Friends Through Flames: Camaraderie on the Front Lines of Wildfire Photography

When historic wildfires raged across California last year, thousands of firefighters were deployed to combat them. And alongside those brave men and women were fearless wildfire photographers who raced to the front lines to document the devastation for the world’s eyes.

Warning: This article contains graphic and disturbing descriptions.

Through covering many of California’s biggest wildfires side-by-side over the years, some of these photographers have developed a close-knit camaraderie that provides both support and safety during dangerous assignments.

Take a look at the credit lines of news photos that emerged from fires such as the 2018 Camp Fire (the most deadly and destructive California wildfire ever), and you’ll likely see the names from this group of fire-chasing photographer friends: Noah Berger, Josh Edelson, Stephen Lam, Gabrielle Lurie, Justin Sullivan, and Marcus Yam.

From left to right: Mason Trinca, Gabrielle Lurie, Stephen Lam, Josh Edelson, and Justin Sullivan at the Camp Fire in November 2018. Photo by Noah Berger.

Origins

These photographers met while covering different fires and while shooting for various media outlets and news agencies. Berger “got hooked” on wildfires after covering the Rim Fire of 2013 alongside Sullivan, whom he has known for about two decades now. Berger is a freelancer who often shoots for the Associated Press, SF Chronicle, and NY Times, while Sullivan is a staff photojournalist for Getty Images. Both men started their photojournalism careers in the mid-1990s.

Edelson (then an amateur hobbyist photographer) met Berger while he was covering a small fire on the streets of San Francisco in 2009. After answering some of Edelson’s questions about his job, Berger took Edelson under his wing and became his mentor. Berger would go on to become one of Edelson’s closest friends and a member of his wedding party.

Lurie (an SF Chronicle staff photographer), Lam, Berger, Edelson, and Sullivan are all based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so they’ve known each other from covering news as members of the region’s close-knit community of photojournalists. Yam is an LA Times staff photographer based in Los Angeles who met the group while covering fires.

From left to right: Justin Sullivan, Marcus Yam, Stephen Lam, Noah Berger, Josh Edelson at the Detwiler Fire in July 2017. Photo by Noah Berger.

Bonding as Friends

Over the past several years, the group has spent many hours together, living and working side-by-side at wildfires that dominate national headlines.

“We give each other a lot of s**t,” Edelson says. “Sometimes the humor helps keep things light considering the seriousness of what we see out there.”

Photographer Marcus Yam falling asleep while filing photos at the Erskine Fire of 2016. Photo by Noah Berger.

The photographers also share everything from food to hotel rooms (when they can get one).

“During the Camp Fire, a bunch of us actually spent a few nights staying at this Airbnb with 14 beds in one giant space,” Lam says.

“We all eat meals together, sleep in close quarters, and share with one another,” Lurie says. “It’s pretty great. They make me feel safe and like we’re part of a family.”

From left to right: Josh Edelson, Stephen Lam, Gabrielle Lurie, and Noah Berger taking a break in Edelson’s car during the Clayton Fire of 2016. Photo by Noah Berger.

Even outside of work, the photographers occasionally get together for meals, drinks, and even things like community service.

“I think the best memory of camaraderie was when the fire photographers and a group of San Francisco Bay Area journalists who covered the fires in Napa and Sonoma County came together to volunteer at the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa,” Sullivan says. “We all felt the need to give back to the community we covered that suffered so much loss. We packed nearly 5 tons of food that were given out to residents who were directly impacted by the fires.”

Photographers volunteering at a food bank. Photo by Justin Sullivan.

“We have all become close and keep up with each other regularly,” Sullivan says. “We have a group fire text chain where we keep up fire activity throughout the state. When a new fire starts, the text chain usually lights up with activity.”

Competition and Camaraderie

Photographers covering the same events and subjects are naturally in competition to capture the best and most newsworthy photos, so it may seem strange to outsiders that this group of wildfire photographers has become the closest of friends. What’s more, they even go out of their way to share information and collaborate on the field.

