Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Planning Out Gear Purchases For The Next Two Years?

Are you perhaps planning your gear purchases for the next two years? Well,maybe you should wait until PMA 2008 is over. By then, the first week of February 2008, you'll know what the major photo industry players are gonna be up to for the next year or so. Product development cycles between Canon and Nikon can vary between synchronized and discordant. Who is "on top" in the market is of little concern,except to amateurs and hobbyists and the prosumers,who can/want to/like to/feel compelled to own the latest and greatest photo equipment. However,new cameras with much better imaging potential have been released by all the major players within the past six months or so,and so...many people will feel a need to get new stuff!

Since the advent of the internet and the explosion of digital photography web sites and forums the number of pretty serious,devoted system-switchers has grown to a fairly sizable number. When one camera maker's products seem to demonstrate better performance, there are quite a number of small time studios and part time pros and serious hobbyists who will move with decisiveness to "a new system" of body,lens or two or three, and flash system,and will use that system only until something X times better debuts,and then it's time for another switch--often only a switch in camera body, but at times, a switch to an entirely different camera brand. Well--if you're interested in updating, 2008 might be a very,very interesting year; for some people,2008 might be a good year to SWITCH to an entirely new system.

Phil Askey predicts that 2008 might see as many as 25 d-slr's introduced. Yes, he wrote that just a few days ago in a pre-PMA piece. Personally, I cannot imagine that that many d-slr's could even theoretically be announced in 2008. I really do not see that much excess production/market fragmentation in the next 11 months. I just do NOT think it possible that any more than eight d-slrs will be introduced in 2008. I think we've already GOT what we're gonna get,all year long, from Nikon, with the D300 and the D3. I do not forsee another Nikon pro or semi-pro body hitting store shelves until Q-1 2009. I hope that I am wrong about that,but I suspect that the pro-semi-pro bodies will be two from Nikon for all of 2008. I do expect that another one, or maybe even two lower-priced d-slrs "could be" announced by Nikon this year. But what has happened now is that,finally,Nikon is offering people some really serious,viable competition to Canon products,in several categories. Over the past few years, the state of technology has changed and shifted considerably,and we're now on the cusp of a new era in d-slr photography. 2008 could be a good year for people to switch to Nikon's d-slr and lens line,with its impressive flash system.

I do not see Olympus doing anything else this year,or in 2009: they have just announced the E3, their follow-up the underwhelming E1.That's where Olympus will be in 2008 and 2009. Not many people care about Oly any more,and the E1's dreadfully poor AF system saw to that;the one credible review I've read of the E3 faults the camera for its ergonomic and field operational problems that result due to the clunky,ill-conceived body controls. Sony's gonna go with what it has already on hand I think all the way until 2009,and will concentrate on more Zeiss-branded lenses and lens design panache and on improving its advertising and distribution.The higher-end Sony branded zooms are solid performers and are significantly better optics than their low-level lenses are. I've handled the new Sony Apha 700, their 12.2 MP camera that uses the D300 imager made by Sony, and the Apha 700 feels great in the hands, has nice controls,and really has a fine human/machine interface. I LIKED the Apha 700,quite a bit. The Alpha system is adequate,and has a very nice "analog control" ethos that is missing from all but the very highest-end Nikons. In terms of a nice feel,heft,and design touches, the Alpha 700 is a winner,and would make a nice serious enthusiast's camera.

Pentax is doing okay,and is gaining a lot of entry-level buyers by offering value and by being handled in big-box stores like Wal-Mart and chain camera stores like Ritz/Wolf/Kits/et all. Pentax has a nifty history as a camera company,and has some boutique lenses and their legendary decades-long lens compatibility on their d-slrs (like Nikon,only more-adaptable to legacy lenses than Nikon) and there is a place for the Pentax brand in the camera world, but I just see them struggling in the US market. I do not think they can compete well against Sony,and I predict that Pentax's market share over the next two years will stagnate or decline slowly.while Sony's market share climbs slowly.If you bother to pick up and handle and trial the Sony d-slr's,you'll see why I think they'll do well. And also, the name Sony has some clout among many consumers. It's a brand that's been built for years,and my experiences with Sony products have been very good ones generally,over two decades.

