A Nameless EVIL

May 13, 2010

The introduction of Sony’s NEX-3 and NEX-5 has once again thrown a weird anomaly into sharp relief.

Even 20 Months after the introduction of the Panasonic G1, there is still no universally-agreed-upon term for this new class of cameras.

The defining aspects of the genre are a largish sensor size (as compared to typical compacts) plus interchangeable lenses. Yet by omitting any reflex viewfinder, and instead streaming a live digital image from the sensor, the body size can be reduced from the bulk of conventional DSLRs.


Name that Evil

Now, the most widely-known term (and the one I use) is “EVIL,”  meaning “electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens.”

A few pedants object that the Olympus E-P1 does not have a “viewfinder” in the sense of something you hold up to your eyeball (nor do the Sony NEX models, so far). But you can slightly revise the phrase to be “electronic viewing” instead, if this bothers you.

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Well, the much-anticipated “EVIL” cameras from Sony have finally arrived, the NEX-3 and NEX-5.

Sony NEX-3 Body

Big Sensor, Small Camera

The fullest NEX-5 review available so far is at Imaging Resource (while DP Review has vented annoyance that they were given pre-production cameras, and so were forbidden to publish test images).

The clearest win for the NEX system is in body size—which (for an interchangeable-lens, APS-C camera) is quite impressive. I hope all the other EVIL brands are paying very close attention.

The tiny NEXes also make it apparent that zoom lenses become even more ridiculous in the EVIL segment: Compact primes are the obvious way to capitalize on the mirrorless size advantage.

So it’s a mystery that the sole pancake prime offered at launch is a very wide 16mm f/2.8 (24e). Sony clearly needs to fill out its lens lineup still—at least adding a fast “normal” lens (approximately 30mm for the APS-C sensor format).

But perhaps they needed more time to complete something competitive with Panasonic and Samsung’s well-regarded pancakes. Sony’s tiny ultrawide stands alone here, and will admittedly be intriguing for many shooters.

Sony could not resist stuffing in a few more superfluous megapixels: These models use a 14 Mp sensor. But the high-ISO results seem very decent. Not quite class-leading (even compared to Sony’s own 12 Mp sensors used in the Nikon D5000 or the Pentax K-x); but it’s clear that Samsung’s 14 Mp sensor from the NX10 is being left in the dust.

I can tell from Petavoxel’s site traffic that the Samsung NX-10 generated much curiosity wondering if it could accept an adapter for Leica-mount lenses, in M bayonet or 39mm thread. (The answer seems to be no, unless someone can show me otherwise.) But the story for Sony’s new “E” lens mount is much more interesting:

Sony 'E' Flangeback Distance

Shallowest Lens Mount EVAR?

Thanks to Sony for providing that handy sensor-plane mark on the NEX-3. Scaling from the published body dimensions, this is one incredibly shallow lens mount. (The throat diameter is pretty generous too, from what I can estimate). Even for the shallow lens register of Leica lenses, there’s about a centimeter of extra depth to allow a lens adapter.

So the good news is that mechanically, it would be possible to adapt just about any other lens to the E mount. What we don’t know yet is whether Sony will intentionally cripple this function, either by requiring a Sony-chipped lens to be attached or by having poor support for manual focusing.

The user interface of these new NEX cameras follows in the footsteps of the Olympus E-PL1, in being very “point & shoot” oriented. There is no tactile function wheel for manual control, a major downer for any serious user. It remains to be seen whether Sony expands the NEX lineup into “enthusiast” models with better manual controls.

Also mystifying is the lack of an optional eye-level electronic viewfinder. Sony has created a new proprietary accessory port, but currently it is only used for the (included) companion flash, an optical viewfinder for the superwide lens, and a video microphone. It seems impossible that Sony would deliberately handicap themselves by not including connectors for an EVF as well; so I guess we should assume that will come later.

I do respect Sony’s decision to keep the flash separate, given that ISO 1600 shooting seems quite acceptable with this NEX sensor. But again, it does make one wonder whether Sony has a brighter-than-f/2.0 lens option waiting in the wings somewhere.

Whither Pentax?

May 7, 2010

I guess this was the week for Pentax’s European executives to go rogue.

