Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.

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A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (3 of 4)

Good solid camera body, good grip, pancake-style wide angle lens, easy to handle, easy to control. I like the Olympus PEN E-P3 camera.

In the two past articles, we looked at digital camera systems by focusing on the lenses and the image sensors. Now, it all comes together with an article about digital camera bodies. As you know from the previous two articles, I am especially interested in a camera system that offers high quality images but does so with a small, lightweight package that I can carry with me everywhere I go.

What the Body Should Do

Despite too many features and never enough buttons or controls, every digital camera body serves essentially the same functions. Backing away from the land of the complicated, here’s what I expect from a digital camera body:

It must be easy to handle, and hold steady, while composing and taking a picture. It is exceedingly difficult to do this with just two points of contact. You need a triangle for stability. Or, you need a tripod (or monopod). At the very least, the body must include a sturdy hand grip.

The various knobs, buttons and switches must be large enough to manipulate, and well-placed so they can be operated without looking at the labels.

The most common operations should require no more than one touch.

It must offer automatic exposure and automatic focus, each with a manual option.

Ideally, the body should be stabilized by technology as well as my own hands.

What Most Bodies Don’t Do

In the land of micro four thirds, APS-C and similar cameras, and on most point-and-shoot cameras, there is no built-in viewfinder. This is a problem for several reasons.

First, the viewfinder completes the triangle that allows steady hand-held work.

Second, the viewfinder blocks out light and distraction so you can concentrate on composition and exposure.

Third, if the viewfinder is an accessory, it’s likely to be small, expensive, and easy to lose. Expensive: about $250 for a high-tech item that’s much smaller than a golf ball.

Here's a look at the back of the E-P3. The left finger is pointing at a focal point. In one mode, this finger touch can trigger the shutter.

Features

Camera manufacturers love to market their cameras by emphasizing features. After using an E-P3 for several months, my initial thought has been confirmed time and again. Most of what the camera does, I don’t need. And, as it happens, what a micro four thirds camera does is somewhat less than what a DSLR does. Most of it is clutter, or, at least, image work that would be more effectively done not in the field, but with a portable or desktop computer whose screen allows a far more critical approach to changes in color temperature, or conversion to monochrome.

How I’ve Learned to Shoot

I shoot RAW. That’s important. Shooting RAW images allows me to capture as much picture information as possible, and then, in the quiet of my home office, I edit the images, knowing that the original remains intact. RAW images require more storage space on SD cards than JPEGs require–so buy yourself an additional card (they are becoming inexpensive) or two. I should mention that RAW shooting requires special software, such as Apple’s Aperture or Adobe Bridge (comes with Photoshop).

I use manual and automatic exposure, and I use manual and automatic focus. When I have the time, and the shooting situation allows, I will mess with f/stops and shutter speeds. Not every shooting situation allows, so I rely upon automatic.

On the Olympus E-P3, I leave White Balance in automatic mode, and I do the same with Image Stabilization. Two fewer things to think about.

I keep the Art Filters off (I can apply special effects later), and stick with either Natural or Vivid images.

I shoot in 4:3 format, and may decide to crop later on.

I keep the flash in the off position. I’m glad it’s built into the E-P3 (it’s not always part of micro four thirds cameras), but I don’t use it except in special situations because I use faster (larger aperture) lenses.

The OLED screen on the E-P3 is a touch screen with just a few features that make use of this technology. One that I use often combines the selection of the image’s focal point with a shutter release. I just point at the spot where I want the image to be focused, and the EP-3 takes the picture. Cool!

Buttons, Menu Screens, and Interfaces

A handsome, modern body for Panasonic's very capable GX1 micro four thirds camera.

At first, every new interface seems confusing. Use the camera every day for a few weeks, and everything becomes easier. I like the way that Panasonic’s GX-1 displays f/stops and shutter speeds. I like the layout of the Olympus E-P3’s physical buttons are laid out (but I wish each one contained a tiny LED so I could find it in the dark). I find the grid guides very useful on the Olympus as well–and I never turn them off.

