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What Thom Wants for Christmas

Yeah, I know. This article might seem a bit like a five-year old who's just got the Christmas toy catalog and goes into full parental persuasion mode. But bear with me a bit. I think there's useful information here.

Let's start with existing products I don't own:

  • Nikkor 180-400mm f/4E. If you haven't seen my "quick review" of the lens based upon only a short period of time with it, you might want to check that out. Yep, this lens is a whopping US$12,400. But it's probably worth it if you have the 180-560mm focal length need in one flexible optic. The problem for me is I can't justify the cost given what I already own in this range, so I hope I've been good this year and Santa is being generous. 
  • Sony A9 and a Sony 400mm f/2.8. Another of those things I don't need because I've got it covered already with existing gear. Still, my experience with the A9 shooting sports was that there are times when I could really appreciate its silent 20 fps with no viewfinder blackout. And if I'm going to ask for the body, I might as well ask for the lens I'd want, too, right? Fortunately, I've got a D5 and a Nikkor 400mm f/2.8, so this is just a pure lust-for-one-more-little-bit-of-performance-in-one-particular-area request. (Note: B&H has the A9 at US$1000 off as I post this.)
  • An unknown video camera. I'm in the midst of replacing all my video gear, so now that the old stuff is gone, what do I replace it with? That's a good question to which I don't yet know the answer. Blackmagic, Canon, Panasonic, RED, Sony? All make something right in the level I'm targeting. I'm slowly going through the options and attending events to get hands on experience with each. Maybe Santa knows better than I?

Next, let's move onto products that don't exist, but should. Maybe the elves at the North Pole have been working overtime on things that will pop up as surprise presents under the tree?

  • Any Wide Angle DX prime. I see Nikon's still selling DX cameras. I see that they also haven't  had a DX lens announcement in a year-and-a-half, and no DX prime announcement in seven years, oh my. Did some of the elves take a long nap? Are they missing from the workshop? Do we need to send out a search party? 
  • The 12-24mm f/4 DX update. See above.
  • The 200mm f/4 Micro-Nikkor update (or the return of the 70-180mm). Macro ends at 105mm for Nikon these days, but not for the rest of us. 
  • A 400mm f/4E PF. Loved the 300mm and 500mm, now let those who need 400mm enjoy the show, too. 
  • Firmware updates. Add D9 and Group H/L to the D5 generation cameras that don't have these modes, add Infrastructure Wi-Fi support to the D7500, D500, and D850, fix the Z6/Z7 AF-C modes, and that would be a good starting point from which Nikon could probably sprinkle a few additional morsels to make us happy. 
  • m4/3 in a compact body. Hey Olympus elves! Hope you're working on a new compact camera. Call it the TG-Max. Stick your m4/3 magic into a new Tough body and lens combo and try to keep that from running away in price and you've got a hit (and Santa can just drop it from the sky down the chimney rather than having to carefully place it under the tree ;~). Something everyone would want in their bag for those wet occasions where the ocean keeps rising on their shorefront property, too. Seriously: almost every photographer would want one under their tree at Christmas if this existed...
  • a Vlogging camera that was actually designed for vloggers. Elf-size small, because it has to be able to run on a small, light gimbal. ILC to support changing lens needs. Long battery life, because we're vlogging all day. Connectivity that works, because we want to vlog in real time or as close to is as possible, so give us streaming capability and fast Wi-Fi transfer. A ready-to-cut compression, like ProRes. A twist and flip LCD, because we aren't always behind the camera. Better in-camera amps, because we're tired of hearing hissing when we speak. Headphone and mic jacks, for sure. 4K top end is enough, and 60P would be nice with that. If not, make sure that the 1080P gets to at least 120 fps. Smartphone remote control (of everything) a big plus. Sensor size? 1" to APS-C is probably enough, but error on the larger side if you can. 
  • A DSLR-like Sony A7xxx. Yes, I understand the A6xxx series bodies. I just don't feel like they're the ones I want. The really small offset rangefinder style just exacerbates the Sony UI/ergonomic issues for me. Just scale the DSLR style correctly and give me everything else I expect in the top-end APS-C camera and I'll be happy. A mini A9, basically. If the Sony elves need direction, have them talk to the Fujifilm elves.

I could probably go on infinitely about products that need to be developed, as every camera and lens maker has plenty of gaps and needs. But the above list would make me happy for at least a  few days after Christmas. 

Finally, I would like some more generic things; let’s call them stocking stuffers:

  • Four hours in Tokyo with the Z series autofocus designers. 
  • Four hours in Tokyo with the Sony A7 series UI, menu, ergonomics designers.
  • Some clearer idea of what Canon and Nikon will be doing with DSLRs for the next few years.
  • Shooting Wazzu football at a bowl game, preferably a championship game.
  • A winter tour in Yellowstone with all my new gear (see above ;~). 
  • Time to finish all the dangling projects still sitting on my desk...

Dead Versus Zombie

I’ve written about this before in passing, but it seems with all the recent talk about “dead” companies, mounts, and cameras in the photography press—and yes, including from me—we need to present some elaboration to be clear about what we’re talking about.