“We each want to have the best coverage every day, but we strive for that while still sharing info and helping each other to a degree that wouldn’t happen among most groups of photographers,” Berger says. “For example, at the Valley fire, one of us (I believe it was Stephen Lam) found a dead horse lying beside a road. Most photographers would just keep this to themselves, but he told us so we could all shoot it. It’s really done out of a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.”

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“We talk about logistics a lot,” Edelson says. “For example, there was a scene where rescue workers were about to carry a body bag up a hill. Noah, Justin, and I were there. We quickly discussed how to shoot it so none of us ruined the others’ shot by getting in the frame.”

Shooting alongside each other also pushes each member of the group in their work.

“Each of us photographs things differently, with various approaches, focal lengths and so forth, so it’s not as if the competition to capture a storytelling image just disappears,” Lam says. “In fact, it inspires me to be a better photographer.”

The group covering the Camp Fire of 2018. Photo by Stephen Lam.
Photo by Stephen Lam.

“I love that we all have our own vision and shooting style that allows us to shoot the same scene with different results,” Sullivan says. “Knowing that 2 to 3 extremely talented photographers are shooting the same scene as I inspires me to really think about what I am shooting and to think outside of the box at how I will approach my coverage.

“When someone in the group gets a great photo or lands a front page of a national newspaper, we make sure congratulate that person and are genuinely proud of their achievement. There are never hard feelings or jealousy.”

Photographer Justin Sullivan shooting low during the Camp Fire of 2018. Photo by Noah Berger.

“This is not common in most markets, but that’s how we do it up here,” Edelson adds.

Photographers Justin Sullivan, Noah Berger, and Stephen Lam. Photo by Gabrielle Lurie.
Photo by Stephen Lam.

Safety in Numbers

In addition to sharing information, resources, and inspiration, one of the biggest benefits to working collaboratively as a close-knit group of friends is safety. Even though the group rushes toward fires that the general public is trying to flee from, none of the photographers have gotten any serious injuries over the years, and that has a lot to do with the ways they watch out for each other.

“Being with a group that is well trained and understands how to navigate these dangerous fires is so important to me,” Sullivan says. “Being in a car with someone when you’re driving down roads that have fire on both sides with trees and power lines falling all around is so much better than trying to navigate it on your own.

“Having two or three people in a car when trying to get through these areas allows the driver to keep his eyes on the road while others in the car can keep an eye on hanging wires and other threats. Regardless of the situation, I feel one hundred percent safe when traveling with the group. We all have each other’s backs and I think knowing that allows me to produce the best work that I can.”

Photo by Justin Sullivan.

Berger recalls one incident during the 2015 Valley Fire that shows how traveling as a group in more than one car helps ensure safety:

“Josh was at a burning house and let us know. Stephen and I were trying to get there in two cars caravanning. At one point, there were a lot of rocks/small boulders in the road and there was fire on both sides of us. This was at night in an area with no firefighters around. Stephen got a flat driving over one of the rocks and his tire was losing air fast.

“We made it to the burning house in time to shoot it, but to get out we had to stop every couple minutes to pump air into Stephen’s tire. I stayed behind him, ready to throw him and his gear in my SUV if it because impossible for him to make it out in his.”

While in the midst of a wildfire, the group pools their eyes and minds together to spot dangers and weigh risks.

“We’ll point out power lines on the ground, motioning towards enclosing flames about to cut off our positions, calling attention to smoldering trees or power poles so we don’t stand under them,” Edelson says. “All these little seemingly benign comments aggregate into the bigger picture that keeps us all safe.”

“I don’t think any of us would leave the other in peril… even if it meant risking our lives,” Berger says.

Photographer Marcus Yam. Photo by Noah Berger.

Always Be Prepared

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie.

Wildfire photographers are well prepared in both their equipment and their training before going to a major fire. In the area of gear, the photographers generally wear what firefighters wear: helmet, respirator masks, gloves, goggles, fire suits, and boots.

Photo by Josh Edelson.
Photo by Josh Edelson.
Photo by Justin Sullivan.

