Why camera selection has become....meaningless.

fun at the Pecan St. Festival. Today.

There's a point at which the technology in nearly every industry gets (for want of a better word) homogenized. It's the point at which everything you consider buying in that industry's category works as well as everything else and you're buying decision is relegated to trim, design and specific feature sets rather than reliability, performance and technical parity with competing brands. Consider broad categories like cars, sound equipment and food processors.  Or scanners or inkjet printers. 

In the early days of each category you were rewarded for diligent research and wise choices. If you did your homework you ended up with a car that was reliable and safe. If you shopped and listened intently you'd end up with a sound system that was faithful to the recordings and didn't introduce pain into the listening stream. Intensive evaluations of the charts in Consumer Reports might have led you to a food processor that sliced, diced and mixed perfectly and lasted decades and if you listened well to the earliest adopters of ink jet printers you would either have (rightfully) decided not to enter the fray, early on, or, if you did partake you may at least have saved yourself from buying a clogging money pit of an "art machine."

Now, in each of those fields the choices have largely homogenized. All cars are more or less reliable for about 100k miles and nearly all provide an equivalent feel and performance in plodding rush  hour traffic or cruising the nation's highways at 55 mph. Choose a Honda or a Ford or a Kia or a VW and chances are good that you'll have satisfaction for the first four years of your car owning experience.

A current Canon, Epson or HP printer will print faithful images and, for the most part, dodge the expensive to clear head clogs of yesteryear.

When Sony produced the now ubiquitous 16 megapixels APS-C imaging sensor that is now in nearly all of the mid-range DSLRs and most DSLTs they effectively (and amazingly) homogenized that entire market. Now they'll do the same with the full frame market by offering a choice of 36 and 24 megapixel sensors that will also become omnipresent. While it's true that each camera maker's iteration will have some differences in noise and color performance due to processing decisions the underlying engine will be largely the same and each participant will have the opportunity to take full advantage of the basic infrastructure to make high quality files.

According to a recent review by DP Review the $600 Sony a57 is competitive, in terms of image quality and noise performance with the Nikon D7000, the Pentax Kr5 and a bit ahead of the latest Canon 18 megapixel versions.  

While it remains to be tested we can safely assume that the performance of the 24 megapixel sensors in the Sony a99 and the Nikon 600D will be roughly equivalent as well.

At this point, when it comes to image quality, it all comes down to lens choice. And we have a game changer in that sector as well. Independent lenses makers are stepping in and offering amazingly good lenses that are, for all intents and purposes, cross platform.  Sigma introduced two lenses this year that are making waves for micro 4:3 users and Nex users alike. The Sigma 19mm and 30mm 2.8 are, by most accounts, remarkably sharp and defect free lenses and they set a new standard by pushing prices downward. Each is available for less than $200.

The Sigma 50mm 1.4 is widely thought to be the best fast 50mm on the market for the Sony, Nikon and Canon cameras.  Zeiss is also offering a complete, cross platform product strategy which makes the choice of camera body less dependent on the glass offerings of the major camera companies.

This is not to say that there won't always be outliers in the field. The Fuji faux rangefinder line exists because people are willing to pay more for design and form factor.  In a way this is an extension of the Apple design strategy.  Nikon and Canon are operating like the Dells and HPs of the world did five to ten years ago. They were selling hardware strategies based around the speeds and feeds of the physical technology. They got killed because someone else paid more attention to making products that felt and looked right even if many (most) of the internal components are largely the same. That's a benefit of good design = higher margins and more customer differentiation.

If you look at the product side of digital photography in a new way you'll see that the homogenization brings two side effects. It should create a continued push down on pricing of new cameras and, at the same time it should create a drive to better design and feature sets, beyond the sensor, to capture new markets and retain customers.

In the traditional camera field camera makers lock in their customers with unique lens mounts. While the mounts are accessible to third party lens makers they are not interchangeable between Sony's Alpha DSLT line, Nikon, Canon, Pentax or Samsung.  But the world of photography product marketing changed profoundly when Olympus, Panasonic, Leica and other signatories to the micro 4:3rds lens mount standard came together to create a semi-open standard. Users could keep their existing optics from just about any maker and use them interchangeably on any of the m4:3 camera systems.  An Olympus 45mm 1.8 works equally well on a Panasonic GH3.  A Leica/Panasonic 25mm 1.4 works equally well on an OMD. The smaller lens mount of the m4:3 cameras and the Sony Nex cameras, along with the much shorter register between lens mount and sensor in each of these systems means that almost any lens from the older Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta catalogs can be used on these cameras with a wide range of inexpensive adapters.

