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Nikon is launching a full frame mirrorless

14 Jul

Nikon confirmed they are working on a mirrorless camera. While sometimes news have been blown out of proportion in the photo industry in the past, it seems likely in this case that they really mean they’re working on a new camera system. Nikon is not a company to throw up clickbait.

So how do I know the camera they’re working on is full frame? They said the camera would be Nikon-rashii, or Nikonish. Nikon has never made a medium format camera, so we can safely exclude that. Nikon is now best remembered for the F series, which dominated journalism for a decade or two.

But this is not about reliving the past. This is about competing in the current market. How many mirrorless systems are competing for the APS-C space? Mainly three – Fujifilm, Sony, and old rival Canon. How many are competing for full frame? Really only one – Sony. Nikon knows that there are things it can do better than Sony, ways to compete with Sony. When push comes to shove, maybe Sony won’t give them the sensors they want – maybe they’ll have to turn to Toshiba or Renesas. But for a company with Nikon’s heritage and customer relations, it would be way better to start in the full frame category and gain a following among professional photographers before Sony can fully convince them, than to try to mud-sling it out with Canon in the well-scoured APS-C swamp.

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Sigma brings back the moiré

3 Feb

I believe I’ve written on this subject before. DPReview just exclusively announced the results of DxOMark testing of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 “Art” lens, announcing it to have achieved a perfect 36 “perceptual megapixels” on the Nikon D810’s 36 megapixel sensor. It therefore sort-of-ties with the Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, which achieved 42 perceptual megapixels on a 42 megapixel sensor.

Discussion immediately broke out on whether the Zeiss Otus 85/1.4 or Nikon 105/1.4 provided nicer bokeh and whether this was, in fact, more important than sharpness. The Zeiss, in particular, is almost tied with the Sigma for sharpness, and like it excels in many other technically measurable characteristics. The Nikon may be half a step behind, and in fact has a focal length of 94.8mm vs. the Sigma’s 79.9mm, so is more comparable than it sounds at first.

But back to my original point, which is the following:

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-23-44-40

Excerpt from DPReview sample image no. 30, of the Sigma 85mm samples.

That’s right, moiré. It is a physical certainty that if the sensor has no anti-aliasing filter on it, and the lens outresolves the sensor, you will see moiré on certain subjects (you can find technical details of moiré and aliasing on the Wikipedia pages, moiré pattern and Nyquist frequency). Many manufacturers have dropped the anti-aliasing filter to squeeze more resolution out of their images and as a small cost-saving, or installed a second filter that cancels the first (slight cost increase). Wisely, Canon added the 5Ds without the R to their line-up, which cuts back on moiré much better than the 5Ds R.

In Nikonland, it seems the highest resolving lenses and highest resolving sensors do not make a good pair. That being so, should we buy high resolution cameras at all, and what other choices do we have? Both the Nikon D600 and D610 have weak AA filters (link in Polish) – a bad idea for a lower-resovling camera as the range of lenses that outresolve it will be greater.

Pentax now releases its cameras with an AA filter that works up to shutter speeds of 1/1000s – presumably adequate for most portrait work, and hopeful that anything you’ll want to shoot above that shutter speed will be moving so fast that aliasing is not likely.

In spite of this, Pentax remains, as of this writing, a stalwart of compact lenses that value bokeh over resolution – partly, perhaps, owing to the fact that some of its lenses have been available for quite some time.

It’s well known that Tamron and Pentax have been sitting in a tree lately, and so it is fitting that Tamron somewhat recently launched a line of f/1.8 primes – more compact than the competition’s f/1.4 standard. DxOMark allows comparing Tamron’s 85mm lens with Zeiss’ Otus and Milvus, for instance, and there’s hardly a hair between them. Most surprising perhaps is the performance of the Milvus at less than half the price of the Otus.

Incidentally, while the three aforementioned lenses max out the D800E’s sensor at 36 perceptual megapixels, Sony’s new Gold Master 85mm lens reaches no more than the same value – 36 P-Mpix on an AA-filterless 42 megapixel sensor.

