Monday, September 30, 2013

Panasonic GF1 Finally Loses Top Spot at Flickr

It took years, but the Panasonic GF1 has finally fallen from the top spot in the ranking of Panasonic's cameras. Considering that the camera wasn't terribly cheap when it launched, and that the sensor was noisy as all hell, its monster success is a testament to how wonderfully groundbreaking it was. Anyone who used the GF1 at the time understands the excitement that Micro 4/3 generated, because if the first camera out of the gate was the GF1, and one of the first lenses was the still-amazing 20mm f/1.7, what did the future hold!?

Well, now we know. The future held very little. Micro 4/3 flopped around like a fish on a boat for three years before the E-M5 came along, and while it's suitably good, the complete and utter failure of Panasonic to follow up the GF1 with solid products tempers my excitement for anything new.

But that's beside the point. The GF1 was great, and only now, after many months of being available for some silly-cheap prices, has the GX1 has surpassed it. Farewell, mighty GF1.

There is some comedy to be found in this story, as well. The ascension of the GX1 has less to do with the success of the GX1 and more with the continued fall of the GF1 from the Flickr charts. Panasonic can't even compete with itself! It has to simply wait until its previous, good, products fall into disuse. That's a bang-up business strategy.

Panasonic GX7 Gets First Discount... Before it Releases

While this certainly isn't on the level of the absurd Sigma SD-1, it's still amusing. Panasonic has already discounted the GX7 by $100 before it even released. Olympus has likewise discounted the E-M5, putting both cameras at $899. Chances are, one of the two companies planned to do this and the other company's spies became aware of it, thus resulting in this absurd situation where both cameras suddenly drop at the exact same moment.

The E-M5 has continued to sell well over the course of the past year and I'm confident that this will only serve to give it another boost. If anything, this may cannib... actually, no, I am quite sure that it will cannibalize sales of the new E-M1. The E-M5 and E-M1 are very close in performance, and with what has suddenly ballooned to a $500 premium, the E-M1 will be a very tough sell. Of course, it always was primarily targeted at photogs sitting on a stash of Zuiko lenses with nowhere to use them.

This is a very tough situation for Panasonic. The GX7 isn't competitive with the E-M5. The image quality is identical, but everything else about the E-M5 is a cut above. It's weather sealed, it's better built, its IBIS is better. I have a feeling that the GX7 is going to end up where Panasonic's other cameras have all ended up, selling well, but only after massive discounts. I bought a GX1 for a friend, brand new, for $199. You can't even get used, decade-old, Canon gear for that price.

Sooooooo, yeah. I'd wait to buy any Olympus gear, since further discounts are likely planned for the holiday season. But other than that, Oly isn't going to be discounting the E-M5 too much; it's been far too big a success.

Friday, September 27, 2013

How Long have the EOS 6D and D600 Been Discounted?

I was just made aware that the Canon EOS 6D is being discounted by pretty much everyone. It can be had for $200 below MSRP online and many independent shops are selling it for $300-$500 off MSRP.

First, I'm surprised to see these prices. As far as I know, the 6D has been a monster hit for Canon. There's no reason for a big success to discount. Is it possible that the 6D has not been a success? Every dealer I know says it sold well.

This leaves open the possibility that the 6D sold well only because of discounts at the dealer level. Lord knows, we see that often enough in the camera world.

In confusion, I checked the primary competitor to the 6D, the Nikon D600, which has been an even bigger hit, and it is seeing similar discounts. I found two dealers with advertised prices for the D600 of $1,699 (all of my prices assume body-only).

Perhaps Canon and Nikon both realized that entry-level FF cameras desperately needed to be well below $2,000? Because, well, that's true. The cameras at the $1,000 price point are getting incredibly good, with Fuji's cameras rocking very similar noise performance. On the high end, the Sony RX1 and the Nikon D800 made obsolete any cameras even close in price. As such, both corporations did a top-down, not-advertised policy of discounting. That would certainly drive sales.

Regardless, while I am no fan of the Canon 6D, if you can net a new one for $1,500, it's hands-down worth it. The Nikon D600 is even more worth it. A saying that I've always liked is "there are no bad products, only bad prices." I thought the 6D was crap, but only for its original price. Lop a few hundred dollars off and it's a great time to enter the world of full-frame gear.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Panasonic's Failure May Not Be Its Fault

I've been out of the videography market for some time. I was producing large numbers of videos but have since switched over to not having much time for anything, so I was unaware of some recent developments. These are both good developments and also incredibly frustrating.

