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.

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Camera Guide, June 2009

I get a lot of questions all the time about which camera to buy, and most of the time I don’t quite have the time to respond to all of them, so I’ve decided I’d start a regular camera guide feature.  These aren’t in-depth rationales or anything, just quick summaries that tell you, unequivocally, which is the best of the best; I also write digital camera recommendations for a site called bestinclass.com – I might recommend visiting there if you’re looking for more in-depth analyses and comparisons.

Digital cameras don’t come out all that often, so this may be a quarterly guide.  This also may not reflect the very cutting edge – it takes a little while for reviews for the newest cameras to come in, and it’s impossible to really assess the cameras until they do.

All prices based on the lowest of amazon.com or bhphotovideo.com

Have you got a use case/need that isn’t covered here?  Feel free to post it in the comments, and I’ll keep it in mind for future guides.  And if you think differently about any of the cameras, feel free to share that too!

General advice:

To give you all an idea of the perspective these recommendations are written from, here’s a few guidelines I mostly go by:

Features trump image quality: With modern cameras, image quality differences are mostly a consideration of the past.  Almost every camera released today has megapixel resolution far in excess of what’s needed (or even usable) for most applications, and in most daylight scenarios there is practically zero difference between cameras, especially among the top tier of manufacturers.  The main differentiator in your photographic experience and capability, then, is what features you’ll have to work with – being able to take a wide shot with a 28mm wide-angle lens, or having a fast 4fps continuous shooting mode for action shots, for instance, is going to go a long way towards getting you the photographs you want compared to minute differences in image quality or resolution.

Price/performance: The recommendations for different categories will mostly recommend the camera with the best value proposition – a lot of these are often written in the format of: Best budget camera under $200, best midrange camera under $300, best premium camera under $500, etc. While oftentimes, yes it’s true that Camera Xa has a slightly bigger LCD screen than Camera Xb and is therefore better, and the $50 premium still puts it under the $300 budget, as a knowledgeable consumer you wouldn’t want to spend that much more on a mostly cosmetic difference, and as an informed friend you would do best by recommending Camera Xb to your friend.

Simple Ultracompact

For many people, cameras are just cameras, and all they need is something that, for lack of a less-hackneyed phrase, they can “point and shoot”.  They’re not interested in photography and don’t need nor want full manual controls, and rarely would use and can make do without a huge zoom range.  They’ll take snaps while they’re out at social events or just randomly at home or in their room, but that’s about it.  For this group there’s the simple ultracompact – a basic camera that has a few useful features (possibly wide-angle lenses for indoor group photos and image stabilization for low-light situations) but otherwise just provides good overall quality and a small formfactor that can be slipped just about anywhere.

Simple Ultracompact, midrange: Canon SD960

A plethora of Canon, Panasonic, and Fujifilm cameras rule the roost in the ultracompact category, all roaming around the $300 range.  For a little less than $300, Canon’s SD960 puts together the best combination of image quality and features, with a 28mm wide-angle, image stabilization, and even 1280×720 (720p) video capability.

  • 12MP resolution
  • 28-112mm (4x) zoom range
  • f/2.8-5.8 aperture
  • 1280×720, 30fps video (720p)
  • Image stabilization
  • 145g (5.1oz)
  • 99.1 x 53.3 x 22.9 mm (3.9 x 2.1 x 0.9 in)
  • 200 shots battery life (CIPA)
  • $281 on Amazon

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The Demosaic Project

So over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on a little project called Demosaic.  It’s a little online demo that interpolates image data from (simulated) raw sensor output, similar to what almost every digital camera used today has to do.


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Upcoming posts

Interested in getting a preview of what’s coming up on this blog?  I’ve created a new page to keep track of posts-in-progress.  If you’ve got anything you want covered, feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.


At last: Canon 5D Mark II gets manual video controls

Canon announces a new firmware update which provides full exposure controls while recording video – HUGE news for DSLR video makers.

Canon newsletter announcing a firmware update providing manual controls

Canon newsletter announcing a firmware update providing manual controls. Surprisingly unstiff coming from Canon's marketing =P

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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.
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Earth Day Done Right

I was browsing through photo galleries for the recent Earth Day event, during which people (and many cities and businesses) were urged to turn off their lights for one hour in a symbolic effort to cut back on energy usage.  Photo coverage of the event centered on many night cityscape photos which showed cities’ buildings with their lights off.

The problem was, the vast majority of photographers in the field that night approached the shots just as they would any typical nightscape – exposing for, and getting full detail out of, the primary subjects (mostly buildings in this case).  This means long exposures that end up taking in about as much light as one would take in the daytime, which is fantastic if you want to produce a pretty picture of say the Coliseum at night:


Notice, however, that this photo above gives absolutely no impression that the lights are actually off. At first glance, the building is so well-illuminated that if it weren’t for the dark night sky, you really wouldn’t be able to tell this from a daytime photo.

Photographers make similar mistakes with long-exposure night scenes all the time.  If you want to create a pretty picture, alright, make sure your exposure is correct. But if you actually want to portray a scene as dark and taken during nighttime, you need to expose below the ideal exposure to get the photo to actually look, well, dark.  In Earth Day’s case, the proper thing to do would have been to make sure your before and after photos are taken at the EXACT SAME EXPOSURE, metering be damned.

Fortunately some of the pj’s that day got it right, and the Boston Globe has compiled them nicely onto a page that includes click-transitions back and forth between the before and after pictures (though there are still a few bad examples included):


Good examples of what I’m talking about: Photo 2, Photo 8, Photo 10, Photo 11, Photos 14, 15, 16, 17

Bad examples of what you should NOT do (how quickly are you able to discern which is the “lights on” and which is the “lights off” image?): Photo 1Photo 3, Photo 6, Photo 12

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:

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PMA 2009 Goodies, Part 1 (DSLRs)

The Photo Marketing Association’s Annual show – PMA 2009 – recently came and passed.  For those of you who don’t know, PMA is like the E3 of photography, where companies making everything from cameras to printers bust out the goods and new releases.  It, along with the bi-yearly Photokina in the Fall, are when the majority of product announcements come out.

Depending on the market segment you were interested in, this year’s PMA could have offered a healthy bounty, or simply have been a dud.


If you were in the DSLR market, there was barely anything new emerging on the landscape.  Neither of the big two – Canon and Nikon – released any new DSLRs, with just two specialty tilt-shift lenses from Canon and a “normal” APS-C prime in the new 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX from Nikon making headlines.  Pentax, in what seems to be an ongoing niche market they’re targeting, came out with a 15mm f/4 pancake.  And Sony, surprisingly, produced nothing of note.

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S DX

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S

Nikon 35mm f/1.8 AF-S

For the Nikonians out there, the new prime is an encouraging sign that Nikon is finally getting with the program and pumping out AF-S lenses for its entire range.  For one, this gives a modern and fast-focusing midrange prime for APS-C crop users, which will finally provide an alternative and offer some competition to Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM which was previously the only lens in this market segment.  Canon still lacks a real solution for this range, forcing users into the bigger and much more expensive 35 f/1.4 L.

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