It’s worth asking therefore whether the trend for the second half of this decade is going to continue with lenses increasing in size, resolving power, and price, as exemplified by the Art and Otus, or a reconsideration of traditional values.* If the former, I hope consumers will be asking for strong anti-aliasing filters, and that camera makers, in spite of mobile phone cameras nipping at their heels, will grant that gift.

*An opportunity, perhaps, for Chinese lens makers trying to push into the market.

Update 7 February 2017: For differences between the Art and Otus, check out Roger Cicala’s blog post.

Craving full-frame? Read this first.

3 Jul

Reading this article might save you some money. No, I’m not sponsored to write this, so you may safely proceed. All you’ll get is technical insight and honest opinion.

Perhaps like many photographers, you’ve thought about going for a full frame camera. Perhaps you’ve heard about shallow depth of field, low light shooting and noise. Maybe you’ve heard that full frame is “one stop faster” or “one stop brighter”.

In this article, I’ll cover one of the reasons for going full frame – more light, and how much sense it makes, especially for your bank balance.

Frontal product photo of a black camera against blueish white background.

Ever wanted a Nikon D800E? Read on. (Image credit: Jastrow)

By going from APS-C to full frame – probably the most common move – you gain approximately one stop of light, i.e. you get twice as much light over the whole of your sensor. It would be approximately true to say that shooting ISO 200 on full frame, you get the same noise as shooting ISO 80 on APS-C. So you can shoot faster shutter speeds and, over the whole sensor, get the same noise. However, if you shoot 16 megapixels on APS-C, then shooting 36 megapixels full frame, you will get the same PER PIXEL noise, at the same ISO. So far, so good.

Small rectangle denoted APS-C next to larger rectangle denoted

Relative size of the two major DSLR sensor formats (Copyright breakfastographer / Chriusha (Хрюша) / CC-BY-SA-3.0)

So if we shoot the same apertures, we gain a stop of light. So we can ask the question, how much does it cost to gain a stop of light?

If you upgrade from an 18-55/3.5-5.6 APS-C kit lens to a 17-50/2.8 APS-C premium zoom, you gain 1-2 stops of light, and it might cost you 150 Eurodollars if you buy used. Or for about the same price, you could upgrade to a 17-70/2.8-4.5, which gives you almost exactly one stop advantage over the kit lens, and a bit of extra range.

If you further upgrade to an 18-35/1.8 zoom, you might pay about 600 Eurodollars used or a good offer new, and you would gain a stop over the 17-50/2.8 or over two stops vs. an 18-55/3.5-5.6 kit lens. But you shorten your range by about one stop of teleconversion. Don’t worry if that sounds technical – just remember that 35mm is 35mm and not 50, 55 or 70mm.

Black zoom lens pointing upwards with hood attached, and lens cap lying next to it, label up. Zoom ring indicates 17-24-35-50. White background.

Another possible upgrade path? The Tamron 17-50/2.8 (Image credit: Christian Fischer/CC-BY-SA-3.0 Unported)

If low light shooting, reduced noise or faster shutter speeds are what you’re after, and you’re still shooting with an APS-C camera and kit lens, you owe it to yourself to first invest the 150 to see if the extra light is worth it. This will put you in a much better position to judge whether you want to invest about ten times that amount (or more) to get to a full frame camera and appropriate lens. (Note that a full frame camera with an f/4 lens offers no light advantage over an APS-C camera with an f/2.8 lens!)

There are other points to consider, of course, some of which I’ll touch on briefly. A full frame camera generally offers greater sharpness due to both an increase in resolution and easier manufacture and assembly of appropriate glass. The full frame format is more resistant to diffraction, typically tolerating f/11 rather than f/8 (APS-C) or f/5.6 (Micro Four Thirds) – note that these assumptions only hold for certain pixel pitch, i.e. a 36 megapixel full frame camera is just as sensitive to diffraction at the pixel level as a 16 megapixel APS-C camera. (Other assumptions apply, such as having comparable filter stacks in front of the sensor.) However, over the entire frame, the full frame camera is more tolerant. The flip side is that you need to shoot at those smaller stops to reach the same depth of field, meaning that in landscape shooting, there is no full frame advantage in available light, for the same positioning and framing.

