New cameras: what we’ll get vs what we want

It’s been a pretty quiet year or two in the Canon world, at least for those of us who aren’t in the market for Cinema EOS. Nikon, Panasonic and Sony have all announced or shipped some distinctively different cameras (the Nikon Df, Sony A7r, Panasonic GH4), while from Canon we’ve had the 6D (protecting their position at the low end of full frame) and a bunch of low-end Rebels. Even going back a bit further, the 5D3 – currently my main camera – was undoubtedly a less dramatic introduction than Nikon’s D800. So I’ve been mulling over what we might expect from Canon this year, along with what I might actually want, given that the 5D3 satisfies pretty much all my current photographic needs.

What we’ll likely get from Canon is probably the easier question to answer. Nikon and Canon remain, for now, a virtual duopoly in the market for high-end cameras, and duopolies stay that way by paying close attention to each other’s moves. By all appearances the Nikon D800 has been very successful, so the chances of the next Canon full frame body having a substantially higher pixel count must be high. Whatever Canon might espouse about 18 or 22MP being the “right” resolution for full-frame, they’ll surely seek to stop Nikon having a monopoly on a high resolution body as soon as it’s technically feasible (all of Canon’s current full-frame sensors are apparently manufactured on a less than state-of-the-art 0.5 micron process). Likewise dropping the anti-aliasing filter hasn’t led to howls of complaint from Nikon D800E or Sony A7r users, and I’d expect Canon to follow suit. The logic of Canon’s own recent products (the 6D and 70D) says we’ll get phase detection on the sensor, built-in WiFi (and maybe GPS), and 4k video. The last might get delayed a generation to continue to differentiate the 1DC, but with the GH4 on the way it’s virtually certain the flagship Cinema EOS DSLR will go upmarket, perhaps with RAW, 10 bit color, Apple ProRes codec, or similar features appealing to the video crowd. On the lens front there’s been quite a bit of innovation lately, but there are still plenty of “L” lenses awaiting their makeover to make them sharper wide open for current digital bodies. More telephotos with built-in extenders is also a pretty safe bet.

Just this me-too and evolutionary stuff would actually be pretty useful, even if it’s not very exciting. As I’ve mentioned before, I was struck over the summer by how obvious an edge the D800E has over the 5D3 in resolution, even when shooting handheld with high consumer-grade glass. I’m also plenty happy to let video cognoscenti pull focus manually, and switch to autofocus enabled by phase detection in live view and video modes. As for 4k, I’d rather play with 120fps slow motion, but we’ll probably get both as a package.

What we won’t get is also predictable. If Canon and Nikon perceive any threat from Sony, and possibly others, launching serious mirrorless cameras, that threat is most likely to come from the inherent cost advantages of simpler systems rather than better image quality or even lower weight. So we won’t see any additional mechanical complexity being added to DSLRs, even if built-in ND filters say would be a nifty feature for video. I also don’t see a “Canon Df” as being very likely – nostalgic Canon types already had their hearts broken way back when Canon dumped the FD lens mount.

What I want is trickier. My 5D2 had an achilles heel – it broke when I tried to use it hiking the Berg Lake trail in heavy rain – but the 5D3 handles the photographic situations I’ve personally encountered satisfactorily. What I most want is some Steve Jobs-like innovation I don’t know I want! In the category of disruptive changes, I’ve read enough favorable reports about the Sigma Merrill cameras, from people whose opinions I respect, to be interested in a body with a non-Bayer multi-layer sensor. I’d certainly sacrifice a stop of high ISO performance for what is said to be a subtler color rendition. Three stops? Well at that point I’m not so sure. I’d also like to see a hybrid viewfinder. The recent addition of grid lines and electronic levels into the viewfinder is already a very useful feature, but more broadly the whole raison d’ĂȘtre of a DSLR is that looking into the viewfinder gives you your best view of the world. Camera companies know this, and take some pains to design the controls so that you don’t have to take your eye away to change them. But of course in the real world we mostly take our eyes away from the viewfinder after almost every shot, to check how it looks on the rear LCD! Logic says we should be able to review images in the viewfinder, and while we’re about it switch from an optical to live view in the finder when it gets gloomy (anyone with a modern body knows all too well that one can take perfectly good pictures long after one can no longer see clearly through the lens).

Then there are the minor things that would surely be useful, but which require software changes that Canon seems reluctant to provide. I do a fair bit of time lapse and night photography, and it’s faintly ridiculous that I need to buy various triggers and gizmos to accomplish what a Canon engineer could code up as an in-built feature in literally a day of work. More substantially, the “Dual ISO” Magic Lantern hack strongly suggests that Canon’s imaging pipelines have qualitatively different modes, that in some circumstances would be of real benefit to the photographer. Certainly there are downsides too. But we already have options – like ISO 50 – that are useful despite lowering image quality, so it would be great if Canon let us officially use more of what their hardware is capable of on a caveat emptor basis.

Finally there are lenses. I’m happy with Canon’s recent and legacy offerings, though along with every man, woman and child on the planet I wonder when the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L will be updated. There’s also an obvious gap in somewhat more affordable super-telephotos. At 300mm, the f/4L is old. At 400mm, the f/4 DO occupies a lightweight / expensive / optically not-so-great niche of questionable interest, while the f/5.6 is so old it doesn’t even have IS. Beyond 400mm, nothing. It seems obvious that some updating and rationalization of the 300mm and 400mm offerings is due, and that a 500mm f/5.6 would be an interesting optic. Losing a stop of light is hardly a big deal with current bodies that are at least two stops more sensitive than early pro models, and that sacrifice would be more than outweighed by the lower weight and likely significantly lower cost.

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