Plugged In: Little gadgets can make big impacts

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

There’s something new and cool on the horizon for everyone, even iPad photographers, among the unexpected bonanza of recently announced photo gear, but some dark clouds, as well.

Perhaps most unusually, specialist vendor Photojojo sells a variety of optical zoom lenses that clip in front of an iPad’s camera feature, providing optical zoom functions for both iPad and iPad Mini devices. iPad users need no longer suffer from zoom envy. For $25, yes, $25, your iPad can optically zoom up to 10 times normal magnification, while iPad Mini users have a 12-times magnification option. Of course, image quality using these cheap clip-on zoom lenses in front of your iPad will be further degraded, but on the other hand, iPad image quality has never been in the first rank in any event. Photojojo’s solution is certainly an improvement, and an affordable one, compared to the iPad’s notorious “digital zoom” function.

At least two smartphone makers, Nokia and Sony, are ramping up pressure on Apple. While an iPhone 4 or 5 does include secondary photo functions that are quite adequate for making images posted to social media sites, Nokia and Sony are emphasizing the photographic functions of their new smartphones to an unprecedented degree. If you’re serious about using a smartphone for digital photography, then keep an eye on Nokia’s new 928 and Lumia models, along with Sony’s forthcoming Xperia models. Nokia’s prior 808 combined a decent Zeiss lens and high-resolution sensor to produce photos superior to those taken with any other smartphone. More recent models should prove even better.

As smartphones gradually dominate the low-end photography segment, vendors are increasingly turning to more expensive and profitable premium-compact cameras whose image quality and feature sets are clearly superior. There’s a lot of market pressure, though, on camera markers to cram that image quality and those features into the smallest possible package. That typically requires balancing smaller size against using the larger sensors needed for better image quality and against including useful traditional features, like eye-level viewfinders and lenses with an extended zoom magnification range.

Images from www.camerasize.com. Figure 1 shows a Panasonic LX7 compared to an Olympus E-PM2.

Images from http://www.camerasize.com. Figure 1 shows a Panasonic LX7 compared to an Olympus E-PM2.

Recent technical improvements are easing those demanding trade-offs, though. Panasonic, for example, makes one of the best premium compacts, the LX7 mounting a very sharp and bright Leica zoom lens whose aperture range begins at a startling f/1.4. The LX7 proved that, at least in good light, cameras built around medium, 1/1.7-inch sensors could produce images whose quality rivals those made with larger-sensor cameras. The LX7 is somewhat large, though, rivaling large-sensor Micro Four-Thirds cameras, as you can see in our Figure 1, comparing the LX7 against Olympus’ E-PM2. The E-PM2, built around a much larger Micro Four-Thirds sensor, is about the same size, at least if you’re using a high-quality compact lens like Panasonic’s 20-mm f/1.7. The E-PM2 is somewhat bulkier when used with Olympus’ good 14-mm- to 42-mm kit zoom lens.

Eye-level viewfinders are preferred to rear LCD screens by many experienced photographers, including myself. Eye-level viewfinders are easier to use in bright sunlight that makes rear LCD screens virtually unreadable and are quite useful in steadying a camera when using telephoto-range magnifications. Until recently, only Canon’s G series cameras among premium compacts continued to include a viewfinder in addition to a rear LCD screen. In some ways, dropping those eye-level finders was something of a fad that also reduced manufacturing costs.

Panasonic was among the first camera makers to eliminate eye-level viewfinders in its premium compact cameras. So, it seems fair that Panasonic should be among the first to counter that fad by introducing a new premium compact, the LF1, that again includes a built-in eye-level viewfinder. In this instance, it’s a compact electronic viewfinder that takes its image directly from the sensor rather than a crude, inaccurate optical device.

Figure 2 is a Panasonic LX7 compared to a Panasonic LF1.

Figure 2 is a Panasonic LX7 compared to a Panasonic LF1.

Assuming good optical quality, the LF1 will be a very useful premium-compact and travel camera. On paper, at least, the specs look very good. The LF1 uses a 1/1.7-inch sensor quite similar to the excellent sensor in the LX7, while the fixed Leica-branded zoom lens covers a more useful magnification range equivalent to 28-mm wide-angle through 200-mm telephoto. Even though the LF1 includes features lacking in the LX7, such as a telephoto-range zoom lens and an eye-level viewfinder, the LF1 is a much more compact camera. Figure 2 compares the LX7, on the left, with the newer LF1 on the right. Combining a medium, 1/1.7-inch sensor with much smaller camera size, higher telephoto magnification, and an eye-level viewfinder in the LF1 seems like a winning combination to me, and I am looking forward to comparative tests.

