Friday, December 26, 2014

2014 Year End Camera Review

2014 was a game of niches for the camera industry. The digital camera market isn't just past maturity, it's actually contracting. Most of the distress is or has already happened at the bottom with point-and-shoot devices, but the market contraction is being seen across the board. The exception to this is the mirrorless segment, but even that is a glass-half-full scenario, because it isn't necessarily a case of mirrorless cameras gaining market share on DSLR's (which they are) so much as DSLR unit volume is contracting whereas mirrorless unit volume is stagnant.

Hence the importance of niches. Markets are defined by products; a brand-new innovative product defines a market, but as that market grows and competition intensifies, the variations in products grows. Yes, that's right, product proliferation has a tendency to happen just about the same time that market saturation occurs; this is why its such a challenge to operate in a market that nears maturity. The alternative is to compete on price, which no competitor would prefer to do.

Note that is is essentially what is happening to the Apple iPhone. When it was first introduced, "iPhone" only meant one thing... the one phone that Apple offered. In 2014, the term can refer to the two variations of the phone (6 and 6s) or the previous versions (5s and 5c) that are still sold at the lower price points.  This is also why the German luxury car manufactures (Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz) offer so many variations of their high-end vehicles.

Thus, the camera landscape in 2014: competitors pushing out increasingly niche-focused cameras, often with the effect of pushing up average selling prices. It's not an environment that is necessarily friendly to the price-conscious consumer, but it's a necessity for the cameras to survive until something re-invigorates the market. This also means that the choices for the higher-end consumer have never been better.

The following is by no means a complete list of all of the cameras that were being sold (either as new entries or carry-overs from previous years) in 2014, but they have been selected to illustrate breath and diversity of the camera market.

As always, with many, many thanks to Broadway Camera.

High-End Compacts

This used to be the market segment for people looking for a capable second camera to supplement their DSLR's. What's changed is that cameras like the Nikon P7800 or Canon G16 are no longer considered the high end of the range, and have been supplanted by this group of cameras, which are significantly more expensive, the Panasonic LX100 and Sony RX100M3 especially so. What as also changed is that the best of the high-end compacts are capable enough to be the only camera that you ever need, as they are (roughly) on par with the image quality and handling that you used to get with the low end DSLR's. It is a tough to say that any of these cameras qualify for a standout recommendation, as none of these are cheap. It's not hard to argue that the LX100 is the most capable of the bunch, but at the end of the day, the majority of people will likely prefer appreciate a smaller camera that is pocketable if the difference in image quality isn't too great. The RX100M3 doesn't have the best image quality of the bunch, nor does it have the best value for money, but the sum of its features makes it an impressive all-around camera.

The G7 X is the best value for the money, but it is a bit of a problematic choice. It offers better value and a better lens than the RX100M3, but its also a chunkier and more simple camera. Autofocus isn't as fast and movie recording isn't as good as with the Sony. For stills photography, the Canon's lens has more range and the maximum aperture doesn't drop off suddenly when you zoom in like it does on the Sony. What makes sells it for the G7 X is the price; for almost the same average street price as the X30 and the RX100M2, you are getting a camera that credibly can be mentioned in the same breathe as the RX100M3. However.... this is a tenuous choice given Canon's quality control history with compact cameras. It's not catastrophically bad, but lens issues have persisted through previous compacts like the S100.... and the key word is "persist" as the problems seem to span different models and a wider period of time than the official record would suggest.. It's not enough to dissuade somebody from buying a Canon compact, but it is something that you would hope better for.

Mid-Tier Mirrorless

This is the problematic "value" portion of the mirrorless segment. Below this is the the "budget" segment (Sony A5000, Fujifilm X-A1 et al.) The reason why this segment is problematic is because it appeals to a fairly price-conscious consumer demographic, and therefore competes on price with the low-end DSLR's. Portability is the big selling point of these cameras, but that in of itself isn't enough to make these cameras standout from the alternatives. Outside of this mix are a number of cameras that simply aren't gaining traction in the North American market place: Samsung's older NX mirrorless cameras, the Nikon 1 J series and the Canon EOS M. There isn't a simple reason for this, because each of these three camera ranges struggled for different reasons. Samsung simply doesn't have the pedigree and brand recognition; behind that, their support doesn't seem to be up to the same levels of service that the other companies are providing. The Nikon 1 series in general has suffered in North America mostly because of poor pricing (too high for the performance), but also because they don't evoke the traditional Nikon enthusiast-oriented mindset that the company has cultivated. The Canon EOS M series was already on its last legs at the beginning of 2014, and proving that you only get one shot to make a first impression, any word about mirrorless from Canon wasn't heard from again for the rest of the year.

