Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fuji X10 Looks Great!

Dials! Glorious dials!
I have oft-repeated that I find the 4/3 format to be the best compromise between sensor size and focal-length. I don't really count lens size as a full benefit since very small lenses can be made for 4/3 or APS-C, as Pentax has shown very well with its series of pancake lenses. Perhaps small telephoto lenses is a better true benefit. Regardless...

Even though I find 4/3 a good trade-off, sometimes the image quality difference is noticeable enough to make me yearn for APS-C. In fact, I find myself dropping my GF1 in favor of my Canon increasingly often. It was this reality that made me all the more surprised about the choice of Nikon to make the 1-Series cameras with a small, 1" sensor. This was obviously done to protect their DSLR business, which is stupid. If you don't compete with yourself, someone else will, and you will then go out of business.

Leaving Nikon alone, the nature of sensor design was what always kept me from point-&-shoot cameras. Why spend $400 on a camera when I could buy another lens that will hold its value longer? Aside from the startling amount of detail available from the Olympus XZ-1, P&S is an enthusiast's no-man's-land.

The new Fuji X10 is making me rethink that position. Holy crap does it look good. It will have the largest compact sensor by far, and the sample images that I have seen, comparing JPEG to JPEG, appear nearly as good as the Nikon V1 and J1. That is very impressive. Obviously, it doesn't fully transcend the limitations of its small sensor, but it does well. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the camera is, at least to me, even sexier than the X100. I just wanna' touch it. Like, in a bad way.

I look forward to Fuji's promised new system of large-sensored cameras. More so than other companies, Fuji seems to get it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Panasonic GX1 Revealed And My Love For Fuji

First off on this fine, fall day: Panasonic's upcoming GX1 has been leaked to the interpipes. Color me disappointed. Not crushingly so, mind you, but still pretty darn disappointed.

The layout is very similar to the GF1, just more compact and with metal buttons. And at least they have a dedicated WB button, unlike certain other cameras that I can think of. *cough*Olympus!*cough*
 We can discern a great deal from the images provided. First and foremost, it is smaller than the GF1. I'm upset by this because for me, the GF1 was about as small as I could go and maintain usability. Granted, I have pretty big hands, but most of the serious photogs whom I know, regardless of hand size, felt similarly. It was one of the big things keeping me far away from Sony's first NEX cameras and even the very good NEX-5n. They're just so small that I find myself fumbling for buttons. If I ever dared slap on a big lens, the situation would be exacerbated to the point of comedy. My GF1 already looks positively silly with my Olympus 50-200mm on front.

The flash is enormous. I'm assuming this is to compensate for lens shadow on wide-angle lenses.

Second and not quite as apparent is the philosophy that this camera evinces. Panasonic is still chasing this phantom photographer that I contend does not exist. Their camera, while seemingly aimed at enthusiasts, continues to progress in the wrong direction. This is not a camera that point-&-shoot (P&S) buyers will want. It will be too complex, too large, and too expensive. Enthusiasts would rather have higher quality that smaller size. If every enthusiast on Earth could afford a gargantuan medium-format camera or a Nikon D3X, every enthusiast on Earth would have one. It's that simple.

Really? A dedicate iAuto button? Why take it off of the dial? Give me MORE dials, not fewer!

I know that I keep harping on this, but Panasonic and Olympus are not doing much to keep me from making the jump over to Sony. Truly, what keeps me from doing it, aside from the lack of lenses for Sony, is that I am waiting to see what Fuji does. That doesn't bode well for Panasonic when the thing keeping me away from another company is a third company's possible products.

That said, I do like the looks of these new X-Series lenses. They are intended as good video/photo hybrid lenses, and since I do shoot a fair amount of video with my GF1, this seems nice. Depending on the MTF results, I may buy one or both, but that is a big "if." Panasonic needs to produce something that isn't an "if."

What got me thinking about this recently was a Halloween party that I hosted a couple of nights ago. Light was decent, but about what one would expect for house lighting at night. I took over three-hundred photos with my GF1 and only about half were in decent focus, or fired quickly enough, or were properly exposed (I was using aperture priority). I switched over to an old Canon EOS 20D with the 60mm Macro lens attached and immediately started getting better shots. I took just over forty with that camera and 80% were acceptable from a technical standpoint.

