Thursday, August 25, 2011

Panasonic's New X-Series Lenses Might Be A Great Idea (UPDATED)

I have seemingly been doing nothing but lampooning Panasonic and Olympus recently, and with good reason. They are completely misunderstanding their global market. They are doing quite well indeed in Japan, but nowhere else. That said, Panasonic will be releasing something that I can actually kinda'-sorta' get behind.

Panasonic will be announcing their new X-Series line of lenses shortly, and the whole deal with these lenses is incredible sharpness in a super-compact body. They are achieving this primarily by removing physical controls on the lens. Zoom and focus will be controlled by two little pressure switches on the side of the lens.

Panasonic's strategy is easy to see: they're trying to make a pro-level compact camera. They are doing this by applying high-end lens designs and manufacturing to a super-compact size, much like Olympus did with the stellar lens in the XZ-1. Many-a-pro that I know or whose website I read yearns for a super-compact pro-level camera, and m4/3 might be able to manage that.

I have doubts, though. Optics are a cruel mistress, and there are certain limitations to any design. The 4/3 sensor is small, but not that small. For example, the XZ-1 has a maximum aperture of 1.8-2.5, with a focal length range of 28-112mm. Panasonic's X lens cannot possibly match that, and shocker, it doesn't. Still, these lenses will certainly cater to their home market in Japan and might lure in pros and enthusiasts in other countries. It all depends on how many pros out there are actually wanting a high-end super-compact.

I don't have any data about this market, only anecdotal evidence. I also have myself. I have the 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 which is an excellent lens. Cheap too! It's larger than the 20mm f1.7, but that's not what stops me from taking it out; it's the slow aperture.

M4/3 sensors really start to lose saturation at ISO400, which means that the faster the lens, the better. APS-C and FF cameras have much more leeway, but not m4/3. You do NOT want your ISO exceeding 800. And even in sunlight, I have that 20mm attached. Because no matter how bright you think that your environment is going to be, you always, ALWAYS, end up in some shadow that is magically pitch-black and requires ISO1600.

So from the pro perspective, I think that Panny is off-target. They shouldn't be concerned with size, but aperture. The 20mm lens almost never leaves my GF1 simply because the aperture is so large. Once I get the Leica f1.4, that lens will likely never leave my camera. If the Voigtlander f0.95 had autofocus, it would never leave my camera. Basically, if the size combo of the 20mm and the GF3 isn't enough to attract pros looking for small size, nothing will. And with the loss of manual control over focus and zoom, the new lenses will probably not lure anyone from the cheaper 14-45mm and 45-200mm.

All that said, these lenses are certainly unique. If they are significantly sharper than current lenses, I might buy them. Lord knows, the 45-200mm isn't terribly sharp. The small size is likewise somewhat attractive, but I'd have to wait and try the new control scheme. But what's important is that Panasonic is producing something interesting and widely useful! The only two interesting lenses that they have made are the 7-14mm and 20mm. The 7-14mm is very much a special-use lens, and the 20mm is one of the most amazing general use lenses ever made and, no surprise, has been a runaway sales blockbuster.

In conclusion, don't do drugs.


Panasonic has announced the lenses along with two more leaked to the press for release in 2012. Obviously, supplied MTF charts are totally useless, but if we assume that they are somewhat useful in comparing lenses from the same company, we can glean at least a small bit of data.

Both the 14-42mm and 45-175mm are sharper than the lenses that they are ostensibly replacing. The 45-175mm nets the biggest boost with a significant increase in contrast at 175mm in comparison to the 45-200mm at 175-200mm. This is great, because the old lens was very, um, mellow, at 200mm. Stopping down to F8 would draw out some more detail, but at apertures like that, one needed to bump up the ISO... which 4/3 cameras don't like.

If the prices for these lenses are correct, namely less than $500 each, they will be good values. I will probably buy them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sony A77 By-Proxy Impressions (UPDATED)

First impressions of the A77 are hitting the web, and while it's hard to get much from JPEGs, the image quality of the new 24MP A77 and A65 isn't looking good.

I was worried that Sony would be unable to overcome the already-inherent light deficit of the SLT design. I can't remember how much light is lost to the translucent mirror, but I know that it's not insignificant. It was something like 25% of ALL light is lost and never reaches the sensor. This fundamental handicap shows in ISO tests where the Sony trails pretty much everyone in whatever class it's competing. The lower the light levels, the more data that falls beneath the noise floor at any given aperture/shutter combo.

