#1087. High-end tussle (how how the four aces of photographic gear are being positioned)

By philberphoto | Opinion

Feb 01

A number of high-end camera bodies -and I mean high!- have been announced in recent weeks, which raises questions as to who, if anyone, should/could get any one of them, and what this says about the state of the industry and its players. Enter the Leica SL2, the Fuji GFX100S, the Canon R5 and the Sony Alpha One.

The first impression with these new cameras has to do with their price. For the last 12 years, the price of a high-end full-frame camera was sort of stuck at 3000$/€, a price point intiated by the landmark Canon 5D. 3 outliers in the FF space were the pro-sports-and-widlife-only Canon 1D and Nikon 1-digits, and the wealthy-only Leica M, clocking in at essentially double that. And MF was sort of double that again.

Now, the lay of the land has changed. The price for high-end is essentially between 5K et 6K ($/€, not video resolution). But that is where the similarities end. In effect, we can see 3 diverging trends, but all pointing to the same underlying fact.

One-camera-does-it-all

In this camp, one finds the Canon R5. It attempts to be all things to all people. A very high performance stills camera as well as a video King of the Hill (the only photo camera to to 8K video when it was released). Oh, and a very high frame rate for sports, live and wildlife. Plus, it is not super expensive, at least compared to the others. It is, in fact, the least expensive camera in this very select group. Plus, Canon have been releasing high-end RF-mount lenses at a good clip, some of them with unique specifications, like f:2.0 zoom lenses.

Chasing smaller segments

For once, Sony are doing the exact opposite: instead of one-camera does it all, Sony segments the camera market in ever thinner slices.

You want a video king? The Sony A7SIII, which will do everything the R5 does, except 8K and overheat. But it has a low-resolution sensor, which is not an issue for video, and which gives it an inherent low-light, high-ISO advantage.

However, still photographers may feel its 12Mp sensor is so Canon 5D, a dinosaur by today’s standards. So, if it is an 8K camera a photographer wants, plus gorgeous stills, no way Sony is going to let him or her defect to Canon. Enter the Sony Alpha 1. Very simply, Sony threw the kitchen sink at the spec sheet. 50Mp, 30fps (yes, 30!), 8K without overheating (so they say, needs testing), great electronic shutter, without blackout, flicker or rolling shutter (same). Plus super-duper AF. Plus super fast data readout, card slots, electronic connection to the rest of the world, plus weather protection, plus… you get it.

Two minor issues. One, the price, around 7000$/€ (ouch!). Two, what is the point of buying the Alpha 9, Sony’s previous flagship, which does less of everything for not much less money…. Talk about hypersegmentation.

It does look like Sony are going after the Canon’s R5 bragging rights. But that would be childish, and Japanese multinationals know better than that, right? One could also say, such is the laundry list of features, that the Sony belongs to the previous category, in which a camera does it all. But then, the price….. Iit does look like a camera poised at pro users for sports, entertainment and wildlife, who previously bought, for the same sort of money, the top-of-the-line Canikon DSLR boat anchors. And that segment is one that the smartphones aren’t about to take over…:-)

Lowering the price

Enter the Fuji GFX 100S. It is a slimmed-down version of the original GFX100, but with the same innards, some hardware downgrades (EVF, for example) and some software upgrades. Gone are the vertical grip and the second battery. Gone too is a good chunk of the price. 4000$ less… So, while it is presented as a new model, it is mostly a price repositioning (read reduction), similar to what Hasselblad did when replacing the X1D with the similar X1D II. That said, it boasts a unique 100Mp stabilized sensor, so, for those who covet such behemoths, this is all to the good!

Who would have expected a Leica camera in this category? Clearly, writing this will not make me any friends in Wetzlar. With the SL2, Leica completes the introduction of high resolution to all its top-end lineup. It began with the Leica Q2, then the M10 R, the medium format S, and the SL2, high resolution version of the SL.

The key factor, though is that the price difference built in by Leica for the difference in resolution is less than expected, hence my opinion that, like Fuji, and Hassy before them, there is a repositioning (lowering) of the price point. I mean, you can buy a Leica SL2 body for less than a Sony Alpha 1 or a Fuji GX 100…. how un-natural is that?

In concusion: new products in a market where not much is new…

To be fair, the Fuji GFX100S and Leica SL2 could/should also be classified as cameras-that-do-it-all, like the Canon and the Sony. As can also the Sony A7R IV and the Hasselblad XD1 II. There is not one area where each of these cameras is less than very good indeed. And each can avail itself of high quality glass to match their own performance. Different flavours appealing to different tastes, but all of superlative performance.

