The last word on PMA 2008

There's been some hope that we're going to stop seeing the fairly stupid megapixel race progress and might actually see some new features in cameras.

As usual, it didn't happen this PMA.

To be quite honest, I notice very little real difference between the static image quality of my old Canon A95 and my new Canon G7 most of the time. The big reason why I like the G7 is that the user interface is far superior and it's got a hotshoe.

Fuji shows off a medium format film camera

So Fuji was showing off a new medium format camera. For me, it's absolutely drool-worthy. A folding camera in the 6x7 format, with an 80mm lens (which is a smidge wider than normal) would be super-handy, depending on the feature set. Especially if it comes with some sort of light meter built in.

The problem, of course, is that they are just showing off a prototype.

The latest buzzword is "Dynamic Range"

I get a lot of people trying to find slide film with huge dynamic range and finding my site. Well, the entire crop of recent Canons (meaning the 450D / Rebel XSi, the 40D, the 1D Mk III, and the 1Ds Mk III) has had an extended dynamic range mode. Nikon has added "Active D Lighting" to their D3 and D300. And Pentax is calling it Expanded Dynamic Range.

Basically, the trick to shooting with a digital sensor is that you never ever ever blow your highlights. But there's tons and tons of shadow detail to be had in most sensors, although modern sensors with too many megapixels aren't quite as good at preserving tons of shadow detail.

So all you end up doing is tweaking the way the camera processes the image. It's like noise reduction -- soon everybody's going to do it, and some companies will overdo it and others will do it well and still others will have really nasty shadow enhancement because they didn't do enough research.

Even P&S cameras are offering features along these lines. In theory, cameras that use the sensor to meter are going to be better at preventing you from blowing your highlights because they can do basically the same trick as the "blinking highlights" feature to make sure that not a single pixel is blown out. In practice, I doubt it really matters, except that with a grain-of-salt sensor with too many megapixels, it's going to build up noise quite fast.

People are forgetting, of course, that it's not necessarily about the ability to capture a wide dynamic range scene but more the ability to make it look gracefully normal in a way that most HDR software doesn't. One of these days, Photomatix is going to look really trite.

Live view is the new standard

Through the RB67 viewfinder

I did some comparisons and my RB67 has a bigger viewscreen than the LCD on the back of a digital SLR

Live view seems to be the big feature. Now, mind you, a panoramic mode that lopped the top and bottom off of the frame was standard for a bit, so it could just as easily disappear if people realize that it's useless.

There's been a number of different approaches so far. The first live view SLR was the Olympus E-330, which uses a fairly unique design that goes back to the Olympus PEN from long ago to "fold" the optical path and avoid having a standard roof pentaprism to have a correct-orientation viewfinder. Olympus configured things such that one of the mirrored surfaces was not all of the way reflective and let a small amount of light into a second sensor. The problem is that when you do this, you cause the viewfinder to be a little darker and you have to make the second sensor work with as little light as possible.

The E-330 also supported a more standard mode that popped up the main mirror and directly used the image sensor, which has the notable problem of also obstructing the exposure and autofocus sensors. Exposure is not a huge problem because the sensor can fill in for that task just fine, but a lack of autofocus is a problem. Contrast detection autofocus using the sensor is never going to be anywhere near as good as a dedicated autofocus sensor. So, a mode was added to allow the user to trigger a mirror-drop to focus the lens to most of these cameras and it started to spread across the line.

More recently, Nikon released the D3 and D300 with live view that also enables contrast detection autofocus, which is now spreading across the line.

Now, the E-330's live view function wasn't replicated in the other 4/3 live view cameras, I suspect because it won't fit very well. But the Sony Alpha 300 and 350 have moved the secondary sensor right above the viewfinder and just tilts one of the mirrors for the pentamirror. This means two things. First, you need to swap between modes. Second, this only works with a pentamirror configuration. But it gives you excellent autofocus in live view mode and (presumably) a more usable live view mode than the E-330's secondary sensor because it's redirecting all of the light, not just some of it.

I'm curious as to exactly how good these new modes will be. There is clearly a point at which the live view becomes "good enough" that most photographers will stop using the viewfinder. If it reaches that point for most users, we might see higher end cameras with pentamirrors (thus reducing the usefulness of the optical viewfinder) or dispensing with it entirely and just using a partially reflective mirror to feed light to the autofocus sensors and then completely dispense with the optical viewfinder. Or, if it turns out that it's just not good enough for one reason or another, we may see different live view setups across the lineup.

Full Frame is now compulsory. Oops

EOS 1D Mk 3

I've noticed this myself. I know a bunch of photographers... all of them not super-hardcore... just fairly passionate about photography as a hobby. And they all end up buying a EOS 5D because it's full frame and more impressive than a Digital Rebel. It's at least partially an image thing. And apparently this is a fairly substantial audience.

So you end up with the real pros knowing that they can get away with a beat up 8 megapixel APS-C camera with good lenses and excellent technique and the semi-pros and amateurs using shiney fancy full-frame 12+ megapixel cameras.

