Plugged In: Weigh trends before snapping up new gear

Figure 1: XKCD.com

Figure 1: XKCD.com

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Several readers have recently requested some general recommendations about camera purchases. They’ve come to the right place, because we’ve got opinions — lots of them, even a few that are well-considered.

By and large, point-and-shoot consumer cameras are fading away, beset by cellphones on the low end and increasingly sophisticated users on the upper end. There’s also a general sense that current model upper-tier cameras are already more than good enough for most requirements.

There’s little reason to trade up regularly to the newest model unless your existing photo equipment shows some obvious limitations in routine use. Except for entirely new product lines, such as Olympus’ OM-D introduced in early 2012, yearly model changes tend to be incremental at best, mere marketing at worst. With that in mind, let’s consider some trends that might affect purchasing decisions over the next several months.

It’s worth remembering at the onset that virtually every current premium compact camera is capable of making exhibition-quality photographs when used carefully in optimum conditions — often at their ISO 80 or ISO 100 base sensitivity in good light, with properly exposed subjects that are relatively nearby and static. If that’s the sort of photo that appeals to you, if you don’t plan on making 24-by-36-inch exhibition-grade prints and don’t need high telephoto magnifications, then there’s no objective reason to upgrade at this time.

Only if your existing camera gear doesn’t have acceptable image quality or if it’s missing some fundamental capability is there any objective reason to upgrade. “Must-have” capabilities might include the ability to make good images under very low-light conditions or to use superfast shutter speeds at sporting events. Landscape photographers who frequently make wide panoramic photos might consider Sony’s “sweep-panorama” feature a must-have capability.

One of the most logical reasons to buy a larger-sensor camera is that they’re better at high sensitivities, like ISO 1600 or ISO 3200. Each increase in sensor size generally provides about one “stop” improvement in image quality. As a general rule, you’ll get acceptable, though not exhibition-quality, results using a decent, 1/2.3-inch, small-sensor consumer camera up to about ISO 200, while 1/1.7-inch, medium-sensor, premium-compact cameras show excellent quality through at least ISO 400.

Most older, large-sensor, Micro Four-Thirds and APS-C cameras do well until ISO 800 to ISO 1600, while the current crop of Olympus M 4/3 cameras punch above their weight class, doing fairly well through ISO 3200, the same upper limit for acceptably good quality that we find in better APS-C cameras, like the Pentax K-5 II and in Nikon’s older D7000. The best new full-frame models are acceptably good through about ISO 6400, although even these start to show some image degradation under careful inspection by ISO 3200.

Remember that all cameras, even full-frame models, work better at lower ISO settings. Gaining additional operational flexibility under less-than-optimum conditions is the principal reason to use a large-sensor camera with better high-ISO performance.

Try to avoid the illusion that buying yet another camera will automatically make you a technically better and more creative photographer. It won’t. At best it will expand your options. Today’s Figure 1, an XKCD public-use techno-comic, lampoons that gear-head illusion better than any carefully phrased essay.

Last week I mentioned the somewhat unexpected trend toward expensive “prestige” cameras built around a fixed, single-magnification prime lens and matched sensor. By and large, these tend to be more expensive than a comparable digital SLR or compact-system camera outfit with a decent zoom lens or two. The restricted versatility of “prestige” systems, coupled with their high prices, tend to make them an extravagance. There are two potential exceptions, though, both newly introduced and with good image quality.

Pentax-Ricoh’s $800 GR is priced much lower than the next least-expensive compact camera using a large-format APS-C sensor, Nikon’s $1,100 Coolpix A. After carefully comparing standardized test images made by every “prestige” fixed-lens camera, it’s clear that both the Pentax-Ricoh GR and the Coolpix A have superlatively sharp lenses and outstanding image quality, noticeably better than their more-expensive older rivals. The Pentax-Ricoh GR strikes me as having better ergonomics and the best image quality of any fixed-lens “prestige” APS-C sensor camera to date. It’s also the least expensive by $300.