Canon will almost surely announce an EOS 5D iteration or replacement at PMA 2008. The new 40D's 10.1 MP imager yields images that are rich in information and with good color and nice tonality,in an affordable,fast,large LCD,half-height,proven Canon 1.6x semi-pro mold of the 10D-20D-30D evolution. The 40D's images look very,very close to the quality of those produced by the 5D's full-frame CMOS imager and image processor,and this 40D-EOS 5D image quality near-parity holds right up to ISO 800. Seriously, the 40D in side-by-side shooting is performing almost as well as the 5D. And so,I think Canon will soon be making an updated 5D-type camera,with a better imaging potential and higher ISO settings. THIS AREA, the prosumer FF market is a market segment where Nikon really does not have a competing product, and this market segment, that owned by the 5D for the past two and a half years, is where image quality,usability,and versatility all come together to make the 5D one of the best camera values we've yet seen in the d-slr arena. This segment, the 5D segment, is where most people are waiting on Canon's announcement at PMA 2008,to provide them with some clarity in terms of future product.

Let's just suppose that Canon's 5D-Mark II will start at 200 ISO and not 100,and work Up to a Hi-1 of 6400, with a calibrated, Canon-good range of real ISO's of 200 to 400 to 800 to 1600 and to 3200 all in 1/3 stop progression as real,tested ISO settings, and then with a Hi-1 setting of 6400. Is it possible that Canon merely moves the 5D's successor toward better images at higher ISO settings as a way to exploit the potential of both slower lenses and also keep its sales appeal to so many types of shooters? What if Canon can get to the 12000 to 25,000 ISO levels that the Nikon D3 can shoot at very easily?

Nikon's new Expeed processor seems to be capable of processing large amounts of data,and there's some reason to believe that the Expeed processor itself is reducing chromatic aberration that the processor "sees" or "finds" during the processing of images. Wow! That's great,because there are a number of very fine Nikkor telephotos and wide angles and zooms that have CA problems which a small amount of processing power can cancel out,and if Nikon's newest generation of processor can help reduce the small residual CA that so many lenses have, it'll be a great thing. With modern lenses, their CA profiles are fairly well-known,and the CPU in the lens tells the processor what lens images the picture. Nifty,this communication between lens and processor. Bjorn Rorslett's Nikon Forum writings seem to suggest that MANY of the CA problems that older lenses showed on the D2x are now eliminated or very greatly reduced; to me, that's a good thing. The D2x's high-density sensor, with 12.2 MP on a DX sized sensor,places very,very high requirements on the lens on the camera. You will note that currently, about 12 MP is all ANY maker has on a crop-sensored camera. At this stage of d-slr development, that's about the theoretical top end for good performance. Moving to a FF or FX format sensor size, like the EOS 5D and now the Nikon D3 use, makes the pixels larger,boosts Higher ISO performance by keeping noise at bay,and is also less-demanding on the lens's absolute optical performance. Simply put, the FF or FX sensor size makes everything a little bit less critical. The larger capture area means that a number of areas are a bit less strained,and a bigger sensor delivers a bigger,better image than a smaller sensor does,all things being equal.

Used D2x bodies are now in the $1900 range. Not a bad deal,really,if the D2x will suit your requirements. As a crop-sensored camera for low-ISO work,with top-shelf lenses only, the D2x is hard to beat,image quality wise. For controlled lighting,like with studio lights, the D2x has an excellent focusing system for indoor use under modeling lamps,and it has ultra-high resolution--with excellent lenses. Used D2x's will be valuable for lower ISO work and are a very good deal at $1900 IMHO. I personally think the D2x is/was optimized for use under controlled lighting conditions more than field use for such things as sports or photojournalism. The D2x is a good sports camera as long as the lighting levels are GOOD or you are using strobes for supplementary lighting; it really is outclassed by the better sports/PJ cameras when there's a need for ISO speed to get shutter speeds adequate to ensure good photos. let's face it: the D2x is very ISO-limited. Period. But under good light levels, the results at ISOs like 100-160-200 are staggering. Crisp,clear images that are as good as the LENS you happen to have. With the absolutely best Nikkors, the D2x can deliver very,very good images. With good light. And as long as the exposure is right. And you are willing to expose to preserve highlights and then post-process the NEFs. That's the D2x. Unforgiving and demanding,but very rewarding if everything is just right.

