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Copyright © 2003
As promised, Ronald Johnson filed this voluminous report on what he found at the Photo Marketing Association (PMA) 2004 Trade Show and Convention held at the Las Vegas Convention Center February 12 - 15. In his report Johnson describes a number of new products that we'll see come to the market over the coming year. If you haven't done so already, we recommend you read this installment in conjunction with his report from the January Consumer Electronics Show that was also held in Las Vegas.
Changing of the Guard
By Ronald Johnson
Las Vegas If you ever had doubts about the impact digital is having on the photo industry, recent moves by the Kodak tell the tale. First it was the announcement by Kodak last year that it was discontinuing the sales of slide projectors, and now the news has broken that the company will stop making APS and 35mm cameras available here in the US and end reloadable APS sales worldwide. In a recent blurb Kodak also said that it was discontinuing production of their pro digital backs for medium format cameras and that they would concentrate their efforts on 35mm pro style digital SLRs, which they reinforced by showing an upgraded 14n digital SLR at this show. Those are some major moves, and if you consider Kodak relevant, which you probably should, every move they make as well as recent introductions by hundreds of other companies at this year’s PMA show, indicate that the time has come for the changing of the photo guard from film to digital.
This and other matters concerned the photo industry gathering at this year's Photo Marketing Association meeting in Las Vegas, the biggest photo trade show in the U.S. Dealers, students, photographers and assorted national and international press dashed about the smaller than usual but no less intense show to see what’s in store for an industry going though transition, one akin to the days when typewriters in offices around the world were being replaced by word processors. While many announcements of earth-shattering importance are being held in abeyance until this year’s Photokina, the world-wide show in Germany in the fall, there was enough to keep everyone amused. One of the trends here was the push toward higher megapixel counts in digicams, and the continuing emergence of the digital SLR.
Megapixels Up, Prices Down
If megapixels determined picture quality all everyone would need do is run out and buy one of the new 8-megapixel cameras from Sony, Minolta, Canon, Nikon et al. True, more MP firepower gives you a larger image file, with a TIFF image from one shot taking up 24 MB on your memory card, thus making a very good 11x14 print with ease. At around $1000, for example, the new Canon Pro1 has a 2/3rd inch CCD that packs 3264 x 2448 pixels, something that approaches medium format digital backs of only last year. And the camera has a 28-200mm equivalent angle of view (35mm format) built in, covering just about all the bases most photographers need. And that lens has two aspherical elements and UD glass, adding to the potential for image excellence, and even allows close focusing in 'super' macro mode to about 1.2 inches, impressive to say the least. You can also shoot movies at 640 x 480 resolution, something we're seeing more of in still cameras these days, and 30 frames per second so that those motion images don’t look like old time movies (though the charm of herky jerky motion of the older style motion clips has yet to be fully exploited by the art crowd.)
So what's to worry about? Isn't the image quality issue over? Does this leave film cameras, surely 35mm and now medium format cameras, in the dust? The question no longer is whether or not you can have enough megapixels in your digital camera — it becomes, just how many megapixels do you need, and what’s the price you pay (not dollars) in terms of all those pixels on such a small chip?
Do You Need Eight Megapixels?
As to need, most folks get very decent 8x10 inch prints from 4 MP cameras. And if the shots are for the Web, or for smaller snapshot size prints, then choosing a lower than maximum resolution from those cameras will do just fine. And you don't need TIFF or RAW files to get good results - JPEG at 1:4 compression for small prints and certainly for Web images will definitely get the job done. Does this mean that you might be wasting your money on an 8MP digicam?
Well, the answer might just be how you finally judge image quality and how big you need to make prints. If you are the kind of photographer who started out shooting with an APS camera, moved up to 35mm and still weren't happy, and then went to medium format, then take the 8 MP leap. If you see a lot of your images going bigger than 8x10 inches, or are shooting for full-page magazine repro, then be our guest. But it isn’t so simple as a larger number of pixels — some issues have emerged that question whether going from a 6 to an 8 MP camera is nothing more than horsepower game, and in fact may be opening a Pandora’s Box.
