DSLR State Of The Union 2010

The beginning of a new year and the beginning of a new decade. How many remember 2000? There was no Canon DSLR but there was the Nikon D1. The speculation back then was Canon was under a contract with Kodak that would not allow Canon to release a pro level DSLR until the contract expired. Nikon ruled the “camera airwaves” and people were wondering – where’s Canon???

But things change.

Looking back over the last 10 years on a year by year basis though, Canon came back and basically sucker punched Nikon, Kodak, and anyone else that had a business of making cameras. Canon made their own sensors, went contrarian and turned away from CCD technology and took on CMOS technology, tamed the noisier CMOS technology and built it up to be their champion. Canon’s CMOS champion went on to knock-out everyone else in the camera league and took king of the hill title year after year.

But things change.

Canon had become the only remaining nuclear superpower in the camera world. Ironically though, Canon was unbelievable dethroned by a number of moves that were both within Canon’s control and some moves not in Canon’s control. That last part is arguable. Nikon and the rest of the camera manufacturing world had to live with second class camera sensors while Canon dished out the good stuff,  the stuff that would be the answer to the statement “over my dead body” or “you couldn’t pry my (non-Canon) camera out of my cold dead hands”.

But things change.

For some companies “hell” finally froze over. Their response to Canon’s dominance was to dish out mounds and mounds of features, build quality, bells and whistles and hope there were enough people in the world that would only shoot at base ISO to keep them alive. Some didn’t make it. Kodak has left the DSLR camera building. Fuji has also left the building. Mergers were piling up like extra cheese on hamburgers. Fuji, which is basically a sensor company now should be making a mini 4/3rd camera and they should be selling sensors to Olympus – why that’s not happening I don’t know.

But the real story here isn’t the truth of the history, it is the irony of how some of this stuff actually played out. While companies like B&H Photo were building themselves up to be Empire State building in camera sales, giving service, price and unbashfully great customer service, Canon took some very queer side-roads and ultimately found themselves in trouble.

Canon created the best sensor. That put them on top. Canon’ marketing department, or whatever department the decision-makers lived in however placed into policy that the consumer’s “payment” for having the best possible sensor was features. Canon went on to dribble out features slowly and spanning them over the years as new camera models came out. It took 2 or 3 camera purchases of Canon cameras to obtain features that in many minds should have been out quite early on. The public knew this and I have heard many times a resentment on this policy.

In my opinion this policy eroded good will towards Canon. While Nikon and other companies did not have a sensor to equal the quality or high ISO abilities earlier in the past decade, they were building good will and brand loyalty. A day would eventually come when somebody someplace would come up with the technology to equal the Canon supremacy in sensor ability and Canon’s policies could very well come home to bit them in their collective behind.

The day came when the Nikon D3 was announced. Nikon announced the D3 and it was the camera shot heard around the world. I fact I remember thinking “how can that be?” I honestly thought it must have been some new kind of marketing hype. Everyone knew nobody could deliver high ISO like Canon. At ISO 800 and higher it was Canon’s world and lots of photographers and high end enthusiasts did a lot of shooting at those higher ISO settings. I remember reading the first reports of people who were first hand seeing huge prints from the Nikon D3 cameras how they were amazed these images were coming from something other than a Canon camera. They were coming from a Nikon!!! After so many years – Nikon did it, and they did it big.

Most would think Canon would have taken up the challenge right then and there and exercise their R&D muscle and kick back hard. You would think that right? But to me it seemed Canon went into denial and as a response gave us a crippled version of Auto-ISO and went back to their ho hum world. Okay, that was a bit of an over-exaggeration but what really happened was Canon put out the EOS 1D Mark III and in staying true to their own thinking of giving less instead of more, Canon put out a 10 megapixel camera and probably intended to “step” us up through the next year or 2 (remember the canon 1D Mark IIn?) to a 1D Mark IIIn giving us a little more than 10 megapixels.

