Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Nostradamus returneth...

In December 2014, a bit like Nostradamus (but without the world ending predictions), I stuck my neck out and made my predictions on how camera technology will evolve over the next 12 months.

12 months on it is time to pay the piper and see how well my predictions compared to reality.

So here is my review of last years predictions.

1. Mirror-less cameras will continue to make in-roads into the professional market, taking market share from DSLR's, even at the top end.

Score: 8/10

This year we saw a never ending stream of high-end mirrorless cameras from Fujifilm, Panasonic, Sony, and Leica (of all people). It would seem at first glance therefore that I was spot on with this prediction.

For example, lets take the Sony A7R II.

 It is hard to remember another camera for which there had been so much hype about before it came out.  As a result, it was perhaps not surprising that in the end the camera could not meet all those inflated expectations.

Despite gap between the hype and the reality, there is no doubt that the A7R II  is a fine camera, and may well point the way forward in future camera design. On the other hand it still suffers from some of the issues seen in most mirrorless cameras. For example, while auto-focus technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, in some areas it still cannot compete with a DSLR. Take fast moving objects coming toward the camera. Even the best mirrorless cameras still struggle to keep up with the best DSLR's. However saying that in virtually all other photo tasks the A7RII  matches or beats comparable DSLR's, while doing so in a smaller, lighter and more convenient package.

So why only 8/10?

Well, the one thing I forgot to factor in, was that professionals are not the typical demographic who will pick up this kind of camera. They are not generally interested in the latest and greatest camera technology. For them what they want is 100% dependability, reliability and conformity. After all if their camera fails at the critical moment, they don't eat. Therefore they are a lot more conservative in what they use, sticking with the tried and trusted Canikon products.

Also to a pro, the quality and range of the glass is as important as the cameras bells and whistles. At the moment mirrorless is playing catch up with DSLR's in this respect. After all DSLR's have had 30 years or more to get the glass right.

However from purely anecdotal evidence I have seen, is the mirrorless cameras has been taken up by a lot of Pro-am photographers i.e people who take and sell photos, but it is not there main job. I have been to a number of lectures where they have said they have moved to mirrorless, if not for any other reason, than the size and weight convenience.

These kind of people can afford the risk of being early adopters and can reap the rewards of any new technology, without worrying if things do not work out.

So what needs to happen for mirrorless to take over the rest of the world?

Firstly the range of lenses need to be increased. A lot of lenses for DSLR's have their roots all the way back to the film days, so it is perhaps not a great surprise that the range for mirrorless lenses do not have the same range of lenses. Sony made a smart move by providing adapters to for Canon lenses on the A7 range, but people still prefer native lenses if they can.

Secondly, they need to add more pro features such as dual SD slots. These are things taht matter little to occasional photographers, but are essential in ensuring the clients shot are not lost.

Finally revolutions do not happen overnight. They are gradual processes until a tipping point is reached, when suddenly everything changes quickly. The technology compared to DSLR's is still in it's infancy, but is evolving fast. After all the DSLR format has been around for a long time and any adoption of new technology always has a inherent inertia. However as more photographers grow up using with mirrorless cameras that will change.

Not only that, but I feel the smart phone generation want something different from their cameras. They are not so interested in EVF vs OVF debates. They use a EVF all the time from their phones. What they want is camera that is flexible and connected to the outside world.

So the world is changing, but we still a little way from the mirrorless future.

2. Nikon and Canon will produce their 1st full frame mirror-less cameras. Nikon's especially will not gain much market share due to commercially driven design compromises.

Score: 0/10

I was sure this would be the year that Canikon would try and compete against Sony in the FF mirrorless arena. To do nothing would mean watching Sony eat their lunch, and surely the two camera market leaders could not allow that to happen.

But Canon and Nikon have done little to react this year, apart from hinting more to come in the future.

What was more worrying for Canikon fans is that the they did little even with their non-FF mirrorless offerings to show much hope that they were taking the challenge seriously.

Canon produced the M3, which was so outstanding, that for a while they could not be bothered to sell it in the majority of the world; almost as if they were embarrassed to show it. Nikon have persisted with the J1 range. While this has some nice features, it size of sensor precludes it use in low light situations.

So what's going on?

Well maybe Canon and Nikon are keeping their powder dry till they can produce something world beating. However Sony's aggressive release cycle has shown that this is a fast moving target and there is a danger that in doing so they will just fall further behind in this area, while at the same time spending billions in development.

It has been interesting to see some of the Canikon fan-boys trying to justify their favourites inertia. Some have suggested that there is a Sony killer in the wings just waiting to be unleashed on the world like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Personally I believe if making a FF mirrorless camera was easy, both Canon and Nikon would of done it by now. Instead I think the problem may be that both companies are having to learn new design skills.One of the challenges will be creating a suitable range of glass offerings for a new camera format. But surely if Sony can provide adaptors for Canon glass, Nikon/Canon could do the same, but more easily for their native lenses.

One thing seems certain however, Unless Canon and Nikon do something in the next year they risk becoming a Polaroid or Kodak.

3.There will not be much increase in maximum pixel counts in cameras. Instead efforts will be made to increase the sensitivity of existing sensors by going full frame with fewer pixels on mid-range cameras

Score: 1/10

I hoped this would be the year that we pulled back from the mega-pixel wars and started concentrating on what is for me, the more important aspects of photography. i.e. low ISO noise and higher dynamic range.

 Unfortunately with the Canon 5DS and the Sony A7R pushing 45 MPixels and with bigger sensors hinted at in the new year, this does not look like it is stopping any time soon.