Pretty much every camera company is now reporting volume declines, except for perhaps Fujifilm where they’re proliferating models to fill out lines and are still so small that any new model equals some growth. 

It’s clear that we’re in a world where the number of dedicated camera sales still hasn’t found a bottom. 

This year, my projection is that ILC units will finish right around the 11m mark shipped (CIPA numbers), but overall we’re down ~5% again. That’s despite what’s a record number of new significant camera models entering the market (with more right around the corner). 

Everyone is reporting weakness in their 2018 numbers, some more than others, but still the problem is universal enough that we can’t say that we’ve reached bottom with camera sales yet. 

Which is one of the things that is generating “X is dead” talk. We have too much diversity (cameras, mounts, companies) for the market size. Something's got to give.

This is not the first time this has happened with cameras. The tail end of the film SLR era looked a lot like we’re seeing today. Indeed, everyone jumped into digital from film because they all saw the market completely resetting and they all wanted a share of that predicted-to-be-rapidly-expanding growth. For awhile, all was well, as the growth was strong and dramatic for over a decade.

No such thing is on the horizon at the moment. We have no true reinvention of cameras visible that would re-trigger rapid market growth. The areas where I’ve long felt that could be achieved (e.g. modern communication, user/app programmable, workflow) just don’t seem to be happening.

And so people look at those declining numbers and the long line of disappointing quarterly financial statements—Nikon’s lost almost two thirds their volume and half their profit in a bit over five years—and start speculating.

So let’s attempt some definitions:

  • Dead — The company completely self destructs into Chapter 7 type bankruptcy. This won’t happen for any of the camera players for a variety of reasons. First, most have other businesses, often significantly bigger than cameras and strongly profitable (e.g. Olympus). Nikon is perhaps the most vulnerable of the bunch, but even it has enough other business and has done enough restructuring of everything to be substantively profitable despite all that decline. Nope, no dead camera companies.
  • Euthanized — The companies where cameras aren’t adding significantly to the overall corporate bottom line while chewing up internal investment dollars—Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, and Ricoh/Pentax—could if they wanted simply close up shop and that would likely create a small positive impact on the company financials long-term. Note the word “small.” Also note that we’re talking about Japanese companies here. Culturally (and due to business law in Japan) it’s difficult for them to just close up a unit’s operations as we often see here in Western companies. In many cases, that can actually cost more than just continuing to operate a group at modest losses. I don’t think anyone’s going to close down their camera group. The one most likely to—Ricoh—appears to have no interest in doing so. (We have seen this in the past, for example HP and Samsung both shut down their dedicated camera divisions.)
  • Exiled — Pentax and Minolta have gone through this, both twice. This is typically the most common solution in Japan when a unit’s operations turn south: get a bigger player to acquire the unit and merge it with an existing one, and also do some pruning as you do. One problem here is that the market has declined so much that there aren’t a lot of possibilities left. I suppose Panasonic could gobble up Olympus cameras. Fujifilm could potentially gobble up Nikon cameras (though that would mean someone else would have to gobble up the rest of Nikon, as the remainder wouldn’t self sustain). Canon wouldn’t attempt this, and Sony would have a great deal of difficult swallowing something as large and directly competitive as Nikon. But realistically, there’s not enough market and not enough players for much additional consolidation to happen. It would only happen because Japanese financial institutions in the background forced it to happen, and there’s no longer any sign that this is in progress anywhere. 
  • Zombie — This is is what happened to some of the players before in the late film era. In Silicon Valley we call this “walking dead syndrome.” Basically, the company can sustain operations on cashflow (walk)—perhaps while continuing to downsize and constantly restructure—but it’s not really investable (dead). With care, you can keep the sales running to support some new product development (but you’d better not have a complete dud). Thus, the process of slow contraction just continues in these companies. You may have noticed that some camera companies have just increased their shareholder dividend recently (e.g. Nikon). Since the company’s stock can no longer be seen as a “growth investment” based on sales increases, increasing the dividend is a way the Japanese companies keep their banks and other financial institutions holding onto their stocks. If they didn’t do this, there would be potential for investors outside of Japan to put the company in play, which isn’t culturally acceptable. 
  • Healthy — To me, this category requires not only a strong customer base and large market share, but also market growth. It’s that last bit that’s the problem for camera companies: there’s no market growth, and continued market decline. You might be able to grow within the market by taking someone else’s market share, but that’s a costly endeavor and it might not win you a lot long run. There’s also a risk that everyone tries to play this game and no one wins. During the DSLR run up (1999 to 2011), we had several healthy players, most notably Canon and Nikon. Post 2013, those healthy players have been dropping out of health one by one. Canon was the last and the most recent to start showing true weakness and inability to maintain volume. 

Technically, the big three—who together own between 85-90% of the ILC market share and thus are the bulk of the interchangeable lens camera choices people are considering—are somewhere between Zombie and Healthy. Two of them were healthy, one had been a bit of a Zombie until they completely changed strategy. Now, however, they each exhibit some common traits: strength in the new strategy products (mostly full frame, and now mirrorless), weakness in the old strategy products that comprise the bulk of their unit volume (mostly crop sensor and DSLR). 