Furthermore, full frame has greater limitations when it comes to designing zoom lenses – you may notice that a common superzoom lens specification for full frame is the 28-300mm lens, whereas on APS-C, the limit has been pushed to 16-300mm – the same versatility in focal length as a 24-450mm on full frame!

Similarly, compare the Sigma 18-35/1.8 to its full frame sibling, the 24-35/2. The smaller lens is both faster and, depending on your point of view, slightly more versatile. (The comparison is hampered by the full frame lens being the equivalent of a 16-24mm on APS-C – not an easy comparison!)

So a full frame camera is best suited to the shooter who knows what situations they want to cover and what their preferred focal lengths are. If you prefer spontaneous shooting and versatility, it is likely that a full frame camera will not make you happy.

Arguments about achieving shallow depth of field more easily on a full frame camera deserve a separate article.

Update 2/2/2017: Also check out my newer article, Low light photography? Affordable? Look no further! for the latest development, or check out a sample image.

Timelapse/hyperlapse craze reaches saturation

11 Jan

I just watched Exhale, which was billed as some kind of revelatory experience. Within seconds of the video starting, my mind had drifted off to doing other things without me consciously realising it. I then watched it a second time just to understand how I had become so disconnected. The answer I came to is that the novelty of timelapse footage has faded. Crazy moving clouds, dangling flowerheads, changes from day to night and back – we’ve all seen it before, and in a variety of different landscapes, too, set to the same formulaic music as last time. It’s become hard to keep up the excitement.

Hyperlapse, meanwhile, to me is the pinnacle of making things banal. An entire weeklong trip can now be videographically condensed into just a few short minutes, with zooming replacing the experience of actually travelling from one place to another.

I, for one, am glad to be putting this need to “be amazed” at every new timelapse video that comes out, behind me, and getting on with more important, real stuff.

Yours,

Codger

Samsung and Ricoh: Different responses to a shrinking market

3 Dec

This week saw the announcement that Samsung would be slowly backing out not only of the German market for “digital cameras, camcorders and accessories”, but the UK as well. As of this writing, it seems that all products are still available, but this may narrow to a trickle and eventually cease. It’s certainly clear that Samsung will not be investing in advertising and promotions in this market any more.

Interestingly, this occurred only weeks after the latest Ditch the DSLR event stateside in Seattle, where interested parties could exchange their ageing Canon DSLRs (let’s be honest, that’s the bulk of them) for an entry level Samsung NX500 MILC (earlier events offered the perhaps more attractive, certainly higher priced NX30). I interpret that promotion as having the dual purpose of getting people talking about Samsung MILCs as well as creating a userbase for lens sales.

Ricoh has been following a similar fahrplan for the last 18 months or so, selling their K-50 and K-S1 camera models extremely affordably with a basic lens included, all at 200-300 USD – recently there was an offer at Samy’s for a K-S1 and lens at $179. A basic DSLR system is therefore now cheaper than most compacts. How is that possible?

Well, all camera companies are currently operating in a rapidly shrinking market – that much industry observers have known for years, and comes at no surprise to anyone. What’s interesting is that different makers have responded very differently to this change. Samsung is apparently deciding that in spite of being one of the electronics giants of the world, like Toshiba they don’t need to have a horse in this race, contrary to Sony and Panasonic. Sony and Panasonic meanwhile have sought to minimise R&D effort and instead keep old models afloat with firmware updates – lossless RAW in Sony’s case and the post-focus feature in Panasonic’s. An interesting model to watch for the future.

Ricoh, on the other hand, is putting the razorblade model into overdrive and capturing the last on-the-fence stragglers that felt they couldn’t afford a DSLR, thereby broadening its base for future lens sales. Because that userbase is now fresh, it will probably yield higher per capita follow-up sales than the more established user bases of Canon or Nikon (although those are considerably larger overall). It may have also put the hook in some people for Ricoh’s upcoming full frame camera, and may have lightened the load on current Pentax users so that they might be able to actually afford the full frame when it comes around. For those customers, this may almost feel like delayed bundling – get your replacement/second body now, pay your full frame later.