But even more important than these safety items is knowing when to be where.

“You want to get in the ‘black’, land that has already burned, even if it’s still flaming, rather than being in the ‘green’, land that hasn’t burned,” Berger says. “There are still shots of big flames behind the leading edge, but the wind and fire are not as intense.

“One other strategy that we’ve learned from training and firefighters is to make note of safety zones. If you have a big enough clearing (asphalt, dirt, rock) with no vegetation, you can shelter in/by your car as the fire front burns over you. I think I’ve only used this when firefighters were in that safety zone – it would be scary to ride that out without them around.”

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie.
Photo by Gabrielle Lurie.

“We always leave our engines on and pointed outward in the direction we may need to go in case of escape,” Edelson says. “We also pay attention to the direction of the wind and ensure that we have at least two escape routes.

“Never stand or park under power lines or a tree. Even after the fire passes, trees and power poles continue to smolder, weakening them enough to fall at random. […] We also always assume power lines are energized even if we’re told they are not. Sometimes there can be surges of power coursing through downed lines. Better to not take a chance.”

Photographer Noah Berger. Photo by Josh Edelson.

With years of wildfire experience under his belt, Berger is a seasoned vet of the group that some of the others often look to for advice and direction.

“To be honest I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” Lurie says. “So I’m very cautious and I tell the guys when I’m nervous and we talk through things. They’re very cool about it all and we all make sure we’re comfortable.

“Noah is our barometer. If he goes up to shoot a fire, we follow behind. Noah is someone who wants to get the shot and push himself but he’s safe. Recently we talked about going down a road where we thought structures were burning but the wind seemed too strong and he said, ‘Nah, I don’t think we should do it,’ and I really respect that. He wants the shot more than anyone but he knows when to back down.”

Photographer Noah Berger standing on an SUV. Photo by Justin Sullivan.

Emotional Support

The power of the group’s friendship goes well beyond the time and place of each wildfire, as witnessing and photographing death and destruction can leave a mental and emotional burden that can be difficult to bear.

Photo by Stephen Lam.

“I was particularly hit hard [by the Camp Fire], as I gained unprecedented access to follow in the search for bodies and I came to see a gruesome scene that I couldn’t even file to my editors,” Edelson says. “I arrived at a burned residence where rescue workers had found a body. It was laying under a tin roof that had collapsed during the burn. When they lifted it, I’ll never forget the look on her face.

“I think it was a woman, but not really sure. She was completely charred and stiff. I remember seeing her face. It looked like the expression of fear she felt when she realized she was about to die was frozen on her face and stayed that way. She was gritting her teeth and her eyelids were gone. It was horrific.”

Noah Berger (right) comforting Josh Edelson (center) after Edelson came across gruesome scenes. Photo by Stephen Lam.

“The destruction of everyone’s property is pretty disturbing and hearing their stories is so sad,” Lurie says. “People have worked tirelessly their whole lives to create a home and then in a matter of hours, it’s all gone.

“After [the Santa Rosa fires of 2017] I was stoic for three weeks. Then one day I drove up there and just started sobbing for like ten minutes. I collected myself and kept going.”

Photo by Stephen Lam.

In the aftermath of fires, the photographers continue to check up on each other to make sure everyone is coping well.

“The fire group is very supportive and have been checking in on each other on a regular basis,” Sullivan says. “We have had several open conversations about the importance of being willing to talk through some of the horrific things that are seeing.”

Photo by Stephen Lam.

“[W]e sometimes have a hard time getting re-acclimated to normal life after being in the fire zone for so long,” Edelson says. “Sometimes I’ll see a tree or a house just doing something normal like going to the store, and I find myself imagining what it would look like burning.

“It leaves a mark on you. On your mind. […] It’s nice to talk to people who have been through it. No one else really understands.”


Image credits: Header photos by Noah Berger (left) and Stephen Lam (right). Featured thumbnail/photo by Stephen Lam.

