Photokina is Europe’s largest trade show centred around traditional still-image photography and a photographic gear-lovers paradise. Surprisingly, I have never been to any photographic equipment fair before, so when the opportunity came up to go to Köln this year it was hard to pass up. This is what I found…
Sensors are Getting Bigger
The clearest trend at Photokina is a move towards larger sensors.
Small cameras are basically a dying breed. Compact cameras are essentially gone, surviving only specialised niches while most of the photographic industry has set its sights on expanding the vastly more profitable high-end business.
The announcement that was impossible to miss before the show was the release of the new Canon RF-mount and Nikon Z-mount systems, both setting in motion changes that will ultimately lead to death of the DSLR as the mainstream professional camera.
None of the current mirrorless full-frame cameras currently offer anything new and compelling over their existing DSLR counterparts, but what is interesting are the planned lens releases. These have many high-end super-fast optics such as Canon’s 24-70mm f2 zoom that will draw many photographers in to the new formats. If you were expecting mainstream full-frame mirrorless to be lightweight, small or cheap, a quick glance at the manufacturers lens road-maps should convince you otherwise.
The lens roadmaps are also likely a response to the emerging market for entry-level medium format cameras. Fujifilm, Pentax and Hasselblad were showing their current cameras, all based around the same Sony 44x33mm sensor. I hesitate to call these “medium formal” because while the digital sensor is larger than a 35mm full-frame unit, it is still a lot smaller than even the smallest traditional medium formal film size.
Most of the current crop of budget digital medium format cameras lack the fast primes necessary to compete with existing full-frame offerings, and the advantage of these cameras over full-frame is likely marginal at best.
I had a chance to try the new Fujifilm GFX50R range-finder style camera, which is clearly intended to recall the much lauded GW6x0 series of cameras that Fuji made 40 years ago. Surprisingly, I was very disappointed with the handling, the obviously low EVF frame-rate (low light?), and the relatively slow lenses. The build quality also seemed to be a notch lower than many much cheaper cameras. Overall it felt like going back to my now antiquated Panasonic GF1, and a long way removed from the responsiveness and refinement of most mainstream cameras today.
So while the emerging entry-level medium-format options are interesting, they do not yet seem to be a compelling alternative to smaller and cheaper full-frame cameras.
There were also high-end medium format cameras from Phase One and Hasselblad. Were I interested at medium-format digital I would be looking very closely at the new cameras from Phase One, which have larger and higher resolution sensors than Fujifilm – unfortunately with eye-watering prices as a result.
Also worth noting is that Leica announced the development of an update to its medium format cameras with the 64MP S3. This will not be available until next year, and it goes against the current mirrorless trend by continuing to use a DSLR based design with an optical viewfinder. Even by Leica´s standards this feels like a backwards-looking niche product, and it is unclear to me how it will be able to compete with second generation devices from Fujifilm and Hasselblad. These will likely offer a very similar sensor combined with a much better ecosystem of lenses and support – and a very much more competitive price point.
Leica, L-Mount and the Zenit-M
In keeping with the trend towards larger sensors, Leica made two overtures designed to expand adoption of its 35mm full-frame platforms.
The first of these was the announcement of the the L-Mount alliance, where Panasonic and Sigma have agreed to develop, manufacture and sell full-frame cameras and lenses based on Leica’s existing SL system. The SL was one of the first full-frame mirrorless cameras to be released, but it has seen little adoption thanks to a relatively small ecosystem of native lenses, an uncompetitive specification (particularly compared to the Sony A7 series) and Leica’s tendency to price their equipment at a level which few working photographers can justify. The L-mount agreement aims to change that.
The first and most visible product of that agreement are the Panasonic S1 and S1R camera bodies. On paper, these are very competitive full-frame mirrorless cameras, sporting 24 and 47 megapixel sensors and all of the bells and whistles that Panasonic have refined through a decade of micro 4/3 development (and possibly even the existing Leica SL). There was also an announcement that Sigma, as well as developing lenses, will produce a full-frame body with a Foveon sensor. This would be very interesting for anyone interested in landscape or architecture (low-ISO, high definition imaging) and who wanted to make use of existing Leica lenses.
Whether the system will be a success will likely depend on pricing. Leica’s current 50mm f1.4 for the SL retails for an astonishing 5k euros in Barcelona. I am sure that it is a superb lens, but the reality is that the L-mount system needs lens and body options at a substantially lower price point in order to gain enough market traction to survive.
The second full-frame partnership from Leica is the Zenit-M. Zenit was a super-low-cost Russian Leica imitator for much of the last century. Historically, it was known for its Leica-like rangefinder cameras and lenses, as well as a series of fully mechanical film SLRs. Zenit was a budget brand, and the polar opposite of Leica’s market position today.
The first product from this improbable partnership is the Zenit-M and 35mm f1.0 lens, which are expected to retail as a bundle for a non-exactly-Zenit-like price in the ballpark of 5500€ euros. I had a chance to handle the camera and it is fairly obvious that this is essentially just the old Leica M typ 240 with some cosmetic changes. Quite why anyone would want to shell out such a large sum of money for a warmed-over six year old Leica camera branded as a Zenit is beyond me.
The Zenit 35mm f1.0 lens looks more interesting than the camera. It is big and bulky in a way that is deeply at odds with the ethos of rangefinder cameras. But the f1.0 aperture will entice many even if, reading between the lines of the marketing copy, it is not terribly sharp.
