We have three important new announcements since the last roundup, two of them video-related. The mirrorless market for serious photographers has matured to the point where there are five distinct “niches”. One manufacturer, Sony, makes this especially clear by having a camera in each of them, with very little confusion about what each does. For the most part, the serious photographers’ market is a “full-frame” (24x36mm sensors) market – not because APS-C (~18x24mm sensors) can’t compete, but because only Fujifilm has really focused on APS-C lenses. Fujifilm is using APS-C and “superslide” (33x44mm, which isn’t really medium format) formats to compete for the same users, and they are doing it successfully.
Entry Level: Sony’s entry is the A7 II, which was designed as a midrange camera, but has remained on the market for a long time at decreasing prices. Nikon’s brand-new Z5 and Canon’s EOS-RP are new designs to compete with the A7 II. Fujifilm has a number of APS-C models in this price range and below, and these are very important considerations if you don’t think you’ll print big OR use extreme low-light capabilities. At this level, there will always be compromises in a full-frame camera – older sensors, limited video features and low-capacity batteries are common.
Mid-range/general purpose: For most photographers, a mid-range or general purpose camera will handle a wide range of tasks competently and beyond. Sony’s entry is the A7 III, and there may soon be an A7 IV that takes some of the handling improvements we’ve seen in the A7r IV and A7s III and brings them to the general purpose range. If so, the A7 III may drop to entry- level territory, where it would be a very formidable competitor. Nikon’s Z6 is another strong entrant in this range, and Canon is transitioning from the original EOS-R to the new R6. If you don’t care about video, the Z5 may cross from entry-level to midrange territory. Don’t overlook the Fujifilm X-T4 (or the X-Pro 3, if you like odd cameras) in this range… Expect 24-30 MP on a newish sensor with great color and dynamic range for a print size up to 20×30, 4K video with no or limited crop (4K60p is becoming more common), and a really top-notch AF and exposure system.
Pixel Monster: Starting around 45 MP, and going up to Fujifilm’s 100 MP GFX 100, these are the dream cameras for owners of big printers and lovers of big prints. Their resolutions far exceed anything that can be displayed on an electronic display right now, needing a big piece of Platine or Baryta to show their stuff. Sony’s entry is the A7r IV, while Nikon’s Z7 and Canon’s new EOS- R5 are important competitors. Fujifilm, as always doing their own thing, offers what I call superslide cameras in this range – their GFX range uses 33x44mm image sensors that are larger than conventional full-frame. If you’re making the commitment to a pixel monster and the printer it goes with, expect the very best in color, resolution and dynamic range – examine print samples carefully, and see what you like. Their video capabilities range from underwhelming (the GFX 50r and 50s don’t shoot 4K) to the new EOS-R5, which shoots 8K RAW video and 4K at 120 frames per second. Sony and Nikon pixel monsters offer similar video to their general- purpose cameras, while Fujifilm’s GFX100 shoots very good 4K with a unique look that some filmmakers are falling for.
Dedicated video: Some manufacturers are building camcorders or digital cinema cameras that merely look like still cameras from the outside, while others are integrating very high-end video features into still cameras. Sony has taken the approach of building a truly dedicated video camera with the A7s III, while Canon has put high-end video modes into the hybrid EOS-R5. Nikon really doesn’t have an offering in the upper end of the video world, while Fujifilm’s X-T4 is right on the line between the top end of “normal” video and truly high-end pro video. Panasonic has been building hybrids and video cameras for years, while folks like Blackmagic and RED compete with the names we all know. Expect 4K60p or above at a very high bitrate, with beyond 4K modes common but not universal. Because the bitrates are so high, many of these cameras will use odd memory card formats, and those that use SD use only the fastest UHS-II cards. Many, but not all of these video cameras are also great still cameras.
Dedicated sports: Sony offers the extremely fast A9 series, while Canon and Nikon still offer large, dual-grip DSLRs as their solution to the very fastest autofocus and frame rates. Olympus has been the other mirrorless competitor clearly in this range with their E-M1 line, while the Fujifilm X-T4, a general-purpose camera, comes close, especially with Fujifilm’s nearly unique 200mm f2.0 lens on it.