The lenses for Micro 4/3 are enticing, but the cameras need to step it up. They need lower prices, higher quality, and a greater focus on those who are actually buying them: wackos like me who care enough to freaking blog about it. And the company that has captured that more than any other, recently, is Fuji. Whoda' thunk it? The X100 is great, but critically broken in too many ways for me to consider it. I see it as Fuji camera version 0.9. That sucker is still in beta. But it, and especially the scrumptious X10, reveal someone at Fuji, who has actual operational power, to contain the soul of a true photog. The X10, clad in its leather case, reminds me so much of the Pentax K1000 that I used to play with as a kid.

I don't think that I could ever buy a P&S after having had the flexibility of larger cameras, but boy, that camera makes me want to. It also shows most clearly where I suspect the P&S market is going to go. The release of the newest batch of flagship smartphones all have cameras on display that would have shamed P&S cameras from not that long ago. The new iPhone 4S is mind-blowing. It will not be long before every cell phone being sold as a completely serviceable camera module installed. That will kill the market for cameras below $200, shrink the market for cameras under $300, but possibly grow the market for cameras above that.

Whether the market grows or shrinks depends on how many people decide that it's not worth it to carry a larger camera and stop, and how many people decide that these cell phones just don't quite manage it and thus upgrade. This means the P&S cameras will have to start offering serious performance advantages. This reality is, I'm sure, the wellspring from which Panasonic's recent strategic moves are coming. And while their actions seem logical on the surface, I suspect that they don't make much sense with further investigation.

One doesn't have to go any further than price to see the error. Panasonic's cheapest camera is the GF3, which will set you back $600 with the 14mm lens. In the world of P&S cameras, that would make it the most expensive camera on the market by $100. And if potential buyers then investigate other lenses, they will suffer immediate stick-shock and turn away. I venture so far as to say that P&S buyers who simply want "a camera" will never buy a camera that requires investment in "a system."

This new era of high-end P&S will need to cater to various elements of the enthusiast market. Fuji has gone retro, Canon and Nikon have technical, and Sony pushes modern design. Panasonic should target the pro who wants a back-up camera and make their cameras as pro-oriented as possible with a sub-$1,000 price. And what do pros want? They want the ability to take photos of a party and not throw away 70% of the shots. That's a hard task for any camera company, I understand, but they need to do this, else they will fail.

So, here's hoping the GH3 really wows us in some significant way.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sony NEX-7 Looking Increasingly Epic

Head over to Imaging Resource and use their camera compar-o-meter. While the JPEGs that they have uploaded are highly compressed, with the 24MP images only coming in at 8MB, they are at least comparing apples to apples. With that said, the NEX-7, at lower-ISO, successfully renders as much detail as the D3X. Amazing.
Images stolen from Imaging Resource.
What is truly, truly, truly outrageous, though, is that the ISO performance isn't terribly far behind. Looking at the ISO-3200 images, I would peg the noise characteristics of the NEX-7 to only be about half-a-stop behind the D3X. Again, amazing.

Comparing on price, the NEX-7 is so far in the lead, in my opinion, as to be almost silly. When placed next to the current top Micro 4/3 camera, the GH2, the difference is positively gargantuan. Very rarely do cameras in a similar price category diverge so wildly in quality. The noise characteristics of the previous generation of sensors were already better than Canon or Micro 4/3, but the resolution of the NEX-7 places the camera in a completely different league.

I wish that I could like the A77 just as much, but the noise and resolving abilities with that semi-transparent mirror are reduced enough to not make the concession worth it. The NEX-7, also, is in competition with Micro 4/3, which has spoiled me with the light weight of the whole system, which as I mentioned is facing a serious technical deficit. I'm telling Sony right now, if they can manage lenses even remotely comparable to 4/3 lenses, I will dive into the NEX system.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Canon And APS-H

The newly announced Canon EOS 1D-X supposedly marks the end of Canon's APS-H sensor, since this camera explicitly takes the place of the EOS-1D and current 1Ds. I'm hoping that is not the case.

In the world of enthusiast-oriented cameras, the 7D was a big hit. But currently, Canon has been shown up vis-a-vis sensors with the Nikon D7000 and Pentax K5, and Sony has taken the megapixel crown in hilariously overdone fashion with the 24MP A77 and NEX-7. What's left for Canon to generate some thunder?

I think that it can come in the form of an APS-H sensor for the 7D's replacement. First, it would take better advantage of their full-frame lenses, seeing as Canon is showing no interest in expanding their lineup of APS-C lenses. Second, it would generate an enormous amount of enthusiasm in the pro-sumer market. Third, it would soundly defeat the Sony-sensored competition as regards noise levels. Without the upgrade to a larger sensor, I just can't imagine Canon conjuring up a sensor that would do better than Sony's sensors, which are simply amazing.

