Plugged In: Digital technology comes of new age

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Last year saw digital photography come of age, capable though not yet so mature as to be boring. Surprising new camera models seemed the norm in 2012 rather than the exception.

The digital photography industry is rather like Alaska’s weather. It’s constantly changing. If 2012 didn’t bring you what you wanted, just wait a week or two until the next round of major product announcements at this year’s big Consumer Electronics Show.

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Full-frame cameras are those large black beasts traditionally favored by professional photographers for their great image quality and good low-light capability resulting from their very large sensors. Usually, there were only a few slowly evolving full-frame cameras available during any one year, with each model on the market for three to four years between upgrades and far too expensive for most of us.

Last year saw at least nine new full-frame cameras hit the shelves, some of which were totally new. Several were radical changes. Nikon’s D600 and Canon’s 6D, selling for under $2,000, were the first really affordable full-frame models from these market leaders and, in the case of the 24-megapixel Nikon D600, provided a very high level of image quality despite their relatively low retail price.

Sony shocked the market by introducing a totally unexpected full-frame model, the RX1, that’s very compact, nearly small enough to fit in a large pocket, and complete with a very high-end Zeiss 35-mm lens. Of course, at $2,800, this is not a camera that most of us can afford, but it’s definitely a harbinger of smaller, less expensive full-frame cameras in the foreseeable future. I expect to see an interchangeable lens version from Sony within the next two years or so. I’ll wait for the third annual model and a big price drop before considering purchasing a camera of this sort, beguiling as it may seem in theory.

Nikon’s D800 full-frame series brought professional-level, 36-megapixel resolution down to the masses, or at least those among the masses willing to spend $3,000 for the body, plus more for suitable lenses. Although $3,000 sounds like a lot of money, and it is, that’s far less than the least expensive large-format professional camera with comparable resolution, Pentax’s 645D, then costing about $11,000. Even more startling, the D800 managed to pack that huge number of pixels onto a sensor with exceptionally good low-noise and dim-light performance. That excellent sensor performance may be the D800’s greatest advance, not the sheer number of megapixels.

Nikon’s D800e was an interesting offshoot of the basic D800 series. By eliminating the “anti-alias” filter in the D800e, Nikon somewhat sharpened images made with the D800e, but, by doing so, increased the risk of false color artifacts.

In most cameras, a so-called “anti-alias” filter is placed between the lens and the sensor, slightly blurring the image from the lens to reduce the chance of occasional false interference patterns. These sometimes occur when taking pictures of very small patterned objects like textiles and bug screens. In those occasional instances, the interaction of the sensor’s pixel pattern and the incoming image can result in “moire,” patterns of false color that resemble the spread-out colors from sunlight shining through a cut glass prism. Although these artificial patterns can often be removed using software tools such as Adobe Lightroom, most people aren’t willing to make the effort. As a result, mass-market camera makers always introduced some intentional light blurring by using an anti-alias filter.

Comparative reviews of the D800 and the D800e indicate that there’s not enough improvement in resolution to compensate for the higher level of false color moire. The most significant such review can be found at www. imaging-resource.com and suggests that most users will prefer the regular D800, which costs $300 less.

The D800e was the first mass-market camera to totally eliminate the blurring effect of an anti-alias filter effect, although Olympus’ midrange E-PL series has always used a very weak filter to enhance resolution while reducing the chance of moire. In contrast to the D800e’s total elimination of the anti-alias filter, Olympus’ balancing of these two opposing concerns has been very effective in their midrange E-PL series, resulting in higher resolution without any noticeable adverse effects. Since the D800e shipped, Pentax has placed a similar specialist camera on the market, the Pentax K-5 IIs, which also totally eliminates the anti-alias filter. Pentax claims that completely deleting the K-5 IIs anti-alias filter results in about a 50 percent improvement in overall resolution, although I have not seen any rigorous tests that bear out this claim.

Leica also marched to a different drummer in 2012, placing a monochrome-only Leica full-frame M-series camera on the market. Users claim higher resolution and a richer tonal range, which makes sense given this specialist camera’s unique sensor. However, I’ll have to take their word for this because I didn’t have a spare $8,000, nor the inclination for that matter, to buy a monochrome-only camera body that’s utterly color-blind.

There were a few other surprises. A reinvigorated Sony also marketed a large-sensor ultracompact camera, the RX100. The RX100 seems to be finding a major niche as a carry-anywhere camera among professional photographers. It’s barely larger than Canon’s S110, the smallest serious camera, and fits in a large pocket. The RX100’s design consciously follows Canon’s refined S110 design, right down to the adjustment ring around the lens.

Probably the biggest surprise, though, was the unexpectedly high number of professional photographers who publicly disavowed and sold their expensive and bulky full-frame cameras and switched to Olympus’ OM-D, the first highly compact system camera with professional features and capabilities. I’m one of those people. Although I have no intention of selling my Pentax K-5 and lovely Pentax Limited series prime lenses, I’m definitely using my highly portable Olympus OM-D and E-P3 cameras more than my heavier, bulkier Pentax system. And, it’s worth recalling that the Pentax K-5 used with Limited series prime lenses is probably the lightest, most compact prograde APS-C digital SLR camera on the market.

At least three of the most prominent and serious photo websites named the OM-D as their camera of the year, beating out such formidable competition as the Nikon D800. In a very real sense, the OM-D represents a reversion to photography’s roots, a small camera whose image quality, though not the absolute best, is more than good enough for professional purposes. In that regard, the OM-D’s introduction is not unlike the emergence of the classic Leica rangefinder cameras used by such legendary photographers as Robert Capa during the Omaha Beach landings and Henri Cartier-Bresson as he and other Magnum photographers prowled the world on assignment during the 1950s and 1960s.

While on Micro Four-Thirds cameras like the OM-D, it’s worth noting that the OM-D became a market leader and professional favorite not so much because its image quality is unbeatable but rather because it’s the flagship of a complete system that includes an ample number of excellent yet affordable lenses. Other comparably good compact system cameras like the Sony NEX-6 and NEX-7 are hampered by a paucity of decent lenses.

Olympus had one other positive first in 2012: It put its best 16-megapixel sensor, the same one used in its flagship OM-D pro camera, into every new Olympus Micro Four-Thirds camera, even its low-end E-PM2, which is basically a compact point-and-shoot consumer camera that happens to accept interchangeable lenses.

So, how much do you need? Probably less than you might imagine. While judging the Redoubt Reporter’s Fall into Winter photo contest recently, I noticed that many of the most interesting and creative photos were made with relatively old digital SLR cameras, such as Canon XTs.

Even when first introduced, these were entry-level cameras, certainly not state of the art. However, older dSLR cameras like these, or almost any decent camera for that matter, are more than adequate when used skillfully and in the right circumstances. What really matters in the end is your ability to see fine photographs and to work around the inevitable limitations of every camera.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s