Friday, February 28, 2014

Sigma Continues Its Trend of Upending The Camera Market

The very first test images from Sigma's new 50mm f/1.4 Art lens have hit the pipes. It is amazing. It's only competition is the Zeiss Otus that wowed the world two months ago.

 These shots are all wide open, so we don't know how it does stopped down yet, but it doesn't matter. To my eye, it's not quite up to the Otus, but the differences are so small as to make no real difference, especially considering that the Otus costs $4,000 while the Sigma only costs $1,500 and the Sigma has autofocus.

The important thing is that the Sigma blows the Sony/Zeiss and the Nikon out of the water and back into more water. It is amazing. Bravo Sigma for again showing other companies how it's done.

This is a great time to point out the review of the Nikon 58mm lens at Lenstip. You can always spot a good review website when they really let harsh words fly when they are called for. Most websites are terrified of pissing off the companies that buy advertising space, meaning that bad products rarely get the reviews they deserve.

The Nikon 58mm is an overpriced piece of crap, and their review says it all.
Perhaps I am naive but I admit when Zeiss announced their Otus 1.4/55 and Nikon – the Nikkor AF-S 58 mm f/1.4G I though we were going to deal with two lenses which were a match for each other. It seems, though, that only Zeiss was serious about it and Nikon was joking all along, trying to sell you a rough piece of trash for a lot of money under a cover of a storied Nikon legacy. I really don’t intend to torture the tested Nikkor any longer because it is not worth the time and trouble.
This is why Oly and Panasonic piss me off so much. This is their fantasty! This is their goal! They want to be able to have such control over their closed system that they can charge comically huge prices for garbage and pad their profits on the backs of those who bought their cameras. It's bad enough that we have two companies doing this (Canon's included). The last thing we need is two more.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Voigtländer Does It Right; Gives 25mm Lens New Stepless Aperture Dial

As I have said before, Micro 4/3 is an exciting system to be in because of all of the companies that aren't Olympus and Panasonic. Voigtländer and their fantastic f/0.95 lenses are at the top of that list of companies.

It may seem odd to hail such a seemingly small change, but it speaks to the focus of Consina; they understand the enthusiasts and pros. They understand the small things that we want.

This also makes the 25mm lens even more of a must have for videographers. You can now smoothly and dynamically control depth of field during your shot.

The stepless aperture dial had previously been available on their other f/0.95 lenses, the 17.5mm and 42.5mm lens. Even without autofocus, all three of them are must-have lenses for the Micro 4/3 system.

In case you are unfamiliar with these lenses, they are so special because they are the only lenses in the Micro 4/3 system, aside from lenses attached to the Metabones Speed Booster, that will give your photos a full-frame look. And by full-frame look I mean that shallow depth of field and the smooth gradation between out-of-focus and in-focus areas of the image. On a small crop sensor, you need extreme aperture to achieve this.

And yeah, an aperture of below one does that.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sigma's New DP Quattro Impresses Impressively

Sigma is a company that has made one major mistake: the initial pricing of the SD1. Aside from that, they have been doing nothing but great things. Their Art lines of lenses is superior and cheaper to alternatives from other companies. Their 18-35mm is the only must-have lens for APS-C SLR cameras. And their Foveon sensors are beloved by those who don't mind how cripplingly slow they are. I like Sigma.

While I made fun of their SD1, I wanted it. I couldn't bring myself to buy it, even at its not-entirely-unreasonable $2,000 price, but I did want it.  The color and detail of low-ISO Foveon shots is amazing. Unparalleled. Eye-popping. And other such words as well.

Likewise, I wanted their DP1, DP2, and DP3 Merrill cameras, which I actually consider steals at their prices of $899. They are Medium Format-quality landscape cameras that fit in your pocket. Just amazing.

As with the SD1, though, they were special-purpose cameras with many concessions in design. I have limited funds and have to make decisions based on how often and widely I will use my purchase. A camera that is slow as a snail and essentially useless over ISO-600 isn't high on my priority list... although how I wanted it to be.

The new DP Quattro apparently goes some way toward alleviating the issues. Well, color me excited.

In case you don't know, Foveon sensors don't work with the standard array of red, green, and blue sensor sites as in most cameras. Instead, there is a red layer, a blue layer, and a green layer of sensors all stacked on top of one another. As such, each pixel that is recorded in the final picture contains red, green, and blue data.