Personally I would far rather go with the much smaller (and probably much sharper) Voigtländer 40mm or 50mm f1.2 Nokton series lenses.
It will be interesting to see if the Zenit is just another ill-thought-out special edition for a Leica camera, or whether there is some as yet unrevealed deep and long term strategy.
The venerable GR series can trace its roots back to the 1990’s, where it started as a series of 35mm compact cameras known for their small size, great handling, and sharp 21mm and 28mm prime lenses. The design eventually transitioned to a series of small sensored cameras before arriving at the current 16MP GR and GR II APSC digital compact cameras.
By modern standards, the GR series are incredibly limiting. They sport only a fixed lens equivalent to 28mm on full frame, and the underlying sensor technology is now more than five years old. The GR III finally should bring the camera technology back up to date.
The specifications are very promising: a 24MP sensor with 3-axis stabilisation, no anti-aliasing filter, fast hybrid AF, and touch screen display. And all with the same diminutive form-factor as the current GR series.
Unfortunately, a number of key features from the older GR series have been removed, such as the pop-up flash and the dedicated buttons for exposure compensation and the AF selection lever. The control changes are particularly worrying, as the physical buttons are pretty much the reason why the existing GRs handle so well for street photography. They appear to have been removed primarily so that the LCD screen size can be increased while also shortening the body – changes that were likely not really a priority for most existing users.
Pricing and availability have yet to be announced, but the camera is expected to be released sometime in the first half of next year.
The State of Micro 4/3?
With all of the noise around larger sensor cameras you might be wondering what the fate is for the only surviving interchangeable lens system that is smaller than APSC. And based on Photokina I think that you would be right to be nervous.
Panasonic introduced an interesting 10-25mm f1.7 zoom lens, but you would have been hard pushed to notice it over all the talk of full-frame cameras. Olympus in particular was somewhat subdued, pushed to the back of one of the further halls with an exhibit that was dominated by the now rather dated feeling “perspective playground” – a nice idea which aims to get people experimenting with pictures, but which feels oddly out of place at a trade show that overwhelmingly centres around more professional aspirations.
The dilemma for micro 4/3 manufactures is of how to compete against a growing number of full-frame cameras that are neither significantly larger nor significantly more expensive. The answer should be in the size of the lenses, where the smaller imaging circle should give a substantial reduction in size and weight over similarly specified full-frame lenses. Unfortunately, the latest “PRO” series lenses from Olympus manage to be as large as many full-frame lenses – in fact larger than the fast primes that I use on the Leica, and which capture 4x as much light while also offering significant advantages for depth-of-field control.
It was a micro 4/3 system – the aforementioned GF1 and 20mm f1.7 prime lens – that really got me excited about photography again, and none of the current cameras would be capable of doing that again. The system desperately needs something like a Pen-F with weather sealing (and without the ergonomically annoying hipster front dial), plus some small 12/17/25/45mm premium-quality weather sealed primes.
For me, I will continue to use our micro 4/3 cameras where it makes sense. It remains the lightest and smallest weather-sealed system, with good zooms and excellent macro capabilities (which is why it is mainly used for fieldwork and film scanning). But I wonder how many people will in future consider the system given the APSC and full-frame competition that now exists?
There was very little of interest to film photographers at Photokina, probably reflecting the show´s focus on new technology.
Film photography was most obviously represented by Lomography who had a colourful stand with numerous films and cameras, and Fujifilm who were heavily promoting their Instax series of instant film cameras.
There were also small displays from Fotoimpex (Adox, Cinestill), Jobo (film processors) and a some stands selling accessories for large-format photography. Cinestill announced an interesting looking gadget to help control chemical temperatures while processing films.
Reflecta, PlusTek and Epson had stands showing their film scanners. Tellingly, I do not think that any new standalone film scanner has been released in many years, reflecting both the market and also the fact that many film users such as myself have migrated to digitising film by using a camera and macro lens. Nothing that I saw at Photokina would persuade me to change that.
One of the true delights of Photokina was being able to look at both state-of-the-art printers and papers. There were some absolutely fabulous prints on display and more than anything Photokina drives home home important it is to print and not just look at things on a computer screen.
One thing that was very eye-opening was being able to see up close huge prints – often several meters in size – made by specific cameras.
With care, even micro 4/3 prints can be made up to 2m in size and still survive viewing at a close distance. Unless you are trying to wallpaper the side of a sky-scraper, pretty much any APSC or larger sensor can – with careful upscaling – give prints up to several meters in size with excellent quality.
At the moment we are very space constrained, but once the new house is restored the plan is to upgrade our ageing Canon inkjet to something larger that can utilise some of the fantastic rag-based papers that were on display. I had a chance to see the Epson P800 and Canon Pro 1000 working, and deciding between the two is going to be incredibly difficult.
I was rather surprised at my reaction to Photokina. I really enjoyed the print exhibits and some of the talks, but very little of the equipment being shown was for me particularly exciting.
I had expected that I would come away with a case of serious GAS after looking at the latest “affordable” mirrorless medium format cameras from Fujifilm and Hasselblad, but nothing I saw really justified the increase in size and weight over a conventional DSLR system. Fujifilm itself only helped reinforce that impression by putting up some very impressive large prints made with their 24MP APSC cameras.
I found the photography on display and the talks far more interesting than the equipment. Given the decline in camera sales over the last few years, perhaps I am not alone.