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PMA Coverage: EXTRAVICAMS AT PMA '09
The 2009 show is the first in years where the hottest, coolest new products were something other than DSLRs.
bY DON SUTHERLAND


Sony's HX1

March 4, 2009--Las Vegas/PMA- The 2009 show is the first in years where the hottest, coolest new products were something other than DSLRs. There are new DSLRs to think about this year too, but the biggest single trend was reported here yesterday -- all the new trends in point-and-shoots. Yesterday, I enumerated the many features that didn't exist a couple years ago, which now seem almost universal, including face-detection and more recently face-recognition. There's in-camera "pretouching" of photos, zoom lenses with 20x range and higher, HD video recording in "still" cameras, and so on. Since those are the broad trends, today let's look at the opposite -- cameras and features that are one-offs, unique, the first of their kinds. I'm guessing they're not the last.

In yesterdah's descriptions of Sony's new DSC-HX1, I mentioned its 20x zoom lens and the HD video and the in-camera "art" features that come with it. I saved the best for last -- Sony calls it "sweep panorama technology." What it amounts to is the camera shooting a highspeed (10 fps) burst of pictures at full resolution (9.1 megapixels), which the camera then stitches together in a huge panorama. The layout can be horizontal or vertical, or both ("square," for want of a better description). The panorama's angle-of-view can be up to 234-degrees horizontally, and 154-degrees vertically, according to Sony specs. In pixels, the horizontal version would produce a finished picture measuring a maximum of 7152 x 1080.

There's nothing new about stitching frames together to form panoramas. In one form or another it's been available in digicams for a dozen years or longer (and in principal, picks-up where cameras left-off using motors to rotate the lens, writing the image to film in a single exposure -- there were a lot of cameras like these in the 19th century).

Sony's process would seem to add two major improvements to the digital practice. It aligns, overlaps, blends the successive pictures together automatically, with no further attention from the photographer. Many previous cameras have included various guideline systems to help the photographer line the pictures up, but the photographer still had to spend the time and do the work.

Sony's second improvement is the 10fps burst. One of the challenges in shooting pictures for panoramas is that if some object in the field is moving, it may appear in more than one frame. If two identical people are called twins and six identical people are called sextuplets, what do you call ten identical people all in the same picture?

The entire inventory of pictures captured for stitching into the panorama is produced in a second. That's not much time for things to travel. Speeding bullets may exceed this rate of framing, but other subjects -- powerful locomotives, say -- might not. In any case, it would seem that Sony has done much to resolve the most difficult part of producing successful stitched panoramas.

I think that's terrific. I love digital stitching. I've done 360s, 180s, and even pans no wider than 45-degrees, when my normal lens wasn't wide enough for a large subject. Probably 95% of all the panoramas I've worked on since 1998 have been completely successful. That is, they look like a single continuous picture with no conspicuous boundaries between the individual pictures that make it up. Stitching systems are very versatile and address a number of problems photographers constantly face, and stitching software has never been very expensive. Still, they've seemed to be under-appreciated. Sony has introduced a system that kicks-down a few more barriers, and adds that much more value to the already feature-rich digicam.

Sony has every right to be proud of this innovation, and cites a number of proprietary ingredients -- their Exmor CMOS sensor, their BIONZ processing engine -- and no one knows whether other manufacturers would attempt similar systems of their own. If they did they'd spawn yet another trend. But as noted here yesterday, high-speed burst shooting is already a trend in the market, so at least some of the parts of an improved panorama system seem to have potential for evolution industrywide.

DSLRS AHOY

Several other high-end cameras are making their PMA debut, although we've heard -- and in some cases daydreamed -- about most of them during the course of the past year. Their presence at the show confirms their readiness for prime time, or anyhow, their almost-readiness.

Sony's new flagship Alpha, the A-900 with its 24.6-megapixel full-frame imager, was first announced at the show last year, and gave some spectacular results when I tried a pre-production sample last autumn. It's at the show now, in its shipping form.

Also announced last autumn was Leica's S2 DSLR, with an extra-large imager containing 37.5 Megapixels. The camera shows an extravagant attention to detail and completeness as, for example, its new line of interchangeable lenses includes models with their own built-in shutters, supplementing the focal-plane shutter in the camera body. There are times when one type of shutter is better than another, and the new Leica DSLR is the first in the digital firmament to provide both.

Although likened to a "medium format" film camera because of its large image-capture device, the general form of the S2 is that of a regular DSLR -- inspired more by Canon and Pentax 35s than a Rolleiflex or a Hasselblad. It's a large camera, but not that much larger than the high-end pro DSLRs of today. Company reps thought the new Leica would ship in the spring.

Sigma showed mock-ups of their SD-15 last autumn at photokina, and the camera is at the show today. It offers most of the features of the SD-14 but possesses a faster processing engine, and a larger LCD monitor.

Olympus is introducing the only DSLR unseen before, having been announced only a week or two before the show. This is the E-620, the latest contender in their Evolt line. This one features a 12.3-megapixel Live MOS imager, a 2.7-inch swiveling Live View monitor, face-detection, dust-reduction, in-body image stabilization (using the smallest such device, according to Olympus), and a number of "art" modes including "Pop Art" (highly saturated colors), "Soft Focus" (possibly appealing to the latent Julia Margaret Cameron inside all of us). Four more general modes which creatively modify the looks of a picture are built-in.

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