The D2x is defended by many people. As long as you can make your pictures at low ISO settings, it's quite good. But it has a narrow dynamic range, and it does tend to blow highlights quite easily,and it's a very *demanding* camera,and its range of ISO settings is narrow; the range is from 100 to 800; anything above 800 is a Hi-setting and is not necessarily up to ISO standard. But please note, the official range is a mere 100-800. You know, if the D2x had the 5D's sensor in it, there wouldn't be a thing to complain about about the D2x. I'm serious. The D2x's sensor really tops out at about ISO 250 or 320. Above that and the image quality performance of the D2x is easy to equal or to beat using many "lesser" cameras. I want to repeat: if the D2x body had a sensor that was as good as the one in the Canon 5D, there would not be a damned thing to complain about. And that my friends, is what makes the D3 such an appealing camera; its a pro Nikon body with a full frame sensor,like the Canon 5D has inside its serious amateur body.

The Nikon D3 is currently $5,000,just like the D2x was in early 2005. If you buy one, expect that its replacement will not be here for another two years. Or maybe a little bit over two years. If you're waiting for an ultra-high resolution Nikon,like an 18-21 MP model, I think you'll be able to buy one in Q4 2008,and if not by then by Q1 2009. Nikon's gonna move to a high-density,high MP FF (aka FX-format) sensor camera as soon as it can,feasibly. And that's why they've built the awesome new lenses 14-24,24-70,200 f/2 VR, 300 VR,105 VR, and the superb 70-200mmm f/2.8 VR and the super-duper 200-400mm f/4 VR zoom, and the new VR-equipped line of 200mm f/2,300mm /f2.8, 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm and 600mm f/4 superteles; Nikon's already designed and built an entire line of new,high-definition,high-performance lenses for its upcoming high-density sensored d-slr models. Nikon has gotten the lenses into place over the last several years; their newest pro-class lenses are all exceptionally good performers,designed for a new generation of cameras soon to come. If you want a D3, buy it and use it,'cause it'll be state of the art in High-ISO pro Nikon for two more years. And I can assure you, the D3 is a very,very exciting camera that has High-ISO capabilities that absolutely WILL make it EASIER to get better sports and PJ and wedding images,under lighting conditions that were previously only the province of electronic flash. The 25,600 ISO setting looks pretty darned good converted to monochrome,and will allow low-light shots that were previously IMPOSSIBLE to get with f/2.8 teles like the 70-200 f/2.8. Sports coverage like nightime football and soccer under the will be able to be reduced in power,speeding up recycling rates and extending battery life....the new ISO cushion will allow you an extra stop or even two stops smaller to provide a focus safety cushion. If you wanna shoot low-light, the D3 really looks to be worth $5k.

Nikon's more-modest lenses could use a refresh; their high-end zooms are great,and their superteles are great,but the rank and file Nikkor lenses in the prime focal lengths are rather long in the tooth. The announcement of a VR-equipped 85mm 1.4 during 2008 might just spark a sell-off of a lot of AF-D 85 1.4's,and the sell-to-raise-cash-for-D3 syndrome will swell inventories of used and consignment gear throughout 2008,so be on the lookout for good deals on used Nikon glass this upcoming next 12 to 18 months. The D3 costs a LOT of cash,and much gear will be traded away to raise money for D3's,since they are so desirable. I expect that Nikon will address the 85mm lens rather soon,and I PRAY they add some speed to the wide-angle domain. Nikon is seriously deficient at high-speed wide-angles. They have NOTHING. Right now, Nikon's best lens offerings are probably their 14-24mm which is likely the best wide angle lens made at 14 and 16 and 18 and 20 and 24mm; it's an amazingly sharp lens and it's very wide and it has some real *range* across the wide angles of view. A lens that delivers sharp,well-corrected images to a full frame imager from 14mm to 24mm at f/2.8 is simply unprecedented. Wow. The lens testing people at 16.9 are simply agog at how good the 14-24 Nikkor is. It's a worldbeater. It's a crowning achievement in lens design and manufacture.

Meanwhile,Canon has completed its update of the prime line L-glass with their new 50mm f/1.2 and their 85 1.2 iteration. Both are very costly full-field lenses. Add in their 24/1.4 L and 35/1.4 L and Canon seems to hold the edge for ultra-high speed lenses for available light and shallow depth of field/selective focus effects from wide to short telephoto. I've seen some wedding work done using these ultra-speed lenses,and the dreamy, color wash backdrops the 50mm 1.2 and 85mm 1.2 are able to make are very beautiful. To be fair, I've also seen excellent shallow DOF and selective focus work done with the Sigma 30mm f/1.4,Nikon 85mm 1.4,Nikon 105 DC, Canon 135/2 L,and the Nikkor 200mm f/2 VR. What has happened is over the years, as ISO speeds have gone up and slower zoom lenses have hit the market, and now we see LOTS of event photography shot at small apertures,and very little shot at wide apertures. Most people will stop their f/2.8 lens down a stop or two to get better image quality, a bit more DOF, and just easier,surer image-making. But the real shallow DOF and selective focus photography is done at apertures usually wider than f/2.8. The cheapest route to shallow DOF/selective focus is in the 85-100-105mm focal length range,from both Nikon and Canon,with the 85mm f/1.8 lenses from either maker being just under $400,and offering a tremendous image making potential in the short tele range. Canon's 100mm f/2 is also a nice social photography lens that offers good shallow DOF/selective focus images. Dirk Vermierre uses the inexpensive Canon 100mm f/2 to good effect,and he's also used Nikon's 105mm f/2 DC lens quite a bit with equally good results.

