#772 The rise of the extremes and the decline of the middle glass

By philberphoto | Monday Post

Sep 24


At some point it is good to look at the past to take stock of the present. Let’s go back to when “serious” digital cameras replaced film. Why did that happen? Practicality was the main reason, not IQ. Always-on LiveView and the ability to chimp, the instant availability of results, variable ISOs are but some of the significant improvements in practicality that caught the attention of photographers.


IQ followed suit, though arguably some time later.


More practicality followed. Smaller, compact cameras. Better autofocus. Autofocus zooms. Autofocus superzooms. IBIS. Etc..



On the IQ front, the race for ever more became extreme. More and more megapixels (100Mp too much? Puleeeeeeze!). More ISOs (124.000 anyone?). More AF points (thousands, anyone?). More frames per second (20 fps is so yesterday). Larger sensors. IBIS. Leaf shutters…


And glass. If you don’t have a fast zoom trilogy (16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, all f:2.8, or equivalent for smaller sensors than FF), you’re so just not serious as a manufacturer. If you don’t have a full complement of fast primes, from 21mm to 135mm, plus a couple of long lenses for sports/BIF… If you don’t have at least a couple of macro lenses… if you don’t have a full line of good entry-level glass (no, not the kit zoom or “plastic-fantastic”, entry-level now means almost pixel-perfect even wide open, no flare, no coma, no ghosting, no onion-rings, for half the money of premium lenses… if you don’t have a couple of ultra-wides… if you don’t have a couple of ultra-fast (faster than f:1.0) lenses… And when I looked at the specs of Sigma’s brand-new-to-be-released-at-Photokina lenses, my eyes popped and my joints hurt. A 40mm ART f:1.4 @ 1.2kg. A 70-200 ART f:2.8 @ 1.8kg, a 60-600 sports zoom @2.7kg. Wow! And, to finish it off, lengthy post-processing; Plus, if you insist, mutli-shot combinations, for focus stacking, or panos, or HDR, or ND filter emulation. Whew!



Sure, that race got us/gets us remarkable results. And prices for cameras keep dropping relative to performance. But let’s look at the big picture.


It all started as a race to practicality. That race is over. It has been won, handsomely, by the oh-so-practical smartphone. Because you’d have a smartphone even if it weren’t your camera, it means that you have a camera at no extra encumbrance at all. How to do lighter and smaller than nothing? And ease of use is great too. And performance keeps improving. Game over.



So we have smartphones at the practical end of the spectrum, and hyper-mega systems at the other end. It is like having a choice for urban transport of rent-a-bikes or hypercars. So clever -not!


What happened to the great middle glass? You know, a camera that I can take with me without the help of a couple of Nepalese sherpa (Nepalese only, please!). A camera that is not so expensive that negotiating with my significant other makes Brexit feel childishly easy (May I buy it please, May I?). A camera that perhaps doesn’t do birds-in-flight-against-the-backdrop-of-the-Milky-Way so well, but lets me build an easy scrapbook of my kids growing up and my in-laws aging.



Because sensors get better at high ISOs and low noise, fast glass isn’t mandatory for those of us who don’t live in caves. Landscape shooters don’t all shoot wide open all the time, do they? There are easy ways to do panoramas, so an ultra-wide isn’t a mandatory part of a kit (sorry, Nepal!). With lottsa pixels, cropping let’s you get away without an ultra-tele (sorry, physiotherapists!). Sort of, if you don’t go whole hog for the practicality of smartphones, does that mean you automatically choose extreme impracticality in order to worship at the altar of ultimate IQ?



Once upon a time, there were very nice narrow-range zooms. The Contax-CY 35-70, the Leica 35-70 f:4.0 macro, the Contax G 35-70. And so on. Now this is not fashionable, because (a) these zooms were slow, and (b), IQ was just a fraction less good than primes. But why is it that we either give up the IQ entirely and surrender to the practicality of the smartphone, or strive for Himalyan levels of cost, weight and complexity? Pascal is a good example, who would LOVE to have two systems. His Samsung S9, AND a Hasselblad X1D. How about a bit of happy middle glass?