Every camera includes some outstanding button and menu features, and some that don’t matter a whole lot in the real world. When you’re in the store, you may be much affected by the confusing menu. Get past it. Instead, concentrate on whether the camera feels good in your hands, whether the technology is sufficient for your needs, and on the quality of the lenses that can be used with the body you have in mind.

Advanced Technology

In this era of high-tech everything, it’s easy enough to overlook the obvious. Olympus, Panasonic and the others have packed an enormously sophisticated computer into a box half the size of a roast beef sandwich. The result is a camera system with tremendous flexibility and very impressive image quality.

Although I’ve questioned the accessory viewfinder concept, the implementation is very impressive, moreso on the VF-2 with its 1.4 million dots (very high resolution, very bright screen), less so with the more utilitarian, and less costly, VF-3 (just under a million dots, and you’d be surprised by the difference). The VF-2 costs $249, and the VF-3 costs $179. These fit onto any of the recent Olympus PEN cameras (see below).

Face detection amazes me. Scene Select  makes it easy to, for example, shoot fireworks without messing around with optimum settings. Very convenient.

Small stuff matters, too. An infrared beam allows accurate focusing under dim lighting conditions.

It’s easy to shoot multiple exposures and to remain in focus while doing so.

These cameras shoot movies (not uncommon in 2012, but still amazing to me, and detailed more fully in the next article).

Here's a relative size comparison between a full-sized professional DSLR, a consumer DSLR, a micro four thirds camera with interchangeable lenses (but no mirror, so it's not an SLR, and so, it's a mirror less camera), and one of the best small compact cameras.

Body Styles

In fact, there are about a hundred mirrorless cameras and camera bodies for sale at B&H.

At $7,000 or more, Leica makes four full-frame mirrorless cameras; their lenses are exquisite, and, sadly, so are their prices.

Fuji’s X-Pro 1 is a 16MP APS-C camera, coming in April, that costs $1,699 for the body. It’s a terrific camera, but somewhat heavy (some would say, professional in heft) in this smaller class. Sony’s NEX-7 is a 24 MP champ, but I find the lenses too large for the small body; buy the body with a kit lens for $1,349, or the 16 MP model, with fewer features, for half that price.

The Nikon 1 camera comes in two models: the J1 with a 10-30mm lens (in 35mm lingo, that’s a 27-72mm lens) for $600 or the V1, which adds a built-in viewfinder, for $900. The Nikon 1 comes in colors, including red and pink (two years from now, will anybody be glad they bought a red camera body with a red lens?)

The micro four thirds cameras also come in colors (sigh). The starter model is Olympus’s $499 E-PM1, complete with kit lens, or Panasonic’s $399 GF3, body only. When I compare these two cameras on the very useful Snapsort website, the winner is the Olympus because it includes in-camera image stabilization, and other features associated with costlier models. When hold these two cameras in my hand, I find the controls on the Olympus a bit tiny and the lack of a grip  off-putting, but in truth, the camera is small enough for use without one.

The mid-price models ($699) are Panasonic’s G3 for including the kit lens and thankfully, a built-in viewfinder (though not as good as the better add-on versions), which competes with the Olympus E-PL3. Both offer tilt LED screens so you can use the camera by holding it over your head or at the level of a child or pet’s eyes.

Serious photographers will likely spend a bit more money for either the Panasonic GX-1 ($799 with kit lens) or my current favorite, the Olympus E-P3 ($899 with kit lens). For me, it’s a close call, because both cameras are solidly built (more solidly, it seems, that their lower-priced kin), and because the cameras are intelligently designed, with every feature, and every button, in a reasonable, logical place. The Olympus feels better in my hands, but you may prefer the Panasonic for the same reason. I like the Olympus images a lot–the color is true, the sharpness and depth are present in every shot, and, well, the camera just makes sense to me.

Quick Changes

This market changes every year, and sometimes, more than once a year. A new Panasonic model GF5 is likely by summer. Olympus’s new E-M5, with a 16 MP sensor, image quality that competes successfully with the larger APC-S technology, and a built-in viewfinder is just around the corner. BH Photo is already selling it with delivery likely in late April, for $999 for the body alone, or $1,299 for the body with a new 12-50mm kit lens. And everybody is wondering whether Canon will enter the category with a powerful, small, interchangeable lens kit of its own.

