Has there ever been a more fun time to be a photographer?
All the way back in the film-based middle-ages, it used to be that the medium and large format segments of the market offered tremendous a variety of shooting experiences that were not available in 35mm. These things came with bellows, shift, tilts, and a multitude of formats (6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, 4″x5″, 6×17 and so on). All tried to fulfill the same promise of the maximum image quality in a variety of shooting conditions.
Digital has largely leveled the playing field. While I never did the maths, it wouldn’t surprise me if my old OM-D E-M5 printed better at 16″ than my even older film Hassy 500. And that my current A7rII significantly out-detailed my past Linhof Master-Technika 4×5.
Heck, even telephones create brilliant imaging, today. Just look at the photograph above. This is one of the best photographs from a recent trip to Normandy and Brittany. It was made with my, now ancient, Samsung Galaxy S6. My son owns the S7 and it is better in so many ways it hurts (smooth HDR, better colours …)
That leveling has meant that the race to better image quality is now failing miserably as a marketing strategy. Rumours of a new 72Mpix sensor are spreading. This would mean more disk space and more powerful computers. But impact on real IQ is uncertain.
I’m not alone thinking along these lines.
Everywhere you look, Photokina 2016 is described as totally uninspiring. Nothing really new. More pixels. More AF zits on the sensors. More insignificant whatevers elsewhere. A reluctant entry in the mirrorless arena by Canon, and incremental – at best – improvement of DSLRs. Nikon ? Not really hyperactive either, right?
The truth is manufacturers aren’t slacking. It’s just that all of our gear is good enough and has been for a long time. Don’t expect major news anytime soon.
So why the excitement?
It’s all about sensor formats.
There are so many, now. Tiny Smartphones, M43, APS, FF and medium format.
While some of the current actors will continue to waste marketing and development millions in a quantitative race to nowhere, others have clearly caught on to something far more interesting and important. A back-to-the-future of user experience. A variety of use cases and image looks that serve creativity well. As Ming Thein puts it, the industry has now matured.
A vast range of sensor sizes …
At the very top of the vaguely-affordable scale sit Pentax, Hasselblad and the newly introduced Fuji (to me, the magnificent Leica S is only meaningful to very affluent amateurs and pros who can justify the expense to their accountants. Ditto anything with a medium format back). Whether Fuji and Hassy met before there respective launches to discuss relative positioning, we’ll probably never know. But the two new cameras are such different implementations of a same internal heart that you simply have to bow in respect.
Pretty-boy Hasselblad X1D is essentially a medium format smartphone. Now, before this sentence destroys all my credibility in Gothenburg, let me justify 😉 This camera, and its lenses, seem as compact as physics will allow. It is super connected, feature-rich (yay for GPS) and beautifully intuitive. It lacks the ability to actually phone people, but who uses smartphones to make calls, anyway ? We have watches for that 😉
Perfect ? Heck no !!! Whatever the price and size constraints, anyone who designs a lens without an aperture ring deserves to be beheaded, twice!
But, as Apple, Ford (Model-T) and many other industrial triumphs illustrate, simplicity is a wonderful asset. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (and my oh my, is that X1D a beautiful camera, to my eyes!) but simplicity is a universal quality. It must have taken guts to create that piece of genius and I hope it works (and sells) as well as it looks. Kudos.
On the other side of the ring, the Fuji GFX is a bit of an eyesore. It feels rushed, cobbled-up from bits and bobs like the cheapo bin droids of the Star Wars universe. But ever so lovable for it. It looks like a Lego set. Or a Transformer truck. It sends your imagination to places where you feet will never take you. It feels like a system you can disassemble and reassemble for every new need. And the large lenses let the optimist in me imagine that Fuji’s super competent design department have taken a no-compromise route to optical greatness.
Downers ? Yeah, quite a few. But nothing to dampen the enthusiasm and respect.
What matters most is that these two manufacturers have so brilliantly taken opposite roads to a same market, using a same electronic parts bin. The two will appeal to very different user profiles and will help the market develop as a whole, driving variety up and prices down. Kudos, guys.
Then, there’s Full-Frame. And Sony have slowly-but surely positioned their A7 range as the true jack-of-all trades swiss-army knife. Great stabilisation, a platform for some of the best lenses in the known universe, a sensor that seems to ignore the word limitation, real video capabilities and other truly useful features.
Downsides? Where do I even start? Few objects have ever infuriated more than my Sony cameras. But a part of this is probably due to the polarity switch from the deep love I feel when looking at the results they give me in tricky situations.
Pentax, with their K1 also have provided us with a very valiant effort, one which, hopefully, will bring great success to the mothership.
Leica, in their own quirky way, have done a lot to occupy a very creative niche of photography using this format.
And the big boys at Canon and Nikon, in spite of their pre-retirement cash-cow strategy of today, have worked wonders to serve many other niches using this format, particularly sports, landscape, wildlife … Visit any photo competition awards event and 90% of the photographs on the walls will have been made using cameras from one of these 2 manufacturers!
