Pixels and Power - The Canon 5Ds - What mirrorless could / should do.

Image created with a Canon 5Ds

Image created with a Canon 5Ds

My camera of the year 2015 was the Canon 5Ds. A beast of a camera, but one that I like more and more. While resolution and lots of pixels isn't any guarantee of good pictures, they certainly doesn't do any harm. And as time passes, I'm sure designers and engineers will find ways to increase that resolution, up those pixel counts until we have pictures so large, we won't need telephoto lenses, just crop into one picture to get all the alternatives we want. But currently the 5Ds produces medium format type image quality from a fast, versatile DSLR body and is pretty much the class leader for serious photographers looking for highly detailed files for no compromise reproduction. Assuming of course they want a wide range of lens options to expand their creativity and a workhorse camera that just keeps going for 1000's of images (or hours of video) on one battery charge, focuses quickly, reliably and accurately and benefits from all those years that Canon have been kitting out professional photographers, from wedding snappers to the most demanding sports photographers and everybody in between, 

And the reason Canon (and of course Nikon) are still pre-eminent in the marketplace is that earned reputation and the trust that photographers put in them. Sure Canons (and Nikons) break and they have been known to let the odd rogue model escape their factory, but over the years they have provided cameras that let photographers get on with the business of creating images in the most efficient and effective way. I often write about cameras 'flattering to deceive' and that is unfortunately what a lot of their mirrorless competitors do. There are advantages to these smaller cameras and they have made great strides in the few years that they been available, but the big 'brutal' DSLR's that now dwarf the film SLR's that are their forerunners are still the 'go to' cameras for many serious photographers. And as far as I'm concerned long may that continue. 

So is this another article in praise of the DSLR? Well yes and no. Because, this article is really about my idea that mirrorless cameras should and could be better. Why can't the advantages of the DSLR be applied to the smaller, lighter and more technologically inventive CSC's? For example - Is there really any reason why we can't have better battery life, faster more reliable AF, bodies that feel sturdy and able to be used day in and day out and in general, more 'gravitas.' Why this obsession with small size bodies at all costs, even though when some lenses are fitted a mismatch occurs? In real terms, I believe mirrorless seems to have reach an impasse. Yes they managed to take about a third of the DSLR market with their interchangeable lens cameras, but now that seems to have stalled. And despite all the advances. many 'serious' photographers and certainly many professional photographers still won't contemplate using a mirrorless camera. Why is this and is there anything to be done here? Well as far as I'm concerned, yes there is. Though whether anyone takes any notice is another matter.

The obsession with size.

i doubt there is anyone who likes carrying around heavy photographic gear. And the weight of cameras and lenses, for me, is much more important than the size. And also, as far as I'm concerned I see no particular advantages of a reduction in size, in fact quite the opposite. Whereas reducing the weight makes carrying camera gear around a good deal less taxing, cameras that are excessively small are often difficult to hold comfortably and if, as is the case with a lot of mirrorless cameras, a lot of knobs, dials and buttons are crammed onto a small space, operating those controls becomes difficult and also often leads to unwanted and unplanned turning on and turning off of camera functions. Smartphones have cornered the market on small and simple anyway and by their very nature are much more suited to be carried around a pocket and used for happy snapping when required. Mirrorless cameras really can't seem to make up their mind as to what they want to be. Are they serious cameras with a smaller footprint, or advanced compact cameras? 

Overpriced?

I've long believed that Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L cameras are overpriced. The Sony A7r II is £2500 here in the UK, body only. That's just too much and difficult to justify. Just imagine how many they would sell if it was half that price. Because the Sony FE bodies are pretty cheap feeling and no one will convince me that the 42.5MP sensor is the reason for that whacking price premium. And as for Sony thinking they are Leica and charging almost as much as the Leica Q for their RX1 Mk II compact when everybody knows they will be dropping the price dramatically after the initial sales burst is plainly ridiculous. Sony have already admitted they nearly gave up the camera business before the FE series 'rescued' them. Personally I have no confidence whatsoever that Sony will still be making cameras in 5 years time, whereas my level of expectation that Nikon, Canon and Leica will be doing that is much higher.

Is there a conclusion here?

All of this, to me, means that (as I've written often before) Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L is a 'hard sell' to those who don't follow the photographic internet and are just looking for a new 'decent camera.' Because the companies that aren't Nikon and Canon will always struggle to compete with those household names. And for reasons best known to themselves those companies seem to firstly make some odd decisions about camera design and secondly charge more than large sections of the market seems to want to pay for their products. And yes, I am suggesting that Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L would be much more advanced in terms of replacing DSLR's as the predominant interchangeable lens system, if a different approach was taken. Because these companies just seem to be divorced from reality. Samsung have been mouthing off for years about how Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L is going to take over from DSLR's and how they are going to be the leaders of that. We all knew that was BS, shame they didn't.  

