Sunday, September 23, 2012

Photokina 2012 - Money, Money, Money

E-PL5 with M.Zuiko 1:2.8/17mm prime
Photokina 2012 is finished, as is most of the punditry for now. There are still reviews to be written and published on the web, but for the most part I think the majority who've been paying attention learned what was necessary to begin a new cycle of gear acquisition, which is what shows like Photokina are all about: stoking gear lust.

Regardless of the brand or the camera model, one theme came through loud and clear: it's all about the money. With very few exceptions, everything introduced this year is anywhere from the very high hundreds to the mid-thousands. The one Olympus camera that I actually took a liking to, the E-PL5, is currently on pre-order for $700, body only. The "entry level" Nikon D600 (and Canon 6D) are $2,100, body only. The ridiculous Hasselblad Lunar (Loonie, Lunacy, I've read so many catty renames) is $5,000 (and up). Perpetually expensive Leica is still way too much money for me. Serious lenses from Zeiss for the various APS-C mounts and 135mm mounts are in the thousands themselves. The only cheap lens I saw under $100 was Olympus' 1:8/15mm "body cap" lens, which was introduced at a mere $50.

I'm going to ramble around the various camera segments (DSLR, mirrorless) and make some observations. Keep in mind that I have a unique situation: all of my regular 4:3rds equipment was stolen, and I have no heavy investment in any camera system at this point, not even µ4:3rds.


After getting over my initial disappointment with the introductory price of $2,100 for the D600, I have admit that the D600 is a sensible, if expensive, DSLR. I find it interesting that the D600 was introduced the same year as the D800/800e, but not at the same time. To be introduced so close together they had to have been in the same design cycle; that is, they were designing the D600 and D800 in parallel. Considering how the general market for DSLRs has changed mightily since the D700 and its contemporaries were introduced, I have no doubt Nikon felt this two-pronged approach was necessary.

I also believe the introduction of the D800 before the D600 was deliberate. The high cost of the D800/800e was a shock to a lot of people, myself included, and Nikon marketing probably knew this would happen going in. The world market, especially the US market, is still in a state of economic shock, and expensive cameras such as the D800 are considered more of a luxury item than ever. We'd grown used to seeing the D700 drop down over time into the low $2,000 range, and we were expecting the D700 replacement to be not much more expensive. When it came out at $3,000 ($3,300 D800e) more than a few were put off. I'm sure that Nikon was most appreciative of Canon's introductory price of $3,500 for the 5D Mark III, which made the D800 look almost like a bargain at $3,000. The early introduction and the unexpected good will from Canon helped to sell as many D800s as the market could bear. If the D600 had been introduced at the same time, far fewer D800s would have been sold.

I also back up this assertion with the surprisingly early introduction of product in large quantities all across the globe for the D600. DSLRs of this caliber are complicated and require considerable manual labor to build and test. Nikon was wise to wait until Photokina 2012 before officially introducing the camera. The almost instant availability and large stock mean that all the pent up demand for the real D700 replacement will be satisfied, and it may drive sales such that the D600 is Nikon's #1 FX camera for the next 12 months.

Will I buy one? That's a good question. It means moving back to a larger camera system, although it might actually be a bit smaller than the E-3 system I'd built up nearly four years ago. With a little more money I could have the same system using Nikon that I had with Olympus; a pair of bodies, two zooms, and a few fast primes, one of which would be a macro. In Nikon's case, it's all about the mount.

What's key to the Nikon mount isn't its hallowed lens catalog of existing lenses. I'm no fool; I can tell turkeys from eagles, and the Nikon catalog has a large collection of turkey lenses. What's left is quite excellent and helps to sustain the Nikon reputation. However, when you look at field-of-view coverage, mechanical build quality, and image quality, Olympus and Nikon are evenly matched (along with Canon, and probably Sony and Pentax). What differentiates the Nikon F mount in my mind is extensive third party support, specifically the Zeiss and Sigma catalogs. I still have the lone Sigma 1:1.4/30mm for the regular 4:3rds system which I use with my lone E-1. In spite of its focusing issues on the E-3, it was a great lens to have when I needed to cover very low light events, even with the E-3's limited high ISO issues. I would buy from Sigma again based on my good experiences with the 30mm.

And that points up the key limitation of the E-3 system. No third party quality lens makers are manufacturing for the regular 4:3rds system any more. Olympus' mis-management of the regular E-Volt 4:3rds system has turned it into a true orphan system. All the regular participants, notably Panasonic and Sigma, have discontinued all of their products for that system. Only Olympus is left to pay lip service to a once great camera system. And it is that past history that causes me to pause when considering any future investments with Olympus.