If I were to think about a lens lineup for the next two whole years, it would be muchly determined by what format I was going to shoot: DX or FF,and the lens choices would be quite different. What I see for 2008-2010 is the era of very high quality zoom lenses and of Nikon updating its big teles to VR, and people upgrading from non-VR 300's,400's and 500's to VR models,and of Nikon's new lineup being 14-24, 24-70,70-200VR,and then adding VR to some of the oldest prime short tele designs like 85-105-135-180. Canon's expensive wide-aperture prime lineup of 24-35-50-85 L-series lenses is where I expect Nikon to get to by 2010. If you want ultra-speed primes from 24 to 85mm,now, Canon is the only choice. If you want some of the BEST lenses, Nikon's still edging Canon out in the 17-35 category,and also the 14-24 wide zoom Nikon has is untouchable by any Canon lens. Nikon's 200 f/2 VR is unmatched by any current Canon lens,and is an optical secret weapon.
Nikon has solidified its lens offerings reasonably well over the last year, and I think will continue to bolster the lens line over the next two years--while I do NOT THINK that Canon has devoted the same resources to lenses. I think Canon's lens line is not going to fill-in or be updated to the same extent Nikon's line is. Nikon is in the middle of the supertele VR completion,and is spreading VR to its low-end stuff almost as fast as it can. I don't think Canon's prepared to do that right now,and besides,their lens lineup is solid,for the most part, and reasonably vast.

The biggest two-year planning I think involves whether you're going to switch platforms,and what lens choices you're going to make. Lenses outlast bodies by a wide,wide margin. Lenses last for decades,but bodies come and go. And while lenses might seem expensive,often costing $800-$1800 for some of the better ones, over a decade that's not that much per month. Given the increasing quality lenses are demonstrating these days,it's worth the time to investigate what some of the new lenses can do. What sucks to me is having to pay $5,000 to Nikon for the pleasure of using their best camera. They've been pulling that shit for four generations of digital flagships. That sucks. But the advantages of full frame digital are so many that it's come down to 2008 and Nikon's charging $5k for a full frame camera. And pretty soon Canon's 5D's successor model will be announced and you'll probably be able to buy a slightly discounted 5D at a store or two. What to do? Based on the past, Nikon's not going to update the D3 to a high-rez camera for almost a year and a half. I do NOT think that Nikon will introduce a serious-enthusiast type FX body,like the 5D with a simple feature set,within 18 months. I'm afraid that Nikon's not going to be able to make its "5D" until 2010. Gosh, I hope I'm totally wrong, but Nikon's pace of development doesn't make me think they've got it in them to have been designing a "5D" niche camera. NOR does Nikon have the factory capacity to make another high-selling body at this time,or in the forseeable future.

As I see it, 2008 is the year where many people will decide to either piss,or get off the pot. The advantage of full frame capture is now so apparent to me. My Sigma 100-300 f/4 HSM is a marginal performer on the D2x's high pixel density sensor. The lens just ain't quite good enough to make the D2x shine. But on the 5D with an adapter, that same exact lens yields significantly better images. If you're going to stick with APS-C 1.5 or 1.6x cameras, you've simply got to get the best lenses possible. There's no way around that. The highest performance lens-wise is gonna be on full-field,larger sensors. That's why the 5D's performance has been so widely hailed,and why the Nikon D3's performance is so widely acclaimed--the full frame capture size demands a lot less of lenses. Full frame is available now,at two price levels from Canon,and available from Nikon in one costly professional body. I can see a lot of people switching from Canon to Nikon and vice versa in the next two years.
There are going to be some products that the "other" camp will not be able to match,and for some people, the lens offerings will make an actual difference in which system is the most appealing.

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