Digital Photography — It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

Fuji XE-1 bodies and the Fuji XF lens range — four fast primes and one fast zoom
Fuji XE-1 bodies and the Fuji XF lens range — four fast primes and one fast zoom. With everything except full frame DSLRs, we’re lucky to see one fast prime announced in a year and no fast zooms at all. Fuji’s XF lens system has no slow lenses in it at all.

It seems to me that the photography world is being turned upside down  — again — right now. The latest rumors have Nikon sending display hardware for the D600 to Best Buy. If you’ve never been to a Best Buy, you don’t find full frame DSLRs there — indeed, the highest end DSLR you’ll typically find at Best Buy will usually be a Nikon D7000 or a Canon 60D or (if you’re lucky) 7D.

Compared to a year ago, the idiots who claim to weigh up everything really carefully and then simply buy the camera with the most megapixels are now buying Nikon D800s (instead of Canon 5D Mk IIs) while the people who want a serious DSLR that handles well and has “good enough” resolution and IQ are buying Canon 5D Mk IIIs (instead of Nikon D700s). Similarly, Nikon has the only 24MP DSLR on the market (unless you count Sony SLTs, but in any event Nikon’s 24MP camera is its entry-level while Sony’s are its top-end models — go figure).

The funny thing is, I think the D600 is perhaps the least interesting thing happening right now. (Assuming it’s happening.)

In the mirrorless world, Olympus went from being the company that defined the category and then couldn’t build a body with a decent sensor to the leader of the pack — with the estimable (and — in person — astonishingly small) OM-D M5 whose sensor looks to be at least on par with the D7000 (which may not be the best APS-C sensor around but is damn close). The only fly in Olympus’s ointment is that Fuji has just announced a price-competitive smaller sibling to the X-Pro1 that seems to be better than the OM-D M5 in every respect but video (and if you really care about video you’re waiting for the Panasonic GH-3).

So, my low noise compact table has morphed. I’ve replaced Leica’s M-system (which Fuji has reduced to something with no plausible use case) with Fuji’s XF system. Not only did Fuji announce an incredibly compelling new body (along with a firmware fix that makes the X-Pro1 seem a lot more attractive) but they announced two news lenses, a fast ultra-wide prime and a one-stop-faster-than-typical kit zoom (18-55mm f2.8-4). If you look at Fuji’s lens roadmap you’ll see that it also plans wide and telephoto zooms, again faster-than-typical. At. Freaking. Last.

Aside from being APS-C, Fuji has basically delivered what I asked for in this old rant. Sorry Nikon, Canon, Sony — you’ve been asleep at the wheel.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Fujifilm X-E1 (camerasize.com)
Olympus OM-D E-M5 vs. Fujifilm X-E1 (camerasize.com). Note that the X-E1 is shallower (front-to-back) than the Olympus and has a substantially larger sensor. Also note that the E-M5 is pretty damn small — an iPhone 4 is 115x59mm.

The Panasonic column is kind of empty right now because its obvious exemplar hasn’t been announced. I’ve replaced the GX-1 with the G4, but the G4’s apparently somewhat superior sensor hasn’t been graded by dxomark. (Note that the GH-2’s sensor is by far the best rated M43 sensor dxomark has published results for, and the OM-D M5 looks significantly better based on what I’ve seen.)

Despite all the turmoil, some things remain unchanged.

There are still no great lens options for the NEX family unless you like buying Zeiss glass (and focusing manually). To my mind, this makes NEX appealing to gadget nuts (not a small demographic!) but leaves the enthusiast market to M43 and Fuji.

There’s still not a single compelling lens or body option for the Nikon 1 family, even though Sony has shown us that it can get people excited by sticking a faux fast zoom on a sensor with the same size and double the pixels. Imagine if there were an f1.8 lens for the Nikon 1 at launch? Or if one were announced at Photokina? Sigh. How about a Nikon V1 but with more control dials and a proper hot shoe? The more I’ve thought about it and compared pocketable cameras, the more it seems to me that Nikon’s choice of sensor size was visionary, it’s just that its execution has — thus far — been deeply flawed.

