A Bumper Crop for Traditionalists. Canon v. Nikon. Where's Sony?

Nikon's new D600. A few teething problems but a good entry into the market.

The Canon 6D. Future Standard Equipment of Canon Wedding and Portrait Shooters.

It's been a bountiful season for traditionalist camera buyers. There are two new, lower priced full frame cameras (35mm sized imaging sensors) on the market and both of them hover around the $2000 price point. Let's put this into perspective: The first full frame camera to market was a much plagued and much maligned Kodak DCS 14 which boasted 14 megapixels, a lot of weird color anomalies across the frame, an eight second start up time and more digital noise over ISO 200 than most newbies to the digital horde would even believe in this day and age. Oh, and it came with a sticker price of over $5,000.  Yikes. That was only eight years ago!  It was quickly followed by a more nuanced machine from Canon; the 1DS, a whopping 11.8 megapixels and an even more whopping $8,000 price tag. Was it great? For its moment in time? Yes. By today's standards? Not hardly. 

So you can imagine how excited the people who were there at the birth of truly professional digital photography feel this year at being about to buy very mature, high image quality descendants for half to a quarter of those prices. And these are cameras with batteries that last ten times as long, ISO's that are truly usable at settings at least four times higher than those we thought to be "okay" just a few years ago and with a number of capabilities we never imagined.  Things like usable live view and nearly professional video.

It's not my intention today to do a review of either of these two cameras. I've read what's been written at DP Review and at DXO about the cameras and I'm pretty confident that either one of these cameras will provide good service for the vast majority of both professional photographers and ardent hobbyists (although there is a hardly a demarcation between those categories any more...).  What I want to discuss is the rationalization of the overall camera market as it exists going into 2013.

I'm going to ignore the tiny section of the market that's keeping medium format digital cameras on life support. There will probably always be a contingent of practitioners who will demand whatever benefits they see to the larger and "more perfect" cameras but over the entire industry their numbers are far smaller than one percent. They may even be smaller than one tenth of a percent, based on observation. If you need a medium format camera for your work you already know what you need and I can't really be of much service. It's my view that Nikon, Canon and Sony could sweep into those rarified markets at any time and absolutely desolate the current producers.  And they would if they could see the promise of good margins and healthy markets. One only needs to look at what happened in the professional video market after the Red cameras pushed the doors open a crack.  After the bleeding edge swept by Canon and Sony rushed in to grab ripe fruit from the fast growing bottom half of the new markets. And they are making good progress toward dominating the rest of the market as well.

What I see in the still camera market is a wholesale shift.  

The high res Nikon D800 and D800e is actively displacing most of the demand for lower end (under $20,000) medium format cameras. Their time is up. The D800's output performance is, sensor to sensor, competitive and the range and relative economy of the Nikon lens line is a powerful adjunct to the camera itself.  In my assessment the Nikon D800 is the new medium format/professional tool for the vast majority of photographers. And I'm certain that Canon will fill the gap that currently exists in their product line ASAP. I think Canon was taken off guard. I think they presumed that Nikon would put their 36 megapixel sensor into a variant of their professional D3X body and sell the combination for somewhere above $5.000. I'm equally sure that Canon is scrambling to find the value proposition for an equally spec'd processor without a wholesale demolition of their 5Dmk3 market segment. In a short time they'll either bite the bullet and go for price and performance parity with Nikon or they'll establish a rationale for a equal-to-or-better product in a slightly different category. No doubt in my mind that they'll come back with a strategy that works. 

However that segment falls out the bar has been set. For the enormous segment of shooters who aren't interested in high speed sports or bullet proof cameras, new products like the Nikon D800 have become the defacto top of the line imaging tools for a whole new generation.

So, where to the new kids on the block like the Canon 6D and the Nikon D600 fit in? Well, they get a photographer 90% of the way to the new "professional arena" at 50% less cost. In the case of the Canon there is no appreciable difference in imaging quality for stills. The only points at which which the 6D fails to live up to the performance of the 5Dmk3 are autofocus, frame rate and (according to a growing number of video sites) video image quality. In the case of Nikon buyers of the 600D give up mostly-----pixels. And many users might not find that much of a detriment in daily camera use. Yes, the D800 will always be preferred for enormous prints and nearly infinite detail but those attributes aren't front and center in the working methods (you thought I was going to say workflow, didn't you?) of most photographers; whether they are shooting for money or not.