Not that we want to pour cold water over the idea, but word is that packing that many pixels on a small chip (as opposed to the larger pixels on lower MP chips, or larger pixels on a larger chip) accentuates any glitches that may be present, which means the likelihood of less sharp images and more artifacts, or digital 'noise.' It might also add to what some feel is the falloff at the edges, known as vignetting, that comes when you use super wide lenses with digital SLRs - that's why the cutoff for most of the integral lens 8 MP digicams is 28mm. Some makers even put angled light collectors over the edges of their sensors to help correct this problem, which of course can create other problems that must be solved by the camera’s image processor.
Granted, all this is some much tech speculation, but only testing will reveal whether the 8MP rush is a true breakthrough, or just the industry giving into the horsepower race.
APS: The Final Round
But before we delve too much into digital let's play taps for a few film items. The first is the now late (un)lamented APS format.
The flight away from APS began way before Kodak made their announcement. A number of companies, part of the initial APS league, made this move last year, or even earlier. Film sales and film processing numbers for APS never came up to expectations, and even in the early stages of the format there were strong indications that growth would never match predictions. Some companies, not part of the APS Bund, felt dragged into the format and went along halfheartedly, at best. In all, APS became the third film format in recent memory that didn't quite work out, possibly joining the disc and 110 formats in photography’s dustbin.
But some companies are sticking with the APS route, and Fuji, in what can only be described as a pointed response, said they would introduce a new APS camera here and that they were dedicated to APS and 35mm film photography. What they did show was very quiet in this realm, an updated model that puts APS squarely into the novelty act circuit. In all, the show was what could be described as the last goodbye to APS.
For those who never bought into the APS deal it's easy to say, "I told you so." But smugness is a dangerous attitude in this fast changing world. For example, the digital realm cannot long abide as many digital memory card formats as we have today, and a few years hence we might have a similar obituary for some of the formats we have with us today. The same goes for many of the concepts, designs and even playback devices that have been floated for the digital photographer to consume. If anything, the digital imaging world should look closely at the APS decline and fall and start to think about standards that will not leave consumers today high and dry in the days ahead.
Medium Format: The Digital Challenge
As to the abandonment of the medium format digital back business, at least with Kodak branding (though Kodak is still in the sensor business) the one in the Olympus E-1 and a new large sensor back from Sinar Bron both being of Kodak make — there are many who have questioned how long this film format will survive. With the host of 8 megapixel digital cameras that showed up at PMA, and even higher chip counts in high-end digital SLRs (such as in the 8.2 MP Canon EOS 1-D Mark II), medium format has lost more market share in the pro segment than most care to admit.
New entrants here at the show go head to head with medium format for the hearts and minds of pro shooters, particularly those in the wedding and portrait business. Although priced at around $4500, the new Canon digital SLR might have some folks pondering it rather than a medium format film camera as the way to go. It being one of the stars of this show, I thought it worthy of more than a passing nod.
Said to be the world’s fastest professional digital SLR, the Canon EOS-1D Mark II camera has an 8.2 million pixel CMOS sensor, faster DIGIC II imaging engine and ability to capture 8 megapixel JPEG images at 8.5 frames per second in continuous bursts of up to 40 frames and RAW images in continuous bursts of up to 20 frames. For those who like tech numbers, this is Canon’s first use of dual 32-bit RISC CPUs to operate the camera’s autofocus separately with one dedicated to detecting focus while the second CPU controls the lens drive.
The camera is truly geared to the sports journalist with construction to back up the high-speed capture. The camera's exterior and chassis are constructed of a rugged yet lightweight and weather-resistant magnesium alloy. The body is weather-resistant with more than 70 gaskets and seals, and the camera’s lens mount is made of stainless steel (and is fully compatible with all Canon EF, TS-E and MP-E lenses).
While the field appeal of the camera seems great, Canon is actually positioning this camera as being the new tool for portrait and wedding photographers. It can capture smaller JPEG files simultaneously with large uncompressed RAW files, which will speed postproduction workflow and make providing prompt proofs an alliterative snap. Canon’s new Digital Photo Professional software is especially designed to speed up the workflow of wedding shooters and provide much more comfortable operation than ever. With the Direct Print function, clients can see a printed image on site.
