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.

Camera Developments

Desperation is definitely having useful effects in the camera market. Having recently succumbed to temptation and bought a D7000, I’ve been avoiding camera news (and concomitant buyer’s remorse).

Q-Branch’s Latest Silly Gadget

Pentax has beaten Nikon to the small sensor interchangeable lens punch with its Q-series. Unfortunately, a 1/2.3″ sensor is, in my opinion, a bad, bad choice — it’s smaller than necessary to get the lens size down (and indeed the initial lens offering looks tiny; the mount seems superfluously large, and the lens itself seems to be far deeper than necessary, essentially a giant lens shade) — indeed, it’s smaller than the sensors in the enthusiast compacts like the XZ-1 and LX-5. I just don’t think serious shooters will pick an expensive camera with a new lens system and a 1/2.3″ sensor over a cheaper camera with a good fixed lens and better sensor as a primary or secondary camera.

Oh, and I think it’s the butt-ugliest design I’ve seen in years (although it looks better in black, assuming you don’t pop out the flash). It’s one thing to make your camera look like a classic rangefinder, but the Q looks more like one the clunky Russian Leica knockoff I owned as a teenager.

A Pen for the Pixel Peepers

Olympus has released a slew of new Micro 4/3 cameras, and the E-P3 in particular appears to address every possible complaint about earlier cameras, namely:

  • autofocus speed
  • display resolution and quality
  • video resolution and data rate
  • high ISO performance

This means that Olympus has finally released a compact micro-four-thirds camera with fast autofocus, sensor-shift stabilization, good display, and — judging from the high-ISO comparison shots on dpreview, competitive low light performance (no question it trails the NEX and X-100, but it’s at least in the fight which is adequate for most users). It makes me wish Apple actually would release a Micro Four-Thirds iPhone.

Living Pictures

Lytro is a company commercializing a Stanford research project (one of the committee members who signed the dissertation in question (PDF) is none other than Mark Horowitz of Andreesen Horowitz). The basic idea is that rather than focusing the image using a lens you record both the color and direction of incoming photons (using micro lenses on the sensor). Then, with a whole bunch of math you can calculate an image with more or less depth of field focused at whatever distance you like.

All this lets you make the same kinds of tradeoffs as with normal photography (use more samples but get less depth of field or use fewer samples and get more depth of field) but you can make those tradeoffs at processing time, or create interactive images with varying focus and depth of field. In theory, you could create 3d scenes with eye-tracking to simulate depth of field and focus point based on what you look at.

It’s a simple but brilliant idea. I remember reading about it a few years back (Hacker News?) and it’s amazing how fast things come to (or at least approach) market these days. Of course, it’s still vaporware for the moment, and the big question to my mind is whether it will end up being competitive with more conventional cameras that use brute force approaches to get similar results (e.g. Sony’s pellicle cameras can shoot rapid bursts and use the additional data to improve low light performance; they could easily vary focus and aperture and produce similar results to Lytro, at least for still scenes.

Still, I want to play with one.

The Future of Digital Photography

Sony has released the NEX-3 and NEX-5 series cameras which represent Sony’s first DSLR-quality offerings with decent low-light performance (not-quite-up-there with the Nikon D300/D90/D5000 but close). The sad thing is these cameras are getting panned because, basically, they’re too small (or rather, their bodies are too small). Sony made them so small that the camera body was smaller than the lens barrel (which is plainly ridiculous) which in turn led to a lack of real estate for hard controls, which in turn led to menu-driven controls, which led to lousy ergonomics.

I wonder if Sony can find the guy who designed the PSX controller and have him sort out their camera division. Well, it doesn’t matter because this particular product category is stupid.

The basic problem for me with this entire category is that if you can’t stick it in your pocket, then why bother? The only way any of these cameras is “pocketable” is with a pancake lens, which means you’re stuck at 35-40mm equivalent. You can get a superb high-end fast zoom lens camera (such as the Panasonic LX-3 or the Canon G-11) for far less money and that sucker might actually fit in a pocket. If you’re going to carry around a bunch of lenses why not simply get a cheap DSLR? It seems to me that the “non-reflex interchangeable lens small digital” category might make sense if they picked a sensor size based on being able to mount a versatile lens and remain pocketable (which might mean a considerably smaller than 4/3 sensor).