Over 20 megapixels on a low noise, full frame digital camera at a reasonable cost is pretty much the Holy Grail that most, if not the majority, of photographers have been chasing since the dawn of digital. Well, according to the pundits, we've arrived. 

I've shot with both the Nikon and Canon systems in recent years and if I were contemplating choosing one of these two systems I would be hard pressed. In fact, I almost consider them interchangeable. Frankly, looking at what I think the future holds, I would shy away from either. Not because they aren't good cameras or good, solid systems but because they are solutions squarely aimed at what imaging needs used to be and not what I presume they will be going forward.

What do I mean? Well, as a portrait shooter I really like the whole look and feel of full frame images; the ability to achieve really narrow depth of field, even with normal and slightly wide focal lengths. And I take an increase in noise abatement as an extra. But I'm convinced that in order to stay in business and provide the services my clients need I'll be called upon to provide more and more video services. While I might eventually buy dedicated video cameras (if the need is persistent) I want cameras that are easy to use for video right now.  I've been shooting video with my Sony a77's and with the Sony Nex 6 and find it easy and straightforward. The Sony a99 is even better. I can't overemphasize the power of an EVF for video production, unencumbered by crew and lots of expensive camera add-ons like Zacuto Hoods and external monitors.

The a99 is well set up for video production. The ability to use full on phase detection auto focus in conjunction with full time live view video is enormous. And it's something that's not offered, at the same level, by Nikon or Canon. 

At the same time, I'd like the option to back up my a99 with a cheaper full frame camera just like Nikon and Canon users can now. That's one thing that's missing from my current system. I'm predicting that Sony will fill that slot this year. Not because they want to but because the market will demand it. And they are here to play for the long haul.

So, these three full frame systems represent our current version (compared with film days categories) of medium format tools.  If that's the case what's our version of the 35mm SLR? What's the digital counterpart?

I think it's the vast selection of cropped frame cameras. And I don't make an artificial boundary between APS-C cameras and micro 4:3rds cameras. I look at them as all of one category sub-divided by whether or not they have a moving mirror. When I survey this part of the market, which I think it analogous to the professional 35mm market of the late film days, I think of everything from the Olympus OMD EM5 and the Panasonic GH3 to the Nikon 7000 and the Canon 7Ds as being comparable in terms of imaging quality. No differences. At least no differences that most people will notice.  

This category of cameras meets the needs of most camera users very, very well. Including professionals in most fields. The range of lenses and the range of options are incredible. In fact, in terms of video performance I think several of the residents of this category are, in terms of sound and output performance, better for video production use than their full frame competitors. Reviews of the Panasonic GH3 are consistently affirming the very, very high quality of that camera's video files, and the codecs used to produce them. Coupled with the excellent wide open quality of many of the lenses available for the system and that camera may be all you need right now for state of the art video in most prosumer and standard business applications.

So, even though the size of some of entrants makes this statement seem counterintuitive, I think this category of cameras is now the heir to what was once the kingdom of motor driven Nikon F5's and Canon EOS 1 variant cameras from the last glorious days of film. Tools that worked for a huge proportion of both professional and non-professional (but not less demanding) users.

The shift downward, sizewise, is only detrimental to users' egos, not their image quality potential.

If I were a working photojournalist I could not imagine a better tool that the Olympus OMD EM5 or, perhaps a brace of Sony Nex6's with some saucy primes. And for the kind of introspective street photography that appeals to so many people this size of camera is just right.  Either tool provides a level of imaging quality every bit the equal to any other APS-C camera. (There will always be outliers and new tech like the Fuji X series and the Sigma DP2 and 3 that challenge the category for top performance but they are still a small and expensive segment).

And that leaves us with a relatively new category that sits just below the APS-C and M4:3 machines which is growing and equally interesting. That's the category filled with cameras like the pocketable Sony RX100, the Nikon 1 series, and a raft of 2/3 inch sensor cameras like the Fuji X10 and X20.  All these cameras are capable of performance that would challenge the overall quality of the cameras I started out talking about, the over $5000 cameras of only eight years ago. In fact, this new, smaller category can, for most applications, provide images that are competitive with the output from the next class up. You'll only start to see the differences as you push the parameters to the edges or in cases where you need access to more interesting lenses and more able accessories (prime lenses with high speeds, more complete and complex flash systems, the nosebleed area of high ISOs.).