And the best Nikon lenses can, with the right adapter, be used on Canon's bodies.  This changes the lock in quotient profoundly.  

Another thing that's going to bring strange market forces to bear on the big two (Canon and Nikon) as well as the next three (Sony, Pentax and Samsung) is something that's already happening in the video end of the business. There Zeiss and other specialty lens makers are creating lens systems that can be used on different mounts. It's only a matter of time until all third party lens makers harken back to something like the Tamron Adaptall lens system that emerged in the 1970's and allowed users to buy the lenses they wanted only one time and then to buy adapters to use the same lenses on new systems if the consumer migrated from their previous systems.

In the new paradigm you would cherry pick your lenses first and then buy the adapters you needed to work with the camera with which you are currently smitten.  Suppose you started with a Nikon D-Something and you were pretty darn happy with its performance and image quality. You bought a Zeiss trio of lenses that constitute the lenses that really define your personal style.  And then you buy a set of Nikon adapters for them.  Somewhere along the line a friend hands you a Sony a99 body to look through and in a flash you have an epiphany and discover for yourself just how incredible, efficient and effective a really brilliant EVF based camera can be. Easy fix. 

You sell the Nikon body back into the very efficient used market (along with the converters) and you buy a Sony a99 and a new set of adapters. The lenses you have come to love, and more importantly, understand, follow along with you and bring the utility of your visual training with your prized focal lengths to a newer and better system.  And when Nikon finally gets the message from the future and introduces a pro camera with a 4 million pixel EVF it's just as effortless to switch back.

And since Sony makes the sensors for both you will largely make your decision on these kinds of features rather than photonic performance.  Which may mean that we actually need to change systems far less often.

Isn't this essentially what Hasselblad said to the public when they showcased their Lunar camera collection to the public in Photokina?  They basically said, "Okay, this sensor and imaging pipeline is more than good enough. Soon it will be in a large number of cameras. We will use it but we will add value by creating a design aesthetic that some will perceive as a tremendous attraction."  In effect Hasselblad said, "We will Apple the Nex."  Only they were thinking in terms of multiples of margin instead of percentages.

By using an ostensibly open lens mount they opened the way to re-badge lenses not only from Sony but from other makers as well. It's open systems run wild.  The down side for consumers is the tendency for homogenization and consolidation to eliminate seemingly eccentric other options.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Sony's 36 megapixel sensor is doing to the medium format digital market.  We now have a sensor that matches (and in many cases exceeds) the performance in nearly all the sensors in medium format and, for the first time, lays bare the little fib that keeps MFD alive = that the bigger sensors give a decidedly different image rendering.

The biggest current MFD sensor out there is slightly smaller than the 6x4.5 cameras that defined the smallest boundary of medium format in the older, film days. Most of the sensors are quite a bit smaller than that with the Leica S dimensions being only 50% larger than the 35mm frame. By comparison film images from a square Hasselblad negative or chrome are four TIMES larger.  That overwhelming difference in size is the main and most critical factor in making MF look so much different than 35mm. The obscuring of this fact over the last 15 years has been largely based on the fact that, pre- Nikon D800e, the only way to get a massive amount of data was through medium format digital.

When professional reviewers and photographers realized that the D800e created largely a condition of parity with all by the most expensive of MF cameras the industry was granted permission to also homogenize the high end of the market.  At a certain point I feel almost certain that we'll all end up shooting variants of a standard 35mm full frame sensor.  There will be differentiators in style, body features, software features, etc. but not in sensor geometry. When we reach that state (three years??) we'll accelerate the homogenization of lenses as well since everyone will be aiming for the same target in a market that expands and is contracting simultaneously. 

Once we're all shooting with the same sensor geometries and with the same lens choices and with the same bayer pattern overlays the inevitable next step is the homogenization of vision.  When everyone has a finish hammer everything looks like the same nail.

