP and 1080p (@20fps) / 720p (@30fps) video. Assuming Canon inserts this camera at the logical price point (presumably slightly cheaper than Nikon’s D90), that pretty much sets a new bar for DV cameras which will either need to match the 500D’s image quality or come in under its price. It also means that Nikon will need to respond with a D90x (say) that offers 1080p (and, I hope, 14-bit RAW).

And remember that the Panasonic GH-1 is already out there, waiting to eat their lunch. And while the Panasonic’s image quality may be marginally inferior to that of the Canon and Nikon DSLRs (the D90 in particular has ridiculously good low light performance), the GH-1 is smaller, cheaper, has it all over them on the video side of things.

And one — well two — more things. The GH-1’s rear video screen swings out and twists, like a video camera’s, and its electronic viewfinder works for video, like a video camera’s. Shooting video on a conventional DSLR is going to get old, fast.

Addendum

Oh and one more significant advantage of the GH-1 for shooting video — its autofocus works continuously while shooting.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and weep…

And I’m referring to you Canon and Nikon (and Sony and Olympus).

(Can you tell I’m looking forward to WATCHMEN?)

Panasonic has released the GH-1, the “real” version of its G-1, aka the first truly modern interchangeable lens digital camera. In doing so, it marks the emergence of Panasonic as perhaps the leading manufacturer of consumer cameras today. Time will tell whether Canon and Nikon (and Sony) are able to preserve their dominance of the still and video digital camera markets by reacting.

What’s so special about the GH-1?

Well, it’s smaller, lighter, and cheaper than a DSLR by virtue of not having a mirror/pentaprism viewfinder assembly, or a large heavy shutter. It’s a “fly-by-wire” camera with an electronic viewfinder, but the electronic viewfinder is as big as a good DSLR viewfinder while accurately previewing the effects of shutter speed and aperture (because it’s live view). It focuses the way a point-and-shoot camera does, but it focuses as fast as a DSLR. Oh, and it shoots 1080p at 24dps and 720p as 60fps.

Image quality is not quite up there with the D90 or 5D MkII, but then you’re paying two thirds the price of the first and a fraction of the price of the second. It’s probably going to be cheaper than most halfway decent HD camcorders. And unlike the D90 it has proper stereo microphone hookups.

All this, and the option of Leica and Zuiko lenses.

Another Annoying D90 “Feature”

Turns out that the D90 uses lossy compression on its RAW files.

The D90 achieves relatively small RAW file sizes by applying lossy compression to the data whether you like it or not – to put them into context, the D300 with the same resolution typically delivers 12-bit RAW files measuring 13.6MB with lossless compression, or 14.2MB with no compression at all. It’s always good to save space, but we’d sooner the D90 employed lossless compression on its RAW files, or at least gave you the option. For that you’ll need the D300. (Cameralabs.com)

This is a really annoying decision. It’s bad enough that the D90 doesn’t offer 14-bit image processing (something you get with the much cheaper Rebel XSi, and the slightly cheaper 40D) but this is just dumb. Perhaps Nikon’s lossy compression is so damn good that no-one can tell the difference, but why not make it an option. I guarantee not having a lossless file format will cost Nikon sales.

Deliberately crippling cameras (heck, I’m betting that Nikon is using the same circuitry as the D300 and just flipping some firmware switch to disable 14-bit processing and uncompressed RAW) means that the digital camera market is teetering on the edge of massive price drops (after all, it’s clear that the D90 is a D300 in a flimsier box for 60% of the price, or would be sans deliberate crippling), which are all the more likely given the economic situation.

It used to be typical for camera companies to sell a ruggedized version of a consumer camera for a ridiculous amount of money. For that you got interchangeable components (focusing screens, backs, viewfinders), weather seals, longer life components, faster motor drives, and so forth). But the cheaper camera didn’t have a special circuit in it to deliberately fuck up your pictures.

Until Nikon is willing to stop insulting my intelligence, I’m not buying another piece of Nikon kit.

Digital Photography in Flux

It seems to me that this is a terrible time to buy a new digital camera, certainly a terrible time to buy anything other than a sub-$200 point-and-shoot.

Mid-range compacts ($200-300) are going to be made obsolete pretty soon as the high-end compacts ($300-500) are heavily discounted and then their features are moved into the more inexpensive models. Why? Because DSLRs are starting to sell for under $500 and the Micro Four-Thirds system is going to make small sensor compacts look like the garbage they are.

High-end compacts, such as the Canon G10, are expensive but fundamentally inferior to low-end DSLRs in image quality. The only reason you would buy one of these cameras is because it’s smaller than a DSLR, but they’re still not exactly compact and their image quality is only a small notch above cheaper cameras. New Micro Four-Thirds cameras will be as small or smaller, offer interchangeable lenses, and (very near) DSLR-level image quality.

Meanwhile low-end DSLRs are getting cheaper as they face competition from Micro Four-Thirds compacts, each other, and heavily discounted mid-range DSLRs (e.g. the street price of the Nikon D80 body is around $600 now — that makes a Nikon D60 or Canon XSi at a similar price just look silly).

As we get to the mid-range and high-end DSLRs we have a bunch of cameras that are already obsolete, except (arguably) for the Sony A900 (with its new 25MP full frame sensor, but it’s a Sony…) and the much hyped Canon 5D mkII (with its outmoded AF). Nikon’s D300, D700, and D3 all are beginning to look a little behind the times (they were introduced with fairly low pixel counts, and the market has just accelerated away from them). Canon’s new low-end range has the main virtue of being (relatively) cheap. The D90’s innovative video mode is already looking like a beta-quality product (Costco is taking pre-orders for D90 kits and the D90 isn’t even out yet). I love Nikon, but the D90 is looking like a loser. It has a video mode that doesn’t quite work, 12-bit image processing, and a price point sandwiched between the Canon 40D and 50D, both of which beat it on build quality, responsiveness, and still image quality. The sad thing is that while the 40D and 50D make the D90 look silly, they’re also both obsolete. Canon has already announced that the 50D’s successor will probably feature video capture.

Some time in the next year we’re going to see:

  • Micro Four-Thirds system cameras with in-body vibration reduction, HD-video capture, and a selection of superb lenses that don’t lock you to a single high-quality vendor (i.e. you’ll probably be able to buy Leica and Zuiko lenses for them at a minimum). At last we’ll be able to buy a pocketable camera that takes photos that are nearly as good as anything we could take with a “full-sized” camera.
  • Reasonably-priced Canon or Nikon bodies with HD-video capture that doesn’t suck, 15+ MPs (with no appreciable image quality reduction), usable ISO 6400 (the D90 is damn close), 14-bit image processing, and — just possibly — in body vibration reduction. I wouldn’t be surprised if full frame sensor cameras appear in the $1500-2000 price range (heck, Sony will probably be there with the A900).

Obviously, if you’re a pro, your camera pays for itself, and next year’s camera doesn’t matter. But for most of us, we don’t get to drop $1000 on a camera every year, and this seems like a truly awful year to buy a camera.

On top of all this, the economic downturn is going to force camera companies to cut into their hefty margins on higher end gear to keep volumes up. Once consumers become used to $300 entry-level DSLRs, they’ll never be able to bring the price back up (nor should they).