Plugged In: Cash in on trends toward better prices

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

After our last column’s foray into the abstract and theoretical, it’s time to turn our attention to the trends affecting the unusually high number of new cameras announced just in time for Christmas purchases.

Anticipating that these are intended as gift purchases assumes that enough product will be on retailer shelves by December and available for purchase — no sure thing. My personal view is that these atypically late-product announcements represent a shift in the photo industry’s marketing as it tries to remake itself in face of the cellphone camera challenge. As cellphone cameras consume the low-end market, most vendors need to sell higher-priced cameras and multiple lenses to stay in business when faced with a decline in the total number of cameras actually sold.

Several trends seem evident. The most obvious is the continued upscale migration of photographic gear away from low-end consumer cameras toward more capable, interchangeable-lens camera systems. From the vendor’s point of view, this has several advantages.

Recognizably higher-end camera gear becomes something of a status symbol and “lifestyle accessory.” Each unit sells at a significantly higher cost than the prior norm, the simple, shiny consumer camera. There’s also the prospect that newly enthusiastic photographers will upgrade regularly to more capable and expensive models while steadily buying some better lenses, which can be more profitable than selling the original camera.

This changed marketing approach also has its benefits for consumers. When marketing stresses versatility and better image quality, competition pushes vendors to improve quality and features at a faster pace. Focusing on better construction and image quality is a welcome return to past practices of the 1970s and 1980s, when camera gear was expected to hold up well to heavy use for a decade or more.

Some vendors have responded by introducing innovative and better cameras at a lower introductory price. Sony’s new full-frame A7 series, Olympus’ OM-D E-M1 and Pentax’s K-3 are good examples of this trend. These are more-capable, prograde cameras whose introductory prices are several hundred dollars lower than the preceding models.

I suspect that introducing these top-end models just before Christmas is a clever marketing approach. When a model has just been introduced there’s not much market pressure to reduce high introductory prices, and it makes sense for vendors to time initially high retail prices with the peak buying season. By next spring, though, we should see a reduction in retail prices for the same cameras, just about the same time that inevitable bugs are exterminated. So, consider postponing major purchases until retail prices start their gradual decline a few months after Christmas. In the meantime, you’ll find excellent prices now on some very capable models, especially the Nikon D5200, Pentax K-30 and K-5, Sony A58 and Olympus OM-D E-M5.

Realistically, we have passed the point of “good enough,” where most upper-tier cameras are capable of producing professional-quality results without too much fuss. Most currently available “enthusiast” and semipro models, like Nikon’s D7100, Pentax’s K-3 and K-5 series and Olympus’ OM-D models, should be capable of satisfying nearly everyone’s needs for years to come without upgrading to newer models. Even if you don’t upgrade your lenses later, the optical quality of many kit zoom lenses included when you buy the basic camera body should satisfy the majority of users.

Camera styling has separated into two rather opposite trends. One trend, often called modern, styles cameras as a series of smoothly rounded areas without sharply angled areas. Panasonic’s current G6 and GH3 models and Sony’s current A77 and A99 cameras are good examples of this school of styling. I’ve never warmed to this design approach — it seems visually bulky without providing a good grip.

The other trend, retro styling, quite obviously takes its cues from highly successful cameras that have become iconic among knowledgeable photographers. This trend is exemplified by Fujifilm’s X-series cameras, which bear a strong resemblance to M-series Leica cameras used by top international photographers for the past 60 years, by Sony’s new A7 series full-frame cameras that evoke the sharply angled single-lens reflex cameras of the 1970s, and by Olympus’ Pen and OM-D series, whose design and handling follow that company’s excellent cameras of the 1970s and 1980s. There also are strong indications that the new dSLR that Nikon will introduce within the next few weeks will be a very traditionally styled model.

Retro styling often has a major advantage — good ergonomics and comfortable handling. By starting with time-proven designs, retro-styled cameras can avoid some design errors that compromise totally new designs. I’ve found that I prefer this design approach, all else being equal. That, of course, may be for purely nostalgic reasons, but one can’t deny the same general styling approach has worked wonders for the sales of Dodge trucks and other Chrysler products.

Reducing overall camera size while improving features is another welcome trend. Regular readers of this space may recall that I could not comprehend any good reason why digital cameras using smaller APS-C sensors continued to be so bulky compared to 35-mm film cameras that use a larger imaging area. That continuing bulkiness may be due to lingering perceptions in the important U.S. market that big, black and bulky signifies a serious “professional” camera, something that’s no longer true, if it ever was. Think Leica, as merely one obvious example.

