Magazine Article


Stratozoomers Touch Down at PMA 2004

As far as stratopixel cameras are concerned (that is, a very high number of pixels), we saw at least two new ones at the show-the long-awaited Fujifilm Finepix S3 pro, and the Kodak DSC-SLR/n with about 12 and 14 megapixels respectively.

Details were sketchy on the Finepix S3, although some of the specs were available. Maximum picture size is 4256 x 2846 pixels, which is a rather large image-definitely in the stratopixel leagues. The camera will be fitted with an SR-type Super CCD, the style that has pixels of different sizes for improved sensitivity and resolution. While its performance remains to be proved by our through-the-wringer review process, past generations of Fuji's Super CCD have been winners. Unlike previous Finepix pro models, which used modified Nikon 35mm camera bodies as the repository for their imaging chips, the S3 uses an all-new body of original design. Fuji tells us to expect the new model maybe around the late summer-which starts to sound photokinaish to us.

Kodak's new SLR/n has specs that read very much like last year's 14n-same stratospheric pixel-count, for example (13.89 million, close enough to round-off to 14-megapixels) and about the same price as the original when it made its debut (around $5k). However, it comes with twice the amount of in-camera RAM (512MB standard), plus an all-new CMOS imager and, for the most part, newly redesigned internal electronics.

Kodak is claiming a much-improved picture from the standpoint of noise (grain), compared to the 14n. The earlier camera produced magnificent results at its lower ISO equivalent settings (see our review in PTN, 7/03), but tended to be noisy at the higher settings. 'Tis no longer true in the SLR/n with its new imager and circuitry, Kodak tells us. Meanwhile, the 14n, whose performance suits many studio and event photography applications, will remain on the market at substantially reduced prices (we've seen it offered as low as $2,800).

In addition, Kodak offers to upgrade existing 14n models to something closer to the SLR/n. That is, for about $1,500, they'll swap the old imager for the new, along with the mainboard of the camera. It won't completely become an SLR/n, Kodak reps told us-it'll be more of a 14n-1/2. We'll have more details soon, as the camera is shipping as you read this.

Konica Minolta also showed a new DSLR in the form of a mock-up of the Maxxum 7 Digital, but it was too early in the game to know whether it's constructed for the prosumer or pro. Its 6-megapixel imager could swing either way, of course, as could its use of Minolta A-mount lenses. The camera will employ the CCD-shift image-stabilization technology popularized in the splendid A1 prosumercam (and reprised in the 8-megapixel A2 described here last month) with the intriguing distinction that it would stabilize the image with all lenses mounted upon it-and not just "image-stabilized lenses."

Nikon formally introduced its 6-megapixel (3008 x 2000) D70 at the show, a prosumer DSLR intended to supplement according to reps, not replace, the already splendid D100. Priced at $999 for the body, and about another $300 for a new digital Nikkor lens offered as a companion, the camera targets the very customer that might be attracted to permanent-lens stratozoom models. However, Nikon reps at the show were fond of demonstrating how the new model could shoot almost 150 frames in a single burst. Although such extravagance would have restricted value in the traditional worlds of photography, the multimedia age-where animation techniques are often called for-make such capabilities very interesting.

Nikon cites 25 custom settings in the D70, which is a lot of custom settings. Many consumer cameras provide custom settings too, so we shouldn't think of them as a "professional" feature as such. Yet pros are more likely to rely on them, and the presence of 25 in the D70 makes one wonder whether someone besides prosumers were in the back of Nikon's mind when the new DSLR was conceived?

Although these five DSLRs made up the "introductions" at the show, there were several others making their "show debuts" even after a few months on the market. And unlike the "introductions" that await our official cruelty tests, the "show debut" models have gone through some amount of our tortures. Each of these three cameras-the Olympus E-1, the Pentax *ist D, and the Sigma SD10-has something special about it. Our in-depth reviews are in the works, and we'll have the details for you soon.

Suffice it that with the three "show debut" models and the five "intros," the DSLR market clearly achieves heights of performance we only dreamed about back in the twentieth century.

The Stratozoomers

On paper at least, many of the permanent-lens cameras so greatly exceed traditional prosumer models that, as a group, they deserve a new name. Our candidate is stated in the subhead above.

The stratozoomers would, again, include the 8-megapixel fixed-lens models described here last month. But there was also a subgroup of the stratozoomer models-none with 8-megapixel imagers, but plenty with high-performance zooms. Just about everyone had one.

Fujifilm's S20 with its 6x f/2.8 lens is intended, company reps tell us, more for the "pro" than the "sumer." Not the knockabout pro who shoots the rapids or works in earthquake zones, but the studio pro who may, for example, have clients over to watch the shoot. Or, outside the studio, maybe he works in the reception hall where the guests want pictures. Assisting such endeavors is the IEEE-1394 feed from camera to an external monitor. It lets people at a distance, or in crowds, see the pictures on-screen.

By adding these particular couple of features, Fujifilm develops a rationale for pitching a market different than others do, without detracting from the general-purpose snapshot pitch. Some sharpshooters may wonder why they're paying for the "extra baggage" of, say, the FireWire feed, but every photographer can ask a similar question about every digicam, at least on the high-end market. For all of them contain a zillion features that only a few customers will ever use-indeed, most cameras these days contain features that actually contradict one another, if not canceling each other out.