12.01.2013

Who would have thought that the victors would be the companies with open standard lens mounts?

No doubt about it. Canon and Nikon have spent decades making really good photographic products. And Kodak spent 100 years making better and better films. But in the case of the camera manufacturers it looks like the long term spoils will go to the camera companies that succeeded in creating the defacto open standards as they apply to lens mounts.

I've written for nearly five years now about the critical benefits of the EVFs with their instant and credible feedback loop for photography and we are now seeing that the tipping point has been reached and the trend makers in our industry are consistently reaching for the cameras that give them instant and effective live view on a full time basis. This delivers lots of benefits for most photographers with very few detractions.

Traditional mirrored DSLRs can be used in live view modes but those modes are still archaic, first gen. manifestations of real time live view that cripple the shooting and handling performance of the cameras. And, in every instance the operator must use the rear LCD screen to compose, focus and shoot with instead of being able to make use of a high resolution EVF. The traditional DSLR is quickly becoming synonymous with the idea of a hampered photographic experience because it can only be used in live view mode in a very basic and very unsatisfying way. One only has to try to shoot moving action with a DSLR in live view mode with his back to the sun in order to see, vividly, the limitations.

So the thing that mirror less cameras really brought to the table and the reason I use them in my work is not the smaller size and bulk of the systems but the fact that they have the most advanced and informative viewing system of all the tools available by dint of having a fully functional, real time feedback system. I'm found, over the years, that once you embrace the joy of "pre-chimping" a scene with a great feedback loop construct you'll never willingly go back to the optical finder with its inherent lack of information and immediacy.

For me, the size difference of the competing systems is a remotely secondary parameter in choosing between the different cameras.

But that's the draw for me and for generations of photographers who grew up dependent and happy with eye level viewing methods. That doesn't really speak to the reasons that many more people are embracing the mirror-less, compact cameras that are advancing in the market (with the exception of north America). No, I think an enormous number of ardent amateurs, semi-pros and wild artists are drawn toward the mirror less options because the shorter film plane to lens flange distance allow for easy adaptation of millions and millions of existing DSLR lenses that can work remarkably well on these cameras. In many (most?) instances you'll lose some niceties like auto focus and advanced program modes but you'll gain an almost infinite range of optical options, many of which have been available at bargain prices. It's the first really open standard lens mounting opportunity of the digital age!

I imagine that buyers of the Sony A7 variants will buy them as much for their ability to (with adapters) accept the best lenses from every competing system. With the purchase of just two adapters you'll have the run of the entire Canon and Nikon lens catalogs. Think the Nikon 105 DC lens is the best portrait lens ever made for full frame 35mm cameras? You are only one adapter away from using it on an A7. But do you also need a nice, 17mm tilt and shift lens? Of course you can adapt Canon's one of a kind 17mm T/S lens with ease.  Have you held onto a bag full of Leica R or M lenses? With the right adapter you'll be able to re-integrate (what many believe to be) the world's greatest glass with the addition of an inexpensive adapter.

The same applies to the micro four thirds cameras. Just about every optic made for photography in the past 50 years can be pretty well adapted to the Olympus or Panasonic cameras. In many cases the adapter rings can be as cheap as $25.

Having two systems that represent open lens standards effectively eliminates the one barrier to system entry that makes people so loathe to change to better cameras as technology evolves. The closed standards of traditional DSLR lens mounts held people with big investments in "glass" into systems that may have been leapfrogged by competitors who created better camera bodies.

I remember in the middle of the first decade of professional digital photography that many of use were locked into Nikon because that was a system we'd shot for years and years. In one sense we wanted to be locked in because the lenses were, in many cases, demonstrably better than competitive lenses in the same ranges. But we were stuck with the D2H and then the D2X APS-C cameras as our only real choices for camera bodies. The D2X at 12 megapixels was Nikon's highest resolution camera and everyone who ever owned one would tell you that you really couldn't shoot the machine effectively above 400 ISO because the noise quickly became unmanageable.

At the same time Canon was launching full frame cameras with more and more resolution and the ability to shoot at much higher ISO's without the unwanted Jackson Pollack Effect. Many of us would have loved to have incorporated a Canon body into our systems and to have been able to use one effectively with the lenses we knew, loved and had depreciated.

And then Nikon flipped the tables and came out with their D3, D3s and D3X cameras and I can only imagine that the Canon shooters would have loved to slap some of their better glass onto the Nikon, full frame cameras----mostly to take advantage of a wildly successful generation of fast, high ISO shooting tools but also, in the case of the sports photographers, to take advantage of a much more reliable focusing sports camera. And in fact many did switch over time from both sides of the aisles.

The introduction of the Sony Nex 7 offered a delicious taste of freedom for Leica M users who could, for the first time, get great files from their investment in M lenses, albeit with a cropped frame. The Sony A7's will mean that the M users (and the few R users) will get to use their lens investments on a full frame camera with equally good imaging performance but at a quarter the price of the Leica M body.

