Friday, September 23, 2011

Nikon, Sony, et alia.

Samsung NX11 with 18-55 standard zoom lens.
Just a few days ago Bill wrote down his thoughts on the future of photography, and in one of those quirks of timing, we now know more about what the market will look like in a few years. What changed is the "Nikon 1".

Nikon calls their new mirrorless camera system revolutionary, and while they may be right it's far too soon to believe them. Steve Jobs, who's certainly no dummy, called both the iPad and the Segway revolutionary, and he was only right about one of them.

The biggest noise about the new Nikon format is the smaller sensor. I'm reserving judgement about what the image quality will be, because photosite size really isn't everything – the Olympus E-1 has bigger pixels than the Canon 5DmkII. While the magnification factor and deep depth of field of the 1.16 cm2 sensor won't disappoint the hypothetical purchaser who's looking to upgrade from a compact camera, it's something that enthusiast photographers are going to need to come to terms with.

Nikon's CX format has stripped away the leverage of its installed DX and FX lens base in order to create something that won't undercut their established SLRs. This has echoes of Sony, who invented and owned the market for portable music players – called "walkmans" way back then – only to have it taken away when they insisted on locked-down digital formats in the face of demand for MP3s. They lost to Apple, a company that has never been afraid to undercut its own products; compare this to Olympus, which has collapsed its SLR line in order to drive the market for Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses.

If all goes well, the CX-mirrorless will be different enough from SLRs that people will want to own both styles, and even meagre lens interoperability might be enough to create the brand tie-in. In Nikon's favour, they do have a proven ability to change their direction mid-stream. It was only a few years ago that they were still insisting that "DX is the future." Nikon shifted its priorities and rebuilt its dated full-frame lens line, and quickly achieved remarkable success in the fight back to high-end parity with Canon.

(Canon diverged from Nikon by refusing to properly develop lenses for the overwhelmingly vast majority of its digital cameras, which amazingly continues to not blow up in their face. Instead flocks of fledgling photographers spend too much money for lenses that don't suit their actual needs 'because they might go full-frame one day'. My mind boggles, but I digress.)

Panasonic GH1 with 7-14mm ultrawide zoom lens.
While other systems are struggling to be invented, Panasonic and Olympus sit on an ever-expanding range of lenses and cameras that is second only to the decades-old Canon and Nikon systems. No, they don't have tilt-shift lenses or "professional" cameras yet, but Micro Four Thirds is a viable and vibrant system in a way that the others simply aren't. And with the transient exception of the Olympus E-5, the m4/3 makers are the only ones who are committed to a mirrorless format as their only system cameras. For everyone else it's a second line, a niche that they only compete in because someone else has already established the market. I include Samsung in that despite their abandonment of the K-mount – they're quite devoted to their compact cameras.

Where Bill and I really part company is in our expectations for Sony.

Sony chronically shows exciting technological promise but hasn't demonstrated much commitment to photography. They make great compact cameras – thirty-five new ones since January 2010 – and then migrate those features up into their interchangeable lens models. Sweep Panorama is fun, but Sony just doesn't seem to understand that compacts and system cameras aren't the same market.

When Sony took over Minolta's Maxxum catalog it created a flurry of opinions that they would soon be rivalling Canon and Nikon. Their size and electronics background made it seem inevitable. Five years have gone by and their rebranded Alpha mount actually has fewer lenses available than the upstart m4/3 system.

Sony's new "SLT" designs aren't so much an innovation as a way for Sony to finally rid themselves of their weaknesses, moving their A-mount cameras from Minolta's pentaprism tradition of big, bright viewfinders to Sony's skills in creating light-gathering devices that feed video screens. This gives them a market differentiator – which is sometimes the same thing as an advantage – and so they continue to split their shelf space between the SLT and NEX lines.

Sony's NEX system was announced almost eighteen months ago, yet we're still waiting for their fourth lens to be available for it. By the end of 2011 Sony wants to have seven shipping lenses, which will still give them less than half of the lineup from either Olympus or Panasonic. This is not the sign of a juggernaut.

Sony is an important innovator, and perhaps they can inspire the entire market. For reasons which don't need exploring at this juncture, I would absolutely choose their NEX cameras over any other for some specific uses. Different cameras and systems will continue to have their individual strengths and weaknesses, and there's a place for everything from the NX to the Q. But the Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Format belongs to Panasonic and Olympus, and I see no reason why the near future won't look a lot like the present and the recent past.


Matthew Robertson mostly confines his unfounded personal opinions to Thews' Reviews, but is always happy to have the chance for a guest post on blogbeebe.

2 comments:

  1. Now that "mirrorless summer" is now officially over with the Nikon 1 announcement, we find ourselves looking at what has been wrought, and many of find ourselves even more impressed with micro 4/3 than before, despite some major marketing and distribution bungles by both Olympus and Panasonic.

    But the reason why micro 4/3 comes out of this multi-sided onslaught smelling like a rose is simple: they've got the lenses. And they are really, really good lenses. And this despite the fact that the most of these cameras are still using a 12mp sensor!

    Yes, there are a lot of people who are enamored with the $1,400 USD Sony NEX-7, and I have no doubt that it and the NEX-5n will do very well in the marketplace. However, the horrible imbalance between lenses and bodies, both in terms of size and quality, will certainly hit home sooner or later, and while the the NEX-7 is the hope of so many, I don't think it's going to be quite as satisfying a camera as the spec sheet would indicate, lack of lenses and a bizarre body form being to big strikes against it, not to mention that $1,400 price tag.

    And yet, the APS sensor still rules, at least here in the USA. And that might be enough for Sony to dominate the mirrorless market in the west, despite the lack of lenses.

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  2. Ronald, I have to admit that part of the reason why I hope Nikon 1 does well is so that the 4/3 sensor won't be called "small" any more. When the micro four thirds system was starting out, it was a huge relief to see people setting aside their big Canon and Nikon semi-pro SLRs and buying a little camera because it was good enough.

    Now that Sony and Samsung are making smaller cameras, we're starting to see echoes of the sensor-size arguments that hurt the 4/3 SLR format. I'm surprised to see Nikon walk directly into that battle, and really hope that they have something up their sleeve to finally end it.

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