The Panasonic GH3 and G6 (a GH2 in most ways), have been sales disappointments. Chances are, the GX7 will also be a disappointment. One of the major issues is that Panasonic isn't producing anything competitive, but the other issue is that the hacker community appears to have abandoned their newest products. They are the ones who kept the GH2 alive.

The first problem is that Panasonic made the GH3 much harder to hack. As of this writing, no major hack of the GH3 has taken place. They did this to try to protect their higher-end, pro-oriented gear which they were artificially segmenting from their consumer products. The first manifestation of this segmentation was the now-infamous failure, the AF100.

But the second problem is that an open source project called Magic Lantern has done wonders with Canon's cameras. Canon's 5D Mark III was a total disappointment to anyone in the Canon system and did little to encourage others to jump into the system. The 5D Mark II was a groundbreaking camera that made high-quality video recording a reality in an SLR body. The Mark III... did absolutely nothing better.

But good god, with Magic Lantern, the Mark III, and to a lesser degree the 7D and the 50D, are wonder-machines. They are wonder machines to the point that the Mark IIIs available for rental from Lens Rentals actually come with Magic Lantern pre-installed. That an open-source, aftermarket piece of software has become standard tools is amazing. It is a testament to the community and also a testament to the failure of Canon to do this from the get-go.

Canon sucks. Just throwing that out there.

So that may be why the GH3 has failed to set the videography world on fire like the GH2 did. They're simply moved on to the 7D and 5D, both of which can now produce raw video that blows everything the GH3 can do so far out of the water that it clears the land and enters another body of water.

Don't think that I am getting all soft and squishy about the quality of Canon's products. If a company ships a product that requires the community to make it not suck, that it's still a crap product and a crap company. This seems like a good time to remind people that Canon threatened to sue Magic Lantern if they tried to modify the EOS 1D X. So, yeah. Canon produces crap and then tries to stop people from making their crap less crappy. Brilliant business model.

But back to Panasonic. The market for serious videography tools is relatively small. Instead of the tens of millions of mirrorless and SLR cameras sold every year, serious video tools amount to a few million at most.

But that smaller market has more money and is also more willing to get into the gritty details of their craft. Android grew quickly because the hackers loved it. Remember, early Android was terrible. The GH1 and GH2 rose above the din only because of the work of Vitaliy Kiselev. And now, Canon's old 50D and 7D are taking what the GH2 once had because the hackers have moved over there.

So the failure of the GH3 may be partially that a larger community has simply sprung up around Canon's cameras, and with them being much more popular, the community was immediately larger. Hell, Magic Lantern has nearly 23,000 likes on Facebook. For something so esoteric, that's impressive. Damned impressive.

But also, Panasonic did nothing to protect themselves from this turn of events. If anything, their resistance to the hacker community damaged the GH3 and made it vulnerable. That's stupid business. That's, again, why Panasonic's stock price was recently at a level that it hadn't seen since 1985. Coincidentally, this was the year that Back to the Future was released. In part III, Marty McFly told the doc that "all the best stuff is made in Japan."

Oh, how times change.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Another Example of How Panasonic and Olympus Are Full of Crap

Panasonic and Olympus are both idiotic companies. They are also frustrating as all get-out, most expecially Olympus. Panasonic is frustrating because both their cameras and lenses have problems. Olympus is frustrating because their cameras are very good, but their lenses have problems.

Both Panny and Oly have either announced or released wide-angle zooms in the past year. Panny released their 12-35mm last year, and Oly is releasing their 12-40mm later this year. Both of them are slow in the world of high-end glass. I find this ridiculous because their sensors are very small. Making bright lenses should be easy. They are not doing this because of greed.

The Sigma 18-35mm exposed in stark illumination the absurdity at work. It is designed to operate on a larger sensor, costs $200 less, is over a stop brighter, is sharper, more even, and has significantly lower distortion. It makes a laughing stock of Oly and Panny's lenses.

The Sigma lens should have come out years ago, but, as always, the lens companies didn't want to release it. They make so much money from herding their chattle into their closed systems that the idea of giving them a good price for good equipment probably caused physical illness. Thankfully, the Sigma has finally let the cat out of the bag.

But I'll express my love for the Sigma in another post. For now, let's focus on how Olympus and Panasonic suck.