There were a few surprises in the mirrorless catagory, specifically the Sony α99 and RX1.

The α99 is the top-end SLT replacement for the highly regarded (and some would argue near-legendary) α900 introduced four years ago. The blogosphere was already expecting Sony to do something like this, based on prior statements about their view of SLT, so the camera itself wasn't that much of a surprise. The surprise is the price of $2,800 body only. If we consider that the 24MP sensor of the α99 is the same in the Nikon D600, and if we consider that the D600 is $700 less than the α99, then one has to ask what makes the α99 $700 more special? From where I stand, not very much. I personally thought it would come in around $2,000, based on the fact that the α77 is a "mere" $1,300, body only. If the α99 has been introduced at $2,200, then it would have been a far more solid contender for my hard earned dollars. As it is, if I'm going to contemplate spending $2,800 for an α99, then I might was well add $200 to the pile and purchase a Nikon D800. Or save $900 and purchase the D600, investing the cash into good glass. If I wanted Sony I'd go further downmarket and get the α77 with the 16-50mm lens, both of which cost $2,000 as a kit, a good $800 less than the α99. Sony shot themselves in the foot with the pricing of the α99. Whether it will be a mortal wound for the α99, only time will tell.

The RX1 came right out of left field. I had no clue they were releasing it. I had read the rumors about a NEX 9, a 135mm sensor sized NEX body that would have been the alter-ego to the α99 the way the NEX 7 is the alter-ego to the α77. After thinking about this for a bit, I believe the RX1 is the camera that gave rise to the NEX 9 rumors. And I find that highly entertaining, especially considering it's $2,800 MSRP, the same as the α99. I personally don't believe that Sony will introduce a NEX 9 the way the forum monsters want. The price of the RX1 should be a Big Clue as to how much a NEX 9 would cost. Consider also that if you bought a mythical NEX 9 that you'd have to buy all new E-mount lenses that would provide the required circle of illumination for the much larger sensor. The cost of a NEX 9 would be prohibitive to say the least, especially to the market at which the NEX series is aimed, and it ain't the real pros.

As for the Panasonic GH3, the answer from me is a solid no thank you. At $1,300 body only, it's the same price as the Sony α77. I'd rather have the older α77 and the larger α-mount (meaning Minolta) catalog, which is a lot more vibrant. Yes, there's now a lot of quality lenses for µ4:3rds, and I do own a few, but Sony is still the better long-term deal at that price.


I expected Olympus to introduce replacements for the E-PM1 and E-PL3 at Photokina 2012, and they did. There'd been all kinds of wild rumors about Olympus releasing a "pro" OM-D, but I knew that wasn't going to happen, based on watching how Olympus' release cycles work. They release a top-end camera, then a series of mid- and low-end follow on cameras using the same core sensor technology. It happened with the E-P1, E-P2, and E-P3, and it happened again with the E-M5.

This also means the end of the E-P# series of cameras. The E-PL5 has moved up fill in the gap where the E-P5 would have been if the E-M5 hadn't been introduced. That's why the E-PL5 now has an attachable front grip (as does the Olympus XZ-2, interestingly enough). With the same sensor as the E-M5 (but not the five axis IBIS), the E-PL5 may be what I purchase next, based on need, want, preference and price. I do prefer the Pen design, but I don't expect an E-P5 to ever see the light of day.

As for the XZ-2, at $600 it's only $50 less than the Sony RX-100. And based on all the photography being produced by the RX-100, I don't see how Olympus will sell many RX-2s, not at that price. Because of the surprisingly excellent results from the RX-100, I have been debating whether to purchase the Sony and forgo any further investing in the Pens.

