Magazine Article


Digital photokina-Show Me the Money!

Bravely, because conditions could not have been more unfavorable for a camera test. The weather outside was gray and drizzly, with nary a hard edge. Into this diffusion they sent me with their only free optics, a 15-30mm zoom, so whatever I did find in that cotton-candy world was made all that much smaller by the wide-angle lens.

The foregoing would read like a good apology if the system produced soggy results. Fact is, the Sigma SD-9 put a right snappy edge on a naturally mushy scene. This was not the bowl of oranges, keylit from one angle and fill-lit from another, that manufacturers love to show for demonstrating sharpness. This was a town enshrouded, yet the girders on the bridge, the ropes on the tugboat are defined without question. However it did it, this camera delivered a digital picture that I'd be inclined to call state-of-the-art. [Ed. note see River photo on page 24]

The software for downloading and opening the SD-9 files gave an impression of expansive potential. All kinds of things to play with. What I saw struck me as an enthusiast's or pro's form of software, more than the raw beginner's. But with a MSRP around $1,800, and a street price predicted at $1,500, this camera should be making some noises by the time you read this.

How Large Is 4/3-Inch?

When the 4/3-inch standard was formally announced at the Olympus press conference at photokina, a British journalist arose and, with conviction ringing in her voice, implored the developers to use the metric system instead of calling it 4/3-inch. Presumably this

Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter, shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30 years. His first article predicting the future of digital photography (1976) is becoming truer and truer. Don is a photo historian as well as futurist, and is author of the immortal slogan, "If you have one foot in the future and one in the past, you understand the present perfectly."

would result in the proposed standard being called "4/3-22.5." The Brit's confusion is understandable. Four-thirds of an inch would total an inch and a third, of course, an even more cumbersome figure to cope with. What didn't come across to the representative of the Empire is that it's not four-thirds of an inch that's under discussion, but rather an imaging chip with a 4:3 frame ratio and an inch of space on the diagonal. Well, about an inch. Twenty-two point five millimeters, according to one source.

The adoption of this standard across many brands, say its advocates, principally Olympus, would result in a standardized set of lens specifications available across all makes, optimized specifically for the requirements of a digital target rather than film. Since the 22.5mm diagonal is less than half that of the 35mm frame, the result would be lenses that are smaller in diameter and shorter in length, and faster in maximum aperture. No one disputes the attractiveness of all that.

The lenses could also be "smart," according to advocates in Cologne, without volunteering what it meant for a lens to be "smart." However, already we know that some cameras with dedicated lenses also have algorithms dedicated to correcting known aberrations of those lenses. Olympus lays claim to some of this correction, and Nikon just announced new firmware downloads for the D1x that correct for the tendency of lenses to grow slightly darker at the corners. We're told we'll hear more about this around PMA time, when the Olympus interchangeable-lens SLR will also be a bit more than the "balsa" mockup we saw in Cologne.

The other main supporter of the 4/3-inch standard, Kodak, is also a supporter of the almost-opposite, the full-frame sensor. With a full-frame (24x36mm) sensor, who needs to worry about the notorious (but not always disadvantageous) "magnifier effect" of 35mm lenses?

With Canon joining Kodak in the full-frame sensor game, I wondered if the incentive to back the 4/3 standard might be diminished. Advocates think not. There have always been multiple standards in film (35, APS, medium-format, etc), each with its own advantages, so why not duplicate the act in digital? Meanwhile, the very first camera to offer a full-frame CCD, the Contax N Digital, should soon offer an expanded range of compatible lenses, according to Kyocera's new president, Ben LaMarca.

This photokina was the first event in the second decade of digital photography. The emphasis on reduced prices for the entry-level masses was there, but the excitement was in the midrange and high-end. More and more is offered, with ever-increasing potential. As John Knaur at Olympus put it, "after ten years, we think we know all about digital photography. But we're just at the beginning." ptn