Based on the lenses it’s adding to its range, Samsung gets it too. I think Samsung’s biggest obstacles are (a) that it gained an early reputation for crappy sensors, and photographers have long memories and (b) all the good lens brands are taken (Panasonic has Leica, Sony has Zeiss, and Fuji, Nikon, Canon, and Olympus (Zuiko) are credible in their own right), and photographers love their lens brands. Samsung might consider cutting a deal with Voigtlander (or perhaps buying Pentax from Ricoh).

Blackmagic Cinema with Micro Four-Thirds Lens Mount
Blackmagic Cinema with Micro Four-Thirds Lens Mount.

Something else worth thinking about is the importance of video as a feature. I suspect the still camera makers who are trying to chase the videographer market are shortly to discover that specialists will eat their lunch. In the end, workflow is an even bigger issue for video than still photography, and a dedicated video camera offers ridiculous advantages over high-end still cameras with a ton of crap bolted onto them — the Black Magic Cinema, for example, simply records video directly onto an SSD (housed internally). I’m not sure a the GH3 (when it’s finally announced) is going to look too compelling next to one of these (especially if, per typical, it’s hard-to-find and overpriced).

System Fuji XF Samsung NX Sony E Panasonic M43 Olympus M43 Nikon 1
Exemplar XE-1 NX-200 NEX-7 GH-3 OM-D M5 V1
Sensor APS-C APS-C APS-C 4/3” 4/3” CX
Crop Factor 1.5 1.5 1.5 2.0 2.0 2.7
Sensor Size (mm2) 368 368 368 225 225 116
Price w/lens $1399 $800 $1500 ? $1300 $849
Sensels (MP) 16.0 20.3 24.0 16.0 16.0 10.0
Sensel Size (µm2) 23.0 18.13 15.33 14.06 18.75 11.60
Sensor Tech CCD CMOS CMOS Live MOS CMOS CMOS
DxOMark Overall 73? (X100) Guesstimate 65-70 (looks over one stop better than NX-100)  81 Guesstimate 70-80 71  54
DxOMark Color Depth (bpp) 22.9 (X100) ? 24.1 ? 22.8 21.3
DxOMark Dynamic Range (DR) 12.4 (X100) ? 13.4 ? 12.3 11
DxOMark Sensitivity (ISO) 1001 (X100) ? 1016 ? 826 346
Fast Primes 14mm f2.8, 18mm f2, 35mm f1.4, 60mm f2.4 macro (3 more planned by 2013) Rokinon 14mm f2.8, 16mm f2.4, 20mm f2.8, 30mm f2, 60mm f2.8, 85mm f1.4 16mm f2.8 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 10mm f2.8, F-mount adapter
Pocketable with Lens? with 18mm yes, with 35mm kind of 16mm f2.4, 20mm f2.8, 30mm f2 pancakes Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom
1080 30P or 60i Video 1080p24 Yes Yes + 60P Yes + 60P Yes Yes
720 60P Video No Yes Yes? Yes Yes Yes
Manual Video Control Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Video Framing OK Good Good OK Good
Focus Speed Good Good Good Good Good-Great
Viewfinder 2.4M “dot” EVF Not released? 2.4M “dot” EVF 1.7M “dot” EVF 1.4M “dot” EVF 1.4M “dot” EVF
Live View Yes 614k dots OLED 920k dots 614k dots 614k OLED 460k dots
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure 6fps 3fps 10fps 6fps 10fps 10fps
Burst Focus “pray and spray” 7fps 10fps ? 60fps (for 1s) 60fps (for 0.5s)
Standard Hotshoe Yes Yes No No Yes No
GPS Accessory
Flash Build-in Built-in Accessory (included) Built-in Built-in Accessory
Best Feature It’s like a Leica (or the X-Pro1), only better, smaller, and cheaper IQ, Sweep Panoramas Does everything, no real weaknesses. In-body image stabilization, weather sealing Phase Detect autofocus on sensor
Worst Feature Weak video spec Lens and sensor quality Lens Selection Looks Poor focus tracking Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Key Differentiator Looks, metal construction, hard controls Novel UI that you love or hate Pro video shooting Hard Controls on a Retro Body Video capabilities

