Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Increasing Disillusion With Micro 4/3

DxOMark recently reviewed the newest version of the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens. It performs fantastically. It is easily the best lens in their tests. It has autofocus and costs only $900. And this is the rub: with a Metabones image reducer-type adapter, this would become a 17mm f/0.7 on m4/3. F/0.7. For $900.

Note: I converted the focal length into 4/3 terms. The image actually seen on the frame would be identical on full-frame or 4/3.

Tell me again why Panasonic is trying to sell its 42.5mm f/1.2 for $1,600? On what fucking planet do they live?

The Olympus E-M5 is a great camera. I love it. The E-M1 is great. I even feel much better toward the GX7 now that I've had a chance to use it. But the Speed Booster just makes the entire system untenable. A $600 adapter opens up the lenses of other systems and turns the market on its head.

To play Devil's advocate against myself, I understand that some degree of design must go into keeping the lenses at a particular size. Yes, the FF lenses are significantly faster, but they are also larger — often by a great deal. That said, it doesn't matter. Any photog on Earth would happily trade a little size for a lens that is faster than f/1.

Metabones hinted at a live micro 4/3 adapter, and that would be peachy keen. I do like my tiny lenses and frequently go back to my beloved GF1. Especially when I don't want to truck along a Nikon as when just going to a restaurant with friends. And while FF equipment is usually larger, it isn't always by much. Canon's 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes aren't very large and wouldn't appear out of place on a small body. And again, with the Speedboster, their apertures are all below f/1.0. But whither Micro 4/3 with that ability at hand? A system of small cameras that people buy to then use their Canon lenses?

The prices of 4/3 lenses are just becoming too big a burden for the sake of maintaining the system. The Panasonic 42.5mm really drove that home in grand fashion. I've felt a bit ripped off with my current lenses and their public statements indicate that they will be making no course corrections in the future, meaning I will feel even more ripped off then. The Speed Booster has made it so I can no longer abide this. Not when the Sigma 35mm becomes f/1 on the Fuji X Pro 1, a camera that can shoot ISO6400 without much breaking a sweat.

You can see in the freaking dark. Nothing in Micro 4/3 offers this, and if it did, they would try to charge a bazillion dollars for it. That I will not accept.

There is a concept in economics called the opportunity cost. It's the sort of thing you learn in econ-101. Basically, when you spend money, you are not just spending the money, you are spending the opportunity to buy other things. So when I spend $500 on a lens, it costs me the $500, any other lens I could have bought, a wardrobe, four pairs of shoes, one-hundred $5 Footlongs from Subway, and on and on.

Included in that cost are all of the other competitive camera products out there. Some of them are truly amazing. And that's the rub, right there. That's why camera companies are so desperate to get you into their closed or semi-closed system. That dynamic alters the value equation. Because then, when you spend $500 on a lens, you are not spending the opportunity to buy another lens, because you would have to buy into an entirely new system. It reduces the number of alternative uses of your money, reduces the opportunity cost, and thus increases the value of the lens beyond what it would be in a perfectly competitive landscape.

The art of pricing is thus determining how far a camera company can squeeze its adherents before they start to jump ship to another system.

I bought into Micro 4/3 at the very beginning. I even bought some old 4/3 lenses. And I have felt squeezed ever since.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Will Olympus Disappear?

Every year, various financial publications love to put out link bait in the form of "dying companies" lists. You know the type. The headline is usually "X Companies Fated To Die in 2014," or "Which Companies Won't Be Around in 2015?"

Well, one company that's getting a lot of attention is Olympus. 24/7 Wall Street has put Ol' Oly on the chopping block for 2014, and aside from the Oly faithful who are screaming no, I find little to disagree with. Olympus is in bad shape.

This is heavily Olympus' fault, too. They have tried desperately to be a premium brand while what they sell can never be premium. A 4/3 crop sensor is never going to be adopted by wide swaths of the photographic world, especially those with significant budgets.