And to me, that’s both the problem and the opportunity: in the US$500-1500 price point you need to create a compelling product that would stop smartphone users from just shooting with their phone. To put it in plain terms: a well done post-to-Instragram button/automation on a small, light, travel-worthy, and highly competent US$800 ILC might very well change volume from decline to growth. 

Of course, that’s not really electronics, which is what the camera companies are good at. Instead, that’s mostly workflow (software). Which means that every one of the camera companies needs to acquire, develop, or license new core competencies. They needed to do that 10 years ago (when I first started writing about this). They needed to do it five years ago (when growth was peaking). They need to do it today. 

As I look around, no one is really doing it. So Zombie it is for the time being. 

You can apply the same labeling to individual product categories and individual products instead of companies. There, things get very interesting. 

For example, in terms of product categories compacts are dying off, DSLRs are going zombie, and only full frame mirrorless is healthy. The Nikon DL series was euthanized at birth.

New Nikon Lens Rebates

As I always do with Nikon lens rebates, here’s my advice about how good these lenses and new prices are:

  • 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-P VR DX — US$20 off (US$297). I still haven’t completed my review of this lens and you won’t find a lot of other reviews out there. It’s actually a very good lens for the DX bodies, and at the price a definite bargain if you’re looking for a wide angle zoom. There’s been clear sample variation, though, and the VR isn’t overly impressive, perhaps giving me only two stops extra handholding space. Still, I’ve been impressed by its basic sharpness and most other attributes, and that's especially true given the price. Definitely something D3xxx and D5xxx owners whose cameras support AF-P should consider. And that last bit is important: please read my Understand the AF-P lenses article before purchasing.
  • 14-24mm f/2.8G —US$200 off (US$1697). This is probably the right price for this lens, as its now getting a little long in the tooth and would be the last of Nikon’s main trio to get an update, if it ever gets an update. Still a great performer, though, even on the 45mp bodies. Just be aware of the field curvature and learn how to recognize/use that and you’ll be very happy with this lens.
  • 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3G DX — US$100 off (US$597). Nah. Not interested. I suppose some true convenience shooters who are only interested in “good enough for Web work” types of shooting are very happy to use a superzoom like this, but they don’t read this site. 
  • 24-70mm f/2.8G — US$100 off (US$1697). Not enough discount on an older, less capable lens. I really see no point in buying this new any more. The E version is clearly better, and the third party options are also better values.
  • 50mm f/1.4G — US$70 off (US$377). I really don’t like any of the Nikkor 50’s any more. While some of them get into the price range where people think it’s worth the dip—as happens now with the f/1.4G—I think the third party options that are available just show you how bad the 50mm Nikkors are now. If you’re looking for “inexpensive normal” and have a 24mp+ body, consider the Tamron 45mm f/1.8. It’s a fine lens, often on sale, and includes image stabilization.
  • 85mm f/1.8G — US$40 off (US$437). Not much of a discount, but this is often the portrait lens I recommend to people. It’s optical quite good, does the job well, and is less expensive than most of your other options. Great price for a very good lens. And yes, this lens works well on a Z body with the FTZ adapter.
  • 105mm f/2.8G Micro-Nikkor — US$80 off (US$822). The classic macro that most people own. Personally I think Nikon has fallen a bit behind in the macro wars. The Tamron 90mm f/2.8 is a strong contender, for example. Plus now we’re getting companies like Irix coming in with MF macros that are less expensive, have better working distance, and probably are the right choice for a lot of work. But still a good price on a good lens.
  • 200-500mm f/5.6E — US$200 (US$1197). Bingo! Here’s the bargain of the bunch. This lens was already a considerable bargain at its list price, offering better-than-expected optical performance at a very non-Nikon price. At US$200 off, it’s not just a bargain, it’s almost a “must buy” if you don’t already have a good lens in the post 300mm range. 

The 10-20mm is also offers in kit with the 40mm f/2.8 DX macro for US$150 off.  Meh. The 40mm is sharp, but it’s working distance for true macro is nil. Makes a decent—maybe too sharp—portrait lens for DX, though. 

These rebates extend through November 24th. 

Support this site by purchasing from the following advertiser (most include a 4% extra reward and a Zeiss Lens Care kit):

bythom nikon lenses

The Decline Continues

One now has to wonder what the Japanese camera companies are actually hiding. In particular, both Canon and Nikon in their financial results are seeming to understate the likely market size (Nikon just said it's 10m units; the actual 12-month trailing value is 11m units, so cooked into Nikon's numbers is an implicit strong collapse of the ILC market in just two quarters). Either that or they're overstocking inventory by large numbers (e.g. CIPA shipments are far above actual sales).

I've already done a brief overview of Canon's Q3 results. Let's break into Nikon's.

Overall, the Imaging Group was down 14% in revenue and 2.2% in profits for the year-to-year comparison for the first half of the fiscal year. Revenue actually came in a bit higher than forecast, while profit was lower than forecast. Nikon's explanation was that the profit change was due to two things: (1) the high cost of introducing the new mirrorless cameras, and (2) "more customers than expected refrained from purchasing existing products." I take the second one to mean that DSLR sales stagnated while customers waited to see how good the Z6 and Z7 actually might be.

