Archive | July, 2013

Can Panasonic reclaim the superzoom crown?

18 Jul

Just over a year ago, Panasonic rocked the world when announcing the FZ200, a superzoom camera with continuous maximum aperture of f/2.8 throughout the zoom range of 24 to 600mm equivalent. It’s a camera that largely gained very positive reviews, with fairly good video and macro performance, but an inferior sensor to its predecessor, the FZ150. Ever since the FZ50, this particular line of Panasonic’s has been the result of a collaboration with Leica, who provided the glass and possibly intel for the special lens of the FZ200, and always release a nearly identical version of each camera in the series half a year later, these being the V-Lux models in Leica’s classification.

Shortly after that release, however, Canon upped the ante by releasing a camera that, while having an aperture that declines from a slower f/3.4 to a maximum f/6.5 at the long zoom end, offered 1200mm equivalent reach. A blockbuster, if you will, that offered even better macro capabilities, a minimum ISO of 80 rather than 100, but mainly, twice the reach, or, looked at over two dimensions, the potential to record four times as much detail of very distant subjects. At this point, many who had considered the FZ200 switched their allegiance to Canon’s SX50.

Having broken down the wall where Panasonic had been content to keep its maximum at 600mm, the same as predecessor FZ150, a number of “me too” cameras followed Canon’s announcement, notably Fujifilm’s HS50, which was fit to compete in the enthusiast category by including RAW access, and S8500, which lacks that feature, as well as Sony’s rawless HX300. These cameras arrived with 1000mm reach at f/5.6, 1104mm at f/6.5, and 1200mm at f/6.3, respectively, meaning the HS50 at least on paper compares favourably to the Canon at the long end. In spite of this, the SX50 remains the camera to beat.

This week, Panasonic announced the FZ70, part of its budget lineage that runs alongside the 50-stepped models, and likely a first shot in the direction of regaining dominance in the superzoom category. As expected for that model, which will not be appearing in a Leica V-Lux version, the lens is not Leica-branded. Going it alone, Panasonic is showcasing a 1200mm lens with widest aperture of f/5.9 at the long end, beating the Canon offering by about a quarter stop. Should we expect the Leica version, presumably an FZ250, to have a shorter zoom range? I doubt this.

If Panasonic wants to only hold its current market position, the FZ250 should have a continuous f/2.8 lens ending at 860mm equivalent, and a sensor at least as good as the FZ150. If it wants to reclaim the market, the pressure is now on to produce a camera with 1200mm equivalent reach, with pushing that f/2.8 further through that zoom range than in competing offerings – perhaps Panasonic can engineer a camera that holds f/2.8 until 600mm or more, with narrowing of the maximum aperture starting only closer to the 1200mm end. If other features such as focus speed and accuracy, continuous shooting speed, and RAW buffer length are competitive, this could be the camera that once again redefines the category.

People have talked about handholding beyond 1200mm using, for instance, Panasonic’s DMW-LT55 1.7x teleconverter, but until someone tests this, we may safely assume this to be the domain of tripods and bean bags.

For completeness, I must mention that in a piece of sleight of hand, Panasonic are promoting the FZ70 as a 60x zoom, which results from being wider with 20mm rather than 24mm at the widest end. Most potential customers can safely ignore this, as wide angle photography is not usually a priority with superzoom cameras.

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You’re teaching Pentax the wrong lesson

5 Jul

Some time ago, Pentax released a firmware update for its K-01 mirrorless system camera – a camera, if you recall, that can use all of Pentax’ legacy lenses as well as current K mount models.The update drastically improved the camera’s autofocus speed by eliminating unnecessary lens element travel during focusing.

However, because Pentax did not release the firnware upgrade as an entirely new camera model, the camera was not re-reviewed by the technical press in light of the improvements made.

Fast-forward to a few weeks ago, and we get a camera, the K-50, that is a K-30 in all but the outer shell and some very minor details, featuring ISO 51200, which was assumed by most to be a simple firmware upgrade relative to the K-30.

So in the earlier case, Pentax does right by the customer, allowing existing owners to take advantage of firmware improvements, and gets largely ignored by the tech press for it. So, faced with the same dilemma a second time, they decide to force the upgrade on the customer. Sure, there could be a whole raft of other explanations – maybe they weren’t happy with the K-30’s body, which got mixed reviews, or the K-01 firmware improvement cropped up rather unexpectedly, and given then-current sales figures, was judged to be already late in the production cycle, Pentax panicked and just released it without thinking. Maybe there was reluctance to either give up the body that much money was presumably spent designing, or to sell a K-02 in an identical body.

Maybe Pentax didn’t really hold back ISO 51200 on the K-30 to reduce the effect on K-5 sales, or to have an easy upgrade available with the K-50 (no additional technical R&D, just change the surface of the body, take the handbrake off the firmware and there you go). If anybody ever does decide to hack the Pentax K series firmware, there’s a chance we’ll know.

But I do think that the tech press should have put more fanfare on the AF firmware improvement on the K-01, to give customers a chance to further incentivise the earlier noble behaviour on Pentax’ part.

What’s the deal with the Canon 70D?

2 Jul

Canon has just released its new mid-range APS-C camera, the 70D, following on from a line-up traditionally situated between the entry-level “rebels” such as the 700D and the more recent flagship, the 7D. But rather than look at the new camera’s position in the line-up, let’s explore its features.

For some time now, Canon has continued to produce great glass alongside cameras with mediocre sensors. Particularly, Nikon has overtaken in terms of resolution, sensitivity/noise and dynamic range, the latter being particularly hurtful to Canon’s reputation, utility, and business.

Canon EOS 70D

Promotional image of the 70D from Canon

Along comes the 70D – what can we expect? It’s clear that Canon has made this model matter, placing it as a deliberate game-changer with all the features thrown in that could win it top awards in reviews – a swivel and touch display of high resolution, a tiny increase in capture resolution for still images, and WiFi connectivity. This alone won’t be enough to silence the critics, since, as Samsung recently reconfirmed, what matters most to people is the quality of the resulting image. Image quality could be said to consist of a combination of resolution, sharpness, dynamic range, and colour and brightness fidelity. Unfortunately, with the camera having just been announced, we may have to wait a little to see if the new sensor can deliver improvements in any of these areas.

The headlining feature, however, will be its on-sensor phase detection technology, which, in contrast to previous such attempts, allows examining sharpness at each pixel within an 80% window of the overall frame. I have to admit that while this is an improvement on all current implementations of on-chip phase detection autofocus, it rather reminds me of Canon’s dogged determination to give its users an inferior 95% frame coverage pentamirror viewfinder, where Pentax gives you 100% view at entry level – and even the 70D delivers only 98%. But enough of partisanship – I rightly shot down Canon’s 100D as a gimmick, and will give credit where it’s due. That said, it will be difficult for Canon to convince me that they’ve obsoleted the optical viewfinder by providing an admittedly versatile rear display.

Canon EOS 70D with active WiFi link

Canon promotional image showing active WiFi link in top display

Canon is clearly keen to get the word out and salvage what fans haven’t averted their eyes, minds and wallets at the over-two-year lag in sensor performance. The EOS M hasn’t made a huge impact either, so what can the 70D bring?

There is no word yet on how fast this new live view autofocus is, and remember that it competes with a 19-point traditional phase detection autofocus that is active when using the optical viewfinder. The statement seems to be that the on-chip autofocus is preferable, as it evaluates many more focus points than the traditional sensor. However, the same DIGIC 5+ imaging processor that fulfils a more traditional role in the 5D Mk III seems to have been tasked with this new load, and is presumably slowed down by it, much as the Pentax K-5 II, according to some test data, is struggling to provide snappy autofocus amid the new AF sensor capabilities and presumably CPU-intensive algorithmic improvements.

I would therefore expect the on-chip autofocus to be slow. This, presumably, is the reason why no electronic viewfinder was provided, leaving the 70D as a bit of a half-way horse, and explaining why these advances weren’t introduced in a flagship model. I suspect the best route for interested users would be to wait for test data, and probably a successor model that perhaps leverages a DIGIC 6 or 7 for fast on-chip phase detection autofocus and electronic viewfinder. If such a combination could result in less AF hunting and fewer false catches or “snags”, it would be a true revolution deserving of amateur investment. (But pick your lenses carefully because the optical stabilisation – denoted IS or IS II in Canon jargon – is still going to cost you a lot extra!)