A year in review: the biggest stories of 2021 (in our world)
At the end of last year, 2021 felt as though it could represent a fresh start after a tumultuous year that saw COVID-19 impact nearly every facet of our lives (and the photography industry). As it turns out, despite the widespread availability of safe vaccines (in much if not all of the world), not much was different in 2021. Between the numerous COVID-19 variants, supply chain constraints and the global chip shortage, 2021 almost seems to blur together with 2020.
Still, many new products were announced and even if some were delayed, much progress has been made by nearly every company in the industry, especially on the high-end full-frame front, which saw Canon, Nikon and Sony all release impressive professional cameras that will inevitably push the mirrorless market to the next level.
Let’s take a look at the biggest news stories in the photography world throughout 2021.
January: Sony announces its flagship a1 mirrorless camera
Sony started the year strong, announcing its flagship Alpha 1 (a1) camera system on January 26, 2021. The 50MP camera can shoot up to 30 fps with zero blackout, records 8K video at up to 30p and features a 9.44M dot OLED viewfinder that can be refreshed at up to 240fps.
As the saying goes, Sony threw everything short of the kitchen sink into the a1 and it shows. It’s a camera that would work for nearly any professional photographer who gets their hands on it. It’s fast, powerful and very versatile. Yes, it’s expensive, but what did you expect?
February: NASA shares Perseverance’s first 360° view of Mars
Less than a week after NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars, it sent back a detailed 360-degree image showing an interactive perspective of its landing site on the Martian surface. The images were captured with the rover’s onboard color navigation cameras (Navcams), which are placed on the remote sensing mast (or head) of Perseverance.
You can look around the entire image using the below video in supported browsers:
NASA has published many more images since this 360-degree image was released and will do so for years to come. To see keep tabs on new videos as NASA publishes them, subscribe to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory YouTube channel and NASA’s YouTube channel.
March: Nikon confirms development of its Z9 mirrorless camera
One week after confirming to DPReview in an interview that it was working on a professional mirrorless Z-series camera, Nikon announced it was developing the Z9, a full-frame flagship camera that we now know uses a 46MP stacked CMOS sensor capable of capturing JPEGs at up to 30 fps and recording 8K video at up to 30p. This sensor, which delivers the fastest readout rate of any full-frame camera we’ve seen, has allowed Nikon to make the Z9 the first camera in its class without a mechanical shutter.
Much like Sony’s a1, the Z9 is Nikon’s no-compromise camera for professionals in every genre of photography. And, as Richard Butler noted in our initial review of the camera, the Z9 offers one of the most DSLR-like experiences we’ve seen from a mirrorless camera, much in part to Nikon’s implementation of its 3D AF Tracking – ‘the progenitor of modern AF tracking systems.’
April: Canon lifts the veil on its EOS R3 flagship mirrorless camera
While Canon’s EOS R5 and R6 mirrorless cameras continue to be some of the best sellers in the full-frame mirrorless market, Canon took to the stage in April to announce the EOS R3, its first high-end mirrorless camera designed with sports, wildlife and photojournalism in mind.
The EOS R3 is built around a stacked 24MP CMOS sensor capable of shooting up to 30 fps with the electronic shutter and recording 4K video at up to 120p. The camera also offers an entirely revamped version of Canon’s Eye Control autofocus system that debuted in Canon’s EOS 3 camera in 1998. This system enables users to change the focus point inside the electronic viewfinder by looking at where they want to focus, and while it might sound as though it’s more of a novelty than a professional feature, here are DPReview’s Richard Butler’s thoughts on Eye Control, as shared in our initial EOS R3 review:
‘Eye Control should be taken very seriously, even by those who think it sounds gimmicky. Particularly when combined with the powerful subject recognition system that overrules the need for precise AF placement, the R3 felt to me like it had the power of a 1D Series camera lurking beneath an interface that is unprecedentedly easy to use.’