How big was that effect? It's difficult to say, as Nikon didn't previously present a volume forecast for 1H (now ended), only for the complete year. But unit volume of DSLR/mirrorless cameras decreased by 240,000 units from last year's same period, an 18% drop, and considerably larger than the overall market drop. Nikon is predicting that the second half of their fiscal year—ends March 31, 2019—will produce slightly more volume (1.18m units versus 1.07m). 

Meanwhile, in Japan retail sales analyzer BCN is reporting that Nikon is #3 in the full-size sensor mirrorless camera market share now that the Canon R is shipping. In September, Canon captured 22% of the market with a single unit, Nikon 5%. Sony has the remaining 72.9%. What most other sites reporting those numbers don't tell you is that over 16% are older Sony cameras selling at (often deep) discount. Sony has used that strategy in the US to its advantage, as well, trying to build a strong base before the Big Two get fully up to speed. 

The real trend that's going mostly unreported is probably there in the Canon and Nikon numbers: lower-end DSLR sales continue to be the real issue, particularly the crop sensor DSLR sales. Personally, I'm 100% confused as to how Canon and Nikon think they're dealing with that. 

In Canon's case, the EOS M models really don't align with the EOR R models, certainly not the way the EF-S cameras lined up with the EF ones. I've written that I believe their feeder system to be clearly broken, and that's where Canon is reporting their weakness in sales. Pricing and marketing can only do so much to pull up volume, and we're now seeing those things nibbling away at Canon's overall GPM numbers, too. 

I don't know how to say this politely: Canon needs to take all the EOS M and EF-S DSLRs and firesale them into oblivion, and come up with a better entry position. I was amused to hear a Canon spokesperson say at PhotoPlus Expo that the new R mount really won't work for APS-C. Really? I'd think that it would work just fine and open up new potential lens ideas and designs. 

In Nikon's case, the D3xxx and D5xxx are now past their sell-by date. And because of Nikon's total lack of commitment to DX lenses—buzz, buzz, bztt (the bztt being the bug hitting the zapper, which will now be my new shorthand)—that's probably about to be true of the D7500 and D500, too. 

Nikon got the full frame mirrorless transition basically correct (very DSLR-like handling with mirrorless' bonuses). Bravo. Someone was awake in Tokyo. Let's hope that same person or group is now responsible for ZDX. But don't go bzzt with ZDX lenses, Nikon!

Finally, there's always the "they're all going to go out of business" cry that goes up every time we hear that the dedicated camera decline news continues. 


  • Canon — certainly might contract, but still very profitable, and has plenty of other business to lean on as they work things out in imaging.
  • Fujifilm — digital cameras are still far too small a part of the overall company for them to worry about, and they believe that they're continuing to make progress towards their goals.
  • Nikon — continuing to contract, but they've done massive restructuring that has actually produced a higher gross profit, indeed a record one for the past 10 years when measured to sales.
  • Olympus — probably the most vulnerable to something dramatically changing, as they didn't meet the stated goals yet again, and by a huge margin this time. Still, the imaging group at Olympus is sheltered by a far bigger and highly profitable medical group, and nothing's seemed to change in their attitude towards building cameras.
  • Panasonic — the GH5/GH5s has been a big success for them, the rest less so. The full frame initiative is representative of what I wrote in the past ("I see them changing their direction"), and that's a big investment, so they're not going away.
  • Pentax/Ricoh — digital cameras are barely a footnote in their financials, as they are part of a far bigger "Other" group that's only 9% of Ricoh's sales. As a Japanese company, they're not going to try closing the camera groups any time soon because that would be a bigger hit on the bottom line than just letting them run their current course. Ricoh's management has bigger problems to deal with than cameras.
  • Sony — probably the one camera company that "turned the corner" early. While their volume continues to go down, their average selling price and profits are headed the other way, and the group has pretty much succeeded at restructuring and reinventing themselves. 

What's that all mean?

Every camera company is following Sony's pattern: increase average selling price, leave older models on the market to have something to sell at lower consumer cost, and push mirrorless as a reason to buy. Canon and Nikon need to fix their entry model lineups to align with this, but seem like they're on that course. 

A lot of folk don't remember the early days of DSLRs. The D100, for instance, was a US$2100 camera, and most of the competitors were around that same US$2000 mark initially. Everyone's resetting to that mark and just taking the volume hit. 

For the 2,897,254th time I'll repeat: the mistake that the camera makers continue to make is that their products live (mostly) in a standalone world. They are pitiful when it comes to trying to do what the smartphones do in their sleep. The volume market for cameras is right there for the taking: be better than a smartphone as a camera, be equal (or 100% compatible) to a smartphone for sharing images. 

As much as I nag at SnapBridge, Nikon actually took some of my advice there and it is actually now usable, though slow and fiddly. You can actually shoot raw on a Z7 and squirt 2mp JPEGs of selected images via SnapBridge over to a mobile device as you need to. Of course, the transmission speed doesn't even come close to what the smartphones do (thus my word "slow").

You can almost see how the camera companies might get some volume back, but you're not sure if they can see the same thing. So the decline continues...

Are DSLRs Still The Best Choice?