Nikon gave us everything they had – right up front, the full monty. A full frame 12 megapixel camera, better high ISO than Canon (gasp) features dripping out the nose up the back and oozing out the side, an LCD that was jaw dropping beautiful, and build quality that made it feel like it was carved out of a solid piece of metal. No dribbling a few features per model upgrade, no holding back.

But my mother always warned me to wear clean underwear cause ya never know when you could be in an accident. As people started to compare the cool new Canon 1D Mark III to a clearly superior Nikon D3 an unscheduled unfortunate turn of events happened. The actually design of the Canon 1D Mark III proved to have a problem with it’s focus system and a fire storm of internet activity exposed the problem around the world in a matter of days. The flagship on the Canon side became flawed in the minds of many and the good will Nikon had been building up over the years came into play and a surprising number of people switched to shooting Nikon.

Canon eventually issued a recall of the 1D Mark III, the first of 2, while Nikon issued a Nikon D700. Canon, still maintaining their old ways of doing things, released a 5D Mark II. Same old Canon methods, a new sensor and very very little features. The sensor on the 5D Mark II was and is amazing, but the body was the same 3 year old technology. Same focus system, crippled auto-ISO, a consumer level camera with a highly pro level sensor. But Canon did introduce movies. HD level video came to Canon and it was received with welcome arms. The video though seemed to miss some of the important points but then so did the Nikon video. Video though is new and developing, so it gets to have time to settle in and we will see how the dust settles on this feature.

Arriving to today. Here is my overview to what is right and what is wrong with the major players and the state of the camera industry as I see it.

Canon:

Canon has finally answered the Nikon upheaval. It took almost 3 years, but in the meantime they had to pull double duty of addressing the issues of the 1D Mark III while developing the 1D Mark IV. There are 2 schools of thought, Canon deserves a pat on the back for not abandoning the 1D Mark III owners and working diligently to correct what went wrong with the 1D3 – or – shame on Canon for using the general public as a beta test center for itself. I stated both thoughts, as Fox states – you decided. it cannot be denied though Canon put in the effort to correct the problem and for many people turned a lemon into a lemonade.

What’s right with Canon With the new 7D and 1D Mark IV things are turning around. When I got the new 7D in hand I announced that it was a home run for Canon. It was a camera that should have been out 3 years ago. it looks like the “scrooge” policy of dribbling out features is being left behind – thankfully – and the camera now has features where there probably never would be if it weren’t for Nikon. Funny how a company like Canon will react to Nikon better than it will react to it’s own clients asking for stuff for YEARS. Ever hear of Michael Reichmann? He has echoed the thought for many years now that the pro level Canon’s need a quick method for mirror lock-up. Have we ever gotten it? Nope. It is almost like a requested item will purposely NOT be given to us. Seems kind of silly. Oh, Nikon DOES have a quick mirror lock-up method.

Back to business though, the 7D gave a taste of what the upcoming new 1D Mark IV might be like and things were starting to be hopeful for Canon loyalists again. It’s funny because even the Canon loyalists were so down on themselves most of them seemed to be asleep to the potential the 7D presented to them. Until the 1D4 came out I personally believe the 7D was the best buy the Canon line had to offer. It still is an awesome buy when you consider the price of the 7D verses the price of the 1D4.

Canon strengths –

2 new cameras, the 7D and the 1D4. Both winners and both a departure from too little too late. Features are now there that were not there before. Still no mirror lock-up, but auto-ISO has arrived and the focus system has departed the 8 year old way of Canon soft focus.

Canon has excellent wide angle primes and it seems there are more on the way. There are many fast pro level primes at F/1.4 and faster.

Canon has a wonderful focus point layout, and with the 1D Mark IV it works well. the 7D works well too but you need to make sure the calibration is correct.

It’s about time I can say this but, Canon has a top of the line focus system again with both the 7D and the new 1D4.

Canon weakness:

Build quality on Canon has always been suspect. Has it improved with the 1D4 – time will tell.

