Friday, January 21, 2011

Fewer Fucking Pixels!

I'm still going to likely buy the Panasonic GH2. I'm simply waiting to see what Olympus has up its sleeve. What bothers me is that instead of concentrating on noise reduction, Panasonic upped the pixel count on the GH2. The smaller the pixel, the higher the gain required to achieve a set ISO. And this was never too much of an issue for until recently. I've had my GF1 for slightly over a year, and generally, it does everything that I want. But I was out wth my tripod a week or so ago and decided to do a long exposure. Not ridiculously long. Five seconds, but sure enough, I had a hot pixel. It was only one, and this was easily fixed in post, but I'd imagine that the number of hot pixels would increase with, say, a ten second exposure or longer.

I understand that this isn't much of an issue. But it goes towards my assessment of the general attitude of the camera manufacturers. They're still interested in numbers, which I assume means that we consumers are still interested in numbers. What it means for me is that my GF1 is not sufficient for all of my applications. I like the 12mp rating. I think that it's a good trade-off between detail and noise, especially at low-ISO. But I would have rather seen a generational advance in noise reduction. I'm already disappointed as hell in the E-5, I want to see something new to get my blood flowing, like the GF1 and Pen cameras did.

Moreover, the 4/3's format is ripe for experimentation. It's finally found its niche. The 4/3's format, backed almost exclusively by Olympus, was a failure, but Micro 4/3's is hot shit. Panasonic's multi-aspect sensor in the GH1 and GH2 illustrates a cool advantage of the small 4/3's sensor. You can experiment with its layout and design without adversely affecting the final size of the camera. Doing the same thing in an APS-C camera wouldn't likely be possible. Manufacture a larger sensor and let users play around with aspect ratios, or even move the lens forward and back.

What I'm trying to say, in the end, is that the Micro 4/3's format feels usable. It's small and almost toy-like. It's accessible and friendly, as opposed to the massive gear associated with full-format cameras and their philosophical little brothers, the APS-C cameras. This is the format to use to experiment with niches and get an entire generation interested in the wild possibilities of photography. Just imagine Panasonic selling Lens Baby at Best Buy. That would be great.

UPDATE: There's an article over at Luminous Landscape discussing the nature of sensors and pixels. Basically, it's not the size of the pixel that matters, it's the size of the sensor. You're going to have a set amount of noise over the surface of the sensor for any given ISO, and it doesn't really matter if you spread that out over 10MP or 20MP.

From experience, and also technically, I disagree. The author addresses the need for connecting hardware that makes pixels smaller at higher MP ratings, but if we simply count the surface area of a pixel, and split that into two pixels, thus doubling the MP rating, we still have the same surface area of the previous, larger pixel. The same amount of light is being detected.

We have a few examples of this being proven not entirely correct. DxO Mark's rating of the Panasonic GH1 and GH2. They are very similar sensors, only one has a higher pixel count: the GH2. The GH2 underperforms the GH1 by four points, according to the scale. Moreover, in each camera generation, it's the camera with the highest pixel count that gets hurt the most by noise.

Again, if we follow the formula used and simply scale down the higher-resolution image to the resolution of the lower-resolution image, we do achieve similar levels of dynamic range and noise, but it's artificial. The process of photons randomly hitting the pixels on the sensor, thus determining the exposure, is an analog process. It is the process that is most representative of the scene we're trying to photograph. In post production, We have to digitally determine how to average together the smaller pixels into a hypothetical larger pixel. How can the program know it got it right?

Finally, the formula used in the article would be perfectly accurate if all pixels measured the same thing, but they don't. Each pixel only registers a red, green, or blue value. If we take a set area of a sensor, fill that area with an RGB set of pixels, then triple the pixel count, we must fit an entire RGB assembly where the blue pixel once was. That means that that area of the sensor is now 1/3rd as sensitive to blue light as it once was.

Averaged over a large area, this effect is minimized, which is supposedly what DxO Mark does, but it obviously doesn't fully negate the effect since small areas of the sensor will be less sensitive to particular colors than they once were, introducing hot pixels and noise. These hot pixels and noise will then be averaged into the final image when we try to scale the image down to the size that a lower-resolution sensor would have produced. This means that the raw materials from which the image is produced are more numerous, theoretically allowing an average to be high quality, but each individual pixel is of lower quality.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pro-Level Mirrorless Cameras From Nikon and Olympus

Maybe this explains the absence of Olympus' counterpart to the Panasonic GH1/2.

