Friday, February 22, 2013

WTF Consumer Reports?

I'm a fan of consumer reports. I buy their magazine. I subscribe to their website. Indeed, I read almost everything they produce.

That said, what the hell is up with their ratings of digital cameras? In the category of "SLR-like" cameras, in which goes all mirrorless models, the Panasonic GH3 tops the list. Alright. They specifically mention that GH3's exemplary video quality as a determining factor in putting it at the top. I can't much argue with that.

But the G5 comes in second? And the GH2 third? Both above the Olympus E-M5? Wha?

But wait! It gets weirder!

Just below the E-M5 is the Nikon J1! Seriously. A camera that has failed in the market and isn't taken seriously by any pros or enthusiasts as in their top ten.

All of these cameras are far above the likes of the Sony NEX-7, A77, and NEX-6.

It gets super-strange near the bottom of the list, where we find the awful Pentax Q cameras in similar standing as the Fuji X-E1, and the X Pro 1 is in last place. Last place?! The X Pro 1 had a lot of problems, some of which significant, but in no fucking universe is it in last place!

The SLR category isn't any less strange. The Canon 60D is in first place, followed by... the Olympus E-5. I have a hard time forming coherent sentences to describe my reaction to this.

The advanced point-&-shoot category has its fair share of bizarreness. Considering that the Panasonic FZ200 is the top camera, you would assume that this category only includes cameras with small sensors. You would be wrong! Drop down the list and you will find both the Sony RX100 and the Fuji X100. Two seminal cameras... squarely in the middle of the pack.

This absolutely does not affect my views of their other reviews. There are few magazines whose viewpoints I so rarely take with a grain of salt. This camera comparison, though, is so out in left field as to defy analysis or description.

Ignore it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Panasonic Shines, Nikon Shits The Bed

We have two pretty big DxOMarks to discuss: the Panasonic GH3 and the Nikon 1 J3. I'd like to first talk about the Nikon because, ya' know, bad news first and all that. Basically, the 1 cameras started off pretty poor. They were expensive, with meager optics, and image quality that was closer to compact P&S cameras than 4/3. Worse still, the Sony RX100 came out and so soundly defeated the poor Nikon that it essentially obviated the latter's existence entirely.

It's been over a year since the 1 cameras released, and we are now on the third generation of them. And much like the early trajectory of Micro 4/3, instead of progressing, Nikon actually appears to be regressing with their little "toy" cameras. The Nikon J1 scored 56 on DxOMark (ten points behind the Sony RX100), and the more expensive V1 scored a 54. The J2, released six months later, scored a 54. The new J3, released six months after that, has no scored a 52. The $800 V2 scored an utterly pathetic 50.

I feel the need to again express the perspective from which I lampoon companies and use words like "pathetic." I am very, completely, keenly aware that any camera, in the right situation, produces good images and am certainly a follower of the assertion that the best camera is the one that you have with you. That said, all products that are for sale do not exist as standalone tools that are judged on their own merits alone. They are also judged based on the other options in the marketplace.

Thus, when one company sells a product that targets a similar market as another company's product, but under-performs that other company's product in every way, they are rightfully worthy of mockery. This company is saying to customers "give us your hard-earned money for this product." Thus, if the product turns out to be inferior to other products, it is an infuriating thing. It's as though the company tricked the customer into buying something that she could have bought more cheaply or better made elsewhere.

That said, let's move on. The Nikon 1 was a mess from the beginning. It was cowardly product meant to avoid competition with Nikon's APS-C cameras, which themselves are crippled and meant to avoid competition with Nikon's FF gear. It is an large, integrated system of products that aren't as good as they could be.

I close this part of the article with a reiteration: only a maniac would buy the Nikon 1 at full price.

Now, for the good news. Panasonic's GH3, like the Nikon, has its fair share of compromises obviously meant to allow Panasonic to sell more expensive video-oriented gear. It also have a detail that has grown to increasingly annoy me: slow flash sync. Most prothusiast cameras have a flash sync in the neighborhood of 1/250th sec. Mirrorless cameras seem to have ditched this entirely in favor of 1/160th, sometimes even lower. Olympus is the sole company producing a mirrorless camera with the hallowed 1/250th sync with the E-M5.

That is but a single aspect of the camera that is annoying, and there are others, but by and large, the camera is a success. It is an undeniable evolution of the GH2, even though it lacks the multi-aspect sensor. It manages to combine video and photo in a way that is truly unique in the market. If Panasonic had not decided to price the camera so high, it would be the camera to own for Micro 4/3 and perhaps the entire mirrorless market.

So how is this good news? Because, DxOMark has confirmed that the sensor in the GH3 performs just as well as the very good sensor in the E-M5. There are very minor differences, and most of them likely fall into the realm of statistically insignificant, so the two cameras are, for all intents and purposes, the same.

I'm very happy with this result. Most people who had been following the GH3 or handled it, as I have, pretty much expected these numbers. There are no surprises, which is both a good and a bad thing.

The biggest problem facing the GH3 remains its price. Camera stores are pricing it past the Fuji X Pro 1, and even at MSRP it is more expensive than the E-M5, X-E1, Sony NEX-7 and 6, and more than twice the price of the GH2, which remains its biggest competitor and is still quasi-available. I own a GH2 and have zero motivation to pay such a massive premium for the upgrade. The GH3's price is, like the X-Series lenses, untenable.

I see this as part of Panasonic's problem, and the reason why the entire company is in the financial toilet (the company's stock is trading at the same level as it did in 1985). Panasonic is like Sony in the belief that it can still charge the premiums that it demanded back in the 80's and 90's based on its mere status as being made in Japan. Sorry guys. We here in the US are well disabused of such a notion compliments of when your products put all of us out of business thirty years ago. You better learn the same lesson but quick, else you'll end up in the same place as Zenith.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fuji's First Kit Zoom Is A Home Run

Fuji released along with the XE-1 a new kit zoom, which by nothing more than the virtue of an f/2.8 max aperture. The real question was of course whether the lens would measure up in other metrics, and compliments of a new review and Photozone, we can finally know.

It's very good. Not excellent, but it holds up well in comparison to other kit zooms. The resolution is fantastic, but the distortion at the wide end is significant. Again, it's as though the one thing that other camera companies have taken away from Micro 4/3 is that it is totally acceptable to produce a lens with sky-high distortion since it can be corrected in software. No. That is lazy lens design.

Similarly, the vignetting is pretty high, being well over 1-EV at f/2.8. This isn't a deal-breaker, especially with the Fuji sensor's low shadow noise, allowing the edges to be easily brought up in post. And considering the excellent resolution characteristics, only a fool would reject the lens.

My only criticism is that the lens is only a good deal if you buy it in the kit. As a stand-alone lens, it is still good for the price, $600, but not great. In the kit, it only costs $400, which is a great deal indeed.