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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trending Continued - Photokina 2016 and beyond.

The dust has finally settled after this year’s Photokina tradeshow in Germany. This is the biannual consumer photography tradeshow where companies like to present major product announcements and the general photographic public starts to get an idea around what the future holds in terms of imaging equipment (or at least still imaging as the National Association of Broadcasters show - NAB - still tends to be the major announcement platform for the video industry). It’s not necessarily that companies are likely to sell more product if they present at Photokina, but what the show does is strengthen or potentially weaken consumers’ perception of a brand. Thus Photokina 2016 was a ‘win’ for Fujifilm and Hasselblad and to a lesser extent Sony. It was a middling affair for Canon, and arguably Olympus and Panasonic (the micro 4/3rds cameras had a better showing that Canon, but were overshadowed by Fujifilm and Hasselblad’s announcements). It was a complete washout for Nikon and Ricoh/Pentax.

I am being subjective here, but a number of other sites seem to lean in the same direction. My personal take is that the Fujifilm GFX 50S ‘medium’ format system garnered the most attention and had the biggest positive score to a brand at Photokina. Hasselblad with their already announced X1D ‘medium’ format system also gained a huge amount of kudos at the show. Sony definitely had the photographic press talking at the show with their announcement of the A99mkii, but in reality the camera will probably make very little waves. As technologically advanced as it is, the A99 is the camera equivalent of beating a dead-horse; one that you personally shot. Sony have all but thrown their entire energy behind the  A series mirror-less cameras. To suddenly give the Alpha mount a little love seems disingenuous, or ludicrously late and customer unfriendly at worst.

Olympus and Panasonic both announced development of their upcoming flagship cameras. The Panasonic GH5 and Olympus OMD1mkii were presented purely as prototype cameras (much like the Fujifilm GFX actually), although the Olympus is more 'ready' to ship than Panasonic with announcement dates in the pipeline and prototypes in the hands of testers. These are little powerhouses that may mark a pinnacle in the development of the relatively small micro four thirds sensor.

Finally Canon announced their enthusiast friendly EOS M5 mirrorless camera. This is shortly after they announced their update to the 5D, the new EOS 5Dmkiv. Personally I suspect they should have announced the M5 first and waited to show off the 5D for Photokina since the updated and extraordinarily popular 5D probably would have garnered more oooh and aaahs from Canon's adoring public. The M5, as interesting as it looks, is really an entry level 750D in a mirrorless camera, now finally with an EVF attached (at last). I like the way it looks, but it seems almost late to market and decidely underwhelming when you compare it to Fujifilm's offerings. To make matters worse for Canon, Sony then announced their A6500 straight after Photokina - an update to their very successful A6300 which was only announced this year. This has to be the fastest upgrade cycle I have come across, unless they are trying to differentiate the two in some way. This is probably the case as the A6500 is US$400 more expensive and has several specification upgrades to the A6300.

Trends Continued - Size Matters

Size matters apparently. Actually I mentioned this several years ago when I suggested that perhaps we would see more traction in the realm of medium format. apparently that traction is now starting to take hold. The Fujifilm GFX 50S and Hasselblad X1D are both built around the same 50mp 43.8×32.9mm sensor, although differently tuned by the respective companies. Fujifilm have taken an interesting stand regarding the different formats. Essentially APS-C is a good compromise sized sensor where the actual physical size of the camera and lens can be scaled down while retaining a high image quality. As good as the current crop of 20mp M4/3rds cameras are, they simply do not match that of the 24mp APS-C sensor cameras. On the other hand, the difference between the APS-C sensors and the larger 35mm Full-frame cameras has noticeably less difference in image quality at the 24mp mark (not so when we start to discuss cameras like the D810, Canon 5Ds and Sony A7rII).

Fujifilm’s decision to essentially skip Full-Frame makes some sense, and indeed they even said as much in a range of interviews during Photokina, explaining that APS-C represents a good compromise between quality and physical size and the new 43.8×32.9mm sensor being a good compromise at the upper end between ultimate quality, size and cost. In terms of size, the new GFX 50S is not much larger than a Nikon D810, but with a sensor that is 1.7 times larger. The Hasselblad X1D is actually marginally smaller than the Fujifilm, meaning that ‘medium’ format photography has really been scaled down to a manageable, portable size.

The reason I keep saying ‘medium’ format in inverted commas is that the new sensor, which is also the same sensor that sits inside the much acclaimed, but significantly larger Pentax 645z, is actually smaller than the sensors that we have come to recognise as medium format from Phase One, Hasselblad, Rollei and Mamiya, which in turn are actually smaller than the old 6x4,5cm format that marked the smallest and cheapest medium format in the days of analogue photography (in reality the format was 56x43mm, or at least on the Bronica ETRSi that I shoot with, with the full width of the roll film along with rebate being 62mm). The also newly announced Phase One XF digital back with its 100mp is a whopping 53.7×40.4mm in size. So although the Pentax, Hasselblad X1D and Fujifilm are all larger than Full Frame, they are also somewhat smaller than medium format as it has come to be recognized in the high end photographic world.

