April 2018: Fujifilm and Sony Cameras – Things That Bother Me

I shared in my previous post that I no longer own any camera system. So I have been spending a lot of time trying out Fujifilm and Sony ML cameras in their respective showrooms in town. Unfortunately, no matter how many hours I spend in the showrooms, I never experience the “ah-ha I want this!” moment. The respective ML companies want you to believe that their products are perfect. The youtubers and bloggers getting invitations to launch events, launch parties, free accommodations, VIP treatments also want you to spend money on this stuff because they make money when you click on their referrer links and watch their channels. But the fact is that there are still things that bother me about the Fujifilm and Sony systems. In this blog post I will describe them. Note that these observations are current as of April 2018, and may no longer be relevant in the future.

Fujifilm

Every other camera company has relegated the APS-C format to entry-level users, pushing their expensive full-frame product lines into the faces of enthusiasts so we will spend more money on stuff most of us don’t actually need. Thankfully, Fujifilm saw the gap and is aiming to satisfy all those unanswered wants. Fujifilm has made available a marvelous range of APS-C lenses and cameras which are both small and high-performance, directly addressing the complaints of oft-neglected APS-C users.

However, there are a number of issues that bother me.

Analogue-style controls
Analogue-style controls and fiddly knobs really exist for form instead of function today. Canon and Nikon used this stuff long ago, then stopped using them because from the perspective of operational efficiency, it is inferior to what they have now. Try making 1/3-stop changes in shutter speed and ISO with these. Whoops. Canikon DSLRs allow you to change settings very quickly with well thought-out controls that have been well-proven among multiple photography genres including wedding, sports, wildlife and photojournalism. If I want to look cool then sure, a Fujifilm body with its analogue-style dials will definitely increase my hipster rating. But I am not interested in adding crutches to my self-esteem and more concerned about being able to use a camera efficiently.

Small, flush buttons
Why are all those important AE-L/AF-L buttons small, smooth and flush to the camera body? There are buttons on various Fujifilm bodies with the same characteristics. How inconvenient they are to operate varies from body to body. Yeah they sure look good in a marketing brochure. But they sure are rubbish when a user actually wants to use them.

Thankfully, it looks like the X-H1 addresses this problem. I hope the design sense trickles down the product lines.

Flimsy aperture rings
I don’t mind that the aperture control mechanism is on the lens itself. But if you put it on the lens, they should not be loose rings that can be easily shifted. Fujifilm has been inconsistent with the quality of the aperture rings on their lenses. Some are well-made, some are annoyingly loose.

Tiny grips
Actually not a serious problem as most Fujifilm lenses tend to be small and manageable. But as the constant aperture zooms and fast telephotos start making their appearance, the small grip is becoming an inconvenience. The X-H1 is a step in the correct direction. Hopefully larger optional grips for their smaller X-T and X-Pro bodies become available soon.

Lack of a moisture-resilient UWA zoom in a sensible focal range
The Fujinon 10-24mm f/4 has been known to misbehave in environments with a lot of moisture. Even my cheaper Nikkor 18-35mm could take a couple of light showers in 4-seasons-in-a-day southwestern Australia without any problems. There needs to be a reliable alternative UWA zoom available for those landscape shooters who tend to find themselves in inclement weather.

Yes I know there will be a Fujinon 8-16mm WR soon, but I consider that kind of focal range to be only useful for unique conditions. The 12-24mm range (in APS-C) is much more practical and sensible for most uses.

X-Trans
To my surprise, an increasing number of users are publicly voicing the opinion that X-Trans is both an advantage and disadvantage. In my opinion, if the benefits and shortcomings cancel out each other and X-Trans is the reason why we do not get ISO 100 on Fujifilm cameras, we might as well do away with it.

Personally I value colour accuracy and colour malleability more than I value resolution. So I suppose I would have been bothered by X-Trans as well.