The wide spread use of food processors drove artistic chefs back into a rediscovery of hand skills and exquisitely made knives. The pendular swing was realized.

And once cameras are rationalized and made as interchangeable as different brands of whole milk it will be the crazy people who jump back to big film or crazy little cameras that will drive the next revolutionary capitulation of the camera market.

All the little cameras you see announced are like little weather balloons being sent aloft. How many features will we be willing to lose to hit a price point? How similar can cameras become before we are unable to differentiate them in advertising? How long can we sell the idea of hierarchic lens performance when everything is diffraction limited beyond f5.6? 

The herd loves homogenization because it means we're all in this together. The artist hates homogenization because it means the tools for a unique expression of unique vision are lost.  And it's the artist that will drive the next re-imagining of photographic tools.  And they hate it even more precisely because it does seem to mean that we're all in this together.

I love the Sony's new cameras for their EVFs but I dislike the whole genre for robbing me of square aspect ratios, for forcing me to wade through CMOS color and for making all of the lens choices seem the same.

I hate the Hasselblad 503 CX because it costs me real cash money every time I use it but I love it for giving me a format that matches my vision, a choice of colors and renditions and for making all of the lens choices seem different (and wonderous).

Where will it all stop?  Nowhere and never. You just have to choose what and how you want to see right now and take care of business. That's all we ever could do.  But we had more real choices in the past. Now we are constrained by what industry can pull off silicon wafers. What a lame way for art to exist...


Geir said...

I think this must be your most interesting and true post for a long time. This must be the (near) future, and I'm glad it most probably will be.

Rob Grey said...

This is a great post. It rings true and kept me fixed on the screen until I finished reading it. If you ever write another book filled with such insightful musings about the medium, you'd have a guaranteed sale in me.

Dave Jenkins said...

I deduce that you are all packed and loaded for tomorrow.

Make that +1 on the book for me.

Carlo Santin said...

Choice fatigue, that's what I'm experiencing right now. There's just too much to choose from in the marketplace for me. I find it all very confusing, and none of the new gear does anything to improve my photography. Many may see this as a good thing, that it's never been a better time for a photographer. I don't see it that way. I think it is actually a terrible time for photography. Too easy to get distracted by the tools, the sheer number of them...all permutations of more or less the same thing...too little time spent on the photography, on the actual photograph. My growth as a photographer has to come from the inside, not from Photokina. But then, I'm a cynic more often than not. What the hell do I know anyway? I always enjoy your observations about the marketplace Kirk. Good post.

Stan de la Cruz said...

a. very likely thought through scenario. Your best post in quite a while. Thanks

Kirk Tuck said...

Dave, I took a long walk today, my back is in good shape, my cold/flu is almost gone and I've packed one bag for tomorrow. Two cameras, three lenses, on flash and one LED panel. Small, light tripod. Shined my shoes and then my wife and I went out for dinner and the theater. I am ready on all counts.

Paul Glover said...

This pretty much reflects what I've been thinking lately. The homogenization of digital cameras has made them very uninteresting to me, in the same way that I can't get excited about refrigerators, microwaves or midsize sedans. All of them are useful tools, and terribly boring ones at that.

Toby Martin said...

If the prescience of your previous predictive posts hold with this one, we'll be having a pretty interesting range of products in the near future. The picture you paint is hopeful for us photographers who are continuously growing. Knowing that a certain level of reliability is standard we can then select equipment based purely on our needs (or wants as the case usually is) without having to abandon entire lines of equipment we've invested time to get know intimately. I am looking forward to brands competing not only on aesthetic design but on ergonomics, interface, usability, user adaptability, operating systems, and other hacks for the photographer to meld better with the gear.

Libby said...

Hasselblad just recently challenged in aesthetics and ergonomics and look at what we got. And there will be more like this I'm afraid from the common vendors except for maybe Nikon and Canon who have been working off the corporate memo from 2002 for far too long.

Michael Watkins said...

I think you are giving Hasselblad too much credit. NEX-7 is a fine system but is it really synonymous with the history of Hasselblad?

What I think they want to do is find some je ne sais quoi, some mystic and desirability about them that disappeared when film disappeared as a mainstay of the business. Once upon a time, like Leica, you'd find Hassy's in the dens of dentists and professionals but with medium format digital backs being priced in the stratosphere, relatively, for so long, those folks have moved on to other pastures.