Notes: I’ve made a number of edits, fixing typos and making other minor corrections, and updating entries in the table, notably the Samsung NX lens options. (Later edit: I’ve entered the scores for the OM-D EM-5, which I have to say were a tad disappointing, and entered the X100’s scores for the XF system since it’s likely the exact same sensor.)

Updates

Canon has announced the 6D, its own $2000 full frame body. Unfortunately, while they got the memo on WiFi and GPS (yay) they seem to have lost the plot when it came to viewfinder coverage (97%), autofocus system (11 focus points, one cross-type), and continuous shooting speed (4.5fps). It’s also vaporware. While the “one-liner” is that it’s a full-frame 60D (the way the D600 is a “full-frame D7000”) it lacks the 60D’s flip-out rear LCD. I wonder if this is a product Canon started rushing to market when the D600 rumors began coming thick and fast. Canon also announced the G15 — the latest in the G-series ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor premium compacts with a fast-throughout-the-zoom-range lens. (That said, the Nikon P7700 holds its own in comparison — its lens gets a bit slower at the telephoto end, but its telephoto end is 200mm vs. 140mm equivalent.)

Olympus has announced two new micro-four-thirds bodies at entry-level prices but with the OM-D E-M5’s apparently top-notch imaging core. Olympus also announced the XZ-2 — a successor to its well-regarded XZ-1 ever-so-slightly-larger-sensor compact.

Sony Cybershot RX-1 next to Leica X-2 (top view)
Sony Cybershot RX-1 next to Leica X-2 (top view)

Sony has managed to confuse everyone by announcing a full frame NEX video camera (but no still-oriented sibling), a $2800 (body only) full-frame pellicle SLT-A99, the NEX-6 (16MP and two dials vs. 24MP and three dials for the NEX-7), and $2800 full-frame compact with a fixed 35mm f2 Zeiss lens. This latter seems to me like a vanity project, and I don’t think Sony has the brand caché to pull it off — after all the Leica X2 is $2000 and has more brand caché, while the Fujifilm X-series cameras are probably better and cheaper in objective terms. Meanwhile, Sony continues to release bodies like crazy, while having a pretty spotty selection of lenses (although frankly the full-frame lens options for the SLT-A99 look pretty good to the lens options for the NEX cameras). To its credit, Sony has finally released a folding kit zoom for the NEX bodies meaning you can actually have a pocketable camera vs. a tiny body with a huge lens.

Pentax has announced a new K-5ii (minor revision of the K-5) and Q10 (minor revision of the Q).

Out of all this, the interesting points for me is that Olympus is seriously raising the bar for Low Noise Compact system image quality (and bear in mind that all its bodies have sensor-based image stabilization), Canon is continuing to cede the mid-to-high-end DSLR market to Nikon, and Sony continues to produce great pieces of engineering without really having a clue what it’s doing.

Oh, and Panasonic announced the GH-3 — weather-sealed for $1300. The price, at least, is right. I’ve updated the big LNC table to reflect what’s now known about the GH-3 (weird resolutions for both its EVF and rear panel).

Leica Update

Leica has announced a successor to the M9, called simply the M. (Their cameras are timeless!) It boasts a 24MP sensor which is speculated to be the same Sony sensor being used in the Nikon D600 (which has a DxOMark score of 94). So Leicas remain the top of the heap for “low noise compacts” if you’re willing to pay and focus manually.

