Monday, September 22, 2014

Photokina 2014: The Big Sleep

Another Photokina has come and gone and now we can make sense of what was announced. Before I touch on anything, I think it a significant point to recognize how Photokina has lost some of its luster in the past few years. Most big camera announcements do not come at Photokina. Think about it: The Fuji X100 and X Pro were both announced in early spring, as were Sony's A7 cameras. Olympus E-M5, Panasonic GH3 and GH4, Sony RX100: as far as I remember, none of them were announced at Photokina.

Still, it's the only photography-specific show with major, international coverage, so that will always make it something.

So, that said, moving on.

This was a very boring Photokina. Maybe I'm being spoiled by the world of cell phones, tablets, and computers, but I've come to expect some degree of surprise and excitement from big shows. This Photokina isn't a huge letdown, but it's far from exciting. We have Canon playing catch-up two years late. We have Nikon producing capably boring, or boringly capable, products. Panasonic continues its quest to make a m4/3 camera that is somehow smaller than the sensor. Olympus continues to release pro-thusiast gear at a glacial pace. And Leica released some products for prices that make me question the sanity of Leica fans.

The Good:

Panasonic LX100: For me, the star of the show was the Panasonic LX100, which further confirms that camera companies need to stop fucking using X's in their camera names. It has far exceeded the realm of stupid and has entered utterly baffling.

I very much like the Sony RX100 and even bought an RX10, but the images never fully lose that P&S look. The colors are never as rich as a larger sensor, the noise is always visible, and on and on. The 4/3 format is as small as you can go and maintain an image that stands up to pixel peeping, and even then, that is sometimes not true. The LX100's sensor means that this is the most compact, pro-level imaging device that you can buy, besting the Canon G1X by about a centimeter in every dimension.

All is not well with the LX100, though. The camera's viewfinder is underwhelming, and the controls aren't really the best, and it's overpriced by about $200. Also, it's too big to be pocketable, but too small to be usable with gloves, large hands, or with truly professional speed. It is at least progress, though. The Sony RX100 was the first, others copied, and now Panasonic is moving it forward again with more robust video features and a larger sensor.

Panasonic and Olympus have both hinted at the prospect of dropping m4/3 in the future. This is because they want to charge Canon-like prices for their products, but can't because they're products haven't really been all that good. Then Sony comes along with the RX1, A7, A7R, and A7S and can suddenly charge Canon prices while still selling as many cameras as they can make. Just as with the RX1, a good transitionary product for Panasonic could be a fixed-lens camera with serious video chops. It would be expensive, since video requires fantastic optical mechanics, but I bet that it would sell. I see the LX100 as a portent of this future.

The LX100 can be seen as a pocket-sized GH4 in many respects, and that is awesome. The battery is too small for significant video work, but perhaps an extended battery grip will be released. The GH4 is a fantastic product and the only product in Panny's imaging stable that is both impressive and well-priced. Some of its thunder was stolen by the amazing Sony A7S, but even then, the GH4 does many things that A7S cannot do, and does it for $1,000 less. If Panasonic isn't cowardly, they will wedge as many pro-level video features as they can into the LX100. That is the only way they will be able to justify the extreme price.

Otherwise, the $900 will be much better spent on a compact camera with interchangeable lenses.

Canon G7 X: All aboard the X train! Canon finally realizes that their P&S market will continue to erode unless they do something, and the best course of action is to copy Sony! So they did. The G7X is an RX100 with a Canon wrapper, and that's not a bad thing. Canon's wrapper is better than Sony's. It's unfortunate that the camera is priced at a premium, but ah well. Also, I will always trade a bit of size for image quality, and if I were in this market, I'd take the new LX100 over this any day of the week. But, to Canon's credit, I'd probably rather take this over the RX100.

Fuji: Fuji was pretty quiet this show. They released the updated X100T, which is a solid update. If you have the older X100's, I don't see you wanting to upgrade. If I wasn't so interested in video, I would have bought an X100 long ago.

