Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The World Has Changed: The Metabones Image Reducer

Changing the world.
I spend most of my time on this site complaining about the intransigence of the camera companies. They grew so fat and dumb on their old business model that they were dead-set against any sort of change.

Obviously, that change has been coming whether they wanted it or not. The compact market has been destroyed by cell phones; a few groundbreaking cameras have altered the landscape; and now smaller companies are stepping in to fill the gap left by the arrogance of the larger companies.

One of the (many) things about 4/3 and Micro 4/3 that has always pissed me off was the prices they tried to charge for their good lenses. Don't get me wrong, 4/3 has some of the best cheap lenses available, but the instant they try to make pro-thusiast lenses, that greed took over — the very same greed we see at Canon and Nikon.

Look at Panasonic's laughably-priced X lenses. One of the advantages of small sensors is that it is easier and cheaper to design optics for them. $1,300 and $1,500 were money grabs. And while many lens fanatics were aware of this, there wasn't anything motivating the discussion. No product that made people think about lenses in a different light, no pun intended.

All that changes now.

Metabones has released for the Sony NEX system what's called an image reducer. Basically, you put a full frame lens on this adapter and the element in the adapter squeezes all of the light from the full frame lens down into a smaller image circle that perfectly fits the smaller NEX sensor. Obviously, this makes the image brighter while also taking all of the light from that larger image circle that provides the rich bokeh and shallow depth of field.

If you are someone who regularly works with FF lenses on smaller sensors, be they APS-C or 4/3, this means that you no longer have to worry about crop factor. That is fucking incredible.

For those who are simply curious about lenses and lens design, this provides the motivation we needed to criticize companies' lenses on some sort of even ground. No longer will Panasonic be able to claim that their 12-35mm lens is just like Canon's 24-70mm lens, since we can now attach them to the same camera and see that Panasonic is full of shit.

For comparison's sake, let's take Canon's lenses. The 12-35mm Panasonic X has a constant aperture of f/2.8. Now let's look at what Canon has for the same, $1,300 price. Ok. They have nothing. But they do have a 24-70mm f/4.0 for $1,500. That's close enough.

With a 4/3-specific adapter (which Metabones is not yet making but probably will), that gives the Canon lens the same field of view but gives it an aperture of f/2.0! For $200 more than the Panny lens, the canon lens provides a full stop more light. And remember, everything Canon makes is overpriced because they are milking people who bought into their system, so Panasonic's price is really outside the realm of reason.

Or what about the Panasonic 35-100mm? That means we need to find a Canon lens that is 70-200mm. Well, that's only Canon's most popular focal range, like, evah, so we have quite a selection. For $2,000 we can have one with a constant aperture of f/1.4. If we are willing to ditch IS, we can have that lens for $1,500. $1,349 will net us a constant aperture of f/2.0. All of these lenses will be far brighter, possibly sharper, and undoubtedly have lower distortion than Panasonic's lenses.

I recommend going to Nikon's site, or Sigma and Tamron if you really want to save some money. Make your own comparisons. Take their FF lenses and simply double the brightness. F/4 becomes f/2. F/2 becomes f/1. To be fair, Panasonic's lenses are smaller than the Canon lenses, but when a $500 Canon zoom transforms from a mediocre f/3.5-5.6 to an excellent f/1.75-2.8, I don't care. Only a lunatic would care. Moreover, Olympus Zuiko glass has no excuse. Oly's top-pro lenses are quite large, meaning that in every way, they are competing with the FF lenses in this example.

This is going to be a seismic event, it's just not apparent yet. That is the reason why this technology — something that seems so obvious — has taken until now to be implemented. Camera companies didn't want this technology to exist. They liked having people trapped in their systems, unable to move between cameras and lenses. They liked that the entire thing was a confusing train wreck of standards and crop factors.

No longer.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fuji Is Looking Increasingly Attractive

I recently posted about my disillusionment with Sony. I have been one of Sony's biggest boosters for the last two years. Sony essentially obivated every other sensor company on the planet with the release of their new sensors starting in 2009. They up and ripped the mirrorless market from Micro 4/3 in a six-month time frame with the release of the mega-successful NEX-5 and then 5n.1 Then they did the same thing to the high-end P&S market with the one-two punch of the RX100 then the RX1.

