Archive for the ‘Market Analysis’ Category

An explanation of Fujifilm’s Super CCD EXR sensor

A look at Fujifilm’s innovative EXR sensor, the latest iteration of its flagship Super CCD sensor, along with some analysis of images from production cameras. Admittedly this would have been more interesting as a speculative piece a year ago, but better late than never

tl;dr: Fujifilm’s EXR sensor is extraordinary, mostly for its dynamic range. If you’re after the best non-DSLR image quality around, your choices start at the Fuji F200EXR, F70EXR, S200EXR, and end there.

Fujifilm has long been a leader in revolutionary sensor technology, particularly at the smaller scale sensor market where the majority of manufacturers have long been content pumping out traditional, vanilla CCD sensors with square grid-based Bayer Filter Arrays.

In September of 2008, announced plans for their latest sensor: the Super CCD EXR, which combines the unique color filter array (CFA) and pixel binning features of various previous sensors into a single “switchable” sensor that can be optimized in one of several areas (which are typically mutually exclusive when designing a sensor): high resolution, high dynamic range, and low noise.

High resolution

High resolution mode is the default mode, which utilizes the full set of photosites on the sensor and produces an image with a corresponding pixel on each photosite – nothing too special here, though Fuji claims the diagonal layout of photosites (as opposed to simple square grid) helps to improve resolution.

High sensitivity

A comparison of a typical Bayer CFA (left) and the CFA on Fujifilm's new EXR sensor (right)

The second mode of operation for the EXR sensor is a high-sensitivity mode which Fuji calls “Pixel Fusion Technology”, which is fancy marketspeak for pixel-binning (combining reading from adjacent pixels together to produce a better signal). With the EXR’s pair-based CFA layout, Fujifilm claims that interpolation (and thus color resolution) will be more accurate because the binned pixels are closer together (e.g. the pair blue pixels are pretty much in the same location, while they’re separated by two pixel lengths in a standard square-grid Bayer array. I don’t know that I buy this argument particularly well – it’s true that same-color pixel values will be more accurate since they’re closer, but you can’t get something for nothing: for example, the average distance from red-to-blue is going to be increased, which lowers accuracy for interpolating blue values at red pixels.


Canon 7D and 1D Mark IV: new 1D and 1D junior

TL;DR version: A long diatribe on how the latest Canon releases completely underwhelm in the face of competition, especially from Nikon.  The 7D is a decent upgrade that’s completely overrated simply due to marketing. The 1D Mark IV sounds nice and has the capability the 1D Mark III probably should’ve had – unfortunately its functionality has been completely eclipsed by Nikon’s D3(s) and even D700, which unlike the 1D’s 1.3x crop sensor, are able to pull double-duty as both heavy duty sports bodies and general purpose cameras.

Canon's 7D, which is essentially a 60D with fancy marketing and a higher price tag

Canon's 7D, which is essentially a 60D with fancy marketing and a higher price tag

It’s interesting to see how much an effect marketing has on the general photography consumer. Over the past few months, Canon has released a couple of moderate upgrades, one of which has been hailed as revolutionary and game-changing, and the other which was met with a big collective yawn and cries that Canon has fallen behind the cutting edge and is playing catch-up with Nikon. The biggest difference? One camera was given an incremental version number, and the other was given a new model number as the start of a different series. (more…)

Panasonic does Micro Four-Thirds right with the GF1

In what many see as the next big evolutionary step for digital cameras, Panasonic and Olympus made a bold move with their introduction of the Micro Four-Thirds system, an electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens (so-called “EVIL”) system that eschewed the mirror assembly found in traditional SLR cameras and offering image preview via a live view feed only.

Aside from the numerous advantages associated purely with live view (and could technically be realized with a traditional DSLR – it’s just that forcing live view only is likely to spur much more rapid development), the one key advantage to Micro Four Thirds (and upcoming systems like it, such as Samsung’s NX system) is that the removal of the mirror assembly allows lenses to sit much closer to the image plane, making for much smaller camera bodies and lenses.

The first few of these cameras – the Panasonic G and GH1 – failed completely to live up to the small form factor potential – they were shaped much like traditional SLRs, albeit slightly smaller.

Panasonic GH1

The Panasonic GH1 - one of the first Micro Four Thirds cameras which didn't quite realize the potential of the formfactor

Next, Olympus released a Micro Four Thirds of its own: the E-P1 “Pen” which harked back to Olympus’ historical line of compact film cameras. Unlike the G1, the E-P1 actually began to approach what some would call “compact” – it was just 1.4in thick, though that’s not taking into account the attached lens.