The real progress is in Fuji's ever-growing lens system. They've produced some winners and losers, and these new lenses look like winners. I'm worried about the distortion on the 16mm lens, since Fuji has shown Olympus-like predilections when it comes to dealing with optical problems in software, but I withhold judgment. Also, Fuji appears to be getting a bit too confident as the prices on these lenses are rather high.

All in all, I like Fuji, and these does little to alter my opinion. In fairness to other companies, though, Fuji is able to do this simply because their lens system is small. Canon and Nikon have huge lens systems already and...... you know what? No. I take that back. I'm thinking as I write this, in case you couldn't tell.

Canon and Nikon could do this. They could release updates to their lenses, especially since many of them suck. But instead, they don't. They rest on lenses, some of which were designed in the 80's. So again, kudos to Fuji.

Leica D-Lux: Say wha?!... you may be saying. But yes, the overpriced Leica versions of the LX100 is a fine choice. Basically, it's because you get a license for Adobe Lightroom included with the camera, a $140-ish value. Along with what I consider to be a much more attractive design, the $100 final premium doesn't seem too bad.

Olympus E-PL7: This is almost bad, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. Olympus continues to work at the small, feature-packed, mid-range camera segment with good results. None of Olympus' cameras are selling terribly well, and Fuji and Sony are slowly but surely eclipsing the m4/3 format, but they still deserve recognition when they release a decent product.

It's unfortunate, though, because both Sony and Fuji have more impressive products for the price, and in Sony's case, cheaper. Even Olympus offers the E-M10 for only $150 more. I feel that this camera will be stillborn on the market, even though I'm sure it will be fine.

Sigma: Sigma continues to impress with their new lenses for great prices and their innovative Foveon cameras. I talk up Sigma a lot since they are truly innovating. They are truly providing new tools and new experiences, not just rehashes of old ones. Their DP cameras are utterly unique and I think that everyone should own one. And since their DP cameras are such unique tools, the new viewfinder attachments don't seem bulky, they seem like a new form of imaging, because they are. Definitely the domain of deliberate professionals and enthusiasts and all but useless for Soccer Moms/Dads, these cameras have captured my imagination.

The Bad:

Samsung: Samsung continues to plug away at this mysterious product called a cam-ehr-ahh. Nothing they have hitherto produced has been correctly priced or competitive with other companies. Their sensors only very recently entered the same league as Sony, Nikon, and even Micro 4/3. Their lens selection is poor and expensive. Their workflow is poor and slow. Their system is lean. And worse still, serious photogs seem to be a corporate afterthought for a company that is making most of its money from Galaxy cell phones.

The new NX1 is an SLR-styled camera just as SLR style cameras are beginning their long, slow descent into sales Hell. It's APS-C just as Sony, Canon, and Nikon are beginning the rush to fill their product lines with Full Frame. It's among the most expensive APS-C cameras out there, besting everything that Fuji makes and cheaper than only the new, ridiculously over-priced Canon EOS 7D MkII.

The new camera will have only a single, high-end lens, which unsurprisingly is the lens they are releasing with the camera, the new 50-150mm f/2.8. That sounds like a decent lens, except that they will be charging $1,500. This isn't as badly overpriced as Panasonic and Olympus' lenses, but it's close. There is always the possibility that the image quality will be exceptional (for example, the Panasonic 42.5mm lens is priced too high, but at least the images are great) but since this is Samsung, I doubt it.

Moreover, if you are interested in saving money, you can buy very impressive lenses for cheaper than this lens from Sigma for Canon, Nikon, Sony, and even Pentax.

Basically, Samsung has given us no reason to ever consider their cameras, and this show doesn't change that.

Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8: Just as with Samsung, Olympus is releasing a similar lens with a similarly stupid price. Worse for Olympus, they have superior optical designs available in their Zuiko lens line, but they incomprehensibly refuse to release them.