Previously, the Foveon sensor used a full array of red, green, and blue on each layer. According to Sigma, this was one of the reasons for the slow speed of the cameras; there was a butt-ton of data to be processed. To me, the solution to this is a better processor, but I digress. Sigma's solution involves redesigning the sensor and making only the topmost blue layer a full array.
According to Sigma, this results in no loss of image quality. I have to admit, I'm not sure how that's possible, since data is being chucked away, but I will await judgment. I tend to believe them since a lie like that would kick them in the ass.

They have also put it in one of the coolest-looking cameras that I've seen in a long time. Not since the Fuji X100 has a camera been so eye-catching and different. I cannot wait to wrap my hands around one. That's because this camera is different. It looks like the future of imaging. Unlike so many others... apparently... I do not get a thrill out of holding a digital camera that looks like an old camera. I don't need some nebulous romance based on the past to be attached to my cameras. I want a tool that produces images. I get a thrill out of holding the newest, best, most advanced image-producing tool that the industry has. I want something that dares to be different so I can see what I can do with it. I know what I can do with an SLR or yet-another-mirrorless camera! I want to discover what I can do with something new. I get that thrill from this.

Good show, Sigma. Good show.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Canon's G1X Is... Better

Canon has a habit of producing overpriced crap. And remember, when I say crap, I use the word in a relative sense. There are no bad products, only bad prices, and Canon has some god-awful prices.

So it was with the stupid G1X. The lens was slow, soft, and slow to focus. The camera operations were slow and cludgy. And the price was way beyond what was warranted.

Irritatingly, it was still a decent hit. Not as big a hit as the inexplicably popular EOS M (I think it was because the camera dropped below $400 less than a month after launching), but it was still a solid success for Canon. It's amazing what a large network of resellers can do for your product.

Canon has released the inevitable follow-up, and it is... an upgrade. Based on the numbers alone, I still don't think that it will prove worthy of its price, but it's... No. I can't bring myself to do it. I want to like something Canon produces. Anything. But this camera ain't it. It's an acceptable product for a price that should only be attached to something innovative and market-leading.

The two most notable differences are the body and lens. The body ditches the bloody-stupid "viewfinder" of the old G1X, which is good, but it also ditches some of the physical controls, which is bad. Again, who the hell is this camera for? Anyone willing to plunk down the cash for this will want pro features. Why take them away?

The second big change, the lens, is the only major upgrade and one worth recognizing. It has a wider range than the old lens while also being faster by a full stop at the wide end, and over a full stop faster at the far end. That is impressive. The lens is almost enough to make me say "Hunh... yep, that's a camera," but it's still not a complete enough package, especially in a market where a similar price will buy you an E-M5.

This is Canon responding to the increasing erosion of their compact camera business. The original G1X was supposed to be that response, but, well... yeah. This is a legitimate response. It's too little, too late, and for too much, but if Canon had released this for $499 or $599, they could have stood a real chance of regaining some market share. But since this is Canon, they're releasing it for $799.

Obviously, if you're looking at this camera with a desirous eye, wait. Wait for the camera shows later in the year. Other companies are not standing still, and both Sony and Fuji are producing amazing things.

Perhaps, if Canon's market share collapses in the same way that it has been collapsing in Japan, they will finally get off their asses and produce the amazing products that they are damn well capable of producing.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blackmagic 4K Cinema Camera Drops $1,000!

As I said, Blackmagic has been doing a damn fine job of competing with itself. The Cinema Camera, the Pocket CC, and the 4K CC are amazing products with amazing abilities at amazing prices. Have I mentioned how amazing they are?

But true competition is always good. It keeps markets active and alive. So it goes with the GH4. If everything holds up, the GH4 will be Panasonic's best camera since the GF1, released those many moons ago. It is competitive. And boy howdy, has Blackmagic responded. They have officially launched and priced the 4K Cinema Camera and it comes in a full $1,000 lower than it was originally set, at a drool-worthy $3,000.

I doubt that this is because of efficiencies in manufacturing. I think that is because the GH4 is a good product. Indeed, we can take this as an endorsement from Panasonic's direct competition that the GH4 is a good product and one worthy of our attention.