Canon zooms leave a lot to be desired. The 24-70L is a staple of a lens for a huge number of photographers yet compared to it’s Nikon counterpart the 24-70L is a poor lens. I have a spanking brand new 24-70L on my desk right now. Comparing the results of that lens to the Nikon 24-70 lens also on my desk is almost a joke. The 24-70L is a deal breaker for me, I would need to use primes to use the Canon system on pro level work. The 24-70L on the new 1D4 looks sharp and you can smile when you use it (while on other Canon bodies it just plain performs poorly) until you pull up an image made with Nikon’s version of this lens. Compare the 2 images and you will say “what the heck???” Canon – you need to address the MAIN lens in your line-up. What about video shooters? No stabilization is any standard lens for use with video? The video looks jumpy and jerky when you hand hold with a 24-70 or any fast prime. Oh yes, the 24-105L right? And what is that – an F/4.0 lens – lol. What’s point, buy a camcorder. The new HD video ability in the 5D2, 7D, and 1D4 demand lenses to take advantage of what you can do with those cameras – where are the lenses. Looking, looking, looking . . . nope, can’t find them.

Canon’s 50mm f/1.4 lens is old technology. It is a main lens, yet has yet to be updated and does NOT pass through distance information to it’s ETTL-II flash system.

Canon does not have a high end pro level camera that is full frame and on par with the 1D series in the smaller form factor. Many fellow photographers experienced the smaller light weight camera body of the Nikon D700 or the Canon 5D Mark II and want a pro level camera in the smaller form. This started a long time ago when rumors rose up and keep rising up about an EOS 3 Digital. Again, because it was not Canon’s idea first it is possible we may never see this along with the requested quick mirror lock up feature.

None of the DSLR cameras have a 1 button instant white balance button. White balance is critical, so what’s up with that. Well, auto ISO is also an important part of exposure and we didn’t get that until now, so don’t hold your breath.

Nikon:

Nikon has moved out of problem of not having a sensor to compete with Canon straight to being king of the hill. What a magnificent move. People were still shooting with their D200 bodies which was far advanced to Canon cameras but were restricted to ISO 800 and lower in order for detail not to be destroyed in their images. Then the D3 hit with a huge bang.

I remember calling the Nikon D3 the REAL upgrade to the original Canon 5D. A full frame 12 megapixel sensor and features Canon people could only dream about. This camera took Nikon out of  second place straight into the lead. Ironically, Nikon didn’t operate like Canon and gave their people lots of fantastic features. The Nikon shooter was and is a very loyal person to Nikon and Nikon shooters were holding on and waiting for years hoping Nikon would break Canon’s hold on sensor technology. And Nikon did.

Although Nikon seems to be getting their sensors from Sony, designed to Nikon’s specs, the Nikon folks are able to get a lot more quality and response for the sensors than Sony can get from their own sensors.

Nikon arrived on the scene with the D3. It toppled the 1D Mark III out of top spot. Then Nikon released the Nikon D700. It was everything Canon people had wanted for years in an EOS 3 Digital. Well Nikon delivered. It is full frame, same sensor as the D3. Same focus system – their top Cam3500. Almost 95 percent of what a D3 is. What a terrific stroke of marketing genius.

Then Nikon came out with the D3X. While many people had already decided what the pricing point of this camera should be, Nikon thankfully did not play the internet management game and made their own decisions. The Nikon D3X, although using the Sony 25mp sensor, took that sensor and obtained quality from it that I think still leaves Sony scratching their heads over. The D3X without question was the only camera you could get pro level features, pro level quality, full frame, fully customizable, high end accurate focus system, modern LCD interaction, and top end build quality all in one camera. Others had some of this and some of that, but the D3X was the only game in town and still is where all of it comes into one body.

Nikon though has some glaring weaknesses. After 3 years – WHERE ARE THE FAST WIDE PRIMES. Goodness gracious, updating the lenses one at a time leaves so many Nikon shooters waiting and waiting for a pro level fast f/1.4 or faster prime lens. At least just ONE!!!!!