And therein lies the problem. What does this tell us? That all products and companies are pretty much lifting oil from the same field. Digging more holes isn’t going to get more oil out of the ground, it only shifts who gets it and ups the extraction costs.

So, yes, each of these cameras is different, but differently excellent. One might have preferences -I do-, but I can’t imagine a photographer really happy with one of them and really not clicking with another, or making beautiful images with one but not with another. And video performance the same.

This is an indication that the technology and the market are mature. Until something really new comes up, and we know that new technology and capabilities are available, just the main players aren’t inclined to put them to good use, it will only be more wells out of an existing, limited field. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t avail yourself of one of these new babies, they are sizzling hot!

PS: this post begs one question. Where are Nikon? Where, indeed?

PPS: you might notice that the general tone of these pictures is dark. Official reason is that I am now again going walkabout at dawn with my friend Dallas. Yay! But the real reason could be the general mood of doom and gloom. Or the state of the camera market, despite the razzmatazz of the new and glitzy toys…

 

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  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Phillipe , I am please you pose the question Where are Nikon next to an image of a boat , because I feel they have clearly missed the boat when it comes to mirrorless – pretty much as Canon are frantically attempting to play catchup. I see a lot of humour also in the way that Fuji have cleverly squeezed the full frame market from both sides like the good old Zulu buffalo horn tactic. And Leica well there second hand market is starting to look like Black Tuesday – Yep I am expecting the big guns too come after me in full force – I have invested in a kevlar vest though

  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Philippe, the answer is back of the pack; but slowly clawing there way back, (I hope). Great images and article.

  • Clifton Whittaker says:

    To the point: I really enjoyed the photography accompanying this doomsday article. Beautifully done images that captured the mood of the time. As for the rest of it, if you can think of a way to work in the phrase “rat’s ass” you’ll know how much I care. I’ll just go along with whatever comes along but in the meantime I’m not going to get worked up about it. I’ll be 79 years old next month and I already have a pile of discarded cameras dating back into the ’50s. They were discarded as new technology hit the market. All but one is still in operating condition. That one is the old Agfa Silette 35mm rangefinder that died in Vietnam. My concern now is what direction is my photography going to take in 2021. I’ve spent the last five years concentrating my efforts on birds. I have several hundred images that I have filed in folders to keep, out of maybe 50K to 60K exposures. My attention is beginning to wander and I’m wondering where it will take me next. Then I’ll decide if I need a new Megabucks Kit to support my habit. :))

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Clifton, is there anywhere we can see those bird photographs? I would love to see them.
      Are you trying to move on to another subject or would you be interested in filming the birds rather than photographing them. I ask this as it is a question currently in my mind as well and because video incorporates an element of audio, which is particularly fascinating with birds. Plus, I find the learning experience as stimulating as exploring a new subject. All the best 🙂

      • Clifton Whittaker says:

        Good questions, Pascal. All facets that I have been thinking about. New subject matter; new ways to photograph current subject matter; and/or video. I progressed through a lot of things getting to where I am now, which is nowhere. I did weddings, portraits, figure studies, landscapes, street-scapes, magazines, commercial ads, etc. I used 35mm, 120 and 220 film and a lot of 4×5. B&W, transparencies, and color print film. A good bit of my effort went into wildflowers for a few years, all on roll film. I supported my habit with full-time jobs, the last of which I lost in 2001 when 40 of the top producers in our brokerage firm were given permanent layoffs after 9-1-1.
        In 2005 a friend give me an Olympus E-20 digital camera just to try to get me out of the doldrums and get me interested in doing projects together again. It must have worked, because I found that I liked the immediate feedback of digital and I’ve have progressed through several upgrades of Nikon cameras and Photoshop since then. But I still only have four lenses.
        In 2015 I bought an 80-400 lens to shoot squirrels in the back yard. Then I got on to birds and in 2017 I got a used 500mm f/4G Nikon lens and a new D850.
        My pictures have received numerous awards over the years but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I cashed the checks and let the ribbons go with the prints when they sold. Now, all I’m doing with my work is posting it on FB and enjoying comparing my work with the work of other bird photographers. I haven’t even posted to my website in a couple of years.
        If you want to take a look at some of my birds you can find them at Clifton Whittaker/FB and scroll down through them. There will be no political commentary so you won’t have to put up with any of that crap. Just birds, and an occasional deer or other animal.
        I do have my birds sorted and organized in folders by year and date and I have them backed up on external drives. And last year I had about 80 of them printed on 10×12 fine art paper for my own satisfaction. I have had four PastBooks printed from my FB account for a few relatives and friends. About 75 pages for each book w/two birds per page. Other than that I’m not doing much and at this point my ambition for becoming “rich and famous” has mostly faded. But I am still enjoying photography and trying to make each image as “professional” as possible.