I'm going to do one of my end-of-year assessments a little earlier this year. Many of you will be struggling with buying decisions this holiday season because of all the higher-end mirrorless cameras that appeared in and around Photokina. I've now had the chance to use virtually every new camera—some for less time than others, obviously—and I am ready to deliver a quick assessment of The State of the ILC.

Full Frame
This is where all the hoopla has been lately, first from Sony, but now from virtually everyone except Fujifilm and Olympus. 

Let me state right up front: the best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Nikon D850. Still. 

Yes, it's larger and heavier than the mirrorless options. It's also better at more things. While the D850 is nowhere near optimal at this, you can even shoot it silently if you need to. But in terms of all-around? Nothing tops it. You've got a state-of-the-art sensor, focus system, UI/ergonomics, viewfinder, feature set, and a biggish buffer on a fast card (XQD). If I were pressed to make a better camera than the D850, I'd be fixing or improving very small things.

I should note that best all-around to me means the ability to go from high resolution shooting to high speed shooting, among other things. The 24mp cameras don't really manage the first, so to even qualify for my "best" categorization, I'd say we need to be at least at 30mp, probably far more. If you're willing to compromise down to 24mp, then you're not looking for "best overall." You're looking for a more lowest common denominator camera (keep reading).

I've never been disappointed with the images coming out of my D850. Pretty much the only time I want to pick up another body is (a) when I need a "faster" camera, in which case I pick up the D5; and (b) when I want a smaller, lighter camera to pack small for casual travel, in which case I pick up the Nikon Z7 or the Sony A7Rm3.

You'll probably be surprised to hear me say the second-best all-around full frame camera you can buy at the end of 2018 is the Sony A7Rm3. The downside is the Sony UI/ergonomics, which is flawed. But in terms of sensor, focus, viewfinder, feature set, buffer? Right up there near the D850 within the margin or error of my assessment ability. It's also a better choice for those that require silent shooting, and do so often. 

Beyond those two, you're clearly "living with compromise" (though note my comment about the Sony's UI/ergonomics, which is also a compromise for many). 

The Z7's big drawback is its continuous autofocus capability, coupled with some simplification from the D850. The simplification many of you may actually approve of, the continuous autofocus performance you won't (compared to the current alternatives; it could still be better than what you're using). Couple that with a more fixed buffer and some other warts when trying to use the Z7 for fast moving objects you want to shoot continuously and the Z7 starts to fall out of the "best all-around" consideration.

Canon's R and 5DIV both check in at the minimum I'd call high resolution, and with a sensor that just doesn't have the shadow-end punch that Nikon and Sony can produce. I think they're both really good cameras, but the R feels a bit more like a UI experiment to me, and the 5Dm4 just doesn't match the D850 in so many ways it has to fall below it. The 5Dm4 was much more competitive with the Nikon D810, and back in 2016 the Canon/Nikon gap wasn't large at all.

The Canon 5DS (and 5DS R) push far into the high resolution end, but then fail at the high speed end. Moreover, in looking at my 5DS images versus my D850 images, I'm not sure I can say the Canon matches the Nikon, despite more pixels. 

Some of you will be chanting "medium format" at this point. Yes. Okay, I'll grant you that at the high resolution usage end that medium format might be the choice for some. But like the Canon 5DS, the Fujifilm GFX and Hasselblad X1D aren't exactly competing in the fast camera end required to be an all-around champ.

Our four best all-around contenders here end up as the Canon 7Dm2, Fujifilm X-T3, the Nikon D500, and the Sony A6500. 

I don't want to seem like a Nikon shill—anyone who knows me knows I'm not—but it's another win for Nikon with the D500, though this game is closer than it used to be. 

Nikon has three times paired a top pro camera with a really solid more consumer camera (D1/D100, D3/D300, D5/D500). Each time that's produced a truly winning DX/APS-C body for the masses. Yes, at 20mp the D500 is a little short on photosites compared to the others, but its sensor performs really well at base ISO for resolution, plus handles pushes up into high speeds (ISO and frame rates) as good as we get in DX/APS-C. 

The D500 is a mini D5 (and D850), so: rich in features, high in performance. What it doesn't have (buzz, buzz), is a full lens set. You can fix some of that with third-party offerings, but...

...that brings us to the close runner-up, which I'd claim is the Fujifilm X-T3. Fujifilm continues to narrow all the gaps to Nikon in APS-C, though I'd still say the Fujifilm focus system is still somewhat behind. Fujifilm, though, has a pretty full and appropriate lens set up through 200mm that the D500 doesn't. And for some, that may be enough of a tipping point now (again, keep reading). 

The Sony A6500 has the usual Sony problems (UI/ergonomics), plus some additional ones due to its attempt to stay super small. But it's a very good camera choice where portability is concerned, and very close behind the other two if you don't mind some gimmickry and the small, slightly awkward rangefinder style.

Canon? Sorry Canon fans, last place again. What was a pretty competitive option in 2014 just doesn't match up to what the rest of the pack have done since. Canon needs a new sensor and some new technology in whatever the 7Dm3 turns out to be, but it's not looking like that's coming soon.

Final Words
You really can't go wrong with pretty much any current interchangeable lens camera, though. At least in terms of image quality. 

