Old Tech in Optimal Conditions = New Tech.

Shooting with old tech makes me feel confident that my vision is the driver, not the technology.

It's tempting to look outside yourself for your power but you'll feel like less of a photographic wimp if you don't depend on your gear for your sense of value.

In the end it's the image that matters, not how you got there.

Camera: Nasty old Kodak SLR/n. Lens: Ancient Nikon 70-200mm f4.5-5.6. 

PIcture Stories in Austin.

What is it about the Olympus OM-D that makes it such a game changer?

The Olympus OM-D. Everyone's Camera of the Year in the 2012 Round-ups.

It's nearly unanimous across the web. Everyone's choice for camera of the year in 2012 was the elfen pro, the OMD. But why? It's not the most comfortable to hold (in its native configuration) nor is it invested with the highest image quality on the market. It's not part of the biggest contiguous system of lenses or accessories on the market nor is it the cheapest high performance camera on the market. So why all the gushing and glorification?

I postulate that the market was ready for three critical technologies to come together in one nearly perfect package at a price that was almost universally acceptable to working photographers and artists.

What are the three critical technologies:  At the top of the list I would place equivalent performance to established DSLRs at a fraction of the size and bulk, made possible by the maturing of the mirrorless technology and attendant advances in the autofocus capabilities of this class.  

Secondly, I would state that this camera, even more that Sony's (on paper) technically superior versions, made real world use of electronic viewfinders acceptable. And as soon as they were accepted and put into widespread use an enormous swath of the market came, almost instantaneously, to understand the real value of seeing the image as the camera would record it instead of being steps removed and requiring a level of pre-visualization that comes with only years of practice; as with a conventional optical finder.

The third critical technology or product feature was, without a doubt, the fast growing number of lenses optimized and created for this format. From the Leica/Panasonic 25mm Summilux to the cost effective and brilliant 45mm Olympus 1.8 lens to the 12mm f2 lens, everything in the system started to gel in a way that directly appeared to experienced users.  This third category will only accelerate with the two new professional zoom lenses introduced by Panasonic which cover both the 24-70mm and 70-200mm focal lengths with f2.8 constant aperture lenses. I've had the pleasure to handle and shoot with both and they are really great.

On top of all these features is the idea of interchangeability between brands a la open standards. One can now buy marvelous optics from Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma and a growing number of suppliers and use them interchangeably on any m4:3 standard camera, across any system.  If you are an OMD user and discover your love for video you can acquire the GH3 from Panasonic as a second camera for back up and video with the assurance that all your investment in glass is protected. Imagine how powerful it would have been, when Canon introduced the 5Dmk2 if all Nikon glass also fit and worked on that camera. If you had been able to cherry pick cameras between systems without worrying about obsoleting a big and costly selection of lenses.

The thing that tipped the point was the fact that Olympus produced the camera perfectly. It exudes precision, good materials and great workmanship.  That it currently has the best, in body, image stabilization system in the world is the cherry on top of the whipped creme.

When I played with one VSL member's OMD last week I was once again impressed by the system. More so after putting the Panasonic lenses on the camera. I went back to the studio and looked up the current price. It is now an insanely good value in addition to being the top of the 2012 pile. Well done Olympus!

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.