And…

Oh, one more thing. Video. Now standard in many digital cameras, the video capabilities of mirrorless cameras are worth a look. The video article will be final one in this series.

Part 1: Lens

Part 2:  Sensor

Part 4: Video

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (1 of 4)

It's not about cameras, it's about making pictures. And you can't make a picture if the camera is too heavy or too cumbersome to bring along with you. On a recent visit to NYC's MOMA, I took pictures of objects and paintings that I wanted to know better. With PEN in shoulder bag, I took pictures in one of the world's great museums--something I would never have done with a heavier camera because that camera would have remained at home.

For most of photography’s history, there have been two types of cameras: snapshot cameras and serious creative tools. The digital revolution has obscured the boundary line with an immense number of features and over 500 different digital camera models, but three fundamentals remain.

First, you need a good lens to take a good picture.

Second, you need a camera whose construction won’t let you down.

Third, you need the best possible surface to record the image.

For me, there’s a fourth. I need a camera that isn’t too large or too heavy for me to carry almost everywhere I go.

And for you, there may be a fifth. How good are the camera’s video capabilities?

In this article, and several to follow, I’ll look at each of the fundamentals and, hopefully, encourage you to buy the best possible camera for your unique personal needs. Much of the information in these articles will focus on a system designed by Olympus cameras, but I will cover other systems, too.

Buying a Lens

Whether a lens is bought as part of the camera (common on point-and-shoot cameras), or removable (as on DSLR cameras), your first decision is whether that lens ought to be a zoom lens.

Certainly, a zoom lens is convenient and versatile. Often, a zoom lens is inexpensive. And, more often, you simply have no choice because the camera and the lens are permanently attached to one another.

Let’s use the Olympus PEN system as our example. Each of the PEN bodies is offered with an inexpensive “kit” lens as part of a discounted package: in this case, a 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens. The PEN system is based upon small cameras and small lenses–an advantage we’ll discuss later on–in the land of 35mm cameras, this lens would be a 28-84mm lens, covering wide angle, normal and telephoto focal lengths. That’s useful, and typical of kit lenses. So, too, is the aperture: a lens with a 3.5-5.6 maximum aperture is not designed to shoot in dim or low light situations. This is a typical disadvantage for kit zoom lenses–and it’s a show-stopper for me. Here’s why:

Given the choice of a lens with a wide opening–designed to shoot in low light–or an accessory flash that adds bulk, requires batteries, and smoothly illuminates only a limited area–I’ll choose the lens every time.

And, I’ll make it a prime lens, not a zoom. Why?

Three reasons. First, I must think about the image, my position, the framing, the composition, and the appropriate tool to create the image. Second, the maximum aperture is likely to be larger. Third, the image quality is likely to be better: sharper, clearer, with better color rendition and far less distortion.

So let’s have a look at some Olympus PEN lenses. There are eleven in the current product line, with several more coming this spring, and there is full compatibility with a dozen more in the Panasonic catalog, all related to a new-ish photographic standard called Micro Four Thirds that will be explained later in these posts.

Remember: the kit lens is 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 lens, and if you bought it outside of the kit, it would cost $299. Instead, I would buy one wide angle and one telephoto lens.

The subject was 164 meters away from me. The image was shot with a short telephoto lens (see below), the Olympus 45mm (a 90mm equivalent).

Although the image is not absolutely perfect, I was impressed by the detail on the horse blanket, the horse's muscles, the water falling off the hoof, and the overall clarity of the color. Remember: this was shot from quite a distance. This is a crop from the above photo. Yes, there's a bit of fringe distortion around the yellow, but remember you're looking at an enlargement of over 500%--the equivalent of a 4x6 inch print blown up to 20x 30 inches. Not perfect, but impressive.

Short Telephoto

The Olympus 45mm lens for micro four thirds is only about 2 inches wide and high.

Instead, I would spend a little more for OIympus’s 45mm 1.8 lens, a 90mm equivalent designed for portraits (a shorter lens distorts facial features), and to pull in landscapes that are a bit far off. It costs $399.

I’ve read a lot of test reports about this lens (you should, too, before you buy any lens). This one is typical.