Reviews Editor Carey Rose further elaborated on the experience of using Eye Control AF while shooting sports in a follow-up article.
Eye Control AF aside, one of the more peculiar details of the EOS R3 is its name. While the ‘3’ might be a nod to the EOS 3 camera that was first to feature the Eye Control feature, it seems odd to not make it an EOS-1 Series camera despite effectively being an EOS-1D X Mark III camera in a mirrorless body. Could this mean Canon has more in store for an EOS R1 camera in 2022? Possibly.
May: Sony puts the final proverbial nail in the A-mount coffin
Over the past decade, little news has been heard surrounding Sony’s A-mount camera system and lenses. While there have been rumors over the years, an interesting tid-bit discovered in May 2021 suggests the A-mount is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
At some point leading up to May 2021, Sony removed the product pages for its a68, a77 II and a99 II DSLT* camera systems from its website, removing any mention of the last A-mount cameras to be released. Sony still hasn’t commented on the matter, but this, along with the cameras being removed from many online retailers’ websites, seems to be a clear indicator that the A-mount is gone for good.
*Sony’s use of fixed translucent mirrors means the term ‘DSLR’ is technically a misnomer for the majority of its A-mount cameras.
July: Leica’s shows off its first smartphone, the Leitz Phone 1
Over the years, Leica has partnered with various smartphone manufacturers to stamp their name on the imaging capabilities of their respective camera systems. This year, however, Leica took its mobile game a step further by introducing the Leitz Phone 1, a photo-centric smartphone named in honor of Leica founder Ernst Leitz.
Sure, the Leitz Phone 1 might look like little more than a rebranded and redesigned Sharp Aquos R6 smartphone, but it still oozes the Leica look thanks to being designed in Germany with many materials Leica uses in its various digital rangefinder cameras and, of course, the signature Leica ‘red dot.’ The interface is also Leica-inspired with a camera app that emulates the typography and design language of Leica’s recent M-series rangefinders.
The Leitz Phone 1 runs on Android 11, is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chipset, offers 256GB of storage and has 12GB of RAM. At the time of the release, Leica didn’t specify a price point, as it was limited to Japan, but the phone has since made its way around the globe and currently retails for between $1,800 and $2,000 on various auction sites and third-party online retailers.
August: Google researchers developed new method for upscaling low-resolution images with incredible results
|A before and after example showing Google’s Ai-powered upscaling of 64 x 64 pixel portraits.|
Over the years, we’ve seen various upscaling technologies demonstrate how low-resolution photographs can be brought back to life through clever techniques. Google researchers, however, appear to have developed one of the most impressive techniques to date, which they showed off in August 2021 in a blog post titled ‘High Fidelity Image Generation Using Diffusion Models.’
As we summarize in the above post, the researchers use a multi-step process to upscale images with impressive results. In very simplified terms the researchers take a low-resolution image and upscale it while applying pure Gaussian noise before using an AI-powered noise reduction process.
In the researchers’ own words, this new technology ‘achieves strong benchmark results on the super-resolution task for face and natural images when scaling to resolutions 4x–8x that of the input low-resolution image [and pushes] the performance of diffusion models to state-of-the-art on super-resolution and class-conditional ImageNet generation benchmarks.’
You can check out our coverage above and read the entire article on Google’s AI blog.
September: Ricoh announces the GR IIIx a compact camera with a 40mm equiv. lens
Three years after releasing its GR III compact camera, Ricoh announced the GR IIIx in September 2021. This iterative update is effectively the same 24MP GR III camera known and loved by compact users, but swaps out the 28mm equiv. F2.8 lens in the original GR III for a new 40mm equiv. F2.8 lens.
This move came in response to users, according to Ricoh, who had been requesting a more standard lens instead of the 28mm equiv. wide-angle lens used in the original GR III. In Ricoh’s own words, the GR IIIx ‘harmonizes all the benefits of the ever-evolving RICOH GR series with a new, innovative perspective perfect for dramatic, inspiring street photography.’ While we’re not sure adding a newer lens to a three-year-old camera is quite as dramatic as Ricoh would make it seem, we do enjoy seeing a 40mm equiv. lens in front of one of the most capable and pocketable compact cameras on the market.