The A5100 is probably the best of the above-named bunch; at heart it uses the same sensor and imaging engine as the highly acclaimed A600. Ergonomically, it is a point-and-shoot at heart, so accessing some of the advanced features requires some menu-diving. Sony's weak point with the E-Mount is the lens selection; more consumer-oriented than enthusiast. The X-M1 has access to better, albeit more expensive, lenses; however, the size difference between the A5100 and X-M1 with kit lenses is enough to swing more people towards the smaller Sony.

Enthusiast Mirrorless

The enthusiast-level mirrorless segment goes right up against the traditionally strong enthusiast-level DSLR segment that is held tightly be Canon and Nikon. Enthusiasts mirrorless cameras have come a long way  from the early days of the original Four Thirds system. You no longer have to sacrifice image quality to step away from a DSLR, but the handling and performance isn't quite there yet.

This is a strong category for Fujifilm, as the X-E2 is designed to appeal to people stepping away from cameras like the Nikon D7100 or Canon 70D. The limiting factor is that the X-Trans cameras aren't true replacements for those cameras; Fujifilm cameras tend to be good for people who want quality and travel light. The lens set below (100mm full frame equivalent), but the system does not do so well with longer focal lengths. More importantly, try as the X-E2 (and X-T1) does, its not a true replacement for cameras like the Canon 7D Mark II or the old Nikon D7100 if you are looking for a tool to use for heavy workloads.

The Nikon V3 makes this list... just barely. Distribution in North America is sparse, and not many people are going to be willing to pay D7100 prices for a camera that has worse image quality than a comparable Sony RX100M3. This is a shame, because design-wise, there are some interesting ideas at play in how the V3 is laid out, and the build quality is excellent.The problem is this: the V3 is the most obvious sign yet that Nikon is fearful of what will happen if their core DSLR market declines further. Mirrorless is obviously going to play a larger part in the future, but the problem is that Nikon can't get out of their own way in order to make a truly great next-generation mirrorless product. The end result is the V3; something  that is far too expensive to ever have been green-lit by management. It's a camera that would have made better sense at the sub $700 mark, but one gets the feeling that what makes the Nikon mirrorless product manager happy is not what makes the entry-level DSLR product manager happy. Guess who wins?

As an overly general  maxim, enthusiast mirrorless cameras are great if you you want to produce quality images for your own use. However, if you are shooting to produce quality images for others, traditional DSLR's are still better because of the greater accessory support, particularly in the area of flashy photography. It would be a bit predictable to recommend the A6000 as the choice for enthusiast mirrorless, but if it isn't, it would be a serious contender for top honours. If only the native lens selection was better...

High-End Mirrorless

High -end mirrorless, on paper, is a great idea. Great image quality in a small package. The reality is that this is a thin niche market. None of the above mentioned cameras have broad enough appeal to be as commercially successful as the high-end DSLR`s, but each does one thing well and appeals to a specific user group. The GH4 is probably the most ubiquitous in use, as it is pretty much a mainstream tool for anybody who is seriously into videography. It's also a good camera in it's own right, but its price is too high for anybody to use it solely for stills photography; the price-to-performance ration just doesn't work if you ignore the video aspect. The GH4 isn't perfect, though, as it's weaker point is in low-light shooting.

The Sony A7s is a low-light monster, but it hasn't had the same uptake as the GH4. A few things have limited its appeal; the most critical of which was low availability during most of 2014. This was an extremely hard camera to get a hold of during the middle of 2014; here in Canada, if you didn't put in a pre-order you could have been waiting up to a month to purchase one during the summer. The other limiting factor is the inability to record 4K in-body. This is precisely why the GH4 has been so popular, as it has allowed even modestly small video crews to get in early on 4K workflows without too much hassle.

The A7s also appeals to people who think that they want extremely clean high-ISO performance regardless of resolution size. In those terms,yes, the A7s does deliver the best high-ISO image quality, but its doing so at reduced resolution. At realistic ISO levels, higher resolution cameras like the A7r will give the A7s a run for its money...if you view images at the same magnification. However, the A7r falls into the same problem tha the A7 did; it's a first generation product. There are some bugs to work out for the next iteration, most notably with reducing the harshness of the shutter mechanism.

Sony also prematurely ended the ear of the first-generation A7 cameras with the announcement of the A7 Mark II in December 2014. With in-body image stabilization, the A7 Mark II had a very precipitous effect on the street prices of the A7 and A7r (but not so much the A7s). Early results suggest that it will be a very capable camera, but it still bears some of the weaknesses of the first A7-cameras, notably short battery life and limited (but growing) lens selection.