Ricoh has for the past few years consistently followed a pricing strategy that sees them entering new products at a price that’s almost unachievably high, to then gradually reduce the price over the next 12 to 18 monhs, to about half or less in the case of camera bodies, but more modestly for lenses. Samsung, on the other hand, has left its blockbuster NX1 camera at the same high price as when introduced over a year ago, at least in some localities – a price that some say is too high when one can get a full frame camera for the same money. On the other hand, the Samsung offers a slightly higher pixel count than those full frame cameras, allows for more compact and lighter lenses for the same effective magnification, is weather-sealed, shoots full resolution at 15fps (buffer of 1.3s RAW or 3.5s JPEG) and does 4k video. Nonetheless, offering rebates in price-conscious markets such as Germany could have driven more sales. On the other hand, the buying of extra lenses down the road are an unproven hypothesis in this unprecedentedly saturated market. Perhaps Samsung did not expect its customers to invest in macros, teles and superzooms – the 16-50/2-2.8 certainly offers a lot, but also sells for a premium.

Overall, one feels that Samsung is quitting just as they were starting to win. It’s sad to see them leave with such a well-specified product. On the other hand, that same test is still ahead for Ricoh when they make a late but much-anticipated entry to digital full frame in spring.

Ink efficiency – class action lawsuit or storm in a teacup?

16 Sep

Over the past week, a couple of articles and videos have gone around the web, essentially alleging that Epson printers waste between 10 and 25% of their ink, depending on the printer model. A few comments are in order.

Innards of an inkjet printer. The evil ink cartridges are at number 3.

Innards of an inkjet printer. The evil ink cartridges are at number 3.

In tests I’ve read, Epson printers have consistently won for print quality and longevity. Epson apparently sells quality pigment inks that resist fading for a hundred years or more, under normal exposure conditions.

In the same tests, cartridge efficiency is often considered. Nothing special is done in the test, the cartridge is used as normal and any wastage that would normally occur, also occurs in the tests. Epson does not, based on such tests, have a reputation for being much more expensive to print with than other companies – be they Canon, HP or Lexmark.

Essentially, when you buy an Epson photo printer (and I don’t mean the small ones, I mean A3+ or bigger), it’s because print quality is your prime consideration. You want to use the best pigment and are willing to put up with the occasional maintenance that these divas require. It’s a considerable investment, and you SHOULD be an informed customer. This is not the kind of item you pick up out of boredom while waiting at the supermarket check-out.

Natural ultramarine pigment. It makes things blue.

Natural ultramarine pigment. It was used by Renaissance painters to make things blue.

Now, there is nothing written in law or anywhere that gives you an entitlement to being able to use 100% of what’s in the cartridge. Most people would realise that there will be some residue. Alleging a conspiracy by Epson to not use the cartridge fully is just taking this way too far.

Yes, in a theoretical world where 100% of your cartridge could be used, your prints would get a little cheaper, so by all means let’s put some pressure on Epson and other companies to improve the ink efficiency, not least for general environmental reasons (although obviously the overall impact from photographic printing is negligible, given it’s such a niche activity), but let’s also hold back on calls for heads to roll, because that’s just silly.

One project at a time – Ricoh’s apparent strategy for 2015

3 Aug

Watching Ricoh’s take-over of Pentax for the past few years, and especially this past year, has made one thing obvious: the company is extremely good at focusing business activity where it’s needed. As I’ve written before, Ricoh has gone on the record as the company who helped Pentax complete much-needed products like the long prime lens, the 1.4x autofocusing teleconverter, and an entry-level DSLR with a fully articulated display.

The selfie-proof K-S2 with its fully articulating display. (Yes, weather-sealed!)

The selfie-proof K-S2 with its fully articulating display. (Yes, weather-sealed!)

