ILCs in 2012


2012 was a banner year for cameras. After a long hiatus brought about by the Japan earthquake and Tsunami and the Thailand floods, we finally got to see the next generation of full frame cameras, with the introduction of the Nikon D4, the Nikon D800, the Nikon D600, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the Canon 1Dx, the Canon 6D, the Sony SLT-A99, the Sony RX1, and the Leica M (10 and Monochrome). It was also a landmark year for mirrorless ILCs. We witnessed the introduction of the Fuji X-E1, the Olympus OM-D EM-5, the Panasonic GH3, the Canon EOS-M and the Sony NEX-6. Although 2012 was not a particularly great year for APS-C DSLRs, we still saw the introduction of the 24 MP Nikon D3200, the Canon EOS Rebel T4i, the Pentax K30D, and the Pentax K-5IIs.

Although I have tried only one of these cameras, I've held some of them, and read and heard a great deal about all of them. Technically speaking, they're all capable of taking stunning images, some a little more so than others. None of these cameras, however, are quite perfect; there's been plenty of complaints to leaven out the praise. While I can't judge the technical merits of the various cameras, I can offer various educated guess (probably erroneous in at least some respects) as to how they may influence the development of cameras in the future. In this spirit, I provide the following commentary.

But first, let me note two important assumptions that I make when evaluating camera. To begin with, I think way too much stress is placed on the camera, and not enough on the lenses that go with them. (Even worse, the photographer who uses the camera and the lenses is entirely forgotton!) Most people buy the camera first, and then acquire lenses for it. That seems to me precisely the wrong way to go about it. It is better to figure out which lenses you want to shoot with, and then find camera that best fits those lenses and how you plan to use them.

The other thing I would note is that there tends to be too much emphasis on the technical and quantitative side of evaluations, and not enough on the qualitative and user-experience side. The question everyone should ask when contemplating new camera gear is: will this make me a better photographer? And if so, why? Too often these questions are ignored and instead people buy gear to satisfy, not their needs as photographers, but merely their desire to satisfy their inner nerd.

With these precepts in mind, here are my broad estimates of the various cameras that have assaulted the market in 2012.

Camera of the Year

Actually, I didn’t find this a tough choice. Indeed, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Olympus OM-D EM-5.

Why is this so obvious a choice? Very simple: because it is the most important camera of the year; which is to say, the camera most likely to influence the future development of camera; or at least the future development of a type of camera, the compact ILC. Indeed, I would go further: the Olympus OM-D is the most important camera since the Nikon D-3. As the D-3 defined what FF and low-light performance are all about, the OM-D defines what mirrorless ILC is all about. It's the first camera that really delivers on the promise of the format. With the OM-D we see the possibility of a camera system that can come close (even if never quite equalling or surpassing) APS-C and FF DSLR systems:

Such a system is problematic with compact mirrorless systems with larger sensors, because of the size of the lenses, particularly the zoom lenses. Are we really going to see any time soon a 50mm-135mm f2.8 zoom for the NEX or Fuji X systems any time soon? Probably not. And if we did, it would probably not be successful. The Pentax DA* 50-135 f2.8 weighs more than 24 ounces. This is not a lens that would be easy to use on a Sony NEX camera. The form factor is all wrong. The NEX is just too small for the larger lenses favored by many enthusiast photographers. Fuji is the only company that seems to understand what sort of lenses make sense matched up with a compact APS-C mirrorless camera. Look at their lens roadmap, and you find concentration of primes and slower, compact zooms. Within the limitations of the larger, APS-C sensor, Fuji is trying to make the best system possible. But they will never be able to quite match, in terms of either price or variety, what we will see in the m43 system. Panasonic has already released two f2.8 zooms, and the m43rd lens lineup is considerably larger than any of the other compact mirrorless systems. In the past, cameras tied to the best systems tend to do better in the long-run, because they offer more options to consumers. It’s no coincidence that the two top camera brands, Canon and Nikon, also feature the most complete systems. Compact mirrorless systems tend to be over-rated by the gear-head crowd; but they have their place for those who need smaller cameras. And of the systems currently vying for the public’s attention, the m43 seems the most promising.

One feature of the Olympus OM-D that has not been given its full significance is the ability to make it a larger camera via a battery grip. This is important because it adds versatility. Sometimes a the small size of these compact mirrorless cameras is a liability. The smaller cameras don’t balance larger lenses and big, powerful flash systems. With the battery grip, the photographer can make the OM-D bigger when that is what is needed. Then when he needs to go small, he take the battery grip off. This added functionality makes the OM-D the most versatile camera on the market. It can be used as both a compact camera and as a larger, more functional faux-DSLR.

