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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, January 14, 2020

New Year, New Decade, New Gear

The last ten years have been extraordinarily good to us as photographers. The first ten years of the millennium saw an incredibly fast paced development of digital photography that was really exciting to be a part of. Digital photography matured in the last decade though. In particular, I would say that we reached a basic plateau in image quality in about 2012 that marks a kind of baseline from which we still judge images at the beginning of this decade. 

Of course there are many people who would disagree with the above statement, but there are images being shot on the Canon 5Dmkii (more so the mkiii), Nikon D800 and Sony A7 today that are nigh on impossible to tell the difference with compared to cameras like the Nikon D850, Canon EOS R, or Sony A7Rmkiv. Obviously if you look closely there are differences, but nothing like the difference between the Nikon D700 which came out in 2008 and the D100 which was introduced only 6 years prior to it. The reality is that you can continue to shoot professionally and expect your images to hold up against the newest cameras with equipment brought out eight years ago. Indeed many photographers are using lenses significantly older than eight years young.

So the new decade rolls in and the news reports from the photographic industry are such that there is nothing but doom and gloom for the likes of Nikon, Canon and Sony. The CIPA numbers that have come out recently continue to show the year on year decline in cameras shipped. The only bright point was an uptick in mirrorless cameras, but this was significantly lower than both Nikon and Canon forecast. 

This is not to say that there aren’t interesting cameras being announced. AT CES 2020 Canon introduced the 1Dxmkiii (an odd place to announce a high end sports camera) and Nikon pulled out the D780 along with a couple of lenses. In the latter half of 2019 we also saw the Nikon Z50, bringing them into the realm of APS-C mirrorless, the Olympus OMD-EM5iii, the Sony A6600 and the Fujifilm X-Pro3.

Mirrorless or Optical Viewfinder?

The first thing that many people seemed to be getting concerned about is the future of their existing equipment if they have a current DSLR. Canon have recently come out with a statement that they will not necessarily be doing any further research and development into the EOS EF lens range unless there is any interest from its users. All development, one assumes, will be pushed towards the new RF mount (considering they have literally just announced their halo EF mount product this was probably a poor statement to make). Nikon, on the other hand, have stated that they remain committed to the F-Mount and their DSLR line. The recent introduction of the rather expensive 120-300mm f2.8 might some show credence to this statement, but remember this lens has been in the works since long before the introduction of the Z6 and Z7 mirrorless cameras.  

So going into 2020, do you move across to the world of mirrorless, or stay in the DSLR realm? If you are even thinking about this, be aware that the move to mirrorless does not change the image quality in any way. The way photographs are captured has not changed at all. The only difference is that we are now using cameras that use a digital display to present the view of the lens, as opposed to a system of reflected light through an optical eyepiece. There are potential differences based on the design of the lens, but the IQ is inherently the same as the sensors used in both mirrorless and digital are basically the same. In fact, with the introduction of the Nikon D780, we can say that they are the same as the D780 is to all intents and purposes the guts of a Z6 built into a DSLR.

The future is mirrorless (for the most part) whether you like it or not, simply due to the economics of manufacture and sale. The camera companies need to bring down costs while improving sales. Mirrorless is the perfect answer for them. A mirrorless camera has fewer parts and less expense in construction and calibration than a DSLR. Simply put, it is cheaper to build. Thanks to the decision to make a new mount for the new breed of full-frame mirrorless cameras, this means that there are a whole glut of new lenses that are likely to be sold (when they finally appear). So it’s a no-brainer decision for the camera manufacturers; they will make more money if they slowly transition to mirrorless (unfortunately for the manufacturers they may have tilted a little late as they are trying to grow sales in a declining market).

Deciding personally whether to go mirrorless is a different matter. Although I like the products that are coming out, I am in no way feeling compelled to dive into purchasing them. Looking at what full frame mirrorless would give me in contrast to what I already have (Nikon D850, D800e and D3x) with a range of lenses that are good to excellent in terms of IQ) and I cannot actually justify the expense of any switch. I would get more out or newer lighting and lenses than moving across to mirrorless (or worse, a different mount).


The last decade has also seen extraordinary advances in the abilities of the different sensors, as well as their pricing. Who would have thought in 2010 that you would be able to get a sub US$1000 full frame camera. Now you can buy the Sony A7mkii for under $1000. Jumping to $2000 opens up the market significantly with multiple models from Sony, Nikon and Canon. At the same time APS-C and M43s have also made advances that have photographers arguing whether their IQ matches that of full frame cameras. On top of this, Fujifilm and Hasselblad opened up the world of (sub) medium format to the slightly less-well heeled with the introduction of the Fujifilm GFX50s and Hasselblad X1D.