These cameras will push out the bottom end of the next category up as that category becomes bifurcated between convenience and price versus performance and accessories.  

Where will we go? The affluent don't really have to make hard choices. They can buy at the top and be assured of ultimate quality. But money isn't always the primary factor and many with ready cash will probably prefer the smaller foot print of the middle or smaller category.

Most aging hobbyist have proven highly resistent to video but the generation actively moving into the market is flipped and values both, with video a sought after feature. 

It all boils to down to what you want, what you need and what you expect.

If you really do strive to make large, flawless prints you'll migrate to the top segment. Likewise, if you are an advertising photographer supplying the higher end of the market you'll also head to the top. But if you are go working wedding or event photographer you might just find that a  less well specified camera will do just as well.  Hence the introduction of the 6D and 600D to the market. 

If your markets or your hobby are well served with moderate prints sizes (say up to 20 by 30 inches) you may be well served with the middle way, the APS-C and M4:3 products.  And if you travel frequently and lightly you are right in the middle of the sweet spot with the mirrorless (and more compact) Sony, Olympus and Panasonic cameras. (Keeping an eye out for the Samsungs but not seeing the market penetration just yet).

I'm seeing the tier of full frame cameras in the $2000 tier as the new aspirational cameras. Many photographers have come to grips with the idea that the 5Dmk3 doesn't provide much more value for the money and that the files from the D800 are currently overkill, giant computer choking disk fillers...

If I were a traditionalist professional I'd have my sights set squarely on one of the two cameras pictured at the top of this blog. As a non-traditionalist with future longings I'll make due with my a99 from Sony while waiting with partially closed check book for their down market FF entry.

If I walk away from the profession of photography to concentrate on my writing career or my career as a ruthless corporate raider I'd ditch all that heavy stuff and carry around a couple Nex or Olympus OMD cameras and a handful of lenses. 

What amazed me is that people still look at the tools in a way that was codified years ago. Back when relatively small differences between sensors made bigger differences.  I'm also mystified by the intention versus reality usage of all these different cameras. The intention seems to be to buy for maximum effect while most usage is clustered at the minimum technique end. Many super high res cameras used with cheap-ass lenses, handheld with nasty cheap protection filters on the front. In poor light. In an ISO range that uniformly decimates dynamic range.  Most people (pros included) seem to over buy and under effort. But I guess that's what makes this all so interesting.

My big prediction is that, just like the U.S. economy, you're going to see the market move toward the opposite ends of an inverted curve. More and more companies are going to jump on the full frame band wagon.  Canon and Nikon are just the first feelers. At the other end of the spectrum mirrorless system cameras (both APS-C and M4:3) will eat away at more and more traditional mirrored systems as consumers become more aware of the benefits of WYSIWYG viewfinders that allow pre-chimping. The fallout will be the decline of traditional cropped from mirrored cameras, across the board.  And that means a whole lot of homeless cropped sensor-only lenses will be flooding the market. I think the decline started the minute that Olympus launched its OMD EM5 camera and will accelerate as people understand the value proposition.

All the traditionalists will see greater value in full frame as it moves down the cost scale toward the province of APS-C sensors. It seems both obvious and relentless.

And, of course, you know that the next big shift (presaged in part by Sony) will be the shift toward making all but a fraction of the tools, across the consumer and pro-lite sectors, to mirrorless EVF cameras. At that point the race will be on to find a new way to differentiate and sell product. It's all interesting and, to my mind, inevitable.

Amazing to me that you could do 90% of what needs to get done now in a professional photography business with a small camera like the OMD and its 12-50mm kit lens for an investment of less than $1,100. Just amazing.


Craig Yuill said...

I understand your points about the traditional DSLRs being produced by Nikon and Canon. I have one (Nikon D7000), and it's a beauty (IMO). But I have recently come into the mirrorless fold (Nikon V1), and am impressed with the operation of and results from the camera. Especially when it comes to video. The Nikon mirrorless camera does a so much more effective job of AF than the Nikon DSLR it isn't funny. And it's much easier for my kids and relatives to properly use than the DSLR. (They just can't get the hang of using an OVF, and don't understand why they can't use the dirty stinky diaper hold with my DSLR.) These days I see my DSLR being used for highest-quality still shots (MY medium-format-film-equivalent camera), and my mirrorless camera being used as my everyday, walk around, family events camera (MY 35mm-film-equivalent camera).