Hiroshi Onoda made some comments to the Spanish Pentaxeros website, hinting at future “more professional” DSLRs (google translation). Then, Stephen Sanderson told the UK’s Amateur Photographer that Pentax “hadn’t ruled out” a mirrorless, EVIL model.

Both statements were vague and ambiguous enough to set off a storm of speculation on Pentaxian discussion boards. Many hearts fluttered, imagining Pentax might introduce a DSLR based on a 24 x 36mm “full frame” sensor; others wondered whether they might join Olympus and Panasonic in the Micro Four Thirds camp.

Full-Frame Pentax?

Pentax Surprises Ahead?

But there’s two key facts that must always be remembered about Pentax:

  • They do not make their own sensor chips
  • Last year, the company almost went under

At PMA 2010, Pentax USA president Ned Bunnell gave an interview with Imaging Resource. He said plainly that Hoya, Pentax’s new corporate owners, were demanding more focus on the bottom line, and a clearer marketing strategy.

So, Pentax simply cannot build every camera its fanbase thinks might be cool.

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Despite endless technological evolution, one photography convention has endured for more than a century: Our numbering system for lens apertures. That is, the familiar “f-stop” scale:

1.4   2   2.8   4   5.6   8   11   16   22

This sequence is admittedly peculiar-looking, and it always confuses beginners. Why do larger numbers mean smaller-diameter lens openings?

But as many of you are aware, these numbers are actually “f/ratios“—that is, they’re the ratio of a lens’s focal length to the aperture diameter. Setting a lens to f/4.0 means its aperture opening measures one-fourth of the focal length.

F-number Definition

F/Ratio Definition

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The essential principle of the single-lens-reflex camera is actually quite old. Most of the SLR’s earliest incarnations are long forgotten today; but it’s interesting that the name “Graflex” derives from that brand’s early, jumbo sheet-film reflexes—dating all the way back to the 1890s.

In the middle of the 20th century, 35mm cameras rapidly gained respect and market share. But if you could time-travel back to 1958 and ask photographers how they felt about 35mm SLRs, you might be surprised at how divided and contentious the answers were.

Most would probably admit to the SLR’s advantages—in principle—over the other viewfinder styles common at the time.

There is no offset between the taking lens and some separate viewing lens. The framing of a shot is previewed exactly—which is particularly useful in macro and telephoto work. And the lens’s depth of field can be seen directly on the groundglass (albeit dimly, when apertures are small).

All these advantages might even cause our 1958 friends to proclaim SLRs as the wave of the future.

But keep in mind: At that time, the leading 35mm SLR brand was the Exakta, from Dresden, East Germany.

The 35mm SLR, circa 1958

Exakta SLR, 1959

This was a nicely-finished camera, capable of taking fine photos. But its operation was rather clunky. For those who wanted to shoot quickly and spontaneously (which after all, was the forte of 35mm compared to larger formats), SLRs could not compete with rangefinder cameras.  Decades of improvements had brought rangefinders to quite a high level of refinement, and they fully dominated the era’s 35mm marketplace.

Before the shutter opens, an SLR’s mirror must flip up out of the way. But in these early models, it did not drop down again afterward—not until the film was advanced. The resulting viewfinder blackout was disorienting, and made it quite hard to follow action.

Also, for a clear, bright groundglass image, an SLR’s lens ought to be at its widest aperture. But ordinarily, it must then be stopped down to a  smaller working aperture before making the exposure. Doing that manually for every single shot becomes kind of a pain. Early SLRs struggled with this problem, and manufacturers created numerous rather half-baked solutions to it.

In retrospect the answer was obvious: just design an instant-return mirror and an instant-reopen lens diaphragm. Yet throughout the 1950s, a puzzling thing happened: All the elements of the solution existed somewhere; yet no camera maker ever put all the pieces together.

Many Exakta lenses used an external, spring-loaded plunger aligned in front of the shutter release; the photographer’s finger pressure on this closed the diaphragm. The Praktina of 1954 (another East German brand) pioneered the first instant-stopdown linkage built inside a lensmount—though needing a separate, manual lever to reset it.

But when it came to instant-return mirrors, German camera-makers had a strange resistance to them. Exakta would not redesign their SLRs to include one until 1966.