The most recent stills news is that Nikon has released the Z5, their answer to Canon’s EOS-RP and Sony’s older A7 II at the bottom end of full frame. Canon and Nikon have released newly designed low-end cameras, while Sony moved a model down in price. Nikon needed a camera in this price range, and the specifications look like a very high percentage of the well-respected Z6 at a substantial discount. The body looks almost identical to a Z6, including the dual dials and focus point joystick, except that the mode dial has moved from the left to the right side, displacing the top info screen. It is refreshing to see an entry model retain the full control scheme of its big brothers and sisters. It is not an identical body, using polycarbonate in places instead of the full magnesium frame of the Z6 and Z7, but it is quite close. Nikon claims a similar level of weather sealing, too.
One notable difference is that the Z5 uses an older technology, non BSI sensor with a slower readout than the Z6. The 4K video mode features a substantial crop, likely due to the slower sensor readout. It’s also a slower camera than the Z6, although not a slow one – its 4.5 frames per second would have been considered very fast all through the film era and still relatively speedy for much of the digital era. Remember that Nikon never made a film camera faster than 4.5 fps outside of the pro single-digit F series. The F3 with its MD-4 motor drive and theF4 were around 5.5 fps, while the F5 and the F6 with an optional battery pack hit 8 fps, but the F100 was 4.5 fps. Canon made a few faster cameras, but not many. It’s entirely acceptable for an entry-level camera today – and it’s more than fast enough unless you’re shooting sports. We’ve gotten used to cameras in the 8-10 fps range, and even faster with electronic shutters, and we forget that these speeds aren’t needed for most photography.
Nikon also released two notable accessories with the Z5 – a 24-50mm f4-6.3 zoom lens and a new version of the EN-EL15 battery. The lens is disappointingly slow, especially because it has no telephoto reach at all – it isn’t even a portrait lens at the long end. The positive tradeoff is compactness – it’s about the smallest and lightest full-frame zoom I’m aware of, and it’s actually very close in size and weight to a typical APS-C 18-55mm kit zoom (although not to the diminutive Sony 16-50mm power zoom). It’s about 1/3 smaller and lighter than lenses like Fuji’s APS-C 18-55mm f2.8-4 “super kit zoom”. To find a full-frame zoom around the same size, I first checked Nikon’s classic old 35-70mm f3.3-4.5 from the film era – nope, that’s about the size of the Fujinon. I then wondered about 1980’s Olympus – something from the era when the OM-2n was about the smallest SLR around? Sure enough, there was an Olympus Zuiko 35-70mm f3.5- 4.5 that was right about this size. It’s also about the size and weight of a typical DSLR 50mm f1.8 – not anywhere near the size of a modern “super 50” like the Z-mount 50mm, and certainly not in the same league with the Sigma Art or the Otus. This lens is the size of a classic six or seven element “nifty fifty”!
The news about the new EN-EL15c battery is that it has taken a major capacity jump… The current EN-EL15b is a 1900 mAh battery, as are its predecessors going back to the original EN-EL15. The EN-EL15c is a 2280 mAh battery, around a 20% improvement. That capacity is possible in that case size – it’s exactly the same capacity and a very similar size to Sony’s NP- FZ100, which is the best mirrorless battery on the market. Third-party EN-EL15 clones that claim over 2000 mAh are generally padding their ratings, but Nikon’s have always been accurate – this is almost certainly a high-capacity battery using premium cells like the Sony. Will Nikons using the new battery achieve the same kind of battery life newer Sonys are getting? The CIPA specs suggest not – Nikon lags Sony by more than 20%, but I’ve always gotten well over CIPA battery life on my Z7, and I don’t know Sony gear well enough to know whether it beats its ratings by a similar percentage.
In video news, Blackmagic shocked the world with a 12K camera! The new URSA Mini Pro 12K is a six pound, $10,000 camera that shoots 12,288×6480 resolution RAW video at 60 frames per second as well as 8K 120p and 4K 220p slow motion. 12K is the claimed resolution equivalent of IMAX film, so, if this lives up to its specifications, it’s quite something – an IMAX camera for less than the cost of renting one for a week (not to mention that the lightest version of the film camera weighs around 50 lbs, and that IMAX film and processing costs are somewhere around $1000 per minute). I’ve got the beast scheduled for a few weeks for review in the fall, and I’ll be using it to explore the convergence of stills and video, shooting everything from slow motion to time lapse. Of course, there is no way of displaying 12K video at full resolution outside of Mission Control in Houston!
