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Google open-sources extreme JPEG compression

18 Mar

I previously criticised JPEGmini, a commercial program that promised to reduce JPEG size by focusing on the way humans perceive colour. My repeated finding in using the program was that it was unable to provide better compression than GIMP’s JPEG export – and GIMP is free!

Now Google has fielded Guetzli, a new JPEG compression engine that Google describes as drawing on psychovisual research. So in that aspect, it doesn’t sound much different from JPEGmini. It is, however, open-sourced, and according to Google, promises 35% smaller files compared to the open source JPEG library libjpeg, which without much doubt must be the engine used by GIMP.

montage-cats-zoom-eye2

Original on the left, libjpeg, center, and Guetzli on the right. Google notes the paucity of blocky artefacts in the Guetzli output, but I would also note the loss in vibrance, a typical approach in noise reduction.

Guetzli, like other recent advances in imaging, is slow. So slow, in fact, that it sounds like its use case is currently limited to very frequently downloaded items like website banners, where spending a lot of time optimizing will considerably reduce traffic.

Alternatively, though, Google could put its weight behind FLIF, supporting it in Chrome/Chromium and thereby putting pressure on other browsers to also support it. FLIF promises to provide current-best lossless compression and is interlaceable – and open source.

Guetzli might give a smaller file than FLIF, but only with more lossy compression, and it sounds like it’s currently a lot slower (I have seen no figures comparing the two).

From photographers’ perspectives, Guetzli may have one further use case. Images with such highly optimised compression are unlikely to be very usable for further editing, so for showing off your work on the web while spoiling the fun for potential thieves, Guetzli or any higher-compression tool might be a good choice (but remember – Google can “guesstimate” the image back with RAISR).

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.

Hasselblad Masters to wait eight months for their prizes

16 Jan

Hasselblad has announced the winners of its Hasselblad Masters 2016 competition, but they’ll have to wait until photokina in September to receive their prizes – a new Hasselblad medium format camera each. Perhaps this means that Hasselblad will announce a new camera at the trade show, which might be worth the wait – after all, we were promised that the time of whimsical management decisions at Hasselblad (Lunar, Stellar, HV) were over.

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

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.

The myth of the “cheaper mirrorless camera”

21 Jul

Having heard this more than once now, I think it’s time to speak out.

DSLRs and mirrorless both have their entry level price point at around $300 – that gets you a Pentax K-X0 or an Olympus E-PMY, for some value of X and Y corresponding to the current generation of camera systems. Then you have a typical enthusiast/semi-pro camera around $1000 body-only, and finally you might have a full-frame pro camera that’s $2k-$2.5k.

Now, that just gets you a camera, not a system. You also need some lenses. Let’s assume you want autofocus. Then you can forget about adapting DSLR lenses on a mirrorless system. You have to buy native. Well, native lenses haven’t been around for long, so there won’t be a real bargain on eBay yet for your mirrorless system. Likely you’ll have to buy new and pay in the region of $400-800 per lens, maybe more, depending on your needs. Well, for a DSLR camera, you may be able to buy a good used copy, and pay three quarters or even half, if you’re lucky, of the current new price. However, when you factor in that some DSLR lenses have been on the market for a while, allowing for new prices to also slide, you have quite a compelling value proposition on the DSLR side.

If you want a budget system, don’t buy mirrorless, or be very sure that you know exactly what you’re doing!

Pentax: That thing with the pin

14 Aug

Sigma currently is discontinuing some of its lenses, and seems to be targeting K-mount as the first mount to do so. It was always clear that Sigma would update its long zoom range to its new Sports line, which, if nothing else, is distinguished by granting access to Sigma’s Mount Conversion Service, which gives users the option to keep the lenses they buy when they change to a different supported camera system. The idea is that you could buy a Canon lens and take it with you when you move to Pentax, Sony, Nikon, or Sigma, at a fee and a few weeks’ waiting time (during which, if you were a professional, you could rent a replacement lens from somewhere, or buy for the interim and sell the worse copy when your first one gets back from Sigma).

So far, Sigma has updated or released a number of lenses for its Art line, which is also eligible for the programme, but not much was heard for Sports or Contemporary, its remaining two categories (Sports is for long lenses, Art for high quality lenses from moderate wide to portrait focal lengths, and Contemporary is presumably for everything else).

So when it comes to Pentax mount, people see that the K-mount bodies are selling like hotcakes, at least in some regions, but feet still get chilly whenever there’s a possibility that fewer lenses will be available in the near future. As a result of discontinuations, people then overpurchase lenses that they think they might need in the future, such that remaining stock can disappear quickly. This apparently happened with the 70-200mm f/2.8, 100-300mm EX, and 120-400mm lenses. In addition, some people called their Sigma representatives and were told different things. One speculation apparently was that the 70-200 was discontinued because only two to three of them were sold, per month, for K-mount in the US. Another person was able to place a “back-order” for one, suggesting it isn’t really discontinued.

Sigma have, in a recent interview, stated that supporting Pentax is more difficult than other brands because Pentax still controls aperture through a mechanical lever. This increases research and development as well as machining costs. In spite of this, Sigma have in the past kept the same price point for lenses in various mounts. From Pentax/Ricoh’s point of view, this circumstance may be seen as a competitive advantage, since at least historically, camera makers have sought to sell their own lenses rather than allowing third party lenses to be bought. On the other hand, having a smaller lens collection available for purchase may cut off sales entirely if people take it as a reason to stop buying into bodies.

It’s also true to say that the contact point between the camera’s and the lens’ aperture mechanisms is an additional source of “shutter” noise when shooting at less than widest aperture. Lenses on any TTL system – Olympus, Sony, Canon or other – ultimately need to move their aperture blades into position. (Btw, that’s one reason why cameras with an optical or hybrid viewfinder, such as the Leica M series or Fujifilm X100, are better at street photography.) However, its clear that Pentax’ additional aperture lever is a source of significant noise.

Not knowing what else may happen at Photokina, and whether something special is happening at either Pentax or Sigma to create these perturbations in Sigma’s lens supply chain, I would still like to ask the question why Pentax doesn’t include an additional aperture-control electrical contact on its next generation of bodies to allow third party lenses to be more easily made or mount-converted, leading to a larger available lens selection that could benefit the wider adoption of a set of bodies that for many applications are still the best available.