I hope that Canon does this. Sony is the only company that has me actually excited. Yes, the working photogs are likely still on Canon or Nikon, but what happens when Sony finally generates a camera that can keep up with them? The fact that the new 1D-X generated little in the way of buzz evinces a problem with the old guard: people use them because they have to, not because their products are actually enticing.

Compare this to the wild excitement that the A77 and NEX-7 generated. Sony has traditionally done very poorly in higher-end cameras, but this could be the beginning of their renaissance. Canon needs to respond.

First Real Sony A77 Review

The A77 is easily the most epic APS-C camera on the market.
DPReview, the lord of all photographic review sites, has posted its review of the Sony A77. There's much to like, but also much to dislike.

First, what makes me happy. The sheer amount of goodies on the camera is stunning. Equally stunning is the elegance with which Sony has put it all together. Sony's interfaces have heretofore been poor-to-terrible. They, in a very Japanese way, focused on the simple addition of features without regard to the final experience. Granted, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and any number of other companies have suffered from the same problem. But Sony has figured it out. The feature set is large but also easy to use.

I also like that Sony appears to be interested in doing more with APS-C lenses. Canon faked us out with the release of the 7D, making it seem like more pro-oriented lenses would be coming to the smaller format, but no. They still expect their customers to simply bolt on their full-format lenses. Since Sony does not have a bustling full-format market that they want to (stupidly) protect, they appear better suited to trying something new. This gives a depth-of-field (DOF) advantage for any given aperture. More of an APS-C shot will be in focus than FF, but that's only if the lens is designed for APS-C.

I still think that Micro 4/3 is the best combination of size and DOF, where its 2X crop gains a full stop worth of DOF for any given aperture. But the very Japanese-market focus of Olympus and Panasonic is disappointing, and Panasonic's sensors are absolute crap compared to Sony's. As such, Sony's recent cameras are tempting. Very tempting.

But back to the A77. The A77 has a feature that I love so much, it is nearly enough to make me sell my whole stock of Micro 4/3 gear and switch: focus peaking. Canon's and Nikon's have had something vaguely similar for some time, where by half-pressing the shutter and manually focusing, the camera will beep when the area within the autofocus zone enters focus. Sony's implementation is even better and works WONDERS when using an electronic viewfinder (EVF). With focus peaking, as you focus, the area of the image that is of highest contrast develops a red highlight. This makes quick focusing with manual lenses so fast as to be almost enough for high intensity environments like parties. It is a revelation in focusing. I love it.

Now about the bad. Ever since the SLT's came out, I've had problems with the basic principle. EVF's have significant issues in comparison to optical viewfinders (OVF), and I, like many photogs, don't think we will ever make the switch. First, in the SLT arrangement, the viewfinder is only ever getting a small amount of light. Even when the EVF sensor gets 100% of the light, as with the NEX cameras or Micro 4/3, the cameras are very poor in low-light situations. They are, conversely, also poor in very high-light situations.

The A77 also has very poor noise characteristics. It is worse even than the Panasonic GH2, and well more than a full stop worse than the Nikon D7000, Pentax K5, Canon 7D, Fuji X100, and Sony A580. It appears comparable to the Olympus E-5, which is quite poor indeed.

What stands out to me, though, is that their comparison with the Sony NEX-7 shows the NEX camera handily winning a noise competition. At high-ISO, the noise difference is apparent even at low-resolution images, such as those suitable for Facebook. The NEX-7 uses an identical sensor, yet is very competitive with the older, lower-resolution cameras. There is only one explanation, the light loss caused by the SLT system. While I complained that the EVF only gets a smattering of light, that light amounts to nearly 1/3 of the light coming from the lens. That means that the sensor is only ever getting 2/3 of the light that a conventional camera's sensor would get. This deficit was somewhat apparent in older cameras, but here, we have a direct comparison, sensor for sensor, and the difference is large.

The sensor almost looks out of place in such a large body.

This further cements my contention that Sony needs to provide a way to move the mirror out of the way, like in a traditional camera. Otherwise, I may be tempted by their NEX cameras, but not their Alpha series. And I really want to be! I want to support Sony since they are at least trying new things. Unfortunately, though, it is the photo that matters in the end. And while the functional changes mean that the camera is more flexible than other cameras in that sense, the significantly retarded sensor performance means that I lose flexibility in that sense. At best, it's a wash.