Yet most high end camera buyers I've run into over the years, that aren't working professionals, are more concerned about "feeds and speeds" - the technical underpinnings - of a camera and lens system. They'll go on about such things for an eternity if asked and will defend their purchases with more data than any retail rep could possibly remember. Yes they'll admire mechanical functionality that is classic and works well (even if it needs expensive servicing more often than my Volvo) but they won't spend a lot of time musing about wood selection, polishes, and how best to bring out the grain in that nice new handle.polished.

I predict a flop and a return to the drawing board for Hasselblad to find something which they can sell a la Leica and Apple.

Other than that, agree with the essence of everything you've said. As an old employer of mine used to say: Commodity Economics Always Win.

Sony is the Intel of the sensor business.

Toby Martin said...

There will always be those who design for design's sake, to separate themselves from the crowd, and there will those who will design to solve problems, either way the proliferation of the designs will depend on how many will buy them. Your money votes which stays and which fades into memory.

With the absence of film and recently in some cameras, of the mirror as well, perhaps its time for a rethink. Is there a way to hold the camera at arms length while providing the extra stability that the head does when eye is held to viewfinder? Will tapping a touchscreen be the de rigueur method of selecting of focus point or tripping the shutter? Or shall we just wave our cameras at our subjects and decide on composition, focus, depth of field and exposure all after capture?

Whatever happens there will be those who adapt quicker and others who resist longer, each with his own reason. MY assertion above is hopeful for the day when we choose cameras more freely for reasons of our own rather than those defined by the brands that sell them.

farshore said...

Good observations, and so much the better, I say. Perhaps photographers will now become more interested in vision than equipment.

ChazL said...

A fine and thoughtful post, Kirk, and I found that I was in full agreement with you. . . right up until the last paragraph.

It is certainly arguable that "we had more real choices in the past" if you allow for different film sizes and formats, although within a given format we were no less homogeneous then than we are now. I do believe, however, that we have never had BETTER choices than what is currently on offer, and this is the salient point. I can't look at all the marvelous capabilities of the tools we're now using and think that this is "a lame way for art to exist." (And besides, as you've also shown, one can still load up all of the tools of the past with terrific modern films when feeling nostalgic).

hugo solo said...

Sorry Dirk But iphone with those apps are terrific the last one was Mpro with filters the classic for B/W and different graduations like tone and paper grades and when press the shutter, only another picture anything more, with a different IQ.
Billy Wilder nobody,s perfect.

Robert said...

Interresting thoughts. I think it`s happened before, when slow aperture zooms became the order of the day and made everything look the same (the digital look?). With slow films, the large aperture nifty fifty kept their users concious about Dof and Bokeh and created a diversity of different looks. The renaissance of fast primes that we have seen for the last 2-3 years, is maybe the market response to the mirrorless movement of adapting lagacy glass in the pursuit of creative freedom.

Hugh said...

I think I have a different view...

Excluding the aesthetics of a square vs rectangular format, the reason that the Hesselblad 500 series was so great wasn't that it was great, it was that it was "good enough".

Buy a 500CM, 50mm, 80mm and 150mm lenses, and you had "good enough" quality for most purposes (even if 5"x4" was better, and 35mm was faster). Once you had that basic professional kit, you could concentrate on making money or producing art.

I'd suggest that the original 5D plus 3 primes (or 2 zooms) was "good enough" for most purposes, and we could have been concentrating on making money (or art) for the last five years if we hadn't fallen for all the advertising about the latest and greatest gear.

Anonymous said...

On a brighter note, 110 film is available again.

Huw Morgan said...

Had to laugh - I was reading your blog while I unclogged the nozzles on my Epson 4880. Things are not quite as perfect in printer land as you might wish for.

Craig Yuill said...

In a strange way we are back in the days of film. I think that most photographers tended to favour one or two films, the "sensors" of the film era. Since you could put that film into any camera of a given format then it was the specs and feel of the camera body along with lens selection that determined which brand you bought and used. With these ubiquitous but very good Sony sensors in so many cameras it feels to me much like the days when I had to figure out which camera/system I wanted to use to put Provia 100 into.