In the long run, 35mm film dominated because it was the largest film you could put in the smallest camera that was still reasonably pleasant to use. It follows that if you don’t need a film winding mechanism with two spools that in the end full-frame 35mm sensors or something slightly larger will eventually “win” the format race. Anything “slightly” smaller simply gets you lousy ergonomics (if you do it to shrink the camera) or poorer image quality (since smaller sensors equal inferior image quality).

Leica has figured this out, but their camera costs about as much as a pretty nice car. (And just in case you think that what Leica does is irrelevant to the overall camera market, who do you think popularized the 35mm standard?)

So it seems to me that there are going to be two successful mass market formats in the long run:

  • Serious cameras will be dominated by full-frame 35mm (or slightly larger) sensors with interchangeable lenses.
  • Mainstream cameras will be dominated by fixed lens cameras (including cell phones) with the best sensors that can be made for pretty much nothing (underwater, pro-pocket, etc.). It’s worth noting that the way the fab business works, eventually full-frame 35mm sensors will cost just about nothing, so eventually expect to see some seriously awesome IQ even in this segment (just as you eventually got ridiculously good, dirt cheap 35mm cameras). Someone like Olympus might succeed with an interchangeable lens camera with a smaller-than-35mm sensor, but it needs to get you a useful pocketable camera, not a pocket-size body with a gigantic lens. That’s just stupid.

Personally, I’m waiting for Nikon’s D700 replacement.

Olympus E-P2 Announced

olympuse-p2-lg1

Olympus has announced a newer (and more expensive) successor to its first micro four-thirds camera, the E-P1. From my point of view, the key features of the new camera are electronic viewfinder support (hotshoe-mounted — very similar to the GF-1), continuous-tracking autofocus (will this make it suitable for photographing toddlers? according to dcresource the E-P1 and E-P2’s focusing have both improved since initial release — thanks to firmware upgrades — but both remain lackluster compared to the GF-1), and the option to shoot video with full manual control. Aside from these two new features, the new camera is black — sad, because I think the new model is markedly less attractive — and has a few irrelevant gimmicks.

Along with the new camera, Olympus will be offering a 9-18mm (18-36mm) wideangle zoom, and a 14-150mm (28-300mm equivalent) superzoom, making Micro Four-Thirds a pretty complete ecology (and quite likely offering superior optics at a given price-point than Canon or Nikon). This will leave Nikon and Canon sandwiched between Panasonic and Olympus (offering superior compact cameras) and Leica (offering superior high-end cameras). If Panasonic and Olympus can only get some camera bodies out at a reasonable price, they could do some serious damage.

While these may seem pretty minor changes, assuming the continuous-tracking autofocus doesn’t suck, it significantly changes things relative to the GF-1, since the E-P2 has almost everything (except a built-in flash, which I don’t care about) that the GF-1 offers along with image stabilization and better controls. In the end, however, this is really still a first generation product. I imagine the true second generation micro four-thirds cameras will be truly compelling.

The E-P2’s SRP of $1100 (which includes the new EVF) is steep, which remains a deterrent.

Meanwhile…

leica_m9-550x314

It’s interesting to see Canon backing off its relentless pursuit of the megapixel, with the 1D Mkiv and G-10 both signaling that maybe it’s time to concentrate on pixel quality. (What’s with the zany crop factor of the Mkiv though? I’d have thought we’re past that kind of odd compromise.) It’s also interesting to see Nikon persisting with 720p-only cameras — how hard would it be to offer 1080p @24fps?

It seems to me that Canon right now has two very compelling cameras (the 7D and 5D mkii) while Nikon’s range is starting to look dated. (The 7D’s hefty introductory price tag does manage to make the 300s seem reasonably priced though.) Nikon’s cameras are all great still cameras, but their half-assed video support seems more like an attempt to tick a checkbox than offer serious functionality.

Right now, I want Panasonic, Olympus, and Leica to give Nikon and Canon more serious competition, because it seems that they’re all just milking their customers — especially early adopters. (It’s amazing that Leica’s cameras seem reasonably priced compared to Nikon’s. Indeed, the Leica X1 looks pretty competitive with the E-P1/E-P2/GF-1 coupled with the (~$500) 20mm f1.7. If you don’t need autofocus, full frame Nikon prices look ridiculous.)