Much further up the food chain, Leica did one predictable thing with the X2 upgrade, the X (Type 113) and one unpredictable thing with the introduction of the T type system. This is where rational consideration stops being applicable, as neither are particularly good value for the money. The X (113) is perhaps the bigger disappointment of the two; on paper the improvement of the lens from f/2.8 to f/1.7 would have been a welcome change, but the whole of the camera is somewhat disappointing considering the advances being made in the mainstream mirrorless market. The Leica T is a much more interesting option, and not because of its unusual construction. For a niche company, the T's touch-interface is surprisingly well done and usable. The layout is minimalist and readable, and combines elements of a traditional scrolling menu with widget-like user interface elements. However, that is not to say that the UI "usable" in the traditional sense... it's a good touch interface, but it helps non-camera people while at the same time being something of a hindrance to how enthusiasts think cameras should operate. The T is more interesting as a starting point for Leica to branch away from its conservative design heritage, but for now, tried-and-true is still the better way.

Included in the high-end segment are the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and Fujifilm X-T1. Though they are crop-frame cameras, they are both cameras that appeal to people who are likely to build larger lens sets than with the cameras in the "enthusiast" category. People often cross-shop these cameras against one another, and to be honest, its a tough choice. The X-T1 takes better images, but the E-M1 is simply a better camera. Here's a hint: if you are looking at the "sub-M" Leica's and are an experienced photographer, you can build a more more well-rounded Leica-esque system with either of these two cameras than what Leica currently offers...

It's really hard to recommend one camera as the "best" of this group. These are all good cameras, but they excel in different ways. If you are looking at any of them, chances are good that you will have done quite a bit of research already and will have a well-formed opinion about which one you want.

Entry to Mid-level DSLR

The most important reason why DSLR's are better than mirrorless cameras is because they simply offer better value for the money. For the same level of performance and image quality, you would have to pay more if you want to go with a mirrorless option. This is where the power of economy of scale comes into play; Nikon and Canon are able to sell DSLR's, which are more complex than mirrorless at lesser prices. This is large but declining market segment, not just because DSLR's are falling out of favour, but also because Canon is ostensibly letting their entry-level offerings age while the competition continues with newer technology. There are still very good reasons to go with an entry-level DSLR over a mirrorless camera, but the chief reasons are better responsiveness for moving subjects, better lens selection, and longer battery life.

In the business world, there are two camps in the quest for profits; revenue through sales-driven tactics or revenue because of high demand for compelling products. The latter tends to have more more lasting impact, but without a strong sales push, ground can be lost in the short term. Canon seems to be more or less in the first camp for the time being. However, the Canon entry-level line-up is  problematic; its almost purely the domain of first-time buyers now. The Canon EOS Rebel lineup has becomes something of the Toyota Corolla of cameras; not technologically cutting edge, but trading on a reputation of reliability. Why this is problematic is that Canon is essentially going for volume and is building a clientele of price-conscious consumers at the bottom of their lineup. These are not necessarily the photographers that will graduate to higher models when they become more proficient. This is also true for Nikon, but the difference is that the Nikon system at least has some semblance of trying to inspire people to move up as their skill improves. Which way is better? Again,probably, the Canon way. Canon's marketing has a harder-sell quality to it than Nikon; they promoted heavily during the summer graduation/wedding season and they tend to offer a lot of discounts and incentives at Christmas time. Nikon does less advertising, but tends to attract customers on reputation. This makes sense for Canon if they can make a compelling upgrade to their existing DSLR line in the spring of 2015. Otherwise, the traditional iterative upgrade cycle will leave their consumer lineup looknig even more dated at the next Christmas season.

What Nikon doesn't get credit for is how light and portable the latest D3300/D5300 generation is. These cameras are smaller, lighter and easier to hold than their predecessors. Yes, they are larger than an equivalent mirrorless cameras, but with the retractable 18-55mm kit lens, the difference isn't that meaningful unless you absolutely have to have a shirt-pocketable camera. Except for the T5i as a video device, the Nikon's are further ahead technologically than their Canon counterparts. However, if you have friends or family who use either system, it is best to go with what they are using, as you can go to them for advice and hopefully borrow a lens or two.

Of all the market segments listed in this post, the entry-level DSLR segment is the one that is under the most pressure. Consumers in this category are extremely price-conscious, and non-camera people first introduced to a DSLR are not used to having anything bigger than a smart-phone or compact. As much grief as the internet community gives Canon for having older-technology sensors, it can not be said that the latest generation Nikon's are terribly advanced over their previous iterations. If Canon and Nikon are going to seriously convert to mirrorless (not like their previous efforts), this is where it will likely happen.

