Plugged In: New cellphone gadget rings in photo quality

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

The trend in photographic technology has always been toward increasingly smaller, more portable equipment that’s capable of acceptable or better results. That’s the basic explanation for everything from the first Leica 35-mm camera in 1924 through today’s cellphone camera craze.

Sony, usually so stodgy but recently so innovative, just introduced a seriously cool and interesting smartphone camera module. Sony’s new QX100 separates camera functions into a self-contained detachable camera module that clips onto an appropriate smartphone, such as a Sony Xperia, and then uses the cellphone’s screen and communications hardware to control the camera module, act as a large viewing screen and enable immediate photo sharing. The QX100 camera module works with cellphones that have compatible Near Field Communication.

That’s cool, but what’s cooler is that the QX100 includes the moderately large, 1-inch sensor and Zeiss zoom lens that form the basis of Sony’s high-end RX100 compact camera, but in a much smaller module that slips out of your pocket and onto your smartphone only when needed. The cost of a QX100 module? Five hundred dollars, which is $250 less than a complete RX100 camera with identical image quality.

Battery, SD memory card and lens are all contained in the small, detachable camera module. Sony’s approach makes a great deal of technical and operational sense and utterly trumps the small-sensor camera functions in Apple iPhone and Nokia’s high-megapixel Lumia series.

I’m seriously impressed by the QX100. It’s a radically different yet very practical idea that basically repackages existing high-end photo technology while also building a market for Sony’s new line of smartphones. It may even be enough to convince me to buy a smartphone, in due time.

There’s been a good deal of speculation that Panasonic’s newest top-end Lumix Micro Four-Thirds camera, the GX7, finally ditches Panasonic’s adequate but not state-of-the-art sensor in favor of the same excellent Sony sensor used in the highly regarded Olympus OM-D E-M5 and new E-P5 cameras. Although Panasonic has not confirmed that they’re using a competitor’s digital sensors, the newest DxOMark data suggests that’s precisely what has occurred. Panasonic’s GX7 and GH3 cameras now perform exactly like their Olympus counterparts in such critical image quality parameters like low noise, high ISO capability and high dynamic range. Finally.

For too long, Panasonic ceded the high image quality market to Olympus. With these new sensors, Panasonic flagship cameras are again competitive with comparable Olympus cameras. At this point, though, Olympus uses the same high-end sensor in all of its M 4/3 cameras, even the least expensive E-PM2, while Panasonic only uses that sensor in its flagship models costing $1,000 and up for the body only. Ultimately, though, competitive market forces can’t be denied unless, of course, you’re Canon and continue to use your own out-of-date APS-C sensors that don’t even keep up with smaller M 4/3 systems.

Before leaving M 4/3 systems, it’s worth noting that Olympus just announced a new OM-D E-M1 flagship camera that’s above its existing OM-D E-M5 that made such an impression since its early 2012 introduction. Many professional and other serious photographers, myself included, purchased the surprisingly small, portable and weather-sealed OM-D E-M5 as their primary camera and haven’t looked back.

Bigger, bulkier and blacker dSLR cameras are not always better, despite their imposing bulk that implies serious image quality.

Olympus’ new OM-D E-M1 is a serious professional model that uses to full advantage both current M 4/3 and older Four-Thirds lenses, some of which are among the finest lenses ever offered to the general public. The E-M1 is priced at $1,399 body only, several hundred dollars less than the professional E-5 model that it replaces. With the introduction of the E-M1, Olympus has completely abandoned the moving-mirror digital SLR concept.

Although it has an easy-to-use, point-and-shoot mode, the E-M1 is aimed squarely at photographers that like a lot of dedicated buttons on their cameras in order to change settings very quickly. Except for its larger right-side handgrip and additional buttons, the E-M1 closely resembles the existing OM-D E-M5 in size, shape and weight. The E-M1 incorporates the best features of the E-M5 and recently introduced Olympus E-P5, along with a better viewfinder, even faster autofocus, a newer sensor and removal of the usual filter over the sensor, all in the name of greater sharpness and image quality. There’s a lot to like here, but not enough to justify upgrading from a recently purchased OM-D E-M5 or E-P5.

Along with the E-M1, Olympus also introduced a new, rather large 12- to 40-mm zoom f/2.8 lens that’s part of Olympus’ legendary “Super High Grade” professional series. What’s startling is the price: $999, for what is likely to be an extremely sharp zoom lens. Although this may seem a bit steep, it’s $300 less expensive than Panasonic’s equivalent 12- to 35-mm zoom lens that has received positive but not stellar reviews. Assuming that image quality is comparable to other Olympus “Super High Grade” lenses, then a $999 list price is a relative bargain.