As for interchangeability of lenses, does anyone know of a way to mount two fine Nikon "G" zooms and remain fully functional on a Sony TLR? Proprietary lens mounts existed back in the film era too. Even Tamron hasn't come up with an interchangeable AF/digital lens mount system. Sure, adaptors are around, but really only work when moving from DSLRs to mirrorless, or very specific DSLR brand to DSLR brand combinations. And even then, without full compatibility.

Craig Yuill said...

Yay! Now, where did I put that old Kodak Instamatic 110 anyways. :-)

John F. Opie said...

Yep and nope.

Yep to the homogenization of the sensor. Nope to the similarity of imaging, since the sensor isn't the whole story on its own: the electronics, largely the CPU of the camera and its microcode, matter immensely. Olympus got away with keeping the same sensor for ages by constantly tweaking the CPU and microcode to improve ISO and range; without that, there'd be far fewer upgrades.

Yep to the importance of good glass. Nope to the idea that everyone will then converge on similar looks/bokeh/microcontrast. This might be the case if everyone was actually using the same glass sources, but they're not: One cost aspect with seriously high-end glass is the glass itself, its particular chemical composition and, as a result, the way it bends light. This is more akin to magic than it is to science (inasmuch as your average gear head needs a doctorate in physics to understand what is going on, and hence, as Clarke put it, it looks like magic to the rest of us).

I've been telling anyone who asks that they need to get the best glass they can afford, as lenses are forever. Bodies? Disposable, especially considering the inexorable march of photographic electronics progress.

However, there is one aspect where body selection continues to have meaning: when your photography takes you towards the limits. I recently was at an airshow, and after the first attempt stopped trying to take pictures with an Olympus EPL1 of the jets doing acrobatics. You still have to match the tools to the task: my E30 did just fine there, but the EPL1 was complete inappropriate to the task.

Steve J said...

Hi Kirk, what a great post. Compulsory reading for anyone wringing their hands over camera choice. Just buy what handles best for you and there is more choice every day (you could not get more different visions than Sony, Oly and Fuji!)

But I have to differ from you on one important point. I don't think homogenising the sensor output is what is homogenising photography. I agree with the effect, but not the cause.

There is enough "raw material" in a RAW file from something like a D600 to crop to any format size or simulate just about any type of film, and still make a large print. It's not the sensor tying our hands. It's just us, just as we are the only ones who can have a vision or decide how to compose an image.

If anything, digital makes it even easier for someone with an artistic vision to realise it. Just as smaller formats liberated photographers from tripods, digital has extended the capability of those smaller formats and made them easier to exploit.

But capture is only half of the process. The other half is how you develop the image. In this case a lack of traditional constraints is perversely creating conformity.

We relied to a large extent on Fuji/Kodak/Agfa (etc), or our local lab, to define our aesthetics, but they obligingly gave us quite a large range of "looks" to choose from, and since we didn't generally develop or print colour at home, we learned to love the looks they gave us. In fact we made an artform out of it.

If I rely on the look of JPEGs out of most cameras, I am not going to see a lot of difference between shots from a Sony NEX7 or a Nikon D3200, or even a D600 unless I really look at it. If I shoot RAW, but don't feel all that confident to push the sliders very far in Lightroom, then once again I will end up with photographs that look like everyone elses.

But, what if I really want to explore the digital darkroom? In truth, not many do. It's a pretty steep learning curve and very few do more than dip a toe in. The few top fashion and advertising pros I know rely on a professional retoucher, but that's hardly an option for most of us.

But lets assume for a moment that we are pretty savvy in Photoshop. Now our problem is that we no longer have any external constraints to rely on. We have near infinite scope to be naive, foolish, garish or amazing. How do we decide?

Hardly surprising that many tend to look to the past for guidance. Even less surprising that so many people tend to fall back on Flickr votes (a vote for comformity at best) or use "canned effects" that simulate film (which was quite literally a "canned" effect). But all of that is a cop out.

There are people out there doing amazing stuff, it just seldom gets an airing (galleries want footfall too). Some of it is rather challenging. But it's very early days for digital. Film had 100 years to define itself as an artform, digital has had 10.

In a way we are going back to the pioneering days of film, when the photographers vision, and their skill in the darkroom, were what marked out the greats from the also-rans.

