After eight years of nearly uninterrupted service, I finally had to retire my Mac Pro 2008. This dual-Xeon workstation served me long and faithfully, but Apple and the economy conspired against my upgrading to the latest and greatest Mac Pro. However, this was not a surprise. I saw the writing on the wall a long time ago.
Recently, we saw two announcements in the photographic world regarding mirrorless cameras:
- Sigma announced pricing and availability for its recently announced SD Quattro Mirrorless camera.
- Hasselblad announced the X1D, the world’s first medium format mirrorless cameras.
I have been covering mirrorless cameras on my blog for years and am very well versed in the nuances of the genre. Let’s analyze the two announcements and see why I make the claim that “mirrorless is no longer a niche.”
Sigma SD Quattro
Sigma Corporation of Japan is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of camera lenses. Their line of lenses supports practically every major 35mm camera brand in the industry. They have a native mount as well for their own line of cameras (Foveon based DSLRs) and earlier this year they announced at CP+ their SD Quattro line of mirrorless cameras. And they didn’t just announce one camera, they announced two (the SD Quattro – an APS-C model and the SD Quattro H – an APS-H model). The SD Quattro announcement included flashes, battery grips, USB docks and a whole passel of accessories. In short, an entire system except for lenses.
Why no lenses?
Sigma made the decision to buck the current trend in mirrorless camera design and make a mirrorless system that uses existing DSLR lenses. So the SD Quattro family has access to the entire Sigma lens stable in SA mount at launch. This is one of the most comprehensive mirrorless camera systems I have ever seen. On top of that, lenses launched under Sigma’s Global Vision Initiative can have their mounts converted at the factory to SA mount, so you won’t have to sell off your lens kit (assuming you have these recent vintage Sigma lenses) in order to switch.
This shows a level of commitment to the mirrorless platform that no other camera maker has ever been willing to do. Olympus & Panasonic came the closest with Micro 4/3, but they created an entirely new platform that required a whole new set of native lenses. However, they had few lenses at launch.
The pricing was set at $799 for the body and $999 for body plus kit lens. In recent times, the term “kit lens” has come to mean some shabby try-hard lens that doesn’t cost the manufacturer much to make. Not in this case. Sigma chose their 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM Art Lens as the “kit lens” for this system. This lens has received high praise from everyone who has ever reviewed it.
This is very aggressive pricing for a mirrorless camera with this many features.
Robust camera, tons of lenses at launch, advanced Foveon sensor, and a full line of accessories – what’s not to love?
Well the weak link in this system is the camera’s Foveon sensor. Not the sensor itself per se, just Sigma’s reluctance to share the “secret sauce” of processing the raw images coming our of the camera. In order to process raw files, Sigma’s raw conversion software (Sigma Photo Pro) must be used. No other raw converter supports it. SilkyPix supports older Foveon based cameras, but I am investigating their plans for Quattro support. Adobe has no support for Foveon of any flavor, nor do any of the other players.
What does this mean?
It means that there will be an extra step in your workflow. SPP will be needed to convert the RAW images into something that Lightroom/Photoshop/Capture One Pro/(Insert your favorite raw converter here) can use. That can slow your work down if you process large amounts of images all the time. But if the images produced by the Foveon are your cup of tea then it may be worth the extra effort.
The second big announcement was the Hasselblad X1D-50c. This was earth-shaking in its own way.
- The world’s first medium format mirrorless camera.
- The world’s smallest and lightest medium format camera.
- The least expensive Hasselblad medium format digital camera ($8995 USD for the body).
World’s First Medium Format Mirrorless Camera
OK, technically speaking, the Alpa 12 series is also a mirrorless camera too, but I am talking about a modern mirrorless camera that uses an electronic viewfinder and has auto-focus. The Alpa 12 is just a metal frame that allows you to mount a large-format lens (like a Schneider or Rodenstock) with a Copal shutter on the front and a digital back on the back and an optical viewfinder (or an iPhone) bolted on the top.
Mirrorless? Well, there is no mirror in the skinny pair of plates that Alpa calls a camera body. That’s for damned sure. But sexy as it is, this is not what I am talking about.