Enthusiast-Level DSLR

This was a once the fat middle of Canon and Nikon's camera ranges; both companies have since shown little love over the years to this segment. Canon finally refreshed their 7D this year; however, as capable as that camera is, it is expensive in today's market and really only serves a small niche. Yes, pro-level DX cameras used to cost this much, but the prevalence of relatively affordable full frame cameras puts quite a bit of pressure on APS-C cameras that cost $1800 USD.

As far as cameras go, these are the still the best all-around choices for many people. Few people can utilize (or even appreciate) the extra image quality that full frame gives, and the two top APS-C choices of the D7100 and the 7D Mark II give quasi-pro level handling for the non-paid or semi-professional shooter.

Included in this group are the Canon EOS 6D and the Nikon D610; though both are (theoretically) further up the food chain, most APS-C shoppers will consider the possibility of owning one before a finally budgetary consideration must be made. If anything, the 6D is downmarket from the 7D Mark II; though it gives excellent image quality, it bear more in common in handling terms with the T5i, and the 7D Mark II is spiritually very close to 5D Mark III, if not the 1Dx. Put another way, the D610 is the natural step-up for D7000 and D7100 users; users stepping up from a Canon 70D or 7D to the 6D will love the image qaulity but be disappointed in the more rudimentary autofocus system.

If you are already invested in the lens system of either Canon or Nikon, them it makes little financial sense to switch, even if the latest camera offers a feature that your camera doesn't have. However, if you are completely new to this segment, the Nikon D7100 offers the most value for the money if you are interested in stills photography, while the 70D is the best all-around camera if you do a lot of video work.

High-End DSLR

There are two ways to approach the high-end DSLR market. The first is from a rational point of view, looking at the cameras and systems as tools to achieve photographic goals. However, the majority of purchasers of these systems aren't full-time professionals, and are simply looking for the best. The division in strategy is stark, as Nikon has clearly gone for a micro-niche strategy by subdividing their semi-pro FX DSLR's in a number of different models, whereas Canon is all about the 5D Mark III, unless you truly need the 1Dx. As with the enthusiast-level crop sensor market, lens selection, both existing and desired, is a bigger determinant of which camera you will choose rather than outright specifications.

From purely marketing standpoint, a person new to high-end full-frame DSLR's will probably spend more time looking at the Nikon's because of the greater variety. The 5D Mark III is nearing the end of its life-cycle, but is still a capable workhorse of a camera. The problem is that it was extremely expensive when it was first announced, and even when sold on a discount it feels like it is expensive. One of the bigger markets for the 5D Mark III? That would be China. Canon has a strong market position in that country; high-end Chinese shoppers seem to have gravitated more towards the 5D Mark III than they did the Nikon D800/D810. There are good reasons to use either Nikon or Canon systems; the 5D Mark III doesn't match the Nikon's sensor output, but the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L and 70-700 f/2.8L IS are better than the equivalent Nikon gold-ring lenses.

When the Nikon D750 was announced, the Nikon faithful were not immediately convinced as many people were expecting a D300s successor.  However, if you look closely at Nikon's recent history, you might come to the conclusion that the D750 is the true successor to the D600, not the D610. The D610 is an anomaly that wouldn't have been released had it not been for the D600 debris issue; the D750 was launched at the proper time (2 years later) for a true successor. It might not have been the camera that people were expecting, but it's probably the best "value" of the bunch if you disregard lens preferences. However, you might also want to monitor the issue of the phenomenom of what's known as gated lens flare occurring with some units.

If there is an odd duck in this line-up, it is the Nikon Df. It's two-things in one: a retro film-era digital camera and a low-light monster. However, it doesn't quite succeed at either. The retro-aesthetic is a veneer over the modern digital operation, and the two don't quite mesh harmoniously. While it is true that outside of the Sony A7s, the Df gives the best high-ISO image quality of any cameras that isn't a D4s, it is also let down by consumer-grade AF and exposure modules that it shares with the D610. On top of that, it just isn't as comfortable to hold has a mainstream Nikon DSLR. It's a camera that appeals to prime-lens users and people who insist on the best possible high-ISO image quality (at least on a per-pixel basis...) but it's functionally less of a workhorse camera than any of the other Nikon FX DSLR's.

High-end DLSR's will never account for a large portion of the overall camera market's unit volumes, but this is nonetheless an important segment for the industry, as it (and the enthusiast DSLR segment) account for the largest proportion of engaged customers. People who buy these cameras are the most well read about photography and are the most likely to buy additional lenses.

Whatever camera you choose, even if you settle for the one that you already have, may you find joy and creativity with it in going into the New Year and beyond.

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