Fact is, if you want an easy-go-lucky do-it-all-in-relative-style, you will be told the only game in town is a Sony RX100 in whatever incarnation. Or its supposedly lesser clones from Canikon. Less choice in the middle of the market than at either extreme. Weird, huh?


I would LOVE to own a fixed-lens camera with a good APS/C-or-larger sensor and a 35-70 zoom with a modicum of close-focus ability. Even if I give up some speed (say f:3.4 to f:5.6) and some IQ at the end of the focal range and wide open. Why, I’d even buy one. Something like a Ricoh GR II with this narrow-range zoom. Or, even better, especially if they can work out the kinks, the same based on a Sigma Quattro (Hi, Leonard!), or whatever…



Something I could buy without breaking the bank, say under 2000€/$. Something I could carry without breaking my back. Say, less than 750g. Something I could use in either JPEG or RAW without crying about lost IQ. Something I could use in either AF or MF.


You get the idea. I am now officially old, with decidedly middle-glass aspirations. But my sense is that I am not alone and that lots of you people would be interested, either as a primary or a secondary system.



As it happens, it seems that Zeiss will release a camera next week, which sounds strange considering how vocal they have been for years that they wouldn’t get back into this segment of the business. But if they do, they must have something different up their sleeve. Could it be a Sony body cum Batis narrow-range AF zoom?


Please, please, pretty please?


  • NMc says:

    You have ignored so much of the smaller to mid end of micro 4/3 and Fuji apsc in that post. Is that because they are now too good?
    Pentax have a 20 to 40 mm limited zoom for apsc that is close to your request, something I thought about and then disregarded because retailers do not stock it and I will not purchase unsupported gear or purchase un-sighted. In addition I never found an appropriate review of this lens it was always compered to something larger and/or more expensive, and not reviewed for what it actually is. That is always a recurring problem with photographic equipment reviews for anything that dares to be different.
    I guess you are asking for something with a modicum of modesty, and large dose of X factor.
    I have my grandfather’s Kodak Retina as a memento; I often think a new camera built in that spirit is what I would like best, but then nostalgia is not what it used to be.
    Regards Noel

    • philberphoto says:

      Noel, of course you are right. Where we differ is that, should I go down the route(s) you suggest, I get into ILCs (interchangeable-lens cameras). They are heavier, more complex than fixed-lens equivalents. After all, why should one buy a camera where you can exchange lenses, when your want is an all-purpose zoom? Besides, their real weakness is me. System cameras are GAS machines, and my flesh is weak, as you know…:-(
      Only the onslaught of an unexpected wave of new products has kept me from buying a new system already. And yes, it is an ILC, and it is GAS-rich. But it doesn’t prevent me from lamenting the demise of the middle-glass…:-) That way, the boy in me gets new toys. But my post shows I have a (bad) conscience…:-(
      And I wasn’t aware of the Pentax zoom. I’ll look into it. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Per Kylberg says:

    Maybe the Leica X vario (typ 107) with fixed zoom 28-70!? Today €1000 equivalent in Sweden. Outdated in some ways: Slow AF, just 16mpix. But Leicish IQ.
    Actually I am off to Nepal, the worlds most wrinkly country, in two weeks. I will carry 2 kg of photo gear and a Sherpa the rest. Just hope that in higher altitudes a Sherpa will not need to carry me 🙂

    • philberphoto says:

      Per, Adam, in theory you are right. The X-Vario should have fit the bill. Because, to be honest, the specifications were out-of-date/underwhelming already when it came out. 16Mp APS/C, when my 7-year old NEX 7 was already 24Mp. The long end of the zoom at f:6.3 when kit zooms are f:5.6. And Leica prices for this, of course. So, yes, you are right, but as far as I am concerned, I am not wrong. And, yes, that shows that, in Leica terms, I dont “get it”. For quite a while, Porsche released cars that were Porsche, only with a VW engine. Like the 912, or the 4-cylinder version of the 914. They no longer do that, because they understand that, for Porsche prices, people want Porsche performance.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Doesn’t the
    Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III
    fit most of your description?