The Nikon 24-70G is probably the best auto-focus lens available today. The 14-24G is a marvel of a lens. The old 70-200VR was a darn good lens but the new VRII is amazing. But when it comes to primes Nikon seems to be asleep at the wheel. Most of the primes are old. However, even the old Nikkor lenses stand up to today’s modern lenses and that is quite a statement in itself. However, the new 50mm G is darn nice but slow in it’s focus. The 35mm f/2.0 is old, works well but is not a substitute for a fast f/1.4 pro level lens.

Canon has a 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.2, 85mm f/1.2 and so on. Nikon has NONE of those. The 50mm and 85mm are decent nice lenses so thank God for those, but under 50mm Nikon has the DISCONTINUED 28 f/1.4 lens. And this not one, not two, but three years after the start of the Nikon revolution with the D3 body! Wow, does Nikon think not very many people shoot with wide prime lenses???

Nikon also has a very poor layout of it’s auto focus points for the full frame cameras. Have they ever heard of the rule of thirds? Most enthusiast and pro level photographers try and offset the main subject in the frame to make the image look interesting or tell a story. Nikon comes in with three upright columns of the best focus points right snack in the middle of the viewfinder. That is just so wrong. Canon has always placed the high resolution focus points around the viewfinder frame. The new Canon 1D Mark IV has q9 high resolution focus points all around the viewfinder. Nikon’s are lined up straight up and down in 3 rows of 5 in the middle of the viewfinder. Gee wiz – it is focus and recompose city here at Nikon. Nikon should know better than that, they do, yet it still stands making it a big point of difference between it and Canon.

Having once had an external white balance sensor Nikon knows about white balance. So where is the pro level ONE BUTTON press to instantly white balance on the pro level cameras??? Nope, not there. Why not? Why doesn’t Canon or Nikon have a dedicated button to press and get an instant white balance lock? I dunno. Olympus had it. Nikon doesn’t.

Others:

Pentax. Pentax can’t decided whether to live or die, who will own it or who will run it. While having pockets of very nice features and stuff, it doesn’t have the drive to provide the basics for high end enthusiasts or pro level photographers. The focus system is below par, the lens selection is very dedicated to introductory buyers and they never seen to get that 4 or 5 basic staple lenses in their line-up. In body stabilization is so appealing, yet all the supporting lenses and abilities are not there. Although Pentax has noisy files, using the raw files will often get you more detail along with the noise than competing Canon or Nikon cameras. Use a nice software like Noiseware and you can actually be ahead using a Pentax. I can imagine being a field rep for Pentax, knowing you have some nice gear but never having the serious company behind you putting out the right selection of stuff to break into the Canon/Nikon market share.

I have eyed some of those pancake lenses and said dang, I wish I could use some of those. Pentax needs to straighten out it’s lens offerings, work on getting a fast low light focus system that can match or exceed Nikon/Canon and eventually evolve to a better sensor. I think with a standard list of primes and zooms and a high end focus system many would adopt the Pentax even with it’s current sensors. The built in stabilization is very very appealing. A pro level 24mm, 50mm and 85mm f/1.4 lens selection along with the stand zoom triplets of 17-35, 24-0, and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses would put Pentax in a strong position. Focus sytem has to be up to par though for low light and for tracking.

Olympus. Strangely I have always been attracted to Olympus colors. While a vast majority of my friends used to love the Fuji colors, I thought Olympus had the best facial tones and overall colors that was a step ahead. Olympus has a lot of secret stuff going for it, but they seem to be heading away from one market and into another. The mini-4 thirds is where they are going. Where Olympus has a huge lead is specifically 2 lenses that is head and shoulders above the rest. The 14-35 f/2.0 and the 35-100 f/2.0. That would be a normal 28-70 and a 70-200 lens for a full frame camera. But these are HIGH QUALITY zooms, equal to or better than Nikon or Canon counterparts – but they are at the amazing f/2.0 instead of f/2.8. Wow.

