Every two years, thousands of photo enthusiasts and imaging companies descend upon Cologne for Photokina, the “world’s leading imaging fair.” If you’ve been following DigitalCamera-HQ at all over the past few weeks, you’ve most likely noticed the dozens of new cameras that have been added to our database and then briefly previewed. There’s a lot of stuff to wade through, and here we try to break down the good news and bad news from this monster of an exhibition. This year’s show was undeniably a great one for the avid photographers of the world, those shutterbugs who know their way around a camera and are willing to pay for more functionality.
Full Frame Finally Affordable (ish)
Both Nikon and Canon stole the show with remarkably similar announcements: full frame cameras tipping the 20-megapixel mark at just $2100. Nikon’s D600 borrows much of the functionality and build quality of the mid-range D7000, including the 39-point autofocus and partly plastic construction, but packs a full-size FX sensor. Test images and hands-on reviews are now hitting the web, showcasing buttery-smooth, noise-free images competitive with the more expensive D800. Canon’s 6D, on the other hand, includes a simpler 11-point autofocus rated to -3EV and possesses built-in wireless. The spec-sheet seems to tip in the D600’s favor, especially because the 6D lacks a built-in flash, a second card slot, and a 100% viewfinder, but a final conclusion will need to wait till the 6D comes out in a couple months.
The full frame craze extended to a couple other manufacturers too. Sony announced the A99, a full frame translucent mirror camera priced at $2800, as well as the intriguing fixed-lens and probably overpriced RX1 compact. Even Leica released a couple modest upgrades to their full frame lineup: the bare-bones M-E and the top-of-the-line M. Both are typical Leica expensive, but the M does finally add live view and HD video capture.
Mirrorless Cameras Mature – Crowd Yawns
In addition to the seeming deluge of full frame offerings on display at Photokina, Sony, Olympus, Nikon and Fujifilm all released subtle updates to their mirrorless lineups that refine rather than redefine the segment. The Sony NEX-5R, for example, adds wireless and an on-sensor phase detection array for faster autofocus to what is essentially the 5N’s feature set. The NEX-6 likewise refines the more expensive NEX-7 and gains that new autofocus array, wireless, and inherits the NEX-7’s viewfinder. If you don’t need 24 megapixels, the cheaper NEX-6 and accompanying power zoom are really the better option.
Olympus also updated its mirrorless PEN lineup with the E-PM2 and E-PL5. Both cameras boast the very good 16 megapixel CMOS sensor used in the OM-D E-M5, yet have gotten a little fatter in the process. We weren’t aware removable grips were the next must-have feature, but we suppose that’s preferable to non-removable grips. Fujifilm’s X-E1 takes a decidedly different tack, as a retro-looking model that includes the pricier X-Pro1’s X-trans sensor in a slimmer profile. Panasonic also announced the GH3, the latest and largest in their video-oriented line of mirrorless cameras.
Small-sensored mirrorless cameras also got a bit of Photokina love, although none were even remotely groundbreaking. Nikon’s J2 is an remarkably modest update to the J1: It still uses the same 10 megapixel sensor but now has a better LCD screen. Nikon announced a new lens with the J2, an 11-27.5mm compact kit, but we don’t know exactly whom such glass entices. Pentax also announced the Q10, which they say has a new 12.4 megapixel sensor and faster performance than 2011’s Q. Now they just need a market for the camera.
The Cheap Compacts Stay Home
Those looking for the next great thing in cheap point and shoots probably came away from Photokina a little disappointed. For the most part, manufacturers saved their star products for the show floor and left the less exciting compacts back in the warehouse. New compact models generally fall into one of two categories: advanced compacts and extended zoom cameras. Those looking for something at Photokina to slip into a jeans pocket will have to be happy with Nikon’s cellphone-sized (and probably pretty poor) S01.
The most interesting of the advanced compact announcements is arguably theCanon G15, which revitalizes a line of cameras we thought had ended with the more expensive G1 X. The new G is smaller than its predecessor and packs a faster f1.8-2.8 5x zoom lens without losing the viewfinder. This better lens puts it head to head with Nikon’s P7700, which has a slightly slower lens but longer zoom range. Also of note is Fujifilm’s beautifully-styled XF1, which has a larger sensor equipped for EXR modes and a manual zoom ring. Olympus updated the XZ-1 with the XZ-2, which uses a 12 megapixel CMOS (versus the XZ-1’s CCD) sensor, but is underwhelming for the $600 price point. Canon also quietly updated the S100 to the S110, a wireless model with multi-touch support.
As for extended zoom cameras, Canon stole the show with their SX50 HS, whose 50x zoom lens handily eclipses the Nikon P510’s 42x. Other Canon releases, such as the SX500 and excellent budget model SX160, fill in with successively smaller zoom ranges. Nikon’s L610 may pose a challenge for the SX160, but we have our doubts. The Pentax X-5 may be the most interesting of the extended zoom cameras announced – it looks like a DSLR and has a manual zoom ring but uses a much smaller sensor and 26x optical zoom at a reasonable price point.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Camera and Nikon S800c as well. Both are interesting convergent steps between phones and cameras, but don’t promise any great strides in image quality.
After going through the long list of newly released models and crunching some numbers, a few trends stand out. First, we’re beginning to see a real slowdown in the compact and mirrorless segments regarding basic image quality. New models are using essentially the same sensors, or at least very similar sensors, as the cameras they replace. From the Sony NEX-6 to the Canon S110, empirical sensor improvements in dynamic range or noise performance have slowed. Manufacturers are now focusing on faster processors to improve autofocus speeds, shot-to-shot times, and multi-image manipulations like HDR. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does help explain the plummeting price points on most new cameras.
We didn’t mention the Pentax K-5 II earlier because, as a conventional crop-sensored DSLR, it has become a bit of a dinosaur. Photokina focuses on the exciting imaging products of the coming year, a niche that doesn’t quite contain such conventional technology. The Nikon D600 and Canon 6D make waves because, despite their reliance on a mirrorbox, they represent a significantly lower entry-point for full frame cameras and feature sets aimed squarely at the prosumer market. With such top-down pressure, crop sensors will almost certainly eventually reside solely in mirrorless cameras, which offer a fantastic image quality to size ratio. Don’t get us wrong, we love nothing more than a nice bright optical viewfinder and the satisfying slap of a mirror, but the exponential growth of the mirrorless market shows which technology will be with us in ten years. And if you don't agree, let us know!