    ( Personally I’m considering the Pan. LX15, but I’m waiting a while.)

    • philberphoto says:

      Krystian, the Canon G1 is the follower to a long and succesful line of Canon G cameras. I didn’t say that there was nothing in the “middle glass” segment, only that there was very little choice compared to what is to be found at te extremes of the market, which is very unusual and counterintuitive. Look at FF hybrids: Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic (to be announced today), Leica (1). And with many variations and countless configurations due to interchangeable lenses. Plus 2 fixed-lens choices (Sony RX1, Leica Q). I rest my case. And hope it stands…:-)

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    I saw a rumor that Canon is planning a ~20-60mm for the M mount.
    ( Personally I use the Canon M5 with the Sigma 17-50mm/2.8, but more often the EF-M 55-200mm.)

  • Adam Bonn says:

    As someone else will say before me…

    Leica X Vario, ticks all your boxes, even macro

  • pascaljappy says:

    Thank you Philippe, wonderful piece. First, there are some absolutely superb photographs here (feather, fallen leaves …) Secondly, the point you make is important and goes beyond photography. It’s something I plan to write about more in a coming post. Anywhere the bell curve has been artificially distorted, you know unnatural forces are at play. It’s true of ideological politics and for photo gear alike.

  • Adrian says:

    When I used Minolta A mount and shot on film, one of several.favourite lenses was a 1980s AF Minolta 24-50mm. It wasn’t super sharp, but it had nice colour, and was small and light. Later I bought a second hand Rollei QZ Wide with a 28-60mm at a ridiculously low price, and what a lens! A friend had a Leica Minilux Zoom, which also took rather good pictures.

    There aren’t many fixed zoom.lens digital.equivalents of them. Canons fairly hideous GX series probably come closest, but have generally been hobbled by functional issues. They also suffer because the lenses are slow, which undoes any benefit of the relatively larger sub-APS sensor as ISO needs to rise – a Sony 1″ RX100 with an f1.8-2.8 lens will often perform as well or better as light drops. It probably represents the best compromise of sensor size and lens speed, or the Panasonic LX100, with it’s m43rds sensor.

    So there are cameras that offer what you might want, but perhaps you don’t like them? The RX100 is very small and it’s handling may not suit? The LX100 is larger, perhaps with better handling ad a result, and could suit better?

    Why dream of an over priced Zeiss model to fan the flames of male jewellery and snob value when the mainstream makers offer something similar capability at a fraction of the price?

    The other option is one of the very small ILCs such as a Sony A5100 or a similar Fuji or Olympus with a modest zoom lens? Again, the handling may not suit?

    If you want a full frame fixed lens zoom camera then I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

    • philberphoto says:

      Adrian, you are correct that there are “some” offerings of middle glass. I just trie to point out that, unlike in the vast majority of other markets, the middle of the market is not where one finds the greatest selection of competing products, rather quite the opposite. I find this to be directly connected to the rise of the phone-clones. The photo Empire is not fighting back, it is retreating and (hopefully) preparing for a last stand!

  • Steffen says:

    Now we know the Zeiss camera is in the same way an extreme. But I’m totally with you – not necessarily about zooms but in general with middle class gear: small, compact … get things done.

    Camera bodies getting bigger with every iteration, and of course lenses: Sony is busy with their GM line, Fuji and M43 are trying hard to match FF bokeh performance and end up with ridiculous apertures and size, weight and price tags of course. The newcomers Canon, Nikon, Panasonic don’t even think to start small. It must be an F/2 zoom or an F/0.95 prime – because they can. Not even Leica goes that route anymore: <F/1 is the only way to get press coverage and YouTube plays. And they dust their fat S line – funny if not true.

    So where’s the middle ground between smartphones and high-end gear? Where are the fathers document their kids growing up? Where’s the mother saving precious memories? Where are the couples doing vacations of their life? And even more important: Where are all the new kids, students and young people? How should they get into photography one day when the entry hurdle is several grand and kg?

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