In the end, I am disappointed. I do not think that the A77 is a suitable replacement for either the Nikon D7000 or Pentax K5. Canon's 7D is long-in-the-tooth, but an updated replacement is likely near, meaning that only a fool who is already invested in Canon's system would ditch now. If you already have an Alpha kit, especially a previous SLT camera, then you may as well upgrade. But aside from that demographic, I can't imagine this camera tempting too many people.

The sensor is intriguing, though. It is better than I was expecting. The rich colors are good, the noise floor is low, and it appears to have excellent dynamic range. Moreover, at low-ISO, the extreme amount of rendered detail makes me all the more interested in the NEX-7. Just so long as Sony produces some decent lenses, that is, else that resolution will just go to waste. And that would be a shame.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Growing Disillusionment With Micro 4/3

Rumors have been flying about Panasonic's successor to the GF1 for some time. I have the GF1 and love it. My only real problem is the noise level of the sensor, which is rather extreme. Detail starts to be significantly lost at just ISO400, and by ISO800, noise is noticeable even in Facebook-sized images. But aside from that, the rest of the camera was near-perfect.

As such, the primary thing that I wanted out of the GF2 was a better sensor. instead, I got the exact same sensor and a reduced feature set in a less-ergonomic body. The GF3 went even further, removing any semblance of enthusiast or pro-oriented elements. The GH1 was the only camera in the Micro 4/3 world that was at least comparable to APS-C cameras, and its noise levels were very good. I expected a lot from the GH2 and thought that I would buy it.

Instead, I was disappointed by the GH2. Its overall sensor performance was actually worse than the GH1, and the development focus appeared to be on the pipes surrounding the sensor to better generate video. This, as is well-known by now, resulted in the best video DSLR camera on the market. Which is good! But I take primarily photos, not video. As do most people.

The G3 finally arrived with a new sensor. Its noise levels were much improved, but every other element of the sensor was the same. Dynamic range and color depth were identical according to DxOMark. And seeing as Sony, Nikon, and Canon are making huge leaps with each sensor generation, the G3 was outdated before it even came out. My seven-year-old Canon EOS 20D outperforms it. It fixed the problem, but just barely.

Now the GX1, named in line with the X-Series lenses, is coming out. It will have the same sensor as the G3. This means that a camera that won't even be out until 2012 is already dated. Considering the quality of the lenses available for Micro 4/3, I was prepared to eat sub-par cameras. But this, and most glaringly Olympus' recent corporate debacle, are pushing me away.

This behavior speaks of a corporate philosophy that has no interest in pushing boundaries. In fact, the only company out there that seems really dedicated to pushing the industry forward is Sony. I'm feelingly increasingly like I will sell my Micro 4/3 gear. The increased size and weight is a tough pill to swallow, but the better cameras provide increased flexibility when trying to shoot wildlife, which, like whiskers on kittens and packages tied up with string, is one of my favorite things.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Olympus is Doomed

Olympus just fired their first non-Japanese CEO, Michael Woodford, after eight months on the job. First, this has revealed massive inefficiencies at Olympus. The reveal of these inefficiencies appears to be the primary motivating factor in Woodford's dismissal. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Japanese business world knows that airing dirty laundry is not how things are done, which leads to huge problems. That's why executives have a nasty habit of resigning in dishonor over in that ridiculous culture. Not because they failed, but because the problems became public.

This also signals that Olympus has no interest in growing past its local, Japanese blinders. Look at the list of best-selling cameras in Japan. Olympus and Panasonic both have multiple cameras on the list. Now, look at the list of best-selling cameras in any other country. Neither Olympus nor Panasonic is anywhere even within view of the top-25. They obviously understand the Japanese market, but the rest of the world eludes them. They are so resolutely hamstrung by their cultural mores (or perhaps morass is more appropriate), that they are literally letting the company crumble.

I think that this is indicative of something beyond just Japan. I think that it might signal a shift in global expectations of technology. After WWII, the world was defined by the wonders of technology. Japan did well in this environment. They were collectivist, meaning that individual expression wasn't important. This negated artistic expression, but fomented an engineering perspective best exemplified in Sony's early successes and the eventual rise and global domination of Nikon and Canon. I think that it was further seen in Japan's dominance of the video game market throughout the 1980's and 90's.