Like the company's EOS-1D, the Mark II has a 35mm focal length conversion factor of 1.3x. It also has what the company calls its next generation DIGIC II image processor, which is twice as fast as the image processor used in the EOS-1D and four times faster than the DIGIC chip in the EOS 10D and EOS Digital Rebel. The Mark II has two card slots, one for CompactFlash (Type I or II as well as MicroDrives™) and another for SD cards. It can also deliver sound clips up to a maximum of 30 seconds per image.
Also completely redesigned is the camera’s E-TTL flash metering system. Here's what Canon says: "Though still compatible with all EX- series Speedlites, the new E-TTL II captures the subject as a 'plane' and ensures that images containing various colors and levels of reflection are captured accurately and optimally. The system compares the ambient light with the reflected pre-flash off the subject reported in all 17 metering zones and selects the areas with a small difference to be weighted for flash exposure calculation. This system also eliminates or under weights areas with large difference recognizing them as an extremely reflective object in the background or as a highly reflective subject, smartly ensuring it by considering the distance information data provided from compatible EF lenses. The system similarly prevents over-exposure when photographers lock focus and recompose the shot by considering the flash output level calculated according to the broader distance." Wow.
Shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/8000, plus bulb (with user-set adjustments of 1/3, 1/2, or full stops). There's also a 45-point AF system that is said to provide faster "read and react" times in One-Shot AF mode and takes twice as many readings between shots as the EOS-1D with moving subjects in AI Servo AF, allowing for more effective sequential shooting.
Of course, a digital camera that outputs at such rates will need powerful software, so Canon has included their new Digital Photo Professional (DPP) program that is said to offer users high-speed processing of RAW images. Features include instantaneous RAW image adjustment display and support for .CR2 and RAW .TIF as well as Exif TIFF and JPEG formats as well as the capability to save multiple adjustments to an image as a "recipe" that can be reloaded and used again or applied to other images. In comparison mode, original and edited images can be compared side by side or within a single split image.
All in all, the Mark II pretty much defines the state of the art. Whether that CMOS sensor and pixel-packed chip will deliver the promised goods is subject to getting our hands on one to test.
Cameras like the Mark II and others that are sure to follow have sounded the bell for 35mm film SLRs. The question is: will they do the same to medium format film cameras? While medium format scanners combined with the beauty and resolution of medium format film makes for an image quality combination that’s hard to beat, simple economics may prevail. Many pros and avid amateurs have to make the choice between a high megapixel digital SLR and a medium format camera, and increasingly the winner is digital. It will take some very clever marketing, and a very strong message about ultimate image quality, to keep medium format afloat. True, large format cameras are still sold, and there will remain a dedicated core of enthusiasts who will stick to their medium format guns. But the numbers are not, as of today, sufficient to keep every medium format maker viable.
New Digicam Technology
The goal of most digital camera makers, at least in the point-and-shoot arena, is to make making pictures easier than ever. Some have begun to put applications right in the camera, such as red-eye elimination or instant panorama stitching, while others concentrate on linking printers to cameras and/or memory cards for one-touch printing.
One company, which has been making mass market digicams for a while, HP, came to the show with some very interesting camera features that they call "HP Real Life" technologies. Their first model to include all that follows is the HP Photosmart R707, a 5-megapixel camera that goes for about $349. These include HP Adaptive Lighting technology, which is said to automatically adjust high-contrast photos to bring faces out of shadows and details out of backgrounds. This is sort of an in-camera Auto Levels control, but it seems to do more by comparing prime subjects to backgrounds and attempting to solve one of the oldest problems in photography — backlighting. The prototype we worked with seemed to do the job, although details on what contrast range was required for this to kick in were sketchy.
They also have something called HP Image Advice, which analyzes photos and then provides tips to users on how to adjust settings to improve future shots, thus helping the photographer learn to take better photos. This is like a tiny how-to book right in the camera and provides pretty basic advice, some more informative than others. HP In-Camera Red-Eye Removal instantly removes red-eye from photos right on the camera without using a PC. This hunts out the red-eye and gives you the target, and the option to change them. But there’s no "green-eye" removal yet, for those who like to take flash pictures of their pets, or of alligators in some pre-dawn swamp. HP In-Camera Panorama Preview allows you to take up to five pictures that are then combined into a panorama picture composition and reviewed in-camera. And when you download them the stitch in real time saves time later.