Sony

Unfortunately, Sony has adopted Canon and Nikon’s playbook for dealing with the APS-C format camera business. Sony FE is clearly their main area of focus now. The range of Sony APS-C lens selection is somewhat over-priced and lacking compared to Canikon APS-C. This is because the major 3rd party lens makers such as Tamron, Sigma and Tokina have been producing a good variety of alternatives for Canikon APS-C, but comparatively much less for Sony APS-C E mount. In fact, even Nikon in their somewhat lukewarm support of APS-C still refreshes their lenses enough that their latest cheap-o entry-level kit lens can go toe-to-toe against a Sony FE G Master! I’ll probably pick Nikon DX before I pick Sony E mount.

Here I will just focus on Sony’s full-frame FE format.

Moisture resilience still wanting
This probably does not bother many users. But I have been caught in bad weather before, so this matters to me. Our reference is Imaging Resource, which conducted a weather tests on various flagship cameras with some claims of weather resilience. The results are publicly available. In summary, the Sony failed the test, and subsequent commentary by others reveal that the bottom of the “weather-resistant” Sony bodies are not weather sealed at all.

To be honest, most users won’t be caught in this kind of weather and probably has a cover to shield their camera gear. But the news of no weather seals on the bottom of the Sony bothers me a lot. This is because I do the logical thing and always wear my camera on a shoulder strap BlackRapid-style, meaning the camera’s bottom is always facing up. Not a comforting thought.

Small body, big lenses
Sony wants to keep the camera body small to continue playing the “small and light” advantage. However, Sigma’s CEO has gone on record to say that high-performance lenses on full-frame mirrorless cameras grow to about the same size as DSLR lenses after 35mm. Not every lens design benefit from a short flange distance between the sensor and the rear element. In fact in many cases, it seems that Sony ends up having to build physical space back into their lenses to claw back that flange distance. For example, the Sony FE 70-300mm is an eyebrow-raising 200g heavier than Nikon’s new FX 70-300mm. The Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 is also 100g heavier than the Nikon equivalent. Even the FE 85mm f/1.8 is 370g against the Nikon 85mm f/1.8’s 350g.

The net effect is that unless you restrict yourself to short prime lenses, you end up with a large lens in front of a small body with a limited grip. I spent a lot of time trying out the Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 with an A7R3. This lens is now positioned as the ideal “do everything FE lens” and delivers great results. But at 662g, this lens feels poorly balanced on an A7R3 with its small grip. I can confidently pick up a Nikon D750 with an attached 708g Nikkor 24-with one hand. But I am very careful with the FE 24-105mm on an A7R3 because the camera body’s grip is so small I can feel the whole package slipping out of one hand. I handle it with both hands with more care than I do with the heavier Canikon alternatives.

I think if Sony increases the size and profile of its A7 line of cameras, we will witness significant improvements. As of now, trying Sony FE bodies with their G master lenses always left me wanting a better ergonomic experience.

Buttons packed on a small body
The buttons on a Sony ML are generally fine. They are reasonably identifiable and operable by tactile feel and touch. However because the body is kept small, we have a lot of buttons and controls packed onto a limited surface area. Operating some of the controls require my fingers to contort into uncomfortable postures. This is an operational obstacle. Again, increasing the size of the camera should address this problem.

Conclusion (for now)

Both Fujifilm X-mount and Sony FE systems have matured into very capable product lines. A glance at my list of complaints see a common theme: compromised ergonomics because of a small body. In my opinion, the ML camera companies no longer need to rely heavily on the advantage of smaller size. This is because they have matured tremendously and have overcome many of their early shortcomings, while introducing unique advantages over their DSLR counterparts. I expect them to continue improving. Perhaps by the time the next generation of ML cameras come along, there will be no longer any handling issues that bother me.

When I do buy a new camera in the coming month and it isn’t a Fujifilm or Sony, you know the reason why. But if my new camera is a Fujifilm or Sony, you know they have won me over, despite my misgivings. Ah, so much fun to be weighing pros and cons!

-WY