Blackmagic claims excellent dynamic range and color, and those are claims to be checked quite carefully – this is the densest sensor we’ve seen yet on any interchangeable lens camera (still or video) – more than twice as dense as Micro 4/3’s Same Old Sensor, and a little more than 10% denser than the 20 MP Sony 1” sensor from the RX100 and RX10 series, which made it into the interchangeable lens world in a few Nikon 1s. It is, however, less than half the density of even a “large-pixel” phone sensor like that found in the latest iPhones, and it is a fraction of the density of high-density phone sensors. Is this a very large phone sensor, or is this Omnimax?
Sony just released their new A7s III, which only shoots 4K, without any high-pixel modes – but what 4K… There are various high-bitrate modes, as well as the ability to shoot 4K120p. With an external recording device, it can output 16-bit RAW video. Unlike Canon’s approach in which high-end video and top-end stills are combined in a single camera, the A7s III has a major drawback for certain uses as a still camera – it’s a 12 MP camera… Those big pixels are likely to mean that it’s a very low-noise still camera, and it has an extremely high maximum ISO – 409,600. On the other hand, 12 megapixels means that it only captures 1⁄4 the detail of today’s detail leaders among full-frame still cameras, which hover between 45 and 50 megapixels, with the A7r IV at 60. For social media, that’s absolutely fine, but if you’re printing, the A7s III is limited well below where most other cameras are. There are even screens, with the most common one being various versions of the 5K iMac, that display more than 12 MP. This is a dedicated video camera, and very early indications are that it might be a great one.
One of Sony’s major focuses in the A7r III seems to have been heat management. It doesn’t have a fan, which is a good thing for a couple of reasons if you can manage the heat without it. First, a whirring fan is obviously a distraction on a quiet set. Second, a fan makes weather sealing much harder. Sony press releases and the first users of the A7s III both suggest that it can record over an hour without overheating in any mode.
Canon appears to be having serious issues with heat management in the EOS-R5 and even the R6, where the extremely high-specification video modes have very short record times, and even modes that any modern camera should be able to handle are generating some reports of overheating. Opinions differ, and I have never handled an R5 myself – some who have say that the high-spec video is highly usable for the type of use it’s designed for (filmmaking with short takes), while others say that the overheating is quick and unpredictable enough that many of the video modes are unusable. There are an increasing number of reports that Canon will be delaying availability to work on the cooling. I’ll certainly be testing the heat management when I test the EOS-R5 – hopefully I have one in my hands before winter makes cooling tests less easy. Given Canon’s struggles, and various other cameras with capable video modes having heat restrictions, Sony’s decision to really prioritize the A7s III’s thermals may well have been a sensible one. While it means that they are stuck with a split system where their top video camera has a serious drawback for stills and their top stills camera is a capable, but not extremely high-end video camera, the split means that there are less compromises.
Absent the 12 MP stills, many hybrid photo-video users would be likely to prefer Sony’s video modes over Canon’s. For the time being, and probably for the next several years, playing back any form of beyond-4K video is a very difficult proposition. YouTube supports some very limited 8K streaming, but almost no content is available, and the only possible playback configuration is a high-end gaming PC or possibly a Mac Pro driving an 8K TV. Users of 8K cameras can play their own footage back the same way, but that is literally the only possibility apart from direct from the camera to an 8K TV. Practically, the only current use for 8K footage is for custom displays where display, streaming computer and image are a package. Given that 4K streaming is brand new, and that 4K broadcast still pretty much doesn’t exist, it will be at least five years and perhaps ten until 8K is mainstream. Ignoring the 8K mode, the difference between Canon’s and Sony’s video modes comes down to Canon offering higher bitrates and some additional flexibility, but at the cost of very short recording times, due to both enormous files (lower bitrate selections on the Canon are relatively limited at this time) and heat.
Of course, the skunk in the living room is those 12 MP stills. The EOS-R5 is a true still/video hybrid, and with the short record times may even be more of a still camera with some exceptional, but limited video modes. The first comparison shots online in controlled conditions show a camera that is very much in the running in the increasingly competitive high- pixel count segment. It will be very interesting to see more files, and to photograph with it myself. The A7s III is a dedicated video/cinema camera with limited convenience still features – without having used it, I can’t tell for sure, but the limited resolution suggests that it will probably be the least capable non-Micro 4/3 camera on the market to print from.