For me just adding more MPixels to a camera introduces more problems than it solves. It introduces higher demands on your glass, making them more expensive. Files are bigger, and processing them takes longer and is more memory intensive.

On the other hand, fewer pixels on larger sensors allow you to have better noise control and better dynamic range. This means your camera becomes almost ISO insensitive, allowing you to use slower lenses more effectively. OK you may lose some detail, but the chances are unless you are planning to blow up your photo to the size a house or use magnifying glasses, you are unlikely to see that extra resolution. For example recently I have been using an old 7 MP camera and often I am as happy with those results as with my 18 MP main camera.

The only camera that came close to my prediction was the A7 S II.  I think until the camera buying public get better educated on camera physics, we will be stuck in the playing top trumps with the  world of camera specifications.Mores the pity.

4. Sony will continue to indicate their continued support of the Alpha series  DSLR's, while doing bugger all to actually back up the claim by filling out the product range with a model between the A57 and A77II. In the meantime they will produce 2 new mirrorless cameras, the A7S II and the A7R II.

Score: 6/10

Sony surprised the world (i.e me) by announcing their 1st new A-Series DSLR for almost 2 years, the A68.

So at first glance it would appear that I am totally wrong here. It would look like Sony are fully intending in maintaining their investment in the A-Series DSLR range and SLT technology in general.

Well lets be too hasty. Lets look more closely at the A68 and see if it heralds new dawn in SLT camera design....

Firstly compared to the A7 range, this camera was not so much announced with a fanfare, but more a corporate memo.

Secondly they are not exactly prioritizing its production. It will not be available till March, a full three months after it's announcement, so Sony do not seem to be in much hurry to get it onto the general market. It will also be interesting to see it's availability. I also predict finding a Sony DSLR in general camera shops can be a dispiriting experience. Sony have already pulled there DSLR's from a number of markets such as Australia.

Then there is the camera itself. Rather than something containing Sony's cutting edge technology, it is instead a mongrel of a camera made up of bits of kit from things like the A6000 and the A77ii, at the same time leaving out features such as Wi-Fi access. In truth there is nothing in this camera that could not of been brought out 18 months ago.

So why now?

Some have argued that the camera stacks up well with equivalent Nikon and Canon cameras in this price range, and they may well be right, but those camera are at least 18 months old, so you would assume Canon/Nikon have replacements lined up which will make this camera look poor value. Bringing out a camera on the downward slope of the release cycle makes little sense.

Finally why this camera? What a lot of people were hoping for was a replacement for the A99. This is getting very long in the tooth, but would be a perfect vehicle for the new Sony sensor technology seen in latest the A7 range (which is not going in the A68). It would also herald a new release cycle of Sony DSLR cycles, allowing them to re-generate the entire line from top to bottom.

So what's going on?

I have a theory. I believe there is a faction in Sony camera division that do not like the A-Series DSLR's. Let's call them the young Turks. They feel that this is hang over from old technology inherited from Minolta and the way forward is mirrorless. Considering the amount of investment in new mirrorless models over the last year it is clear that they are winning the argument.

But that leaves Sony with a quandary. The A-series DSLR's consist not only the bodies, but the lenses and other gubbins that go to make up a DSLR system. There is a lot of investment there, which cannot be just canned without serious losses. So Sony needed a way of keeping the DSLR users on-board and buying lenses until they can get the mirrorless technology down to a point when most users can switch. However corporate Sony refuses to make serious investment in what they consider yesterdays technology.

So what to do?

This is where the A-68 comes in. A camera that fills a hole in the product range, but using off the shelf components which can be put together with minimal investment.

So rather than heralding a new range of the A-Series DSLR's. I think this camera shows that Sony thinks the technology has little future.

I know all in all it sounds like some sort of conspiracy theory, but if anyone has any better ideas, then I would love to hear them....

5. High end cameras to use more smart phone technology in their OS. Not only the ability to upload photos via mobile networks, but also download apps to add new functionality to the camera. Also it would be great if cameras opened up their SDK so allowed programming of new functionality. Why limit yourself to 5 stop HDR where you could expand your camera to do 10 stops and focus stacking at the same time. Preferably using some sort of graphical programming environment. (This was not mine originally but borrowed from Mark Abeln, but was too good not to include )


Again if seemed such a no brainer that camera manufacturers would start taking design cues from the mobile world and creating interfaces which adapted to what the user was wanting to do and could be extended to add new functions and new modes to their cameras.

However it seems that this year was not the one it happens. In many ways we appear to have taken a backward step with the glorification of the retro look.

To be honest, camera user interfaces are pretty awful. While there have been some advances such as better ways to set focus points, most cameras use the same layouts and controls they did in the film days.

A modern camera is now more about the software than hardware. We have seen a number of manufacturers adding extra function post production such as Panasonic's focus stacking and Sony's uncompressed RAW modes. This shows there is a lot you can do in the modern camera just in software. All it needs is the effort and desire by manufacturers to open up those API's to allow 3rd part developers to create extensions to the standard camera functionality.

As well as adding extra functions, it would be great to be able to create your own workflow in camera. For example "take 10 bracketed shots, all at different ISO's". There is no reason why this cannot be done apart from the willingness of camera manufacturers to give us the control.

To do so will take a new mindset from a camera manufacturer. Unfortunately it does not look like this will happen soon.

In Summary

So that's this years predictions dissected.

It has been a year that promised much in terms of camera technology, but some how failed to fully fulfil it. Next year some big decisions need to made with falling DSLR and compact sales, and mirrorless coming more and more prevalent. Prediction is a tricky game to play, but fortunately unless Nikon/Vanon/Sony/etc my future doesn't depend in getting it right.

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