That should have been fine. The prices for the 4/3 sensor are much lower than full-frame sensors, and the prices for lenses are much lower as well. If Olympus had passed these prices on to consumers, I think that Micro 4/3 could have been the dominant crop system on the market, providing good enough image quality for a significantly reduced size and price.

Olympus hasn't done that, though. Panasonic hasn't done that. Indeed, Panasonic's recent 42.5mm lens for sixteen-hundred-fucking-dollars shows how deep the delusion runs. Panasonic's previous high-end lenses, the 12-35mm and the 35-100mm, only ever sold in volume when discounted.1 So instead of lowering prices to compete, they just keep charging ahead, confident for some unknown reason that their fortunes will turn around.

You know that definition of insanity, where you try the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results? Yeah. This isn't bloody quantum mechanics. It's camera sales.

The article at 24/7 Wall Street says that "Except for market leaders like Canon, Sony and Nikon, no one wants to be in the digital camera business anymore." That's only true because everyone wants to be Canon and Nikon! They all want to have the same robust customer base from which to squeeze money.


Canon and Nikon reached their dominance because of fundamental technological shifts in the camera market. First came the rise of autofocus, then finally, the killer blow for old-world companies: digital. The Japanese companies were perfectly situated to take advantage of the technological shift.

Unless Olympus has some technological shift up their sleeves, they will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, achieve the success of Canon and Nikon.

So, not surprisingly, companies that are not trying to be the next Canon and Nikon are making waves. Fuji released its own 80mm-ish portrait lens for only $1,000. Sigma's Art line of lenses continues to upset the lens status quo. If your company is willing to actually compete, there is opportunity in the camera industry. Death only comes from following the leaders.

Panasonic is perhaps in better shape because they made waves. When the GH1 and GH2 came out, they were unique. They were cheap, compact cameras that produced video quality that met or exceeded cameras that were many times its price. If Blackmagic had not released its line of Cinema cameras, Panasonic would still be viable.

Olympus has nothing but the success of the E-M5 and the as-yet-unknown success of the E-M1. Panasonic had never relied on compact camera sales for their revenue as Olympus did. And even here, Olympus utterly failed to produce a response to the Sony RX100. Instead, Panasonic does! While I think the GM1 is a stupid camera, it is a genuine response to the RX100 that plays at least a bit to the strengths of the m4/3 system. What did Olympus produce? Yet another small-sensored, over-priced piece of crap.

An important point that many people are making is that a company does not need to have significant market share to be a success. That is true. It is also naive. In a highly competitive industry that requires engineers, research, and manufacturing, if a company does not have sizable revenues, they are inherently unstable. They could be stomped on by the leaders at any moment, and that's where Olympus sits: right under the feet of the leaders.

In the end, all of this is unfortunate. The E-M1 is a wonderful camera. It is fast and powerful. It is a great tool for producing images. Because in the end, that's what a camera does. It produces images. But when the market is so filled with excellent image-creating tools, Olympus needs to bring its A-game in every way possible. They aren't doing that. They're not even really bringing their A-game in any way.

This is a good time to mention something very important: while Olympus and Panasonic are weak and stupid, the Micro 4/3 market is not weak. It is becoming the system for low to mid-range video equipment, and the release of the Blackmagic cameras in m4/3 mount have all but solidified it as the choice for enthusiast, semi-pro, and pro videographers. The upcoming GH4 4K further excites the m4/3 market for video.

Seriously, if you are a videographer, go out and buy some m4/3 hardware immediately.

But for photography, m4/3 has some significant problems that its constituents are doing poorly at remedying. Olympus needs more lenses like its 75mm f/1.8, which is still its only exceptional lens. Olympus needs to ditch its absurd 4/3 lenses and stop pretending like they're going to do something with them. In all ways, Olympus needs to stop pussyfooting around, focus on a few things, break new ground, and do so at a price lower than everyone else. They need to disrupt the market.

Because they're currently the shortest person on the dance floor, and the other dancers all have big feet.