An instant-return mirror appeared in the 1954 Asahiflex, predecessor to the Pentax. Several other Japanese brands quickly adopted the innovation. But they still wrestled with the diaphragm problem. Many brands used a mechanism that stayed closed down after the shot, dimming the viewfinder until it was reset.

So, it’s rather understandible that many 1950s photographers found SLRs exasperating—and assumed they would always stay that way.

Finally in the spring of 1959, three new Japanese SLRs were introduced: the 120-film Zenza Bronica, the Canonflex, and the Nikon F. All made the breakthrough of combining the two essential features—the instant-return mirror and the instant-reopen diaphragm.

1959 Nikon F

The Dawn of Usable SLRs

Although Canon’s first SLR proved an evolutionary dead end, the Nikon F was an instant classic (and its lens mount lives on, in Nikon’s DSLRs today). It cemented Nikon’s reputation as a top-tier camera maker; and it announced the arrival of the Japanese as the world’s new camera-design leaders. And within a few years, the two SLR innovations were practically universal among Japanese brands.

So—how does all this ancient history relate to the current wave of EVIL cameras?  (“Electronic Viewing, Interchangeable Lens.”)  Well, I believe EVIL stands at a similar crossroads today.*

In principle, we know electronic viewfinders offer certain advantages:

Potentially, they can give a much larger and brighter image than the cut-down reflex viewfinder in an APS-C camera. Histograms or any other information can be overlaid on the live image (and be easily reconfigured, via menu or firmware updates). Depth-of-field preview can be brightened electronically, for easier viewing. And instantly magnifying a portion of the frame eases focusing manually when desired.

Electronic viewing opens up possibilities for unconventional new body designs—ones that might be innovative, less obtrusive, and more easily pocketable.

And in principle, (relatively) larger sensors ought to offer no-compromise shooting at higher sensitivities—say, ISO 800, at least.

A midsized image format, with no reflex mirror getting in the way, should stimulate nifty lens innovations, too—imagine shrunken-down rangefinder-type designs. An f/1.4 normal lens could be half the size of its 35mm equivalent! (If the purpose of larger sensors is enhanced low-light shooting, why not fully capitalize on this?)

But the EVIL cameras of today are, in their own way, 1958 Exaktas.

We are beginning to glimpse the great potential they offer. But all the current implementations are crippled by maddening omissions and flaws.

The Olympus VF-2 is the nicest electronic viewfinder currently available. But EVFs must continue to improve in speed, clarity, and low-light usability before they can replace optical viewfinders entirely. And ready access to magnified focusing is essential—something the Samsung NX10 seems to have bungled badly.

“Faux-SLR” body shapes are boringly unimaginative, and needlessly large.

To date, Micro Four Thirds has only delivered a single camera with adequate high-ISO performance (the Panasonic GH1)—despite trumpeting this as the key performance advantage of larger sensors. (The GH1 also uses the only µ4/3 sensor to allow 3:2 framing without penalty.)

Likwise, the Samsung NX10 gives sub-par high-ISO performance compared to other APS-C cameras, such as those using 12 Mp Sony sensors. Pixel counts higher than this simply become counterproductive.

Only Panasonic has delivered any native EVIL lens brighter than f/2.0—which is inexcusable, considering the wide apertures of cine and TV lenses covering similar image circles. Adapting legacy lenses to EVIL bodies remains problematic, due to µ4/3’s crop factor and Samsung’s NX design choices.

Shooting quickly and spontaneously requires an eye-level viewfinder—the history of cameras has repeatedly shown it. A touch-screen interface may look whizzy, but it splits attention between the camera and subject. Controls need to be graspable and usable by feel, while looking through the camera. We’ll have to see if Sony’s upcoming EVIL system (rumored to be called “NEX”) makes any concessions on this point.

EVIL Mongrel Large

When Will the EVIL Breakthrough Arrive?

In short, it may be quite reasonable to claim “EVIL is the future.”

But I say, “the future isn’t here yet.”

I am still waiting for 1959.

*(Some prefer “MILC”—Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras—or even “SLEV”—Single Lens Electronic Viewfinder. But why name a camera after what it lacks?)

DxO Labs have released their sensor test results for Olympus’s “econo” Pen model, the E-PL1.

