On Pentaxian discussion boards, one dispute that absolutely refuses to die is whether Pentax will (or should) introduce a “full frame,” 24x36mm sensor DSLR.

The pleading for 24×36 often comes from those who might have already invested heavily in earlier FA lenses—meaning, ones originally designed to cover the old 135 film format.

I understand the emotion here—it’s quite true that an APS-C sensor wastes some of the capabilities of those lenses. And let’s take it as given that Pentax’s engineers would be fully capable of producing an excellent 24×36 camera.

But does Pentax “owe” its existing customers such a model?

Read the rest of this entry »

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Wanting an EVIL Mongrel

March 9, 2010

As recently as 2008, the digital-camera market had essentially split into two parts.

On the one side, there were full-featured (but bulky) DSLRs. On the other, there were small (but inadequate) point and shoots.

Today, there is great excitement as camera-makers grope to find some middle ground between those two extremes. The dream is to cram better image quality and more photographic control into a sub-DSLR package.

Counting Micro Four Thirds cameras and “serious compacts,” I can think of a good dozen such models on the market now.

But for a prospective camera shopper, it’s immensely frustrating that despite all the exciting new ideas floating around, none of the current models have “put it all together.” Each seems to combine some worthwhile virtue with some head-slapping flaw.

So let’s fantasize for a moment. What if we could choose all the strong points of many different cameras, and glom them all together into a single one?

My EVIL Mongrel

My EVIL Mongrel (Parts Are To Correct Scale)

We start with the sensor, of course.

There’s a recent crop of cameras praised for a 12 megapixel, APS-C sensor of good quality—particularly at higher ISOs. You can see this in reviews of the Nikon D5000, the Pentax K-x, and the A12 module used in Ricoh’s GXR.

Interestingly, every one of these shares the same 4288 x 2848 resolution—down to the exact pixel. It’s public knowledge that Sony supplies the sensor used in the Nikon; so it’s suggestive that these are all close cousins of a particular Sony chip design.

I’d also be perfectly happy with the Four Thirds sensor used in the Panasonic GH1. It tops all other 4/3 chips in performance; it also permits native 3:2 aspect ratio shooting. But Panasonic seems to have decreed that it will only be used in their premium-priced 1080p video models. That’s okay: the Sony chip is apparently cheap enough to stick into $500 cameras.

Leica’s X1 shows that it’s physically possible to fit a great APS-C sensor into a very svelte, handsome body. (Just ignore its staggering price.) Some are sure its chip is also a Sony; although the 4272 x 2856 pixel specs don’t quite match.

I am personally a fan of the X1’s uncompromisingly retro top controls. But if you prefer a slightly more modern control layout, we might also look to the nicely-built Ricoh GRD III for inspiration.

But the weakness of the X1 is that you’re stuck with a non-interchangeable, f/2.8 lens. Obviously that won’t do.

Eventually, Sony intends to join the mirrorless APS-C party; but until then, Samsung’s NX lensmount is the only one available for a mirrorless APS-C body. Happily, there’s already a very decent “wide normal” f/2.0 pancake available, as well as adapters for other mounts.

Naturally it would be preferable to get even brighter lenses: e.g., Panasonic’s excellent 20mm f/1.7 (for µ4/3) is another half-stop brighter. And while we’re mentioning Panasonic: We would definitely want to use their speedy contrast-detect autofocus system, taken from the G-series cameras. It’s clearly superior to Olympus, Leica and Ricoh’s versions.

So, we’ve covered the “IL,” what about the “EV”?

Some prefer an electronic viewfinder to be integral with the body; but I think it’s more flexible to make it removable. When you want maximum compactness, you can leave it at home in a drawer. Or when using prime lenses, some may prefer a dedicated optical viewfinder:

Leica X1 Optical Viewfinder

Leica X1 and Optical Viewfinder

Leica helpfully adds a green focus-confirmation LED to the back of the X1 camera body, which you can see in your peripheral vision when using this accessory viewfinder. But since we’re going to have a socket for an electronic viewfinder anyway… Why not have connector on the OVFs too, to light them up with a few essential display items?