This is what I am talking about. A modern mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, auto-focus and all of the modern amenities. The sensor in this camera is medium format (that is, larger than a full-frame 35mm sensor) but it is not full-frame medium format. Made by Sony (and used by Hasselblad, Pentax, and Phase One) this CMOS sensor can be considered the APS-C of the medium format world. It is, however, 1.67 times larger (1,441mm2 vs 864mm2) than a 35mm full frame sensor.
This is huge. The camera isn’t, but the announcement is. Medium format had long been the staple of professional wedding and portrait photographers. When the digital revolution came to medium format, MF camera makers (having learned long ago that keeping their customers happy was the key to repeat business) avoided some of the pratfalls that beset their 35mm brethren and created modular systems that were easily upgraded. However, their prices became stratospheric (with some digital medium format cameras rivaling BMWs in price) and their less affluent clientele dumped their gear in favor of digital 35mm. (Nobody said they were perfect.)
The point of this system is two-fold:
- Bring former medium format photographers back into the fold.
- Entice new customers to make the jump to medium format.
- Make a really sexy medium format camera that doesn’t cost a mint.
Ok, that’s three, but you get the idea.
So what is wrong with this one?
Smaller mirrorless cameras have developed certain features that the X1D lacks.
- Image stabilization – the X1D does not have this. To be honest, no medium format camera does. As my friend Doug Peterson pointed out, other medium format cameras have what he terms as Inertial Image Stabilization meaning that medium format cameras, until now, were so heavy that they did not require image stabilization. This camera is about the size of the Leica SL but does not have image stabilization of any flavor.
- The ability to adapt legacy glass freely – the X1D uses central (leaf) shutter lenses. This means that the shutter is located in the lens, not the camera body. The only lenses that can be adapted at launch are Hasselblad H lenses. Whether adapters for other leaf shutter lenses (like Phase One LS lenses) remains to be seen.
- Low cost – This is a relative term with Sony A7r II’s bopping around $3,300. Most mirrorless cameras are well under the $2000 mark with many lower end models under $1000. The X1D will cost $8995 for the body only and up to $13k+ with a two lens kit, making it simultaneously the most expensive mirrorless body on the market (beating the Leica SL by $1000) and the 2nd least expensive medium format camera on the market (the Pentax 645z costs $6,996.95).
What’s the point?
So here we have to pro-level mirrorless systems joining the Leica SL. The Sigma is the lowball entry with its fascinating Foveon technology and affordable pricing. The Hasselblad is the first Medium Format Mirrorless camera and is sure to be the herald for more systems to come. There are rumors that Fuji is about to jump into the MFM arena as well. We live in truly fascinating times.
The OnlinePhotograper reports on the status of Micro Four Thirds vs. Medium Format in terms of image quality. In an interview with long-time photography professional Ctein, OnlinePhotographer asked “when will Micro Four Thirds images exceed the quality of Medium Format?” Ctein’s response: “-6 years.”
“Image quality is a multidimensional thing, some of which can be quantified and some not. Still, by no measure of image quality does a good Micro 4/3 camera and lens perform more poorly than a good medium format film rig, and by some measures it performs considerably better. My overall subjective evaluation is that the aggregate image quality of Micro 4/3 today, in film terms, falls midway between 6×7 medium format and 4×5-inch large format.
“Almost everyone you can find who is still arguing that Micro 4/3 can’t match up to professional film has not done substantial amounts of serious work in both media. I believe the technical term is ‘talking through one’s hat.'”
So there it is. The question was answered six years ago and nobody noticed.
What Hath Sigma Wrought?
On February 22, 2016, Sigma Photo of Japan formally announced their entry into the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market. They introduced not one, but two camera models: the SD Quattro and the SD Quattro H.
Not only did they introduce two mirrorless camera models, they introduced an entire camera system with some very professional looking specifications. A magnesium based body that is sealed against splashes and dust, two sensor sizes: APS-C (sd Quattro) at a 1.5x crop factor sporting 29 megapixels and APS-H (sd Quattro H) at a 1.3x crop factor sporting 45 megapixels, a battery grip that adds two additional batteries effectively tripling the battery life of the camera, a very nice speed light flash with a guide number of 63, on sensor AF using hybrid phase detect and contrast detection, and compatibility with Sigma’s entire line of SA mount lenses.
