Camera Manufacturer Report Card

Just for fun, let’s grade the the camera companies on their new products in 2012. This is a purely subjective rating and you are free to disagree. It is done from the point of view of a photography enthusiast, not a pro, so take the ratings with a grain of salt.

  1. Number 1, with a grade of A+, Sony. Sony has had a fantastic year. Starting in late 2011 with the announcement of the Nex-7, Sony has followed up with a series of mirrorless announcements including the Nex-6, the Nex-5r and the Nex-f3. Each of these cameras is class-leading, with excellent sensors and brilliant electronic viewfinders. The cameras were not perfect, but we’re starting to see Sony address issues with firmware, like the movie button problem on the Nex-7. Sony is also sticking to its e-mount lens announcement schedule and is attracting other lens manufacturers like Zeiss and Sigma to develop excellent e-mount lenses. On the DSLR front, Sony has produced a truly revolutionary camera with the Alpha A99 full-frame camera with an electronic viewfinder. In addition, Sony now has a full line of APS-C cameras to suit any pocketbook, ranging from the A77 down to the A37. All feature an EVF. Sony also introduced the best compact camera in the business, the RX100. And, they have announced the first full-frame compact, the RX1. There are some grumpy old men on the web who complain about the EVF and how it is just not the same as an optical viewfinder, but personally, I really like to see the image through the sensor along with a histogram so I can pre-chimp instead of having to post-chimp and shoot again. It saves time while you’re shooting and it saves time when you’re post processing, avoiding having to wade through imperfectly exposed images.
  2. Number 2 with a grade of A: Fuji. Here is a company that is focused and executing its plan beautifully. The folks at Fuji see a target market as enthusiasts who want a Leica, but can’t afford one. So, they give you better camera, but without the cachet and the price that goes along with it. The X100 was a brilliant camera with its optical/electronic viewfinder, but it was flawed with dreadful firmware when it launched. Kudos to Fuji for not abandoning its user base and plugging away throughout 2012 issuing several firmware releases, culminating in release 2 that seems to address all the issues, including slow focus time. Also kudos to Fuji for stepping up to the plate with its “sticky blade” lens issue and replacing lenses under warranty promptly and without argument. The X1-pro was an excellent step forward for the enthusiast, with its EVF/OVF and its interchangeable prime lenses. To me, the X-E1 was an even more exciting camera. It added Sony’s wonderful EVF, dropped the pretense of the OVF and added a pop-up flash for fill. Fuji also delivered on its lens timetable delivering a 14 mm wide-angle and an 18-55 zoom. The only fly in the ointment for me was the decision to move to a non-standard sensor layout (the “X-trans” sensor). My reading on the web seems to indicate that this layout is proving to be challenging to the software vendors who write the raw conversion for this sensor. I’m sure Adobe and Phase One will catch up, making Fuji’s range of cameras a very tasty option indeed.
  3. Number 3 with a grade of B+: Nikon: Nikon and Canon, the market leaders, have the most to lose so it is understandable that they are playing a conservative game. Nikon’s efforts in the mirrorless camera segment, the J2 and V2, are not competitive with Sony and Fuji for resolution and high ISO performance. The small sensor is too much of a handicap. However, there are some advantages to the Nikon offering, including 60 fps shooting speed. However, in the DSLR space, Nikon appears to have hit it out of the park with the D800 and the D800e. Everyone loves the high resolution (38 megapixels) along with the ability to pull detail out of shadows like no other camera. Not only that, but the price of the D800 is lower than its competitor, the Canon 5d mark III. No wonder there are Canon DSLR lovers converting to Nikon!
  4. Number 4 with a grade of B+: Sigma: Sigma made some terrific strides this year with the introduction of its Merrill mirrorless twins with the Foveon sensor, the DP1 with its 35mm equivalent lens and the DP2 with its 45mm equivalent lens. Every review of this camera raved about its image quality and how it was unmistakably different from a traditional bayer sensor camera.  Every review also complained that the raw conversion software that comes with the camera is terrible and for some reason, Sigma is reluctant to cooperate with Adobe et al to enable other raw conversion tools to handle Foveon conversion. Kudos also to Sigma for introducing some lovely low-cost lenses into the e-mount game. The 19mm and 30mm filled huge gaps in the e-mount segment and proved that it is possible to build inexpensive lenses that can match the high resolution of the Sony Nex-7 sensor.
  5. Number 5 with a grade of B: Canon: Canon seems to have been stuck in neutral for a year, re-doing the 5d again and again. An old boss of mine used to call it polishing the stone. Yes, the 5d mark III is a fine camera and the 6d presents good value for money, but Nikon has made a statement with the D800, a camera with the ability to challenge medium format cameras for resolution and dynamic range. Canon has lost the initiative in the DSLR segment. However, we are seeing a steady introduction of new lenses with improved resolution, including the 24-70 L f2.8 and the 24-70 L F4. This seems to hint at a large sensor camera in the wings that will put higher demands on lenses. There are rumors of cameras with 40-50 megapixel resolution being tested by pros. Maybe 2013 will be Canon’s year. Canon also struck out mightily with its entry into the mirrorless segment with the M series camera. While they did introduce a camera with an APS-C sensor, the lack of an EVF and the reports of extremely poor auto-focus capability put this model firmly at the bottom of the segment. How a market-leading company like Canon can introduce such a poor product is a mystery. I guess they were trying to protect the sales of their Rebel DSLR line. Maybe they wounded the M series intentionally. Let’s hope they have something better up their sleeves in 2013.

That’s my subjective read of 2012. It was a great year for camera gear. There were some fabulous new cameras introduced and the mirrorless segment matured beautifully. The trend I see emerging is the further merger of cameras and electronic devices like smartphones and tablets. We have already seen the introduction of a couple of point and shoot cameras built on an Android platform. In addition, we have seen Nokia introduce some terrific camera technology on a smartphone. This all plays into the hands of Sony, a company that excels in electronics. The giants of the past, Nikon and Canon, have too much invested in mechanical know-how. When the world moves to hybrid devices with EVF’s, Android, electronic lenses etc. it will be the electronics companies that will rule. Nikon and Canon will fall further and further behind.

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