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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, September 17, 2018

Where we stand - thoughts after Canon and Nikon Mirrorless Announcements

2018 is shaping up to be an interesting and important year for the photographic industry. I should probably qualify that it is an important year for the photographic equipment industry though - as opposed to the photographic world as a whole - which I’ll elaborate on below. 2018 is also very definitely going to be remembered as the year where the two giants in the industry (Canon and Nikon) changed course to tack with the prevailing mirrorless winds. If you are reading this you are probably already aware of the introduction by Nikon and Canon of two full-frame mirrorless systems that are pretty much a harbinger of each company’s future development aspirations.

First, how did we get here? DPReview recently did a video on the introduction of the Panasonic Lumix G1 camera which is worth watching as it points out how advanced the Lumix G1 was when it first appeared. In fact, ten years on, this small camera is still a very useable camera. The 2008 Panasonic introduction was the launch of the first mirrorless camera in the sense that it was a mini-DLSR type camera with an electronic viewfinder. In truth, all Leica rangefinder cameras since the 1914 Leica 1 have been ‘mirrorless’. The modern concept of the mirrorless camera though is one where the optical viewfinder is replaced by direct view through the lens as seen by the imaging sensor. The image is now composed using the view on the rear LCD screen or through an electronic viewfinder, rather than an optical viewfinder (either viewed through the lens via a reflex mirror, or n approximation of what lens sees through an aligned viewing port).

After the Panasonic launch, which was essentially combined with Olympus as they shared an open mount, came several other players into the field. Panasonic and Olympus bet on the smaller micro four thirds sensor for their mirrorless system (also referred to as m43). In short order though they were joined by Sony and Fujifilm who introduced their mirrorless cameras with the larger APS-C sensor that was the common size for most fully fledged DLRs.

What mirrorless primarily offered over DSLRs was a reduction in weight and size. As airline weight limits continue to shrink and the traditional photography enthusiast population continues to age (my belief which is borne out from experience on workshops as well as through discussions with other photographers, retailers and the internet, is that the enthusiast sector of the photographic industry all cut their teeth at the end of the film era and prior - youngsters coming into photography now are less inclined to jump into the use of DSLRs to the same extent that they were twenty years ago). Declining sales numbers bears this out as year on year there is contraction in the numbers of DSLRs sold. On the flip side the number of images produced and consumed is increasing exponentially year on year. It’s just that these images are not necessarily produced by DSLRs anymore.

In order to shore up profit margins and market share, camera companies have been compelled to look towards mirrorless as a new category of interchangeable lens camera. Nikon attempted it with their Nikon 1 series of cameras, but never really gained traction due to a sensor that was really too small and a price point that was simply put, too high. Canon entered relatively late with their EOS M cameras which are now a compelling alternative to Sony and Fujifilm APS-C offerings.
The Canon EOS R system - image from the launch media
The seismic shift for mirrorless cameras was probably the launch of the the Sony A7Rmk2 camera. The first version of this camera had enough niggles that professional users didn’t really consider it as a serious competitor to their D800s and 5Dmkiiis. The A7Rmk2 not only had a higher pixel count (the highest at the time), but had fixed all the major issues of the first version A7R, and had also improved ergonomics to boot (although the menu system continues to be a dogs breakfast). Sony also proved to be listening to their customer base and fixed some of the things that concerned users the most (adding an uncompressed RAW record option was a biggie here). Prior to the A7Rmk2, Canon and Nikon probably didn’t feel too threatened by the mirrorless tide.

Post A7Rmk2 is a different story though. Thom Hogan has pointed out in an article that the relative dearth of Nikon announcements over the last two years is probably due to the all-out attention that was no doubt shifted to developing and bringing to market the Nikon Z. The completeness of both the Nikon Z and Canon R systems is illustrative of how nervous the duopoly were about the inroads that Sony was making. The flags that have now been set in the sand are a strong signal for the equipment that will dribble out over the next decade. At the very least, thanks to these recent introductions we have probably reached a stage where users are less likely, if at all, to now abandon Canon or Nikon and sample Sony’s wares. However neither camera - from both Canon and Nikon - is likely to draw users from their competitor’s base. What they do, and probably effectively, is shore up their own user base.

Both Nikon and Canon have made the decision to change their mounts. This is a big deal. Every time in the past that a manufacturer has done this they have been punished for a period by its consumers. Canon managed to survive the storm in the 1980s by introducing the EOS mount which was demonstrably better than their old manual focus FD mount. Minolta, on the other hand, lost market share and never really regained it when they ditched the manual focus MD mount (also called the SR mount) and moved to the autofocus compatible A mount in 1985. Sony have arguably created a sense of nervousness in their user base with the jumps that they have made from Minolta’s A mount to E mount and then again to FE mount. Nikon stuck with the F mount all the way from pre-metering lenses through to their modern AF-P lenses. To change mount now is a very big deal.

In order to make the transition as simple as possible for their users, Nikon brought out a very advanced adapter alongside their twin announcement of a Z6 and Z7 cameras. The adapter allows just about any F-mount lens to be mounted onto their new mirrorless cameras with varying degrees of compatibility. Any lens with a built in autofocus motor will work as normal on the Z series cameras. Older AF-D lenses that used the old screw drive will work, but only in manual focus. Earlier Ai and Ais lenses will operate as usual, but in stop down metering as the adapter does not have an index tab.

Canon on the other hand, didn’t make one, but three adapters for their new R mount mirrorless camera. These are an EF to R adapter with drop in filter slot (an interesting and good idea for some of their exotic glass), a straight EF to R adapter and a EF-S to R adapter which will automatically drop the image down to the APS-C format (11.8 megapixel crop of the 30 megapixel full frame sensor). Interestingly, there is no adapter - nor seemingly way to adapt - the Canon EOS M mount to the new R mount camera. This is a bit weird since the EOS M, Canon’s first foray into APS-C mirrorless would be a natural stepping point to the R system once it is fully established.

