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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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Looking Ahead - The (Equipment) Year in Review

2014 was something of a whirlwind year for many people. But isn’t every year the same in that sense? It  was not the year for earth-shattering equipment announcements however, but there were several cameras that emerged that give us a firmer idea of the future of photographic equipment. I read with interest Kevin Raber’s comment on Luminous-Landscape that the Fujifilm XT-1 was the camera of the year for him. Announced at the beginning of the year this small APS-C sensor camera made some substantial waves with its birth. So much so that it is the first camera I have ever bought within the first few months of its announcement. Several photographers that I know who have played with my copy, have ended up going out and buying their own. To my mind, it is the epitome of the smaller, lighter, faster future.

Three conventional camera announcements made this year that made headlines were the Full Frame Nikon 810 and D750 and the APS-C Canon 7Dmkii. Three announcements that actually had people looking. This doesn’t bode too well for the future of conventional DSLRs in my opinion. The constant trickle of competent mirrorless offerings is nibbling away at the core business of the Canon Nikon duopoly. The cameras themselves aren’t exactly headline cameras either.

Not quite as exciting as one would hope - the new Nikon D810 and Canon 7Dmkii
To start with the Nikon D810; the camera is a good, solid update to the Nikon D800 and does manage to eke out even better image quality than the already extremely impressive D800e. The usual glut of secondhand D800s started hitting the classifieds the minute the camera was announced, but does it actually bring anything new to the photographer buying it? I suspect not. Put it this way, if you are making your living from photography would you see a marked difference in the results from a D800 versus that of a D810. I suspect not. There’s even less of a chance of seeing that difference if the photographer is a casual shooter.

The Canon 7Dmkii is a similar case in point. The 7D has for a very long time been an extremely popular, durable and competent camera. For many it was the goldilocks APS-C frame camera with its metal body, fast autofocus, relatively high resolution, decent high ISO ability (in the context of it’s peers more than decent) and fast frame rate. The update improves in several aspects, but doesn’t produce a ‘new’ camera, hence the subdued hype around the product announcement.

The Fujifilm XT-1 - probably my favourite for camera of the year
 The hype this year has been around slightly oddball or niche products. The kind of camera that doesn’t necessarily make a fortune for a camera manufacturer, but strongly influences the way the buying public perceive that manufacturer. The Sony A7 series, Fujifilm XT-1, Panasonic GM-5, Pentax 645z and Samsung NX-1 fall firmly into this bracket and strongly hint at what the future of photographic equipment is leading towards; a smaller, lighter, faster piece of equipment.

The fact that the future is mirrorless is almost without doubt now. Of all the camera announcements that truly made waves the only camera that has a mirror is that of the Pentax 645z, and that’s a medium format mirrorless camera. Some readers might take me for task that the introduction of the Nikon 750D or even that of the Canon 7Dmkii were equally interesting, but they really weren’t. They were interesting and pertinent to Nikon and Canon users respectively but not to the general world of photography. The Pentax 645z is a medium format autofocus, weather sealed, 50mp CMOS sensored behemoth with a price tag of less than half that of its competitors. It’s only slightly bigger than a top of the range Nikon D4s or Canon 1Dx and produces image quality that rivals (some reviews claim bests) that of Hasselblad or Phase One’s similar 50mp offerings (which also have the same Sony designed and fabricated sensor). No, apart from the Pentax, the cameras that had the internet channels a flutter were the mirrorless offerings.

Another trend that seems to be getting clearer is the apparent up-scaling move that the manufacturers are making on their equipment. It’s not that the cameras are getting more expensive, it’s that the offerings are in the traditionally pricier bracket of camera. Consider Nikon’s apparent flirtation with full-frame. Their current lineup now includes the D610, D750, D810 and the D4s along with the oddball Df. That’s 5 full-frame models with overhanging inventory of the D4 and the D800/e (the ship that was the D600 sailed long ago thanks to the raft of lawsuits that Nikon found themselves fighting due to their abysmal response to the oil splatter problem that affected literally thousands of units). Meanwhile Canon introduces the 7Dmkii and the very definitely upmarket G2x premium compact and Sony introduces a mkii version of their A7 ahead of any lower end updates. There are more examples than these that I mention, but the message is fairly clear that in an industry that is beginning to slide downhill, profitability is being fought for via more expensive products.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Leica’s desirable Leica T (typ 701) and the overpriced, overblinged Hasselblad Stellar
The fact that niche products are the focus of a number of manufacturers is also evidenced by the output from Leica and Hasselblad. Leica brought out their virtual objet d art in the Leica T (typ 701) and Hasselblad, despite resounding industry criticism released an updated version of the ridiculously overpriced Stellar compact camera (based on the Sony RX100ii but priced at around eight times that of the Lunar because it has a Hasselblad badge and some bits of exotic wood glued to the handle). Leica, stayed true to form and produced something that photographers would want to use and own, let alone hold, but it is still decidedly in the upper stratosphere of camera pricing.

