Disclaimer: I am not an electrical engineer and have no special knowledge about any of this.
Some time ago Thom Hogan estimated the cost of an FX camera sensor to be around $500 (I don’t have the reference, but I’m pretty sure this is true since he said as much recently in a comment thread). Similarly, E. J. Pelker, who is an electrical engineer, estimated an FX sensor to cost around $385 based on industry standard cost and defect rates in 2006. So it seems like there’s this general acceptance of the idea that an FX sensor costs more than 10x what a DX sensor costs (Pelker estimates $34 for a Canon APS sensor, which is slightly smaller than DX, and $385 for a 5D sensor).
My assumptions can be dramatically off but the result will be the same.
I don’t mean to be mean to Pelker. It’s a great and very useful article — I just think it’s not that the assumptions he knows he’s making are off, it’s that he’s made tacit assumptions he doesn’t realize he’s made are completely and utterly wrong.
The assumption is that if you get an 80% yield making DX sensors then you’re get a 64% (80% squared) yield from FX sensors (let’s ignore the fact that you’ll get slightly fewer than half as many possible FX sensors from a wafer owing to fitting rectangles into circles).
Here are Peltzer’s “unknown unknowns”:
Sensors are fault-tolerant, CPUs aren’t
First, Peltzer assumes that a defect destroys a sensor. In fact if all the defect is doing is messing up a sensel then the camera company doesn’t care – it finds the bad sensel during QA, stores its location in firmware, and interpolates around it when capturing the image. How do we know? They tell us they do this. Whoa — you might say — I totally notice bad pixels on my HD monitors, I would totally notice bad pixels when I pixel peep my 36MP RAW files. Nope, you wouldn’t because the camera writes interpolated data into the RAW file and unless you shoot ridiculously detailed test charts and examine the images pixel by pixel or perform statistical analysis of large numbers of images you’ll never find the interpolated pixels. In any event (per the same linked article) camera sensors acquire more bad sensels as they age, and no-one seems to mind too much.
Sensor feature sizes are huge, so most “defects” won’t affect them
Next, Peltzer also assumes industry standard defect rates. But industry standard defect rates are for things like CPUs — which usually have very small features and cannot recover from even a single defect. The problem with this assumption is that the vast majority of a camera sensor comprises sensels and wires hooking them up. Each sensel in a 24MP FX sensor is roughly 4,000nm across, and the supporting wiring is maybe 500nm across, with 500nm spacing — which is over 17x the minimum feature size for 28nm process wafers. If you look at what a defect in a silicon wafer actually is, it’s a slight smearing of a circuit usually around the process size — if your feature size is 17x the process size, the defect rate will be vanishingly close to zero. So the only defects that affect a camera sensor will either be improbably huge or (more likely) in one of the areas with delicate supporting logic (i.e. a tiny proportion of any given camera sensor). If the supporting logic is similar in size to a CPU (which it isn’t) the yield rate will be more in line with CPUs (i.e. much higher).
This eliminates the whole diminishing yield argument (in fact, counter-intuitively, yield rates should be higher for larger sensors since their feature size is bigger and the proportion of the sensor given over to supporting logic is smaller).
(Note: there’s one issue here that I should mention. Defects are three dimensional, and the thickness of features is going to be constant. This may make yields of three dimensional wafers more problematic, e.g. BSI sensors. Thom Hogan recently suggested — I don’t know if he has inside information — that Sony’s new (i.e. BSI) FX sensors are turning out to have far lower yields — and thus far higher costs — than expected.)
To sum up — an FX sensor would cost no more than slightly over double a DX sensor (defect rates are the same or lower, but you can fit slightly fewer than half as many sensors onto a die owing to geometry). So if a DX sensor costs $34, an FX sensor should cost no more than $70.
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.
When camera companies add megapixels it’s usually a bad thing — since most digital cameras hit around 6MP in the early 2000s, image quality usually goes down when pixel count goes up (with the notable exception of full frame DSLRs and medium format cameras). Yet all that Apple has really done this year is add megapixels (and Siri) to its devices.
Per pixel image quality hasn’t gone down per se, but when we’re talking about the limits of human perception, it’s a one-off improvement and the end results are mixed — suddenly we need much more storage space for applications, and more CPU/GPU performance to simply maintain responsiveness.
iPhone 4S. A minor upgrade, although compared to the new iPad and Retina MBP it at least offers tangible performance improvements. (And, hey, I like Siri.)
“The New iPad“. Thicker, heavier, potentially less battery life. Cellular model offers 4G. A5X performance advantage entirely eaten by extra display resolution. Retina apps are bigger, so effectively less storage capacity (not that this doesn’t also affect non-retina iPad users). I know lots of folks rave about the display, but I can’t tell it apart from an iPad 2 until I pick it up (where its slightly thicker and heavier frame becomes noticeable).