Their tests show it having slightly worse high-ISO performance than its competitors in the “compact EVIL” segment.

DxO Mark for Compact=

DxO Mark for Compact 4/3 Bodies

The entire selling point of Micro Four Thirds is that the larger sensor offers improved picture quality, relative to typical compact cameras. DxO Mark’s “Low-Light ISO” score is expressed in ISO sensitivity numbers; and here they report that noise becomes objectionable at around ISO 500.

But the overall “DxO Mark Sensor” score falls much closer to that of a modern compact camera than to that of a good recent DSLR.

This is a disappointment, given the extra time Olympus had for developing the E-PL1; and also compared to the dramatically-better performance of its Micro Four Thirds cousin, the Panasonic GH1.

As always, note that DxO Labs tests are entirely “numbers oriented” and only analyze the raw sensor data. Handling, price, the quality of in-camera JPEG processing, etc. are not considered.

As someone who rarely photographs sports or wildlife, the world of long-zooms is not one I pay much attention to.

But there’s trouble brewing lately, in the “bridge camera” market; and it’s reached a point even I can’t ignore.

Yes, just as with megapixels, camera makers have launched another numbers race—this time over zoom range.

Currently, bragging rights go to Olympus, with their SP-800UZ (“ultrazoom,” geddit?). While it shares an alarming 30x zoom range with Fujifilm’s HS10, the Oly is biased more towards the telephoto end. And so, the SP-800UZ wins the zoom war with a zany maximum of 840e!

Olympus SP-800UZ

Olympus: My Numbers Are Biggest!

The outsized lens makes the SP-800UZ one rather odd-looking camera. And despite the SLR-ish hump on top, there is actually no eye-level viewfinder. You must frame using the back LCD—holding the camera away from you.

Now, for those who photograph birds, zoo animals, stadium sporting events, etc., I’ll admit the handiness of having a long zoom range.

But 840e is getting into crazy-magnification territory. Just locating the subject will be a challenge (especially with  unsteady arms-length viewing). For reference, we’re talking more than double the magnification you would typically buy in binoculars.

Needless to say, aggressive two-stage antishake becomes mandatory in UltraZoom cameras. Even so, you’d better pray for strong sunlight to keep shutter speeds brief. And once your subjects are really in the distance, no lens will remove the milky haze of the atmosphere itself…

Nonetheless, all the major camera makers are now cranking up their UltraZoom specs. (Panasonic is being the most conservative, with “only” 18x on their FZ35.)

The styling of UltraZooms usually mimics the serious look of a DSLR. But in fact, all of these models employ the same little trick:

The imager in these cameras is nowhere near the APS-C format found in DSLRs. In fact, it’s under 8% of their sensor area. (A so-called 1/2.3″ chip is approximately 4.6 x 6.2 mm.)

This lets camera makers scale down all the lens dimensions by the same proportions. So, a focal range that would require a bazooka-like barrel on APS-C can be made smaller than a beer can instead.

And the volume of glass required for a given lens design (and thus, its weight) shrinks even more dramatically—to almost 1/40th. You can see why camera makers became so fond of this little gimmick.

But small sensors are prone to all the curses this blog has talked to death already: Picture noise, and ugly noise-reduction; poor dynamic range; and susceptibility to diffraction blur.

Also recall that the “brightness” of a lens (its widest f/stop) is actually a ratio: f/numbers are the focal length divided by the aperture diameter.

The physical diameter of the glass limits the second number; so as you zoom in, lens brightness drops. The Olympus SP-800UZ lens specs are 5.0–150 mm focal length; f/2.8–5.6 in aperture. That’s right—you sacrifice two whole f/stops at the long end of the zoom range.

In the case of the Olympus SP-800UZ, this raises another troubling question. To cram 14 megapixels into such a small sensor, each one can only measure 1.44 microns across.

But when your lens is set at f/5.6, diffraction creates an Airy disk almost 7.6 microns wide.

So when you’re fully zoomed in, how sharp can your photo even be? The smallest point of light theoretically possible smears across a dozen pixels. And this is before considering lens aberrations (which are probably significant too, at the extremes of the zoom range).

So if an UltraZoom is what you need, don’t let me stop you from buying one.

But just don’t expect it to rewrite the laws of physics.