The test images available over at DPReview do little to assuage my worries. As I said, JPEGs are difficult beasts from which to really extract anything useful. Sony has notoriously bad JPEG processing with insanely aggressive noise reduction that smears away fine detail. This made sense years ago, when Sony sensors were the noisiest in the industry, but today, their sensors are the best, so JPEGs tell a poor tale of the sensor's actual ability.

So, as one would expect with Sony, the JPEGs are mushy messes with little fine detail. I hope that it's not the lens, because that would mean it's a terrible piece of glass, and instead hope that the JPEGs really are that bad. I likewise hope that the sensor isn't crap, which I doubt, so I'm not worried. But still, that resolution is just insanity. That gives it a pixel pitch of about 4 microns, which is almost identical to the pixel pitch of the Panasonic GH2. And while the GH2 isn't exactly an Olympian in the world of noise, it's not horrible, either. Still, 24MP on an APS-C sensor? Who the hell needs that?!

It makes one wonder if Sony made this sensor just to show off how stupidly-small they can manufacture pixel sites.


Photography Blog has just posted some test photos and they are equally, if not more so, as mushy and nasty as DPReview's test photos. This might have something to do with the kit lens, which only adds $600 to the price of the camera. And any sensor that is as pixel-packed as the Sony will require top-pro glass else it will reveal every flaw the lens has.


Now that the A77 has sunk in, I'm feeling that the whole package is unsettlingly feature-packed. Feature creep usually happens to hide a lack of fundamentals. I know that the A77 has a plastic body, but does that hide other low-quality bits. I'm not saying that it does! Truly, I'm still very excited. I'm just pondering.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Panasonic Puzzles Me (UPDATED)

Panasonic is going to be announcing two new lenses in a short time. Whatever the final specs, rumor sources are positive that they are going to be very cheap, compact lenses.

I am assuming that this is Panny putting some muscle behind its little GF3, which is so comically small that even many m4/3 lenses make it look silly. Again, I am assuming that they are doing this because they feel the heat from the Samsung NX and the Sony NEX systems, and thus want to focus on their smaller-sensored strength: tiny-ass lenses.

I find this puzzling because I don't know the details of Olympus and Panasonic sales. I think that they are wrong to try and aim their system cameras at point-&-shoot users who are upgrading, and instead focus on extant SLR users who want something different. This seems logical, and is somewhat backed up by lots of anecdotal evidence, because SLR camera buyers are predominantly male, and those males want to feel special. Thus, they want cameras that ape the features and designs of the high-end cameras.

Meanwhile, the P&Sers will NEVER be lured away since they want their cameras to be ultra-compact and stylish beyond all other variables. Olympus, Panasonic, and also Sony with their NEX cameras, are chasing a market segment that doesn't exist.

But still, here we are, with two new, cheap, tiny lenses. Are Panasonic and Olympus actually selling more of these cameras? Am I wrong? I just don't think so.

Point-&-Shoot buyers make up the vast majority of the market in both revenue and sheer numbers. The two biggest reasons, I think, are changes in stylistic tastes and physical abuse. I still have a Canon EOS 20D from 2004. My Panasonic GF1 has not a scratch upon its pretty little head. Point-&-shoot cameras do not receive such kind treatment.

So, if these people were actually interested in upgrading, the market would be huge. So I can understand why Panasonic and Olympus are obsessed with this demographic, but I contend that it is a specter. The Top-30 SLR cameras on Amazon are all Canon or Nikon. Even camera bags are more popular than Panasonic's most popular current camera, the GF2.

We have to go all the way down to #47 to find another Panasonic camera, the now-obsolete G2, which costs a scant $298. The entire list is so hilariously dominated by Canon and Nikon, that whatever Panny and Olympus are doing, it's not working. The Point-&-Shoot market is so large, that if even a small percentage did what Olysonic thinks they should be doing, they should have multiple cameras in the top 50.

But no. We don't have that. We have Olympus and Panasonic struggling to make a dent in this phantom market that they think exists. Instead, we have Fuji, selling a $1,200 point-&-shoot to enthusiasts, the market that our dynamic duo should be targeting, and becoming the #5 camera on Amazon. That ranking includes SLRs and point-&-shoots. It's current price? $1,800.

I'm left to wonder if both Oly and Panasonic, being Japanese, are unable to look past their Japanese perspective and see the global market. Because as far as Japan goes, Oly and Panny seem to know what they are doing. They have multiple cameras in the top 50 according to BCN. But everyone already knows this. Japan is very interested in small size and big features. In fact, it's an aspect of the Japanese mentality that pisses off serious photogs who want beefy parts and abilities with a minimum of features.

