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Digital Deal
photokina 2008: Where does it all fit?


Nikon
Leica
hasselblad
Panasonic
Sony

Much to everyone's surprise, the 2008 photokina introduced entirely new categories of products--cameras the like of which we've never had to interpret before. Before the enormous photo show opened in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 23, the buzz going around the industry Stateside was that we've already seen everything worth seeing. Days and weeks prior to the show, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax had already announced their new DSLR products. Panasonic had announced the Micro Four Thirds system, Epson its new projector, Tiffen its new Steadicam and glass filters. What was a fella to do in Cologne besides admire the architecture and well, okay, if you insist, actually handle the new products you'd read about?

Of course, veteran photokina-goers understood that several companies--Casio, Fujifilm, and Leica among them--normally play their cards close to the vest at photokina time, keeping their new products under wraps until the show actually opens. Each of those companies has been known for innovations and surprises at photokinas past, and they sure raised a few eyebrows at this one. Together with the products that had been preannounced, they portrayed a product landscape in vast transformation. Just when you thought it was safe to relax, now there are altogether new questions customers are going to ask you.

What can you do with a video that was shot at 1,000 frames per second, which the freshly announced Casio Exilim EX-FH20 can do? Is 3-D photography--this time without needing special glasses or lenticular screens over the pictures--poised for a comeback, thanks to a new technology from Fujifilm? What do we mean by "full-frame imager" these days, and what, for Pete's sake, is the "medium format" Leica speaks of in digital? Why would a camera have two separate shutters of two different kinds per the new Leica? With full-motion video now obtainable in high-end DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, should anyone buy a dedicated camcorder any more? Got any snappy answers?

MEGAPIXELS ON THE MARCH

With so much new stuff to figure out, it's comforting to have a familiar, safe old puzzle to deal with, like "how many megapixels do you need?" At one time the answer was "as many as possible--you need 'em for 'resolution.'" Then it became "pixels don't count, it's all up to the lens and quality of the imager." Now it seems to be "as many as possible" again. It's no secret that 10MP now appears in entry-level cameras, and months before photokina opened, at least two DSLRs--the Pentax K20D and the Sony A350--broke the 14-megapixel mark.

Canon one-upped that with the 15.1MP EOS 50D announced shortly before the show, and outdid themselves again with the EOS 5D Mark II, at 21.1MP. Bodies are listed at under $1,500 and under $2,700, respectively--pretty impressive, all considered. The 50D uses an APS-C-sized imager (with specially designed microlenses, which Canon says reduces noise), while the 5D Mark II uses a "full frame" (approx. 24x36mm) imager. Canon continues to offer the EOS-1Ds Mark III, which at 21.1MP is sort of the silverback of the high-resolution full-frame set.

But the march of the megapixels doesn't end there. Shortly before photokina, Sony introduced its flagship, the Alpha A900 "full frame" DSLR with 24.6 megapixels. Its pricing would make it a competitor to the Canon 5D Mark II. Sony gave us a day with a preproduction sample, and though we promised not to print any pictures taken by that early specimen, we can say it was an inspiring day. But meantime, do you see a pattern in all these full-frame imagers? Like, more and more of ‘em?

Leica took the subject around a new corner at photokina, when they introduced the S2 on opening day--all 37.5 megapixels of it. The form of the camera corresponds to the 35mm SLR pattern adopted by DSLRs, but the company has termed it "medium format." That is, its imager is even larger than "full frame"--30x45mm.

Whatever name you give it, the new Leica gives every impression of a killer camera, technically refined to the max. Because of its new, larger imager, it needs new, larger lenses--but while we're at it, why not build leaf shutters into them, in addition to the customary focal-plane shutter of DSLRs? It would give the camera that much more versatility and control when used with flash systems. With this kind of refinement, Leica does express a mindset consistent with the usual shooting environment of medium-format cameras--studios or controlled locations, where elaborate strobe systems light the scene. We're photojournalists ourselves, more concerned with available light and spontaneous events, but we see nothing that would disqualify the S2 from such usage.

If Leica calls their imager size "medium" format, Hasselblad should be justified in calling the one in their new H3DII-50 "large" format. It measures 36x48mm and carries 50 million pixels (50MP). This Hasse probably costs more than your car, but given the probable qualities of its pictures, it's sure to be a moneymaker for those who can use it.

What do so many megapixels accomplish for Joe Foto? Our experience with very high-res imaging systems is that they simply provide a more gorgeous picture. The mosaic of the scene is broken down into finer bits, increasing the visible detail and making the picture more dimensional. At this time 10 years ago, 10MP was unthinkable--and now it's entry level. It would merely be a matter of history repeating for the 20+ megapixel to become a common consumer item before too long.