Rumors are circulating that both Olympus and Nikon will be announcing pro-level gear for mirrorless systems. Nikon's logic assumes that releasing a direct competitor for the Pen and GF2 would more likely cannibalize sales of their own entry-level APS-C cameras, and not steal sales from the 4/3's format. Instead, they're going to release compact gear for professionals, recognizing that many pros have been using Panasonic and Olympus products as walkaround gear because it's so much lighter. I think that the logic is sound. But how "pro" they plan on going is the big question. If they're talking $1,500 or less, I think they've got a deal, but any more than that and I can't think of many professionals who would be interested. Just look at the Olympus E-5. The E-Series has been a success, but not the flagships. Olympus won't talk, but sales of the E-5 are supposedly a fraction of the numbers that Canon, Nikon, or Sony do in the same price range.

The biggest question is, of course, the hardware. As Panasonic pointed out, the larger the sensor, the larger the corresponding lenses are going to be. Will Nikon go for an APS-C sensor and simply charge more for miniaturized lenses? Will they embrace an entirely new format? Considering the incredible quality from the new D7000, I find it highly unlikely that they'll abandon their APS-C sensors. Then, all Nikon lenses would be quickly compatible with an adapter.

Olympus is exciting. I don't find it coincidental that rumors of pro-level gear start circulating right after their contract to buy Panasonic sensors terminated. They're not free to buy sensors from Kodak, who is a bit behind in the noise category, but their sensors work wonderfully without low-pass filters and their colors at low-ISO are among the best in the industry. Just look at the Leica M9.

Even though Nikon is an excellent company, I'm sticking with the 4/3's group. They're the innovators. They're pushing the boundaries. For now at least, Nikon is following, and I'd rather hang out with the guys leading.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Where are the Micro 4/3's Compacts?

In a recent interview, some dude from Panasonic was talking up Micro 4/3's in comparison to the APS-sized where he bashed them for degrading the quality of their glass to get it sized down far enough to be worthwhile. While I agree that the Samsung and Sony lenses aren't the best, he dodged the question of whether people will care at all and, instead, be swayed by the superior low-light performance. For example, I'd happily take a crap lens on the Nikon D7000's sensor than a great lens on almost any other sensor.

Also, since most people who bought into Micro 4/3's did so because the cameras were so bloody compact, and a paired lens/sensor can be distilled down to a very compact size, why aren't there any Micro 4/3's compacts?! The Leica X1 is smaller than the GF1, and the upcoming Fuji X1000 is compact and will likely have excellent image quality. If the sensor size is such a limitation on the lenses, and companies are making super-compact cameras with full APS sensors, then 4/3's sensored compacts should be freaking amazing.

And I think that they would be! The smaller sensor would give slightly better zoom capability and much more latitude in the physical design of the camera body. Olympus could have been the first into this arena, so what do they release? Yet ANOTHER compact sensored camera. Yay. I'm sorry Olympus, you've got to really kick it up a notch to capture our attention. A 50mm equivalent compact camera with a 4/3's sensor would be an excellent product. It would likely be so excellent that it's actually baffling that they haven't released one yet.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Panasonic Micro-4/3's Semi-Pro lens? Where do I sign up?

Rumors are circulating of a semi-pro Micro 4/3's lens coming out of Panasonic. Thus far, both Panasonic and Olympus have concentrated, smartly I think, on the consumer end with their m4/3's lenses. I'd imagine that this is because they both, probably correctly, assume that anyone interested in greater image quality will just buy an adapter and pick up some of Olympus' semi-pro and pro-level Zuiko lenses.

I've been holding out, though. This is because moving the lens very close to the sensor, compliments of the missing mirror and prism assembly, results in significant differences in the lens design. Truly, it results in some big advantages in lens design which helps to explain why m4/3's lenses are so bloody sharp for so little money. For example, the Panasonic 14-45mm lens costs roundabouts $300. The Olympus 12-60mm costs $800, yet the two lenses are similarly sharp. Obviously, there are advantages to the Olympus, but the sharpness differences aren't very big even though the Olympus costs nearly three times as much.

One large disadvantage to these tiny lenses, though, is that angle at which the light hits the sensor. Moving the lens so close to the sensor means lots of light will be hitting at sharp angles, which classic sensors can't detect. The light needs to hit them straight on.

