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...