Now Panasonic is jumping in on the bandwagon with their E-P1-esque GF1, which sports a slim compact-like body. The specs are nothing to get excited about, though it does have the a built-in flash that was notably missing from the E-P1. In a puzzling decision though, Panasonic decided not to implement any sensor-based image stabilization, relying on lens-based IS to counter camera shake. Unless they were denied a sensor IS license by Olympus (a possibility), I’d say this is a rather bone-headed decision, since any stabilized lenses will add weight unnecessarily (or in the case of pancake lenses that are pretty much made for this kind of camera, impossible to add in), defeating the entire purpose of Micro Four-Thirds.

The two kit lenses offered with the GF1 are a bit more appealing than the E-P1 package: a standard 14-45mm OIS kit lens and a 20mm f/1.7 pancake prime. The prime still isn’t quite there to portrait range and gets even further away from all-around wide angle utility than Oly’s 17mm f/2.8 pancake, but it does offer a much larger f/1.7 aperture.

A comparison of the new landscape in premium compacts:

Panasonic GF1 size comparison

Camera Size Focal range (equiv) Aperture (equiv)
Canon G10 4.3x3.1x1.8in 28-140mm f/13-21
Fujifilm F200EXR 3.8x2.3x0.9in 28-140mm f/14-22
Panasonic LX3 4.3x2.3x1.5in 24-60mm f/9.4-13
Sigma DP1 4.5x2.3x2.3in 28mm f/6.7
Sigma DP2 4.5x2.3x2.3in 42mm f/4.7
Olympus E-P1 w/ 17mm f/2.8 4.7x2.8x2.3in 34mm f/5.6
Olympus E-P1 w/ 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 4.7x2.8x3.1in 28-84mm f/7-11
Panasonic GF1 w/ 20mm f/1.7 4.7x2.8x2.4in 40mm f/3.4
Panasonic GF1 w/ 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 OS 4.7x2.8x3.8in 28-90mm f/7-11

As expected, the added IS to the Panasonic kit lens makes it much larger (22.6% longer) than the E-P1 setup. Panasonic’s pancake, however, is about the same size as Oly’s 17mm and with its f/1.7 aperture is by far the best in terms of large aperture performance (35mm equivalent of f/3.4)

If you’re in the market for this kind of camera though, the most sensible thing seems to be taking the E-P1 to get yourself sensor-based IS, and combining that with Panny’s 17mm pancake prime. Though you will be losing out on the built-in flash, which is somewhat of a must-have for a camera like this (since again, needing to carry around a huge external flash defeats the size advantage).

Pentax K-x

Pentax K-x (space white)

Following up on their K-7, Pentax has now come up with an entry-level K-x. While it doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking that wasn’t already seen on the K-7, it packs in many of the features seen on many competitors’ midrange model, and perhaps pending reviews on image quality and disregarding the overall Pentax system upgrade options, is probably the best choice out there currently for the beginning photographer/student.

The big headline features:

  • 12.4MP CMOS (different from the K-7 14.6MP sensor, but interestingly also uses CMOS unlike all previous Pentaxes which used CCDs)
  • ISO up to 12.8k
  • Live-view with face-detect AF
  • 720p, 24fps video
  • 4.7fps continuous shooting
  • $650 MSRP with 18-55 kit lens (and likely to drop further once it gets off pre-order)
With the specs listed, this is a camera you’d expect in the high-hundreds, competing with the likes of Canon’s Rebel T1i or Nikon’s D5000/D90, yet it’s got a price closer to that of the entry-level Rebel XS or D3000.

A comparison:

Pentax K-x comparison

Camera Canon Rebel XS Nikon D3000 Pentax K-x Nikon D5000 Canon Rebel T1i
Sensor, crop 10MP, 1.6x 10MP, 1.5x 12MP, 1.5x 12MP, 1.5x 15MP, 1.6x
ISO range 100-1600 100-3200 100-12800 200-6400 100-12800
Live-view? Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Live view AF Yes None Yes, face-detect Yes, face-detect Yes, face-detect
Video None None 1280x720, 24fps 1280x720, 24fps 1920x1080, 20fps
AF 7pt, 1 cross-type 11pt, no cross 11pt, 9 cross-type 11pt, 1 cross-type 9pt, 1 cross-type
Continuous FPS 3fps jpg, 1.5fps raw 3fps 4.7fps 4fps 3.4fps
Image stabilization lens-based lens-based sensor-based lens-based lens-based
Size 127 x 97 x 61mm 127 x 97 x 64mm 122 x 91 x 69mm 127 x 104 x 79mm 130 x 97 x 61mm
Weight 450g 485g 516g 560g 480g
Price (with kit lens, Amazon) $499.95 $529.95 $649.95 $719.63 $781.89