While many are still wary of electronic viewfinders, there are currently several very decent EVF implementations. But, we have to give the nod to the Olympus VF-2 as the one receiving the most favorable press. It’s a 1.4 million dot display, and is nicely adjustable to different angles. So let’s include that in our EVIL mongrel:

Side view of Mongrel EVIL

More Dubious Fantasy Photoshoppage

Oh, and the Olympus E-Pens prove that you can have in-body image stabilization without having the camera become a chubster—so let’s add that too.

Any takers?

PMA, Day 1

February 21, 2010

Yes, I have been keeping one eye on the product introductions at PMA 2010. But anyone waiting for some industry-rattling blockbuster has likely been disappointed so far.

It seems that a few camera manufacturers are conspicuously snubbing the show this year. The “poor economy” is the glib explanation; but I wonder if there’s a some more complex backstory we haven’t heard yet.

There is a new international imaging exhibition in Japan called CP+, launching in Yokohama on March 11th. Camera makers may feel that the Asian market is the center of their future growth; and so that’s where the promotional dollars (er, yen) and media attention would be best targeted.

From the perspective of this blog, the one PMA unveiling of note is the Samsung TL500 (to be called EX1 in Europe). A friend asked me if this would change my “crackhead” assessment of Samsung; and the answer is “a little.”

Samsung TL500

Samsung TL500 (EX1)

The TL500 is apparently meant to go head-to-head against enthusiast compacts like Canon’s G11, or especially their S90; and Panasonic’s LX3. Pop Photo has a video intro here.

All these cameras are 10 megapixel models with roughly 2.0 micron pixel size. That’s significant, since each pixel grabs 60-100% more light than the tiny pixels used in mainstream point & shoots.

Panasonic’s LX3 is more compact than the TL500. But Samsung has matched its extrawide 24e lens coverage, while eking out an extra 1/3 stop of lens brightness.

Some complained that the LX3’s zoom range only extended to 60e (which is hardly even a portrait lens); and was only f/2.8 at that point. The new Samsung stretches that to 72e even while maintaining f/2.4 brightness.

Before anyone geeks out about the selective-focus potential here, remember that’s about equivalent to the DOF at f/11 if you were using an APS-C lens covering the same 72e.

If you need more telephoto reach than that, the Canon S90 gives you 105e, in a smaller package—albeit at a cost of a couple of f/stops. Another deficiency of the S90 is its lack of a hot shoe, unlike the others.

The styling of the Samsung is a bit unusual—rather angular and “brutalist.” I think I’d need to handle the TL500 in person to see whether that bothered me.

I’m amused that those chamfered ends seem to echo Kodak’s old (German-made) Retina cameras, the camera series that introduced the 35mm film cassette to the world.

Kodak Retina Cameras

1937 and 1952 Kodak Retinas

In their day, Retinas were considered quite desirable precision models. Most offered superior Schneider Xenar or Xenon lenses. Alongside the even swankier offerings of Leica and Contax, they helped cement 35mm film as a “miniature” format which could be taken seriously.

The TL500’s lens also carries the Schneider name (its manufacture is undoubtedly Asian, of course). And the physical size of the Samsung is a very close match to early Retinas, too.

Dear Panasonic,

February 17, 2010

I’m sorry I called you a crackhead, really.

It was just a little joke. Can we still be friends?

Recently, we all learned that your Lumix GH1 has the best sensor of any Micro Four Thirds camera. That’s great!

And I think the native multi-aspect-ratio feature is awesome too. (You do that nicely on several cameras, like the LX3.)

But the only way you’re letting us purchase the GH1 is in a kit with a hulking, slow superzoom. That lens sold on its own costs $850, so I’m sure this really drives up the price of the combo.

The GH1 has great HD video capabilities, and I understand that the zoom is optimized for this purpose (with quieter motors, etc.)

But but for stills photography, the GH1 also has class-leading high ISO performance. Available-light shooters would surely appreciate a smaller body that can still deliver the goods at ISO 800.

I’m one of them.

So as an alternative, why not also bundle the GH1 with your excellent 20mm f/1.7 pancake?

GH1 and Pancake

Shaky Photoshopping of GH1 and Pancake

The 20mm is over two and a half stops faster! And presumably, you could offer a GH1 kit for a lot less money then. Like $400 less.

It would also make the combo dramatically smaller and less obtrusive. And the pancake’s “wide-normal” 40e focal length is actually one I find exceptionally handy.

