New Cameras – The Best of Photokina

Every two years, Cologne, Germany hosts the world’s greatest photography trade show. This is the year, and these are my notes on the most interesting of cameras that are small, lightweight, and extremely capable. Over time, I will write about some of these products in more detail. Most are announced but not available in stores.

One of the coolest new cameras: Sony’s Cybershot DSC-RX1. The sensor is “full frame”–that is, the size of a 35mm film negative (about an inch high). At just under $3,000, it’s beyond the budget barrier for most of us. But don’t lose hope: 2012’s state-0f-the-art may well be 2014’s under-$1,000 camera. We’re seeing more and more full frame sensors, and prices are coming down. So why is this camera worth so much money?  Lenses are not interchangeable: your investment buys a single 35mm lens (f/2) attached to a 24 megapixel camera. It’s a small camera with superior build quality, and, if it performs as promised, quite good in low light situations. For more, see Digital Photography Review’s preview.

For several years, Sony has been producing cameras in the NEX range: small APS-C sensors in thin, sleek bodies with outsized lenses. The NEX-6 is priced at $999, offers 16 megapixels, and offers some features unavailable in Sony’s higher priced NEX-7.

Two years ago, at Photokina 2010, Fujifilm introduced a state-of-the-art, retro-in-look-and-feel camera fixed lens camera called the X100. The lens was a wide angle, the color rendition was extraordinary, and it offered a built-in hybrid viewfinder (easy switching between optical and electronic viewfinder). A year or so later, Fujifilm built on the franchise with an interchangeable lens system for serious amateurs and professionals, the XPro1. Now comes the XE-1, similar to the XPro1 but smaller, lighter, and an electronic (but not optical) viewfinder. It’s a 16 megapixel camera that costs about $1,400.

The Fujifilm XF1 in brown. Also available in black or red.

Just about everyone will want the new, simple, high quality Fuji XF1 with its 4x zoom and 12 megapixels. Why? It’s small, fast, and looks great. Small: 4.2 inches wide, 1.2 inches thick, 8 ounces. Fast: largest aperture is f/1.8, so you can shoot in reasonably low light without a flash. Looks great: yes, it’s a bit of a fashion accessory (see the website), but it’s also a straightforward camera for a serious photographer. It’s a 12 megapixel model, and it costs about $500.

For those with greater ambition, some tolerance for a slightly heavier camera, and more available cash, Fujifilm’s X-E1 is an interchangeable lens camera with a lower price than Fujifilm’s much-coveted X-Pro1. This is, arguably, mirror-less digital photography at its 2012 peak. The X-Pro1 includes an optical/digital hybrid viewfinder; the XE-1 offers only the electronic version.

The new Leica M-E digital camera.

Leica’s new M-E provides a Leica-universe starter camera priced at 3,900 Euros (about $5,000). It’s a full frame 16 megapixel camera. Even more pricey is Leica’s new full frame digital M camera with 24 MP and an available external viewfinder. For more about Leica’s new M camera, and their current digital camera philosophy, read this interview with Leica product manager Jesko von Oeynhausen.

Over at Canon, I found two new, intriguing models. The EOS-M is sleek and small MORE. The latest in an impressive line of self-contained (no interchangeable lenses) models is the G15, now with a faster F1.8-2.8 les. It’s less bulky than the current G12, but dispenses with the handy pull out / pull up / pull down “articulated” rear screen.

Nikon has added orange colored cameras to its Nikon 1 line.

Panasonic’s GH3 was recently announced.

At Panasonic, the GH3 is the big news–a full-featured DSLR style camera, and although its mirror-less design suggests smaller size, it’s about the size of an entry-level DSLR. The GH3 is a more versatile multimedia performer than most cameras in its class. It shoots in several video formats, MP4, MOV, AVCHD or AVCHD Progressive. WiFi connectivity allows the camera to be operated from a computer. No specific pricing yet, but the camera will probably cost between $1,500 and $2,000.

The OM-D was released by Olympus earlier this year.