If you are not operating in the lofty heights of Leica lenses the micro four thirds offers so many choices that it must be embarrassing for their more traditional rivals. And the idea that I can buy a Panasonic GH3 because I want the great video performance and then I can buy a OMD EM-1 for the image stabilization and possible improvement in jpeg images SOOC but still keep to one line of lenses is equally seductive. For my Panasonic system I can opt to cherry pick each companies line of lenses. Say the Panasonic 7 to 14mm for the shorter focal lengths, the Olympus 17mm 1.8 for a quick PJ lens, the wildly good Pana/Leica 25mm lens for everyday wear, the high performance Olympus 45mm 1.8 for discreet portrait work, the 35-100 f2.8 from Panansonic for stage work and so on.

If Olympus comes out with a better video body then....adios Panasonic but without the usual disruption and financial loss of having to re-rationalize the lens collection. It all seems so logical.
Wide open standards so you can optimize your systems for the way you shoot. That trumps the arguments about size and price and puts the focus on the stuff that focuses....

Nikonians love Nikons and Apple Computer users love their Macs. But the reality is that the market rewards companies that offer products which feature open standards. And that means millions of people are trying Android systems or buying Linux machines, using Java and opting for open standards even within Microsoft OS environments.  And for good reason....the consumer gets to choose the best "apps" for their use. And they get to hang on to their investments as they upgrade their platforms.

It's not about mirror less cameras, per se. It's more about open standards in the most expensive aspect of the hobby/vocation, the collection of good lenses. Just as it's not about camera size as much as it is about the convenience of use that comes from EVFs and more mature and useful visual feedback loops. Feedback loops that don't require iterative test shots.

It's only a matter of time before Canon and Nikon follow Sony, Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic into mirror less cameras. They will make short film flange to sensor plane cameras if for no other reason than to compete in the open systems market. It's all about the most efficient ecosystems, even if that's harder for consumers to articulate in surveys. And it's all changing right now. 

21 comments:

Dave Jenkins said...

I began in micro 4/3s in 2010 with an E-PL1 and have since owned a Panasonic G3 and a pair of OMD-5s, which I still have. I've used them extensively, and as much as I like the size and weight of micro 4/3s, I still prefer the antiquated optical viewing system of the Canon 6D and find myself moving more and more in that direction. I'm not out of m4/3s yet, but I think I'm going to sell one of the OMDs.

Anonymous said...

but will canikon make a real change in time to survive?

Michael R

Jim said...

Any time I've taken a consumer survey it has been my experience that the survey, which always seems to require answers to fixed questions on a "like-dislike" scale or as multiple choices, never seems to ask about the things that are really important to me. It's as if the survey was designed to support the positions the manufacturer has already taken.

Frank Grygier said...

Using an optical view finder these days us like using a paper map to navigate in a strange town. If you are not careful you will miss a turn or the best instant to push the shutter.

Dave Jenkins said...

Oh baloney, Frank! :o)

Kirk Tuck said...

Sorry Dave, I totally agree with Frank. When I pick up a OVF camera and use it I spend the first few minutes thinking it's broken and the next few minutes wondering why I'm using only 1/3 of what's available to me to make an image. OVFs are not giving us the amount of information we can use to make quicker, better photos. No worries, they'll be gone soon.

Mark Bellringer said...

This is exactly what I'm doing Kirk - you read my mind. i run a micro 4/3 kit with both Olympus and Panasonic bodies and lens, and a canon system which I'm thinning of adding a Sony A7R for my landscape work.

Dave Jenkins said...

I certainly know how you feel about the matter, Kirk, and I respect your opinion. I just don't share it. I gave the EVF a thorough, two-and-one-half-year try, and I just don't prefer it.

I do, however, prefer paper maps.

Charles said...

I completely agree with you on the open standards. You use the GH3 and EM-1 as a good example of having a camera that excels at video and one for stills (although the GH3 makes wonderful stills too). As a non-video person, I love that i can have the E-M5 or E-M1 for serious shooting and use the same lenses on a GM1 or GF1 for a nearly pocketable camera. No other system has the flexibility in bodies that m43s. The neat little collapsible lenses like the 12-32 and 14-42X are great.

I'm also a huge fan of the EVF. The new one in the E-M1 is awesome. I love seeing clipping in live view.

Noons said...

Couldn't agree more. I was a Nikonian of long, since the Nikon F days. And a rf user, with a Zeiss ZM and a Konica Hexar in the arsenal. And MF Mamiya(645 and 6X7).
But since I got my hands on a EPL-1 and of late an EM-5, there's been no looking back. I still do MF, but most of the 35mm equivalent has gone the way of the Oly. And likely in the medium term future, the wsay of a Sony A7R.
I can now use my Nikkor glass, some of the MF one, Leica, etcetc. Without having to invest in the corresponding digital bodies.
Someone once said: it's all about the glass, not the gears.
They couldn't have been more correct.

alexander solla said...

I know that this is a late comment on this thread... and you probably have more important things to write about....

But I would love to see your kit. Wait...that doesn't sound right. I mean, I would love to know what lenses you think would work with which adapters on which cameras.