 The Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm f/1.8 is a lens that makes sense because it’s small, useful, and excellent. The important center resolution is already on a very good level straight from wide open aperture and only the corners are somewhat softer here. The quality is very high across the image field when stopping down to f/4. Vignetting, lateral chromatic aberrations as well as distortions are all well controlled and not relevant in field conditions.

Short Wide Angle

I’ve been using OIympus 17mm f/2.8 wide angle lens quite successfully, and, generally, I find it to be excellent. In doing my research, I’ve found web reviews with grades in the B or B- range. Panasonic’s 20mm f/1.7 may be a better choice but it costs a bit more and it’s closer to a normal lens (50mm lens in 35mm camera lingo) than a wide angle. The Olympus 17mm lens costs $299, and the Panasonic 20mm lens costs $399. Both are “pancake” lenses–less than an inch thick. In fact, the Olympus 45mm lens is less than 2 inches thick.

Shorter, and Longer

Here's an E-P3 with a longer zoom lens--it maxes out at 150mm, or, in 35mm lingo, 300mm (long enough for wildlife, not long enough for baseball).

For most people–that is, most people who are serious about photography–these two lenses will serve just about any purpose. You can go wider with Olympus’s 12mm 2.0 lens, but it costs $799. You cannot go deeper with a prime lens; instead, you’ll need either Olympus’s remarkable 75-300 f/4.8-6.7 for $899, and if you do, you’ll be thankful for the PEN system’s built-in image stabilization feature, again discussed later on. Take a moment here: that’s a lens that, in 35mm terms, gets up to 600mm, remarkable reach for a lens that weighs less than a pound and is less than 5 inches long. Here are some sample images.

Speed and Weight

At the risk of repeating myself, I consider speed and weight to be critical factors for my lenses.

Speed matters–that is, the largest available aperture matters–because I can shoot in a wider range of lighting situations with a faster lens. I much prefer a 1.8 lens to a 3.5 lens because a 1.8 lens allows me to shoot with HALF as much available light (3.5 divided by 1.8 is, roughly, 2).

Weight matters, and so does size. I’m not a professional photographer, but I do like to carry a camera with me. Olympus’s 45mm lens weighs 116 grams, or about 4 ounces, and their 17mm weighs 71 grams, or about 2.5 ounces. For less than 7 ounces, I’m carrying a relatively complete photographic kit, one that offers high quality images, solid and reliable design, and almost no strain on my shoulder or neck. In theory and in practice, this turns out to be a very good idea.

Other Options

As we’ll explore in the next post, the Olympus-Panasonic effort in micro four thirds technology is paralleled in a Sony system called NEX, a Nikon system called Nikon 1, Fuji with its X system, and several others. Each is based upon a particular image sensor design, and that begins our next chapter, which covers not body design (as you might expect) but instead, the 21st century equivalent of photographic film. Stay tuned.

 

Part 2:  Sensor

Part 3: Body

Part 4: Video

Secrets of Memory – Exposed!

I just received a piece of plastic, about the size of a postage stamp, containing as much memory as a MacBook Air: 64GB. And that made me wonder: is the 64GB on the Monster Digital SD XC USH-1 Class 10 Vault Series card (got all that?) the same as the  64GB of flash memory inside the Air?

Well, no, it’s not. Not according to Mike Ridling and Mark Morrissey, the President and Head of Storage Technology at Monster Digital.

We started at the beginning: spinning disks. Over the decades, the disks became smaller, and when Apple used the technology in the iPod, 1 in 3 units failed. So, Apple went shopping for a better solution.

At the time, flash drives had been around for about five years, and they were popular, but limited in terms of storage capacity. Camera manufacturers were experimenting with ways to store large number of images in a non-volatile format (that is, when the power goes off, the stored material remains). Then, Apple adopted flash memory for their portable devices–and the market shifted from spinning disks to non-volatile, highly portable, small-sized memory.

What’s inside that SD card? A tiny controller that routes data into and out of the card, and organizes the data on the card’s silicon chip so that it’s accessible and so that the card lasts as long as possible (but not forever).

