Zurich

Flying into Zurich at dawn gave an alluring view of the Alps, but this was a work trip and in the course of a week I didn’t make it beyond the city limits (next time, where next is about a month!). The old city center is rather lacking in landmarks, but it’s generally very pretty.

Zurich city center, night

Zurich, winter (Sony RX100m2, ISO 800, 1/8s at f/2.0)

On work trips like this, and even on vacations where photography is not the main goal, I almost always now go with the little Sony and leave the Canon 5D3 home alone. Therein of course lies the possibly existential challenge for Canon and Nikon’s camera divisions – why carry a DSLR, when a lighter mirrorless camera can most often capture a shot of good enough quality?

Part of Canon’s answer became clearer while I was away. They’d like to reset the bar for “good enough” quality into what was formerly medium format territory, and offer high resolution DSLRs to meet that need. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, a side-by-side comparison of 5D3 frames with images from my brother’s Nikon D800e showed the latter to be clearly better, even under normal shooting conditions. So I’ve no doubt that more pixels are useful, and eventually it’s inevitable that full frame cameras will all sport crazy resolutions. On the other, Canon’s specific implementation in the 5Ds feels less than fully compelling. The high resolution comes with an acknowledged step back in video (which I’ve come to enjoy experimenting with), and overall image quality that’s probably a wash with Nikon’s D810 (slightly higher resolution, probably slightly less dynamic range, though we’ll have to see about the latter). Certainly it’s a step forward in the Canon world, but if I’d really really wanted these capabilities I’d have switched to Nikon already.

More interesting, both personally and perhaps for the future of DSLRs, was the announcement of an 11-24mm f/4 lens. If Canon have been conservative on the camera front, they’ve been anything but when it comes to lenses, with a host of unusual recent offerings (a fisheye zoom, new tilt-shift and diffractive optics glass, the 200-400mm f/4 with converter…). Last year I had a lot of fun playing with some of this exotica. Probably this is part of Canon’s strategy. For a long time, Canon and Nikon’s near duopoly on interchangeable lens cameras has owed more to emotion than reason. Even in the days of film, for most people, most of the time, a Pentax or a Minolta or any other brand worked just as well as a Canon or Nikon. What you lost, of course, was an aspirational upgrade path to shooting at a pro level with the super telephotos advertised back then in National Geographic. The same holds true today. I may not really need a tilt-shift lens (and in fact found little use for the 24mm when I owned one), but its availability is both a reason to buy into the Canon system and a source of lingering doubt for those minded to switch to Sony.

The tensions between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are not new. Back in 2010, visiting Beijing for a conference, I took a 5D2 while a colleague, Richard Alexander, had an Olympus PEN. Photographically it was at best a draw. I managed some unique images with the DSLR (this was during my infatuation with the 24mm tilt-shift lens!) but Richard’s lighter gear allowed more reach which allowed him to come away with probably the single best image.I’m not sure that all that much has changed since then. An interchangeable lens mirrorless camera is slightly less flexible than a DSLR, moderately lighter, and about the same price. It’s not a radically different beast. What has changed is that DSLR technology has matured to something approaching the state at the end of the film era, when there was no urgency to upgrade a perfectly functional body, and that’s certainly bad news for Canon and Nikon’s bottom lines.

Personally I’m tempted by the Sony A7 series. It’s impossible not to pick one up and not be at least slightly smitten. Rationally though my photographic needs are bimodal. Sometimes I want to take the best possible images and video – renting whatever exotic glass is needed for the task, while more often I want a camera that is genuinely pocketable. The 5D3 / RX100 pairing meets those needs well, and barring what we all hope for – something truly revolutionary – I see myself sticking with a similar solution through the next upgrade cycle.

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