A few other premium compact cameras show potential but their first iterations missed the mark. Canon’s G1X uses a somewhat mediocre APS-C sensor coupled with an excellent lens. Although rather bulky for a premium compact camera, it should be capable of digital SLR-quality images, but its current sensor is not quite up to the competition. With a better sensor, the G1X should shine. Sony’s pocketable RX100 has an excellent, 1-inch Sony sensor but its Zeiss lens just doesn’t have the optical resolution needed to take full advantage of that sensor. If these deficiencies are corrected in future models, the G1X and RX100 would be tough competitors. We’ll take a look at the newest dSLR and compact-system cameras in the near future.

v Lost in the Cloud. Adobe has announced a radically different, more-expensive licensing scheme for future versions of Photoshop — the so-called Creative Cloud. Photoshop 6 will be the last version that you’ll be able to buy as a physical installation disk with a single permanent license fee. Starting with Photoshop versions launched later this summer, users must periodically connect with Adobe’s “Creative Cloud” Internet service and pay a monthly license fee. If you don’t pay the fee, then you’ll be denied access to “Creative Cloud” and your Photoshop and other Adobe CC software will cease functioning. Fees are likely to start in the $20 per month range for simple Photoshop functionality, with increasing monthly fees as additional features and programs are downloaded and accessed.

For years, Adobe, Microsoft and many other software vendors have looked to the Internet as a more lucrative substitute for physical software delivery and single-fee permanent licensing. New Photoshop features, and there are some nifty ones like one-click perspective correction, will be available solely to “cloud” customers paying that monthly fee. New versions of Adobe Camera RAW, which must be constantly updated in order to recognize new camera models, will likewise be restricted to monthly fee customers. Once your photos are in Adobe’s “cloud,” it’s not yet clear how you’ll be able to retrieve them if you cease paying that monthly fee.

Although unrelated to Adobe’s announcement, last week’s sudden crash-and-burn of a prominent Internet photo service, Pixiq, highlights the long-term danger of relying upon anyone else to safeguard your photos and your memories. Pixiq’s owners decided that the service was unprofitable and pulled the plug without any notice nor any opportunity for users to retrieve their photos. According to reliable professional photo websites, content stored on Pixiq is simply gone. I suspect that intellectual-property and class-action lawyers will be minutely picking apart Pixiq’s terms of service in coming weeks, but that’s little consolation to users who have seen their work disappear in a cloud of smoke.

At this point, Adobe’s “Cloud” initiative looks pretty foggy, even stormy, to me. The continuous upgrade and monthly licensing fees make a good deal of sense for professional photographers who use Adobe’s more advanced products in their daily business but it’s likely too costly and hassle-prone for nonbusiness Photoshop users. Adobe acknowledges that serious concerns remain unanswered about later retrieving your own photos should you cease paying the monthly fee and become unsubscribed. You’d think that, if the long-term safety of your images was of major concern to Adobe, that fundamental issue would have been resolved long ago.

What this means for nonbusiness photographers is that many amateurs will find that they no longer want, nor need, the full version of Photoshop. Adobe states that it plans to continue its traditional one-time purchase price for physical disks of Lightroom and Photoshop Elements, neither of which will require any Internet connection nor monthly fee. In fact, a completely new version of Lightroom, version 5, should ship next month. Of course, should Photoshop’s “Cloud” arrangement prove more profitable for Adobe, then Lightroom and Photoshop Elements licensing could change overnight.

There’s another potentially interesting effect: users may be less inclined to upgrade to newer cameras whose RAW formats are supported only by Adobe’s “cloud” products. That may be something of a blessing, forcing users to stay with good-enough cameras and software over the long term, honing their skills and aesthetics rather than constantly upgrading to newer gear before they’ve fully understood their current equipment.

Bargain of the week: Target is selling, through its web store only, new Canon SX150 superzoom cameras for a mere $80 plus shipping. The SX150 has decent image quality and would be an excellent starter camera, particularly for a student.

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.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: Little gadgets can make big impacts

  1. lynton

    How do I purchase the zoom that fits on my Ipad mini?

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