Wait a minute…
Yes, you heard me correctly: this camera mounts DSLR lenses natively. Sigma has made some very interesting design decisions with the sd Quattro cameras. Here are some of the highlights:
- Mirrorless design that natively mounts DSLR lenses – the sd Quattro and sd Quattro H are both SA mount cameras which means they can take any of the Sigma DSLR lenses already made. This may sound like an odd choice as most mirrorless cameras sport very short flange distances and can use pretty much any lens with an adapter, but in this case Sigma decided to leverage its arsenal of new lens designs with having to create a new mount or mount adapter (like they did for Sony E-mount). Korean lens maker Samyang does this a lot with their lenses. The mirrorless versions are usually longer than their DSLR counterparts as they have permanently bolted an adapter on the back of the lens, which kind of kills the mirrorless design ethic. The sd Quattro and sd Quattro H therefore have the adapter included in their body design. To wit: The only drawback to this is that the sd Quattros cannot easily adapt legacy lenses.
- This is not a small camera – Unlike most other mirrorless cameras, the sd Quattro are big. Even bigger than the Leica SL. Add the grip and this camera will go toe-to-toe with any other full-bodied professional DSLR. This image shows the sd Quattro H on the left, the Leica SL in the middle and the Olympus Pen-F on the right. All three cameras are sporting fast 50mm lenses (or their native equivalent). The sd Quattro is even larger than the Leica SL and absolutely dwarfs the Olympus Pen-F. Mount one of Sigma’s big lenses on it and you will have yourself a kaiju-sized mirrorless rig.
Bring a monopod.
- Dual Rear Displays – The back of the sd Quattro actually sports two displays: a 3″ main display and a smaller display right next to it showing important system parameters. This is a very interesting choice as it puts all of the pertinent information in one place as opposed to having the secondary display on the top of the camera.
- Foveon Quattro Sensor – Sigma digital cameras do not use standard Bayer-type sensors. Several years ago Sigma purchased sensor start-up Foveon lock, stock and barrel. The Foveon sensor captures red, green and blue color information at every pixel site and thus does not require interpolation to calculate a color image. The Quattro design refines this technology even further. The result is super sharp images with an extremely high level of color fidelity. The drawback is that Sigma has not chosen to share the conversion algorithms with any other software maker so users are forced to convert RAW files using the free Sigma Photo Pro software. This will add another step in your existing workflow as the Sigma Photo Pro software is pretty basic.
Not having personally handled the camera, I cannot give you any impressions as to its balance and overall ergonomics. If the sensors in these cameras are anything like the Quattro sensors in the DP series, you can expect very spectacular imagery out of them. For now I will give you my shortlist of pros and cons:
- Fully baked system at launch. Cameras, lenses, flash and other accessories will ship with the cameras.
- Complete line of lenses. By using the Sigma SA mount, the sd Quattros have a large selection lenses to choose from. Especially the newer Art, Contemporary and Sport lenses.
- Solid Build. At least on paper. Preliminary reports from sites attended the CP+ show are confirming this.
- Weather sealed. This does not mean waterproof. Do try to keep it dry anyway you can.
- Large sensor. While not full-frame like the Sony A7 series, the sd Quattro has an APS-C sized sensor and the sd Quattro H has an APS-H sized one.
- High pixel count. According to Sigma, the sd Quattro produces a 30 megapixel image while the sd Quattro H produces a 45 megapixel image.
- Big. and likely heavy compared to other mirrorless system cameras.
- Limited Adapter use. The built-in lens tube pretty much locks in the camera to SA-mount lenses. Sigma offers a mount conversion service for your existing Sigma lenses.
- Weak software. Let’s face it: SPP is not Adobe Lightroom nor is it Capture One Pro. It is a basic converter used to turn your raw X3F files into TIFFs for editing in Lightroom, Capture One Pro or Photoshop.