The limitation of these “prestige” cameras, of course, is that they confine you to a wide-angle view of the world. If your main interest is making wide-angle landscape photographs or unobtrusive available-light photographs in tight social situations, then either of these cameras would serve you very well.

There’s another positive trend that may enhance the overall image quality of many newly introduced cameras — omitting the so-called “anti-alias” filter, which is placed between lens and sensor to slightly blur the lens’ image. That’s right — blur the image. Previously, an AA filter was considered necessary in order to reduce the extent of false color “moire” interference patterns in finely detailed patterns. That’s no longer a major problem with the advent of newer sensors, sharper lenses and software that can selectively eliminate moire.

Nikon’s top-end D800e started the trend of totally eliminating the effect of an AA filter, with many pro and semipro cameras following. Deleting the AA filter results in images whose fine detail seems a bit crisper, although the benefit is subtle rather than dramatic, and even then, noticeable only with high-grade optics in front.

I compared standardized test images against identical test images made with the immediately preceding models. Two more obvious comparisons are Nikon’s new filterless D7100 versus the earlier D7000, and Pentax’s K-5 IIs compared to the K-5 II, which is otherwise identical but retains an AA filter. In both examples, the version without the AA filter seemed to show slightly crisper fine detail without noticeable moire. The 16-megapixel Pentax shows a bit more sharpness and crispness than the Nikon D7100, even though the D7100 uses a 24-megapixel sensor. Some of compact-system cameras, such as the Fujifilm X-series cameras, also omit an AA filter as do the midrange Olympus E-PL5 compact-system cameras. Over the next two years, I expect that most higher-end cameras will omit AA filters.

Another current trend, the increased use of 24-megapixel sensors, seems to run counter to improving image quality. At first glance, it would seem that last year’s 16-megapixel standard is passe. However, after making many direct comparisons, I concluded that 24-megapixel APS-C sensors are not quite as good as current 16-megapixel sensors, particularly at those higher ISO sensitivities that are the best reason for purchasing a large-sensor camera in the first place.

For example, at a relatively low ISO 800 setting, Nikon’s 24-megapixel D7100 shows more noise and a bit more image degradation than Olympus’ 16-megapixel OM-D, even though the OM-D’s Micro 4/3 sensor is somewhat smaller. By ISO 1600, the D7100 shows significantly more noise and image degradation than the otherwise quite comparable Pentax K-5 IIs, which continues to use Sony’s proven 16-megapixel APS-C sensor. That result surprised me at this intermediate ISO setting. Nikon’s discontinued D7000, also a 16-megapixel model, does better at ISO 1600 than its D7100 successor. Nikon’s consumer-grade D5200 uses the same 24-megapixel sensor and image processing chip as the D7100, so image quality should be virtually identical to the D7100, quite good but not quite as good as the older 16-megapixel D7000.

Similarly, when comparing Sony’s 16-megapixel, consumer-grade NEX-5n compact-system camera with its 24-megapixel NEX-7 flagship at ISO 1600, there’s no question that the 16-megapixel NEX-5n produces cleaner, crisper image files. By ISO 3200, the 24-megapixel APS-C NEX-7 falls even farther behind. At ISO 800 and above, the 16-megapixel Pentax APS-C cameras all produce cleaner, sharper images than any of the 24-megapixel APS-C cameras, regardless of brand or pricing. I included Canon’s current 18-megapixel consumer and semipro models in my comparisons, but found that Canon’s image noise tended to be slightly higher, even at lower ISO sensitivities. That’s probably the result of Canon’s somewhat dated sensors.

v Interesting new products: Adobe Lightroom 5 is scheduled to ship in June 2013, with quite a number of new and improved features. If you’re in the market for Lightroom, consider deferring purchase until after Lightroom 5 ships. You’ll save yourself an upgrade fee.

v Space photography: I’ve recently come across some really interesting web articles about space photography. It’s unlikely that any of the Redoubt Reporter’s readers will have the opportunity to try out the recommended space photography techniques, but the articles are definitely fun and have the old Soviet-era photos not seen previously in the U.S. Check them out here, here and here.

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.

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