Claire said...

I feel your pain and can relate to it. Too many systems, none of them perfect. Right now 3 criterias are of utmost importance for me but I can only get two in any given system. Focus peaking, 1:1 ratio, at least APS-C DOF control. Panasonic will soon have peaking and 1:1 (along with crazy good usable AF and nice lens selection), Fuji has top of the basket APS-C IQ and promises peaking in its soon to be released XE-1, and NEX has peaking and IQ, but no 1:1 (and awful AF). We have to keep focused on our images. The choices you make are ultimately about the ease of getting the pics.

Steve J said...

Addendum - another problem hit me when reading this article on TOP.


The other "editing" issue we have now is not just how we edit our RAW files, but how we edit our portfolios. Digital and online sharing has made us profligate. We fail to develop our own critical faculties enough to both narrow down what we like/want and then intentionally seek it out.

I do not believe this is the fault of digital, it's just that we have not adapted our behaviours to the reality of the new medium. At the moment digital is "owned" by social networking, not by photographers - hence the uniformity.

Kirk Tuck said...

Who the heck is Dirk?

Kirk Tuck said...

No Hugh, the film Hasselblads really are great. But I get what you are saying, it's a point at which we were able to re-focus back on shooting.

Kirk Tuck said...

I get what you're saying but this is an ongoing problem I have with engineers and other very literal, straight line thinkers. A huge subset of camera users want and need the formalist constraint offered by different formats or color palettes in order to really do their art. When I pick up a 3:2 camera I see only the 3:2 frame even though I desperately want to make a 1:1 image. The camera leans on me. The format doesn't smile and say, "oh goodie, crop me any way you want." It says, "Here are the frame lines, don't think about changing them." When present with endless choices or the wrong choices some of us are paralyzed. I know the little math genii will just shrug and say "crop." But I'd rather have a camera that corresponds to my vision rather than remediate my vision in order to use a commodity camera.

Your argument would have us believe that all design considerations are more or less meaningless as a long as we have the raw materials. It's like saying a car is a car. If that were so why aren't we all driving Toyota Corollas?

I want the tool to work in confluence with my vision. People are out there doing amazing stuff because of the current state of camera design but in spite of it. Yes, the sensors are keener than they've ever been before. Too bad they are all the same. I think I'd rather have a shittier one with personality than a cookie cutter one that acts as a straight jacket.

Anders C. Madsen said...

"The herd loves homogenization because it means we're all in this together. The artist hates homogenization because it means the tools for a unique expression of unique vision are lost."

I respectfully disagree. :)

I understand what you say about formats but I really believe that the format is a pretty small part of the unique expression of a unique vision. There are so many other elements in an image that especially today you can create just about anything you want - and I really mean ANYTHING.

We've got more types of light, modifiers, locations, post-processing tools and what-have-you than ever before and to my mind, all of those play a bigger part in bringing that image in my head onto the paper than how the manufacturer of my camera suggests that I crop the image. I can play with all the elements in ways I never envisioned before, and while it also means that the bar keeps rising, it still is an inspiration and a freedom that I've never enjoyed the like of before.

hugo solo said...

Sorry Kirk But iphone with those apps are terrific the last one was Mpro with filters the classic for B/W and different graduations like tone and paper grades and when press the shutter, only another picture anything more, with a different IQ.
Billy Wilder nobody,s perfect.

Kirk Tuck said...

As someone who has shot portraits with an 8x10 view camera and also with a m4:3 camera I'll have to respectfully disagree right back. The immediacy of the imaging and the profoundly different way every format and size draws and image is an integral part of the vision and is wonky and non-intuitive in post processing. Yes, you can re-invent the wheel but why should you have to?

Mark Davidson said...

I agree that we are approaching homogenization in sensor technology but I also wanted to amplify your comment about chefs re-discovering hand -work in food prep. In the same way, the enormous number of new photographers created by the inexpensive access to decent and increasingly simple digital sophistication has actually helped stimulate the eccentric creatives in the field.

A huge cottage industry in photographic accessories has sprung up to feed demand for extending and personalizing ones gear. From the mundane "skins" to the enormously complex DSLR video rigs, one sees the inventiveness of enthusiasts. We are now even seeing the emergence of entirely new camera manufacturers in the video field such as RED and BMCC.