Low Noise Compact (EVIL) Cameras Compared

Mockup of an "fat iPhone 4" with 4/3 lens mount

I’ve seen a whole bunch of coined abbreviations for this category, including:

EVIL (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens)

ILEV (EVIL for the god-fearing)

SLD (single lens digital) — as opposed to digital cameras with multiple lenses?

CSC (compact system camera)

ILC (interchangeable lens compact)

MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) — Thom Hogan has a new website devoted to these cameras — sansmirror.com

There’s a poll here.

Semantics

Part of the problem is lack of precision.

Rangefinder cameras (including the innovative X100) actually have mirrors. Sorry. So do the not-quite-so-compact SLT (“T” for translucent) pellicle cameras from Sony. And if someone produced a small sensor DSLR with interchangeable lenses would we start searching for a new acronym? (Minolta and Pentax both sold 110-based SLRs.)

Similarly, if someone started selling $1000 Leica M clones do you think they would be considered part of the category? (Why hasn’t someone done this? Fuji? Hello?) I think that mirrorlessness is both inaccurate and beside the point. (Sorry Thom.)

Interchangeable lens is debatably part of the equation. There’s the Ricoh GXR system which is fairly compact and has interchangeable lens + sensor modules. I think this is a ridiculous concept since the viewfinder/storage component is the piece that will become obsolete the fastest (RAM gets cheaper, CPUs get faster, displays get better in every way, etc.) with the sensor close behind while the lens is the least likely to become obsolete. I think it’s safe to say that the GXR represents a conceptual dead-end (my first serious camera was a Ricoh rangefinder so I have a soft spot for Ricoh, but this is just silly).

In any event, the term “interchangeable lens” does not differentiate these cameras from DSLRs which don’t mention “interchangeable lenses” as a differentiator. Presumably a fixed-lens DSLR (which is a perfectly plausible idea — why not make a small, cheap, light D2000 with a fixed 18-135mm lens?) would still be a DSLR.

It’s also easy to imagine mirrors figuring in future designs which, say, fold optical paths to reduce camera thickness. It’s clear to me that compactness is a key part of the equation. There may be interchangeable lens cameras out there that aren’t compact, but they’re a different category. So I think we can all agree that some letter connoting compact deserves a place.

The word “system” is worse than useless. It excludes the Leica X1 and Fuji X100 (APS-C sensor cameras with super fixed lenses) both of which are far more deserving of a place in the pantheon than, say, the Pentax Q. And it would include the Canon S cameras and (worse) the Panasonic TZ cameras which are part of a system that includes waterproof housings and the like. Including the S95 et al isn’t horrible, and in fact maybe it’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think the word system is useful.

Digital is accurate but redundant. Digital as opposed to? I think we can ditch D from SLR for that matter. It’s not like we call compacts or point-and-shoots “digital compacts” or whatever.

And finally there’s MILC (apparently leading in the polls). First it has the word “mirrorless” and then “interchangeable lens” and finally the redundant “camera” (so we’ll have “MILC cameras”). That’s four letters for three concepts two of which are debatable and the other redundant.

So, drum roll, here’s my suggestion:

Low Noise Compact

Why not Large Sensor Compact? It’s not a bad option for now, but the point is low noise not large sensors. The Pentax Q gets superior image quality to enthusiast cameras with larger sensors by using backside illumination. (My iPhone 4 gets great IQ relative to my old Panasonic TZ for the same reason.) If someone comes up with a miraculous technology that allows incredibly small sensors (e.g. using sensor arrays) while retaining the image quality associated with larger sensors, why exclude them or change terminology again? Given that the Nikon 1’s sensor is half the size of the Olympus Micro Four-Thirds cameras but produces better image quality we would be wise to not make assumptions about sensor size.

The point is good, clean images and compact size. Everything else (indeed digital-ness) is beside the point. High Image Quality Compact is a bigger mouthful and sounds more subjective. Besides, using the word “quality” sounds like advertising bullshit rather than a real product category. Enthusiast Compact is simpler but again seems subjective (the Lytro would qualify, as would cameras with entertainingly bad image quality).