To be fair, the likes of Leica and Hasselblad have always been outrageously expensive, but a worrying trend is the obvious price creep that is coming into the equipment that photographers are using in the middle tier of camera line-ups. Thankfully for the U.S. Market the Nikon D810 was introduced at the same price as the outgoing D800e (although we need to remind ourselves that the D800 was also essentially replaced and it was cheaper than the D800e, so essentially upgrading a D800 still means forking out more). This is not the same case in the European and African markets where the price tag was bloated by some 58% (if you compare D800 to D810). The same occurred with the Canon 5Dmkiii (in South Africa at least expect to pay R10 000 more for the mkiii version than its predecessor).

The Samsung NX-1: if it had come out of Canon or Nikon’s factories we would possibly describe it as the new APS-C standard.

As I have written before, as photographers we currently have it very good in terms of what equipment we can currently get our hands on. That said, there seems to be a stagnation of innovation amongst the top brands at the moment. Possibly, the most impressive camera to be announced in 2014 was from one of the less-likely players, Samsung. The NX-1, a mirrorless APS-C camera boasting weather-sealing, 15 frames per second shooting, and a plethora of gadgetry not commonly seen on a camera of this price-range, sets something of a benchmark for the year ahead.

So what can we expect from 2015? I am not particularly good at predictions, but based on the performances of the last year I can guess that we are in the declining years of the optical viewfinder. Whether one likes it or not, electronic viewfinders are going to become the norm and optical viewfinders increasingly a thing of the past. A recent collaboration between Phase One and Alpa to produce the Series A mirrorless medium format camera seems to indicate that EVFs are bound for the top tier of camera as well. Rumours are also circulating after a merger between Mamiya and Sony. I strongly suspect that 2015 will see the introduction of a Sony sensor based medium format system reminiscent of the old Mamiya 7 6x7cm rangefinder. Whether it will be ‘affordable’ (relatively speaking) like the Pentax 645z remains to be seen.

It seems that the megapixel war will probably continue afresh in the new year as well. Canon have made several statements over the last few weeks that they are working on a high megapixel camera. Over the last two years several numbers have been bandied about (45, 48 and 50mp). It also needs to be remembered that 4 years ago Canon demonstrated a working version of a 120mp APS-H sensor at Photokina. Expect then an update to the Canon IDs mkiii (possibly a IDxs?).

Lots of ground is being made in the cine world which seems to be going through its own megapixel war at the moment. Forget 4K. That’s positively old hat. What with RED’s announcement of the 6K Dragon and Apple’s new 5K screens, you can be fairly sure that several others will probably follow suit in short order. Panasonic have already mentioned that they are looking at 8K in 2015.

So how do the manufacturer’s save market share in a tumbling industry on the back of a global recession?  Don’t expect the miracle camera, but do expect more touch-screens, higher resolution LCD’s, better weather-sealing, more standard zooms (the most iterated lens around), definitely more EVFs (the new in-thing), a touch more camera-phone communication but nowhere near a programmable camera...yet, a plethora of niche-highly priced products and some aggressive marketing from Sony and Samsung.

Where does this leave us? Photographers who actually use the equipment. Happy as Larry actually, albeit grumbling at the increase in prices. What you can do with today’s cameras is absolutely mind-bogglingly amazing. We are already at a smaller, faster, lighter stage. We’re back to the Olympus OMs and Nikon FMs of yore (sort of). I pick up my Fujifilm and find joy in capturing the moment. I pick up my Nikons and marvel at the incredible image quality at my finger-tips. So it’s easy to forget that it’s about the image, not the equipment. We get so wrapped up in the announcements that we second-guess our stalwart cameras that have served us so well. For that reason 2015 is year of projects for me: finally sitting down to produce a book, and slowing down by loading an old Bronica ETRS with Ilford HP5 and photographing people I know - slowing down enough that I have to actually physically develop my negatives and have a relationship with the process of photography again. What’s 2015 going to be like for you...as a photographer?

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