Many photographers are now looking at their equipment and wondering about their choices in terms of image sensor sizes. Despite what some photographers might proclaim, size does still matter, although not necessarily in the way that everyone tends to argue. As was the case when Micro four thirds appeared, there is about a stop of difference in terms of IQ between each of the different sensors when shot at base ISO (with the same lens). A full frame image from a Z6 is going to have slightly better IQ than a Sony A6600, which is going to have slightly better image quality than an Olympus OMD-EM5III. And yes, the Fujifilm GFX50s is going to have an edge over the Sony A7rmkiii, Canon EOS 5Ds and Nikon D850.

The comparison thing falls apart though when you start looking at more than just the sensor. An advantage that Fujifilm (and Hasselblad) has over any of the full-frame cameras is that the lenses made for larger sensors have a greater tolerance for defects thanks to the larger photo sites on the sensor (this is the same reason why photographers suddenly began to obsess about lens acuity when the D800 first came out - excellent lenses on the older 12 and 24mp sensors suddenly looked weak on the 36mp sensor). Then there are photographers who talk about the myth of the ‘look of medium format’. These photographers are usually referring to the shallow depth of field acquired with wide angle lenses. With the current set of equipment available this is a poor reason to look at so-called medium format digital as the current lenses won’t produce that look at all. If we look at the current lenses from Fujifilm for the GFX format (43.8mm x 32.9mm) and convert the aperture to that of full frame (36mmx24mm) in an attempt to get ‘equivalence’, we find that the 63mm f2.8 (the ‘equivalent’ 50mm lens) only really gives us the equivalent of f2.2. So you won’t get the same isolation via depth of field as you would on a 50mm f1.4 lens in front of a standard full frame sensor. Similarly, if you are looking for shallow depth of field with a 35mm equivalent for the Fujifilm, the closest you will get with existing lenses is the 45mm f2.8, which gives an equivalent f2.2 again. This is not the same, nor perceptibly better than using a 35mm f1.4 on a full frame sensor.

If you are looking for a different metric though, then the advantages of going up a size can be tangible. The GFX100s is a phenomenal step towards high IQ, far more so than the Sony A7rmkiv with it’s 60mp sensor. This is assuming your goal is print beyond the size of a high desktop printer; i.e. greater than A2.

What and Who Do We Shoot For?

Herein lies perhaps one of the most significant advances over the last decade. Forget the ability to print large for a moment, and rather concentrate on the fact that we share images with each other at a scale beyond anything imaginable ten years ago. It’s not just that we are shooting more, but we are sharing more as well.

This is where we maybe should be looking in terns of cameras of tomorrow. At the moment our cameras are distinctly sharing unfriendly. In fact it is easier to share an instax/polaroid photo with someone than it is a digital photo from a high end digital camera. Why is it in the world of uber connectivity is it so difficult for us to get a photo from our cameras to someone else? Sure there will be readers who say, “oh but I can send a photo from my camera to my phone and then send it that way”. Except they forget to mention the hair tearing frustration to get the camera to connect to the phone in the first place. The fact that you then need a data connection in order to send that photo (okay so you can airdrop with Apple and Android now offers similar connectivity to similar devices) is also often overlooked. 

Zeiss' ZX-1 includes both easy connectivity as well as a way to edit images on the fly with a built-in Lightroom app running on Android.

Zeiss’ stab at connectivity and sharing, the ZX-1, may have missed the mark a little (it’s enormous and very, very, very expensive for what it is, plus it still isn’t available despite being announced over a year ago), but it might just be a foreshadowing of what to expect in the next decade. Although my needs for a camera are the ability to produce high quality large prints for advertising and publication, that is not the need for the vast majority of photographers out there. For most people the ability to share the images is actually paramount.

If you bought a camera in the last three years, you are already shooting with state of the art. Maybe this is why photographers I speak to aren’t that excited about the current equipment announcements (I don’t include the local Fuji-philes who I am in contact with ;) , who seem to be able to get excited about anything Fujifilm slaps a sticker on). The Nikon D780 is a perfect case in point. It doesn’t really raise the bar in any meaningful way (both of Canon’s mirrorless full frame cameras can be accused of the same). It is arguably a better more refined camera than the D750 it replaces, but it is a minor update, as opposed to a decade opening introduction. The D750 is almost 5 years old now, and existing users are scratching their heads wondering whether the new D780 is worth upgrading to. That is a sign of a matured technology. Then years ago the upgrade would have been obvious, now I suspect we are at a point where photographers may potentially be happy to keep their camera for a decade. This was certainly not the case in 2010.

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