A common reprise from PanOly, and from their fans, is that the lenses are slower because size was a consideration. First off, that's total horse shit because no one who truly cares about photography would ever give up a stop of light for anything. It increases the artistic boundaries of the lens by an order of magnitude... ya' know, if art was measured in the decimal system.

Also horseshit is that the Micro 4/3 sensor is quite a bit smaller than APS-C — 25% smaller to be exact. That means that any lens that is designed for APS-C can be reduced by 25% to find the equivalent lens size for the 4/3 sensor. Obviously, this only applies to the optics. The conversion isn't entirely applicable since motors and whatnot don't scale linearly.

So let's compare lenses, shall we. The Sigma is 78mm wide and 121mm long. Reduced by 25%, we have a lens that is 58.5mm wide and 90.75mm long. It's also a stonking-heavy lens at 810g. And while the weight comparison isn't as accurate, let's apply the 25% to it as well to get a hypothetical lens that weight 607.5g.

The Panasonic lens is 67.6mm wide and 96mm when extended. I used the extended length because the Sigma is an internal focusing lens and has a set length. As such, the hypothetical Sigma lens is SMALLER, he typed in ironic bold & capital letters, than the Panasonic lens. It's a boatload heavier, though; the Panny only weighs 305g.

The Olympus is 70mm wide and between 84-94mm long (I can't find a measure of its extended length). Again, the Oly is larger.

This is not meant to be an absolute, irrefutable, scientific study. It is meant to illustrate that when Oly and Panny say they had to take size into consideration with their lens designs, they are lying. They are lying because they want more of your money for less of their product. In Oly's case specifically, they have this fantasy that their SLR Zuiko line will somehow come back to life and as such, they cannot compete with it.

It really makes me wonder how the hell Olympus managed to release the 75mm f/1.8. Was no one watching that lens designer when he accidentally green-lit a great lens?

Regardless... Olympus is better than Panny. Their upcoming 12-40mm will sell for $999, which would have been great if not for the release of the Sigma. In this, they have already shown more sense than Panasonic did with the $1300 price for their 12-35mm. Granted, they've gone and named their new lenses "Pro," which I'm sure has caused many a pro to chuckle at Olympus' presumptuousness.

I'm a fan of primes. I think most non-journalists and non-wedding photogs are fans of primes. That said, I can't deny the ease of having a zoom lens on me. I would like a zoom lens that doesn't limit me. The Sigma did that in a big way. I would like one for my 4/3 cameras, as well. But both me, and the few other 4/3 shooters who I know, the instant we remove our 25mm f/1.4 or 75mm f/1.8, we regret it.

Indeed, my GF1 has spent nearly its entire life with the 25mm f/1.4 on it. It's a compact camera that gives me wonderfully artistic capabilities. The 12-35mm Panasonic forced me to work very hard to ensure that my shots didn't appear to be from a very good P&S. The zoom didn't liberate my artistic vision, it restricted it. That is something that I could not tolerate.

So again — I know that I reiterate this like some sort of broken recording of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn — I will not buy any of these new lenses from Panasonic or Olympus. In fact, I'm not sure who would.

Actually, that's a very good question, and I mean it sincerely. If you are a serious photog and you own these lenses, why did you buy them and why do you continue to use them? Are you not at least a little upset that they appear to be artificially limited?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Utter Uselessness of Camera Reviews

Some time ago I inveighed against Photography Blog for their review of the Sigmas SD-1. It was so horrible that the bias of the magazine didn't just reveal itself between the lines; the article screamed it out for the world to see. But this problem is not unique to Photography Blog. It is not even unique to the world of cameras. It is pandemic across all websites that review products.

I read an article written by Frank Bruni, the ex-food critic for the New York Times, where he was talking about his review philosophy. Basically, he never reviewed restaurants that couldn't take it. As he saw it, a reviewer has an immense amount of power, especially one for a major publication like The Times. A bad review can, no exaggeration, be the cause of a restaurant's failure. As we learned from Spider-Man, with that power, comes responsibility.

For my part, especially when dealing with massive companies, this concern does not exist. The obligation of the reviewer does not belong at all to the company and belongs entirely to the consumer. These companies are asking consumers to spend money — a great deal of money at times. A good reviewer rips those products to pieces. That's the fucking job of a critic. That's why critics are different from some schmo on YouTube. They have experience; they have taste; they have the resources to effectively understand a product vis-a-vis the totality of other products on the market. If anything, a critic should be actively trying to ruin a product's reputation.