1: I am making that statement based on limited information. It could be wrong, but I suspect not.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fuji Again Impresses With Its Lens Roadmap

Last year, Fuji impressed with its lens roadmap. This year, they're doing it again. I feel safe in saying that Fuji and Sigma are showing every other company how its done, at least as far as lenses go.

We finally get our first glimpse of a super-telephoto zoom that isn't blah like the 55-200mm. We also get our first glimpse of a very interesting 16-55mm, which is the long-missed 24-70mm equivalent zoom, with even more on the long end, extending out to 82mm equivalent. Granted, that zoom extreme will likely be too soft to be of much use.

I very much hope that Sigma gets into the X-mount game. It's not yet a replacement for a giant system like Nikon or Canon, but it is getting there much more quickly than Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, or Olympus. Bravo.

Panasonic GH4 4K Has Me VERY Excited

Micro 4/3 companies have a tendency to do this to me. Panasonic's GH3 caused a lot of excitement, but that was tempered when it finally released as a whelming product, and that was further tempered by the release of Blackmagic's Cinema Camera and the ever-evolving nature of Magic Lantern on Canon cameras. Long story short, the GH3 ended up dead in the water. It wasn't bad, but competition combined with Panasonic's push to lock out hackers really rather doomed the camera.

One of the things about the GH3 that annoyed me was that it was filled with restrictions. Most of these restrictions were explained as technically required because of a hybrid design, and anyone who looked much into it could tell that this was nonsense. The restrictions on the GH3's abilities were put there to protect the professional hardware that Panasonic was trying to sell, like the ill-fated AF100.

This was likely rooted in the arrogance that Panasonic had developed after the truly amazing success of the GH2 in the pro and semi-pro market. Honestly, every single videographer that I know owns a GH2. No, it never sold twenty million units, but it did sell millions, and to a very special demographic. That is a significant achievement.

Hopefully, Panasonic's pain has slapped a bit of sense into their collective head. The GH4 4K must both be cheaper than and better than the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. The latter point is subjective. Panasonic could easily be better than the BCC in many ways.

It was the former point that was in question, and it appears that Panasonic has that covered.

Rumors have the price of the GH4 4K at less than $2,000. If true, that will make the GH4 a killer product. I don't know if the sensor will be global shutter, but that could be one way for Panasonic to become super-relevant very quickly. The Blackmagic 4K currently has a global shutter, but its sensor is smaller than 4/3 and the camera costs $4,000, so even if Panasonic doesn't manage a global shutter, its real competition is the $2,000 2.5K original Blackmagic Camera, and if Panny undercuts them by a couple hundred bucks, the GH4 suddenly becomes a required piece of kit. My GH2 may finally be replaced.

That is of course assuming that this is a hybrid camera. I've heard that it could be fully video-oriented with only a smattering of photographic tools. Even if that is true, I wouldn't much mind. I've already split my photographic and video tools into two sets, as have most other pro-thusiasts.

I should point out that I have a great deal of affection for Panasonic still. The GF1 was fantastic and was the first camera that I used that managed to have excellent video just sorta' thrown in. I want Panasonic to succeed. I will not hold my tongue, though, when they fail. They shouldn't fail. Failure is a product of greed and stupidity, because they obviously have the engineers.

I have high hopes for the GH4 4K. Please don't let me down, Panasonic.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I'm Proven A Little Wrong

I said that I wanted to be proven wrong with the new Panasonic 42.5mm lens, and I have been... at least a little.

Lenstip, one of the websites that reviews distortion based on uncorrected raw files, has posted their review of the lens and it is very positive. The lens is very sharp, nearing the performance of the Voitlander 25mm and the Olympus 75mm. Like those lenses, its distortion is very low, which is a first for a Panasonic lens.

It's not a perfect lens, though. It has some extreme longitudinal aberrations and its vignetting is high. The latter problem wouldn't seem extreme except that of all the problems that a crop sensor should face, vignetting should be the least of them.

But it is interesting that the article compares this lens to the Voitlander 25mm and the Olympus 75mm. Both of those lenses performed better and cost a great deal less. That price makes what should be a competitive lens into something that is still competitive, but not terribly impressive.

