3.21.2016

Just a few camera observations of late. Yeah, it's about Sony versus everyone in the DSLR market.


I'm feeling a bit philosophical today about cameras. I'm a gear head and I think, with my logical brain, that I should just be able to go over to the DXOmark site and scroll through the list of cameras that ranks them from "best" sensor to "worst" sensor, grab one of the cameras with the highest ranking (Nikon D810, Sony A7R2) and call it a day. If all that mattered to anyone was image quality (as everyone constantly says) then those two cameras would be selling like gang busters. The Nikon D610 and D750 would rake in some good cash among the less well-heeled, but no less fastidious, while the rest of the market would shrivel and die. But that doesn't seem to be what the irrational camera buying market is doing right now.

Of course, if we look at the big picture of all buyers; moms and dads with young soccer players, retirees on the trip of a lifetime, eager eyed students getting a first camera, etc. We can see that the majority of camera buyers don't subscribe to the idea that ultimate image quality is the overriding consideration for ownership. But, then, I am speaking directly to us. To me. To the ardent hobbyists. To the people who can tell you the number of custom setting channels on the Nikon D5300 even though they currently shoot with a Fuji XT-1. You know, the hard core. The real camera users.

Everyone I know who falls into our camp seems to be relentlessly trading or selling off gear with the intention of moving to some sort of mirrorless camera. When Panasonic and Olympus were really the only two pioneers, howling in the wilderness, and being snickered at by the bourgeoisie on DP Review, it was tougher to rationalize a smaller sensor, 12 megapixels in the face of 24, and a mess of noise at any of the higher ISO settings. Owners of professional DSLR cameras smirked about the different in continuous auto focus capabilities as well as buffer depth. And don't get me started about the hordes of people who bitched about the "primitive" state of electronic viewfinders.

Now these same critics are shifting in droves to mirrorless cameras. Not necessarily the models offered by the two pioneers but certainly mirrorless cameras as a subset. What the hell happened? Probably exactly what I predicted back in 2012----some company had the brains and the balls to switch their entire full frame product line to mirrorless cameras and, consequently, they are taking the market by storm and doing it without a hint of competition from any other full frame camera maker.

Yeah. It's those crazy people over at Sony. The Sony A7 series is changing everything when it comes to high end camera buying. We who fear change can point out to anyone who will listen about how crappy the Sony batteries are while our Nikon and Canon batteries are capable of lasting weeks or months between charges. The giant-handed among us can moan about the tiny, "ungrippable" camera bodies. The casual reader of sports photography blogs and websites can regale a younger generation with comparisons in focusing speed and the ever elusive, "lock-on" powers of traditional cameras. And some whiny Wallys will continue to talk about "the crystal-like clarity of the optical finder." Like a picture window into the world.....

None of that matters to the people who've used a great EVF finder and had the now mainstream (and revolutionary) experience of being about to look through the little peephole on the back of the camera and see EXACTLY what they will get when they push the shutter button. It's a method of viewing that takes the STUPID out picture taking, along with the mystery. And it's the removal of mystery, and secret insider handshakes that steams some of us to no end. You see, we want everything to stay as it is. We've had to master things like metering and white balance just as computer geeks mastered SCSI connections in the 1990's, and we feel as though that should be part of the initiation, part of the hazing, in order to become a "real" photographer.

As more and more people (camera buying "unwashed" public at large) get chances to look through the new, magic peephole into ever better EVFs there's no way, even with hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch of resistance to change, that we'll ever get this particular Pandora's Box closed again.

It's only a matter of time before Canon (the Chrysler LeBaron of cameras makers) and Nikon (the self-proclaimed smartest guys in the room) come to grips with the accelerating shift in taste and the adaptation of superior (and cheaper to make) technology in cameras and start introducing EVFs in their regular lines. Not some bullshit line of cameras meant to be marketed into a niche in a half-assed sort of way.

Here's how it will happen: The next generation of entry level DSLRs from Nikon and Canon will both "feature" a new EVF viewing "experience." They'll keep their lens mounts the same and just eliminate the mirrors. Sony will help Nikon, at least, with PD-AF elements on the sensors and rank and file consumers will notice no perceivable hits on AF performance. But they will love the ability to pre-chimp. You already see it everywhere. Half the people with entry level cameras use them all the time in live view. They don't like to look into the finders because they can never predict how that image in the OVF will look after the cameras do their mysterious work.

Once the "feature" is rolled out to the base consumer a new marketing tactic will be to tout ever improving EVFs as market differentiators. "our EVF has 3 million dots." "our newest EVF has five million dots so you can count the silk threads in your ascot." "Our EVF responds to change at the speed of light." "With our EVF, combined with our 13th generation wi-fi, you can now watch all of your favorite TV shows through the finder, or click instantly to capture images.." 

The problem for everyone in the camera business is that Sony is just about to own the entire serious camera EVF market. Right now, today, they make three different full frame cameras, each with a great EVF, two with state of the art, 4K video performance. And they own a large part of what's left of the point and shoot marketing (RX100IV) and the bridge camera market (RX10ii) and the current highest end, high res advertising cameras, the A7R2.

If Nikon and Canon don't move now: today: immediately, to buy into what is a profound and seismic change in the way we all use our cameras then, in a few years, we won't even have the burden of having to choose between brands. At that point, if you are looking for a full frame camera it will be a Sony.

I have resisted so far. I don't like the sound of the shutter in the one body that seems cost effective and interesting to a portrait photographer (the A7II). I don't like the battery situation in the one camera definitely aimed at those who want to produce video (the A7S2) and I'm not interested in spending the extra cash for the high res model in the line up. Not when what I have still works. I am, after all, in that cohort of users who did have to learn the hard way.

Interesting data points for me were: the observation of so many Sony A7 series users at SXSW when the years before they were almost non-existent. Also interesting to me that my local camera store contact tells me that people (with money and expertise) are switching to the mirrorless Sony product from their traditional tools at an ever increasing rate. 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 over the traditionals...

I'm not (yet) a Sony fanboy. I felt a bit burned by their defecto abandonment of the translucent mirror series of cameras (a77, a99). They keep that system lingering on life support. I am sure they intend to pull a "Samsung" on the line but they seem to be doing it through a long campaign of attrition and the hopes that the market in general is so camera ADHD that everyone will have switched away to other cameras before they have to actively pull the plug and deal with the marketing fall out. I'm pretty sure Samsung has contaminated their camera marketing topsoil for at least a generation....Not an event lost on Sony's marketers.

I'm writing this more or less to strongly suggest to Nikon (and Canon) that the EVF will be the make it or break it feature for them going forward and that the time for reckless caution is past. I'd like that next D8X0 to have a beautiful and enormous EVF. Hell, if it makes focusing and exposure assessment that much better which user in their right mind would resist?

edited later. Here's what I wrote back in 2012 for TheOnlinePhotographer: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/05/kirks-take-electronic-viewfinders.html