The Megapixel Horse Race
We all thought that the megapixel horse race, now defined as 8 megapixels for medium to high end digicams, would stop at 5 or 6, but now that 5’s are going for what 2's sold for a few years ago and 6's for what 4's brought not so far back, everyone questions when it might end. As one company spokesman frankly put it, “People will always respond to higher megapixel counts, at least in a certain segment of the market. If we can differentiate our products with those higher MP counts, we will.” Perhaps "must" would be a better way to put it, as there are so many companies now with 5 MP cameras that they are fast becoming a sub-$400 item. Indeed, product differentiation will tell the tale, as will feature sets that improve the reliability and quality of digital images.
Transition and Compatibility
Another factor that will change how you might decide to get into digital is just how you can transition, or adapt from one system (film) to another (digital). It might become easier for owners of Minolta and Pentax SLRs, now that both companies have, or have announced digital SLRs that will take their previous lenses. The Pentax *istD is already available; the Minolta announcement at the show was that they will have a digital SLR with Maxxum lens compatibility ready in the fall. And Leica R owners will also have a digital back for their current R bodies.
For those seeking a classic look and feel of a 35mm rangefinder on a digital camera, the Panasonic DMC-LC1 Lumix might be a great choice. This 5MP digicam offers manual zoom, focus and aperture controls all with a Leica lens. The new DMC-LC1 incorporates an f/2.0 - 2.4 Leica DC VARIO-SUMMICRON lens (13 elements in 10 groups) with zoom capability equivalent to 28-90mm on a 35mm camera. The DMC-LC1 can capture images in the RAW format as well as Super Fine/Fine/Standard JPEG and QuickTime(r) motion JPEG images. For those who are concerned about reading their RAW images, Adobe announced at PMA a free, updated version of the Camera RAW plug-in, which will provide integrated support of the Panasonic RAW format within Adobe Photoshop® CS. The DMC-LC1 camera comes in at a retail price of $1,599.
The Casio EXILIM PRO EX-P600 is a 6-megapixel digicam with a Canon 4X optical zoom that will run you about $649.99. The camera is said to have a start-up time of approximately 2-seconds and approximately 0.01 second release time lag with a high-speed continuous shutter for 3 photos per second with up to 6 photos in succession. Among touted features is something they call multi-bracketing, which allows you to set up variations of combined settings including shutter, exposure, white balance and focus position.
What About 35mm SLRs?
For those who thought that all this digital action would spell the end of 35mm film SLRs, think again. Just about every major camera maker is bringing new film SLRs to the show. They are mainly characterized by advanced technology with "transparent" ease of use — n other words, customers will be getting a lot for their money, but the feature set will be simplified to the point of "point and shoot" ease. The average price even for "kitted" 35mm SLRs will be between $250 and $350, an amazing price. Will there be a market for these cameras, given that digital has made such strides? Sellers don't expect them to break records, but for those hesitant to get into digital, and who want to get great value for their photo dollar, these new cameras will have very high appeal. Canon and Minolta both showed inexpensive, high tech film SLRs at this show. If you want to get into film with some great SLRs and have a limited budget, now’s the time!
While we're on the subject of film, Kodak did actually intro some new silver halide products here. Though a lone voice in the crowd, these new films were actually quite beautiful. While the company is decidedly digital these days, they brought both color and (sort of) black-and-white films to PMA. Their Pro Ultra Color films are said to offer vibrant color saturation while maintaining exceptional skin tones. Featuring extremely fine grain, these films are touted as the perfect choice for enlargements or for scanning negatives and integrating images into digital workflows. (Notice the nod to digital even in the midst of their film intro.) The films are available in both 100 and 400 ISO speeds.
Their Pro BW400CN film is a multi-purpose, black-and-white chromogenic film designed for processing in color negative chemistry. It claimed to offer extremely fine grain, outstanding highlight and shadow detail, and a smooth neutral tone scale. On the high-speed color side, Kodak also showed an upgrade to their Pro Portra 800 color negative film, which is now said to feature finer grain and more under-exposure latitude.
And, to those naysayers who say darkroom (chemical at least) is dead, Kodak also brought their new Polycontrast IV RC Paper to PMA, all for the professional fine art or commercial photographer who appreciates the artistry of black-and-white, or the photography student developing a first portfolio. It’s said to have improved highlight detail and printing latitude. We’d love to test it, but just have to find somebody who still has a chemical darkroom to do so.