But today, things have changed dramatically. The most valuable technology company in the world is Apple. Most of the top video games are made in the US and Europe. And the camera world is undergoing a wild transformation with the most popular camera in the world being... the iPhone 4. The market is no longer interested in just technology, they are interested in the experience available therein. Not that long ago, specs were what mattered. Today, there is still a small group that cares about the details, there always will be. But the rest of the world cares about how the technology makes them feel.

Japan is terrible with this perspective. It is the artistically-driven perspective. It is driven by an auteur with a vision, thus imprinting a personality on a product. Everyone knows the joke: America invents things, Japan figures out how to make them work, then does it smaller, faster, and better. I think that the video game companies have been aware of this for longer than the other conglomerates, with each of the major names running regional operations with their own, in-house development.

Sony tackled this problem head-on when they were the first major Japanese firm to appoint a Westerner, Howard Stringer, to the top position. They explicitly stated that the purpose of his appointment was to cut through the corporate garbage at Sony and better compete with Panasonic in home entertainment, and Apple in everything else.

But where Sony and Panasonic are large, strong companies with growth prospects, Olympus is either stagnating or failing. Their global market share continues to drop and they are losing money in their most prominent division, cameras.

Even worse, corruption would be a preferable explanation to the official one proffered for Woodford's release. “We hoped that he could do things that would be difficult for a Japanese executive to do,” Olympus chairman, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, said during news conference announcing the event. “But he was unable to understand that we need to reflect a management style we have built up in our 92 years as a company, as well as Japanese culture."

It is that comment about Japanese culture that drives home that Olympus is doomed. In this era of international, globalized business, there is no culture. There is no tradition. There is only good business, and if you desperately cling to the past, the future will consume you. That is Olympus' fate: to be consumed.

It is this comment more than anything that makes me consider leaving behind the Micro 4/3 format. I hope that Panasonic sees the danger inherent in this statement and delivers some soothing words to the market, otherwise, there be problems in 4/3 land.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Request of Google

The future of the camera market goes to whichever company has the balls to make a camera as a platform. By platform, I mean a piece of hardware on which users can put any software that they wish. No camera companies are willing to do this because that would necessitate making said camera open to developers. This is not a difficult future to see. But, as anyone in the photographic industry knows, camera companies are all run by trained orangutans, meaning that the future that is so apparent to us may as well be 2001: A Space Odyssey to them.

Basically, no camera company is willing to do this because they have too much invested in the way the old market worked. Namely, you bought a camera and thus bought into that camera company's ecosystem of products. It was very difficult if not impossible to mix-and-match products. Giving developers access to the software of the camera would open this closed industry up immensely. But that intransigence in the face of the future, and the relatively low cost of entry, means that the photographic world is ripe to be turned on its head.

Just as Apple did with the music industry, Google, you can do this to the photography industry. Apple stumbled into this when they opened up the camera on the iPhone to developers. This propelled the iPhone to its current status as the most widely-used camera in the world. No other camera even comes close.

Now you can take it to the next step. You can design and build a camera that pushes things forward just as you are doing with the ongoing Nexus project. It would take very little. Contract a company to build the body, buy off-the-shelf internals, aim it squarely at the enthusiast, and slap Android on it. Call it the Camdroid. Perhaps it's better to think of it as an Android cell phone without the phone part, a giant camera sensor, and where developers have access to almost every element of the hardware

You don't even need to contract an optics company! You can simply use the Micro 4/3 standard, which is at least partially open, and thus take advantage of a large selection of extant lenses. Since your focus is the software, you won't care about selling yet another camera next year and won't be terrified of UPDATING THE CAMERA SOFTWARE like current companies are.

Moreover, a focus on the software means a focus on the experience of photography. A lean, focused pro who wants three settings: WB, aperture, & shutter speed; or a drugged-out club hound who wants every photo that he takes to look like it had just dropped acid. Any setting is possible when software freedom is given to the user.

Please Google. Turn the camera into the platform that it is destined to become. Drag Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Leica, and Panasonic in the future. Ideally, kill a few of them in the process. There are too many companies and too few brains in the camera industry. Push this forward. That is what you do, Google. Push this shit forward.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My New Design House

I'm starting a new design house. I specialize in web design, brand design, and brand management. My prices are very competitive and I work incredibly quickly. If you want a solid brand, and a website that is mostly devoid of fluffy Flash and Javascript, thus concentrating on the actual, I dunno', content, hit me up. Check it out at