I would actually go as far as to predict that we will see more of this as prices come down on compete imaging modules that can be inserted into custom made bodies. Considering that Leica was able to contract a new sensor and supporting electronics tells me that the day is near when we see craftsmen from all parts of the world turning out interesting and even astonishing cameras at very affordable prices.

Steve J said...

Well, I'm not an engineer, nor do I think straight line thinking is the preserve of engineers, any more than creativity is the preserve of artists.

I don't quite get your car analogy though, so let's say if you gave two artists the same subject to paint, and identical paints, brushes and canvas, would they end up with the same painting?

Do the same with two photographers and one subject, give them same camera, but ask them to shoot RAW and edit the result to their taste in any editor they like. Would they look the same?

So I simply don't get your straight jacket analogy regarding sensors. A RAW file is just that. Uncooked data that you went shopping for. How the meal turns out is up to the ingredients and the cook, not the shopping basket you carried it home in, which is pretty much all the sensor is. My solution is that we all learn to cook better, because that's a more logical solution than asking camera companies to make their sensors worse.

I never said that design considerations were meaningless, or that format didn't matter. I just said that the sensor is not the primary issue you should worry about because they have reached a level where it doesn't really matter. How good the photo is is much more dependent on you.

By the way, my Fuji can set a viewfinder mask for 1:1, 3:2 and 16:9 formats. I had assumed your Sony did as well. No, it's not the same as a 6X6 viewfinder, but it does make square composition easier.

Kirk Tuck said...

If you give every chef a basket of summer squash, some anchovies and a frying pan with oil I'm going to guess you'll get some fried squash that tastes a bit fishy. From just about every chef. And some may taste better than others. We talk a big deal about how everyone will do totally different creative but real life shows that the more you homogenize tools the more alike the outward attributes of work look.

Give them a choice of lots of different tools and you'll get lots of variations. Give them something besides squash and everyone will be happier.

Carsten W said...

Interesting article, which mirrors some recent thoughts bouncing around in my head, but I disagree with a couple of points.

A minor point of contention is your comparison of Hasselblad with Apple. Apple has spent decades approaching a vision present from the onset, of superior products combining performance with looks, at a high but not unattainable price point. They have done this through careful iterative improvement, lots of R&D and a culture which encouraged excellence from programmers and designers alike (compare with Dell et al). With the Lunar, Hasselblad has degraded from a premier camera manufacturer to a special edition skin maker, a-la Leica Hermes editions. No added value, just a skin. I would compare Hasselblad's NEX-7 effort to Swarovski, not Apple, and even Leica was never so crass as to take someone else's product, add a skin and multiply the price by 5.

On a different note, until recently I had a real creative streak with my D3 and a couple of good lenses, Zeiss and Leica. Something about that camera just encouraged me to perform as well as I could. I found the resolution too low, however, and was hoping for a nice 20-24MP D800. Well, I was given a D800 instead, bought a few more good lenses, and my creative streak went on vacation. I am still trying to figure out why. My equipment has never been better, but I think I need some limitations to fight against, and I really have none. Like some others in this thread, I find complete freedom paralyzing. Like you, Kirk, I keep an old Hasselblad around, for that old-time feeling, and because that camera speaks to me in a way that my newer ones don't. I also have a Rolleiflex 6008i, which is equally brilliant, but in a different way. I really ought to go out with one of those and keep at it until I find my "red thread" again.

P.S. As a side note, I think the word "commoditization" belongs in your article somewhere :)

David said...


I read once that you had a Nikon to Sony adapter. Was it Macro only or could you focus to infinity? Was there glass in the adapter that affected image quality?

I am curious as would like to use my Nikon lenses on the A99.

Adrian said...

Kirk, I agree with much of what you say as sensors are becoming common high quality and often are a good Sony sensor.
However, there is still lots to choose from to decide which brand to buy and that is the BIG difference - which are the other factors so important....

As some here have mentioned, the ergonomics of the consumer to pro cameras are different: the body build, quick access to buttons on higher models can lead to more creative expression I believe as changes are fast to do, and in-camera processing can certainly make differences for choice of camera and final results. Not everyone uses Raw all the time (especially when taking 1000s of photos in a short time, I will use both Raw or jpeg depending on image), and cameras like Pro Nikons have excellent ADL - Adaptive Dynamic Lighting features (to extend dynamic range done in camera, also helps avoid highlight clipping incamera jpegs in my D700) and choices of colour picture styles for Neutral, Standard, Vivid and these give different looks.