In a comparison with the $500 entry-level cameras, the K-x blows them away in nearly aspect, and goes toe-to-toe or even exceeds the D5000 and Rebel T1i in every single category, despite being significantly cheaper (especially once the street price drops lower from MSRP)

Interestingly enough, the Pentax K-x will come in a variety of colors, including an ultra-spiffy red (below), the space white shown above, and your ordinary black.

Interestingly enough, Pentax Japan features a site where you can come up with your own custom color scheme, and apparently order it as well, which personally is an insanely appealing prospect.

Pentax K-x (red)

Pentax K-x custom design - design your own!

Pentax K-x custom design - design your own!

I think this is a ranking of custom designs that users have created

I think this is a ranking of custom designs that users have created

Pentax K-x press release

Past three months in camera news: Nikon

Apologies to all for dropping the ball for the past three months – it’s been a whirlwind start to the semester here. Big, recent developments:

Nikon SLR Refresh

Nikon introduced a couple of new SLR updates, the updated D300s and D3s. The D300 is a pretty incremental upgrade to the mid-level D300, offering a modest +1fps improvement in continuous shooting (up to 7fps), and bringing the video capability that’s now standard on every new DSLR.

The bigger story came a few months later, in the form of the D3s. While still not a revolutionary introduction, it is much more than a software refresh. Among the features of note were a video mode (at 24fps!, albeit only at 1280×720 (720p) resolution), 11fps available in a higher-res crop mode (it now crops only 1.2x instead of 1.5x), and an increase in ISO range, up to ISO12.8k natively with a boost to ISO100k. The D3s presumably packs a different sensor, though it still maintains the same 12.1MP resolution.

People have been going goo-gah over the last spec in particular, especially given such a high linear number for ISO (and from here, it’s just four more stops til we get to ISO1.6 MILLION), though it’s really just +1 stop natively and +2 stop boost over the previous D3. And it’s important to note that the simple availability of an ISO capability says nothing about image quality at that level – that would be the same mistake as having the maximum shutter speed expanded from 30 seconds to a minute, and somehow thinking this magically makes photos at 1/500s less blurry. Given that the resolution (and thus pixel pitch) remained the exact same, I certainly wouldn’t expect quality to be any worse than the D3, and quite probably will be a tad better (although I have extreme doubts about the ISO100k mode, which is digitally boosted 3 stops; things have always looked terrible at just +2 stops digitally, even boosting ISO100+2 to 400.)

All in all, about as much as you could expect from Nikon, who seems to do very incremental updates and waits a long time to deliver big, revolutionary refreshes. Here’s hoping we see that D3s sensor in a D700s soon, though 1080p at 24fps would be nice (and completely feasible: 1920x1080x24fps = 49.8MP/s throughput, while we definitely know that the D700 supports 12.1MPx9fps = 108.9MP/s throughput in its continuous shooting mode).

Nikon D3s press release (I don’t know why they keep referring to it as “D3S”, past history and even the logo in the image clearly denote “D3s”)

The Nikon DS3, now with 720p video and ISO up to 12.8K/100K(boost)

The Nikon DS3, now with 720p video and ISO up to 12.8K/100K(boost)

Nikon also announced a couple of lens refreshes, with Version II’s of their popular 18-200mm VR ultrazoom and a long-awaited update to the 70-200 f/2.8 VR to optimize it for full-frame (FX) sensors. As Nikon had long trumpeted 1.5x crop DX sensors before their introduction of the full-frame D3 in 2007, they cut corners with their introduction of the 70-200 f/2.8 VR in 2003, building a lens that was technically full-frame but had an abysmal drop-off in performance once you actually got to the corners outside of a 1.5x imaging circle. This wasn’t found out until a bit after the D3 was released, finally giving digital photographers a platform to test the lens’ full frame performance, which resulted in tests like these:

The new 70-200 II promises to fix all of these problems with a new optical design and coatings, and promises to throw in a more effective “4-stop” VR system as well. There haven’t been too many authoritative tests yet to show how it performs (if you’ve found any, send me a link!), but presumably they should have no problem building such a lens – Canon has had two 70-200 2.8’s that’ve performed flawlessly on full-frame, and Nikon itself had a great 80-200 2.8 lens prior to the 70-200 VR I.