You might sell a few extra GH1’s that way.

sincerely,

—petavoxel

And now for something completely trivial.

Pentax’s recent “upper entry-level” DSLR, the K-x, has been getting favorable reviews lately. Within its circa-$550 price bracket, it offers a lot of value; in particular, “its high ISO JPEGs are possibly the best of all current DSLRs with an APS-C size sensor” (making it an intriguing model for me).

But marketing being what it is, the K-x is equally well known as the DSLR you can get in different colors. Woowoo!

In fact, within Japan, you can use an online configurator to choose between dozens of different finish options.

Yes, some of the colors, like pink, attain frightening Hello Kitty levels of awfulness. But once you open your mind to the possibility of colored cameras, some of the choices are rather handsome.

Which makes Pentax’s meager color choices for those who live elsewhere rather disappointing.

There’s basic black, of course. But the “colorful” versions in my part of the world are limited to red, white, and blue. (Is this on purpose?)

I won’t be too hard on the white version:

Pentax K-x, White

Clinical, But Not Ugly

To my tastes, this look is a bit too “dental office.” But there’s a practical argument in favor of it.

A light-colored body won’t heat up as much in sunlight. This is probably healthier for the electronics; and it may even reduce image noise, in a few situations.

Buyers of the white K-x enjoy calling it the “Imperial Stormtrooper” edition.

The navy blue variant seems to be aiming for a metallic auto-body style:

Pentax K-x, Metallic Navy

A Touch of Buick

Okay, that’s a very sober, masculine, and tasteful color. Great if you’re a silver-haired attorney, buying a luxury sedan.

But it’s not very, you know… colorful. And painting plastics in metallic finishes just makes them look more plasticky, not less, if you ask me.

As an alternative, what about this?

K-x Tan Rendering

Go All-Terrain Instead

Now, that ought to be a hit among the outdoors crowd. It works for both tree-hugging birdwatchers and camo-wearing deer hunters. Olive isn’t bad either.

Tan has the same advantage of being a lighter color, but without showing dirt quite as quickly as white. And it gives the nice bonus of reducing the visual “weight” of the camera—making it less intimidating for people photos.

The most questionable K-x color option is the screaming fire-engine red:

Pentax K-x, Red Kit

Danger! Danger!

Ouch. Okay, that is colorful. But it’s rather garish and conspicuous. And red+black feels very dated to me. Is this some ironic 1980s reference I’m not getting?

Anyway, let’s assume red was supposed to be the “fun & playful” option. How about acid green instead:

K-x, Acid Green Rendering

A Bit of Zing

Again, it lightens the camera (literally and figuratively), while adding a bit of cheerfulness.

In the end it’s all a matter of taste of course.

But still—if Pentax is already producing so many different colors, who picked out such unimaginative ones?

Even as I try to warn people away from high-megapixel point & shoots, some commenters have despaired that my advice isn’t very practical: Virtually every model sold today is 10 Mp or higher.

There’s a reason the last “sensible” point & shoot, the beloved Fujifilm F30/F31, actually went up in price after being discontinued. And even three years later, a used one can change hands for over $200. This despite the fact that aside from the superior 6 Mp sensor, the F30/F31 models were otherwise totally ordinary.

But all of us do need small, take-everywhere pocket cameras. Your cell phone cam can only do so much, with its grainy images and lack of controls.

So what specs would a point & shoot need to have, before I could recommend it? Well, here’s some thoughts—or perhaps just a poignant yearning for the impossible.

The recent Canon S90 proves it’s physically possible to put an f/2.0 lens and a 1/1.7″ sensor into a pocket-sized camera. It’s not quite as slim as Canon’s old Elphs. But it’s still smaller than the venerable 1979 Olympus XA, the breakthrough model which first showed the world how fine a shirt-pocket camera could be.

The S90 includes All Mod Cons: A jumbo 461,100-dot LCD; face detection; RAW option; and a movie mode (though not in HD, weirdly).

Canon S90 Digital Compact

Canon's S90 "Enthusiast" Compact

The so-called 1/1.7″ sensor size is actually 7.6 x 5.7 mm. The S90’s pixel density of 23 Mp/sq. cm means each pixel is about 2.1 microns wide.

