Monday, 7 January 2013

From the competition

While I use the Micro Four Thirds system myself, there is no denying that I watch what is happening in the competition. Here are some of my personal reflections on the market.

Premium compacts


Back in the mid 2000's, Panasonic ruled the premium compact segment with their LX series, along with the Leica branded versions of the same cameras. Other brands also wanted a part of this cake. Canon re-launched their S-series, with S90, S95, and so on.

Recently, Samsung broke the f/1.4 barrier with their EX2F premium compact with a 1/1.7" sensor. However, it was not long until Panasonic trumped this with LX7, with an even longer zoom range, and a larger aperture in the long end to boot. How could Panasonic pull this off, given that both use a 1/1.7" sensor?


Samsung EX2FPanasonic LX7

One explanation is that while both the Samsung EX2F and the Panasonic LX7 uses the same sensor size, their lenses do not project the same image circles. The LX7 has a multi aspect feature, which means that the corners of the sensor are never used: The lens projects an image circle smaller than the sensor diagonal. And with a smaller image circle, it is easier to design a lens with a longer zoom range, and a larger aperture.

Recently, Pentax announced the MX-1, which is similarly specified as the EX2F and the LX7, although the lens starts at 28mm equivalent at f/1.8, both less impressive. So how can it compete against the Panasonic LX7 and Sony RX100, the latter with an 1" sensor? Do Pentax expect that the nostalgic retro design will do it?

The Pentax MX-1 also shares the lens and sensor specifications with Olympus XZ-2, and they are probably based on the same components, but with different body styling.



Pentax MX-1Sony RX100

Canon


When the Panasonic GH1 was introduced back in 2009, it was the first consumer interchangeable lens system camera which could autofocus during video recording. Canon has noted the importance of being able to autofocus effectively during video recording, and launched a new series of lenses with STM motors, optimized for silent focusing during video.

Also, the new consumer DSLR, the 650D features an image sensor including photosites capable of phase detection autofocus (PDAF), which has the potential of improving the autofocus performance when the mirror is up, e.g., for video recording.

In terms of mirrorless cameras, Canon first launched the G1X, a large sensor compact with a non-interchange zoom lens. Based on the sensor specifications, one can speculate that it has the same sensor as the Panasonic GH1.

Now that Sony launched the RX100, with a slightly smaller sensor, but a much faster lens is a far more compact package, I'd say the Canon G1X is dead in the water. The Sony RX100 appears to be a more sensible alternative.

When Canon did launch the Canon EOS M camera, their interchangeable lens mirrorless camera system, it was surprising to see that they went for the APS-C sensor format, since the G1X had a smaller sensor.

Canon EOS M

The Canon EOS M also uses the on-sensor PDAF and STM lens technology. However, when testing it, I was not very impressed with the autofocus speed.

One advantage with this camera, over similar mirrorless cameras from other manufacturers, is that you can use any Canon EF lens with the "Canon Mount adapter EF-EOS M". Autofocus, aperture handling, and image stabilization works just fine when you put the adapter between the lens and the camera, even for old Canon EF lenses from the 1980's. You also get EXIF data in your images. The autofocus cannot be expected to be as fast as when using the Canon EF lenses on a Canon DSLR camera, though.

Sony


Sony was rather early into the mirrorless camera market, with their NEX series. The first batch of cameras were rather strange: With a glossy metal surface, no built in flash, a minimum of buttons, and a weird flash connector. One could almost think that they were designed to cause confusion in the market, rather than be actual products.

But the recent Sony NEX 6 changes the picture for me: Here is a camera that looks and feels like a camera, with a good grip, more buttons and wheels, a proper flash connector socket. And there is even a viewfinder in the corner, to keep those who like the rangefinder style happy:

Sony NEX 6

With a collapsible lens as well, this is a very powerful package.

Samsung


Just like Sony, Samsung were quite early in the mirrorless camera market. So far, I think their cameras have appeared a bit immature. However, they have churned out an impressive variety of lenses. Their most recent is a 3D capable 45mm f/1.8:

Samsung 45mm f/1.8 3D

Contrary to the Lumix 12.5mm f/12 3D lens, the Samsung 45mm only has one lens unit. It achieves 3D recording during video by masking off the left/right half of the aperture for alternate image frames. This making the camera see the subject from slightly different perspectives on alternate frames, suitable for composing a 3D video.

Compared with the Lumix 12.5mm f/12 3D lens, it has a proper aperture mechanism, and an actual focus mechanism. This makes the lens much more useful. However, due to the strange but innovative 3D system, the 3D base is still very small, probably around 1cm, just like the Lumix lens. This means that the 3D effect will still be fairly limited. Unlike the Lumix lens, though, this lens also makes good sense for ordinary 2D images. The 3D part may be mostly a gimmick, but this is still quite exciting.