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This is Nikon’s Updated Mirrorless Lens Roadmap

Nikon just released its latest roadmap for upcoming Nikkor Z Series full-frame mirrorless lenses. There have already been changes to the roadmap since it was first shown at Photokina 2018 a few months ago.

Here’s the previous roadmap that Nikon shared during its Z Series announcement on August 22nd, 2018:

It seems the 20mm and 24mm have swapped places in the timeline. The 24mm f/1.8 that was originally planned for 2020 is now set to be unveiled this year, and the 20mm f/1.8 that was supposed to arrive this year has been pushed back to 2020.

Nikon is now planning to release 7 new Z Series lenses in 2020 (up from 6), with 4 of them still not yet announced. This seems to mean that one of the lenses planned for 2021 has been bumped up a year, as now there are 7 to-be-announced lenses planned for 2021 instead of the 8 that were on the original roadmap.

Nikon just officially announced the new 14-30mm f/4 S lens today, so there are 5 more official unveilings planned over the next 12 months. One of these is the highly anticipated 58mm f/0.95hands-on photos of that lens have already started showing up, so it seems likely that an official announcement is just around the corner.

(via dc.watch via NikonEye)

Where Mirrorless is Headed in 2019

2018 was an important year for mirrorless. As we kick off the new year, it’s a good time for some reflection on the market. I’ve written quite a bit about where we are now that all the big players are seriously in the mirrorless game. This time I thought I’d write about what I think each company will/should be doing in the coming year+.

Technology is relentless, so unless a company has clear plans that match up with ongoing customer needs and expectations, it’s easy to make a misstep.

I’m tackling this topic in two articles. This article is more detailed and deals with the technology/specifications side (i.e. product) more thoroughly. I also wrote a separate article about what the photography user needs to be seeing and hearing from each company (i.e. more marketing and positioning). That other article is a more concise list of the biggest issues each company needs to fix, whereas this article is more a general discussion.

In other words, if you want the long explanation, read this article. If you want the shorthand, read the other article.

As usual on my sites, we’ll tackle the companies in alphabetical order:

Canon

Canon’s biggest problem is that EOS M and EOS R don’t look very compatible, and Canon still has a huge base of EOS EF and EF-S DSLR folk to migrate to mirrorless.

I’ve written before that EOS M now seems dead-endish: you can’t use M lenses on R, EF, or EF-S bodies even with an adapter, so there’s no migration path for folks buying into M. It appears that Canon is thinking somewhat backwards here (migrate EF/EF-S users to mirrorless): we’ve now got a patent that shows that Canon has been tinkering with a so-called Speedbooster converter to allow EF lenses on the EF-M mount.

Speedboosters are a type of inverse teleconverter. Instead of adding focal length and reducing the effective aperture, a booster converter does the opposite: decreases focal length and boosts the effective aperture. The goal of such a converter for EOS M would be: make full frame EF lenses work on EOS M as well or better than on a DSLR. The exact patent would make a 50mm f/1.4 EF lens effectively a 40mm f/1.2 M lens.

I’m not sure that addresses the problem I see with EOS M, which is simple: if I buy into EOS M, there’s no way for me to keep some of the system I buy if I decide to later upgrade to EOS R. The M lenses don’t transition at all. I suppose if I’m using EF-S and EF lenses on a Speedbooster adapter for M that I can continue to use them with yet-another-adapter with R. But that just doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Even if the number of people who would migrate from M to R is small, it’s a clear negative positioning point versus the competition. Sony can simply market “buy our consumer APS-C camera and you can eventually grow into anything we make; your lenses don’t become paperweights.” Canon product management and marketing are generally smarter than this, not building things that the competition can easily take down with a well-targeted message.

So what’s the real solution? Canon says they’ll continue to introduce M lenses if customers want them (not sure how they’re monitoring that). That still really says M is an end of its own, though: you don’t migrate away from it. Realistically, we need an APS-C R camera, and I’m betting that we’ll eventually get one, probably at the higher end than the lower end (e.g. 7D or 80D level).