Regardless of how well they know their home market, they're falling flat in other markets. They had one bona fide success, the GF1. They have got to shift their philosophy if they hope to succeed anywhere else but home.


Ok, apparently this post is now out-of-date. I just read the newest rumors over at, surprise, 4/3 Rumors, and these new lenses coming out of Panasonic are going to be part of a new line of lenses called the X-Series. Their purpose is to provide very high image quality in compact sizes. I'm skeptical. There are limitations to optics.

As focal lengths grow, the sensor requires a larger piece of front glass to keep F-stops low. Even the small-sensored 4/3 standard requires some pretty hefty glass at 175mm, which is one of the lenses' zoomed length. Just look at the Olympus 150mm F2.0 to see the size that would be required.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Favorite Photo: Fading Away (1858)

Fading Away: Henry Peach Robinson (1858) - From fō-tō-gră-fē

My favorite photo of today is again from the first era of photographic art, Pictorialism. It is from 1858 and depicts a girl dying from tuberculosis. Even more amazing is that it was composed of multiple negatives. It is the most famous photo of Henry Peach Robinson, and was actually a rather pioneering endeavor.

It wasn't the very first photo to chop together multiple negatives, but it may as well have been. You can see the lines where he cut most prominently around the left side of the small table.

This provided a number of advantages. First, from the perspective of the pictorialists, it gave them immense compositional control, which allowed them to better imitate painters, which was their stated goal. Second, it also gave photographers their first taste of close-up deep focus. Film at the time was not terribly sensitive, thus necessitating wide open lenses for anything except for bright sunshine. This of course resulted in a razor-thin depth of field. By taking multiple photos at different points along the Z-axis, then stitching them together, deep focus could be faked.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is APS-H the future?

I made an off-handed mention about Sony, and by connection the entire industry, ditching APS-C except for their entry-level cameras.

The more that I thought about that idea, the better it became. Canon makes two, TWO, lenses worthy of an enthusiast's attention for their APS-C cameras. At most, they make three. Those are the 60mm F2.8 macro, which is excellent, and the 17-55mm F2.8. The 10-22mm F3.5 is pretty good, so I'll play my own Devil's advocate and include it.

Three lenses. They make over sixty. It's obvious that APS-C is not something that they care about. It's obviously something that NONE of the companies care about. The only company out there who's wholly behind APS-C is Pentax, which is, regardless of the quality of the new K5, a bit player at best.

One of the major advantages to APS-C is the decreased size of the optics and the increased depth of field at any given aperture. If I am forced to use full-frame lenses, all advantages are eliminated. The only remaining advantage is increased pixel-density, which is only kinda'-sorta' an advantage.

There will be an increase in price, since sensors of larger size will obviously have smaller yields and thus higher prices. But Canon and Nikon alike both makes APS-C cameras that are just as cheap as 4/3 cameras, so with the advantages of scale, the price increase might be negligible.

Enthusiasts would jump all over this. No one has a lens set that they want to keep for APS-C, so by shifting formats, the companies aren't doing any harm to customers. Instead, the well-heeled customers are given a big boost in image quality and access to lenses that their format can actually use to their potential.

This potential should also be of great interest to the marketers and bean-counters at the various corporations. Sales of SLR cameras, after climbing by huge percentages for the past ten years, are flatlining and starting to decrease. The market is becoming saturated and the best that can be hoped for is selling upgrades to those who already have cameras. Everyone who wants a camera has one.

By introducing a new format to a wide audience, the companies net three benefits. One, they can sell new cameras as upgrades, generate new interest, and possibly lure new enthusiasts into the market. Two, they also lure more people away from cheaper APS-C lenses into their respective systems of full-format lenses, which will then lead to increased sales of their full-format cameras. And three, they finally have some real differentiation between cameras, as opposed to engineered differences where one camera is inferior to another simply because it needs to be, not for an financial reason.

Think about how great that would be. APS-C cameras cost up to $1,000. APS-H goes from there up to around $2,000. And from there on up, it's full-format. It would be a beautiful thing.

APS-C will always have a place for those who want cameras that cost well under $1,000, but for those who want more, give them something worth wanting. Sony was able to do the A850 for under $2,000. Everyone else can sure as hell manage a 1.3x sensor for a lower price.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A White Hibiscus Flower

From fō-tō-gră-fē Photographs

Olympus E-P3 Leica M9 Comparison

Steve Huff has posted a comparison of the Olympus E-P3 with the new 12mm lens against the Leica M9 with the Summilux 24mm lens. I remain terminally unimpressed with Leica. I see it as a toy for people who want to feel self-important. But using Leica as the bar is a great idea since, even though the cameras and lenses are all hilariously overpriced, the quality is certainly excellent.