October: Olympus becomes OM System
The camera brand formerly known as Olympus is now OM System. On January 1, 2021, OM Digital Solutions became the owner of what was previously Olympus’ imaging division, following a deal struck in late 2020. It was unclear initially what OM Digital Solutions intended to do with the Olympus brand name, despite releasing the Olympus-branded PEN E-P7, but in October the picture became clearer when OM Digital Solutions released a teaser video showcasing the OM System, the brand name it’s chosen to use for the imaging technology it acquired from Olympus.
While the first OM System camera remains in the shadow, the OM System 20mm F1.4 PRO lens shows OM Digital Solutions has started the transition to its own brand and is ready to ‘break free’ from the Olympus brand that has forever cemented itself in the photography history books.
October: Apple unveils its pro-oriented M1 Max, M1 Max Pro computers
In last year’s edition of this news round-up, we included the introduction of Apple’s first M1 computers and concluded that slide with a question on what we could expect from more powerful Apple computers using in-house silicon. This year, we received the answer in the form of new MacBook Pro models powered by Apple’s new M1 Pro and M1 Max chipsets.
Based on the same architecture as Apple’s M1 chipsets, the M1 Pro and M Max push Apple’s custom silicon to the next level with improved performance capable of powering serious post-production workflows at-home or on-the-go. Unified memory ensures both CPU and GPU have access to RAM as needed, and a 16-core Neural Engine accelerates machine learning-based tasks. In addition to improved performance, these new MacBook Pro models brought back a handful of details creatives have been asking Apple to bring back for years: an SD card slot, a MagSafe charging solution and an HDMI port.
As DL Cade shared in his review of the new M1 Max for DPReview, ‘No other laptop on the market can compete with the new MacBook Pro’s combination of power, efficiency, design and build quality.’ Furthermore, the included HDR/WCG display capable of 1,600 nits peak and 1,000 nits sustained brightness is both game changing and disruptive for creatives: its pre-calibrated video modes allow for both HDR and SDR grading on-the-go, while a 150 nit ‘Design & Print’ mode allows photographers to easily edit for print. No colorimeters or spectrophotometers required as these modes are specifically tuned to P3, sRGB or appropriate gamut.
October: DJI releases one of its boldest creations yet, the Ronin 4D cinema camera
In what has to be one of the most unexpected releases of 2021, DJI unveiled the Ronin 4D, the world’s first 4-axis cinema camera that’s capable of recording 8K/75p video with its full-frame sensor. The camera, which looks like a Frankenstein’d RED camera with a gimbal attached, is available in 6K and 8K versions, both of which can recorded Apple ProRes RAW as well as your usual array of ProRes and H.264 codecs.
The camera system features an interchangeable lens mount with options for DJI’s proprietary DL-mount, as well as M-mount cameras. DJI said it’s at least theoretically possible to use the system with other lens mounts, due to the short flange focal distance, but still hasn’t confirmed whether or not we’ll see other mount options available in the future.
Another intriguing feature of the camera is the inclusion of a LiDAR Range Finder, which casts more than 43,000 points as far as 10M (33ft) to track subjects in a unique AMF mode that will automatically turn the follow focus system wheel during recording, with an option to manually take over mid-shot if needed. The LiDAR Range Finder is also used to create a LiDAR Waveform, which is a waveform-style representation of subjects in a scene and is used to quickly focus on subjects, as Jordan Drake shows off in our DPRTV review of the Ronin 4D:
Other features include wireless transmission inspired by its line of drones, as well as an array of accessories that expand on the already-impressive feature set of this unique cinema camera. Head on over to our initial coverage to learn more about DJI’s first foray into the cinema camera world.