This blog is about different types of digital cameras and new options that they offer for making us more flexible and creative. This information comes from a variety of press releases and on-line reviews…not hands on testing. These are just my ideas as to what’s worth having and doing it with what appears to me to be the best bargain it its category.
We’re beginning to see some important technological changes in digital cameras that I think will lead to their being more versatile, convenient, and have more creative possibilities. Before you read my observations, though, let me make it clear that I haven’t done any hands-on testing of any of the cameras I’m writing about. I’ll certainly do that, though, as soon as I can get my hands on one or all of them.
Pocket camera: Canon S90
It’s black, so less likely to be noticed and it’s very small size and lack of an electronic viewfinder make it look “amateurish.” The lens collapses into the body and there are no grips or bumps, so the camera fits really nicely into a shirt pocket.
But the fact that it has amazing software and a larger sensor than any other compact produces images that appear close in quality with some of the APS-C sized DSLRs. And it shoots RAW, so you get about 4 more stops of brightness data than if you were just shooting JPEG.
A compact camera is the best way to get great DoF in low light or macros. You can’t get great blurred backgrounds when you want to fix attention on the subject (as in most portraits and flower photos. However, Alien Skin’s Bokeh plug-in will fix that brilliantly in post when shallow is needed.
Despite the fact that you have to use the huge (3”), bright, hi-def (461,000 pixel) LCD to frame the photos, it works very well in even bright light. You could always put a Hoodman hood or Loupe on it, too…and they don’t cost all that much ($40-$80). With the high res screen, it would be about as good as it can get and be great for shooting movies. It even shoots 640×480 movie clips. Great for when you want to show people how to do something or to make little “stock movies” whilst running around shooting other things and don’t have time to do it with your larger camera.
Since one of the primary uses for a compact is “anonymous” reportage, the S90’s nearly unheard of f/2 lens and ISO 80-3200 sensitivity make it ideal. Since the second most important use comes from “spontaneous macros,” it’s also good to know that you can be in sharp focus as close as two inches from the subject.
I’d really like a camera just like this that was waterproof so I could shoot underwater and in really crappy weather. At least, this one has available an underwater housing. It has a settings ring around the lens, so you can change settings without taking your eyes from the screen. So you could “bracket” scene settings while shooting without taking your eye off the LCD . It also has a fill flash setting. Widest lens opening is f/2.0 zoomed all the way in (great for Sunset scenes). Largest sensor in a compact and CCD sensor and not “overpushed” resolution make for exceptional image quality for a compact…good enough for most commercial purposes. On line test shots at dpreview.com show very amazing noise levels at ISO settings up to 3,200 thanks to great in-camera noise reduction.
Cons: no external flash xcept w/ remote, no viewfinder, LCD doesn’t swing and tilt. Can’t zoom while shooting movies, no remote,
Suggestions: Get a Hoodman. Include HDR and panorama stitching.
Mirror-Free Interchangeable Lens Hybrid Camera
The leaders in this category have been using the 4/3 sensor, ostensibly in order to keep the size of the camera as small as possible. I have, in fact, a Panasonic Lumix G1 that I adore and its tilt and swivel LCD screen is something that every digital camera should have.
Then along comes Samsung with their NX10. Although it has a 60% larger APS-C sensor, it’s actually slightly smaller than the Panasonic EVF cameras and it’s half the price of the top of the line Panasonic and also shoots movies. It is about 40% smaller than the typical DSLR with a sensor of the same size. This makes them a total joy to “run around town” with…especially if you want to use two cameras, but with different lenses.
For $700 with the kit lens, this camera is a way better deal than the higher-end compacts that have SLR-styling with an electronic viewfinder. You do get to see most of the info that a conventional DSLR shows only on it’s LCD, including a choice of grid lines…including that for the Rule of Thirds. Can be had with an f/2 20mm pancake, and the two most common kit zoom focal lengths. There are also 18-200mm superzoom, a 20mm pancake and a 60mm primary on their way. on their way. There’s also an adapter that lets you use your APS-C Samsung and Pentax camera lenses, too.
This camera uses the same 14.6MP Pentax sensor as my favorite APS-C size DSLR, the Pentax K-7. These cameras are great for shooting movies because their large sensors allow for DoF control and they have live view, so you can see exactly what’s happening when the scene is running…and you can do that either through the viewfinder or the camera’s LCD. Big advantage in being able to see what you’re going to get before you shoot.
Cons: I want to see one of these with a full-frame sensor and a tilt/swivel LCD. The LCD isn’t articulated. That makes the camera slimmer, but what you loose is on-the-run image composition flexibility. Damn! No image stabilization in the sensor. No weather-proofing. Only brackets in ½ or 1/3 step increments. Wake up folks! We really need 2-stop steps these days. No option for an external mic.
I wish Pentax would do a 25MP full-frame (35mm) sensor camera with an electronic viewfinder and articulated backlit LCD screen.
APS-C DSLR Cameras
These are pretty much the industry standard for serious amateurs, and the majority of media, event, and stock pros. All the current models in this category act and behave better than 35mm film cameras and can easily give you good enough images for gallery prints of landscapes. If you’re “moving up” to a full frame camera, you’ll still find lots of advantage in keeping these as your second camera or to use in potentially “unsafe” situations. Most full frame cameras cost 2-4 times as much.
