10.02.2021

Navigating the L mount system. Is it rational to buy into it? TLMR (too long must read).

It's always a bit disconcerting and frustrating to watch a YouTuber review a camera or a lens. Chances are most likely that they requested the product from the PR agency representing the manufacturer and were sent a sample. It wouldn't be a camera model that has been on the market for a while, something that might actually benefit you. No, it will be whatever the latest and greatest (seller) is for the maker at the moment. The reviewer, statistically, will be a Sony or Canon user because they perceive that's what everyone else is using. They will be reviewing the product at hand because, being new, it sells most briskly on Amazon and at B&H. They may have no interest whatsoever in actually using anything outside their chosen system and are undertaking the reviews for two reasons: They are desperate for the affiliate cash that they will receive every time a buyer clicks through their link and makes a purchase; any purchase. If a reader clicks through on a Leica SL2 link and decides only to buy #10 envelopes the reviewer still gets a commission from the envelopes. The second reason they love reviewing anything new and popular is, of course, to get clicks. The clicks raise their value to YouTube and to their end clients, the retailers. 

There are a few Vlogs and Blogs that don't rely on this kind of commerce and do their reviews because they are partial to a particular brand and become expert in it over time. Or, they sell things not directly related to specific third party product promotion. They might sell t-shirts or their own books or workshops and online education. They are less likely to be in the frothy forefront of product promotion and patient enough to write stuff once they've had time to get their hands on a piece of gear that they've always wanted to try out but didn't have the time or budget during the "white hot" introductory periods to acquire and test the product. I like reading and watching these kinds of channels because the typical reviewer there actually uses the product extensively before diving into making a review. And, with people like Reid at ReidReviews.com, with people subscribing to his site, there is no advertising, and he is free to write whatever he wants about products. And often he writes in so much detail it would make a writer at VSL blush at his own brevity. And yes, I am a subscriber to ReidReviews because he writes extensively about Leica cameras and Leica lenses and there are few other resources on the web that feature the depth and range he's accumulated over the years. I don't know how much I pay each year but whatever it is I guess I decided at some point that it's worth it. 

In many ways since the manufacturers and their surrogates control the flow of products to review they also do a very good job at controlling the narrative about which attributes of, say, a camera are important. We've seen this roll out many times such as in the race for more megapixels, or lately, the emphasis on auto focus speed. Controlling the roll out of new products by holding introductory events with "influencers" further focuses the narrative when cameras makers set up "test" shot subjects that mostly cater to the performance of the features with which they may (currently) lead the market. For example, Sony was one of the early mirrorless makers to use phase detect AF points on their camera sensors. This gave them an initial speed advantage over makers who designed cameras around contrast detect AF systems. All of a sudden focusing speed was the most important parameter of camera performance where previously, in the days of DSLRs, the more important metric seemed to be how accurately the focusing system worked. Before that all the buzz was about dynamic range and before that, noise floors.

So we see product introductory junkets at which demonstrations include speedboat races, water ski ramp jumps and other faux sport exhibitions that are engineered to showcase specific advantages of the camera being introduced---with the primary emphasis being on focus speed. The "influencers", who have a financial interest in aligning as closely as possible with the camera makers, push the one feature above all other considerations in their "reviews." This gives end users the (erroneous) idea that the one feature being...featured, over and over again, is of huge importance to photographers of all stripes which in turn funnels them into a very slanted buying determination. But conversely, since the maker controls the narrative, and the user becomes financially locked into the system, it's easy to progressively move the end buyer (photographer) up to the next product, and the next product by incrementally "improving" the feature set that the end buyer accepted as the top priority and rationale for ownership. 

I've gotten to the point, and probably most of you have as well, where the homogenous nature of reviews, the utter sameness of them, from a myriad of sources, all coming within days of a product introduction, serve not to tantalize us but to subliminally warn us that we are being crassly manipulated. That realization drives doubt into our decision making process as buyers. In the long run the predictable swell of shallow reviews actually works to diminish the impact of any single product announcement and its subsequent reviews. Kirk's, "Fool Me Once..." theorem. 

The reviews we should trust most and pay attention to are usually done by the folks who are deeply interested in a particular system and who have deep and long term experience with the product under review in actual and regular applications for that gear. And, especially, we should be leery of reviewers who review products as soon as they come out, and from across a spectrum of brands. How is it even possible that it might take me a month or two to become conversant with the cameras menus of just one brand while a YouTube influencer professes to become adept with five or six different brands' menus, one after the other, with only a week (or less) of hands-on experience with each piece of gear? Baffles me. 

At VSL (that's us) we have no paid ads. The last junket/beta test/invitational introduction I went on was for Samsung's ill-fated Galaxy NX product back in 2013. Since the middle of this decade I've eliminated paid product links and the site has never hosted display advertising for any third party. Or any display advertising at all. Short version: We don't get stuff for free and we've walked away from the "opportunity" to become some sort of influencer. The strings attached are real, no matter the protestations to the contrary. (More below)


With all that being said I want to spend the bulk of this post thinking about the L Mount Alliance and the three partners in that enterprise. But what I really want to write about is how well the systems perform, how well integrated they have become, and about my hands-on (and continuing) ownership experience across all three brands. None of which have ever approached me with offers, free products, vacation trips or other support. 

Each of the camera systems I write about I've owned and operated for a minimum of six months (Leica), some for over a year (Sigma) and the rest (Panasonic) for just about two years. During that time span I've shot thousands of images with each system. In the case of the Panasonic cameras, tens of thousands of images. I've started with base firmware and updated each camera when the firmware became available. At each juncture the cameras being upgraded grew into different devices than they were when first purchased. And that in itself is an interesting story....
First off I think it's pretty important to admit that there are really very small differences in imaging performance between any of the major brands as long as we're comparing products in the same categories. The imaging prowess of a Sony A7R4, a Leica SL2 or a Nikon Z7ii are mostly equivalent. Each company has their own recipe or formula for how their cameras handle color and tonality but the underlying capabilities are pretty much the same. One can take a raw file from any of the cameras in a performance/price class and, with a bit of time creating new profiles in PhotoShop, match the look between all of them. Sorry, but that's pretty much true. If you are a Jpeg Only shooter then the magic formulas for color science are more important. But at that level so much is subjective. It's not like one formula has a lock on either popularity or perfection. 

So, if the quality of the camera's sensor performance isn't a demonstrable reason to choose between systems then what is? It breaks down into categories and for each buyer there are probably different combinations of features beyond imaging quality that rise or fall in importance. The major decision points for most people will be one of the following: 1. Camera handling. 2. Menu Navigation. 3. Lens Selection. 4. Autofocus Performance. 5. Size and Weight. Overall Price of the system. 6. Process speed (frames per second, etc.) and, 7. Specialty features (ex.video performance in cameras like the Panasonic S1H or the Sony A7SIII).