The one stickler? As if Nikon’s $2019 price on the original 70-200 I wasn’t enough, the 70-200 VR II will now set you back a cool $2400.

Nikon 18-200 II and 70-200 2.8 VR II press release

A real TZ-killer: Fujifilm’s F70EXR

Possibly the biggest announcement in the compact sector since the Panasonic TZ1 – Fujifilm finally puts together not just a compact ultrazoom but an ultracompact ultrazoom (0.9 in thin), and manages to fit in a half-inch SuperCCD sensor to boot.  If ever a camera came along with the potential to dethrone Panasonic’s vaunted TZ/ZS-series, this is it.

Have got a big night tonight – will update later, but for now you can munch on the details of the press release and Imaging Resource’s short overview/analysis.

Olympus E-P1 – a size comparison

In a release that they’ve hyped for weeks now, Olympus finally pulled the covers off their first Micro Four-Thirds format camera, the E-P1.

Good product photography - sure looks dainty doesn't it?

Good product photography - sure looks dainty doesn't it?

For those of you not already in the know, Micro Four-Thirds is a new interchangeable lens system developed by Olympus and Panasonic which is the first mirror-less digital camera system to feature interchangeable lenses.  The removal of the mirror (and associated prism and optical viewfinder) and the exclusive usage of live view for image preview enables a drastic size reduction for both cameras and lenses, and as you can see here, the new Olympus E-P1 is tiny tiny tiny.

How tiny?  The exact specs on the E-P1 are 121 x 70 x 35mm (4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 in) and 335 g (11.8 oz) – body only, with no batteries – which firmly plants it in compact camera category.  Of course, you’ll need to attach a lens at some point before shooting, which will add some bulk, but as of now the E-P1 indisputably offers the most compact interchangeable lens solution.

The following is a run-down of things you might have already picked up from other news sources or blogs. The real interesting stuff is the size and equivalent aperture/focal length comparison, at Size Comparison.


Pentax’s K7 surprise

Haven’t been keeping this blog updated lately – now that I’m into summer hopefully I’ll have the time for more frequent updates.  What follows is a flurry of tidbits on recent happenings.

This one caught me by surprise for sure – Pentax just last week announced their new midrange K7, which is their first significant DSLR announcement in over a year.  Just as I started assuming Pentax had all but become a bit player in the increasingly crowded DSLR market (with Sony developing the KM/Alpha system into the #3 brand, and relative newcomers Panasonic and Samsung taking the initiative to forge ahead on the cutting edge digital frontier), they come out with a new flagship midrange camera that, on paper at least, rivals and even beats the Canon and Nikon midranges in quite a few areas.

Pentax K7

Pentax K7

Some of the highlights of the K7:

  • A new, 14.6MP CMOS sensor “rebuilt from the ground up”.  At the outset, this would seem to be a slightly revised version of the same 14.6MP sensor used on the previous K20D.  We’ll have to see how much improvement “rebuilding” the sensor has (my guess: not much), but this is encouraging news – Pentax sensors (the K20D’s 14MP sensor especially) have always produced excellent quality with regards to high ISO, if a tad conservative on the default in-camera noise reduction setting.  The K20D also seemed to buck the recent Pentax trend of poor JPEG rendering of RAW images (in other cameras, the in-camera JPEGs were significantly inferior to JPEGs rendered using an off-camera converter like Adobe Camera Raw) – maybe it was simply a different rendering approach to their higher-end midrange cameras, or perhaps Pentax just knows how to deal with raw data from the Samsung-developed K20D sensor better than the Sony chips used in all their other cameras.
  • (more…)

Casio’s rapid-capture compacts flexing the extent of digital’s muscles

Casio's compact FS10 records 6MP at 30fps, with a maximum reduced-resolution speed of 1000fps 

Casio’s compact FS10 records 6MP at 30fps, with a maximum reduced-resolution speed of 1000fps

Press release

I’ve never paid much attention to Casio in the past, admittedly.  While Panasonic was the microwave maker that defied conventions, Casio pretty much made the kind of digital cameras (generic, 3x zoom ultracompacts) that you would expect a watch maker to make.