A few interesting notes. First off, the Olympus 12mm represents itself wonderfully. It is sharper across the frame than the Leica at F2, but while the Leica would likely gain a huge boost from further stopping down, the Oly is performing around its best at this aperture.

Second off, the depth of field differences that make determining sharpness so difficult also provide a great example of the amazing difference between the 2x, Micro 4/3 sensor. The Leica shots have a great deal more texture and complexity, simply because more of them is blurred.

Third... off. The differences between even a bad full-format sensor, like the Leica, and the m4/3 sensor in the Olympus is quite large. One doesn't realize this until presented with full-resolution examples of real world shots. The noise levels out of the Olympus are quite noticeable, especially in the way that they negatively effect the rich colors in the sky.

And finally, I don't understand those who say they never encounter moire in their shots when using cameras without a low-pass filter. Now let it be known that I would always prefer a camera with no low-pass filter. I post-process every photo that I take and removing moire is easy. But still, every medium format picture I see has significant moire somewhere, and the first Leica shot, of the donation bins, has moire dead-center. Look at the sticker just above "RECYCLING CENTER." The letters are very discolored.

So the lens is great. And on an Olympus body, it focuses like crazy. But that THREE-YEAR-OLD sensor wasn't terribly good when it came out, and it's even worse now. And like I said, the Leica's sensor is the worst full-frame sensor on the market. As far as noise levels go at base, the Olympus looks even worse in comparison to the Pentax K5, Nikon D7000, and downright ugly in comparison to other full-frame cameras.

I love the lens, the sensor is needs to be ditched.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sony A77 Looks Amazing

Sony has self-leaked a video of the A77, their upcoming APS-C ubercamera, and my first thought is Goddam that's huge!

I don't know what the final specs will be, but from the video, I'd guess that it's larger than the EOS 7D, which I believe is the current size queen, er, king.

If the specs are all true, this camera is going to be an absolute, total, unbelievable beast. I'm very excited to try one out.

It also got me thinking about APS-C in general. Sony makes few APS-C lenses, and most of them are decidedly low-quality. The A77 will likely cost north of $1,500, and those willing to lay down that kind of coin will also be buying high-end lenses, of which Sony only makes full-frame models.

Don't limit yourselves to the APS-C format. Better noise levels can be easily had with a small increase in sensor size, like with Canon's EOS 1D, which sports an APS-H sized sensor. Frankly, Canon has shown a similar disinterest in their APS-C models, so just screw it! Forget the sensor size and make all pro-sumer models APS-H.

Morning Glories

From fō-tō-gră-fē Photographs

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sony Blows My Mind

Canon better pull some serious shit out of its ass very soon.

A number of images of Sony's upcoming lineup has appeared online, and it looks very impressive. Their NEX cameras appear to be coming into their own, with some finally-adequate lenses available. That was, aside from the horrible interface, the biggest issue with the NEX lineup: the lenses. As in, there were none.

I still don't think that I will go to an APS-C super-compact system. The lenses will still be as large as would be on a standard APS-C SLR, it's just a necessity of optics. But I've been very underwhelmed by Canon recently. They completely reinvented the camera, unintentionally, with the 5D MkII, and have done NOTHING since. Sony took Canon's video innovation and ran with it. The SLT system is the first serious innovation for some time, although I still wish there was some way to put it aside and receive 100% of the light.

Beyond Sony, Olympus and Panasonic have shown how viable mirrorless cameras are, and created the first new system in twenty years. They also made a system where a completely serviceable 600mm-equivalent lens is the size of a large bottle of Advil. Major innovation even in the medium format industry took place! What with Pentax showing everyone how its done with their $10-thousand 645d.

But back to Sony, the A77 looks like the APS-C camera to own, and it seems targeted at pro-sumers, which is right where I like my cameras. Many of Sony's lenses are unimpressive, but since I'm not a pro in need of a massive, super-flexible lens collection, the limitations are not as much of a consideration. One really has to wonder why the hell Sony hasn't more fully mined its lineup of Minolta designs.

I look forward to Canon's new designs, but these new cameras, beyond what they are, evince a philosophy at Sony that is much more in line with what I want from a company.

Another Yellow Flower

From fō-tō-gră-fē Photographs