Fujifilm


Sigma pioneered the large sensor compact camera segment with the Sigma DP series with Foveon sensors. While this was an innovative piece of technology, the cameras never seemed to deliver in terms of handling, image quality, or value for money.

The Fujifilm X100 got this segment rolling when released in 2010. While the responsiveness and autofocus speed was not stellar, the retro design made up for it, and it brought the large sensor compact to the masses. Well, to a select part of the masses, anyway.

In the very start of 2013, the updated version Fujifilm X100s gets announced. While the exterior is similar, it updates the sensor resolution, and not least, it adds PDAF to the imaging sensor, for better autofocus performance.

Fujifilm X100s

Given that Fujifilm were early users of the PDAF on imaging sensor technology, one could say that it was about time they put this to use in their cash cow camera system.

Nikon


Nikon, together with Canon, forms the Big Two group, in terms of serious DSLR systems. They launched their Nikon 1 mirrorless system fairly early. In the beginning, it did not look like much, with a handful of standard zoom lenses, and a slow wide angle prime.

At this time, though, they have added a wide angle zoom lens 6.7-13mm, and a 18.5mm f/1.8 fast portrait lens, among others. This seems like a good start for the lens lineup.

Their cameras have improves as well. The first wave of cameras did not look convincing in terms of ergonomics. But the Nikon 1 V2 looks better, with a sensible grip and viewfinder

Nikon 1 V2

Right from the start, the Nikon 1 cameras had an electronic shutter feature. In fact, only the V1 and V2 have a mechanical shutter at all. I have not heard much about rolling shutter artefacts, so I am guessing that Nikon have implemented a faster rolling shutter sequential sensor readout than the Panasonic GH3, which suffers from severe rolling shutter with electronic shutter.

The Nikon lineup also contains a compact standard zoom lens at 30-110mm, which receives good reviews. When combined with the PDAF capable cameras, I'm sure this is an interesting combination to bring for sports photography. The lack of PDAF makes photographing moving objects quite challenging with Micro Four Thirds.

Nikon had a big volume success with the D40 in 2006. It was a small, light DSLR. Given the market standard at the time, it came with a fairly low 6 mega pixel count, and was renowned for the good high ISO image quality. One could say that the first wave of Nikon 1 cameras copy this strategy. Again, we are seeing a lower than standard mega pixel count. While most of the competition are showing 16MP and more, the Nikon 1 J1 and Nikon 1 V1 only came with 10MP.

Leica


With the Leica M9, they have a monopoly: An interchangeable compact camera with a fullformat 36mm x 24mm sensor. No other manufacturer can match that, at the moment.

Still, the competition is getting closer. Sony RX1 features a fullframe sensor, but with a fixed 35mm f/2 lens. It's probably just a matter of time before somebody launch a mirrorless system with a fullframe sensor and autofocus.

Anticipating this competition, Leica have launched their M-E camera, a lower cost alternative. And for the high end, the Leica M has got a 24MP sensor, and even live view and video, a first for the Leica M series.

Leica M

Beyond making their own cameras, Leica also lend their name out to Panasonic. Many Panasonic cameras have a Leica-branded lens, and also the Panasonic-Leica 45mm f/2.8 1:1 macro lens and Panasonic-Leica 25mm f/1.4 Micro Four Thirds lenses have the Leica co-branding.

One could guess that this is a mutually benefiting relationship between them: Panasonic gets the credibility and marketing benefits from using the Leica name, and Leica gets the additional volume and diversity from rebranding Panasonic cameras like the LX series of high end compact cameras.

Nikon and Canon don't need this type of rebranding. Their names are credible enough even without them. On the other hand, we have Sony using the Zeiss name, and Samsung using the Schneider-Kreuznach name on their lenses.

Panasonic started this back in the Four Thirds day, with their premium lenses being Lecia branded. Now, though, their self confidence appears to have increased, as they have released premium lenses without the Leica name, e.g., the Lumix X 12-35mm f/2.8 and Lumix X 35-100mm f/2.8.

While this strategy brings cash to Leica, no doubt, it is also a dangerous route. In the longer run, it risks lowering the perceived value of the Leica brand. Other premium brands have done the same, e.g., Ferrari, which have sold their name for use on toys, clothing, and even computer accessories. Rolex, on the other hand, have never licensed their name for use on other objects than their own watches.

No comments:

Post a Comment