Meanwhile, the R is sort of in no-man’s land at the moment. It’s priced and speced a bit between the A7/Z6 and the A7R/Z7, and it’s missing a few bits (like sensor IS). It really needs companions, call them the 1/2R and the 2R. The 1/2R would be the entry consumer full frame mirrorless (24mp or less, US$2000 or less). The 2R would be the A7R/Z7 competitor (lots of pixels, US$3300+).

My guess is that these new R’s are well underway and will appear in 2019, probably at least one in the first quarter of 2019. My question is this: which UI will they have? I’ve already written that the current R feels more like an experiment in UX (user experience) than a refined statement of how the future works in Canon cameras. The R has a strange mix of buttons/controls/locations that don’t really match anything previous, nor do they feel to me like the answer for the future. If the 1/2R and 2R come out with the same UI/UX as the R, I’d expect some pushback from users.

What seems clear is that we’re going to get more R lenses from Canon in 2019. Unlike the rest of the competition, Canon seems reluctant to say what lenses. Even the never-before-have-we-provided-a-road-map Nikon acquiesced on this, but Canon seems to think it’s an advantage to keep potential customers in the dark. It isn’t an advantage, and coupled with the M mistake, this is the first time I’ve seen Canon product management and marketing completely out of sorts. Canon’s mirrorless messaging right now is poor. That has to have an impact on sales.

Fujifilm

Chug, chug, chug…

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…

Chug, chug, chug…

Okay, my tongue’s in cheek again (yes, sometimes the inside of my cheeks gets sore from all the tongue action). Somewhere in Fujifilm, a plan was made – it’s been executed, it’s being executed, it will continue to be executed.

That plan was to push APS-C for the masses but compete with the full frame entities by dangling medium format (albeit at market-limiting prices). Unfortunately, the APS-C side now has a clear price ceiling, as the US$2000 full frame cameras aren’t exactly strippers. That’s already caused Fujifilm to lower pricing on the X-T line to look more competitive.

Still, Fujifilm is the only one in mirrorless cameras we can say has a full APS-C line: X-A5, X-T100, X-T20, X-E3, X-T3, X-H1, plus all the older models still in inventory. The trick for Fujifilm is to better rationalize that line and remove that inventory backlog. The X-H1 seems an oddity now with the X-T3 improvements. Does the X-E3 really generate demand that isn’t taken away from the neighboring cameras in the line? Are the buyers of older models doing anything more than sampling? (i.e. if you buy an X-T2 today at clearance prices, are you really going to stay a Fujifilm regular over time?)

Given Fujifilm’s chugging along, it’s not to difficult to predict that an X-E4 and X-T30-or some variations on them-are the next trains out of the station. It’s still too early for an X-Pro3 or X-H2, I think, and those two cameras really need some rethink as to what they’re trying to achieve in the lineup. X-T100, X-T20, X-T3 I understand (even though these are obviously somewhat different generations of designs in the same product line). X-Pro2, X-H1, X-T3 I don’t understand, and I don’t think the Fujifilm faithful really do, either.

In the Medium Format realm, Fujifilm has relatively clear sailing, with only Hasselblad to elbow aside (but don’t count Hassy out now that they’ve partnered with DJI). Sony Semiconductor has already shown the sensor roadmap we’ll see in that sensor size, and Fujifilm has given plenty of warning about 100 and 150mp medium format cameras coming. I suspect we’ll see them in 2019. Chug, chug, chug…

Nikon

Despite a far less than perfect and sometimes rocky marketing launch, the new Nikon Z system is alive and well. Nikon didn’t do much to focus (pardon the pun) and control the messaging during launch, and it hurt them short term. Longer term, things look more rosy. That’s because the cameras and lenses they shipped actually are quite good. Good enough to hold serve and staunch any sustained flow to Sony from Nikon loyalists.

It’s now time to hunker down and get the iterations/additions/changes right. A healthy round of firmware additions would go a long way to fixing the initial messaging, particularly if they addressed some of the continuous autofocus issues that have arisen. This is not Nikon’s forte, though: other than the D5 type camera, Nikon really hasn’t been known for major firmware update changes in the past. It’s time they changed that, and I hope 2019 shows that they figured this out.