Retina Macbook Pro. The new MBP’s display is more useful than the iPad (because you can scale your resolution to taste) but the GPU load in particular is tremendous. Meanwhile, it has a chipset that supports 32GB of RAM, but a maximum of 16GB of RAM is soldered onto the motherboard. It may be the best Mac Apple has ever produced, but not being able to upgrade the RAM next year will lead to buyer’s remorse.
1080P AppleTV. If you look closely at your giant 1080P TV you may notice the difference (although models which do bad interpolation can make it more obvious). The recent addition of Hulu Plus is a nice bonus (at last, the Daily Show!), but that’s almost certainly more legal/business than technical.
I’m using Mountain Lion. Safari is significantly improved (a cynic might say it’s kind of like using Chrome with Lion). Aside from Safari and Notifications, I can’t say I’ve noticed any change working with ML.
I haven’t played with iOS6, but I expect it will be a significant improvement over iOS5.x since there’s so much low-hanging fruit in the mobile space.
It seems relatively certain that there will be major announcements on October 4th (one day before the anniversary of Steve Jobs’s death) — the iPhone 5 and possibly a new 7-8″ iPad. Aside from anything else this means that Apple’s (by recent standards) anæmic Q3 will be followed by an equally disappointing Q4 as more consumers hold back their iPhone purchases or — worse for Apple — buy rival phones.
I think it’s fair to say that we all have high expectations for the iPhone 5:
We’re due for a design refresh. (Although the rumored new design looks remarkably similar to the current design — that said, the current design is totally gorgeous.)
A slightly larger display has been much rumored (taller without making device itself bigger).
Better CPU. Four cores?
More storage (at least as an option)?
Better GPU (A5X doubled the A5’s pixel pipelines if I recall correctly).
Smaller (better?) connector.
With the iPhone and the iPad both “retina” now, the iPad will likely have ~ 4x the pixels for the foreseeable future, might we see the iPad and iPhone getting permanently separate CPU lines (A6, A6X)? I hope the iPhone 5 doesn’t sport an A5X.
But it’s getting late in the year, we were promised lots of stuff, and much of Apple’s product line is lagging:
Where’s the Mac Pro successor / replacement / alternative that was hinted at around WWDC?
Will we get Grand Central Dispatch to the cloud? (See previous!)
A lot of Macs — Mac Mini,Macbook Air, and of course Mac Pro — are getting a bit old in the tooth, does Apple care any more?
Will we see an iPod Nano with wireless capabilities? (Does this even make sense?) Or perhaps a true iOS Nano.
The iPod Touch hasn’t been revved since forever. Even if Apple maintains the uglier form factor and poor quality camera to keep the iPhone’s key (non-Phone-related) advantages.
Might we see a quick refresh of the iPad, since “the new iPad” was kind of a downgrade in some ways? (I note that Apple has gone from offering the iPad 2 16GB at $100 less than the equivalent retina model to continuing to sell the entire iPad 2 range. Personally, I find the iPad 2 a more compelling product than the new iPad, and it’s over a year old. Well, not counting the 32nm die shrink which further improves battery life.)
Will Apple open up AppleTV to third party developers?
Will we see low latency AirPlay such that AppleTV becomes viable for gaming with iOS devices?
Perhaps unsurprisingly this has been something of a lost year for Apple. I’d like to see things back on track.
In terms of epic changes (i.e. of iPad / iPhone / iPod proportions) it’s hard to see where Apple can go. And it’s not like the iPad or iPhone came totally out of the blue — Apple had long been known to be working on phones and tablets, and rumors of their imminent release were perennial. The only rumor of this nature emanating from Apple is Apple branded TVs. How could these possibly make sense?
Obviously, a TV with an AppleTV built into it would be pretty nice, especially compared to the pathetic crap recent TVs have built into them. (My new TV actually shows advertising when it’s turned on.) But it’s only a tiny bit nicer than a TV plugged into an AppleTV, and I just don’t see Apple being interested in supporting the myriad of options people expect from TVs, nor of the masses rushing to buy expensive TVs with relatively limited features.
But, consider Apple TVs as giant iPads. Maybe they’re gesture, rather than touch, -based devices. My kids already try to treat any large screen TV as an iPad, so it’s obviously pretty intuitive.
The devices Apple is selling today are at the center of the digital vortex. (Well, aside from the network and server stuff.) Other markets, e.g. photography, are likely to be sucked into the vortex faster than Apple could conquer them, even if they were worth conquering. The iPhone is already the most popular camera on Flickr, right? (I’ve written a whole meandering blog post — not published — on the desperation evident in the Camera industry.) Apple probably needs to start thinking about making its own devices better integrated and/or obsolete. What comes after the iPad and the Mac?
One thing Microsoft is right about is that eventually tablets need to do everything. What Microsoft is wrong about is the need for a tablet OS to do everything by supporting legacy apps in some kind of bastardized way. (But hey, “the enterprise” loves bastardized.) The only reason there are no “real development tools” on the iPad today is that Apple won’t allow them in the App Store. (This is not speculation: Andrew Barry — creator of Realbasic — would have released an iPad-based development tool two years ago if Apple had let him.) Even so, there are some pretty nice development tools for the iPad (ignoring iPad tools for developers, a slightly different thing, such as Diet Coda and Python for iOS) written so as to navigate App Store restrictions.