As a pro the speed of buttons to access these features and understand them helps make the choice between Nikon, Canon, Olympus or Sony for which to buy along with expenses and availability of good glass. So yes, the sensor is becoming the same but lots of other things are not including body engineering and camera software. Case in point: the excellent jpeg engine in Olympus cameras vs. the colour look of Panasonic are not the same at all, even when they shared the same sensor. Can someone get the same look from different brands with the same sensor. Yes, possibly, but then again, it won't look the same if the camera software features and treatment of images are different by default or if you apply changes to them (this can be jpeg, but picture settings chosen incamera are also saved and available in EXIF/XMP data of raw in Capture NX for Nikon, or ACR or Lightroom for Canon) and the photographers choice of final colour settings may be vastly different. While sensors seem to be homogenizing, the other features of cameras I believe are not.

John Flores said...

Pentax K-01 has focus peaking, 1:1, and uses Sony's vaunted 16Mp APS-C sensor.

Herzog said...

Thought-provoking insights.

I'm not sure I'm with you that the D800 proves that we'll be settling on the full-frame format. It's current position atop the DxOMark rankings is certainly impressive, but it's competing against older medium format sensors. Those companies also don't have the economies of scale to invest in sensor tech. The D800 sensor produced by Sony but expanded to medium format proportions would obviously outrank the Full Frame Variant in dynamic range and other metrics, by the same logic that a D800 sensor cut down to 1" sensor would be outdone by the D800.

The history of digital photography is one of increasing sensor sizes and decreasing costs. APS sensors were the pro standard ten years ago. Now you find infinitely better ones in tiny, sub-$500 cameras and full-frame is becoming the new normal. Why would this trend not continue with medium format prices tumbling too?

And I have to contend with the supposition that we're somehow at the end of the rope with technological innovation and have reached some sort of stasis. The genius of technology as a business to be in is there is no end to it's exponential development, meaning the cameras that are so impressive to you now that you suggest we've reached some sort of insdustry-wide stasis, will look positively quaint in five years. Marketing is the art of making us hate what we have and needing the new thing. It's like the anecdote of the patent officer at the turn of the century (apparently not true, but appropriate as an example), saying the patent office should be shut, as everything that could be invented already must have been.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think humanity has spurts of genius that last decades, sometimes even centuries and then we revert to the mean. There is no law or rule that says we will continue to improve as a species. Or to innovate in the sciences in an exponential way.

Nathan Lee Bush said...

I'm just talking about Moore's Law as it relates to computer power, and has comparative functions across technological development, which has held since it was first proposed in 1965, and shows no signs of letting up. When photography made the leap into digital technology, it entered the realm of theoretically infinitely exponential returns. So your cell phone has more computing power than NASA had in the 1960s. In the 1960s or 70s, they actually couldn't imagine ever needing more than a few megabytes of data storage capacity (what could surpass Pong?). This sounds laughable in hindsight, but it's true, and equivalent to your argument that we've reached some sort of plateau. And yet, with each technological step forward, suddenly new applications and possibilities open up. So while you say current technologies today have reached some pinnacle, consumers in 20 years will be clamoring for 3D cameras that shoot at 500 megapixels in pitch black with no noise. Or perhaps it will be a whole new virtual reality recording paradigm we can't yet even conceive of.

I do agree with you that in purely photographic terms, there is a law of diminishing returns as we approach the limits of the human eye. For example, we can see the difference between SD and HD more than we can see the difference between HD and 4K, and we so on with the jump from 4K to 8K. At a certain point the human eye will be incapable of discerning differences at these higher levels. But we are a long way from producing a technology capable of representing the incredible dynamic range, autofocus speed and immersive experience allowed by the human eye, but certainly that is what we are moving inexorably towards.

Of course, this will all likely soon run into the harsh reality of a planet of finite resources, and global warming is already destabilizing the planet this threatens to throw a wrench into the endless growth paradigm all this "progress" is based on at the core.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.