Picking the best camera in this category is largely a matter of personal preferences and prejudices. Nikon and Canon lead the pack in terms of sales and this alone gives them some real advantages: A broader range of models, assurance that they’ll keep up with or lead the technology, and dealers even in some of the more remote places on Earth. Besides, they’re what most of the pros have “voted on,” so they inspire confidence in a lot of clients.
If you’re on a budget, though, and want the most “bang for the buck,” my vote is for the Pentax K7. It’s the only camera anywhere near its approximately $950 kit price that has a magnesium alloy weather-sealed body. That can mean a lot when you’re traveling…as I always am these days. It’s also been upgraded to an outstanding Live View mode that features options for a grid, contrast autofocus detection, colored areas to show blown out highlights and shadows and a histogram. Those are all features that I’ve learned to crave because they give me lots more to go on when deciding how I want to shoot an image. There’s also a built-in electronic level function, so you can spend a lot less time in Lightroom “straightening” the horizon and loosing image definition in the process. There’s also automatic in-camera merging of multi-frame HDR images as well as a very nice setting for capturing highlights and shadows that would otherwise be blown out. Frankly, in many situations a single frame image may be the best way to do it anyway because you don’t have to worry about registering multiple images that you’ve hand-held or in which there’ve been moving objects (think traffic in city scapes and sports photography). There’s amazingly good tone-mapping software that can do the job quickly in post production (Photoshop CS5, Photomatix, Topaz Adjust) and you have a LOT more creative control than you’d ever have time to think about “in camera”.
Jumping back to bracketed HDR images: The K7 can shoot a 5 frames per second…nearly twice the sequence speed of all but the very most expensive cameras in this category. Not only are you more likely to “capture the moment” in an action sequence, you can shoot a bracketed sequence for HDR with much lower chance of moving the camera in the process. If HDR is your thing (as it is mine much of the time) here’s a really important thing to note: You can bracket up to 5 shots at up to two stops apart!
Finally, there’s a feature that only appears in three brands of cameras (Olympus, Pentax, and Sony) that I don’t want to have to do without if I can avoid it: In camera image stabilization. I’ve been very pleased with how well my Pentax K-7 handles that…and I work in a country where a tripod can be an invitation to theft if you’re working alone. Some manufacturers are reluctant to include this feature because they make a LOT of money charging extra for stabilization in individual lenses. With these cameras, you’ve got it no matter what lens you use. If you have image-stabilized lenses that fit the mount, you can turn it off in camera and on in the lens…or vice-versa, so there’s certainly nothing to loose.
Almost all the brands of DSLR cameras (and all the brands of hybrids) are including movie-making capabilities in their most recent models, but not all let you focus and zoom while shooting, include the highest resolution and wide-screen options, or have the capabiity of plugging in an external stereo mike. I’m really anxious to do some live podcasts…so that’s a big deal for me. I can’t wait to get my hands on one. Shooting movies with very long lenses with limited depth of field and with fish-eye lenses makes for creative imaging that just can’t be done with your everyday movie camera. Using a large sensor means getting incredible quality.
I wish this camera had a tilt/swivel LCD, but it does have a 3” super-hi res LCD that’s reported to be fairly easy to see in daylight. That’s really important when you’re using it to shoot movies because you can’t do it through the viewfinder (as you can with the hybrids mentioned above).
Pentax has also taken the lead in giving you the option to shoot RAW in either their own proprietary format or in Adobe DNG…a universal format that will never go out of style. Guess which one I chose.
APS-C size sensors don’t give you as much cropping leeway as full frame cameras and some advertising clients tend to look for a pro with a full frame camera because they want the self-assurance that image resolution can be more or less as good as possible. I remember “back in the old days” when I used to haul out a case of Hassleblads to give art directors confidence, then shot with my Nikon to make sure I captured the model’s spontaneity.
35mm Full Frame Camera
There are several things, IMHO, that make a modern full-frame camera an eventually must-have item: Way better low-light performance due to the larger sensor and the ability to make incredibly high-resolution movies. Besides, you usually get 50-100% more pixels and they don’t have to be nearly so close together. So you get higher definition and less noise. Clients like them because they’re “assured” of getting the highest quality image. There’s also a lot of appeal in the idea of being able to shop for a whole army of used lenses at incredibly low prices.
Trouble is, the full frame camera I want hasn’t appeared yet. Sony has one with higher resolution than any other full frame camera (25 vs. 21MP), but it’s low-noise performance isn’t rated much better than that of many APS-C sensor cameras. Furthermore, it doesn’t even shoot movies. It does have in-body IS…so far, a unique thing in the full frame field.
The best alternative, so far, is the Canon 5D Mark II. It gets a way better low-noise rating at high ISOs AND it shoots hi-def movies and has a microphone input.
But what I’m really waiting for is for Pentax to do a full-frame hybrid. Then I can have a hi-def camera that makes great movies and has built in IS and has full time live-view. But PLEASE , Pentax, put a tilt/swivel LCD on the back of it. Without the mirror and the prism, you can probably also beat Sony’s price and we won’t have to put up with that annoying flash hot-shoe, either. Or…Canon or Nikon will try to beat the other to the competitive punch by doing exactly that. IMHO, that will be the beginning of the end for conventional DSLR cameras. Bet I get a lot of “hate mail” for making that statement, though.