What about camera phones, or phone cameras? A number of companies now offer mobile services, with a special pavilion here dedicated to this growing trend. Frankly, this reporter thinks that print quality from camera phones is abysmal, but that hasn't stopped some folks from pushing this “new format” anyway. These devices do, industry insiders point out, make the general population more cognizant of digital imaging, and that should raise all boats.
Now that we have services for printing images from picture phones —-including Kodak Mobile, kiosks and drug chains etc. getting into the act -there are promises of higher megapixel capture and removable memory cards. But satisfying people with the quality of prints the pesky privacy invaders provide will be an interesting challenge for all concerned. Besides, the whole idea around the picture phone is about e-mailing images. At CES, Kodak showed a prototype phone docking station in a very large SUV. The idea is that on the road you can take pictures, beam them up to Kodak Mobile and have friends and relatives share your adventures as you go. Bonnie and Clyde would have loved it.
One area that got a lot of attention was the home printing of images from digital cameras. There were more companies providing products, services and software for that market here than ever before. Just about every company that was and is in the film business offers printing paper, plus there are many “third-party” paper providers that brought a host of new surfaces to the show. New to me were digital ink jet papers from Fuji and the now re-named Konica Minolta company (don't ask).
Also new at the show was a brewing storm over inkjet paper standards, caused by Kodak claiming 100-year print life for their Ultima inkjet paper for every printer. Other paper manufacturers, and particularly independent tester Henry Wilhelm, were fairly incensed by the claim. Wilhelm, in fact, at the pre-show DIMA conference (Digital Imaging Marketing Association) lambasted Kodak about this, and said that if Kodak's testing methods were applied to certain other papers they’d have a life of over a thousand years! All this pointed out the need for some testing standards for these papers, which, as of now, don't exist. If you want to learn more about image permanence in the digital age, visit www.wilhelm-research.com.
In any case, some draw the analogy of what's happening in the digital darkroom realm to the heyday of home darkrooms back in the sixties, a time when every school worth its salt also provided a darkroom for their students. There are no immediate figures available on how many folks did darkroom work back in the old days, but there sure were lots of enlargers, sinks, trays and developing tanks sold. The analogy of home photo work from then to now doesn't really hold, as the digital darkroom is a desktop experience, not one that requires sinks, electric and dedicated space. Of course, the ease of making good prints has not improved markedly, although the handshake between camera and printer -with PictBridge, etc. -surely will change that. And of course there are more than enough services, and digital lab setups and some online finishers who have stayed the course, to capture the finishing of anyone who’d rather have a pro handle the task.
Following the "everything but the kitchen sink" principle we’ve seen in numerous desktop digital devices of late, the Epson scan-print-copy device, the Stylus Photo RX600 also can help you restore old slides, negatives and traditional printed photographs. All of these functions and more can be done without turning on a PC. The printer also has memory card slots and a 2.5-inch high-quality color LCD viewer, all for about $349.
Just when you thought that 4GB was a pretty good amount of memory for your digital camera, Lexar popped in with a new 8GB Professional Series CompactFlash card, said to be the highest capacity memory card available in the world today. Lexar's new 8GB card delivers a 40X speed rating, signifying a minimum sustained write speed capability of 6MB/s. All this will come in handy for those new 8MP cameras or those shooting big old RAW images at those high burst rates. They are FAT 32 compatible only, but Lexar assures us that all the latest high-end digicams will be able to handle that format, with those with older cameras (read six months) having to stick with the 2 GB cards. So goes the upgrade game. And for those who need really fast write speeds, the company came to the show with an 80X Professional CompactFlash Card with 12MB/s Minimum Sustained Write Speed. And, for those who use SD cards and have felt left out of the high capacity realm, Lexar also brought out their 1 Gigabyte Secure Digital (SD) Memory Cards.
Perhaps the most interesting storage device at the show, along with all sorts of USB tie pins and "lanyards" (USB nooses) was PNY Technologies’ Executive Attaché and Executive Attaché Signature Series devices. These are functional ballpoint pens with “inside” USB 2.0 flash drives that store and transfer large files quickly and easily from one computer device to another. The Executive ($99) offers a hidden USB 2.0 512MB drive and the Attache ($79) comes in 128MB and 256MB capacities. Sort of like spy drives for the "must-have" set.