Canon gets credit for scaling back the megapixel count in some recent cameras, compared to earlier models (the S90 is 10 Mp). But to my thinking, diffraction and noise still make 2.1 micron pixels pretty borderline. But is that a problem for the image quality, really?

Well, DPReview hasn’t tested the S90 yet. However its big sister, the Canon G11, recently got the full DP Review workup. And since both cameras apparently share the same sensor and Digic 4 processor chip, the results should be similar.

Unfortunately when you look at the tests at different ISOs (scroll down to the green feathers), you see that by ISO 800, the noise-suppressing algorithm is also blurring away lots of fine detail. And Canon is actually overstating its “800” speed slightly—in reality it’s closer to 640.

For our daily snapshots we rarely need a bazillion megapixels, not for any real-world use. You can make crisp 8×10″ prints, or get a nice magnified view on your computer, with only 6 Mp. (And even then, you’d still be ahead of James Cameron!)

Let’s say you took the chip dimensions of the S90, but held it down to 2828 x 2121 pixels (6 Mp total). Each pixel would be 2.7 microns wide—65% more area than those in the S90. That’s a significant difference. High ISOs wouldn’t need such aggressive anti-noise smoothing then.

But-but-but… Fewer pixels! Wouldn’t you lose detail doing that? No—at least not at any smaller lens opening than f/4.5. By that point, diffraction blur is much larger than 2.1-micron pixels.

Could we also hope that dropping to 6 Mp would also knock some bucks off the S90’s $400 price? That’s awfully steep, considering how inexpensive an entry-level DSLR is today.

Okay, here’s my next crackpot request: No zoom lens.

I realize from a marketing point of view, this sounds insane. Isn’t a 4x zoom better than a 3x zoom, and a 12x zoom best of all?

The problem with a zoom is, as jack-of-all-trades, it is master of none. A zoom is inevitably larger than a single-focal-length lens, and not always as sharp.

But the biggest problem is that zooms cripple the maximum aperture. For many typical ones, f/3.5 is the brightest f/stop. (Yes, they might be a little better at the widest zoom setting. But when a lens is labeled something like f=8–24, 1:2.8–5.9, the latter numbers tell how the the widest f/stop dims as you zoom in.)

You can make a single-focal-length lens (often known as a “prime”) much faster. Like two stops brighter. I think a smart marketer might get some mileage out of the promise, “gather four times as much light!”

A small image format actually makes it easier to design a fast lens, compared to e.g., one for DSLRs. If you look into closed-circuit television cameras, you’ll discover oodles of f/1.4 or even f/1.2 lenses that cost less than 90 bucks.

f/1.4 CCTV Lens

An f/1.4 lens made for 6.4 x 4.8 mm sensors: Cost, $45

If you compare how much sharper a point & shoot image looks at ISO 200 versus 800, it raises an interesting thought. Your extra two stops of lens brightness might let you crop the image quite a bit harder, while still getting adequate detail. In effect, you could “zoom” after the fact, at home on the computer.

A wide maximum f/stop would also let you throw backgrounds a bit out of focus, if desired—a tool creative photographers appreciate. (Admittedly, any DSLR will be better at this.)

And lenses starting from f/1.7 would permit a greater range of possible apertures, before you hit the diffraction limit (about f/5.6 or smaller, with 2.7 µm pixels) and begin to lose sharpness.

But I admit, the no-zoom option is probably something grandma wouldn’t go for.

So that can be the special “Petavoxel” edition. And believe me, I’d pay for it.

Where Are The Lenses?

January 23, 2010

Most DSLRs today evolved from earlier film-camera systems. (Sony’s originally came from Minolta; only Olympus started over from scratch.)

Although lens mounts stayed the same, there was a tiny problem about the sensor. Film cameras shot in a 24 x 36mm format. But making digital sensor chips of that size turns out to be quite expensive and difficult.

Sensor chips are made on costly, ultrapure silicon wafers, each about 8 or 12 inches in diameter. Obviously, increasing the area of each sensor means fewer of them can fit on the wafer.

With all the steps needed to lay down pixel electronics, it’s nearly unavoidable to get a few random, chip-wrecking defects scattered across the wafer. So the bigger each sensor is, the more likely it is to be ruined by some defect.