The necessary infrastructure is already moving into place. Lexar, SanDisk, Panasonic, et al., presented super-capacity memory cards in CF and SDHC formats--up to 32 megabytes. They sell for a lot less than 1GB cards did when they first came out, which is a good thing. More gorgeous pictures are great, but handling so much data takes a lot from a system--not only large and fast-writing memory cards, but vastly more processing power within the camera itself. And the strides being made there are pretty spectacular, too.

THE V-DSLR?

Nikon demonstrated one measure of processing horsepower with its new 12.3MP D90, which, using a DX-format (Nikon-speak for APS-C or equivalent), can shoot full-motion (24 fps) video in formats up to widescreen--HD 720p (1280x720 pixels). Canon demonstrated another measure of processing power with the EOS 5D Mark II, whose full-frame 21.3MP imager delivers video at 1920x1080 pixels and 30 fps.

There's nothing new about shooting movies with digital still cameras, and the mixing of still and motion images proves to be a lot of fun. But these are the first DSLRs to feature video, and with them comes the connotation of professional undertakings--professional video undertakings. Is the dedicated camcorder a dinosaur?

We're disinclined to think so, simply because the form of the camcorder lends itself to certain pro-level accessories that might not be such a great fit on a DSLR--large shotgun microphones, say, or large movie lights. And although the trend in digital camcorders has been toward handful-size packages, there are still plenty of conditions where only a larger, shoulder-rested unit will do (leaving the cameraman's other hand free to do something else, such as hanging on for dear life). Canon themselves may or may not agree with us--as this is written, they've announced a new video made with the 5D Mark II by photographer Vincent Laforet. We'll get to see it in a few weeks and gain a clearer idea of how Canon's pitching this.

Where we expect multimedia DSLRs like these to fit in is more like slideshow cameras. Weddings and other events call for still and moving images at different moments--people saying "I do" probably should be heard as well as seen--and mixed-media practitioners decades ago discovered that still and motion cameras inherently bestow different connotations on their subjects. It's a big story unto itself, but it's hardly arcane. Everyone has seen "freeze frames" on the telly and understands that they represent "key" or "decisive" moments. Since no pro-level equipment for doing it was readily available, nobody talked about it much. Something makes us think the scope of conversation is about to change.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

Panasonic introduced the first Micro Four Thirds camera, the DMC-G1, and their partner in Four Thirds-ism, Olympus, showed a mock-up of a Micro Four Thirds model they've been thinking about. Micro Four Thirds has a lot in common with regular Four Thirds, with a few specifications recombobulated to provide a more compact camera--an interchangeable-lens camera that uses an electronic viewing system. By eliminating the mirror and prism of an optical SLR, a certain amount of space is saved. Technically, the product category would seem to nest between the DSLR as we know it, and the high-end compact. One of the questions retailers are bound to face is, will the customer prefer an EVF camera with interchangeable lenses over an EVF with a superzoom lens permanently built in? There are plenty of cameras with 10x to 20x lenses on the market, Olympus and Panasonic themselves producing some of the best.

There have been non-SLRs with interchangeable lenses before, and there even are today--the Leica M8.2, for example, another photokina release. But decades ago the market showed a preference for through-the-lens viewing with interchangeable lenses, and the SLR became the dominant form. The first Micro Four Thirds cameras are sort of a hybrid between the two older forms, differing from rangefinder cameras via through-the-lens viewing, albeit electronic instead of optical.

A lot of Micro Four Thirds' success will probably depend on the comfort level of the EVF--can viewing be done both through an eyepiece and on the monitor, will the image on the latter be strong enough to withstand direct sunlight outdoors, will the eye-level EVF correctly reproduce tones and contrasts in a scene? Will it add features that optical SLRs can't, such as showing the results of image stabilization when a moving-imager system is used, or even reproducing exactly how the picture will look if made at various exposure settings and "looks" selected by the user?

There are principles of the EVF that give it grounds for competing with the optical SLR, just as lenses of reduced sizes, Micro Four Thirds specials, could enhance the compactness wrought by the reduced viewing system. The objective in competing with permanent-lens superzooms is that those lenses are generally recessed into the camera body, whereas the entirety of an interchangeable lens hangs off the front.

Although less pyrotechnic in scope, other new cameras presented at the show deserve mention. Pentax introduced the K2000, their newest entry-level DSLR, bringing their DSLR line to a total of three. Also building a fuller line is Olympus, which showed a mock-up of a new DSLR similar in appearance to the outstanding E3--a camera we've been using for a year with increasing ardor. The new model will read much the same on the spec sheet, but it's not expected to share the splashproof construction. And Sigma announced the SD15--much the same as the SD14 (reviewed last issue) but with a larger monitor screen and a new processing engine said to make the picture even more perfect.

photokina 2008 was a surprising show. Many folks expected an anticlimax, since many products were already preannounced. What it turned out to be was more like a lens, bringing a very broad plane into focus--not just new products, but new trends, entirely new directions, and completely new questions we can hardly wait to start answering.


   







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