Back in — I think — the mid-to-late-80s there was a Scientific American article on what was going on at the time at Xerox PARC. The basic idea was very straightforward — your data and most of your computer horsepower were on the network (substitute “cloud”) and there were three basic kinds of devices — whiteboards (wall screens), tablets, and post-it notes. According to the article the first two were real and actually worked (and the researchers were using them for their day-to-day work) while the last were crude hacks using LCD displays with very limited capability.
We still can’t make post-it-note-sized networked computer displays cheap and small enough to completely fulfill that vision, but we’re getting there. Certainly, being able to cheaply print RFID-tagged notes is totally doable. Xerox PARC may not have been very good at producing commercial products, but it certainly did a great job of pointing the way.
Three kinds of interactive displays — tiny, cheap, and disposable; portable; and big. Seamless networked computing. (And maybe there’s room for immersive VR in there somewhere.) That’s where the puck is going to be. Time for Apple to saddle up (again) and help get us there.
As far as I know, there is no one very analogous to Thom Hogan, to talk about Canon as he does about Nikon. It’s sort of a Mac/PC situation, with Nikon in the Mac category, a brand that, because of its ikonic (sic) cultural appeal, attracts people to its brand in a way different manner than does Canon.
The rest of this post basically argues that Nikon (and Apple) users are delusional members of a cult who obsess about their favorite company, while Canon (and Windows) users just buy the best and cheapest product to get the job done and get on with their lives.
Thom Hogan (and to a lesser extent Ken Rockwell) is kind of the John Siracusa of the Nikon world, and just as there’s really no equivalent to John Siracusa in the Windows world, there’s no equivalent to Thom Hogan in the Canon world.
Consider the following negatives from Thom Hogan’s piece on the Nikon DX range:
Lack of consistent accessory connections (three different remote styles on four bodies).
Lack of consistent body style (D3100 is different from D5000 is different from D7000).
Lack of AI/AI-S support below D7000.
No in-body focus motors below D7000.
Strange feature inclusions/omissions to differentiate bodies.
Positionable LCD available on only one body.
Video still lagging, and no video enabled lenses in sight.
Constrast AF still lagging considerably compared to competition.
Quality control in Thailand plant seems to be strained, at best.
There’s not a single remark in the entire article defending Nikon or chiding Canon or whatever. This is a straight “Nikon is less than perfect and here’s why”.
And no, I can’t find a similar site discussing Canon.
So, what’s with the photo? I was looking for something I’d recently shot with my D5000 and I found it. (Rosanna and I had a “behind the scenes” tour of Bryant-Denny stadium during Dr. Robert Cialdini’s recent visit to UA.) I was going to caption it “a gathering of all the critical fans of Microsoft Windows and Canon DSLRs recently held in Alabama” but that would by petty.
The next episode in the series “everyone except Nikon and Canon is doing interesting stuff” has come out. The newly announced Pentax K7 offers in-camera HDR imaging (by combining three photos), HD video (yawn), rotational vibration reduction, pro-level body construction in at an enthusiast price, pro-level viewfinder coverage (100%), and — zomg — an external microphone jack. It’s also smaller and better looking than its rivals.
And because it has in-body VR, its lenses are all cheaper. E.g. the 18-250mm lens is a little over $400.
It will be a shame if the street price isn’t considerably lower than the $1299 SRP. The street price on the model it replaces (the K20D, which is a very decent machine) is under $700.
Aside: at Adorama.com the Nikon D5000 is available now for around $730. The Canon T1i is around $800. The K20D is around $670 with those silly “add to cart to find out the price” deals, but it’s also out of stock, so it may actually be going out of production. Meanwhile the K7 is listing for $1300, the 50D is $1200, and the D90 is $975 (the D300 is $1700 … cough). If the K7 replaces the K20D with a price of around $900 it’s going to kick some serious butt (it would be $1350 bundled with an 18-250mm lens, which will probably be competitive with the Panasonic GH-1 with its 14-140mm lens, even when its price drops to reasonable levels).
One thing that may not be apparent from the picture above is how “lop-sided” the K7 is. Essentially the camera is really small (think smaller than an Olympus DSLR), but it makes up for this by having almost all of the body on the right side of the viewfinder. So, this camera essentially trumps everything on the market in features (except, aguably, the GH-1’s live view, and the flip-out LCD) while being metal, weather-sealed, small, having a pro-quality viewfinder (100% coverage, 0.95 magnification). And again, unlike Nikon and Canon, it’s not an intentionally crippled camera, so it has things like front and rear control dials, decent focus points, and a really good viewfinder. And, arguably, Pentax has the most interesting range of cropped frame lenses if you feel like spending money on cropped frame lenses which you’ll probably regret in a couple of years when everyone is shooting full frame again.
My only question is how fast and accurate the autofocus “feels”. (I have the same question about the GH-1.)