Now we get to the interesting stuff. Olympus is now out of its contract to buy Panasonic sensors and can freely buy from Kodak, which makes CCD sensors as opposed to the CMOS sensors in most modern cameras. CCD sensors aren't as good in low light as CMOS, but they are excellent at sensing light from sharp angles. This is why Leica uses them in their M9. Leica's lenses produce almost nothing but oddly-angled light. This means that Olympus can manufacture lenses that produce angled light, in a compact body, and still be sharp as a knife. Olympus also appears to be abandoning its old 4/3's format, what with the E-5 all but confirmed as a swan song. Olympus has a loyal group of pro photogs, lots of pro lenses kicking around, and a budding Micro 4/3's market that seems more than ready to take up the mantle. All of this means that Olympus is primed to expand its m4/3's operations to comprise the totality of its interchangeable lens system.

Panasonic, likewise, has many interesting dominoes lining up. First off, the GH1 and now GH2 have garnered a significant professional following. And wherever pros go, lenses follow. The GF1 earned lots of love as a poor man's Leica, perhaps helped by the actual Leica logo on the body. Panasonic's original line-up of m4/3's lenses were good enough to actually be carried around by pros as working lenses because they were so small and light. All Panasonic would have to is release a pro-level body for the GH2 and the orders would roll in. Finally, Panasonic appears to actually be invested in m4/3's. Much more so than the old 4/3's format, which their efforts in were... half-hearted.

The first sign that m4/3's is going semi-pro, and that Panasonic will be the first one to pull the trigger is the rumored release of a 12-50mm f2.8 lens. Reports indicate that it will be large, but in m4/3's speak, large is still pretty damned small, and that it's housed in a pro body. I am excited to find out if it will be weather sealed, because that would all but guarantee a pro-bodied Panasonic GH2 (perhaps the GH3). I'd also be interested in the possiblity of both companies exploring sensor sizes. Look at the GH1 and GH2. They're easily on the top of the image-quality heap in 4/3's sensors, and much of that probably has to do with the size of the sensor. No matter their tinkering, the sensors will always be smaller, and thus a stop behind, the APS-C cameras, but I think that they can get it to the point where it's moot.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Lens Sharpness Matters.

Many of the photography enthusiast websites out there are run by old-world photogs. These are guys and gals who have been in the business for over a decade, and in some cases, over multiple decades. As such, they have a lot of peculiarities unique to them. A rabid love of film. Near constant qualifications in their articles about how images on a screen pale in comparison to those in a high-quality print. A love of Leica, regardless of how gobsmacking stupid their prices get. And, notably, frequent talks about how the sharpness of a lens doesn't matter.

They'll say that all lenses are the same once stopped down. They'll say it's the composition that counts and that any differences can only be seen on HUGE prints. They will, of course, say this right after extolling the virtues of how sharp Leica's lenses are.

Well I want to call bullshit on that. I've never worked in film. I'm old enough to have done so, but I only became interested in photography after the release of the EOS 20D and have been digital ever since.

Yes, if you take a photo with two lenses of the same length, print the images, you will likely not notice much of a difference unless the prints are very large. But that only works if the photo you have taken is perfect. As is. The one you want. Oh yes, I'm sure all of the photogs writing these articles are of such immense skill that they never need to crop in post, but for us mortals, the sharper the lens, and the larger the sensor, the more you can crop out and maintain maximum detail. The instant that your cropping exceeds what you wanted for your purpose, you've exceeded your equipment. And I crop almost every photo that I take.

For example, you need a 300dpi print that's 10"x10". That's 3000 pixels square. Aka nine megapixels. On many modern cameras, that doesn't leave you a lot of crop room. The new Olympus E-5 is only 12Mp. The Nikon D3s is the same. If you're using one of the lesser lenses, you have very little wiggle room from which you can extract professional-looking shots. You want the sharpest lens possible because that, like digital itself did, frees you to be more spontaneous in your shooting. You don't have to worry about composition or focus, you can aim your camera and start clicking off shots.

A few provisos, here. One, this doesn't apply to landscape. For obvious reasons. Two, Leica's lenses really are amazingly sharp. Their prices are just so fucking comical that only an idiot buys them. This applies to people who use a lens for a wide variety of applications. I rely almost entirely on a 90mm lens that's sharp as a tack at F2.8 and a 40mm lens that's sharp at F1.7, and really sharp at F2.8. I always have at least one of them. I use the F1.7 lens the most because I can jump from full-sun into a poorly lit room with the same lens. That is critical, and having that lens be as sharp as possible means that the raw material from which I craft photos in post is as good as possible. I want my lenses to be sharp enough to cut meat.