Where this leaves photographers is with a certain sense of angst. Are Nikon, after 59 years of continuous development, going to ditch the venerable F-mount? Are Canon going to consolidate their mounts? Are they similarly going to phase out the EF mount which is used not just on Canon stills cameras, but on their Cinema line, as well as some Black Magic and RED cameras? I’m not one to predict the future usually, but I think the answer is fairly clear; eventually the Nikon F-mount will phase out, and so too will the EOS EF mount. The important takeaway here is the word ‘eventually’.

Despite what some commentators might proclaim and the hyperbole of the manufacturers themselves, the shift to mirrorless is no where near as momentous as the transition from film to digital was. Transitioning from analogue capture to digital profoundly changed the way we created and consumed images. The differences between the two were immediately obvious, which reverberated across the entire photographic and publishing industries. Photographers were partially shielded during this transition by the fact that most of their lenses would work on the new digital bodies, albeit with a crop factor applied since the first DSLR sensors were all APS-C sized (as opposed to ‘full-frame’ which is the equivalent of the traditional 35mm film).

The Z7/6 and EOS R cameras all essentially have the same image quality and image producing workflow as their DSLR counterparts; the Nikon D850/750 and Canon EOS 5Dmkiv. The person viewing the image at the end of the day will not know the difference between the images shot with the mirrorless camera or the DSLR. Similarly the majority of subjects that are shot will not be done more easily with the mirrorless cameras. What Canon and Nikon have tried to achieve is equivalence with DSLRs. For the most part they have succeeded and we go back to the original promise of mirrorless; a smaller lighter alternative to large and heavy DSLRs. The downside, as has always been the case is that the smaller and lighter also means poor battery performance and the use of an electronic instead of optical viewfinder.

Neither of these new mirrorless cameras is going to make your images any better than they already are. Certainly, they are going to be lighter if you happen to be shooting with a pro-grade DSLR, but they will only be lighter so long as you use slow, consumer built lenses. As soon as you mount a fast (and the new mounts promise for even faster glass…think f1.2 and f0.95 lenses in the near future) prime or zoom, the camera and lens combination will rapidly grow in weight to the point that there is little or no difference with the DSLRs that they have replaced. Don’t believe me? The Nikon D750 with battery and a Nikon 50mm f1.8 AFS lens weighs 940g (755g and 185g respectively). The new Z6 with matched Nikon 50mm f1.8 S lens comes to 1090g (675g and 415g respectively). Admittedly the new 50mm is supposedly a better lens than the older AFS design, but the point is that the mirrorless setup with the same 24mp sensor output actually weighs more than the conventional DSLR. 
The Nikon Z camera (the Z6 and Z7 are physically identical but have different sensors with differing characteristics on board) - image from the launch media
There is no point in photographers getting their knickers tied up in knots just yet. Yes, the transition will happen, but it will be slow and gradual. Imaging wise, we have not upped the bar at all in the jump from say the Nikon D850 to the Z7 (nor the EOS 5Dmkiv to the EOS R, which some critics are calling a mirrorless version of the 5Dmkiv). Mirrorless is the future for several reasons of which the fact that they are cheaper and easier to manufacture than DSLRs and that they are currently ‘trendy’ are the two biggest factors in their current rise. The new mounts are important because their larger physical diameter than the older F and EOS EF mounts means that there are new opportunities to create interesting lenses that are probably going to be optically better than the old lenses that they replace (which are pretty darn good to start with). The new mounts also open new ways control focus and exposure electronically, and therefore remotely. I can see how these cameras will probably communicate more effectively with smartphones in future, thereby opening up new ways to film and shoot. However, right now, the only perceivable advantage I can see - with the lenses that are currently available - over something like the Nikon D850 or Canon 5D series, is that they are physically smaller and with a certain subset of lenses, lighter (although this comes with the caveat mentioned above that in reality these systems are no lighter than the DSLRs they supposedly replace, but they are definitely smaller).

All that said, I am quite excited by these new cameras. I’m not panicking about the lens mounts themselves and see myself using my current lens set for quite some time yet. Both Canon and Nikon have made sure that there are adapter options that will make the transition to mirrorless fairly simple and painless. In fact, I look forward to trying out the Nikon Z6 in particular as a travel and street camera for use with old manual focus pancake lenses. Having converted manual focus Nikon lenses to the Fujifilm system, I know that there are distinct advantages to mirrorless cameras when manually focusing. The new cameras are also probably going to be better video cameras than the DSLRs I currently use. I also suspect that we are going to get some very interesting third party manual focus lens designs that are extremely affordable since it very easy to mechanically design a lens for a mirrorless camera (there doesn’t need to be any aperture linkage since the cameras meter in stop down mode).

Both Canon and Nikon have said that they remain committed to their EF and F mounts respectively. Sony said the same about the A mount, so I take this statement with a large dose of scepticism. I suspect lens designs that have been in the pipeline for the last two years will be completed, but the main focus will no doubt be on the new Z and R mounts. So yes, the future of the older mounts is limited, but this is again nothing to worry about. If you happen to be a photographer who has bought their last camera, then don’t worry. There will be enough F and EF mount lenses for the next ten years that it won’t matter. Then there are photographers who are panicking that their future camera purchases will be incompatible with their past lens purchases. Again, why worry. Ten years is a long time in photography and I am willing to bet that most current photographers don’t keep their equipment for that long anyway (they just think they will).

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