The Road to Anaheim: Paved with Good Intentions

February 24, 2010

This year’s PMA trade show in Anaheim is over now, without much to show for itself.

To keep my life simple and my blood pressure under control, I intend to ignore all new cameras with 1/2.3″ sensors.

It’s only ones with larger, high-ISO-friendly chips that interest me.

However in that category, few actual, working products got unwrapped. I did mention the Samsung TL500 already. But otherwise, there were vague statements about future possibilities and “intentions.”

Okay, Sigma announced the DP2s and its wide-angle sister the DP1x—modest evolutions of their earlier versions. The Foveon sensors remain (larger than Four Thirds), as do their superior non-zooming lenses. But we need to wait for reviews of these models’ handling and high-ISO performance.

Sigma DP2s

Sigma's Dark Horse Contender

Samsung confirmed its lens roadmap for the NX mount. But it will be months before we see their “wide pancake” 20mm f/2.8, which is a shame. Samsung promises lenses that are “stylish and iconic,” and I’ve always wanted to be iconic. Oh wait, that was “ironic.”

Ricoh announced that soon we’ll see two more “units” for its oddball GXR system. Again, the interesting one is the non-zoomer, with an APS-C sensor, coming later this year. But its 42e normal lens is an underwhelming f/2.5. How is this supposed to sell me on the GXR system?

Hopes for any new Panasonic G-series µ4/3 bodies also failed to materialize (despite persistent rumors that something new is on the way).

An Olympus rep was bold enough to suggest that DSLR mirrors may die soon. Reflex optical viewfinders have always been a challenge for Four Thirds cameras, since the smaller image makes the groundglass so tiny. The Olympus VF-2, with 1.4 million dots of resolution, has won over some doubters to electronic viewfinders.

As for other brands joining the EVIL bandwagon, a Nikon exec coyly said that mirrorless cameras were “one solution.” Sigma dropped a mention of its “plans” to build a mirrorless system around the Foveon sensor. But the biggest buzz came from Sony’s non-functioning model of a mirrorless APS-C-sensor compact:

EVIL Sony

Sony's "Ultra-Compact Concept Model"

First, let’s be clear none of these would be compatible with Micro Four Thirds. Lenses for µ4/3 only cover an image circle of 21.65 mm. For Foveon you need 24.9mm; and for APS-C it’s 28.4mm.

So, if these other mirrorless models come to market, their options for lenses could be fragmented, with only a few manufacturer-specific choices.

The Sony lens mount shown above is clearly a dummy: There are no bayonet tabs, or electrical contacts. Yet if it keeps that shallow register distance and wide throat (seemingly about 42 mm in their mockup) it will be much friendlier to lens adapters than the Samsung NX mount. Leica lenses on an affordable APS-C sensor, anyone?

Of course Sony has a history of imposing proprietary standards on customers (think Memory Stick or MiniDisc’s ATRAC). We shouldn’t assume the camera will even turn on, if it can’t find a properly-coded Sony lens on the front.

And Sony’s concept has no control dials visible at all. Maybe it would be a touchscreen-driven interface. Meh.

There was one bright note of hope for me in this PMA however. And that’s a bit of a convergence in comments from several different photo executives.

A Samsung VP expressed surprise how many NX10 buyers were opting for the 30mm pancake, rather than the kit zoom.

Actually this doesn’t surprise me at all: In any indoor lighting, the f/2 lens is vastly preferable to the zoom (which is 2 stops slower at 30mm).

And the pancake ridiculously small. Plus, the little guy tests pretty well too.

Samsung NX10 and Pancake

Flatter, Brighter, Sharper

Meanwhile, Sigma’s chief has started seeing that in Asian markets, even non-techie consumers are buying fast primes. They want that glamorous, shallow depth of field look—even for family snaps, or blogging what they cooked last night.

And finally, Ned Bunnell (president of Pentax’s US division, and also a blogger) was quoted as saying,

“I don’t have to be paid to say this, I really enjoy our small compact cameras and I actually adore our Limited [prime] lenses. I’m not a zoom type of photographer, and so I love our 31mm, I love all of our compact lenses, because it suits the way I was trained as photographer”

and:

“[W]e are finding a lot of people who maybe are more serious photographers who have bought the K-x, and now on the forums are asking about our Limited lenses.”

Well all right then! Three different executives suddenly think prime lenses are good. (Photographers do seem to have limped along with them OK, during those first 85 years of film cameras.)

So maybe we have a groundswell on our hands: Say goodbye to chubby, dim zooms; and hello to small, perky, and bright primes!

But… er, Ned? The FA 31mm is an oversized holdout from the film era; it costs almost $1000.

Pentax FA 31mm

Not a Pancake

I can’t find a price quoted yet for Samsung’s pancake. But the µ4/3 pancakes are $280 (the f/2.8 Olympus) and $400 (the f/1.7 Panasonic).

The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (newly-beloved of Asian moms) is $440.

So, why can’t Pentax build a small, fast “normal” for the APS-C format?

Better have a pancake and think it over.

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3 Responses to “The Road to Anaheim: Paved with Good Intentions”

  1. Olivier Giroux Says:

    Even if you think the 31mm Limited is a large lens, when compared to most zooms it is quite compact. It is still more compact than the closest Zeiss prime, for instance, while it is even a bit faster and supports auto-focus. As a long-time user of the Zeiss lens, I wouldn’t say the size is troublesome.

    The SLR system is the wrong technology for small lenses, you want a very short flange-to-sensor for that. When you shorten the flange distance your lenses shrink exponentially. It’s for no other reason than this that the u4/3 and NX lenses are small – and that Leica’s lenses have always been small. You could stack 2 or 3 Leica 35mm Summicrons in the volume of a 31mm Limited, and all of these are high speed “full-frame” lenses.

    Yes there exist pancakes for SLRs, and actually Pentax is the company that has always made the most of these. Pancakes are the not the answer to every question either thought: they can only be made for a limited range of focal lengths, they tend to be very slow compared to larger lenses (about two stops), and they tend to have weak performance towards the corners of the image (but not always).

    Finally, Pentax could make a 30-ish mm pancake for its users who want the smallest lenses, it’s within their power, but is it the right business decision? The 31mm Limited has the power to draw positive attention to the Pentax system from the outside and with its high margins it helps fill their coffers to continue to operate a bit longer (Pentax is not a rich company). A low-margin, slow-aperture 30mm pancake would not do these things for them, it would only silence critics who may not even buy the lens if it were to be made.

    Sincrely,

    Olivier

    • petavoxel Says:

      Pentax is MUCH better than most camera-makers at providing compact lenses. But the hole in their lineup is a fast, compact normal lens (defined as 28-32mm when used on APS-C).

      Given the K-mount flange distance, 40mm is about the shortest non-retrofocus f.l. which is possible; this explains why Pentax’s DA Limited 40/2.8 can be so tiny.

      I agree the FA 31mm is not unreasonably large compared to zooms. But it is still needlessly large (and expensive) since it was designed as a wide-angle to cover the full frame 43.3mm image circle. Despite being f/1.4, Sigma’s 30mm can be physically shorter by 10mm.

      But as a business decision? Who knows. Pentax may have simply decided not to compete with Sigma. But it seems a shame there’s no option with the Limited series’ nicer build quality.

  2. petavoxel Says:

    As I explain in a new post, the new Ricoh GXR lens unit will be 28e, not 42e.


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