So, Sony's announced the availability of a 24 megapixel full frame CMOS sensor and let slip that they are going to ship a full frame camera in the Alpha mount. Which means that it's at least an option for Pentax to now offer a full frame cameras. And it also means that the Olympus 4/3 system, which specifically excludes the possibility of ever getting a full frame sensor, is going to lose a lot of "halo". People purchased Digital Rebels over Olympus cameras at least partially because they would be able to upgrade to a 5D.

If they weren't in the middle of quite a lot of internal turmoil, this would be a very good time for Pentax to try and sell a 645-ish medium format digital for a reasonable price and skip out on full frame altogether.

Nikon builds out

Contrary to popular belief, tilt-shift lenses are not useless in the digital world. You can "fake" the shift effect in Photoshop with an accompanying loss of resolution, but not so much the tilt portion.

So, Nikon, to go with their newfound love for the full frame mount, is building a tilt-shift lens to compete with Canon's series.

The thing is, when choosing a new system, the selection of available lenses is fairly important, even if you don't actually intend to buy them. Same as the availability of full frame bodies. Pentax is impressive to me because of their selection of prime lenses, for example.

Point and Shoot Cameras Dive for the bottom

The Canon A590 IS is now $180. We are really reaching the end point of the pocketable P&S revolution here, because it's a perfectly good Honda Accord of a camera that's neither flashy nor big nor super-speedy but economical. All of the good manual control features, even. For $180.

I suspect this is why Canon is investing in P&S sensor manufacturing (they previously have been using Sony sensors for their P&S cameras but make their own dSLR sensors) -- they want to be able to ensure that they have the absolute cheapest camera that isn't a piece of crap.

The Sigma DP1 will be available real soon now

There was apparently some trouble with the last version of the DP1 ready to be released, so they had to go back and fix it up. We may actually see a APS-C sensor compact camera on the market.

HD video plus stills

Panasonic talks about their "Venus Engine IV" this PMA. As I'm sure you can tell, Venus Engine IV is one more than Digic III, so it sounds better in the advertising materials but is probably about at the same level of capability.

But the big feature that I'm interested in seeing in other cameras is having HDTV resolution video on a P&S camera. Apparently there's some tax nastyness that the EU has been trying to pull to put video cameras, as defined by a list of capabilities, on a different level of taxation than still cameras, which is why it's not nearly as widespread.

But I think that the HD format is pretty sweet. When it was in the process of coming out, I was following it before I lost interest. I don't even own any HD ready hardware, come to think of it. But I do figure that I don't want to buy a camcorder until I can find an HD one that I like.

The Fuji S100FS impressed me for a few minutes

One of the advantages of companies like Fuji is that they aren't beholden to other people to manufacture sensors.

Fuji's latest high-end non-SLR camera features the return of the 2/3" sensor to the market. This is a good thing. You can still make super-zoom lenses out of a reasonable number of elements with reasonable optical properties that doesn't weight a ton. It's going to have better noise reduction and wider dynamic range than the 12 megapixel 1/1.7" sensors that everybody else is using.

Except that they lie about the "Dual Image Stabilization" thing. It's really just the same image stabilization that any other "IS" camera has, plus raised sensor gain and noise reduction.

So, overall, I'm not impressed about any of the other specifications, just that they've actually put in a larger sensor. And most of the folks who I've heard that got to try out the S100FS were not too impressed. Oh well. For a few minutes, I was impressed.

Image Stabilization

From what I can tell, adding IS to a point and shoot camera is fairly inexpensive, because it's spreading across the line. It really does work in many situations -- I take a lot of shots at 1/4th - 1/15th of a second shutter speeds in low light that come out great. So it turns out that you can add IS and get more light gathering ability without needing to change any of the other design parameters.

So it's quickly becoming the standard across the line. So much so that Fuji is advertising their "digital" IS that's really just an ISO boost.

Canon and Nikon are also seeing the pressure from the integrated in-body IS that Pentax, Olympus, and Sony are offering, as the kit lenses are starting to get IS added to them. And there's actually advantages either way.

Wider, for once?

One of my biggest gripes is that most folks fixate around huge amounts of telephoto zoom, at the expense of wide angle performance. But many of the new cameras have a respectable wide angle range -- out to 24-25mm-equivalent in some of them. This is a good thing.

Blah to you

Things that don't impress me out of PMA:

Posted by josh :
Hi Mr Wirehead,
I saw you are interested in the Fuji folder prototype but there are plenty of good fuji medium format cameras available used that could fit your purpose. They have some 645 folders and my preference is the GA645 point and shoot. Either way you'd have a compact high quality camera. Your negatives would be a little smaller but I don't think the difference between 6x7 and 6x4.5 is substantial.
Posted by Wirehead Arts :
Josh, I'm well aware of the used Fuji options.

From what I've read the shutter in their 645 folders is a tad fragile and if you don't follow the correct order of operations while folding it, you may damage it -- see

I've never tried to do a real 645 vs. 6x7 comparison.

I do suspect that if I were to want to buy a Fuji rangefinder, I'd get a used one. Mostly I'm just impressed that people are designing new medium format cameras (which are hopefully designed around the new european lead-free directives, which seems to have made a number of cameras unsaleable.

I'm a little late on posting my PMA wrap-up, but I spent last weekend drinking myself silly in Las Vegas at a friend's bachelor party:D

Also, check out Gizmodo's coverage of the EX-F1.

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