Sony’s finally broken through this size barrier with its new A7 and A7r digital cameras that include 24-megapixel and 36-megapixel full-frame sensors in mirrorless camera bodies smaller than dSLR cameras using smaller APS-C sensors. With a quite compact size, relatively low introductory price compared to other full-frame cameras and very high technical specifications, the A7 series is definitely a camera system with great potential. The A7 series seems to embody Sony’s future direction.

The A7 cameras are not fully compatible with any current Sony lenses, requiring Sony to introduce a completely new line of full-frame lenses over the next several years. Still, it’s a welcome break with trusted tradition, similar to the break that Olympus and Panasonic made five years ago when introducing the much smaller Micro Four-Thirds cameras and lenses that are now gaining acceptance by users from demanding beginner through seasoned professionals. The A7 series might do the same in the full-frame market.

Another size-busting model is Panasonic’s petite new GM-1 Micro Four-Thirds camera. Barely larger than a small-sensor consumer compact camera, the GM-1 fits in a large pocket or purse and includes an excellent large Micro Four-Thirds sensor. With the GM-1, Panasonic introduces a new kit zoom lens, an adequately sharp 12- to 32-mm collapsible zoom with an ultrawide-angle through “normal” magnification range.

Several technical trends are noteworthy. Until recently, nearly all digital cameras used a so-called “anti-aliasing” filter over the digital sensor. This filter slightly blurred the image received from the lens in order to avoid artificial false-color “moire” patterns in finely detailed subjects.

Recent improvements in Adobe software and digital sensors have reduced uncorrectable moire. As a result, it’s now become fashionable to totally dispense with an anti-aliasing filter, and it’s omitted by a majority of recent upper-end models, such as the Nikon D5300 and D7100, Panasonic GM1, Sony A7r, Pentax K-3 and K-5 IIs and Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Omitting the filter between the sensor and the lens could, theoretically, improve sharpness, though that’s not always true in practice. And though trendy, completely omitting the anti-aliasing filter is controversial. Without it, uncorrectable moire might occur, spoiling photos.

Pentax has come up with an excellent, surprisingly simple compromise in its new 24-megapixel K-3. Because the K-3 moves its sensor to stabilize image capture, Pentax includes an optional feature that moves the K-3’s sensor just enough to simulate the same effect as an anti-aliasing filter. Turn on this feature and moire is greatly reduced. Turn it off and you have the best possible sharpness from that lens and camera combination. Simple, yet brilliant, and easy to do with Pentax’s existing hardware, as it also would be with Olympus’ similar image-stabilization system.

There’s also the increasing use of electronic viewfinders in place of traditional optical viewfinders used in nearly all dSLR cameras. Well-done optical viewfinders provide a bright image of the photo but result in a bulkier, noisier and more expensive camera body. As electronic viewfinders improved, and they’re now nearly as good as traditional optical viewfinders, it’s become possible to get a perfectly usable eye-level view electronically from the camera sensor. That results in smaller, less expensive but more reliable mirrorless cameras. Sony’s A7 full-frame and NEX camera lines now use only electronic viewfinders, as do all M 4/3 cameras from Panasonic and Olympus, as well as most of the Fujifilm X-series models.

Traditional dSLR cameras used a very fast autofocus system known as “phase detection,” which required separate focus detection hardware in the optical viewfinder. When properly aligned, that sort of phase detection autofocus was very fast and worked well in low light but was prone to focus errors. Mirrorless cameras use a different autofocus system, “contrast detection,” which works directly with the image on the sensor without additional hardware. Contrast detection systems are very accurate with static subjects but tend to be slower than phase detection hardware, especially in dim light or with fast-moving subjects.

As electronic viewfinders improve, there’s been a positive parallel trend toward using hybrid autofocus digital sensors that include both contrast-detection and phase-detection autofocus built directly into the sensor. That’s the best of both worlds, both fast and accurate. It’s clearly the future. Canon’s 70D dSLR and Olympus’ new OM-D E-M1, as examples, include hybrid autofocus.

Finally, as always, there’s a trend to better image quality at increasingly higher ISO sensitivities. Many prograde cameras now do reasonably well at ISO 6400, up from the previously usable ISO 3200 low-light limit.

v The Kenai Fine Arts Center will hold a screening of the BBC Art Film and Discussion Series, “Civilization: The Great Thaw” at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Kenneth Clark traces the sudden re-awakening of European civilization in the 12th century. Informal discussion and conversation follows, the event if free and open to the public. The KFAC also is accepting entries into its annual kids art show, to be displayed in December. Call 394-6306 for more information.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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