Mirrorless is no longer a niche.

foveon Jul 5, 2016

Recently, we saw two announcements in the photographic world regarding mirrorless cameras:

  1. Sigma announced pricing and availability for its recently announced SD Quattro Mirrorless camera.
  2. 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

SD Quattro System

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.

SD Quattro Kit

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.

Image taken with a Sigma DP1 Quattro

Hasselblad X1D

The second big announcement was the Hasselblad X1D-50c. This was earth-shaking in its own way.

  1. The world’s first medium format mirrorless camera.
  2. The world’s smallest and lightest medium format camera.
  3. 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.

Alpa STC with iPhone as viewfinder

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.

Hasselblad X1D

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:

  1. Bring former medium format photographers back into the fold.
  2. Entice new customers to make the jump to medium format.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.