Olympus is again getting things right. For serious photographers, there’s the new-ish OM-D and for smart amateurs. This smallish camera offers an ideal combination of reasonable price, very good color rendition, a built-in viewfinder, lessons learned from several excellent PEN model cameras, and the promise of a new line of professional cameras that can be carried anywhere without worry about weight or size. What’s more, the video quality is quite good, and the camera handles beautifully. This is camera that you ought to consider against just about any of the others in this article. And if the OM-D is more camera than you need, Olympus offers several good options in the PEN line with interchangeable lenses and a nice range of accessories. New at Photokina 2012, and soon to be in stores, there’s a revised version of two lower priced PEN models (which use the same lenses as the more sophisticated OM-D): PEN Mini (E-PM2) and PEN Lite (E-PL5).

Samsung has been making serious inroads. The NX210 replaces the NX200, offering both style and ergonomic improvements and 20 megapixel resolution, and some useful new features, including wifi connectivity for image transfers to your computer. Samsung is a relatively new name in the photo industry, so it’s easy to overlook the huge advances these guys have made in a systems approach to photography–there are lots of lenses and accessories available for the growing NX line, fashionable cameras in white, very good ergonomics, interesting features, lots more.

The new Hasselblad Lunar.

Hasselblad ‘s new Lunar is a luxury camera that resembles one of Sony’s NEX models, and, in fact, uses the same A-mount lenses that you’d use on the NEX cameras. This is a very high-tech 24 megapixel camera with a very fast processor and a blingy exterior (there are a variety of handgrips made from exotic woods, etc.). It costs 5,000 euros (about $6,500)–a price that may be difficult to justify in the era of cameras that remain state-of-the-art for just a year or two. For more about Hasselblad’s approach, see this article in the British Journal of Photography.

Well, that’s quick overview. If you’re looking for a more extensive roundup, you can visit the largest booths (stands, in Europe), virtually, by exploring the Digital Photography Review section on Photokina 2012.

After many productive (35mm film) years with a Canon A-1, I decided, just before the digital deluge, to invest a really good film camera. The year was 2000. I kept the Leica catalog, and found my written notes inside the back cover. I was considering the Leica M6–one of the finest 35mm cameras every made. The cost of the body was about $2,000. Each of the three lenses cost $1,000-2,000. Total package price: about $7,000. (I ended up spending a lot less money for a wonderful used Hasselblad 501CM with two lenses). At the time, I had the feeling that my investment would stand the test of time. A decade later, film photography is retro fun, but digital rules the day. Now, I wonder whether a $2,ooo camera will stand the test of time. And I’m less secure now than I was in 2000. And I still spend far too much time thinking about cameras, and far too little time actually taking pictures.

See also:

A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (2 of 4)

I took this picture with an Olympus PEN camera because it was small enough to tote on a day in NYC. I left my bigger camera at home. Somehow, I always do.

For most photographers trained in the 20th century, the universal standard was 35mm film. The size of the negative: about 35mm wide, and about 24mm high, or, about 1 inch by 1.4 inches. Serious professional photographers preferred larger negatives, and the 120 film format remained (and remains) popular: here, the negative is 2 1/4 inches square, or wider, several times larger than the 35mm film popular with consumers. Larger negatives offer superior image quality, but they also require larger and more costly cameras and lenses.

Digital Image Sensors

So film is old-school, Kodak is gasping for survival, and everyone’s shooting snapshots with their iPhones using a 5 megapixel sensor that’s the size of a your smallest fingernail. And, for most purposes, including posting pictures on Facebook and printing snapshots, the image quality is adequate–as long as you’re shooting in place that has enough light, and not too much contrast.

What’s a sensor? It’s a flat surface filled with a great many small light-sensitive receptors. There are two popular designs: CMOS and CCD. The difference between them is complicated, and explained here.

ISO and Sensitivity

In the film days, 400 ISO (or, if you’re older, ASA) film was four times as sensitive as 100 ISO film. In other words, using 400 ISO film instead of 100 ISO film offered benefits similar to using a lens with a large maximum aperture, perhaps an f/1.4 lens in place of an f3.6 lens.

The comparison is not a perfect one, though. Increased sensitivity often comes with increased grain, reduced detail, and lesser color quality / color clarity. Cameras that cost more than a few hundred dollars are fine up to about 800 ISO, but then, the image degrades. Newer sensors do a far better job in the 800, 1600 and even 3200 ISO range than older models. This is the push: buy a camera with better “low light sensitivity”–that is, with improved image rendition in the higher ISO ranges–and your 2012-vintage 16 MP camera will produce better images than my 2010-vintage 12 MP camera with its ancient two-year-old sensor design.