That’s because the Z6 and Z7 have to stay relevant for a couple of years to recover R&D costs. Those two cameras need to keep selling through to 2021, and the best way to do that is to have a message that says “they keep getting better” (e.g. substantive firmware upgrades). It wouldn’t take a lot to create that message, but it will take more than the bug fix updates we’ve seen so far.

Nikon has already given us a roadmap to lenses for 2019, and that looks fine to me. The 14-30mm f/4 is an important lens, as is the 85mm f/1.8. I’m not sure I want the f/2.8 zooms myself, but knowing that they’re right on the horizon line is still comforting information.

Unfortunately, the next lens out will be the manual focus 58mm f/0.95 NOCT, which is more of an arrogant, ego-boosting, design-masturbation statement than anything useful to more than a few customers. Frankly, Nikon needs to tell me why I care about this lens. And no, it’s not because the “mount allows it.”

What’s missing in Nikon’s Z lens lineup-even past 2019-is conspicuous: any telephoto zoom above f/2.8. Whether that’s a 70-200mm f/4 or a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 or something else, we can debate. But basically the message Nikon is sending is “for telephoto use, you’re going to be mounting a big DSLR lens on the FTZ adapter.” Good thing the 300mm f/4 and 500mm f/5.6 PF lenses are entirely appropriate for that (as is the bargain 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P). But where is the Nikon marketing messaging saying that to customers? I’ve now said that message more times than anyone at Nikon HQ apparently has. Hello? Bueller?

The real 2019 need from Nikon is something completely different, though: what I call DX-M, or I guess would be called something like Z-DX by Nikon. I now know that Nikon more than fiddled with potential crop sensor mirrorless designs: they got to the stage where they had to make a build/cancel/postpone decision. Indeed, the messaging I get from sources within and around Nikon says they went from build to postpone to redesign.

So if we’re in a redesign phase with crop sensor mirrorless, what is that and when does it appear? It’s intriguing that we have 8 blank lens listings for Z mount in 2021. Could any of those be Z-DX? Or is the current Nikon lens roadmap for Z are all full frame and they’d come out with another roadmap for crop sensor? If you can answer that question, then you might be able to better predict when we’ll see a DX Z.

Olympus

The E-M1X is next and imminent, apparently, and it seems to be a bit of a repeat of what Olympus did with their swan song for 4/3, the E-5: throw the kitchen sink in, promote it as pro, grab as much money as they can. Add some more fast pro lenses like a liberal sprinkling of salt trying to make the meal taste better.

Olympus is in a tough place. After rushing into early m4/3 success, it’s been tough treading lately. The goal a few years back was to hit 600k units a year. Didn’t hit it. Didn’t hit it. Didn’t hit it. Won’t hit it. Indeed, are they even at 500k units a year still? Certainly not without substantial sales at the low end of discounted older models.

The problem for Olympus now is sensors. All that custom work is being done on low volume on a small sensor, while everyone else is doing similar levels of work on large sensors with low volume. It’s hard to eke out an advantage because of the sensor size difference, so Olympus appears now to be completely playing to the m4/3 converted. Yet they’re still maxing out their sensor costs with far smaller volume.

That m4/3 customer wanting smaller/lighter product used to be me, but lately Olympus is losing me. The full frame bodies have come way down in size, and I’m now starting to find lenses that make for a really small kit. Smaller than my m4/3 kit in some cases, with more and better pixels. Olympus is trying to deliver more pixels through the pixel shift arrangement, which helps for totally static subjects, but not for everything. They’re truly in a defensive game here, and they’re no longer fielding a full team.

I can’t see how this ends any way other than a constrained niche for Olympus. The question is whether that niche is big enough to be sustainable. Maybe. The jury is out on that.

2019 is the year Olympus needs to tell us what the future is really like for them. Their partner Panasonic has already taken that step (e.g. adding full frame). And I’m going to argue that the E-M1x is not an answer to that question.

Olympus is now in the back of the pack with Pentax: interesting products, but not mainstream and not producing volume in sales.