Over-rated Camera of the Year

Nikon D800

By over-rated I don’t mean to imply the Nikon D800 is not a great camera. It is. What is over-rated about it is the mythical aura that has grown up around it. Far too many shutterbugs think that the D800 will make them a better photographer. It won’t. In fact, if they are not already superb photographers to begin with, the D800 will more likely make them worse rather than better photographers. It will expose their shoddy technique; it will encourage them to pursue detail for its own sake; and it will allow the “Big Croppers,” as Thom Hogan has derisively labelled many D800 aficionados, to persist in their compositional incompetence. Even worse, the D800 has helped foster the misconception that resolution somehow can be equated with image quality. But that is like saying how fast a car can drive determines how good the car is. If there were cars that could only go 40 mph, how fast a car could drive would be an important spec. But since nearly all cars can go at least 80 mph, it’s not an important spec. After all, at least in the United States, you can’t legally drive over 75 mph in most places. So to claim that a car that can go 150 mph is superior to car that can only go 120 mph would be absurd. After reaching a certain speed, the metric of maximum speed ceases to apply. The same is largely true of resolution in digital cameras. Since most photographers rarely, if ever, make large prints, they could probably get by with 10 megapixels. Twelve to eighteen should certainly be enough for the vast majority of photographers. Any more than that merely creates unnecessary storage and post-processing burdens.

The Nikon D800 is a specialist camera. It is for photographers whose work captures a lot of fine detail and who wish to print big. For most anyone else, it’s over-kill: it’s like buying a machine gun to kill a mosquito. Already we find some photographers who are discovering this the hard way. While they may be overwhelmed at first by the sheer detail the camera can capture, over the long haul they are likely to be increasingly frustrated with the large files the camera produces. Over time as they begin realize that detail for detail’s sake is a false ideal, they will find themselves reaching for more practical cameras. The wisest among them will trade their D800s for the D600, a much more sensible camera for the photo-enthusiast.

Under-rated Camera of the Year

Pentax K-5 IIs

I choose the Pentax K-5 IIs as my “under-rated” camera of the year because of all the criticism it has received for not constituting a big enough upgrade over the previous Pentax flagship, the K-5. “It’s only the K-5 with a few tweaks,” many have complained. To which I would reply: “So what?” Technological improvement is not progressive; rather it happens in fits and starts. It’s not a turtle, it’s a hare. The rate of technological improvement in APS-C DSLRs is beginning to slow down, because there’s not much more that can be improved, at least in terms of sensor performance, in the APS-C space. Adding more megapixels, at this juncture, is not an improvement; it simply creates bigger files that take longer to process and create even greater storage headaches. I’ve seen comparisons of images taken with 24 MP APS-C cameras with those taken with 16 MP APS-C cameras, and the differences are negligible. At the pixel level, the 24 MP images have a bit more detail. In practical photography, that bit more of detail is irrelevant, for the simple reason that it cannot be perceived by the naked eye at normal viewing levels. Increasing file sizes by 50% merely to get this smidgen more of detail doesn’t pass even the most rudimentary cost-benefit comparison test. The simple fact of the matter is that at a certain point, there are diminishing returns to adding pixels to a sensor. By 16 or so megapixel, we have reached the diminishing returns level with APS-C sensors. If you need more megapixels, if, say, you wish to decorate your front yard with billboards of your favorite images, then you need to move to a larger sensor, such as the Nikon D800E. For most other photography, particularly of the nature and landscape variety, a camera like the Pentax K-5 IIs makes for a far more practical investment.

The improvements in the K-5 IIs actually are actually more significant than they are given credit for. In the first place, Pentax removed the AA filter in the camera, which should make the detail-mongers happy. More importantly is the auto-focus system, which now features the best low light AF system currently available. Finally, the camera sports a redesigned LCD screen, which makes it easier to view outdoors (a feature, incidentally, greatly under-appreciated, as the photographer will likely use his LCD outdoors far more often than he would make use of modest improvements to resolution, low-light performance, or dynamic range).

Cynical Camera of the Year

Nikon D3200

Despite my dislike of cramming 24 MPs into an APS-C sensor, I’m willing to concede that there might be a point to such a camera as a specialist camera. But as an entry-level camera? Really? Do consumers of entry-level cameras really need 24 MPs? Whatever for?

This is a clear example of a company cynically manipulating its consumer base to make a quick profit. Nikon believes that camera buyers know what they want and ought to get it good and hard. Let’s step back and consider the sort of people who are likely to buy an entry-level camera. There are two broad groups: (1) DSLR newbies just starting out on their adventure into more serious photography; and (2) photographers on a limited budget. Now it seems to me that, irrespective of the presumed merits of a 24 MP APS-C sensor, neither group much benefits from a camera that produces such large files. If you’re a newbie, it’s probably better for you to learn your craft with smaller files. After all, an important part of photography is learning post-processing. But given the hassles involved in processing 24 MP raw files, many newbies will simply opt to shoot the more convenient jpegs, thus depriving themselves of one of the biggest advantages of shooting with a DSLR. And as for those on a limited budget: well, they are screwed as well. For, given their economic circumstances, they are unlikely to have particularly advanced computer systems. Processing and storing those 24 MP files could potentially be a huge burden for the limited budget photo enthusiast.

If we lived in a rational world, entry level DSLRs would be 10 to 12 MP. Unfortunately, the megapixel madness continues to be inflicted on camera buyers, to the detriment of photography in general.