Having – in the shape of the K-S2 and K-3 II – delivered two major new DSLRs in the first half of 2015, it seems the imaging division is now working 100% on getting the full frame camera and lenses delivered. Two kit lenses are expected to be launched alongside the camera and already announced 70-200/2.8 and 150-450mm tele zooms. The only other camera to have recently had any refresh in the Pentax/Ricoh line-up is the Ricoh GR, and it was a rather minor update.

An apparent ever-green: the Ricoh GR, now in its second iteration.

An apparent evergreen: the Ricoh GR, now in its second iteration.

What you should read between the lines is that the company has dropped almost the entire former Optio segment of compact cameras. The most recent entrant was the premium compact Pentax MX-1, which is still available new in a few places, but at 150% of its original launch price. Used copies have appreciated about 10% beyond the original launch price – a rare example of a non-antique photography investment that works out profitable without much user input.

Ricoh has also held on to the X (superzoom) and WG (weather-proof) lines, adding to the latter a true action-cam, the WG-M1. Everything else was clearly unprofitable and is gone.

Making a splash: Ricoh's action hero cam, the WG-M1.

Making a splash: Ricoh’s entrance into the action cam market, the WG-M1.

Out of the many camera companies still vying for a spot in the shrinking market, Ricoh is the one to have most clearly made a decision to only be associated with premium products. Pentax DSLR bodies for years have been known for being a great package for the money, and Ricoh is continuing to push for that sky. Ricoh has been wise to keep the Pentax 645D in the line-up, and to recently lower the price of that medium format camera to just under 4k, meaning it can now eat away at the Canon 5DS and 5DS R as well as similarly priced Nikon and Sony offerings.

The very professional Pentax 645D medium format camera

The very professional Pentax 645D medium format camera

The Pentax Q series hasn’t had, or needed, a substantial upgrade in years, and Ricoh is wise not to pursue one at this time, instead apparently pouring those resources into development of what at this point is almost certain to be one of the top five cameras of the year.

A camera universally described as "fun": the tiny Pentax Q10.

A camera universally described as “fun”: the tiny Pentax Q10.

There have been no new lens releases for any system other than the full frame camera in 2015 (although those same lenses will work on all APS-C DSLR bodies as well), and yet customers are happy because the lens line-up is finally very nearly complete again, with no obvious, serious gaps, and those same customers, whether actually looking to buy into full frame at this point or not, will be happy yet again when the full frame camera is finally released. In hindsight, some of Pentax’ previous mis-steps are obvious, and Ricoh’s mission was easy: Listen to customer feedback and provide the products customers are asking for. So far, sales of new products seem to be progressing well in spite of their cost (Pentax’ 150-450mm was launched at 2-2.5x the price of comparable entry level Sigma and Tamron products, but may be superior in image quality terms), and the overall impression is that attachment rate (a measure of whether a business can be run on the razorblade model) is high for Pentax.

The MX-1, a premium compact that now retails at 150% of its original list price.

The MX-1, a premium compact that now retails at 150% of its original list price.

The Ricoh take-over has also allowed the new division to abandon any notion of consistent product styling. In the new Ricoh line-up, each camera is targeted in its design to its specific purpose and clearly does not need to adhere to design guidelines. This has cemented Pentax’ reputation as an engineering-driven company, and allowed the Ricoh Theta, K-S2 and WG-M1 to happen, at the small cost of the occasional less successful camera such as the K-S1. It is this increase of variance in commercial success, the ability to produce – and Ricoh have used this exact word – some truly innovative new cameras that go on to become surprise hits, at the cost of a few duds, that will allow some camera companies to survive in today’s markets over those producing minor iterations of existing, only moderately successful models.

Not made in California: the Ricoh Theta.

Not made in California: the Ricoh Theta.

What Ricoh apparently brought to Pentax beyond a willingness to put money into customers’ wishlists is a new management focus and, I suspect, the ability to rejuvenate relationships with third party manufacturers who play an undeniable role in the growth of the Pentax ecosystems – none more so, historically, than the K-mount! It will be interesting to see if other camera manufacturers can be similarly successful in realigning their strategy to these rapidly changing conditions, and continue to supply an array of choices to the customer.

All images used are promotional images courtesy of Ricoh Imaging.