Panasonic GM5: The strange success of the GM1 has of course spawned the GM5. It's slightly larger but has a few more features. Just as with Sony and their bizarre feature swapping with the various versions of the RX100, the GM5 loses the flash of the GM1 and replaces it with a viewfinder and hotshoe. I feel as though Panasonic is chasing the success of the Nikon 1, without realizing that the 1 only succeeded because it was a Nikon. It was actually a terrible camera.

Moreover, to me, this is Panasonic going down a market niche that is already dead. The GM1 was a surprise to me, but it wasn't a huge hit. It was simply a success. This area of the market — compact, fashionable phones — is doomed to die. Cell phone imaging has already reached a point where most people are happy with it for their uses. And as phone companies increasingly focus on their cameras, stylish, small cameras stand no chance.

The Ugly:

Canon EOS 7D: Canon's EOS 7D Mark II was a huge disappointment. The 7D, for reasons I do not fathom, was a legend. It was a huge success, selling millions of units over its five year life. Its sequel is an event. Leave it to Canon to make that event so thoroughly meh. The 7D MkII isn't even terribly competitive with other cameras from last year.

Canon has also spent the past five years showing everyone that it doesn't give a shit about APS-C as a viable professional format. Everyone thought the 7D heralded a new wave of pro-level crop lenses, but these never appeared. We got some in the form of Sigma and Tamron's excellent crop lenses, but none from Canon. Hell, if not for Fuji and Sigma, I would say that APS-C is dead.

Along with that, Canon will cripple its video so as not to step on the toes of their more expensive video equipment. And for the honor of owning this product, you will have to pay almost as much as the Sony A7R, nearly twice as much as a Nikon D7100 or Sony A77, and right about the same price as the Nikon D600 and Canon 6D.

There is only one conclusion to draw: Canon is insane.

The Open Camera Module: Olympus should be proud. They're the only company to make all three lists. Their Open Module display was just silly. To me, this was Olympus saying "Look! We innovate and stuff too! We've got, like, ideas!"

I make this highly negative assessment because even in their presentations they say that they are unsure as to why or how anyone would use this. This is Olympus screwing around and thinking that it was viable for public presentation. It's not. Try making something that people want.

Nikon D750: It seems pretty harsh to place this under ugly, but it's because this camera is much more than just a camera, it reveals the intransigence that still holds sway at Nikon.

Basically, the entire market is changing. Camera sales are dropping. SLR sales are dropping quickly and mirrorless cameras are not picking up the slack effectively, even though their sales are increasing. This state of affairs was predicted by me, certainly, but my many, many others long before I started writing. This isn't news. Lots of people knew this was coming.

So instead of changing with the times, Nikon is doubling down, apparently under the assumption that there are hidden islands of camera-buying demographics that their current product line-up somehow doesn't cover. That is the philosophy behind the D750: there are people for whom the D610 is too cheap and the D810 is too expensive.

I do not believe these people exist. There are people who would buy the D810 if it cost as much as the D750, but Nikon isn't doing that. There are people who would buy the D610 if it had more features, but Nikon isn't doing that. Instead, they are making yet another iteration in between the two and charging a premium for it.

Panasonic CM1: Panasonic's last effort in the cell phone space was two years ago with the Eluga. It had a rather cool commercial that was ruined by five solid seconds of branding and stupid slogans. It was a catastrophe that lost Panasonic a bucket of money. It was a nice cell phone, and was one of the first to be water sealed, but they tried selling it for $700.

The phone underperformed almost every other major phone on the market. If they had sold it for $300, they might have stood a chance, but that trademark Japanese Electronics Company arrogance came out in full force and they tried charging over twice that. And today, Sony is making the news because their own smartphone division is losing buckets of money because Sony continues to try to charge a premium for their products without any actual innovation.