The Lens Uptick
The influx of digital SLRs and all the accessory sales this engenders will be good for those folks who offer add-on optics, at least that was the feeling here at the show. We will even see the beginnings of independents offering the "digital-dedicated" lenses that project a smaller image circle and offer solutions to some of the problems of the 35mm to digital SLR lens swap, especially in the super wide arena. And the digital SLR upswing will also drive more lens sales for camera manufacturers as well, with many here offering new additions to their "digital SLR' only lens lines.
Speaking of digital dedicated SLR lenses, we did get a glimpse of what that odd phrase might mean. According to the folks at Tamron, the “DI” lenses have extra coating that helps cut down on lens flare. They showed me pictures of a “regular” lens and one that received the extra coating, and the DI lens did indeed show markedly better contrast and less flare. One would imagine that using these on film SLRs would create a similar benefit.
Pentax U.S.A. announced one of many coming lenses for their *ist D digital SLR. The smc PENTAX-DA 16mm-45mm F4 ED AL lens delivers an angle of view equivalent to 24.5mm-69mm in the 35mm format. The DA-Series lens features a responsive “Quick-Shift Focus System” that allows you to instantly switch the focus mode from auto to manual with a slight twist of the focus ring. The lens also incorporates an Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass lens element and two aspherical lens elements. The image circle in DA-series lenses, including the smc PENTAX-DA 16mm-45mm F4 ED AL, are designed to match the 23.5mm x 15.7mm size of the CCD used in PENTAX digital SLRs. By the way, you can also use just about every Pentax and Pentax mount lens from past SLRs on their digital camera, albeit without some functionality. While many might question the optical quality of such a choice, it sure opens up many interesting possibilities.
DO Labs, a software company that does research on image processing, caused a real stir with their DxO Optics Pro, a program that is said to automatically correct images for distortion, chromatic aberrations, vignetting and blur (lack of perceived sharpness).
According to the company, DxO Optics Pro corrections are objective and 'real' and are calculated by an analysis of the physical characteristics of the optical system. DxO Optics Pro image correction relies on a physical model called a DxO Profile, which is specific to each lens and camera model used. In addition, corrections are fully automatic with no settings and no manual user intervention required at any stage. This allows for seamless batch processing of images. All this works because of a profiling system the company uses and the fact corrections operate locally, on each pixel: Optical flaws impact each point of the image differently -so DxO Optics Pro adapts the correction to each pixel in the image. The software is also said to automatically integrate relevant capture settings (i.e. aperture, focal length, focus distance, etc.): DxO Optics Pro uses EXIF data to fine tune the correction to the exact shooting conditions.
The setup consists of two elements—a correction engine, a standalone Macintosh or Windows based application and a set of DxO Profiles characterizing the optical properties of body/lens combinations.
The company has promised DxO profiles for all significant professional and prosumer digital camera bodies and lenses. The first DxO Profiles available (JPEG/8bit mode) will include: Canon EOS 1Ds, Canon EOS 1D, Canon EOS 1D Mark II, Canon EOS 10D, Canon EOS D60, Canon Digital Rebel (300D outside the U.S.) with a selection of Canon branded and Canon compatible lenses; Nikon D100, Nikon D1x, Nikon D2H, Nikon D70 with a selection of Nikon branded and Nikon compatible lenses; Fuji S2Pro, Olympus E-1, Pentax *ist D, Kodak DCS Pro 14n with relevant own-brand or compatible lenses. Others will follow. All DxO Optics Pro components will be available on DO Labs' e-commerce store, which can be reached via www.DxOPRO.com. Pricing to be announced.
In the End
So, as the guard changes, with what we thought would be here forever going away, there’s no reason to doubt that what at first was a chipping away at film has become a major change in the tools we use to capture and share images. The "threat" of digital has become reality, and everyone is scrambling to get in on the game. In short, the industry has something new to sell, and we’re just about at the point where we can buy it with the confidence that it will actually work. While the road has been rocky, with many ideas, products and promises left in the ditch, we can now simply state that digital's day has arrived.
Copyright © 2003
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