This is not to belittle the cameras that now sport this 43.8×32.9mm sized sensor. Rather, it creates an interesting differentiation that might occur in photography. Essentially I suspect that we’ll see more studio and landscape photographers drift towards the new larger sensor cameras. APS mirrorless is likely to get some more attention now that Canon has also entered the fray with their Photokina announced EOS M5. Full Frame as practically owned by Canon and Nikon (and to a lesser extent Sony) is going to remain the Sports and Reportage medium of choice for the time being. This is not because it is inherently better mind you. It is more a question of

As amazing as the M4/3s Olympus and Panasonic are, I suspect they are going to come increasing size pressure by stills photographers. On the other hand, M4/3s could become the format of choice for videographers. Panasonic’s development announcement of the GH5 hints towards a 6K and even 8K future that isn’t that far off. The incredible GH5 put good 4K in an affordable compact package for serious videographers. Part of why they were able to do this was the smaller size of the sensor which is actually very close to the traditional Super 35mm that was used for decades in the film industry. The compact size of the M4/3s system is also coming increasingly into the drone world as manufacturers look to improve the image quality and versatility from the current DJI dominated industry. More on this below. 

Glass is getting Love and Cameras are getting Expensive

The new normal is that cameras are going to be getting a lot more expensive. Serious photography has always been an expensive pastime and an expensive industry to work in. The rise of digital actually brought about a race to affordability for middle-class consumers. If one considers the price of a Nikon F4 in the early 90s to the capabilities of a camera like the entry-level D3300, quality photography did indeed become more affordable. However flagship models have remained eye-waveringly expensive. Now, across the board, replacement models have been significantly marked up in starting price than those that they replace. The Sony A7Rmkii was significantly more expensive than its predecessor. So too was the much lauded Fujifilm XT-2. The new Olympus, although still in development, has been given an introductory price of around $2200, somewhat higher than the model it replaces. The price hikes don’t only affect bodies though. The price of lenses has also skyrocketed recently.

The good news in all of this is that it has opened a market for new independent third party lens manufacturers. Samyang/Rokinon has been around for a while and announced during Photokina that they would now be producing autofocus lenses for Canon and Nikon users. On top of this Samyang have also come out with a premium line of lenses as well as a line of true cine lenses that they have dubbed ‘Xenon’ lenses.

It’s not just Samyang either. Already pre-announced, Irix launched their 15mm f2.4 manual focus lenses (I say ‘lenses’ since they came out with two versions at different price points) and just prior to Photokina the Chinese manufacturer Laowa (Venus Optics) Kickstarted their 12mm f2.8 zero distortion lens (full disclaimer - I am one of the 700 odd backers). More and more independent lens manufacturers are emerging offering affordable, high quality and interesting optical designs. The original motivation was to fill in the gaping holes in the lens-lineups of mirror-less cameras, but the lens manufacturers have taken that knowledge and broadened it very successfully to traditional DSLRs.

Still giving glass some love, the original third party lens manufacturers have also taken their offerings up a notch. Sigma have been bringing out some extraordinary lenses under their new ‘Art’ designation - lenses designed and manufactured for ultra-high resolution cameras. Photokina saw them announce three exotic lenses that should arouse interest: the 12-24mm f4 and 85mm f1.4 DG HSM ART lenses and the 500mm f4 DG OS HSM Sport telephoto. Now they have also waded into the world of cine, announcing that they will be bringing out true cine lenses based on the optical designs of their stills based lenses.

Into The Air We Go

GoPro made a big hoopla going in to Photokina to announce their brand new drone, the Karma. Cheaper than DJI’s offerings the Karma is advertised as a faster, easier drone to fly, comes with a removable gimbal that can be used independently and mated to a removable Hero 5 (also announced at Photokina and kicking the proverbial of Nikon’s late to industry action cameras) that introduces RAW capture to the action camera market. 

In what has to be the biggest Photokina put down I have ever seen, was DJI’s post Photokina bombshell announcement of the Mavic. Like GoPro’s Karma, the Mavic is smaller, lighter, foldable, easier to fly and cheaper than their Phantoms (Mic drop). Despite internet fora exploding on the topic, the 4K camera is supposed to not be as good as the Phantom 4, yet some professional cameramen are saying the the difference is negligible if even there at all.

On top of this there is an increasing growth in drone add-ons. During Photokina Panasonic demonstrated a stripped down GH4 designed for drone use. Black Magic have for a while had their drone friendly M43s camera as well. I suspect then that M43 is likely to become the drone format. Don't be surpised either if we don't get a action-camera like M43s camera at some stage as it would be a logical progression from the drone friendly cameras that we are currently seeing.