Canon, Nikon and Pentax made halfhearted forays into the compact system camera market. To no one’s surprise, none of those systems have sold well. Only the Nikon 1 system remains viable in the U.S. market, although it’s still significantly overpriced and underpowered. The M series cameras from Canon are being liquidated at quite low prices, as are Pentax’s K-01 and Q series. Samsung’s new NX300 and Android interchangeable-lens cameras have good image quality and good optics but software support by Adobe and U.S. distribution and support remain sketchy.

Sony’s compact NEX cameras combine excellent sensors and well-made innovative camera bodies along with notoriously average optics that show high sharpness in the center but quickly fade as you move toward the edges and corners. With Sony’s investment in Olympus, one publicly announced quid pro quo for the investment was Olympus’ promise to help Sony improve its optics. One hopes.

The best lenses for Sony NEX cameras are often made by other manufacturers, including a few lenses from Zeiss that combine very good optics, sticker-shock prices, and bulkiness that belies the notion of a compact system. Still, the 24-mm Zeiss for Sony NEX cameras is state of the art and highly regarded. Other NEX lenses from Zeiss include a 12-mm ultrawide-angle lens ($1,200 and equivalent to an 18-mm lens) and a more affordable 32-mm normal magnification lens ($900).

Zeiss prices are a bit too rich for me, so I’m pleased that up-and-coming Sigma makes a range of affordable, decent optics for Sony NEX cameras, two of which, the 30-mm normal lens ($200) and 60-mm short telephoto ($239), are spectacularly good, especially in view of their very low prices. Sigma also makes a 19-mm wide-angle lens ($200) that’s decent but not quite as good toward the edges and corners of the frame. On NEX cameras, the 19-mm Sigma is equivalent to a 28-mm wide-angle lens, the 30-mm equates to a 45-mm normal lens, while the 60-mm acts like a 90-mm portrait/short telephoto lens.

Zeiss also sells versions of both the 12-mm and 32-mm lenses for Fujifilm’s well-regarded X series compact-system cameras. Fujifilm, though, makes its own series of lenses for its X series cameras, and most of them are highly regarded, with the exception of its deservedly dissed 18-mm lens ($599, 28-mm equivalent). This lens is average at best. Fujifilm’s 14-mm ultrawide-angle ($899, a 21-mm equivalent) is exceptionally sharp across the frame for such a wide lens.

However, Fujifilm’s 27-mm ($449), 35-mm f/1.4 ($599, normal magnification) and 60-mm ($649, macro and short telephoto) prime lenses all produce professional quality images when used carefully. These equate to 40-mm, 52-mm and 90-mm lenses on traditional 35-mm film cameras. The 18-mm-to-55-mm Fujinon kit zoom lens, which ships with the X-E1 and X-Pro 1 bodies, is much better than the average for kit lenses and may be all that you need.

All of the Fujinon lenses are well-constructed and fairly priced, given their generally above-average quality. Fujifilm’s optical line tends to be rather weaker toward the telephoto end. Recently, Fujifilm has adopted Olympus’ strategy of packaging the same high-quality imaging sensor into a variety of less-expensive, entry-level camera bodies, most recently the X-M1. All of the Fujifilm X series cameras use a unique sensor design that seems to produce very good results, particularly at higher ISO sensitivities.

Art around town

  • Don’t forget about the Redoubt Reporter’s photo contest winners. Starting next week some of our favorite reader-submitted shots in our photo contests will be on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, during September and October. And opening reception will be held in early October. Call the center at 283-1991 for open hours.
  • Kenai Peninsula College’s Gary Freeburg Gallery hosts Richard Eissler’s traditional, film-based photography exhibit, “Thirteen + One,” with an artist’s reception at KPC from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 23. The Gary L. Freeburg Gallery is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
  • Through September, the Peninsula Photographers Guild monthly show can be viewed Monday to Friday during normal business hours on the second floor of the Cottonwood Clinic in Soldotna.
  • Finally, you’re invited to attend the free opening reception for the Kenai Fine Arts Center’s Harvest Art Auction on Friday, Sept. 13, from 6 to 8 p.m., with music, refreshments and beverages. This show includes donated art of all media by local artists. The Kenai Fine Arts Center is at 816 Cook Ave. in Old Town Kenai.

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.

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