Judgement Calls

I have reached a point where I am content to use the "trailing edge" of photographic equipment, purchasing gear as it is dropped for clearance (for example, the E-PL1 cost $150, the E-PL2 cost $250). I have all the lenses I really need. My favorite combination of body and lens right now is the E-PL2 and the Panasonic 1:1.7/20mm. I have other small primes and a pair of cheap zooms, all of which fits in a small, easy to carry bag. I pace my purchasing now, waiting for sales or closeouts. I'm no longer a bleeding edge first adopter. As much as I may appreciate the engineering effort and quality that may go into a $2,000 and up camera, I just don't have the drive any more to drop that kind of cash. But if I did, here's what I would consider:

  • The best APS-C deal continues to be the Sony α77 body and 16-50mm lens, both of which are environmentally sealed. The combined cost of both is $2,000.
  • The best serious compact is the Sony RX-100. It has its problems, especially with over exposure, but overall it's an awesome high quality little package for $650.
  • The best mirrorless camera system is a toss-up between any µ4:3rds or Sony NEX 5 series body you can find on discontinued discount. The common denominator lenses for both are the Sigma 1:2.8/19mm and 1:2.8/30mm in either mount, each of them for just $200. Both lenses are inexpensive and provide excellent image quality. On a µ4:3rds body you have a normal and short telephoto, while on a NEX 5 body you have a moderate wide angle and a normal. Your call.
  • The best dark-horse APS-C camera is the Pentax K-5 II. The K-5 II addresses low-light focusing issues of the K-5. Depending on what you want, you can save money with the K-5 on discount or spend more to get a more refined K-5 II. The camera is weather sealed, rugged, and has the same Sony sensor as the NEX 5, NEX 6, and many other excellent cameras on the market.
  • The best dark horse µ4:3rds body is the Olympus E-PL5. With the excellent E-M5 sensor, it's image quality should match the E-M5, which has been trouncing quite a few Panasonic favorites since its release the first of this year.


  1. Let me suggest an irresponsible, impractical, out-of-left-field idea: given how much you like the E-PL2 and 20/1.7 combination, and how well a small and unassuming camera suits your photography, the answer is the RX1.

    Yes, its price is absurd. It's hard to spend that much on a camera body that will be the anchor of an entire system, let alone a fixed-lens camera that may only see four or five years of service. But if its price is the cost of engineering and quality – and if its lens is as good as my Zeiss ZM 35/2 – then it could be a monster. Add on the EVF for critical shooting, an OVF for casual use, and you're done. Nothing more to spend.

    Sure, continue with the Pens, and pick up clearance models as they add better capability. They're great for all of the other focal lengths, zooms, flashes, and so on. Let them be your do-everything-else system cameras, the ones that can fill in around the RX1's specialization. $3K might not be all that expensive if it's the best ever made.

    All of this is pending real-world reviews, of course – it could be a flop. But I want this camera to be great in a way that I just haven't cared about any other recent introductions, including the D800.

    1. I have looked long and hard at the RX1. Long and hard. In my heart of hearts I wonder if the RX1 isn't the camera the Leica X2 (and X1 before it) shouldn't have been, a fixed lens M, the kind of camera I'd really like to own. I'm waiting for Luminous Landscape to get a copy and do its dance with it.

  2. "it's all about the money."
    And the good thing: within a year the prices will have sunk to acceptable levels. And what is a year in a lifetime of (photographic) struggle?

    1. ...within a year the prices will have sunk to acceptable levels.

      Truer words were never spoken. My E-P2, which I purchased for full price, is now $250. While Canon and Nikon don't drop as far, as fast, they still drop. And the Panasonic µ4:3rds 12-35mm zoom has already dropped $200. Camera makers are the only ones to do this: I still remember when Apple, on September 5, 2007, discontinued the 4 GB iPhone 1 and cut the 8 GB iPhone 1 price by a third, from $600 to $200. The original iPhone was launched in July of that year.

      Cameras and consumer electronics (and consumer electronics sales behaviors) have become far too commingled.

  3. Its still hard to overcome emontions with facts. You are in the good position to be able to wait and spend money with care.
    I got my E-P1 when the E-P2 hit the market and never regretted it. Its still a solid contender with the 20mm Panasonic.
    The E-P3, bought second hand when the german market took a dip, is fitted with the VF-2 and Kirk Tuck is the culprit that its no longer really compact because of this :).
    I will wait for the new 17mm and be done with it. The OM-D is still too expensive and complicated (I still dont master the E-P3) and the E-Pl5 lacks the thumb wheel.
    Its good to have so much choice, even with not much money at hand. Photogrphy isnt necessarily an expensive hobby, we make it that way.

  4. Like you, I expect my next camera will be the E-PL5. It looks like a very worthy upgrade to the E-PL1 and within 6 months it should be down by £100 from the usual E-PLX launch price. Like the NEX7, thd OMD is excellent but I balk at the price. Long term? I'm hoping M43 remains viable, vibrant and competitive.

  5. This was, by far, the most cogent, rational summary of the Photokina releases I have read.


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