It is good to see Sony and others thinking outside of the box and leading the way in promoting the use of new technologies in cameras. In the long run we photographers benefit from having much-improved cameras.

David Liang said...

Kirk I love posts like this one when you analyse and discuss the current climate of the industry. All I can say is more like this!

Btw, the entire post was great but this paragraph couldn't be more accurate:

"I'm also mystified by the intention versus reality usage of all these different cameras. The intention seems to be to buy for maximum effect while most usage is clustered at the minimum technique end. Many super high res cameras used with cheap-ass lenses, handheld with nasty cheap protection filters on the front. In poor light. In an ISO range that uniformly decimates dynamic range. "

I've self-banned myself from many forums like DPreview of which I know you're on as well. Because I find ridiculous arguments over trivial specs of certain camera's, as if without that extra .5 FPS the camera is "utterly useless" or "crippled". I can't count the number of times I've wanted to respond just shut up and shoot.

Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts on where you see the technology is at today and where it might go tomorrow. This is exactly why I follow your blog.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think I've been right more than I've been wrong but the future is much harder to predict than the past.... I do know that a lot of people made excellent photographs with stuff that most newbies today don't think is even remotely usable....based on specs. Seems talent has something to do with all this after all.

Barrett Brassfield said...

These two new FF cameras also look to be excellent tools for landscape photographers.

Paul said...

I think that it is fair to say that at the moment it is the second tier manufacturers that innovating at the moment. Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and Fuji are all pushing the envelope when it comes to features and new technologies. The problem for Canon and Nikon is that they are very conservative by nature and are looking to protect their traditional markets, the problem being that their traditional amrket will not exist in 10 years time. Certainly today if I were to set up my business totally from scratch I would be looking very carefully at Sony or m4/3 because I feel that they are offering tools that reflect the changing industry. When Canon brought out the 5d mk II I really thought that they were embracing the new convergent paradigm of multimedia but since then they have decided to hive it off into two distinct catecories with the Stills based line of cameras and cine based ones. I don't know about you but the market I serve does not allow me to accumulte lots of different equipment. I want a basic camera that straight out of the box can do 80% of the work I do. Sony, Pansonic et al recognise this and are making cameras that haven't been deliberately crippled so as to protect percieved market share. It is a case of innovate or die.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'd say that the market will change entirely in less than two years. People underestimate the forced evolution that the web brings to bear. Cycles of knowledge among consumers now drive the product cycles. For better or worse...

Kirk Tuck said...

Less so for portrait photographers.

Ray said...

I'm only guessing, as my portfolio doesn't allow me to state much of anything, but I'm thinking composition, lighting, and compelling, interesting subjects make up for any perceived lack of proper equipment. I'm not rich by any means, but I've got enough money to buy my way to fame if money were all it took. Sadly, talent and effort count too.

Love the blog, dude. Keep up the good work.

Anders C. Madsen said...

Ehhh - that is going to need some explaining! :)

I would think that portrait photography would be the perfect fit for a FF camera with a precise but still somewhat limited autofocus (tracking abilities, relatively tight cluster of AF-points) as long as the image quality was up there with the best - and until now that looks to be the case.

What do you think they are missing when it comes to portraits? - or do you feel they are overkill and should be substituted by smaller sensor cameras? In that case I am not sure that I agree, I think the larger sensor and the much more controllable DOF is essential, at least for some types of portrait photography.

CK Lai said...

Just a quick note: Sony and Panasonic may not have crippled their cams from a stills viewpoint, but they've certainly crippled their video codecs to protect their high-end pro video cameras (yes, including the GH3... no 10-bit 4-2-2 output. Oy.)

Kirk Tuck said...

CK, the codec in the GH3 is intra fram and 4:2:0 with a very high bit rate. Much better than Canon, Nikon or Sony. Everyone wants to protect their high end video but there are trade-off with big frame cameras.

Dave said...