But for each of these glimmering points of innovation, they have been average-to-poor in other areas. Obviously, from an enthusiast's perspective, their lack of work in lenses has been depressing. Both Canon and Nikon have refused to produce APS-C lenses of quality, even after they both released promising pro-thusiast cameras in the form of the EOS 7D and the D7000. Sony seemed content in following the same path.

But where Cankon have massive extant systems, Sony's lens system is small. The aftermarket is equally anemic. One could almost understand this inaction, seeing as despite Sony's best efforts,2 they have made little headway in the SLR market against the entrenched duopoly. But they made immediate and significant headway into the pro-thusiast market with the NEX series, especially with the NEX-7.

And yet, we have one lens. one. The Zeiss 24mm. Yes, there are rumors that Zeiss has three more lenses in the pipes, but I will believe that when I see it, and I will also believe that they are indeed worth it when I see it. Zeiss lenses have a tendency to be overpriced for their performance, and combined with Sony's equal penchant to try and trade on their "brand," I do not expect amazing performance for the price. I will not be surprised if they are good -- after all, both companies know what they are doing -- but I don't expect it.

If the three Zeiss lenses are good, I will bite my tongue. The NEX-7 will finally get the lenses that it deserves... a year and a half after it was released. This will fix the material problem, but it doesn't fix the philosophical problem that the actions evinced; it appears that Sony is infected with some of the same germs that currently surge through the corpus of Cankon.

It is that slow speed and pathological desire to only sell lenses of real quality for ultra-premiums prices to the pro market, and thus refusal to make anything for the entry and enthusiast market that may take away from those sales, that makes me seek out another company.3 I think that I see that company in Fuji.

Obviously, the X Pro 1 had many faults, as did the X100 before it. The X10 was laughable in my opinion. But what is important is that Fuji is noticeably evolving with every generation. The X100 had many problems, and the X100S is a big upgrade in many ways. Compare this to the "upgrades" that Cankon produces, where they grind out the same fucking camera year after year.

Even among their disparate models, and not just direct successors, we see fast evolution. The X Pro 1 was released with fixes from the X100, then the X-E1 was released with fixes from the X Pro 1, now the X100S is released with big fixes from all of the previous models. This degree of every year, significant changes is the type of business model that Apple uses. It's the type that I want to see.

The photographic business had grown accustomed to releasing a product and then being able to milk that product for profit for years. In the world of solid-state technology, that no longer works. Iterations and development need to be annual and significant. Moreover, as this happens, prices for everything are going to come down. What was once the high-end will become mid-range, and what was once mid-range will be inside cell phones. Fighting this is not only suicidal from a business perspective, it is infuriating from a consumer perspective because the idiocy of large companies can hold back exciting innovation.

Fuji seems more interested in doing than any other company, and this was only apparent with the announcement of the X100S. Even if it still has tons of problems, it is progress -- progress worth rewarding. 

I am waiting to see what Olympus' next release is, since they've only had one camera since they switched over to Sony sensors: the E-M5. It, along with the stellar 75mm lens, was enough to keep my invested in m4/3, and if the follow-up to the E-M5 is a significant development, it may be worthy of genuine excitement.

Still, as it stands, Fuji needs to be recognized as the only company continually progressing in every way.


1: Obviously, Micro 4/3 continues to do very well in Japan, but nowhere else. In both Europe and North America, the NEX 5 and 5n are far-and-away the most popular mirrorless cameras.

2: Really, it hasn't been Sony's best effort. Sony still thinks they have some super-valuable brand for which people will pay extra, and as such, when they could undercut the market and really make some sales, they charge a premium and shoot themselves in the foot.

3: This is a pathology that is in every camera company to a degree. They grow so fat on the profits of professional photographers that they are cripplingly terrified of selling anything good to lower markets. Why do you think Olympus refuses to translate any of their good, Zuiko lenses over to Micro 4/3? Greed and stupidity.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Sony RX1 Gets DxOMark Review: Blows The Doors Off Competition

If you wanted more evidence that the RX1 is the supercamera du jour, look no further than DxOMark. The RX1 has just landed itself in 4th place among all cameras. The only cameras to beat it are the triumvirate from Nikon: the D800, D800E, and D600. Considering all of these cameras are sporting Sony sensors, it's not surprising that they are separated by scores that essentially fall within the margin of error.