As a bonus, LNC works as an adjective and a noun (because compact does). So we can say LNC or LNC Camera without making fools of ourselves. “The lesser of two EVILs is funny”, but doesn’t actually parse.

LNCs Compared

Anyway, because no-one else seems to have done this properly (believe me I’ve looked) here is a head-to-head comparison along all the axes that I think are important of what I consider to be the viable LNC contenders. I’ve tried to get the specs as accurate and objective as I possibly can. Please let me know if you (@podperson) find any inaccuracy or you think I’m missing a key axis of comparison.

One thing you may find controversial is that I’ve only represented each camera system with one “exemplar” which is the camera I consider the most tempting from that system. A lot of people might pick the Panasonic G3 over the GX-1 because it has a built-in viewfinder, the same sensor, isn’t much bigger, and is inexpensive (and available!). I’ve ignored the GH-2 and the NEX-7 despite the fact that both are clearly the “top-of-the-line” of their respective systems because they’re not compact. If I want a camera that big I’ll just use a DSLR. Including Leica is kind of ridiculous (it’s a whole different category of user) but in fact the Leica meets most of the requirements for an LNC better than the Sony E series, it’s just stupidly expensive.

I’ve included DxOmark sensor scores because I’m sick of reviewers who show side-by-side comparisons of images out of different cameras and declare this one better than that one based on eyeballing them. DxOmark isn’t perfect, but it seems more impartial.

System Leica M Samsung NX Sony E Panasonic M43 Olympus M43 Nikon 1
Exemplar Leica M9P NX-200 NEX-5N GX-1 E-P3 V1
Sensor 35mm full frame APS-C APS-C 4/3” 4/3” CX
Crop Factor 1.0 1.5 1.5 2.0 2.0 2.7
Sensor Size (mm2) 860 368 368 225 225 116
Price w/lens $9,400 $800 $700 $700 $800 $849
Sensels (MP) 18.0 20.3 16.0 16.0 12.0 10.0
Sensel Size (µm2) 47.78 18.13 23.00 14.06 18.75 11.60
Sensor Tech CCD CMOS CMOS Live MOS CMOS CMOS
DxOMark Overall 69 (based on M9) 62 (based on NX100)  77  56 (based on G3)  51  54
DxOMark Color Depth (bpp) 22.5 22.6 23.6 21 20.8 21.3
DxOMark Dynamic Range (DR) 11.7 10.7 12.7 10.6 10.1 11
DxOMark Sensitivity (ISO) 884 563 1079 667 536 346
Fast Primes Lots! No 16mm f2.8 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 20mm f1.7, 25mm f0.95, etc. 10mm f2.8, F-mount adapter
Pocketable with Lens? No No Wide Pancake Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake or Folding Zoom Wide Pancake
1080 30P or 60i Video No Yes Yes + 60P Yes Yes Yes
720 60P Video No Yes Yes? No Yes Yes
Manual Video Control Yes Yes No Yes Yes
Video Framing OK Good OK OK Good
Focus Speed Good Good Good Good Good-Great
Viewfinder Optical Not released? Accessory Accessory Accessory 1.4MP
Live View No 614k dots OLED 920k dots 460k dots 614k OLED 460k dots
Burst Shooting without interrupting view, focus, or exposure 3fps 4fps 3fps 3fps 10fps
Burst Focus “pray and spray” 7fps 10fps 4.2fps 60fps (for 0.5s)
Standard Hotshoe Yes Yes No No Yes No
GPS No Accessory
Flash Via Hotshoe Built-in Accessory (included) Built-in Built-in Accessory
Best Feature It’s a rangefinder with a full frame sensor IQ, Sweep Panoramas Looks In-body image stabilization Phase Detect autofocus on sensor
Worst Feature Price, no IS Lens and sensor quality Lens Size, Plastic Construction No manual control of video Aging sensor, poor body design Lens options, controls, no bracketing
Key Differentiator Simplicity Novel UI that you love or hate Hard Controls on Compact Body Hard Controls on a Retro Body Video capabilities

What I Excluded

Aside from only including one “exemplar” for each system, I’ve left out a lot of potential contenders. It would be nice to have at least one smallish DSLR (e.g. the Pentax K-5), an SLT, and an enthusiast compact like the S-100 or XZ-1 in the table for comparison. I think everyone understands the tradeoffs between these systems and the DSLRs and their ilk; besides we’re all probably invested in one such system or another and the point is pretty much moot.