      • Clifton Whittaker says:

        Pascal, I posted my reply below instead of in this block. Sorry.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Phillipe, Thanks for this post, which I enjoyed very much. These are not cameras I would ever want to own, not least because I couldn’t afford any of them (and the camera body is just the beginning), but also because their amazing specs wouldn’t help me take better pictures. Still, I find it interesting what the high end can offer. I was also intrigued by a phrase you almost casually tossed off: “we know that new technology and capabilities are available.” Could you expand on this? Is it AI, or communicability, or something else? Again, thanks for this survey, paired with very interesting images–I don’t mind the dark images, so long as you keep in mind that brighter months are ahead (for the Northern Hemisphere): Groundhog Day is tomorrow! Lad

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Well, Nikon IS still there. It might not have brought out a wunderbar mirrorless than runs out of battery or overheats. It certainly doesn’t have the same level of sales as the “big guns”. But what it does do, it does well. And I haven’t seen any complaints about its stuff – mirrorless or otherwise.

    There is a fable, I seem to recall, about a tortoise and a hare. Lately, Nikon’s sales figures have indeed been increasing, and its costs have been reducing – which from my recollection when I studied for my Commerce degree is a pretty good formula for success.

    I can’t say I’ve followed the others as closely as Nikon. Simply because I shoot Nikon and my only ventures into Canon and Sony were not as satisfactory, so I now concentrate on what I know and love.

    It’s entirely possible that large segments of the photography industry/hobby don’t share my views. That’s OK – it’s reciprocal – and everyone’s free to do their own thing anyway.

    You all know I’ve decided not to go mirrorless, no matter what it does, simply because the gear I have will see me out, and anyway (1) the range of gear I have – and shoot with – is not yet available in mirrorless – from ANY company (2) I’ll likely be dead before it is available and (3) I couldn’t afford it, unless I win Lotto – which everyone knows is wildly improbable.

    But Im’ not fussed about this. What I have is great gear. SO much so that any “improvement” would be insignificant. Pascal’s switch to his Hassy ,makes sense. For me to switch to mirrorless, or to another maker, simply wouldn’t make sense at any level.

    And I am still buying Nikon gear for my DSLRs, as I need it. Bought another lens a month ago, and so far it’s performance has blown me away!

    Since there was only one line in your article, Philippe, about Nikon, I think it would be overdoing it to add any more thoughts on the subject.

    Your photos are a welcome intrusion in the dull times we are all enjoying since the outbreak of COVID. I was a bit startled by the range you’ve been allowed to cover – I would have expected travel restrictions to apply. Dumb me. We don’t get all the news from France or other countries, so I guessI shouldn’t be surprised.

    You describe them as “noir” – but they’re a whole heap more interesting that the empty streets we’ve seen, elsewhere. Somehow, I think pedestrians are a desirable accessory, even if we want to paint out non-native “tourists” who seem hell bent on swamping our images, in better times.

  • PaulB says:

    Phillipe

    Another wonderful set of images, “Willie” is my favorite followed by the close up of the leaf. I can see that I need to include morning walks in Paris to my plan for a future trip to Europe.

    I like your comparison of the stills camera market to an oil field. Though I think there is some side drilling into other fields happening too.

    The Sony A1 announcement is really not for the benefit of stills photographers. The A1 is intended to anchor Sony’s place on the bottom two rungs of the professional video/cinema markets to compete with Canon (C-Bodies) and Leica, not to mention the bottom offerings from Arri, Blackmagic, etc.. The professional video/cinema market is fairly large, but high end equipment costs are huge. So the prices asked for the A1, SL2, R5, and other competent video bodies are comparatively inexpensive and almost disposable.

    Hasselblad and Fuji brought Medium Format (MF) down market to attract more sales from the Leica (and 1DX & D5) customer base. Which is classic competition when you are not the sales leaders (Phase One & Leica) in your market. And Leica brought the SL2 price down to be more competitive with the other high res bodies on the market.

    The new Canon R bodies probably are more of an effort to catch up to the mirrorless crowd and yes, reclaim some bragging rights. As bragging rights are a big deal in Japan. When Canon introduced the full frame DSLR models they had bragging rights and Nikon “Lost Face” (another big deal in Japan) in the market and with their largest investors. This situation brought about the Nikon D3, and the race was on.

    Where is Nikon? At the back of the pack, again. As Thom Hogan has said, Nikon knows they need to answer and it needs to be good. We shall see what they have to say. Hopefully we don’t have to wait too long.

    PaulB

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