About six years ago, the Secure Digital Association (SD = Secure Data) standardized the metrics for both memory capacity (64GB) and access speed (Class 10). In fact, the access speed matters–but the information is not always easy to find in your device’s instructions. If you own a big DSLR, buy Class 10 cards. Ditto for any camcorder that costs more than, say, $600-700. A Class 6 card is sufficient for a lesser camcorder or a more modest digital still camera. If you’re using the card in a smart phone or a low resolution camera (say, 2-3 megapixels), then a Class 2 is all you need. Of course, Class 10 cards cost more than Class 2 cards.

If you require higher transfer rates, you’ll want a UHS-1 compatible card, but note that not all of these cards are compatible with all devices. (Monster emphasized that their card works with a lot of different devices.)

Right now, the largest available SD cards are 128GB, but we’ll see 256GB in a year or so. Somehow, through the miracle of engineering, the cards are able to store more data but they don’t become larger (more data is stored within the available space). This means we can expect compatibility for a longer period of years.

Now what about the 64GB SD card in the 64GB MacBook Air? Can I simply double my storage capacity with the purchase of a $200 memory card? Well, sort of. The SATA3 solid state drive in the MacBook Air transfers data at 6GB per second. How does the SD card compare? Well, it’s slower. A lot slower: 80MB per second. This is why the SD card is better suited to, say, storing documents and transferring documents on the Air than, say, running Photoshop. In fact, the 64GB and it’s big sister, the 128GB are ideal for storing either almost 25,000 photographs, nearly 11 hours of HD video, over 1,000 hours of digital music. It’s ideal for use in an HD video camera, for example.

I did ask about whether technology was changing quickly enough to affect my thinking about the next generation Air (coming in May, we think). The answer came as something of a surprise: a new external drive for the Air (and other devices) that would plug into the new Thunderbolt port. Offering a transfer rate of about 10GB per second (1/6 of the internal drive, but a heck of a lot faster than the SD card), this is probably the next step in portable memory for portable computers.

And what about iPad storage? Yeah, it’s kinda messy. Apple really didn’t design iPads for external storage, so the solutions are workarounds. That probably won’t change in the future.

So, I’ve learned to use terms such as “transfer rate” and “Class 10” with some knowledge that I lacked yesterday. And, I’ve gotta say, I have a soft spot for Monster. So, thanks to the two executives who helped me to navigate this technology.

You Bought the Camera. Now Buy the Book.

You spend $300, maybe $400, on a feature-rich digital camera. You start by shooting in automatic mode, then experiment with aperture or shutter priority, white balance, low light shooting and maybe a few special effects.

You want to understand image manipulation, image processing, image retouching, but these are not easy to learn, and they are difficult to master.

There’s a large gap between (a) what today’s cameras and software can do, and (b) our understanding of these features and how to use them.

After a Goldilocks routine (too artsy, too techy, etc), I found a wonderful guide in The Complete Digital Photo Manual. Just the right balance for me–written in plain language with lots of helpful diagrams and photographs.

The book begins with an illustrated section about compact cameras–higher end models like Canon’s G10, cameras built for extreme conditions, super zooms–followed by a walk through various types of DSLR cameras and the most common features. There’s an important sidebar about image sensors. Then, it’s on to a similar section about lenses.

Next, the book explains how to set up the camera, explaining each of the features commonly offered on digital camera menus. The are good, clear explanations about metering patterns and histograms, white balance and image sharpness.

And then, about 1/3 of the way through the book, comes the best stuff. Every significant Photoshop tool and menu item is simply explained, often with step-by-step diagrams and abundant examples and illustrations. Two-page spreads include Hue/Saturation, clone Stamp and Healing Brush, Layer Masks, Channels, Hand Coloring, and more.

Then, there’s another group of spreads offering specific direction to, for example, Replace a Boring Sky, Blur Waves with a Long Exposure, lots more.

The last of the truly helpful sections explains how to make good use of RAW images, a feature viable on most serious cameras.

The Complete Digital Photo Manual was produced in association with England’s Digital Photo Magazine.

The book costs less than $25 at Barnes & Noble (and other fine retailers). Think about it: you spent how much on the digital camera? Why wouldn’t you make this investment?

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