Digital Photography — It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Fuji XE-1 bodies and the Fuji XF lens range — four fast primes and one fast zoom
Fuji XE-1 bodies and the Fuji XF lens range — four fast primes and one fast zoom. With everything except full frame DSLRs, we’re lucky to see one fast prime announced in a year and no fast zooms at all. Fuji’s XF lens system has no slow lenses in it at all.

It seems to me that the photography world is being turned upside down  — again — right now. The latest rumors have Nikon sending display hardware for the D600 to Best Buy. If you’ve never been to a Best Buy, you don’t find full frame DSLRs there — indeed, the highest end DSLR you’ll typically find at Best Buy will usually be a Nikon D7000 or a Canon 60D or (if you’re lucky) 7D.

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.

Aside from being APS-C, Fuji has basically delivered what I asked for in this old rant. Sorry Nikon, Canon, Sony — you’ve been asleep at the wheel.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Fujifilm X-E1 (camerasize.com)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Fujifilm X-E1 (camerasize.com). Note that the X-E1 is shallower (front-to-back) than the Olympus and has a substantially larger sensor. Also note that the E-M5 is pretty damn small — an iPhone 4 is 115x59mm.

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).

Blackmagic Cinema with Micro Four-Thirds Lens Mount
Blackmagic Cinema with Micro Four-Thirds Lens Mount.

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).

System Fuji XF Samsung NX Sony E Panasonic M43 Olympus M43 Nikon 1
Exemplar XE-1 NX-200 NEX-7 GH-3 OM-D M5 V1
Sensor APS-C APS-C APS-C 4/3” 4/3” CX
Crop Factor 1.5 1.5 1.5 2.0 2.0 2.7
Sensor Size (mm2) 368 368 368 225 225 116
Price w/lens $1399 $800 $1500 ? $1300 $849
Sensels (MP) 16.0 20.3 24.0 16.0 16.0 10.0
Sensel Size (µm2) 23.0 18.13 15.33 14.06 18.75 11.60
Sensor Tech CCD CMOS CMOS Live MOS CMOS CMOS
DxOMark Overall 73? (X100) Guesstimate 65-70 (looks over one stop better than NX-100)  81 Guesstimate 70-80 71  54
DxOMark Color Depth (bpp) 22.9 (X100) ? 24.1 ? 22.8 21.3
DxOMark Dynamic Range (DR) 12.4 (X100) ? 13.4 ? 12.3 11
DxOMark Sensitivity (ISO) 1001 (X100) ? 1016 ? 826 346
Fast Primes 14mm f2.8, 18mm f2, 35mm f1.4, 60mm f2.4 macro (3 more planned by 2013) Rokinon 14mm f2.8, 16mm f2.4, 20mm f2.8, 30mm f2, 60mm f2.8, 85mm f1.4 16mm f2.8 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 10mm f2.8, F-mount adapter
Pocketable with Lens? with 18mm yes, with 35mm kind of 16mm f2.4, 20mm f2.8, 30mm f2 pancakes Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom
1080 30P or 60i Video 1080p24 Yes Yes + 60P Yes + 60P Yes Yes
720 60P Video No Yes Yes? Yes Yes Yes
Manual Video Control Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video Framing OK Good Good OK Good
Focus Speed Good Good Good Good Good-Great
Viewfinder 2.4M “dot” EVF Not released? 2.4M “dot” EVF 1.7M “dot” EVF 1.4M “dot” EVF 1.4M “dot” EVF
Live View Yes 614k dots OLED 920k dots 614k dots 614k OLED 460k dots
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure 6fps 3fps 10fps 6fps 10fps 10fps
Burst Focus “pray and spray” 7fps 10fps ? 60fps (for 1s) 60fps (for 0.5s)
Standard Hotshoe Yes Yes No No Yes No
GPS Accessory
Flash Build-in Built-in Accessory (included) Built-in Built-in Accessory
Best Feature 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
Worst Feature Weak video spec Lens and sensor quality Lens Selection Looks Poor focus tracking Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Key Differentiator Looks, metal construction, hard controls Novel UI that you love or hate Pro video shooting Hard Controls on a Retro Body Video capabilities

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.)

Updates

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 Cybershot RX-1 next to Leica X-2 (top view)
Sony Cybershot RX-1 next to Leica X-2 (top view)

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 Update

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.