As is usually the case, Sony's processing is inferior to Nikon, meaning that the Nikon cameras squeak out victories in all metrics, especially in the ISO score, which is usually where processing has the largest effect. Honestly, though, the differences are going to be mostly academic.

As I said, the price for this camera is not unreasonable. It's not a deal by any measure, but for an excellent lens attached to a world-beating sensor with leaf shutter, $2,800 still makes it a tempting purchase. It is a unique camera. Sony's camera division should be proud of this.

The Slow Motion Disappointment That Is Sony

I let it be known that I am incredibly disappointed with the rumor that Sony is working on a full-frame mirrorless camera system. For a camera geek, this may seem like an odd thing to do, what with "the next big thing" perpetually on my mind. And perhaps if the previous big thing had actually arrived, I indeed would be excited. Only it didn't.

Sony has absolutely delivered a few big things, the RX1 and RX100 chief among them, but their SLR and NEX systems have utterly stagnated. They have been nothing but promise for nearly a year and a half, and Sony's own projections show nothing for at least the next year. No good lenses. No good accessories. Just promise.

What worries me is that Sony is run by idiots. Their camera division appears to be run by some pretty smart people, but the company itself is run by idiots. The RX100 and especially the RX1 sold like hotcakes while also maintaining a pretty healthy profit margin -- something Sony was, at one time in the distant past, accustomed to. Money like that is prone to drive executives off of the very track that earned them the money in the first place.

So instead of concentrating on their systems, Sony will veer off into super-expensive hardware aimed at high-end enthusiasts and professionals -- all sporting the Sony premium price, of course. Look at the increasingly uncompetitive A99. It is a camera that is competitive at the $2,000 price point, but Sony is selling it for $2,800. Sony did the same thing with the A900, which was a significant enough of a disappointment to cause Sony to make the A850, which didn't sell well even with the market-beating sub-$2,000 price. If they had released the A850 from the get-go, they may have been able to build up some momentum. But they didn't. They released an underperforming camera for three-thousand freaking dollars.

That is the problem. Sony's leadership still thinks that the Sony name can command a premium. It can't. The Sony name is dead. It has been long surpassed by the likes of Samsung, Apple, and even boutique brands. As they have done with the A900 and now the A99, Sony's executives seem to think that releasing prosumer-oriented gear with a price premium is the sweet spot for them. Further evidence of this systemic hubris can be found in the prices for the accessories of the RX1; to wit, they are in-fucking-sane. This is stupid.

The A99 will fail. If they try to do the same thing with a premium, full-frame mirrorless system, it will fail as well. The RX1/100 were huge successes because they were unique. Yet another mirrorless system or yet another SLR is not a unique proposition. Hell, Sony's lens system is is so far behind Cankon as to be alarming. They haven't even yet matched the competition, much less found a way to out-innovate them!

I had hopes that Sony would be the company to push the market toward a state of sustained innovation and development -- the company that would shake the thrones of Canon and Nikon. But no. Given its first taste of success, Sony devolved. Maybe a full-on bankruptcy will humble them enough.

While this has been something of a despondent, pissy article, I still have hope. Perhaps Sony has some massive system in the wings, with a tight integration of full-frame, APS-C, and mirrorless cameras. I doubt it, but the possibility is there. As it stands, we have Olympus looking pretty good, and Fuji is an increasing force to be reckoned with. The competition is there is ways that it hasn't been years. So if Sony fails, so be it. We'll all just move on to someone else.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Fuji X100S And The Question On Everyone's Mind

Fuji is at CES, along with a number of other companies, and they brought with them the much-anticipated update to the X100: the X100S. It has 100% more S than the previous camera.

The camera appears more or less identical to the original X100 as regards design. The big news is of course the mind-blowing 16Mp sensor for the X Pro and X-E1 is hiding inside. I wonder if they have also upgraded the lens in any way, since it was a bit soft at times on the old 12Mp sensor, and increased resolution would only accentuate these issues. They don't specify anything on their website, so I can only assume that the lens is the same. We can't have everything, I suppose, as $1,300 is a competitive price.