Most of you reading this are probably more in the "good enough all-around" category, not searching for the "best all-around" one. "Good enough" these days is pretty much any 24mp+ sensor in pretty much any current body, and certainly full frame 24mp is more than enough for most folk. Likewise, most of you never really need to shoot at even 5 fps, let alone the higher speeds we see out of the best bodies these days. 

The Sony A7m3 gets a slight nod from me here. Other than the UI/ergonomics issues, it's a really nice combination of capabilities with an excellent full frame sensor. The Z6 slots behind it because of the same reason the Z7 fails to win best overall: continuous autofocus. 

You can't discount the still-available-but-aging Canon 6Dm2 and Nikon D750, either. I'd give the nod to the Nikon over the Canon if you go DSLR for a "good enough all-around" camera, and Nikon's likely to be pretty aggressive on price this holiday season.

A couple of things struck me in thinking back over digital camera history as I wrote this article:

  • Modern lenses really do tackle low-level problems well. It isn't so much that the latest and greatest lens designs are "sharper" in the central area—even though many are—it's that coma, spherical aberration, chromatic aberration, and corner to corner optical performance are all improved. Improved acuity coupled with more accurate optical corrections is a bit like lifting a veil on your imagery. The best of the most recent lenses have a bite and clarity to them from edge to edge that older lenses don't. Maybe you don't want that, but lenses today are closer to what those with 20/10 vision with few spherical aberrations see naturally: high acuity, high contrast, little elongation or spread of light. 

    In the context of this article, if you're seeking "best all-around" camera, you really also need to consider what lenses you're putting up front, too. Indeed, you can start to cripple a "best" camera a bit by putting a poor performing lens on it.

  • Sensors have lifted a visual veil, too. If I look back at my early DSLR work and what I'm doing today, it isn't really the pixel count that impresses me. Many of us were producing two-page magazine spreads early in the century from our low pixel-count cameras and generally happy with the results. No, it's other things about the image sensor than pixel count that have really made today's cameras tangibly better.

    In particular, shadows are dramatically better. Talk about lifting a veil. The D1 series cameras had blocky, mushy, and inaccurate shadow detail that was near impossible to put useful contrast into. Every Nikon/Sony generation of sensor since has improved on the tonal range below middle gray, to the point where today we can lift detail out from many stops below the exposure and not get anything other than the randomness of photons as an unwanted side effect (i.e. quantum shot noise). 

    Highlights are also better, though not as dramatically. Nikon, in particular, is taking advantage of a non-linear shoulder effect in their sensor response to provide a little highlight recovery, and our computer software has gotten better at dealing with all those data bits in the highlights and pulling them apart gracefully for proper highlight contrasts. 

We're going to start pulling hairs soon (if we aren't already doing that). If you handed me any current Nikon DSLR or mirrorless camera, any Sony mirrorless camera, or any Fujifilm mirrorless camera and asked me to go out and "shoot professionally," I could do it. Ditto for any Canon ILC. How happy I would be would have little to do with sensor size or pixel count. It would solely have to do with whether I was fighting the camera's controls to achieve a desired result or not. 

Which brings me full circle to something I started to write about just over a decade ago: your comfort with the handling of the camera means something often much more important than the details about dynamic range, bit depth, or any other measurement you want to examine. 

Personally, I want the best all-around camera in my hands because I shoot a wide variety of subjects and photographic genres. I don't want to be fighting my camera when I do that. The capabilities (frame rate, pixel count, etc.) have to be good and flexible, sure, but so does the feature set and the handling. 

Nikon is getting that last bit—feature set and handling—"more right" than the others. Sony tends to be more emphasizing the first—capabilities, particularly technical ones—than the others. Canon seems to be lagging both the other giants, but following along. Still, it's difficult to go far wrong with selecting any of their current cameras.

And that takes us to the last point this buying season: with camera sales still on the decline, pricing is going to be used as an incentive to goose sales and lower inventories. As I write this, Sony has lowered the price of the A7m2 kit (a mediocre 28-70mm lens is included) to US$1000 [advertiser link], at least temporarily. That's a price less than half what you'd pay for the current generation equivalent (Nikon Z6, Sony A7m3). Are you really getting double the value by buying the current cameras? Probably not. 

So, take my advice with a grain of whatever mineral you wish to add. I strongly believe I can defend my choices (D850, D500) as "best all-around," but that doesn't mean that they're the right choice for you. Consider buying a generation back or a runner-up to save money and then put what you saved into a better lens, for example. Make sure the camera doesn't get in your way when you're shooting (UI/ergonomics; and a corollary: that it's not too complicated for you to understand all that it can do). 

We actually will live in a world of plenty—other than perhaps Nikon dealer inventories for certain items ;~)—this holiday season. Plentiful great cameras. Plentiful excellent lenses. Plentiful deals that come and go quickly. 

That's actually the reason why I'm writing this article before the buying season rather than after it this year: with all the new additions and temptations, I think you need a strategy for GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) before we get to the big discounting that will occur. Make sure you know what you're looking for and why. And don't be afraid to pick up just about any interchangeable lens camera if it meets your needs.