I’ve omitted the Pentax-Q because its sensor is essentially the same quality as the premium 2/3″ sensors in premium compacts, it has a weak range of lenses, it’s actually too small to be easy to handle, and I think it’s ugly, poorly designed, and overpriced.

I’ve omitted the X100 simply because it makes the wrong tradeoffs for me — it has a fixed lens and — for my tastes — it’s the wrong focal length. Because it’s a one-off camera and not a “system” this isn’t something that can be “fixed”. If Fuji had instead made it an M-mount (or similar) I would have bought one on the spot and started hunting for second-hand lenses. (I happen to prefer 50mm lenses to 35mm lenses for example.)

Summing Up

Olympus, Leica, and Samsung are, at least in terms of sensor tech, a generation or two behind the leaders. (Leica at least makes up for it by having the best glass.) So I think they’re all non-contenders. And hey, you can buy all the other cameras and a bunch of lenses for the price of the Leica body alone. Sony in many ways produces the best camera, but the lenses are ridiculously big (they’re not even small compared to APS-C DSLR lenses) which negates the whole point — once you get as big as the Sony with a typical useful lens you might as well have a DSLR.

To my mind this leaves Nikon and Panasonic, with each having stuff the other desperately needs to be truly compelling. E.g. the Nikon V1’s focus system is clearly superior (it may not be super fast in low light, but look at the continuous shooting speed) and it offers manual control when shooting video. I don’t want to harp on the built-in viewfinder too much because if it’s that important, get a G3 (although by golly that’s an ugly camera).

So the winner is: something someone releases next year.

Parting Thoughts

The Canon S100’s image quality is barely lower than that of the Nikon 1 and it’s inexpensive and genuinely pocketable. It’s tempting to add a column for the S100 just to see how it compares (its sensor scores are pretty close to the Olympus). The Nikon leads on the video side (although its small sensor makes shallow depth of field difficult, and the NEX-5N has 1080P60). I think what I’d really like to see is Apple produce an iPhone or iPod Touch variant aimed at photographers. Stick a 2/3″ BSI sensor and a lens mount in a “fat iPhone”.

P.S. The other thing that might rescue these systems from their compromises is price reduction. I saw the Panasonic GF3 selling (briefly) for $399 at Target (with the old, huge 14-42mm kit lens). The Nikon J1 would be pretty tempting at $499. (I finally found a demo unit that was “working” and its autofocus was pretty spectacular. I say “working” because while the autofocus was wonderful and I could take photos, my attempts to use aperture priority were wholly unsuccessful, and if I need to read a manual to figure it out then it’s already failed.) Basically if I can get a credible LNC for a similar price to a premium compact that I might get a lot less picky. That said, premium compacts — especially older models — are dropping below $200.

Update

Pentax has announced a mirrorless body compatible with their K-mount lenses. This has the clear advantage that you can use Pentax’s excellent lens selection, and the enormous disadvantage that the body isn’t especially compact and is — to my eye — butt ugly. And why the “squashed DSLR” look? It’s possible they plan to create K-mount lenses for the mirrorless body with optics that can fold behind the mount. But the first body just looks like a joke.

Fuji, as expected, has announced an interchangeable lens version of the X100 — the X-Pro1 — along with a compelling selection of fast primes, which would be great if they weren’t asking about $2500 for a body with one lens. It seems like they’re trying to compete with Leica rather than rest of the pack, or they’re simply going to grab huge profits from early adopters and then drop prices or release a substantially cheaper body. Still, even the lenses are pretty expensive.