I believe you are right Kirk, M43 will soon equal the best of what APS-C can offer as of today. The possible exception being the high, high quality I see from the Nikon 24MP sensor in the D3200. I never believed in megapixels, but for some group shots and even portraiture it offered me some things I never expected to get.

That being said, the one inhibitor to FF for me was the cost of shifting up. The inhibitor for me, a budget constrained photo wannabe, is price. Even the D600 is a little out of my comfort zone and the D7000/D3200 combo cost me about the same as a single OMD. Thus, at least for now, that's where I live.

The writing is on the wall though and I see Canon/Nikon taking a few shots to the chin in the next 36 months unless they pull some tricks out of their sleeves (which they have excelled at doing from time to time).

Anonymous said...

I know sport imagery is not your main (ahem) focus, but that you do occasionally shoot swimming and xc. Were it not for my kids' involvement, I'd not have been drawn to sports photography, but do now often shoot soccer, lacrosse, and increasingly skiing/snowboarding and skateboarding. What does your crystal ball suggest the market will provide for folks like me?

Barrett Brassfield said...

Kirk, I am curious about your comment too regarding portrait photography and full frame cameras. I don't do a lot of portrait work but I would like to do more. One of the reasons I started reading your blog was because I enjoy your portrait work and would like to do more portrait photography in the future and as such your opinion is greatly valued on the subject.

Kirk Tuck said...

Phase detection on the chip will grow up and be as fast as the current traditional cameras. Next year? Maybe the year after?
For cross country I've all but given up AF since the kid is in a pack and I want focus just on his face. With a fast lens in the bright sun what's not to love about MF?

Kirk Tuck said...

I'm not dissing the idea of full frame. Far from it. I think the way the out of focus rendering happens in bigger formats is a large part of their attraction. Where I think Canon and Nikon are letting down their users is not implementing a high quality EVF in lieu of the traditional finder. Being able to see the how the image will look before you shoot it and while shooting is a much better way to go. Especially if you are switching to continuous lights like LEDs.

I'll use an example from this morning. I was shooting the CEO of a company for Japanese magazine. The interview took place in a small conference room and I was shooting during the interview. I was asked to be discreet. No lights, no flash. Just the light coming through the windows. I put the camera to my eye and could INSTANTLY see that the white walls behind the CEO were throwing off the exposure. I need a +2/3 stop compensation. Done while viewing (not afterwards during a chimp fest....). I also noticed that the color temp could be improved. Done, once again without chimping. If I've made all the corrections at the front end of the shoot, without shooting iterative test frames, I've extended my welcome in the room by at least as many test frames as I didn't shoot.

Also, during a portrait session I can set the camera to show me a quick review in the finder while shooting. This lets me know, without stopping and engaging the rear screen and scrolling through the images, just what I"m getting and what I need to try next.

With landscape the willing participation of a sitter is not required. You have all the time you want to chimp to your heart's desire.

Barrett Brassfield said...

Thanks for the detailed response Kirk. It makes sense. I think I need to pick up a VF2 for my Oly m4/3's body and have a go for myself.

Vincent Ie said...

I went to D800 and it really set a high quality bar that makes any craps such as cropped sensor, nor u4/3 unattractive at all.

But yes, I know we have to use it properly to get amazing, stunning results. Slow down your workflow, using high-end German primes up to carrying tripods. It's like the old days, everything is under photographers control again.

Anonymous said...

Kirk's view is commonly held. I am not sure that it will be like this. The 35mm format is tried and tested and has been immensely popular - it is not just that the original format gave a good enough quality for professional and enthusiast's work, it is also that the size of the cameras is a good fit to most people's hands. They are attractive to hold and use. The smaller formats are often fiddly and cramped to use for long periods. Also these things have to be put into perspective - a DSLR is only huge if you insist on pairing it with an enormous f2.8 zoom and there is a trend now (with higher ISO capable cameras) to drop to smaller and lighter f4 zooms (see the new Canon 24-70Lf4 and Nikon 70-200f4 zooms). I think I agree with Kirk about the EVF transition. I think that will happen, but I am not really convinced that full frame cameras will be replaced by m4/3 just because they are smaller for most keen amateurs and pros. Smaller is not necessarily better, and the larger format will always offer a siren call of "better quality" compared to the smaller formats. This may not matter, but for keen photogs these things always are taken into consideration (witness the pixel race). Photography is as much about aspirations as reality for many.