Why did I even ask this question?
This started badly. I discovered that my hotel room had been completely cleared out. It was a very audacious scam by a guy I met online. Which meant my love affair with Canon FF cameras that started with the 5Dmk2 and moved to the 6D, needed to be reconsidered. Yes I still have some Canon lenses that were not in the hotel safe, but I now needed to consider what I would buy in place of it, as it would be a while before I got back to the lenses (and the old 5Dmk2). In the theft I lost my key lenses, the 24-105mm f4, the 35mm f2 and the 85mm f1.8 (probably my all time favourite lens) so it is time to reconsider the whole proposition of Canon, like I did after the film days in which I used Nikon.
What is good about the DSLRs?
Let us start with what I liked about the Canon’s DSLRs. I liked the fast autofocus, the range of lenses and durability of them. Love the fact I can make prints that are more detailed than I could from my ‘blad in film days. I love the range of specialist lenses, the 200mm f2.8 and the 45mm shift tilt, I don’t use that much but when I do, people are impressed, and I like impressing clients. They are dependable.
What annoys me about DSLRs?
The DSLRs are huge, intimidating things which is great in a formal portrait session, but when used in public it is not. In a portrait session the bigger the camera the more respect you have from the sitter. In public the bigger the camera the more suspicious people are. Also the more you are announcing that you have an expensive camera, that is worth stealing.
The auto focus is very limited, it is a cross in the centre of the frame, no concession to the rule of thirds or golden mean. On the 6D the only reliable point is dead centre, and it is stunning. It always have to focus then reframe. This drives me crazy and I have missed great photos as I was still moving the camera when I clicked the button. On the DSLRs the manual focus is hopeless. I always felt if we could combine the auto focus information (it is ‘in focus’ now light) with the freedom of choosing the point across the whole frame that would be perfect. I wanted face recognition to be incorporated as a focus type. I was annoyed that my iPhone could do many things better than my 1000USD+ semi pro camera.
My biggest complaint is with the Canon sensors, they lack dynamic range. Rated by DXO mark at just over 12 stops, it is never good enough for many situations that a photographer finds themselves in.
My introduction to the Fuji and Sony.
A few years back friends in the trade were getting excited about the new Fuji cameras. I was happy with my Canons so I didn’t worry too much about it. Now with a clean sheet, I decided it was time to go back and look at all the options and see how much the landscape had changed in 6 years.
I had handled a Sony a7 at a trade fair and loved the size of it. I was introduced to the manual focus system, called focus peaking and wondered is this what I have been waiting for? So now that I’m effectively camera-less I started reading every review of near every camera worthy of a professional and looked anew to see what is the least compromised system for me. A further question was what would be the quickest cheapest way of getting back to photographing?
Why not consider the APS sized Canons and Nikons?
The APS sized Nikons and Canons had never appealed to me. For one neither manufacturer made lenses that were optimised to be the best they could for these cameras. They were always a cheap option. Even the 7D is like this It is best with telephoto lenses that allow you to get closer than you can with a full frame. On the wide side of the equation they are wanting. Canon has not made fixed focal length lenses that are to bring the best out in this sensor, they have introduced a number of zooms. none of these zooms are an ‘L-series’. Nikon likewise has treated the APS as an action and enthusiasts camera.
What has the Fuji’s and Sony done to impress a photographer?
Firstly they are small. The Fuji reminds me of rangefinder camera of the 1960s. It also has the solidness of cameras of that period. Fuji decided to rethink the sensor for the X-trans. It is APS size but the images are as good as the full frame cameras. The distance between the mount and the sensor is very small as there is no need for a mirror box.
The Sony Alpha is smaller than almost all of the mainstream DSLRs, the APS cameras included. Still it fits the hand well. Again the sensor to mount distance, is half or less then a DSLR. Removing the pentaprism and the mirror box removes a lot of bulk from the body.
Their design allows less compromise. The files are crisp and very sharp. Yes the Fuji is 16mpx but all the lenses I have tried with it have resolved well enough not to be shown up by the sensor. (something I cannot say for the 24-105mm Canon lens). The sensor does not need or have a filter to compensate for moire, thus it is not compromised in this regard. The wide angle zoom is disconcertingly sharp, maybe not ‘perfect’ in the edges but considering it’s a 15mm lens (35mm equivalent) it out shines many much more expensive lenses. Because the X-trans is APS and it does not have a mirror box, it is able to have physically smaller lenses, without sacrificing minimum aperture or sharpness. This is no doubt why the 10-24mm is able to be so sharp.
Several commentators have made the comparison to the M-series Leicas. In many ways it would seem that Fuji have benchmarked themselves to Leica and the DSLRs, in terms of quality. The handling is like a rangefinder but with all mod-cons. It is a realisation of the promise of the Leica in terms of handling.