I’m not going to add new columns to the table just yet, although I guess Fuji deserves to displace Leica.

The 1966 Rollei 35
The 1966 Rollei 35 — a full-frame 35mm camera with a 40mm f2.8 lens made in 1966 (image from camera quest.com)

It seems to me that in the end enthusiast cameras will have full frame sensors. Smaller sensors won’t give you nice bokeh, and we know you can build a pocketable full frame camera because there were quite a few ridiculously small full frame 35mm cameras back in the day (witness the Rollei and Minox 35mm cameras — the Rollei is basically the smallest camera you could conceivably wrap around a 35mm cartridge, a flat spot at the focal plane to expose the film, and a winding spool). There’s simply no good reason why we can’t have a digital equivalent, and any camera manufacturer that wants to skate to where the puck will be should be working on such a camera today.

Panasonic Wins This Round

Panasonic GX-1 Top View

The new Panasonic GX-1 replaces the GF-1 in a way that the GF-2 and GF-3 assuredly did not. (A colleague just bought a GF-1 precisely because until the GX-1 ships in December, it’s pretty much the EVIL* camera body of choice. Naturally my colleague is now drooling over the GX-1.)

Note: * I refuse to use the term “ILC” (interchangeable lens camera) unless it becomes unavoidable, since it’s so vague as to be meaningless. EVIL (“electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens”) is not only funnier, but more accurate, although the term “electronic viewfinder” is a little tenuous given that most of us understand a “viewfinder” to be a peephole rather than a rear-mounted live-view.

The competition for the EVIL segment has been fierce, but for the enthusiast market not so much. What has been fierce is the competition for the EVIL point-and-shoot camera (as exemplified by the Sony NEX cameras, and the Panasonic GF-3). The only camera companies which seem to care about enthusiast EVIL bodies are Panasonic and, to a lesser extent, Samsung (which has included the GF-1 in its list of “things to rip off” when designing NX-series bodies). There’s probably a good reason for this, at least in the US market, since Best Buy is happy to stock quite high-end DSLRs, and point-and-shoot EVIL cameras (like the Sony NEX-series) but conspicuously omits enthusiast compacts including both EVIL cameras like the GF-1 (or even the GF-3) but serious fixed-lens compacts like the Canon S95. So it’s possible that there’s simply not much demand for enthusiast-oriented cameras, especially when low-end DSLRs are so damn good. Or maybe if you spend an hour on dpreview every week then you’re buying your camera online.

What’s shocking to me is that Nikon’s 2.7x crop factor J1 and V1 manage to be nearly as expensive and no more compact than Panasonic’s GX-1 with the newish X-series folding zoom. The whole point of having a small sensor would appear to be to compete on price and lens size. Panasonic apparently understands this in a way that others do not (Olympus, to its credit, has designed a folding zoom for the Pen, but it’s not that small, and it relies on sensor-shift stabilization).

Assuming that the GX-1’s low-light performance is as good or better than last year’s GH-1 (which I believe shares the same sensor) it seems like the slam-dunk winner of this round. No doubt Sony will offer more gimmicky shooting modes, and of course the NEX-7 has 24 MP, while the Nikon 1-series offers its gimmicky video stills and faster continuous shooting (and probably faster autofocus, but the GX-1 seems plenty fast), but in the end, size, handling, and a good choice of lenses wins. (How did Nikon not manage to produce a pancake faster than f2.8? Providing a couple of f1.8, or better yet f1.4 or 1.2 primes for reasonable prices would demonstrate the advantages of a small sensor and allow enthusiasts to shoot fabulous photos of their cappuccinos with gorgeous bokeh.)

I hope we’ll see a nice leather case designed around the GX-1 and 14-42 X-series zoom, one of the huge losses since we all went digital has been the leather case that unsnaps to allow you to shoot without needing to be removed (the GF-1 has several cases along these lines). This let you sling a camera over your shoulder all day and shoot without risking leaving something behind or dropping your camera, and also let you toss a camera into a bag without worrying about it getting snagged on clothing or otherwise damaged. A thoughtfully designed video grip would also be welcome.

