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Stratozoomers Touch Down at PMA 2004



High-end, high-performance cameras were all over the place at the PMA show, in two distinctive styles at that. First there were the DSLRs, five all-new ones making their debut at the show. Then there were the stratozoom models (or stratospherical, that is, a word we made up for very high zoom ranges) with their 6x, 8x, 10x, and even 12x non-interchangeable zoom lenses. And all of a sudden, something long taken for granted started to demand reconsideration.

It's always been easy to say when someone should buy an interchangeable-lens camera, and when they should buy a permanent-lens model. Need lots of optical versatility? The default reply has always been, you need interchangeable lenses. But now there's a catch. How do you define "optical versatility" in the age of 6x, 8x, 10x, and even 12x stratozooms?

If you rummage through the camera bags of the first thousand photographers you meet, you'll probably find that the 900 best-equipped have lenses that range from 28 to about 280mm, probably with maxaps (our new term, in the age of the acronym, for "maximum apertures") in the area of f/3.5 or f/4.5. Covering that range with modern interchangeable lenses requires, probably, two for a 35mm film camera-roughly a 28-75mm, and a 70-280mm.

If you don't like zoom lenses for your interchangeable-lens camera, you might obtain four lenses of the non-zoom type -say, a 28, a 50, a 150, and a 280mm. Why eschew zooms? Maybe because more non-zoom lenses are available with faster maxaps-f/1.8, say, or f/1.4. There are at present no f/1.4 zoom lenses on the market, outside of the motion picture business.

Theoretically at least, and all other factors equal, a non-zoom lens is optically superior to a zoom lens at the same focal length. The reason is that lenses have flaws that must be corrected through optical design, and it's easier to correct for one focal length in a non-zoom lens than for many in a zoom.

Interchangeable lenses also come in special varieties, such as fisheye and perspective-control (or shift). No zoom lens creates fisheye (circular) pictures without an adapter, and there are no zooms with perspective-control.

So to summarize, what do we get with interchangeable lenses that we don't get with stratozooms? Fisheye and perspective-control and faster maxaps all have their fans. But probably not many. Or not many compared to those who simply want the optical versatility they get from a 28-280mm range of lenses. Do they care if they get that range from one, two, or four lenses?

In other words, the main reason people want to switch lenses on an interchangeable camera has been co-opted, maybe, by a new breed of permanently-mounted stratozoom cameras.

How New is New?

We can't correctly say that stratozooms are a new optical concept. The 10x range was common, even in the consumer market, in the days of super 8 movies. Professionals shooting 16mm movies also had (and have) wondrous optics like the Angeniuex 12-120 as far back as in the 1960s. Television broadcasters, who could safely sacrifice the maximum optical correction in the low-resolution TV picture, even had 20x zooms. And at the very dawn of the consumer digicam market, in the pioneering days of 1998, Sony offered the ambitious DKC-ID1 camera with SVGA resolution and a 12x zoom.

There's a pattern in the foregoing, of course. Super 8 and 16mm movies, TV imagers and the still-camera CCD embodied in the DKC-ID1 all are smaller than the 35mm film frame, so they can be covered, optically, by a correspondingly smaller lens. An interchangeable 10x stratozoom lens for a 35mm camera would be, in most cases, enormous (there have been exceptions in the Tamron line, among possible others). So, for the most part, traditional zoom lenses for 35mm cameras have been restricted to 3x ranges. In more recent times we've seen 4x and 5x lenses in relatively compact form-they're wonderful lenses, but nowhere as flexible as the 6x to 12x stratosphericals all around the PMA show floor.

There have been stratozoom cameras before, but seldom still-image cameras capable of professional-quality results-what we know now as prosumer models (one term we didn't invent, thank goodness) and professional DSLRs. Now, as we found at the show, they're among this year's hot trends.

Along, of course, with this year's other hot trend, interchangeable-lens DSLRs.

We asked a few marketing reps at camera companies what they make of this new development? How will you differentiate stratospherical prosumer fixed-lens cameras from interchangeable-lens prosumer cameras, we asked? Usually, there was a pause before the answer. Then, "We haven't really given it that much thought," was the essence of the reply.

Time to put on your thinking caps, kids.

The New DSLRs

In the case of some DSLRs, the question is moot. Canon's new EOS 1D Mark II, for example, is considered a professional camera as opposed to prosumer. The Digital Rebel is, by Canon's definitions, a prosumer DSLR. The Mark II, by comparison, is festooned with gaskets and seals to keep stuff out (like water and dirt) and contains a shutter we're told has been tested to 200,000 exposures. That's 50,000 more exposures than Canon claimed for their top-rung pro models of the past. Not only is a professional more likely than a prosumer to shoot that many pictures over a few years, he's also likely to work in conditions that require the durability a 200,000-exposure shutter (stratoshutter?) implies. Also, a professional is more likely to invest four grand in a camera to make a living by.

We went into the details of the Mark II last issue, where we covered the 8-megapixel trend-the third biggie at the PMA show this year-which, to save space, we won't redocument this time (if you don't save your back issues of PTN-shame, shame on you-you can always look the article up on our website). We bid you, bear in mind that most of the 8-megapixel prosumer models would come under the definition of "stratozoom models" as we've stated it.

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