That said, I don't think that most major online publications are actually concerned about this. Especially in the tech world, very rarely does a single publication wield enough power to do significant damage. Still, their reviews are frequently useless.

For example, Cnet is a completely pointless pile of shit at this point in its life. It's a scam for people who don't know about other, smaller websites. Many years ago, they overhauled their review system from a 0-5 star rating to a 0-10 rating. This new system would not follow the academic system where anything below a 6 is considered poor. Instead, 5 would be perfectly average, 0 would be far below average, and 10 would be far above average.

What happened exposed the bias of major publications in the clarity that only pure numbers can bring. Since 5 was average, you would expect their average review to be, I dunno', 5?

Of course, it wasn't five. It was 7.something.

What's amazing is not the result, but that no one thought that putting a quantifiable measure to their reviews may be a bad idea. It revealed beyond doubt that giving a review score some sort of objective value was a terrible idea. It allows people to actually compare products in a meaningful way. Of course, this is precisely what readers would want, but it is precisely what companies do not want. And this is, as I'm sure you've guessed, the reason these companies are useless cyphers that do little but produce quotes for marketing efforts. And just so you don't think I'm picking on any specific company: every major publication is suffering from the exact same problem.

The question is of course why the hell the publications would do this? The answer is simple: they want to keep getting invited to the party. If a company sends you a product to review and you then rip it to shreds, you won't get any more products sent to you. It injects necessary an unavoidable bias into the review process. That's why Consumer Reports buys all of their review cars on the open market.

A recent example of this was in the admittedly elite world of sports cars. The UK reviewer Chris Harris went onto Jalopnik to rant about the way Ferrari handles review cars. Ferrari's answer was, of course, to ban him from ever driving one of their cars again. He is still banned to this day. (side note: if you have the money, never buy a Ferrari. I don't care what Ferris Bueller said.)

It is for this reason that we must adjust the way that we read reviews. On many websites, if they have a 5-star review system, anything below a 4 is total crap. Of course, they won't say this in the reviews, but that's the hidden meaning. When a website like Photography Blog or DPReview reviews dozens, perhaps hundreds of products every year, and almost every product scores the equivalent of 4-stars or higher, you know that something is fishy.

Many will attack me for being a curmudgeon, and perhaps I am. I'm not hating on companies and their products because I'm chasing some dragon of perfection. There is no dragon and there is no perfection, but there absolutely is a best product at the moment.

An element of product criticism that seems to have been completely abdicated by critics is the quality of a product in relation to other products. It doesn't matter if a new camera or car is a solid camera or car, if it's not as good as other products for the same price, you give that fucking thing one star! It reminds me of the maxim, there are no bad products, only bad prices.

This company is saying "give us your money!" If that company is not giving me as much as another company for the same amount of money, I want to know about it!

But that would be a terrible thing for major companies. Canon has been producing cameras that are no way near competitive with other companies for many years, but they have used their market dominance to effectively shut down criticism of that. Do you think that DPReview would ever rip into a Canon camera? No. They never, ever, ever will. If Canon produced a camera that literally did not work, DPReview would still give it a 65/100.

(Side note: This is only a mild exaggeration. The Pentax Q, a joke in the photography world, scored a 70. While on the subject of DPReview, I've noticed that when cameras are just so awful that they could never give it a good review, DPR simply doesn't review it. They never reviewed the Canon EOS M, and they didn't review the Sigma SD1 until the Merrill version came out along with its much, much, much lower price.)

The major companies work very hard to keep the landscape as it is. They want to maintain control over the publications that write about their products. When a publication gets out of line, they snatch away access to junkets, review products, and freebies.

Obviously, not all websites are like this. Steve Huff is great, as are a few independent developers. But they are photographers first, critics second. We need someone who has the money and the drive to be both a photographer and a critic. Someone who recognizes that their obligation lies with the readers, not with being soft on some multi-billion-dollar company's shitty products.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Oh Lordie, Olympus. You Make Things So Difficult.

It's been awhile, but the release of the first big update to the Micro 4/3 world is the kind of thing to bring someone out of hiding.

I'll get right down to it; as has been the case with Olympus in the past couple of years, the new camera, the E-M1, is good. They've finally unlocked the 4/3 lens collection. Granted, they've done it in a positively ungainly way, but hey, that's just fine. Moreover, the camera is loaded with pro-level features for a decent price. $1,400 is a lot to pay for a small, crop sensor, but when it comes in the body of the E-M1, it's at least fair.