On release, Sony acknowledged it had an issue with their mount. There was not enough lenses for it. In fact it would be some years before they could, so they decided to innovate another way. Nikon, Canon, Leica and most other brands can be fitted with adaptors, with varying amounts of compromise in functionality. Suddenly this camera along with the Nikon Fx (which is a 16mpx the same pixel count as the Fuji), allowed users to use older lenses (to be fair, Nikon only opened it to Nikkor lenses). Suddenly the old Carl Zeiss Contax lenses were desirable again. Suddenly changing from Canon, to Sony means we can keep our specialist glass which we often manual focus anyway. This is possible because the SLR and even the rangefinder designs need a bigger space between the film/sensor plain and the camera mount so there is room to design an adaptor. Fuji also has the option of adaptors. Further Carl Zeiss is making adaptations of the M-mount lenses to lessen the compromise with the Sony cameras. For photographers who learnt this trade, the idea of having a set of Carl Zeiss lenses for more considered work, is like having a Ferrari in the garage.
On the question of sensors, both cameras appear to have more dynamic range than the 6D. For both it is better to keep the highlights in range and allow the shadows to go dark. In processing it is easy to bring back 4 or more stops of shadow range, though clouds blow out fairly easily. This is true on both Fuji and Sony’s sensors. In my day to day photography both seem to embarrass the Canon full frame sensors, though I could not find hard data to support the Fuji, but the DXO Mark tests put the Sony more than a stop better.
The digital view finder is a game changer. You look into your camera and you see what your sensor is going to record. The focus, the exposure as well the composition, with one more press you get the depth of field too. When I first heard about these I was worried. I could imagine seeing the pixels, and that annoying me. If I concentrate on the pixels I can see them, but 99% of the time I am enjoying knowing what I am about to capture, and do not notice at all. As this information comes off the sensor it allows other options, like face recognition, focus peaking and exposure. These cameras also have a wider spacing for autofocus. It goes past the rule of thirds where as my Canons could never get to the thirds.
The digital view finder is probably not going to impress you in the camera shop. It is a feature that over time I have wondered why I resisted it so long. It has given me something I never thought I would have, knowing before pressing the button, what i’m going to get, or is I have made an exposure mistake. I now use manual settings for speed and aperture, as seeing how the photo will be captured allows me to work out more precisely which compromises I will make. I do not miss the optical viewfinder. On the Canon I used programme most of the time. The digital viewfinder takes the pain and guessing out of making a correct exposure in manual. If it looks right and the histogram is ok, it is a great shot. As a result, there is no need to review the image on the camera back. I found that I have turned this off confident that what i see is what I've got.
A bit more about focus. I have always wanted a system where I can manual focus a lens and know when it is in focus, and make the shot. I find autofocus time consuming as I have to focus then reframe or move the focus point to where I want it then make the photo. Even thought both the Fuji and Sony have better places to focus (maybe not more), it is still a bother. Enter focus peaking with magnification. Focus peaking lights up the edges in focus in white (both systems) or red, yellow and white (are options in the Sony system). I’m still working at getting confident in the system (I almost inevitably check with the magnification option). Give me a few more months and I will have it, or if it is an equipment issue, then I am sure it will be solved in the next generation.
In an age of total automation the Fuji and the Sony reward photographers who understand their trade and gives them tools that they can be better than they could be with film. These two series of cameras the Fuji X (particularly the X100, XPro and X-E series) and Sony with the Alphas, we have cameras that make it easier and faster to use manual, but in a throughly modern way with all the new technology in support. I am now using manual with the sort of ‘not thinking about it’ way I used to use programme, instead of adjusting the +/- dial I am using the speed and aperture. I am now moving my focus to manual as well. The results are better exposed, less compromised (aperture and speed) photographs.
So my conclusion is?
Both Sony and Fuji have made the cameras that I dreamt of when I first saw Kodak’s D1. A camera that uses technology to make the art of making photographs easier for the considered photographers. You can set them to auto everything and get an 80+% return of good, but why, when getting great is so easy using manual and the results are so consistent. Not to mention with manual you don’t need to keep going into the menu!
I am sorry Canon and Nikon, you have been left behind, the future has come and you are still more interested in the old paradigms. Sony seemed to have lost its mojo, 5 years ago, they had Playstation and a lot of also rans. Fujifilm might have gone the way of Kodak, who also have some amazing sensor technology and a film manufacturers, but did not. Both Fuji and Sony as companies took big risks and have made very impressive products.
I am the proud owner of the Fujifilm X-E1 (due to price - a pro camera at less than 600USD with an very sharp lens). I cannot imagine leaving home without it. It is as light as a compact (in fact two, one with the standard zoom and the other with the wide would be ideal and still way less weight then a Canon with two lenses). When the time comes to get a studio camera I will get the next generation Sony Alpha, with a set Loxar lenses by Carl Zeiss. If Sony or Zeiss would like to speed that up I would be most happy!