The videography market just got real exciting, real quick.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Olympus 12-40mm drops below $900

We're getting there! The Olympus 12-40mm has dropped below $900 in advertised prices. The advertised part is important, since camera companies operate on the desirability principle. By that I mean that a company advertises a very high price to make a product seem desirable and exclusive, even if the product never sells for that price. Cameras, watches, stereo equipment... now that I think about, really anything that an upwardly mobile bachelor would own... all of these things are well known for advertising a price that is far higher than for what they are actually selling.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I knew that the Oly 12-40mm, just as the Panny 12-35mm before it, was almost never selling for full price. Panasonic pulled stunts where they would sell it at discount for very short periods of time before raising its price again. Olympus didn't do that and are instead allowing resellers to advertise prices more in line with demand. That means that with a motivated reseller, you could nab one of these lenses for $850, or maybe even less. At that price, I still wouldn't, but if you do, I at least won't make fun of you.

I'm sounding a bit like a broken record on this, but the Sigma 18-35mm has changed things. If the 12-40mm had been released eighteen months ago, it would have been praise-worthy. But coming as it does after the significantly better, significantly faster, and significantly cheaper 18-35mm, it is a non-starter. Every product should be a reason to buy into a system. The 12-40mm is a product only for people already dedicated to Micro 4/3 and with no other options.

That said, the 12-40mm is a good lens. Once it drops below $800, which I consider an inevitability, it will be an adequate deal. It would need to drop to $500-$600 to be truly impressive, and while Oly would be smart to do that, they won't. Until that time, if you're desperate for a Micro 4/3 zoom, you could do a lot worse than this.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The GH4 Saves Panasonic From Itself

It's no secret that neither Olympus nor Panasonic, the two progenitors of Micro 4/3, are doing well. Damn poorly is probably a better way of describing it. Obviously, neither company sells only cameras, and as such success or failure in the camera market can only go so far in changing the fortunes of the broader companies. That doesn't mean, though, that their cameras aren't a very interesting window into the companies and their problems.

Both Olympus and Panasonic are "old world" Japanese companies. Their executive structure is very Japanese, their culture is very Japanese, and their product philosophy is very Japanese. Sony was like that, too, which is why they brought in Howard Stringer, a Brit, in 2009 in an attempt to de-Japanify the company to encourage a turnaround. Obviously, that hasn't happened.

Olympus actually tried the same thing when they hired another Brit, Michael Woodford, to run the company. Not only did he, by his own description, clash with Olympus's corporate culture, he uncovered a movie-worthy, multi-billion-dollar corruption cover-up!

Amazingly, Olympus has been doing the best of the two. Panasonic recently saw its stock price go up after their cost-cutting efforts saw some rather impressive success, but aside from that, the company has been a shit-show.

Long story short, Panasonic and Olympus haven't been terribly competitive. And as can be seen in Panasonic's intransigence in its other markets and Olympus's twenty-year accounting scandal, the cause of this poor performance is arrogance. Pure, unadulterated arrogance.

I think that the arrogance was fueled by the fact that the companies were, in many ways, making good products. No one was buying Panasonic's televisions, but they were good televisions. No one was buying the Olympus PEN series, but they were pretty good little cameras. Simply making a good product isn't the same as being competitive, though, and that is something that these blasted companies cannot get through their heads.

They need to create interesting products. Exciting products. Inventive products. Products that are different from every other company and are cheaper than every other company. Instead, both Panasonic and Olympus try to be Canon, just as every cell phone company tries to be Apple.

It's hard to decide which company has been the biggest disappointment. Olympus has refused to redesign their 4/3 lenses and bring them to the Micro 4/3 market while Panasonic has produced an entire slew of overpriced and under-specced lenses and cameras. And both companies release lenses that feature zero optical correction and as such have distortion that could almost be classifiable as dubstep.

In the end, it's an academic question. Micro 4/3 is exciting because of other companies. Blackmagic and SLR Magic are producing exciting products. Metabones Speedbooster will put a nearly limitless selection of glass at our disposal. The stuff coming out of the two original companies has been constantly disappointing.

The GH4 does not appear to be a disappointment. It is a groundbreaking camera. It puts true 4K recording ability into the sub-$2,000 market and features pro-level features that could put GH4s on movie sets. It's that good. If the photographic abilities are good, this becomes the 4/3 camera that the GH3 should have been.

It will also stand as an example of what other companies should be doing. I'm looking squarely at Nikon and Canon. With the processing power in their cameras, their video quality should be far higher than it is now. The only Nikon camera with decent video quality for the price is the 1-Series, which is awful in most other ways.

Importantly, the GH4 is a unique product! For that reason, it is impossible to say that it is overpriced. Is Panasonic seeing ridiculous profits from the camera? How should I know! There are no other products on the market that do what the Panasonic does for its price. The next cheapest 4K camera, the Blackmagic 4K, costs over twice the price and is a pure video camera. The GH4 is unique, and at $1,999, it is impressive.

I speculated about whether it was going to be a global shutter or not, and we now have our answer: no. While that's mildly disappointing, it's not surprising. Global shutters are very difficult to design and implement.

Panasonic has managed to increase sensor read-out by 50%, and the video will use a 4K crop of the sensor, which makes the video area very similar to the Blackmagic Cinema camera, which is the GH4's primary competition. That center crop means that actual readout is going to be very quick since, I'm assuming, they don't need to dump the unused pixels. They can simply dump the pixels being used and reset the sensor more quickly. Rolling shutter won't be non-existent, but I would imagine that it won't be bad.

The GH4 is an important product because it finally brings some competition to Blackmagic. I'm not saying the BM needed competition. Lord knows, they've been competing like crazy without anyone else. Still, having two companies mix it up is better than one.

If you are an average user, it's important to understand what the GH4 is not. It is not the Micro 4/3 camera to own. This is not the one camera to rule them all. This is the camera to own if video and video quality is of significant importance to you. If you will use it primarily for photographic applications, it is much too expensive. A 4/3 sensor will never provide $2,000 worth of technology for photography alone. The E-M1 costs $1,500 and is already overpriced, which is likely why no one is selling it for sticker.

Video is another banana completely. For video, sensor size is of much lower importance. Very rarely is the shallow depth of field allowable from full-format cameras ever used in video. It's fun to have, but it is very much a niche tool. Indeed, the smaller sensor provides a large number of distinct advantages. $2,000 for that sensor in an otherwise robust package is a reasonable price to say the least.

I cannot wait to get my hands on a GH4. $2,000 is too much for my pockets right now (my GH2 will have to serve its master for a bit longer) but used cameras will hit the market eventually. And when they do, I'm going to make a 4K film, simply because I can.


On a side not, EOSHD recently complained about how companies like Olympus seem almost psychotically averse to including video in their products. 

Last year Olympus gave what I thought to be a very strange reason for their video modes being a pale imitation of Panasonic’s.

Olympus don’t want to be too good at video, in-case their cameras become known for it. They want to be associated with photography professionals and not cat-video YouTube uploaders, just in case they might get popular with filmmakers and sell us lots of cameras.

I can really sympathise with Olympus, it must be a terrible prospect to have better image quality on your cameras and higher sales. Canon also recently became extremely worried that video might improve on their DSLRs (thanks to Magic Lantern) with terrible consequences. The nightmare scenario of offering their customers better video absolutely scared the life out of one rep who said the threat of better video would be dealt with by their lawyers!

Joking aside (or I am?!) why doesn’t Olympus want to be known for video? From the perspective of Olympus looking at the video features and their users, it might look like video users just sit around uploading clips of kittens to YouTube and editing in iMovie. (Maybe that’s true!?) But if we’re pointing the finger here, I’d say leave off the pop-art filter and HDR images, you photographers! There are as many casual stills shooters as there are video shooters and the 1500 euro E-M1 should not compromise one bit for any of them. Put the gimmicks in the lower end stuff instead.

Indeed on the E-M1 photographers get a raft of serious features and improvements like a 1/8000 shutter and weather sealing and video users get some new funky special effects for their 1500 euros. If you press the left button whilst recording video the image echoes and then returns to normal. If you press the down button the image ghosts and leaves a trail. Case closed.

This is an example of that arrogance that I mentioned earlier. It's not that Olympus doesn't want to be good at video. It's that they want to be known for video when they choose to be known for video. Then, they can try to squeeze money from it. He mentions Canon without making the connection.

Canon released the 5D Mark II which blew the world away with decent video. The Mark III comes out with identical video, and Canon was furious when Magic Lantern came out, going so far as to threaten the group with a lawsuit. Panasonic did the same thing with the GH3. They locked out hackers, crippled aspects of its design, and tried to sell the AF100 for $4,500.

If these companies can't squeeze money from you, they don't want you having it, logic, reason, and value be damned!

Canon can afford to be that arrogant, at least for now, because of their size and reach. Olympus and Panasonic cannot, cannot, afford to be that arrogant, and the fact that they are trying that reveals a corporate obliviousness that enters the realm of pathological.

If nothing else, the GH4 signals a crack in that pathology. That is a good thing. Of course, it could also just be a fluke. Because lord knows, neither the GH1 nor GH2 became legends because of Panasonic's doing.