That said, the lens with which you can get the camera is a disaster. It once again smacks of Olympus not wanting to compete with its 4/3 lenses (in this case the 14-35mm f2.0 that sells for over $2,000) and they are shooting themselves in the foot with it. It is better-priced than Panasonic's comical 12-35mm and 35-100mm lenses, which are wildly overpriced and (or so I've heard) did not sell as well as Panasonic had hoped.

The Oly lens, a $1,000 12-40mm lens, only goes down to f/2.8. For $1,000, in the era before the Sigma 18-35mm, I would have said fair enough. Not anymore. Sigma brought its A-game and other companies are having to play catch-up.

Fair dinkum, the Olympus is splash-proof while the Sigma is not. But neither lens is stabilized, so the comparison is very good since that is what really causes the price of a lens to jump. Also, the Sigma lens isn't quite as wide or long as the Oly. But none of those elements explain the lower price and nearly two-stop advantage to the Sigma. It is a lens in another league. It, and also the Metabones Speed Booster, changed the game.

Olympus may respond by saying that its (really quite good) 5-Axis stabilization adds a couple of stops to any lens on it. That's true. In certain circumstances. You know how often IS of any type is useless? Pretty damned often! Do you know how much bokeh is added with IS? Zero! How much you want to bet that this lens is also corrected in software and its optical distortion is some eye-gouging number like six-percent? I'll bet you a dollar.

Olympus may then respond by saying that the Sigma is noticeably larger and quite a bit heavier. That is true. How many pros will care when nearly two stops of speed are on the line? Almost none. And even if we accept Oly's argument, then they should price the lens cheaper. Smaller lenses are easier to design, require less crystal, and require fewer exotic optical elements like aspherical lenses that look like some kind of sombrero. Oh, what's that Olympus? You're not going to lower the price to reflect this? Then shut the fuck up.

And while we're on this subject, let's address the Zuiko lens with which Olympus was trying to not compete: the 14-35mm f/2.0. It is a lens that Oly sells for twenty-three-hundred-freaking-dollars. This lens is utterly destroyed by the Sigma. The Sigma is one-third the cost, sharper, faster, and slightly wider. It's shorter, though, but few people use these types of lenses on the long end. Still, point for Oly.

So this is a sitation where Olympus is trying to avoid competing with a lens of theirs that is already completely obviated by other lenses on the market. They are also dropping a lens into the 4/3 marketplace where Panasonic has likely already sold this type of lens to everyone who would want it in the form of their 12-35mm.

The new E-M1 is pre-selling like soon-to-be-released hotcakes. This is not necessarily a good sign for Olympus. A huge amount of market pressure is being let off in the form of long-neglected E-5 owners. The sensor in the E-5 sucked back in 2010 and it really sucks now. These people have been waiting for this replacement camera for years and they will cause a huge explosion of sales at the outset. I will go on the record and predict that E-M1 sales will drop off a cliff after the initial month of sales.

You might be saying "well, that's a rather safe prediction." And indeed, many tech products, even those considered a success, follow that trajectory. But the E-M5 didn't. Neither did the RX100. Nor the D800. And even though those were utter home-runs, the E-M1 should have a continued trickle of sales over the next many months. It should never drop below older, equally-priced products, which is exactly what every other Olympus and Panasonic camera has done over the past three years.

This is yet another situation like the E-M5 and the Panny GH3. It is good, but not great -- Whelming as opposed to exciting -- Just as many things wrong as right. In this competitive market, Olympus can't do that, and I'm sure as hell not waiting around for them to get it right. The game has changed and I have changed right along with it.

I'm holding on to my 4/3 gear, but I'm not using it anymore. That doesn't mean that 4/3 cameras aren't still great for certain applications. If you want a small size and want some decent lenses for a good price, Micro 4/3 offers a lot of great products. Indeed, its lower-range lenses are the best on the market. But the instant they try to play in the high-end game, they fall to pieces. For those with deeper pockets or higher ambitions, Micro 4/3 remains a non-starter. That pisses me off, because it doesn't need to be.

As I'm sure you could figure out from my effusive praise, I bought the Sigma 18-35mm and have it on a Canon 50D. The camera isn't as good as the Oly, not by a long shot, but the lens makes it better, and I feel good knowing that I bought a lens that forces the dominant companies to re-think their strategies. Buying the cheaper lens also helps me save for a Sony RX1, because, damn... I want that camera.