Panasonic

I just mentioned that Panasonic has taken a step towards the future. That step is full frame.

Personally I think they got a little anxious and dropped the big announcement too early, at Photokina 2018. They still seemed to be in the design refinement stage on the body, and early prototype stage with lenses. There’s a lot that can still go wrong for them that would push actual delivery out more than currently expected. Panasonic’s latest statement on release is “spring 2019” (previously it was “early 2019” so we’re starting to hear the already vague date slide). I’m betting that Panasonic’s definition of spring and mine don’t match, but I’ll be happy if I’m proven wrong.

The S1 bodies (and lenses) seem to be a little on the chubby side to me (and the existing L lenses are also not exactly svelte). This puts more emphasis on features, performance, and pricing, and that last one is likely to be “above the competition,” which puts even more emphasis on the first two.

Panasonic’s got a lot to prove with the actual S1 launch. Canon, Nikon, and Sony will all have plenty of actual users by the time Panny’s cameras hit the market. There’s a risk the Big Three suctioned up almost the entire full frame user base. Any perception of “not delivering” will relegate Panasonic into a distant fourth position in an already small market. Still, this is far better than having nothing in the space, which is where Olympus and Pentax are.

The S1 also puts pressure on the m4/3 offerings. If the S1 is 4K 60P, why do I want it instead of a GH5/GH5s? Positioning is starting to become everything in the still contracting camera market. With two lines two stops apart-much like Fujifilm-Panasonic needs to have clear messaging telling customers where they should be purchasing and why.

Many are predicting that Panasonic just left the m4/3 world (i.e. won’t be doing a lot there in the future and eventually winding it completely down). I don’t think so. Not at all. Like most of the other players (Canon with APS-C and full frame, Fujifilm with APS-C and medium format, Nikon with APS-C and full frame, and Sony with APS-C and full frame), Panasonic looks to be moving to a two-line approach.

Nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it would be what I’d do if I were running product management for any of the Japanese companies. What Panasonic needs to do in 2019 though is begin to rationalize the two lines and communicate who should buy what and why. I didn’t see that in the Photokina press messaging. I still don’t see it in the subsequent messaging. Indeed, just the opposite (they suggested that the G9, GH5, and GH5s “gained a solid reputation among professionals and amateurs…”; so why do those pros need an S1/S1R? And if they do need an S1/S1R, what’s that say about the G9, GH5, and GH5s?).

Nothing wrong with Panasonic’s product development. Their success in 2019, however, is almost completely dependent upon their marketing and messaging.

Pentax

Incomplete. Hasn’t showed up to class since 2014, and then only to turn in a revised homework assignment that didn’t change their grade at all.

I’m wondering if Pentax is still a student. Should I put in a missing person’s report?

Less work for me with Pentax absent, I suppose, which is fine.

Sony

Sony is all-in with mirrorless and has been for some time now. In the full-frame arena, Sony is now updating/iterating on a regular schedule (basically two-year cycles). The A7s is due for its third cycle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony penciled in an A9 update in late 2019 given the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It’s also possible that the A7r gets a late 2019 update, as well, and if it does, it’ll surely get a pixel boost.

In terms of lenses for full frame, Sony’s in pretty good shape in the wide to short telephoto range, with only a 20mm prime being the glaring hole. Personally, I’d really like to see them bring the f/1.8 primes into the wide realm, too, but frankly, Sony has pretty full coverage from 12-85mm in ways I’m completely satisfied with at the moment. It’s above that where we need to see more from them, and I hope that 2019 brings us new optics at the long end. I’m betting on a 200-500mm type of zoom, a fast 200mm or 300mm. Given how good the EF and F lenses are via adapter on the Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless cameras, Sony needs to plug the telephoto lens gap, ASAP.

It’s the APS-C side of things where Sony seems to have completely stalled. We originally started with NEX-3 and NEX-5 offerings, basically a low and mid consumer product. Those iterated rapidly and many times. That was expanded to include a NEX-6/7 higher-end offering. It looked like that would roll over into A5xxx, A6xxx, and A7xxx models, but after the initial 5xxx and 6xxx offerings, we’ve really only gotten another iteration of the 6xxx.