Further down the sensor size ladder sit Fuji, with two lines of superb APS cameras. When I last used one, during our Paris workshop, it was hard for me to hand it back to its rightful owner, Paul. Both produce OOC colours that others can’t touch with a pole and provide access to in-camera filters that appear to bring great joy to users. And the smaller sensor size has allowed the creation of a range of sublime lenses at prices that seem like a mistake when you come from the high-end FF universe. More importantly, the look from these cameras is quite different from the look from a FF camera.
Micro 4/3, for many reasons, seems to be losing momentum at the moment. But the open-system approach and the intensely satisfying shooting experience provided by some of the cameras in that segment have created a tremendous following and a lot of love. Plus a lot of brilliant photographs. The combination of great depth of field with a slightly lower dynamic range and glorious colour make for a distinct and lovable style. Would anyone object to a result like this ?
Compacts are dead. They were just a way to suck money out of innocent beginners and offered shameful performance. The Smartphone killed them off and for a reason.
Which leaves us with the Smartphone. Much maligned by serious photographers, but still worthy of a place in anyone’s kit in that it provides a very different look to most of the other cameras out there.
… and why that matters !
And, at the end of the day, the great variety of looks is what matters most, isn’t it ? Because, let’s face it, odds are that whatever brand you favour, you’re still buying a Sony in someone else’s clothing. Same internals, then, but the various sensor sizes lead to very different looks and user experiences, which is good news for all of us.
That’s why Fuji’s range makes so much sense. The past focus on APS now complemented by medium format is brilliant. Skipping FF altogether ensures radically distinct aesthetics between the two ranges. Yes, the GFX is positioned as offering better quality but that feels like nonsense given how good X-Pro files are these days. The GFX really is a whole different beast for different use cases and with different visual appeal. Which is why a GFX owner will probably still want to buy an X-Pro 2.
That’s why Smartphone manufacturers shouldn’t chase larger format cameras on purely technical terms (that would be fighting the laws of physics) but continue to experiment with all sorts of devices to expand the user experience. Take a look at the Samsung images on this page. All very nice technically, but slightly slanted in one case and with minor panorama wobble in the other. This is where there is room for improvement (helping us keep straight and wobble-free), not in the dynamic range or resolution of the sensor. Keep the distinct look, improve the shooting and continue to press the advantage of Smartphone over conventional camera (rather than try to catch up with conventional camera).
That’s also why the 44×33 medium format may not be enough to make a huge dent in the FF market! As interesting as the cameras are, they offer about 70% more surface than full frame, which is just 30% along one dimension. Is that enough to place image style (not quality) in a different ballpark? Judging by initial photographs kindly sent to me by Hans Strand (see above and below) I’d say yes, probably. But Sony’s uncanny ability to improve their sensors with every new generation is not to be underestimated. So time will tell.
At the end of the day, just like in the old days of film, it seems like “full frame” (24×36) is the middle ground. The format for those who want to get the shot at all costs. The format that allows accurate AF, fast bursts, stabilization, acceptable dimensions, acceptable prices …
Whatever direction you depart from full frame, you both lose and gain.
Medium format gets you better dynamic range and a thoroughness of signal processing that guarantees sublime colour rendition, plus a range of superb lenses. A softer, more painterly look. What you loose is convenience and shooting envelope (size, shutter speed, cost, stabilization …) which means those cameras are for more deliberate photographers who are more willing to make the extra effort or those more interested in often creating something exceptional than worried about occasionally not getting the shot.
Smaller sensor sizes (than FF) lose you dynamic range and other factors that play a role in absolute IQ. But they offer a different look (more contrasted and delineated), smaller footprints and far lower prices, even for very inspiring and technically exceptional glass (Fuji 56mm f/1.2, Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8, anyone ?).
So we’ve come full circle from the film days. We once again have the luxury of a very segmented market place with a huge variety of formats, prices and use cases. Not bad for a dying industry, right ? Full circle, with one difference: quality from all the formats is now exceptional. Used intelligently and with an understanding of its limitations, any format can produce superb results. The main differentiator is the native look it produces. And that’s reason to be excited !
Maybe even that is not that meaningful. Maybe the real conclusion should be what our reader Jens kindly sent to me a few days ago (emphasis is my own):
photokina was interesting – though I didn’t really find any novelties that grabbed my attention or inspired me. I guess I am a bit fed up with the whole idea of adding to or improving my equipment: I have a set of really good Zeiss and Leica lenses for my a7S and some leftovers from the Nikon collection. I’m reasonably happy with the a7S and will skip the a7S II.
The interesting part was looking more closely at what was shown in terms of images. Not only the very diverse show that Leica put on, but also all the stuff shown by the paper manufacturers like Hahnemühle, Moab etc. This is what my focus lies on at the moment – the final print.
That’s why I have decided to get myself a decent printer (Canon’s iPF Pro-1000) and explore this form of presentation and expression more closely – despite the fact that it is probably not really cost-effective to own and operate one of these machines privately. But what the heck! Agonizing about the IQ of pictures that only ever live on uncalibrated computer screens in meager resolution seems pretty futile to me at the moment.
So where do you stand? Are we still chosing sensors for quality or have we reached a point where we can focus more on aesthetics and experience?