But what body to put them on? The E3 is a good start. It should have been update a long time ago and Olympus needs that body NOW with a great FAST low light accurate focus system that can amaze us in low lighting, tracking and accuracy along with the sensor in one of their most recent cameras. You would have the full frame crown going crazy as they could not fathom leaving their full frame cameras for a 2x crop sensor. But look at what you get – f/2.0 zoom lenses that are at the TOP of the heap of ALL lenses. A lens that is F/2 is a full stoop faster – or lets in TWICE as much light as an F/2.8 lens. Wow. A high end zoom lens at f/2. They need a body to go with it though.

But Olympus has instead concentrated on the EP1 and EP 2. Did they do a good job? Certainly. But did they put a stinky slow butt focus system in it? Certainly. Who run the thinking over there? Okay, EP1 has a slow focus system and I read that everywhere. So Olympus comes out with an EP2. Great focus system now right? Nope, same one. Duh. Should I go on? One day Canon or Nikon WILL come out with a new “range finder” normal size sensor and Olympus will have lost their advantage. Oh well, I would love to own the EP camera, but not if it takes a long long time to focus.

Sony. Wow, what huge steps forward for Sony. Some terrific lenses, the right lenses, pro level work. Image stabilization in full frame and crop frame bodies. Great. Trouble with Sony is they are aiming only and introductory and just a little tiny bit higher consumer. High end enthusiasts and pros will not give Sony a serious look. The flash system is a joke. It was a full joke, now it has advance to being only half a joke. They have improved still it is a total deal breaker for a pro like me. The hot shoe is weird. Okay, it not bad to be weird but they basically have knocked out 99.9 percent of the accessories available and the pre flash and the main flash are still way too far apart. Operation of the flash in some of the camera’s modes are not up to par for what a pro holding a Nikon or Canon camera to comfortably use on the Sony side of the aisle. Why I am even mentioning this is because the camera and lenses along with built in stabilization are appealing enough to get people to look and even want. But Sony operations are too strange and out of the ordinary to consider taking the equipment on as a main or secondary camera. It’s too bad Sony can’t be more “normal”. If I owned a Sony though I would probably be proud that I had something “different”. well, the Sony people should just go on and be proud, while the rest of the world buys Canon and Nikon – lol. Nothing wrong really with the Sony cameras, they just are not setting themselves up to grab market share. Maybe they will.

Looking Forward:

How Nikon and Canon will ignore the rangefinder cameras coming from Olympus and friends will not be a question for much longer. I think this year more cameras will come in this form than any other type. Once the 2 big guns get into that form factor the advantage to the little guys is over. I expect to see Canon, Nikon and Sony come into the range finder style body this year and if any of them are a laggard by next year.

Nikon can’t be ignorant to the wide angle lens need in their line-up. I predict at least one or two fast wide angle primes this year. If Nikon were smart they would also do a stunning surprise of an f/1.2 in one of the staple primes. Since Nikon is putting HD video in their new cameras, I believe we will also see a surprise 24-70G f/2.8 VR lens this year or a year from now.

In terms of cameras, Nikon has 2 possible openings for the current D700. To update it to a D700s and/or add a Nikon D700x or D800x. I hope ONE of those cameras gets a new layout to the focus points in the viewfinder, maybe a newer CAM focus system to include that. The D3000 and D5000 cameras are nicer than most people think. I think a new D90 upgrade will come this year. Nikon seems bent on 720p, I can’t help but wonder where they will put in effort to obtain a world class HD system and which camera they will put it in – a pro level body or a consumer level body. Will we see a rangefinder style camera from Nikon this year? Possibly, just remember that a camera is only half the fight – lenses have to be there to go with it. Will that camera eat into D700. D300s and high sales? Hmmm, that could be a problem. I personally would shoot with a D3s (or better0 along with a rangefinder ON A PRO LEVEL. That means I would not buy a D700s or X in favor of a rangefinder. Nikon may not like that.

Canon released the darn fine 1D Mark IV camera. I predict it will lead the march out of second place for Canon. Obviously the 1Ds Mark IV would be next on Canon’s list. I will predict Canon will release a 1Ds Mark IV this year – lol. That’s a no brainer but I might as well put it in.