Those of you who have followed my blog, know of my long quest to find the best mirrorless camera for travel photography and everyday carry. This has been a very long process spanning many years and I have pretty much done this out-of-pocket. My travels included many parts of the United States and Europe. It has been a lot of fun and a labor of love. I would like to think that I have been documenting, in my own way, the evolution of the mirrorless camera from a niche product to a viable system for amateurs and pros alike. These are the cameras that I have tried and tested so far (in order):
- Sony NEX-7
- Olympus OM-D E-M5
- Fuji X-E1
- Olympus OM-D E-M1
- Fuji X-T1
- Nikon Df (OK this is not strictly a mirrorless camera, but it is a great travel camera)
I have also recently switched my workhorse camera from the Nikon D800r to the Sony A7 II. And while the A7 II is indeed mirrorless, it is also a full-frame camera which means big, fat, heavy lenses. Yes, I have traveled with it and it takes spectacular images, but the weight of my kit was very oppressive so I quest again for a lighter system for everyday carry and traveling.
Which brings me to visiting Olympus for a third time. In 2008, Olympus and Panasonic launched the Micro Four-Thirds standard for mirrorless cameras. The goal of m4/3 was to produce high quality, mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras that were much smaller than DSLRs.
Various iterations of m4/3 cameras have been produced by both Olympus and Panasonic. Blackmagic Designs even made a Pocket Cinema Camera that mounts m4/3 lenses. The latest from Olympus is the Olympus Pen F.
Named after the classic half-frame SLR of the late 50’s – early 60’s, the camera’s design, while it evokes a retro design aesthetic, bears little resemblance to its film ancestor:
Two features that it does share with its ancestor is the integrated viewfinder and front control knob. The knob on the original Pen F was the shutter speed dial, but on the digital Pen F it controls various art and filter modes including switching from color to monochrome. It is, however, a virtue of the m4/3 sensor and its 2x crop factor that brings me back to Olympus: small, high quality lenses – in this case 50mm f/1.8 equivalent prime lenses:
The difference is even more startling with pro level 24-70mm f/2.8 equivalent zooms:
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not jumping ship from my Sony gear. In fact, I look forward to expanding my system. However, Sony lenses, being full-frame, are always going to dwarf their m4/3 equivalents. Big, I can work with, but I want small to travel and carry with me. Don’t get me started about the Cambo Actus + Mamiya RB67 lenses I am planning to add to my Sony!
So What’s the Plan?
My travel/walkabout kit will include:
- Olympus Pen F (Black version) + Kit Flash
- Olympus M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8
- Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8
- Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f/1.8
- Two (2) BLN-1 Spare Batteries
- International Battery Charger with interchangeable plugs
- Gariz HK-PENFBK Leather Half-Case
- Small Kit Bag
And, of course, memory cards and my personal effects.
The acquisitions have begun! I also ordered some generic metal lens hoods as they are way cheaper than the Olympus hoods.
The lens, hood and kit bag arrived today. Amazon Sunday delivery is a perk when you live 2 miles from the warehouse. The hood turned out to be superfluous (and ugly) but I am not going to cry over that as the 25mm included a hood. The kit bag is a bit smaller than I expected so I cannot put the camera bag insert I had lying around to good use. The bag is fairly padded and looks water-resistant, so I have ordered a pair of small neoprene lens pouches to hold the other two lenses when they arrive. Here’s what it looks like:
Nissin has recently announced their new i60A flash with a small form-factor, compatibility with their Air controller and a guide number of 60. An m4/3 version is expected in April 2016.
My camera has arrived and it is every bit as nice as I have read everywhere else. The included flash is tiny and Nissin won’t have the i60A available for a while. Plus, my budget is tight due to having to purchase all new kitchen appliances as ours have decided to give up the ghost (ouch). So, while I was futzing around with my Godox/Neewer flashes, I remembered that Meike makes some pretty small, yet potent flashes. As it turns out, their MK320 comes in a Micro Four Thirds version and only costs $79 on Amazon. Here’s a shot of what it looks like on my camera:
It has a guide number of 32 and can tilt up and swivel. A diffuser is included. It is powered by 2 AA batteries and if you use a pair of rechargeables, you can juice them back up without removing them from the flash via a micro-USB port and any tablet charger. Best of all, it supports TTL metering! I used it Friday night at a gallery exhibit opening and it worked great! However, I am required to prove my ownership of a new camera by posting a cat picture, so here is one shot in near total darkness, lit by the Mk320 flash:
I have cancelled my order of the ECG-4 grip plate in favor of a Gariz HK-PENFBK Black Leather Half-Case. This will add a little thickness to the camera body plus a small ridge to increase my ability hold on to the tiny thing. Plus it’s a lot classier: