Archive | February, 2015

Nikon vs. Canon, pt. 1: the bodies

21 Feb

The Nikon D5300 and Canon EOS 70D are the two highest resolving APS-C cameras from the two makers that have been thoroughly tested by DxOMark, and it gets quite interesting when you look at the data. Sampling 33 lenses that are shared between the two systems (13 Sigmas, 7 Tamrons, 5 Zeiss, 4 Tokinas and 4 Samyangs)

Even on APS-C, none of the tested lenses yielded less than 8 “perceptual megapixels” – when used on full frame, the effective resolution is expected to be greater.

Results for sharpness and aberration give the following picture:

nikon_vs_canon1c

The fact that the Nikon offers more resolution is to be expected, given its 24 vs 22 megapixel advantage and omission of an anti aliasing filter. On top of that, the 1.6 crop factor of the 70D amplifies any flaws in the lens by about 7%, including chromatic aberration. There is also a difference in flange distance, but at 44mm (Canon) vs. 46.5mm (Nikon), this might actually favour the Nikon, and in any case is not sufficient to explain the difference. Even though on account of the crop factor, one would expect the Nikon to have an advantage w.r.t chromatic aberration as well, the difference is statistically not as significant as the difference in resolving power, but I thought it worth mentioning in passing.

Overall, it is clear that the Nikon is able, in theory, to give a significantly more detailed image, but let’s wait for part 2 to see if this holds up to further analysis.

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APS-C vs. full frame – whither the future?

21 Feb

In a previous editorial, I suggested that Nikon had recently focused on full frame cameras, and this is true. Over the last 24 months, Nikon released a number of new models and substantial upgrades. The Nikon D600/610, Df, D750 and D810 were all aimed at what one might roughly describe as the enthusiast market, with the D810 and D750 also being serious considerations for the “professional”. (But see my previous editorial on the value of such classifications.)

The logic in this is sound: “Serious” cameras as a product category are under much less threat than those whose performance can be more easily approximated with a mobile phone camera. But is the market really going to see a long-term shift towards such models? Some indicators suggest this is true. Sony showed with its A7 series that full frame cameras no longer have to be substantially bigger than those from the film era. Furthermore, its cameras are also much more comparable in size to most APS-C models than was previously the case. However, the lesson is also being learned that the camera grip has substantially developed since the film era to give more control to the photographer, and that this improvement cannot be dropped by the wayside, meaning that a major determinant of the size of future cameras will be whether they try to adhere to the needs of the human hand, or those of the human shirt pocket.

However, many seasoned photographers will urge the newbie to invest in lenses, not camera bodies, and they are right. Lenses do not depreciate in value as quickly, and enhance the range of one’s abilities far more. Many general purpose photographers will end up with a number of lenses for various different purposes: the standard zoom, the telezoom, the wide angle or fisheye (or both), the macro, the portrait prime, the walkaround prime, etc. Often, the quality of the lens influences the quality of the final image far more than the quality of the camera does, especially when cameras are approaching the limits of physics as they have been doing recently.

Therefore, advances in lens technology improve our photography more than advances in camera bodies, and can currently be seen as predominant drivers of the industry. So which lenses have improved more, full frame ones or crop lenses? For me personally, some of the most exciting developments are happening in “cropped format” zoom lenses. I’ll pick on three examples. Just under two years ago, the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 lens created a huge sensation for managing such a wide, constant aperture in a zoom lens, and at such a generally useful range of focal lengths. It is mostly very sharp with minimal chromatic aberrations, something of a Sigma specialty. The year after, Tamron announced its 16-300mm superzoom lens – with a zoom range that is unprecedented among APS-C lenses, and beats anything available for full frame by a very good mile. The image quality is said to be quite good considering this versatility. Then just recently, Samsung came out with its 16-50mm f/2-2.8 standard zoom – monstrously sharp in the centre, although corners suffer more than in other lenses. In all other respects, this lens keeps up flawlessly with the new 28 megapixel Samsung NX1 body – in itself a major, unprecedented breakthrough for superior image quality.

The APS-C format has been broadly adopted for new and successful camera systems such as the Sony E/NEX system, the Fujifilm X and the Samsung NX. Even Canon, with its so far unsuccessful EOS M system, has opted for a 1.5 crop factor rather than the 1.6 used in its Rebel DSLR line. So I think it’s fair to say that APS-C is a safe place to be, with a bright future.

Update 2/2/2017: You may also be interested in my recent piece, Craving full-frame? Read this first.

Fast what? The primer on “fast” RAW image viewers

21 Feb

Over the last few years, various RAW viewers have sprung up, all claiming to be “fast” and putting this in their name. No law suits have apparently been filed, so it’s left for us consumers to figure out which is which. I thought you would appreciate a resource that you can return to when you need to know, so here goes.

The candidates presented here are FastStone Image Viewer, FastPictureViewer, and FastRawViewer. Please note that these are not necessarily the fastest RAW viewers out there (I haven’t tested these or any others for that particular aspect). The purpose of this article is just to clear up the potential naming confusion.

FastStone Image Viewer is actually the oldest of the bunch, launching in 2004. It’s a fully featured image viewer that supports many RAW formats, some colour space operations, and a host of editing steps such as cloning, colour correction, curves, cropping, and sharpening. JPEG rotation is lossless in the FastStone viewer. It also has a few fancy functions, such as emailing contact sheets, and is free for personal or educational use. Commercial use is 35 bucks.

FastPictureViewer dates back to 2008. It exists in three editions, but only the most expensive one supports RAW formats (and the most basic one is free). It doesn’t have any editing capability and instead specialises in image rating and selection. It’s 50 bucks for the version that does RAW.

There is also a FastPictureViewer Codec Pack for ten bucks that simply enables fast raw previews in Windows Explorer, nothing more. However, Microsoft also provides its own codec pack for free, so that’s another option to consider.

FastRawViewer is the new kid on the block, entering public beta in 2014, and is made by the folks whose other commercial project is RawDigger and who maintain open source LibRaw (this will only interest software developers), on which FastRawViewer is based. Considering it’s early stages, it has quite a bit of functionality already. It’s even more focused on viewing and analysing, rather than editing, images than FastPictureViewer, and will only set you back 20 dollars for the full version right now.

The value of camera classification

18 Feb

Before I begin my main theme for the coming days or weeks, I would like to opine briefly on the merit of classifying cameras according to the level of skill or depth of involvement of the prospective owner. Cameras are variously described as “beginner”, “entry level”, “amateur”, “enthusiast”, “semi-professional”, etc. The idea transported by such classification is that you can be seen as a more advanced photographer if you own a more expensive camera, and that, accordingly, you should pay as much for a camera as your purse possibly permits. There’s no doubt in my mind that this strategy works marvellously on the common male ego.

However, what seems to have worked better in the market more recently is to put the latest technology into the latest camera. This has been evident in Pentax’ portfolio for years – at least since the K-x was launched with a sensor that was vastly superior to the higher-tier K-7, but certainly since the K-30 debuted features the K-5 did not have – but has crept into other camera makers’ line-ups more recently. Both Olympus and Samsung for some time have released cameras alongside each other that differed in certain details (such as raised grip vs. flat grip), but had the same sensor. The E-PM2 for some time was a noted bargain for this reason, as the NX500 is now. More recently, the OM-D E-M5 II launched with a ground-breaking feature that according to what’s known at this point of time Olympus will not retro-enable in its flagship, the OM-D E-M1 (or perhaps can’t). Pentax is allowing the K-S2 to leapfrog its entire existing line-up with a fully articulated display while its other camera lines may not be refreshed until late 2015.

There’s no doubt that with the saturation of the DSLR market at a time of general recession, and smartphones eating the point’n’shoot category, camera makers are under more fire than ever to innovate while keeping slim product lines. This leads to a break-down of camera classification, and at this point, it’s often better to buy the more recent camera within the system of choice than to rely on “enthusiast” vs. “semi-professional” type labels that mostly serve to pad (for what it’s worth) the manufacturers’ pockets with the money of the gullible.

Europeans benefit from Adobe customer exit

13 Feb

The malcontentment of many customers over Adobe’s new rental-only policy is well-documented. Many are looking at ways to turn their backs on the company. While Adobe Lightroom is currently still available as a perpetually licensed product, it’s unclear how long this will last, and many feel it’s better to leave Adobe’s clutches earlier rather than later. At the same time, Adobe scored a temporary stay of execution by providing the even unluckier customers left in the dust by Apple’s abandonment of its Aperture RAW processing software, with a way out. Adobe within weeks of the announcement provided an exporter that allowed customers to reasonably transfer their existing Aperture photo edit settings and catalogue data to Lightroom.

However, the long term strategy for many will be to leave, but what options are there? Several companies will be keen to jump into the gap left behind, chief among them British company Serif Europe, who make Photoshop competitor PhotoPlus for Windows and recently announced an open beta for the Mac equivalent, Affinity Photo. Serif offer a full platter of Adobe competitors, including the highly regarded PagePlus (DTP) and DrawPlus (vector graphics) as well as Affinity Designer (vector graphics) for Mac. If you prefer to have a Photoshop replacement with a uniform appearance across both platforms, look no further than German product PhotoLine. Whatever share of the Photoshop gap on the Mac side isn’t taken by the above two may well be mopped up by Pixelmator, a Lithuanian effort that continues to be a little less full-featured but very aggressively priced. There’s a Windows exclusive, too, in the shape of British-come-German effort Xara Photo & Graphic Designer – a program with about as long a history as Photoshop itself. But none of these offer compelling RAW editing capability.

So where does one turn for that? Well, the two major competitors that have been in continuous development for the last few years and can be considered reasonably up to date are DxO Optics and Capture One, the former from France and the latter from Denmark. Moreover, DxO also offers ViewPoint, a product that offers only the optical corrections that are the strong suit of the company, which allows integrating it into a workflow using another RAW editor or raster graphics editor.

The only major non-European outfit that could benefit from the Adobe escapees is old rival Corel, but while its renewed development effort in very recent times is showing great promise, there is a little bit of catch-up to do before its trio of AfterShot Pro, PaintShop Pro and Draw can bring back memories of their glory days. Meanwhile, the Europeans will be growing a healthy customer base for their unencumbered products.

Sigma brings price war to Samyang over 24mm f/1.4

12 Feb

Sigma_24mm_Art

Sigma this week announced its new 24mm lens with f/1.4 as its widest aperture setting. It is part of the Art line, which suggests it will be of a very high optical quality – very sharp, negligible chromatic aberration, possibly low distortion. It was announced to be available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts.

Samyang is the current holder of that spot in the third-party lens landscape, with a manual focus lens that can be found for 514 Euros (it might be cheaper still, I didn’t spend long). Sigma has just confirmed pricing at 849 USD. This is serious pressure on Samyang, as not only does it have less of a reputation with respect to build quality, but its lens also lacks autofocus, which Sigma can offer. The Sigma also looks a little more compact, which is generally desirable, not to mention in a moderate to full wide angle lens (depending on crop factor). On the other hand, the Samyang allows f/22, the Sigma stops at f/16.

It’s clear nonetheless that a few months down the river, with Sigma’s price having dropped to a “street price”, Samyang will have to offer some more serious discounts if it wants to keep selling that lens, since one thing we can be sure of: optically, the Sigma will be competitive.

Ricoh’s track record with Pentax

11 Feb

When Ricoh took the Pentax brand, staff and patents from Hoya, who themselves had acquired them only a few years earlier, they took on a brand that was behind in several key areas that were well known to and voiced by customers. One by one, Ricoh has apparently rallied resources to remedy these problems:

  • Finished the long-awaited 1.4x weather-sealed teleconverter (engineering flourish: using only three elements)
  • Delivered a long tele lens (560mm, i.e. 840mm EFL; engineering flourish: telescope design for weight reduction)
  • Introduced a major innovation in the flagship model, the K-3 (anti-aliasing filter simulation) as well as beginning to adapt Ricoh technologies for use in Pentax models – first clear sign of long-term commitment to the brand; too many other key innovations were implemented in the K-3 for me to mention here, but improvements were made in all areas – metering, autofocus, flash, and, importantly, Wi-Fi support and a smartphone app for remote control and preview (aka wireless tethering)
  • Filled further gaps in the line-up such as the 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom
  • Launched first model with fully articulated display (engineering flourish: weather-sealed)
  • Launched shortest DSLR zoom lens and smallest weather-sealed DSLR with fully articulated display

Ricoh have clearly capitalised on core Pentax strengths: bright and large 100% view pentaprisms, compactness, and weather-sealing. They’ve also kept to the strategy of offering more than the competition at the same price-point. Having done all this, they dropped the bomb:

K-Mount digital SLR camera with a large, 35mm full-frame image sensor […] under development for market launch by the end of 2015 (source)

Within days, nearly every Pentax user ever active on any forum was online to comment on the matter. While giving hardly any product details, Ricoh has stolen everyone’s attention for CP+ – in spite of major announcements from Olympus and Canon. Ricoh then set up a topic on its own forums to collect feedback. This fits a general pattern of being customer-centric, and within less than three years, Ricoh has wiped nearly everything off Pentaxians’ wishlists. I don’t think any other photography brand has equalled this within the same time-frame. Less than nine months from now, it will be clear whether Ricoh can keep the momentum of this consolidation phase, and start to innovate the heck out of the CaSoNikons, with features that customers really need.