Life is too short for free crap

One of the lessons I’ve been a bit slow to learn is that waiting for free is expensive. It can be infinitely expensive.

3d

Here’s how I learned it: 3d software. I love 3d, but really I’m a bit of a dabbler. Back when I first got into 3d there was nothing terribly good available for free, so I ended up paying a lot of money for things like Strata 3d, Form*Z, ElectricImage, 3d Studio Max, Alias Sketch, and so on. I’d sunk a lot of money, probably over $20,000, into 3d software in about ten years — a lot of money for a hobby, but hey I was single, earning a ton of money, and it was all tax-deductible. Even so, I started baulking at the prices when 3ds max started getting revved every year or so with $1000+ upgrades — I stopped upgrading my software and for a while I coasted… but eventually it got too out-of-date and incompatible.

It was around then that I got into Blender (which is free). I couldn’t get my head around Blender’s UI, so I did as much as possible in other packages, like Wings3D and Silo, only ducking into Blender for lighting and rendering. I got to like Blender, despite its flaws, and lately it has started promising to be truly competitive with commercial packages, even in usability.

But it’s been over five years since I started working with Blender and I’m still not very comfortable in it (there are very few software packages I use that I don’t feel comfortable, indeed expert, with, so it’s pretty amazing to fumble my way around a program I’ve been using for five years). And it looks like being a while before Blender 2.5 is really useful (right now, it won’t import my Blender 2.49b animations). If I had been depending on my 3d work for a living, there is no way I would put up with Blender.

Indeed, when I started doing some serious 3d work, I ended up buying several packages and — in pure productivity terms — they each paid for themselves within a few days.

Life is short. If I think I might have some talent as a 3d artist, what’s the cost of spending extra time figuring out how to use needlessly difficult software? And what’s the cost of waiting to start using a product that promises to be awesome some time in the future?

Android

Tim Bray has very publicly joined Google’s ranks with the express purpose of killing the iPhone. He is quoted as saying:

The iPhone vision of the mobile Internet’s future omits controversy, sex, and freedom, but includes strict limits on who can know what and who can say what. It’s a sterile Disney-fied walled garden surrounded by sharp-toothed lawyers. The people who create the apps serve at the landlord’s pleasure and fear his anger.

There’s more of this vitriol, but I think that gives you a pretty good idea. Tim Bray certainly deserves a bit of respect for his many achievements, but this is just silly.

You know what I really want for my phone? A third-party task manager to kill runaway background apps.

The big difference between Apple and Google is that Apple has always had a more holistic view of “the user experience” than Google (or pretty much any other company). Apple wants to make sure users have lots of software to choose, and they’d prefer it to be good. They want to developers to make lots of money, but adhere to standards. (Standards they’ve never been able to get most developers to stick to on their “open” platforms.) They want a great experience for everyone, but there are tradeoffs involved. Sometimes, making things better for users means making life difficult for developers.

Perhaps the best example of this is Apple’s approach to DRM. They put in just enough to please content producers, and so little that it has almost no material effect on end-users. Do you know anyone who has had serious problems with Apple’s DRM? Ah yes, a sterile walled garden guarded by vicious lawyers — which makes musicians money and consumers happy.

Google simply doesn’t care. It wants cell phones to have decent web browsers in them. That’s basically it. It doesn’t care if people like their cell phones, or if developers make money producing software for their cellphones, or if cell phone companies sell users phones with outdated software, or if carriers force users to pay for “free” features. It makes almost no effort to force cellphones to be upgradeable, or adhere to minimal quality standards, or be interoperable. As far as Google is concerned, once you’ve bought your Android phone and can click on its ads its work is done.

But hey, it’s “free” — and, you know, if your time is worthless then enjoy.