In the end of course it doesn't matter. I have no axe to grind against Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L or DSLR's or rangefinders or smartphones. I'm happy to use whatever I think suits me best at any given time. But I have to say, I wish Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L was 'better' and I wish the people who make these cameras and lenses were a touch more market sensitive sensitive and got their heads out of their ar... Mmm clouds. Because of the following propositions:-

  • Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L manufacturers should abandon the quest for 'smallness' and concentrate on lightness instead.
  • It can't be that difficult to make a battery for a Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L camera that is good for 500-600 shots. So why can't we have some?
  • Wouldn't a more realistic pricing structure lead to more people buying Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L cameras?
  • Put an end to this ridiculous competitive jousting with DSLR's. Emphasise what Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L can offer positively instead of merely concentrating on the 'our cameras are smaller and lighter' negative mantra. Because it seems most people don't really care about size anyway and if they do smartphones are catching up fast. 
  • Make Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L so good that they are a compelling alternative to DSLR's for happy snappers, enthusiasts and professionals. As yet there is no true 'professional mirrorless' camera. And while it is indeed true that many professionals use mirrorless cameras successfully, myself included, many remain unconvinced that they will 'last the course' be as robust and versatile as DSLR's and keep their value when it comes to resale.
  • Mirrorless manufacturers and those that use their cameras should stop using the excuse that these are new systems in their infancy and that things will get better in time. Because that just doesn't cut it. There is for example no excuse whatsoever for Sony's poor lens range. They bought Minolta, a company with many patents for AF lenses. They could have easily released a basic range to cover the options that photographers want by now. And their pattern of constantly releasing upgrades to their camera bodies and very few lenses isn't because they have only been into camera production for a few years, it's a decision they have made. And the fact that Fuji can't provide decent video can't be excused either. It is their decision not to do this. And if as they claim it's because of the X-Trans sensor, there is a simple remedy, dump it!

I should say that the bulk of the cameras sitting on my shelf are mirrorless, but I should also say that they are the cause of the bulk of my frustrations as well. The Panasonic GX8 is one of my favourite ever cameras. But because of the poor battery life and the fact that Panasonic have decided not to provide an accurate battery meter in the camera or a battery grip to provide an additional power source, a camera that I should use much more often often sits on the shelf. And the reason I bought a second GX8 body was to get round this power issue, particularly as I shoot a lot of 4K video with them, though I would prefer to carry one around.(And just in case you want to come back at me about carrying spare batteries, changing batteries means missed shots. I prefer to carry a second camera) I have already sold all my Fuji and Sony gear because of similar dissatisfactions. 

I would love to see a proper, well specified, robust, light, truly professional mirrorless camera, but I am beginning to think that just isn't going to happen. The Fuji X-T1, the Olympus OM-D series, the Panasonic GH3/4 and Sony FE all have their merits, but none of them come near to the solid, no nonsense performance of the Canon 5Ds, or indeed my Nikon D750. And it is becoming the case that these days I either select one of those DSLR's and a smartphone. (Since I always have a couple of the latter with me at all times) I would, in an ideal world, prefer a smaller lighter system, but until the mirrorless manufacturers (or at least one of them) decide to stop hedging their bets and go full tilt at a serious 'pro-spec' camera (or Nikon and Canon finally enter the marketplace with a mirrorless version of their DSLR's) I doubt I'm going to get it. And to be honest, I'm becoming less and less inclined to keep trying all sorts of mirrorless alternatives and over time becoming more and more frustrated at the compromises I have to make. 

Ultimately of course, it really isn't THAT important and I'll use whatever I feel like using at the time. It's the pictures that count anyway and I seem to be able to create sellable images from virtually anything I choose to use. But it would be nice to see some serious intent on the mirrorless front and something more affordable than Leica's SL, which is a genuine attempt to put together a serious non DSLR pro system, though it's hardly intended for the average photographer. And maybe I'm just dreaming and unrealistic, because I'm probably hardly typical of the average mirrorless customer. And maybe they get exactly what they want and I need to look elsewhere. Time will tell.

Finally, one of the much trumpeted advantage of Mirrorless / CSC / E.V.I.L cameras is the video implementation. However, despite not having 4K, no flip out mirror and a supposedly slower working mode (which isn't actually true - it's seriously fast for video) below is what the Canon 5Ds can produce. I should point out that this was shot in appalling light, at ISO's between 640-2500 and using the 'kit zoom' the 24-105mm wide open at f/4. After a bit of 'warming up' in iMovie, not too shabby. Well actually pretty damn good.