Except at very high ISOs above 12800 or so, I’d far rather have 24-26 MP APS-C with a decent lens (Fujifilm with most lenses or something else with a well-selected lens) than 12 MP full-frame. Even five years ago when the A7s II came out, the very low stills resolution made it more of a movie camera that also shot stills than a real hybrid. With todays high-resolution still cameras, that is even more true. A true hybrid Sony system would include both A7r IV (or other stills-focused bodies for different priorities) and A7s III bodies and a set of lenses and accessories tthat they can share. It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that Sony designed their system this way because of overheating – they may have looked at a high-resolution hybrid and decided that they couldn’t cool it to their standards of reliability.
Video cameras in still camera bodies raise the question of how we design cameras in general… Why does a camera look like a small box with a prism hump in the middle (that no longer contains a prism)? Why is a camera about 5 inches/130mm wide? Why does it have a right hand grip where it does, shaped as it is? Lens mounts define the middle of the body, and they are unlikely to change or move.
When Oskar Barnack first designed the orginal ur-Leica in 1914, it was 133 mm wide, which gave enough room for the film transport, without winding the film too tightly or putting the bend too close to the film gate. A Sony A7r IV is 129mm wide, a Nikon Z7 is 134mm wide and a Canon EOS-R5 is 138mm wide. Even with a smaller sensor, a Fujifilm X-T4 is 135mm wide, and the little Olympus E-M5 III is 125mm wide. We aren’t winding the sensor from the cartridge onto the take-up reel, so why are cameras still the same width? Early digital cameras were built into film camera bodies, but the current crop are many generations removed from any sort of a film transport.
The prism hump really joined us with the Nikon F in 1959 – although there had been a few earlier 35mm SLRs, some of which had eye-level prisms, none of them were huge sellers. Just like the film transport, it served a purpose – the reflex mirror had to be at least 24x36mm, and it needed to project into a prism of similar size to get the image to your eye. That prism was simpleto put directly above the mirror – anywhere else would have required some complex transfer optics. There have been a few side-viewing SLRs that use horizontally moving mirrors, both film and digital, over the years (perhaps most recently, some of the Olympus E-series 4/3 DSLRs). Prism-less SLRs where the photographer looks directly down on the focusing screen have been more common, especially in medium format. While some currently sold digital cameras are SLRs, many are using a small TV screen as a viewfinder, and that could be anywhere, it could be detachable, and it could even be wireless.
The right hand grip was originally full of batteries, and it still is. We first saw substantial right-hand grips on cameras with external motor drives in the 1970s, and the grip often contained the batteries, as well as offering a gripping surface and a shutter button in the now- familiar location. In the early and mid 1980s, cameras like the Canon T70 started to offer built- in powered film advance, which needed much larger batteries than just a button cell or two to power the meter. The batteries often ended up in the grip, and they are very often still there, along with memory cards. Not only are chunky grips useful for holding and controlling cameras, they are the easiest way to squeeze in the 2000+ mAh batteries that power it all.
Even with the lens mount fixed and the battery needing to go somewhere, there are still more possible designs. A 130mm wide box with a right-hand grip is a pretty good design for a lot of still photo applications, and the viewfinder in the “prism” hump is a workable place to put it, although I’ve never understood why side-mount finders in the classic rangefinder location aren’t more popular. The finder probably can’t go in the middle of the body without the hump – there are enough optics that it wouldn’t fit with the sensor and stabilizer assembly taking up space in there.
Why do video-focused cameras still look like still cameras? The 130mm wide box with a grip is not an especially good design for video, although it is a pretty good one for stills. Movie cameras traditionally had a different shape, much of which was to accommodate the much longer reel of film and the motors and gears that pulled it through the camera at the right speed – but they also fit on the cinematographer’s shoulder. They have often been operated from a side handle when handheld, with some smaller models operated from a bottom handle instead.
Should something like an A7s III or a GH5 look like a still camera so it’s easy for a still photographer to transition to, or for a photographer who shoots both stills and video to pick up interchangeably with a still camera from the same maker? There is an argument for this – the fact that an A7s III behaves a great deal like an A7r IV is useful, and whether or not it overrides the best design for its purpose is a choice each photographer and videographer needs to make. Should a modern video camera look like some form of traditional movie camera? Should it be a smaller version of the box design of REDs and some other digital cinema cameras, essentially unusable without accessories attached – but the accessories can go anywhere?
