Magazine Article


Tomorrow's Generics Today

Sony's first DSLR camera, the A100
Sony’s first DSLR, the A100, incorporates a dust-reduction system, an idea that may soon be ubiquitous.
Olympus Evolt E-330 camera
The Olympus Evolt E-330 had the distinction of being the “first 21st-century SLR”: it featured a live feed to the camera monitor, plus an optical SLR viewfinder, all in the same camera.

And maybe dust did more than just make spots on film. Maybe it also scratched the film as it wound up on that spool. There’s no reason to think dust-reduction systems would have been unwelcome a half-century ago. The point is, today, practically overnight, we have it. And the reason we have it is that we have new technology that permits it.

We have it in four makes of cameras, anyway. So far as we know. Will there be more? Que sera, sera. But we would make book on it. For now that we can do it, we’d be nuts not to. Or, if not nuts, at least at a competitive disadvantage in the market.

Old Lines of Thought Expanded

Another feature in the new Sony is in-camera image-stabilization. Whether this is a Sony invention or a development of the Konica Minolta system they inherited, it is another hot feature that we’ve dreamed about for awhile. Image-stabilized lenses have been with us since the 1950s or before, using a variety of approaches to reduce blur created by camera shake at slow shutter speeds. Both of the “top” SLR companies, Canon and Nikon, believe in its importance, as they both offer image-stabilized lenses to put on their cameras (and Sigma makes image-stabilized lenses, too).

Certainly, image-stabilization has benefits that are not limited to interchangeable-lens cameras. Any camera likely to be used in low levels of light can get something from it, and that something increases along with focal length. Long telephoto lenses need more image-stabilization than normal or wide-angle lenses do. Manufacturers from Kodak to Konica Minolta to Olympus to Panasonic included image-stabilization in cameras they sold with permanently mounted lenses.

Konica Minolta was the first to provide image-stabilization using a moving imager, in their A1 and other fixed-lens models. It was a good idea, but putting it in an interchangeable-lens camera like the Maxxum 7D was pure genius. Once it was there, it made every lens effectively image-stabilized. You paid for it once, and got it forever.

This was another exclusive of digital cameras. You probably could invent a mechanism that would rapidly shift a strip of 35mm film up and down and side to side and maybe diagonally inside, but it wouldn’t have been very, among other things, compact.

We were among the first to try the 7D for review, an early preproduction model put in our hands by a KM representative who was otherwise on his vacation. In our report, around this time two years ago, we estimated that the KM Anti-Shake (AS) system provided a 2-EV improvement when turned on in the digital Maxxum, compared to turned off. That is, if you were hand-holding at a 15th of a second, the correction made by the AS produced the equivalent of hand-holding at a 60th of a second.

Most people can’t hand-hold adequately at a 15th, but most can at a 60th. This was not an inconsiderable improvement in camera performance, and we predicted that it could go somewhere. If, that is, it turned out that a CCD assembly that moves around is as durable as one that’s nailed down.

So we took the Maxxum 7D, and later the similarly equipped 5D, to all the harrowing places we go to take pictures. We went out on tugboats and barges, places of great bumps and splashes. We went to the Gulf Coast for Hurricane Rita. Back home, we blasted around the countryside in a 15-year-old Suburban, which we consider a truck more than a luxury limo. We still use the two Maxxums, and after two years they’ve required no servicing.

Jitterbug Imagers on the March

The durability question could have arisen once more at the beginning of January, when Pentax first showed their own version of a moving-chip stabilization approach. Sure, the KM mechanism had proved robust, but this was another design. Would it stand up, too? Actually, looking at the mechanism at work, there’s reason to think it might be even more robust. And if Pentax had it, could Samsung be far behind?

A couple of weeks after our introduction to the Pentax moving-imager design, KM announced they were going out of business. Sony would take over some KM patents, and we wondered if the AS patents were included.

The Sony Super SteadyShot system, a moving-imager stabilization system in its DSLR-A100, claims a 3-EV improvement switched on versus off. After the KM system was generally ratified by reviewers at a 2-EV improvement, the 3-stop figure began popping up—Nikon used it for their subsequent image-stabilized zoom lens, too. This would provide an improvement along the lines of, you’re hand-holding at an 8th of a second, it’s still like a 60th.

Back when the two Maxxums were the only cameras with internal image-stabilization, we decreed them to be the best DSLR values in their respective classes. There’s plenty to say for their competitors, too, but transforming all lenses to image-stabilized, instead of paying twice the price for image-stabilized lenses could be a source of a savings hitting the thousands.

There’s been a first, second, and third camera brand with internal image-stabilization in DSLR bodies. The first, Minolta, now belongs entirely to the history books. But the second and third are with us, and we wonder how other manufacturers would compete against the idea.