Megapixels and Sensor Size

Although camera marketers have latched onto megapixels as a way to justify different camera prices (a 10 MP camera costs more than a 5 MP camera), the number of megapixels on the image sensor should not guide you, at least not from the start.

Instead, focus on the size of the sensor. A “full-frame” sensor is the size of 35mm film–and requires a large, professional-quality body and accompanying lenses. For example the new Canon EOS 5D Mark III is a $3,500 camera that weighs about two pounds and occupies about 90 cubic inches, without a lens.

By comparison, an Olympus E-P3 uses a micro four thirds sensor that’s about 40% of the size, but it costs less than $1,000, weighs 11 ounces, and occupies less than 20 cubic inches, also without a lens.

In the real world of my life, I will not carry five pounds of camera, lenses and accessories with me everywhere, but I will carry a pound. If the image quality is acceptable.

Nikon, Sony, Fuji, and the Rest

In fact, several different sensor designs are becoming popular.

You’ve probably seen commercials and print ads for the Nikon 1 system, for example. It’s based upon a CX sensor format that’s about a quarter of the full 35mm frame. Image quality is good–and with the small sensor, Nikon has been able to manufacture small bodies (as small as reasonable ergonomics allow), and small lenses.

Sony’s small system is called the NEX, and they’ve already been through several generations their APC-S sensor system. The sensor size is somewhat larger than the micro four thirds standard, but somehow, this has resulted in an awkward combination of slightly larger lenses and slightly smaller bodies. The standard zoom, priced at $299, weighs about 7 ounces, but it’s about 2 1/2 inches wide and tall. This is a reasonable size for the lens, but the body is about 25% too small to balance the whole contraption. Fact is, APC-S requires a slightly larger body–16 cubic inches isn’t enough. Samsung, with its NX200, offers a seemingly more bulky body for an APS-C sensor, but, alas, there is no APC-S collective for that format, so Sony lenses are not compatible with Samsung lenses.

Fuji’s upcoming X-Pro 1 also uses a proprietary APS-C sensor for a wonderful new interchangeable lens system, but again, the larger sensor is associated with serious weight – the camera weighs a pound, occupies nearly 30 cubic inches without a lens, and operates (at a very high level) with (for now) just three proprietary lenses.

Panasonic and Olympus

Neither Panasonic nor Olympus are among the very largest camera makers, but they have benefitted from working together. By year end, there will be about 18 lenses in their micro four thirds format, each of them fully operable with significant advances in their micro four thirds sensor technology.

In fact, Olympus got off to a very good start with its earliest PEN cameras. Early on, the company’s engineers and management understood the importance of rendering accurate flesh tones, as well as a neutral, pleasing color palette. (Fujifilm and Nikon have also excelled in this quest.) By combining this special feature with the small size made possible by the micro four thirds format, PEN cameras quickly became a popular choice for serious photographers.

At this moment in 2012, Panasonic offers an extraordinary little micro four thirds camera, the GX1 ($699) that weighs just 11 ounces, occupies less than 20 cubic inches, and offers very impressive image quality with a 16 MB sensor. It’s filled with nifty features that will be addressed in the next article). This camera’s small size and wide array of available lenses and accessories makes it very appealing.

And yet, many photographers seem to prefer the slightly older Olympus E-P3, the current top-of-the-line PEN camera. It costs more ($899), and offers only a 12MB sensor, but the images are consistently excellent. This is not due to the number of megapixels, but instead, it is due to the right combination of engineering, aesthetic decisions during the design process (incorporating both lens and sensor design), and a corporate culture (a culture that has apparently remained intact despite gargantuan financial issues at the Board level).

This moment in 2012 (I am writing on the day after St. Patrick’s Day) is about to change.  Olympus is reading its small 16 MP camera, the E-M5, and a new Panasonic GF-5 is also on its way.

The Whole Package

Of course, it’s not just the sensor and it’s not just the lenses that make a camera or camera system. It’s the overall design philosophy, most often captured in the design of the camera body. That’s what’s coming up next.

Part 1: Lens

Part 3: Body

Part 4: Video

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