What should a camera look like in 2020, especially one that is trying to satisfy both still and video needs? One interesting possibility is some version of the design the Sigma fp is pioneering. It’s significantly smaller than a typical full-frame camera, and it’s missing some pieces that a camera really needs for most uses. It has no viewfinder other than the rear screen, and it has essentially no grip at all, allowing the photographer to add one of their choice. It looks like a full-frame version of something like a Sony a5100 or one of the smallest Olympus Pen models. It has no less than three tripod mounts, allowing easy attachment of some accessories. It also has a couple of important flaws. Removing the grip without providing power connections for accessory grips put the battery in the main body, and that means a compact- camera-sized battery that doesn’t power the hungry full-frame sensor for long.
A more practical approach might be to keep the battery in the grip, but let photographers choose what kind of grip and where it goes. Many photographers will prefer a classic right hand grip (Sigma offers one, but it doesn’t contain a battery – missed opportunity there). Some will prefer a left grip instead, because not all photographers are right handed. If there were battery and control couplings available on both the right and left sides of the camera, grips could come in a variety of sizes and handednesses. The camera might still accept a small battery in the body, or a small battery holder that isn’t a grip – for situations like flying on a drone where no grip at all is desirable. Videographers might use dual grips for stability and extended battery life – some cinema cameras are rigged that way for handheld shooting. Put contacts on the bottom as well, and a bottom-grip design like an 8mm movie camera becomes a possibility. Most control on modern cameras is electronic – a few lenses have truly mechanical aperture or focus, but not many – so the control points could be located anywhere convenient on body or grip, and they could be configurable.
Sigma also neglects to offer a true viewfinder – they have a magnifying hood for the screen, but nothing more. If there were a detachable electronic viewfinder, it could be repositionable, rotating and tilting. If the connection were wireless (or an extension cable were available as an accessory), the finder could even be used off-camera when that made sense. Even if the range were short (a cable, Bluetooth, or some proprietary wireless solution), a detachable finder would facilitate awkward camera placements. And if it had a longer range (Wi-Fi), it could even be a remote finder with the camera on a drone or a similar situation.
Something like the Sigma fp, but improved in those ways, could offer a great deal of flexibility for both still and video use. Optional grips or other modules could also allow features like GPS or cellular connectivity. Cellular in particular is controversial, because some photographers say “I’d love my camera to have an upload to Instagram button – my phone can do that”, while others say “yet another device that adds $10 per month onto my phone plan, and for what – to make it easier for Facebook to steal my images for ads?” I’m personally mostly in the second category, but I know plenty of photographers in the first – sports shooters, for starters. Having cellular as an optional module built into a grip would let manufacturers have it both ways. Any cellular module should be versatile – it should support social media uploads, of course – but also things like Dropbox, iCloud and OneDrive, and it should have the ability to add upload sites the manufacturer didn’t think of (like your newspaper’s upload server – collective sigh of relief from every photojournalist in the world).
Cameras need new software, too. I don’t think we should give in to the incentive to “just make it like a cell phone”. I’d MUCH rather have a real shutter speed dial (whether marked Fujifilm-style or a command dial like most other manufacturers use) than something where I have to look at a touch screen. On the other hand, look at your favorite camera’s menus, and then at an iPhone (Apple makes really nice interfaces). Could every camera maker in the world learn from that example? Sure! Why not have functions organized logically, instead of long lists of custom functions left over from film cameras where we were trying to navigate with minimal screens? Quick menu systems could look like a phone’s grid of icons, and Leica (of all manufacturers) has taken some steps in that direction. Sony also has new menus in the A7s III, and they’re more logically organized than anything we’ve previously seen.
In terms of new software functions, I’m content to have the AI-based image enhancements that phones love on the computer instead of in-camera. Today’s cameras save raw data in stills mode, and a few do the same in video mode as well – with a raw file, there is no advantage to doing manipulations in-camera (and it’s not actually a true raw if it’s been manipulated). I’d rather do that work on a fast computer with a big monitor than right in the camera. We do need to make the connections between cameras and phones work better, and that is both on the camera side and on the camera-maker app in the phone. Why can’t Apple Photos and Google Photos accommodate uploading (and even camera control) from the major camera manufacturers? Surely the camera makers can come up with code that Apple and Google can include in their photo apps, instead of requiring Fujifilm Cam Remote, Nikon Snapbridge, Sony Imaging Edge and Canon Camera Connect. The phone makers already have decent mobile photo management – why should the camera makers reinvent the wheel?