As I said, this does little to change my thoughts on the lens. It is significantly overpriced. Even with its OIS, it shouldn't have cost more than $1,200. That said, it is at the very least a good performer. Once the price comes down to something reasonable, or if you can find one on the used market, this could be an excellent purchase.

Until then, your money can be spent much more wisely elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Panasonic's New 42.5mm Nocticron Priced and Dated... And It Is Bad.

Let's face it, everyone knew that the upcoming 42.5mm lens was going to be a disaster. Not a disaster in quality, but a disaster in price and availability. If Panasonic priced it well (under $1,000), they wouldn't have enough to fulfill demand for the next twenty-four months.

That was one possibility, but I never thought they would go that route. Panasonic is like the little kid that wants to play with the big kids, but doesn't quite get it. They don't realize that you need to have arms before you can swing the bat. As such, Panasonic, in their desire to be Canon or Nikon, has saddled their new lens with a truly absurd price.

Sixteen-hundred dollars. Sixteen-hundred. That makes it the most expensive piece of camera equipment that Panasonic makes, not counting pro-oriented gear.

As I mentioned in an earlier article about abandoning Micro 4/3, there are no excuses for these lens prices. In image terms, this lens is the equivalent of an 85mm f/2.4 lens on Full Frame. For less than one-quarter the price, one could buy the Canon 85mm f/1.8 and put it on a FF camera with three times the ISO performance at high-ISO and significantly better performance at low-ISO. Or go crazy! Splurge an extra $400 over the Panny and buy the Canon 85mm f/1.2 that will produce dreamscapes!

Or perhaps the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 for only $1,100. Or the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 for only $900.

And remember, the Panasonic is a crop lens. Meaning that to achieve similar results, one could buy the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and simply chop off the edges to achieve an 85mm field of view. This would cost the same, but the Canon lens has more glass in it. The Nikon 50mm f/1.2 only costs $1,200, though, so that would save you money.

As if to rub salt into Panasonic's self-inflicted wound, Fuji announced its own lens in the 85mm range, the 56mm f/1.2. It costs, shocker, $1,000. The Panasonic is the only lens among these that is stabilized, but when the most popular Micro 4/3 cameras are all sporting in-camera IS, this isn't much of a selling point, nor does it negate the price argument.

That is because the Panasonic lens is not on equal terms with these other lenses. It has less glass and less complex optics to achieve what it achieves. It is a cheaper lens. Panasonic asking the price that it is asking is pure greed.

It is especially greedy because I can all but guarantee that the distortion on the lens is off the bloody charts. Panasonic and Olympus have pioneered the act of producing crappy lenses, correcting in software, than trying to charge full price.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong. Maybe this lens will have amazing performance. Maybe it will be tack sharp wide-open, with minimal distortion. Maybe it will have beauitful bokeh and supreme resistance to flaring.

Or, more likely, it will follow what other Panasonic lenses do: provide good image quality for too much money. I was proven wrong by the Sigma 18-35mm, and I would love to be proven wrong again. I really, truly would. I'm sitting on a Panasonic GF1 that has seen very little action. I actively want to be proven wrong. I just doubt I will. And even if I were, the mere existence of the aforementioned Sigma 18-35mm lens makes any argument in favor of the Panasonic tenuous.

Perhaps Panasonic's decision would make a little more business sense if they had a lock on their lens system. The GH3 and GH2 are still very popular in videography circles, meaning that a fast lens would be valuable. But Panasonic has already been surpassed by Voitlander, Blackmagic, and SLRMagic. Panasonic does not have a monopoly and yet is trying to charge monopoly prices.

I'm sure that some executive somewhere at Panasonic is aware of these problems. I'm all but certain that their logic is to advertise inflated prices and then sell on discount. This keeps the impression of exclusivity and value. They did this with both of their X lenses. They are doing this in the hope that at some point in the future, their system will take off and they will then be able to actually charge these prices. This of course won't happen, but hope has that nasty habit of springing eternal.

Silent Spring, in Panasonic's case.

Driving The Tractor