What does this actually mean though? Drones are here to stay whether we like them or not (I personally have a love hate affair with them - I love the idea them but find their usage bordering on dangerous and invasive…a little bit like quad bikes ridden by drunken yahoos in a busy park). There are even lights that are now being announced that are designed to be mounted on drones so as to get lighting into places that were never before possible (see this image shot by Krystle Wright where she mounted a flash to a drone: http://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/canon-flashes-mounted-on-drone/, which is actually one of numerous examples available on the net, and also the new Fiilix AL250 which is a purpose designed drone LED for lighting scenes: http://www.lightingrumours.com/fiilex-al250-8367). To me, the Mavic and the Karma are first signs of drones becoming truly mainstream and commonplace. The lowering price (while all other cameras are getting more expensive) is the biggest indication of this. The smaller size is also going to mean that users will feel more inclined to bring their drone along. Yes, it also means we are likely to see more incidents of drone users being stupid. This is a new reality. Unlike life-logging which was a banal failure (I think many people suspected this would be), drone use is going to become prolific. Partly because its just so cool, but in a way that nerdy wearable life-logging devices just aren’t. Who doesn’t want to fly?

Mobile Continues to Decimate

The consumer camera industry that is. Compacts are all but dead now. The recently launched iPhone 7 isn’t even the best smartphone camera around anymore. Now we also have the new entrant of the Google Pixel. Regardless of which brand is out there, smartphones have continued to develop at a pace that the more expensive cameras simply cannot keep up with. New users automatically gravitate towards the ease-of-use and ease-of-sharing smartphone. In some ways the smartphone continues the democratisation of image making that was started by Kodak’s Box Brownie cameras of yore. Anyone can be a photographer. Indeed, scrolling through the mass of images on instagram it seems that many ‘non-photographer’ instagramers ‘get’ photography far more effectively than the hordes of Canikony toting gearophiles who hell-bent on ultimate images quality sans actual message.

Interestingly the rise of smartphones as the everyman’s camera has also increased real interest in photography, and in traditional analogue photography at that (in much the same way that that Box Brownie introduced countless photographers to more advanced photography). The phenomenal, and probably unexpected, success of Fujifilm’s lo-fi Instax instant film has spawned a series of other cameras based on the same format. During Photokina Leica, the prince of expensive camera toys, brought out there own instant camera along with marque branded film - essentially a significantly more expensive Mini 90 Neo Classic. Naturally the hipster Lomography brand, which brought an Instax friendly camera in 2014, also introduced a new Lomo’Instant Automat camera on Kickstarter just prior to Photokina. So popular was the concept as of this writing nine times the required pledge amount had been reached (919,000 dollar pledged for an initial requirement of 100,000). Fujifilm also announced during Photokina that they would be introducing a square format Instax film as well as black and white variant. That’s quite a lot of movement in a medium that is supposedly dead.

So this year was a rather interesting Photokina ultimately. I reiterate that the cameras we use are exceptional, even if they are two generations old. I currently shoot with a pair of Nikon D800s and Fujifilm XT-1 and am continually blown away with the capabilities of these previous generation cameras. Make no mistake, the new cameras shown and hinted at this year will not make anyone a better photographer. They do open up interesting avenues for future imaging though.

In a nutshell:

  • The compact camera is dead, but is being replaced by the convenience superzoom, ala the Nikon P900 and Panasonic FZ1000 (this is not news and has been going on for the last 5 years). 
  • Smartphone photography is entering something of a golden era. The new technology and software driven imaging is breaking territory previously only held by DSLRs BUT, that same break will probably drive more interest in traditional photography. It's essentially revitalising people's interest. Heck, the introduction of the iPhone 7 has smartphone wielders using terminology such as 'bokeh' and 'depth of field' for the first time, previously only ever mentioned by photography enthusiasts. 
  • Traditional photography is gaining more and more interest. It is sad that despite this interest it is still difficult, at least in South Africa, to find and process film (there is no mainstream lab left to process e6 transparency film). Still, I suspect this interest will grow and that more niche products are going to emerge to satisfy a growing curiosity in traditional film photography.
  • Professional digital imaging is going to diverge in sensor size in the same way that film used to - I don’t usually make contentious predictions but I think the surfacing of a new ‘medium-format’ is actually going to revitalise APS-C as the goldilocks format between the too small M43 format and the too expensive Full Frame (35mm) format.
  • Imaging devices are going to get more autonomous - the spectacularly capable drones that we now see are a harbinger of more ‘clever’ autonomous cameras. Yes, we click the shutter but there will be even more ways in which the process and the positioning is automated. Moreover drones are likely to become more prevalent. Another move is likely to be better multi-camera support so that better cameras can be mounted. 
As I have stated on several occasions, we are in a technological nirvana when it comes to cameras. Yes, there are still ways to improve the technology and the equipment that we are using. This doesn't mean that the new equipment is likely to improve your actual photography though. Enjoy the toys, but remember that photography - real photography, as in the art of seeing and communicating through the creation of visual art - doesn't need all the gadgetry that we get so wrapped up in. 

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