Casio seems to have poured some serious R&D into high capture rate sensors (and image processors), which first saw the light of day in the groundbreaking EX-F1 ultrazoom, which could capture full-resolution 6MP images at 60fps, and very reduced resolution video at a whopping 1200fps.

Casio now manages to cram that same sensor and processing technology into two itty bitty ultracompacts: the 0.9in FC100 with 37-185mm (5x) lens and the 0.6in (!) FS10 with 38-114mm 3x lens.  Both cameras can take 6MP frames at 30fps.  What’s more, the camera is in effect constantly recording still images at this framerate – at the moment you press the shutter, you not only start taking frames, but 25 frames in the preceding moments are also saved as well, allowing you to in essence go backwards in time to grab a frame that you couldn’t react to in time.  As with the EX-F1, both compacts can also record up to 1000fps in a heavily reduced resolution movie mode, with an electronic shutter providing effective shutter speeds of 1/40,000s.

As surprising as this is coming from Casio, which seemed like a company that didn’t care much for innovation in its early attempts at digital cameras, it’s refreshing and downright exciting to see a manufacturer embrace all the potential of digital electronics for photography purposes.  At the framerates that Casio’s cameras are working at, the entire concept of “timing” could be thrown out the window – simply record continuously while the camera’s on, and look back later to pick out the frame and perfect timing.  Electronic shutters also provide the potential for unimaginably quick exposure times that could never be possible with mechanical shutters, enabling stroboscopic-like freezing of action, without having to actually rely on strobes.

The big obstacle here (aside from memory buffer size and storage space, which should catch up in due time as it seems pixel count is starting to plateau) is coming up with an easy interface to facilitate the still frame selection process from a huge, continuous stream of recorded images.

For now, especially given the limited sensor size, and resolution limits, Casio’s cameras mostly remain mostly confined to technical experimentation rather than real professional use.  But it’s not hard at all to imagine such a system, built into a high-quality, interchangeable lens system, to have a huge impact on photojournalism and sports photography.

Of course, this kind of technology and SLRs are mutually exclusive, since the sensor relies on a constant light feed that an SLR’s mirror diverts to the optical viewfinder.  If Casio were smart, it’d grab its unique sensor technology to blow the professional PJ and sports fields wide-open.  Perhaps Samsung’s NX system, and the recent declaration that the system will be open for licensing to third-party body manufacturers, provides just such an opportunity.

PMA 2009 Goodies, Part 2 (Non-DSLRs)

In part 2 we’ll take a look at the huge realm of cameras outside DSLRs.  A boatload of compacts and ultrazooms and budget cams get announced every half-year, so I won’t highlight every single one, but we’ll take a look at some of the interesting products and general trends.

Bajillion-x Megazoom

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

Olympus' 26x zoom SP-590UZ

An interesting thing about the “Megapixel Wars” is that the public’s fascination with megapixels as a selling point have somewhat waned.  I don’t have particular evidence of this – perhaps it’s just media emphasizing it less, or perhaps even that I’ve become so jaded with the numbers that I’ve mentally blocked it out. And in any case, I’m certain that any such effect that’s been noticed has purely been with the semi-educated consumer – there are still millions of consumers who have no idea how to evaluate cameras aside from megapixel count.

But as the emphasis on megapixels seems to recede, another emphasis over ever-skyrocketing optical zoom ranges mounts.  Back in the old days, ultrazooms hit 10x (something like 38-380mm or 36-360mm equivalent), and inched up to 12x and pretty much stopped there.  About two years ago, Olympus changed the dynamic of this race completely with its groundbreaking SP-550 UZ which packed a whopping 18x (28-504mm) zoom.  Olympus had about a 6-month monopoly on this range, but ever since then, manufacturers have been pushing their lenses to ever stratospheric heights.

A lot of people have decried this extreme push in lens design, which certainly has its drawbacks.  The SP-550’s 18x lens was universally panned for delivering terrible image quality, and no camera since then has really been able to deliver that kind of zoom range in a lens that is up to par with the previous generations’ more conservative 10x or 12x lenses.  Unlike pixel count, however, which past a certain point doesn’t given any usable advantages for most users and applications, a larger zoom range will always add more versatility.

So PMA saw the introduction of no less than 5 such ultrazooms (4 new releases and one North American re-release) having 20x+ zoom ranges.  A quick summary of them: