Thursday, February 02, 2006

D-SLR Choices 2006:New Choices and Old Ones Too

Well, it's 2006 and this year will see some new brand names displayed across the front of D-SLR cameras. Maybe soon we'll see the former Konica-Minolta 5D and 7D bodies re-badged as the Sony 5D and 7D models,still with the same body integral anti-shake systems that K-M pioneered. The entire camera biz is in a huge state of flux. The flux has hit the fan,so to speak.Nikon quit the film camera business, except for the F6 and FM10,and Nikon dropped the large format lens-making business and the enlarger lens business. K-M has shifted its camera biz over to the Sony company,and K-M is abandoning the photo business (minilab equipment and paper,Konica film,and so on.)
Olympus has just announced what many people have said they wanted to see manufactured:namely, an SLR with normal SLR-type reflex viewing AND an EVF or video-feed viewfinder image option! Not that I've ever wanted such a feature from my single lens reflex camera, but there are zillions of digital photographers who really "dig" the EVF type of viewfinding system. Having shot a few EVF digicams, I am familiar with the pluses and the minuses of EVF camera design.
The FujiFilm Professional Division is slowly gearing up for retail sale of S3 Pro bodies with 128 MB of additional onboard memory which will double the buffer of the S3 Pro and bring it to 256 MB. Once again, Fuji shooters are awaiting the announcement of a next-generation body;hopefully for those who dwell in the land of FujiFilm, it is my sincere hope that the mythical FujiFilm FinePix S4 Pro is announced very soon. A pre-PMA announcement might be considered disrespectful to Nikon, and so I expect that any S4 Pro will be announced at PMA,in due time, at an appropriate time for such an announcement.
FujiFilm should realize that buyers from time to time actually decide to BUY cameras,and that once a buy has been made, additional camera sales opportunities are often limited during a product's duty cycle. Fuji's customers are potential Nikon customers,for the most part,with existing lens inventories and Nikon system accessories. A lot of FujiFilm customers have in the past been quality-conscious shooters who like the Fuji "look". But what's amusing to me,and actually pleasing as well, is that so,so SO many of the Fuji SLR users who flicked me sooooo much shit are now firmly in the Nikon camp. Or in the Canon camp. Mark Abraham for example, and early and vociferous Fuji S3 booster and certified Dynamic Ranger (a phrase I cointed, by the way, Dynamic Ranger) has recently written on dPReview that he's more enamored of the Nikon D2x and its greater pixel count and resolution than he is of the Fuji S3. Germany's own Bernie E, another Fuji S3 booster who mercilessly and repeatedly taunted me, as well as Roger Monroe, by alleging that we liked to "machine gun" shoot--well, good old Bernie is now very enamored of the Canon EOS 5D,and has suddenly gone back and re-visted his S2 captures and Bernie has now had a self-described S2 epiphany.So, Bernie himself has recently admitted that he's gone back and has somehow discovered that the S2 was actually a great camera. Funny how so many S2 users like myself already KNEW the S2 was a good camera, and were not swayed by the S3's slightly increased DR. Peter Leynaar, a small-time Canadian professional photographer was once a VERY big S3 proponent, is now considering a much faster-handling camera and has had some problems with the S3's slowness in actual use. And on and on and on--so MANY of the early S3 Pro boosters, the Dynamic Rangers who loved to get mad at me and to vent their anger at me, well, those people have almost to a man, finally realized that the choice of a FujiFilm D-SLR is still an "old choice". The "old choice" involves deciding how much is it worth to have a good sensor in a crappy,underperforming body with a beginner-level AF system and an outdated flash system,and a butchered and unreliable light metering system. The choice for Fuji D-SLR users has always been just how MUCH is one willing to sacrifice for good image quality? Missed focus, or inability to focus--how much is blown focus worth in light of slightly better image quality? The smallest buffer in the industry,with the most-bloated RAW files and no in-camera file compression. The slowest data transfer rates in the industry, but the widest dynamic range, yet with a cheezy histogram and coarse half-stop and whole-stop exposure jumps that make it harder than it ought to be to absolutely NAIL exposures which could maximize the DR advantage the sensor has. Right now, there's a whole boatload of Fuji S2 and S3 users anxiously awaiting an S4 announcement from the FujiFilm Professional Division. And, there's a good and ever-growing number of FujiFilm and Nikon D-SLR users who are considering the Canon system. Even Mark Abraham has finally seen the light, and has mentioned recently that he's considering "taking a dip" into the Canon system with a "good Canon body" and a "good Canon lens" (Mark's words). And so it goes, with numerous other F-mount users looking toward the Canon EOS system as a posibility worth examinining.
I can understand Konica-Minolta owners who feel 'torqued off' as one former K-M user put it, now that Sony has assumed much of K-M's camera business. I can understand K-M lens owners and their uncertainty about where their lenses might be "headed"--it's a very uncertain time right now. Will K-M lenses be headed for a long future of use, or will these be the last lenses for a discontinued or dead-end line of D-LR cameras? Kodak D-SLR users who payed almost five thousand dollars for a Kodak-branded full-frame D-SLR camera might feel similarly,now that Kodak has pulled out of the D-SLR business. Now that Nikon only has remaining the manufacturing capacity to make F6,D50,D70s,and the D2-series bodies (according to Thom Hogan) and has dismantled the production facilities and lines for other cameras, where does that leave FujiFilm which has been using Nikon N80 film bodies for the S2 and S3 cameras? With the Nikon N80 film camera now passed into history, what will FujiFilm do for its possible S4 body? The answer is exceedingly unclear. And so,right now a goodly number of formerly zealous S3 Dynamic Rangers are eyeing Canon cameras,or Nikon cameras, and hoping and praying for a modern,decent,competent S4 Pro design to be announced.
Canon shooters have a lot more to be thankful for than FujiFilm D-SLR users. Canon's new EOS 5D was awarded the Camera Of The year 2005 award by Popular Photography & Imaging magazine. According to the editors at Pop Photo, the EOS 20D WAS GOING TO BE awarded the Camera Of The year 2005 title, but at the last minute, Canon was able to get a second potentially award-winning D-SLR onto the market, thus ,making Canon offerings the top two MOST-influential cameras of 2005, at least according to Pop Photo magazine. Canon is on a roll, there is simply no doubt about that. Canon was able to basically produce a full-frame D-SLR body that retails for $3,299 or LESS. Not $8k like the EOS 1Ds and 1Ds-II models, and not $4,995 or $4,500 like the Kodak full-frame models for Nikon F-mount, but $3,299 at full-priced retail. I've read of EOS 5D's being purchased from Dell Computers with a 10 percent-off coupon bringing the sales price down to around $2,900. Quite impressive. And also impressive is the image quality from the new low-priced Canon full-frame model. Stellar noise handling and noise-elimination,even at elevated ISO settings are making those who NEED to shoot at elevated ISO's like 1600 or 3200 seriously consider the 5D as their salvation. And, as an added bonus, the EOS 5D's autofocusing system is garnering accolades for its performance in lower-light conditions where the CAM 900 cameras simply are not very reliable focusers.
Among Nikon users, the current situation is D50,D70s,D200,D2Hs,and D2x. Five cameras, with no Full Frame option in the F-mount camp now that Kodak has quit the business. Nikon cameras are always improving,and yet it's my honest feeling that Nikon really has been bested in the PJ/event/sports camera field by the EOS 1D Mark II and the newest EOS 1D Mark II-N model. The D2h and the D2Hs that replaced it have both been fitted with a 4.1 megapixel image sensor,while Canon has had double the megapixels on both of its models. With CF card peformance being what it is now, and CF prices having come down, I see a clear advantage to the Canon camera. High-ISO noise.....well, Canon images look cleaner than Nikon images,right off the CF card. Oh sure, I hear the Nikon lovers talk about Noise Ninja and Neat Image and about how Nikon users have the "option" to reduce the noise from the noisy images the D2Hs and the D2x both create at elevated ISO's. But that is in fact "spin". Eliminating noise right on the chip is the better solution, especially when there are double the megapixels in the 1D Mark II-N files compared to the D2Hs files. 8.2 megapixels's worth of smooth,sharp,and almost noise-free image at HIGHER-than-specified ISO performance from Canon,as opposed to 4.1 megapixels's worth noisier and lower-resolution image with STATED-ISO performance. Kind of a no-brainer to give the edge to Canon in the PJ/event/sports camera segment. Is it any wonder than Canon has the majority of professional and serious shooters in this category? No, not really.
Today,in early 2006, there are over 20 new D-SLR models for sale. Last year,according to authoritative sources Canon and Nikon acounted for over 90 percent of all D-SLR sales, with Olympus in third place,which is a situation that leaves almost diddly squat in terms of sales numbers left over for companies like FujiFilm, Sony,Pentax-Samsung to scrap for. Canon and Nikon are the big kids on the block,Olympus is a very,very,very,very distant third, and all the rest are mere off-ramp beggars. And so, while there will be some new choices in 2006, we're really right back to almost where we were in 2001, with Canon and Nikon as the MAJOR players and verybody else in the sorta-there category. Kind of sad,really.

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