I predict a 24-70L II will be released and if Canon is smart, they will fill the need for image stabilization for their HD video feature with this same lens. logically I would predict that the new 24-70L II will also have IS in it. Trouble is we have been asking for that for a long time. Canon has a habit of not giving us what we ask for. Phil Askey’s CF card opening door problem, Michael Reichmann’s mirror lock-up, tons of folks EOS 3 Digital desire, and my million dollar check is something Canon has said no to. I do believe Phil got his wish though and the door opens on the CF card now and does not erase the remaining images in the buffer – well we can all hope right :)

I’d like to see surprises from Sony, like create ONE normal camera aimed at pros and high end enthusiasts. If not Sony, then Olympus as they too are poised at the edge of a breakthrough camera.

We sit in a better position today than at any other time in history for photographers. Just about ALL new digital SLR cameras the past 2 years are able to make outstanding images all the way to ISO 1600. Some look like ISO 1600 images at even when shooting at ISO 6400. It would take a lot of hard work to actually find and buy a poor DSLR camera. So attention now has shifted to focus ability, lens availability, and features built into the camera. On the horizon is what video ability will rise to. You still cannot raise up a DSLR camera and effortlessly shoot video like you can with a camcorder. Will the bar be raised on the video front? i should think so. Rangefinder style and size cameras are just beginning to see their coming to center stage. It will be fascinating to watch this body type unfold and what ideas will come to the table with these cameras. Medium format and DSLR cameras are melting together and I am waiting to see who will make the jump to the new medium format cameras that are coming down the line. Will Canon or Nikon (or both) move it up a notch, or will the medium format cameras bring themselves more into the agility and versatility of the DSLR. It will be interesting to see who blinks first. Leica has made a bold move with the new S2. Hasselblad has become an isolationist nation while Mamiya has boldly moved forward with PhaseOne.

The desire for the perfect pocket camera still keeps people buzzing with potential peeping up from the teasingly small rangefinder style cameras to the real point and shoot getting better and better all the time. A G11 type camera with DSLR quality and simplicity is what we are looking for, it inches closer and closer but still no cigar. I’m waiting for the cigar :) 2010 promises to be an interesting year.

Peter Gregg is a freelance writer, portrait and wedding photographer and inventor of A Better Bounce Card Please feel free to leave comments below. Teachers, professors, and other smarty pants people, please let me know about typo’s and I’ll correct them – pgp777@aol.com  :)

3 Responses to “DSLR State Of The Union 2010”

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  1. first time i read a coherent description of the reality of the photo cameras world.
    about the medium format, last year i spend some days mailing or photo camera development department, proposing a model of simply medium format camera, with a price affordable for semi pro photographer and amateur ( the big majority buyiers in the world) , remenbering the traditional twinlens cameras. whati get from the companys are polite mails trying me as a stupid man. after that the EP1 go out and people get in love even it is a blind focus camera. i reallise how far away the camera producers are from what the photographers want, the “mistic” of photography. the digital cameras has change the history of photography, but is so silly from the big cameras that from now the new history of photography could be write enterily by them, without the expectations and needs of the photographers, who at ends are ho use this machines in the batleground of this lovely work.
    wish to be in contact by mail with you
    from buenos aires, argentina,
    sincerilly yours

    Pablo Carrera Oser

  2. Yuri Dojc says:

    Suprisingly Panasonic GH1 and GF1 is not mention.

  3. Geir E says:

    Sony: “The hot shoe is weird. Okay, it not bad to be weird but they basically have knocked out 99.9 percent of the accessories available..”

    The hotshoe have been around for 22 years. To get a iISO to ISO converter (you know, the 1930s leica flash standard that everyone else have modified to their own) is as hard as to visit ebay and push a random buy now. Still, adds a bit of bulk to the top of the camera.

    Sony continued using it when they took over Minoltas camera division. Too many seem to think it is something weird sony cooked up, but it’s just Minolta legacy. I can however attach and remove my flashes faster than a typical non-Sony user, and the wireless flash system is as easy and quick to use as it was on my 1994 minolta 700si way back before Nikon or Canon had a wireless flash system. Unfortunally, it haven’t progressed that much since then.