Both amateurs and pros can take better photos today than they could five years ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago. The equipment has gotten better and gives you more options than ever before. You can obsess about the details if you want, but for the most part that won't usefully improve your photography.

Canon Joins Canaries in Coal Mine

For the first time recently, Canon reported financial results that indicate a stronger weakness in their camera business. Year to year, the third quarter was down 15.6% in sales, and 45.3% in profit. 

More ominous: "temporarily curtailed shipments due to a pause in entry-class DSLR purchasing." 

Whereas the first two quarters of the year were relatively flat (0.07m ILC unit difference year to year, or -3% change), the third quarter suddenly dropped in a big way (0.25 ILC unit difference in one quarter, or 019% change). Overall, Canon's projections now show ILC's dropping 8% for the year and their market share dropping a couple of points (by my calculations, to 45%, which means that Canon is losing about 5% market share this year to the competition; Canon says they'll only lose 1%, but they've also used overall unit volume for the year than the CIPA numbers are indicating). 

While the EOS R should do well, remember it's at a higher price point where volume isn't nearly as high. It's the lower end products that are giving Canon fits right now, much like the problem Nikon went through recently. It's no surprise that the EOS M models are on deep sale right now.

Meanwhile, compact cameras continue to crater with a full year drop of -26% anticipated.

Much more worrisome is that Canon's camera inventory went from a 49-day supply earlier this year to a 69-day supply during the quarter. This implies some sales coming soon.

The False Equivalency That Great Photo Equipment Makes Great Photographs

I recently had someone believe that they were blasting me to smithereens on the Internet by comparing my photography to someone who's regarded as one of the top ten photographers of all time. While they thought they were dissing me big time, I actually was quite amused to find someone trying to compare me to the very best. 

For what it's worth, I've never aspired to that ("be the best"). I don't enter contests and I don't accept awards. That's because I'm not interested in subjective external ranking of my photographic work, I'm only interested in my work as I see fit to produce it. I rarely show it to others, as I've kind of been saving that for my retirement years to do. This drives my teaching assistant crazy, as he's pretty sure he's not seen what I believe to be my best work even for sessions where's he been shooting with me (he's right ;~). Even my mom complains about not seeing my best work. 

Sorry, I shoot for myself, not others. Maybe by the time I'm dead I'll get discovered by others ;~).

bythom US MT Kalispell TripleD August-17-2018 48508

Another of those photographs that just aren't my best. I'm pretty sure Hershey—the name of the tiger in the photo—knows this, which is why she's staring at me wondering what I'm doing...either that or she wanted a closer look at that Z7 I was using, because she'd never seen one before. Hard to say. Probably wondering what I'm doing, though, as I had a US$600 lens on the camera and that just couldn't be right, could it?

Now all this came up in the context of evaluating equipment. The supposed connection was that you have to be an exceptional—remember, top ten all time—photographer in order to correctly evaluate camera gear. 

You might notice that the corollary sounds completely false: you need to be an exceptional evaluator of camera gear to be an outstanding photographer.

Indeed, it is false. I know many excellent pro photographers that aren't at all that sure of anything about their gear. They have a Photoshop expert on staff to sort out the pixels, they have assistants to prepare gear for shooting, and they really don't care what's handed them as long as it is set right for the conditions and takes reasonable photos. (No, I'm not going to name these folk, but there are some names on the list I'm pretty sure you'd recognize.)

Since somewhere about five years into the DSLR era I started writing something similar to the following: "if you can't get excellent prints at maximum size of a desktop inkjet printer with your DSLR, it isn't the camera that's the problem." That certainly applies to pretty much any interchangeable lens camera you can buy today. 

That isn't to say that Camera X isn't better than Camera Y for a specific purpose. You can't beat a Nikon D5 for shooting sports in low light, for example. But that also doesn't mean you can't take excellent sports shots in low light with something else. You also can't beat a Nikon D850, Z7, or Sony A7Rm3 at base ISO for shooting landscapes short of using a medium format camera, and even that's only a close win. But that doesn't mean you can't take excellent landscape shots with something else.

My friend Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer recently noted that car magazines these days are all track-testing cars instead of road-testing them. We all buy cars as basic transportation, not as racing candidates, so essentially the level of detail that the car magazines are going into on esoteric and non-likely performance needs of the purchaser is remarkable. 

Thing is, this tends to happen with all special interests: the media goes higher and higher upscale until it reaches a point where it's talking to the few, not the many. That's because the many make a purchasing decision only every few years or so. They don't need to keep up with whether the most recently announced camera has 0.1 stops more dynamic range or not. No one's really helping them do better with what they have and will continue using for a few years—there's no ad money in that—so eventually this also leads to lower reader participation overall. 

That's one reason why I wrote about ecosystems recently. If you have a thriving ecosystem, there actually may be something that the every-once-in-awhile camera purchaser is still interested in today. Historically, that's been lenses, and it's one of the reasons why I try to keep up with as many of the lens releases with thorough reviews as possible. It's also the reason why I keep falling behind: there has to be a dozen lenses sitting in my offices right now I haven't gotten around to a final report on, and new lenses keep proliferating like weeds in Spring.