I am ready to jump ship with Nikon. So many of these lenses are overweight and not as amazing as the price tags would suggest. Before I dive into an open format system, I would love a little more guidance. Hey, maybe a NEW book idea? kidding. I know you have enough going on already.

Just a thought.

Allan Jackson said...

Hi Kirk
I've been dithering over my next camera system purchase after shooting a Nikon D90 and kit lenses for a long time. I've been wanting a more modern body and faster (better) glass for a long time but the cost of doing that in Nikon is prohibitive - I'm not a pro.
And along comes M/3 at just the right time. The cameras seem now more than good enough and, for the same price as a Nikon 80-200 2.8, you can get a whole suite of top rate glass plus, as you say, a whole parallel universe of lenses from other systems.
In the last week I finally decided to stick my toe in the M4/3 water and ordered a G6 two-lens kit. I'm looking forward to trying it out and don't expect to be disappointed. Canikon wasn't looking and someone came along and moved their cheese ;-)
The only thing I don't yet know is how useful the G6 is going to be in the realm of TTL flash for socials in darker environments. Nikon CLS is pretty awesome....
Anyhow, thanks for all vis and input over the years.
Allan

Brad Calkins said...

It is interesting that really mirrorless cameras have opened up this whole idea of using lenses from one system on another system's body, due to not having to worry about differences in flang depth which used to limit infinity focus. Interesting because people have always benn using 'alt' glass. People have been using Nikon wides on Canon bodies for a long time, for example. Plus Tamron used to have the adaptall option to allow one lens to be used on different bodies.

Now we also have metabones even converting for sensor size as well as offering AF. In a dream world it is all interchangeable! The common mount is one of the big draws to MFT for me

Anonymous said...

Great column! You were really spot on when you mentioned how not being proprietary creates an attractive environment for both producers and consumers. Such open platforms have been shown to achieve economies of scale faster that proprietary ones.

Now if another camera maker or two would just join the m4/3 consortium. . .

Anonymous said...

Got to disagree here. The joy of photography is much about feel, and the feel transmitted from an EVF is like a cold fish. The "visual feedback of your settings" is a distracting barrier between you and your subject.
Getting the settings right is not much of a problem with todays DSLRs, especially if one has shot with slide film or used pushed B&W with razor thin exposure margins before.
No, for the feel - I choose OVF every time, besides the technical advantages, like zero lag, natural DR, etc.
PerL

Scott said...

PerL: you mention "zero lag" for an OVF camera but, for me, the lag issue favors mirrorless. With mirrorless, you press the shutter button and the shutter opens. With OVF/SLRs, you press the shutter button and, first, the lens stops down, second, the mirror flips up, and then, third, the shutter opens.

I prefer the infinitesimally small electronic lag of the EVF to the much longer mechanical lag of the OVF/SLR. Just a personal preference, of course.

Best regards,
Scott

Anonymous said...

Scott....
It might be so in theory, but you just have to put your finger on the shutter button of say a Nikon D4 and you realize how fast it is. I don't refer to the 10+ fps, but the response on first shot.
If you shot a series on a mirror less/EVF based camera where all systems that puts a load on the processor are at work - EVF refresh, the live adjusting of exposure/white balance, saving images, tracking AF, continuous shooting at fast fps - the processor chokes and you get out of sync with reality. You get a "slide show", long blackouts etc.
PerL

Anonymous said...

Talk of the drawbacks of a mirrored prism finder and adjudicating it old fashioned and dead reminds me of something. It reminds me of the upsurge of said mirrored prism finder and adjudicating coupled rangefinders old fashioned and dead.

And it was true. Leica hung on, barely through the 60s and 70s and 80s, while so many other models faded away.

I can't help thinking that in 10 years there will be a niche who still appreciates the advantages of the SLR.

Brad Calkins said...

Scott, I think mirrorless has more going on than you think. The shutter is open when you press the button so it actually closes first, then opens, then closes, then opens to view again. Plus aperture stops down as well depending on settings and ambient light. The exception is shooting with an electronic first 'curtain', which has its own problems with moving subjects. I've switched to EVFs, but I wouldn't say there is less lag than an enthusiast dSLR...

JonL said...

I'm not sure they count as "open" standards as you can't just make stuff for them, you have to ask to join and be approved by the standard holders.

Also EVFs aren't completely there yet, you get lag, especially when it's dull out (if you need a 1/8 exposure to see anything you're getting over 1/8 sec of lag) and the common Epson LCDs (E-M1, etc.) have a DR of 280:1 which means you aren't seeing what's happening in the shadows/highlights (either/both). The OLEDs are 10x better, though usually less colour accurate and have some burn-in (as per my GH3), but my eyes are better again. Lag on an OVF is kinda short too :-)

Not that I don't use EVFs (as I said, I have a GH3), but I don't think OVFs are going anywhere for a while yet.

Also all the mirrorless-only manufacturers are losing money and have been for years, the only profitable manufacturers are Canon, Nikon, Leica and kind-of Sony (now they've merged the profitable video div into the camera div so canceling all the latter's losses and giving a small profit). I'm thinking Canon and Nikon know they don't need to rush into a market where everyone is losing money hand-over-fist.

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