The A6500 dates back to 2016, the A5100 is a 2014 model. That’s a long time for consumer-pointed models to rot on shelves.

The rumors, of course, say we’ll get an A7000 that’s a mini-A9 next for Sony’s APS-C mirrorless line, probably in early 2019. In other words, high-end crop sensor. That still leaves a big chunk of consumers looking mostly at Canon and Fujifilm cameras, which seems like a mistake to me. Curiouser still, the last E (APS-C) lens we got from Sony last year was the very consumer (18-135mm f/3.5-5.6), not at all high-end. Prior to that, Sony had gone into a crop-sensor lens hibernation much like Canikon’s EF-S/DX. I had to go all the way back to 2013 to find the previous E lens launch. So launching an A7000 without high-end APS-C lens support seems like it has high potential for not hitting the target.

Whether we’ll get anything other than an A7000 in APS-C from Sony last year is questionable, I’d say. It appears that Sony is perfectly happy in selling older A6xxx bodies as long as they can get away with it. Plus Sony now has the Nikon DX disease: just use full frame lenses.

Overall

Mirrorless had a big year in 2018, with many full frame entrants (4, or 10% of all cameras introduced), plus some good energy on either side of that size from Fujifilm. Lenses came in droves for mirrorless last year. I count 27 significant mirrorless-only lenses introduced last year (plus things like the Sigma Art series in FE mount adds quite a few more). 2019 is likely to be more of the same: lots of new lenses now that Canon and Nikon have to get their mirrorless foundries up-to-speed to match Sony.

Clearly, all the camera makers-other than Pentax, who’s still wandering around in the woods somewhere seeing if trees make noises when they fall-are going to be executing significantly in the mirrorless realm in the future. We’re now clearly into the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition period. How long that transition will take depends upon how fast the camera makers move.

So on that note:

Canon doesn’t want to move fast. They’ve still got one very large foot completely stuck in the DSLR mud, and don’t want to pull that out any time soon for fear of losing a shoe. Their marketing department keeps noting that they’ll continue iterating DSLR products, and I expect to see them do just that in 2019.

Fujifilm has already made the move and wants people to move from DSLR as fast as possible. That’s part of their chug-chug-chug product iteration strategy. Jump on the train, folks, it’s moving from the station as we speak…

Nikon doesn’t want to move too fast. They seem clearly unprepared to do consumer mirrorless (e.g. crop sensor). And like Canon, they’re trumpeting the fact that they’ll have more DSLR product iterations soon. That said, I’ll bet that Nikon makes the all-mirrorless move before Canon. It just isn’t going to happen any time in the very near future.

Olympus was one of the early movers, but at this point, they’ve been clearly passed by Canon and Sony, and probably will be passed by everyone the way things are going. Which will put them right back where they ended in the film era, and where they ended with their DSLRs. What did Einstein supposedly say about repetition?

Panasonic seems to want to move fast, but they’re still be playing catch up in the full frame arena, and it’s unclear what’s next for them in m4/3. 2019 is a year when we learn a lot more about how well Panasonic can execute in the declining market.

Sony now seems to be easing off the accelerator a bit. They want full-frame to continue to move at a regular pace. That means they have two bodies to iterate this coming year, and two the following year, and two the following year, and so on. Significant innovation on two-year cycles is getting tougher for them to do. The lens side seems to be moving at a fast pace, though, which helps. But APS-C? I have no idea how Sony wants to move and how fast. Right now it looks like they’re as stuck in the mud with the A5xxx/A6xxx/A7xxx as Canon and Nikon are with EF-S and DX DSLRs.


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.


About the author: Thom Hogan has been supporting photographers on the Internet for over 25 years, and updates his DSLR site (dslrbodies.com) and his mirrorless site (sansmirror.com) almost daily with news, information, and reviews. You can follow him on Twitter at @bythom.

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