Magazine Article


Digital photokina-Show Me the Money!

Midrange Digicams Are On the March

Higher zoom ratios are among the features we find in digital more abundantly than elsewhere. A 6x range? Check Fujifilm's FinePix S304, with its 3.24-megapixel Super CCD. You won't find many film cameras with 6x zooms. If you do, you'll discover they're rather bulky. Are high-performance optics an acceptable trade-off for maximum enlargeability.

In the 7x zoom leagues, Minolta introduced the Dimage 7 hi, similar in most ways to its 5-megapixel Dimage 7 and 7i predecessors, but with a black finish and several extras that should make it a fine performer in photo studio settings. The Dimage 7 series remain the only cameras whose built-in lenses can zoom out to a 28mm wide-angle equivalency.

Nikon's Coolpix 5700 was announced prior to photokina, but its message reaffirms the high-performance zoom8x this timewith a 5-megapixel CCD.

Olympus introduced two new 5-megapixel models, the C50 and the C5050. Both offer the standard 3x optical zoom, but the latter increases the light-gathering power of the camera with an f/1.8 lens, andin a body form that evolved from the original compact C-2000a magnesium construction. The optical handstands were reserved for the C-730, whose 10x optical zoom comes in a $699 package. You can search a long time before finding a filmcam with a 10x zoom.

Kodak's DCS Pro 14n

It wasn't widely announced at the show, but the Panasonic exhibit included a 2.1-megapixel Lumix model with a 12x Zeiss zoom. The use of such a high-performance lens with a chip that, by today's standards, is entry-level, could possibly get a bit controversial. An argument can be made that the combo is absolutely logical, but it may not be our problem. Panasonic in the U.S. says they have no plans surrounding this camera. Still, the simple fact that a 12x zoom was exhibited gives some further indication of where the performance joyride could lead.

Fujifilm gave another indication at the show, with their M603, a 3.1-megapixel Super CCD-equipped supercompact model that can do full-motion VGA video. That feature heretofore has been a star attraction of the larger S602, now in release in the U.S. The M603 is not currently expected to ship in the U.S., but again it shows where powerful features and performance enhancements are capable of moving.

Canon & Kodak Unleash Megapixel Pyrotechnics

As interesting as the midrange cameras at photokina were, and as provocative a picture of the marketing atmosphere they draw, the real pyrotechnics at the show were in the highest reaches of the market. Two of the majors with interchangeable-lens SLRs broke the 10-megapixel markCanon at 11.1 MP and Kodak at 13.89 MPusing full-frame (24x36mm) CMOS sensors. Those are two triple-headers. First, more than 10 MP; second, full-frame; third, CMOS.

Canon apparently was caught by surprise by the Kodak announcement, as they evidently planned to march into photokina claiming the only 10+ full-frame CMOS imager. As the market stood before the show, this combination of attributes coupled with other serious features (like high burst rates) probably made their EOS 1Ds look like a bargain at eight grand. Most high-end cameras at 5-6 megapixels have MSRPs around $5k, with a camera like the Contax N1 (full-frame CCD) fetching a couple grand more. The new Canon could settle into this niche comfortably.

But the Kodak camera is expected to sell for more like $4k. Its burst rate is slower (about 2 fps) though with a buffer upgrade that Kodak makes available, could go on for 18 frames. Most intriguingly, the camera is made in the good old US of A. Many of the sub-assemblies are purchased from Nikon (originally for use in various Nikon SLRs) and the lens mount is Nikon. But the rest of the camera is Rochester-built. It's been awhile, but several classic professional cameras have been manufactured by Kodak. This could get interesting.

The real question ahead, of course, is: is a 10+ megapixel CMOS chip as good a picture-maker as a 10+ megapixel CCD? Prejudice tells us no. CMOS advocates, on the other hand, have said all along that there's no reason why CMOS performance couldn't equal CCD, and introduce advantages all its own. Meanwhile, if you're targeting the portrait marketwhich for 150 years has found many ways to soften the image to keep the zits out of the pixit's not a bad thing to say that your sharp CMOS sensor is a little less sharp than the CCD model. It's photojournalists and sports photographers who need that extra sharpness, and meanwhile, the portrait studio is one of those operations that stands to save the most by originating their shots digitally.

Here's the rub this time: Neither Canon nor Kodak has really emphasized the portrait market for the new 10+ cameras. On the contrary, with its high burst rate, Canon seems to think its sensor has what the sports market needs. This too could get interesting.

(left) Visitors to the Nikon booth checked out cameras and lenses [Photo by Don Sutherland]. (center) Minolta's new Dimage 7hi SLR-type digicam offers 5- megapixels resolution (right) Sigma's new SD-9 Digital SLR.[Photo by Don Sutherland]

And, Oh Yeah, The Hot Stuff

Seeing as how few of us ever seriously expected digicams to exceed 6-megapixels, the Canon and Kodak announcements had a dazzling effect throughout the Köln Messe. It almost outshone the otherwise big, bright question of the year, what about the Foveon chip? Working models of the Sigma SD-9 camera were not available at the PMA show where the x3 technology was formally announced, but working models were in Cologne. Sigma bravely put a pre-pre-production model in my hands, to play with for a few hours.

What kind of lighting could have been more unfavorable tor testing a camera than the gray, diffused skylight of a soggy Cologne afternoon? A pre-production model of any camera, more than a month before shipments were planned, might be forgiven for going soft in this light, showing noise or color-aliasing in the gray sky. But the Sigma SD-9 did just fine on all counts, capturing all the small details in this shot of the Rhine on opening day of photokina. [Photos this page by Don Sutherland]