But getting back to my point: a great lens doesn't automatically generate great photos. Someone who recognizes a great lens from a mediocre one doesn't necessarily know how to take great photos, either. We do expect, however, that it might be easier to create a great photo with a great lens than it is with a mediocre lens, and that has some ring of truth to it. A great lens has fewer flaws you might have to consider when taking a picture or doing post processing of it later. 

So I continue on with my Web sites as I have always: trying to make sense of ever-changing landscape of photography gear, while every now and then dropping technique or how-to articles for what you've got. 

Now if you'll excuse me, there's another photo trade show I need to run off to attend so I can get all worked up about the latest gear. 

Can DSLRs Still Improve?

With Canon and Nikon having introduced serious, full frame mirrorless cameras, the question now becomes can DSLRs continue to get better? And if so, would they still be relevant?

Truth be told, there are benefits both to shooting with optical viewfinders (DSLRs) and EVF viewfinders (mirrorless). Each has advantages that the other doesn't. That's one of the reasons why I've had my feet in both camps as a photographer since 2009.

I'd tend to say that the most likely scenario is that both types of cameras will figure out how to get as many of the benefits of the other as they can. If that happens, then, yes, DSLRs can still improve and stay relevant for awhile (eventually the parts situation favors mirrorless).  

  • DSLR
    • (A1) view of a scene is always present in viewfinder, regardless of on/off status of camera
    • (A2) view of a scene is instantaneous to reality
    • (A3) focus system generates more precise phase detect data, has ability to put large number of cross sensors in an area without impacting image data
    • (A4) uses little or no power for view through viewfinder
    • (A5) viewfinder image doesn't impact night vision (particularly if camera recognizes low light and uses only red LED information displays)
  • Mirrorless
    • (B1) view of a scene can show exposure, white balance, and JPEG style impacts
    • (B2) view of a scene can correct for optical distortions (e.g. linear distortion and vignetting)
    • (B3) scene view can have no viewfinder blackout during continuous shooting, ala the Sony A9
    • (B4) viewfinder can overlay real time histogram and/or zebra display; ditto for focus peaking confirmation

Every one of the things I just listed for the two different systems is desirable to a sophisticated photographer, particularly one that crosses shooting genres. 

If I were in charge of designing future DSLRs, I'd look at seeing how many of the things in the mirrorless advantages I could pick off. 

#B4 is certainly within the realm of being done with current viewfinder technologies; we already have crude overlay layering in the optical viewfinder, so we'd just have to make it a less crude and add capability. The other B# advantages would almost certainly require a hybrid viewfinder approach, though: the DSLR would have to have a mirror-up mode with a pop-in EVF display in the viewfinder (another mechanical mechanism, unfortunately, which adds cost and complexity). 

So let's examine the other side: can you make mirrorless cameras that get the DSLR type advantages. #A2, for instance, can be (nearly perfectly) done by using genlock type technologies. Samsung did this with the NX1, and Sony is doing something similar on the A9. I'm convinced that this problem is one that will eventually be solved on all mirrorless cameras once the price of doing so drops. #A3 is something that Canon's dual pixel system starts to help with, and I've seen patents of other ideas that tackle the problem of focus sensor density in particular. Again, this is something that is on the verge of working its way through the mirrorless camera market. #A4 is a little trickier, but display power consumption is a problem everyone is working on, so it, too, will happen over time. 

I'm not entirely sure you can do a lot with #A5. Sure, you can detect ambient light and run the EVF differently in low light to try to preserve night vision, but do you want to give up #B1 when you do so? I don't think so. Likewise, I don't know how you do #A1 without adding an optical finder to the display. (You'll notice that I didn't write about the quality of the view; the latest EVFs are quite good. A lot of folk comment that they didn't feel that they are all that different than looking at an optical view; at least if you don't gum them up with too much information display, have them set on their highest refresh setting, and aren't using JPEG settings that punch the hell out of contrast and color.)

Are there other areas outside of the viewfinder where a DSLR and mirrorless camera differ significantly? Sure. One simple one is in heat propagation: you're not running the sensor constantly. Another hidden one is in RTOS (real time operating system). The huge data stream coming off the mirrorless cameras mean that there's potentially a greater amount and complexity of data to process, meaning faster/better CPU needs and a lot of careful fine tuning of how the camera responds to requests for change. The more balls you juggle, the more likely that you drop one. DSLRs were juggling more balls than film SLRs, and as such had a period where they had to employ more and more horsepower and greater and greater attention to how everything timed against each other. (Note, for example, that Nikon's Z cameras don't continue to process exposure changes at their maximum frame rate. A lot of mirrorless cameras have some such limitation when you really press them.)

But I judge none of those other DSLR/mirrorless differences to be as important as the viewfinder difference. After all, you're constantly looking through the viewfinder, so any differences there are easily noticed. 

So, while the answer to the question in the headline is yes, the question is for how long and will that be enough to keep them viable? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. The more the mirrorless cameras start working on that #A list, the shorter the reign of the DSLR.

Nikon 2018 News

In these folders you’ll find the several hundred news and commentary articles about Nikon and DSLR cameras that appeared on this site in 2017:

Nikon 2017 News

In these folders you’ll find the several hundred news and commentary articles about Nikon and DSLR cameras that appeared on this site in 2017:

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