Not to be outdone, Panasonic is back at it, with an even more ridiculous phone at an even more ridiculous price. Since Panasonic skipped the 1" sensor altogether with the LX100, they decided to put one in a phone. A very large phone. Actually, it's not really a phone, it's a camera with a phone in it. In fact, Panasonic is even calling it a smart camera. And they're so unsure of this Frankenstein creation that they're only releasing it in France and Germany... for some reason. Oh, and they're charging 900 Euros for it.

Everything is wrong with this stupid creation. First, before I rip it to shreds, understand that I think cell phone imaging is in need of significant innovation. I thought that Sony's QX cameras were a good start, and I own a Nokia 1020, warts and all. The prospects for imaging in our little, pocket-sized supercomputers are limitless. If they had left the CM1 in the oven for a while longer, it may have come out truly desirable, but in its current form, it's like trying to make a very small layer cake instead of just baking a great cupcake.

I could really go for a cupcake right now.

Setting aside my lack of cupcakes, let's look at this cameraphone the three ways available to us: as a camera with a phone; as a phone with a camera; as a hybrid.

As a camera with a phone, it sucks. It's nothing more than a severely limited P&S in a bulky body. This is irritating because I argue that the first company to release a high-powered product with an Android OS will own the future of imaging. They refuse to do this because that would require opening up their system, and none of them want to do this. They all want to be Canon and Nikon, with their walled gardens filled with their chattle, from whom they can suck blood at will. It's the same blind greed that stops companies from releasing cell phones that are truly open.

So basically, this is a bad camera with what will likely be a mediocre phone attached to it.

Looking at it the other way around is just as problematic. This is a terrible phone. It's wide and bulky and will never fit into a jean pocket. It's nearly twice as expensive as an unlocked iPhone or Galaxy S. No one with their sights set on a phone will give this a second look.

But what about the final way? How about looking at as a unique hybrid. This is undobutedly how Panny would like you to see the phone, since it's the only way this could make sense, but a hybrid is supposed to give you the best of both worlds, not the worst. The CM1 isn't compact like a phone nor feature-rich like a camera. It has the bulk of a camera without the features!

Perhaps Panny thinks they can add features in software, but that requires a company that actually knows software, and Panny doesn't know software at all. If they promised that this will be the first in a long line of CM cameras, developers might, might, fill the breach, but that is highly unlikely when they could instead release software for Android or iOS and reach a far wider market.

For the hybrid angle to work, the CM1 would need to offer something very similar to carrying both a phone and a camera, while offering the ease of a unified body. For 900 Euros (about $1,200), I could buy an iPhone (on contract) and a new LX100 and still have money left over! The iPhone fits easily in my pocket, and I'm quite accustomed to carrying a camera around on a strap. Basically, the CM1 is the answer to a problem no one has.

That doesn't mean I think that it's not a shot in the right direction. It is. But Panasonic has proven quite well that they are not a phone company. They are better at making cameras. And make no mistake, a camera with Android is still the future, but it will only be the future when the letters attached to it are S, L, and R.

All of this is unfortunate, since I would likely buy this camera... phone... Camerhone? Cameroon? Phonera? Who cares. I would likely buy this if it wasn't such a mess and for all for an eye-watering price. I've never owned a "normal" phone. I've always owned a strange phone from a faraway land. Back in the day I was importing Nokia N-series phones for their badass cameras. Before that, I was rocking an Ericsson that was originally on Vodafone in Germany. I have a thing for weird phones, so I am perhaps the person most likely to look upon the CM1 fondly, and I still think that it's stupid.


And that's that. Another year, come and gone. I'm not seeing the level of competitiveness that I would have hoped for, but even this boring year is way beyond the dreary 2000's, where each year brought nothing in the way of innovation save for more, overpriced Canon and Nikon garbage. That says a lot about the industry where even a bad year is actually pretty good.

It's a good time to take photos.

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