The sensor upgrade was a foregone conclusion. While it is nice, what everyone is really interested in is whether Fuji has fixed the autofocus issues. They claim it is the fastest in the industry. I will believe that when I see it, since almost every camera company on the planet has been able to claim this title at some point in the past couple of years, and it is always a disappointment. That said, I'm sure that it is an upgrade, since Fuji was already among the worst, so they really had nowhere to go but up. And importantly, the AF was really the only critical flaw of Fuji's earlier cameras -- everything else was at least good-- meaning that Fuji is highly motivated to concentrate on it.

The X100S is an interesting camera. It would be a downright exciting camera if not for Fuji's history of poor AF. If they have those issues under control, than the X100S could turn out to be the fixed-lens camera to beat for 2013. Now comparing it to the Sony RX1, which was released in 2012, then things get tricky.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Short Time With The NEX-6

As is usually the case, when a camera comes in that I like, I beat the pavement to find a store willing to let me capitalize their demo model for an hour. As was the case with the new, Sony NEX-6.

After the NEX-6's sensor disappointed in comparison to the old, NEX-7, I didn't go in too hopeful. A downgrade in the sensor for the sake of an upgrade in the camera didn't seem like the kind of thing that I would find acceptable. I waited, though, to make my judgment, and it was worth it. The NEX-6 is the best NEX camera to-date.

The first upgrade is in the autofocus. Even though I give the NEX-7 as my choice for the mirrorless camera to buy, I cautioned that it is not fast. It will fail for moving subjects more often than not (although not as bad as Fuji, to be fair), and in low-light it at times hunts for focus lock quite a bit more than even my old Panasonic GF1.

It's obvious that Olympus and Panasonic figured something out when it comes to the performance of CD-autofocus, because even with the new NEX-6's CDAF/PDAF combo, it has not yet achieved the speed and accuracy of the Olympus E-M5. The one area where the NEX-6 may be better is in continuous-AF, which I was unable to test, and which is receiving very little attention online. Regardless, in my experience, when it comes to speed of operation, Micro 4/3 is still the mirrorless system to beat.

I have never had too much trouble with Sony's menu system, perhaps because I've owned so many poorly thought-out gadgets in my life that I simply adapt. Still, though, I found my way through the NEX-6 quickly and easily. Many elements of the design appear more oriented toward soccer-mom types than pro-thusiasts, but I didn't mind. If you want to shoot things that require super-fast changes to settings because of a dynamic environment, this isn't your best choice. Actually, your best choice is still a traditional SLR.

I love the ergonomics. I prefer the ergonomics of the NEX-7, but this is similar. It sits in my hand very well, and the bends in my fingers seem to find comfortable spots in both landscape and portrait orientations. It will never match an SLR for comfort, especially with large lenses, but it gives it the ol' college try.

I didn't do a head-to-head comparison of the images, since I had no residual NEX-7 photos kicking around, but you don't need me for that. The sensor in the NEX-6 isn't quite as good as the sensor in the NEX-7, which is a big disappointment. It's also a crippling disappointment for the NEX-6 specifically.

The NEX-7 is the CSC of choice because of its sensor. It is inferior to Micro 4/3 in every other way. The NEX-6 loses the sensor, but only closes some of the gap. It invariable comes in second to the E-M5 in every way except for the sensor, and even here now, the difference is small. The NEX-6 either needed to close the performance gap entirely or have a stellar sensor. It did neither, and as such, the best NEX camera to date is also something of a stillborn in my eyes.

That's not to say it's a bad camera. The best NEX camera is still a fully usable camera and the first mirrorless from Sony to be a real option for a person's all-the-time tool. Moreover, it has Sony's ace in the hole, focus peaking, which Micro 4/3 SHOULD HAVE, but as of yet, does not. Still, though, I just could not see myself buying the NEX-6 when the NEX-7 and E-M5 exist.

Further adding to the knocks against the NEX-6 is that all interactions with it now take place under the pall of the recent rumors that Sony is working on a full-frame mirrorless system, even while the lens selection for its already fucking here mirrorless system sucks. When the NEX-7 came out, it indicated that we would have a bunch of high-end lenses by now, and Sony has let us down. And instead of working to rectify that, they have a bunch of crap in their lens roadmap, and are releasing another system that they won't support. Great.

I liked the NEX-6 a great deal, but I would never buy it. Micro 4/3 has gotten just good enough to completely keep my interest while NEX has gotten less interesting.