These two factors mean the economics of “full-frame” sensors will always be forbidding. You can read more details in a rather informative Canon PDF white paper here. (Take their marketing spin with a grain of salt; just start reading at page 11.)

By Canon’s reckoning, a finished APS-C sensor might cost 1/20th as much as a full-frame one. (That was written in 2006; today’s numbers might be a little different, with 12″ wafers more common. But still, the principle applies.)

So, despite all the wails and begging of enthusiast photographers, there are still only a handful of 24 x 36 mm format digital cameras on the market. A Canon 5D Mk II is $2500. A Nikon D700 is $2400. A Leica M9 is a whopping $7000. A Sony A850 is the “bargain,” at only $2000. These prices are without lenses, of course.

Today’s affordable DSLR models are all based on smaller, APS-C sized sensors. The origin of that cryptic name is irrelevant today; but it simply means a chip slightly under 16 x 24 mm.

There are dozens of APS-C models on the market, starting from the low $400’s—and that price includes a kit zoom. Megapixel counts range from 6 to 14 Mp. While it would be misguided to push pixel counts higher than that, the current models give satisfactory images even when set to ISO 800.

It seems apparent that APS-C is today’s sweet spot for digital-camera value. And because of the chip economics I mentioned, that is not likely to change anytime soon.

So let me (finally) get to my real point.

Where are the lenses?

Where Are the Lenses?

Missing in Action: Interesting APS-C Primes

Back in the olden days of 35mm SLRs, the “kit lens” was typically a 50mm standard one, with an aperture f/1.8 or so. A photographer more serious about low-light shooting could buy the f/1.4 version. You could get a nice inexpensive wide angle or portrait lens of f/2.8 or faster.

So, where are the equivalents for APS-C?

Lots of old lenses designed for film bodies are still being sold. But when used on APS, these make you to pay a premium in size, weight, cost, and maximum aperture. Cameramakers have dragged their feet on creating interesting, new, fast lenses dedicated to APS-C bodies.

Today, of course, the default is to offer zooms instead of primes;  the APS-specific lenses you are able to buy are mostly zooms.

Yes, zooms are convenient. But you typically lose two f-stops of light-gathering power. Some say modern image stabilization gives back those two stops—but that’s true only if you don’t care about viewfinder dimness, or blur when the subject moves. Zooms are larger and heavier than primes, too.

The normal lens for an APS-C camera would be about 32 mm (48e on a 1.5x sensor; 52e on a 1.6x Canon). The only camera maker so far to “get it” with an APS-specific normal is Nikon, with their 35/1.8. Sigma sells a 30mm f/1.4 in various mounts—but it’s mystifying that they’re all alone in that market.

For portraits we generally want a nicely-blurred background—meaning we’d like a wide maximum f/stop. This is especially true when using a smaller sensor, because depth of field increases slightly compared to 24 x 36 format. So where are the APS-specific portrait lenses, at f/2.0 or faster? In the range of 60 to 70mm (giving 90-105e), there’s only this Tamron—intended more as a dedicated macro lens.

Yes, there’s oodles of 50mm’s around, recycled from the film era. Canon is well known for their “thrifty 50” —which apparently they’re able to knock out for a hundred bucks, despite it covering a larger format. Why on earth should APS-specific lenses be more expensive? The image circle they cover is only 2/3rds the width!

Shooting film, my most-used wide-angle is a 24mm f/2.8. And back in the day, cheap 28mm f/2.8’s were a dime a dozen. But convert that to APS-speak. Are there any f/2.8 lenses of roughly 17mm? Is your sole available choice one chubby $600 zoom? I sure can’t find anything else.

I’ll give credit to Pentax, for creating the widest lineup of APS-specific lenses—including several beautifully-finished primes. But their prices are high, and their widest apertures are really nothing to get excited about.

Finally, lets take a glance at the Micro Four Thirds universe, too. Panasonic’s new 20mm f/1.7 pancake (40e on the µ4/3 sensor format) has indeed made quite a splash.

The test reports are excellent. So I suppose it would be snarky to observe that Panasonic’s 20 just revives a lens style that numerous snapshot cameras offered in the 1970s—and at a much higher price.

So, where are the lenses?