PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

9Jan/124

More Stuff On the Way

Updates...

19Oct/105

Nikon D700 Re-Review

The D700 strikes a balance of practicality and quality that is rare in any kind of product.  Although it’s no longer the latest model on the shelf, it delivers useful images under more adverse conditions than almost all other cameras on the market still today.  It remains a large and heavy camera however, and in my opinion that interferes with the journalistic style it is otherwise ideally suited for.

8Jun/101

Photokina 2010 Predictions

We're just entering the "pre Photokina" period,  a period always rich with rumors, leaks, pre-launches...

Here are my predictions for this season's big events:

Nikon

For Nikon I see some really obvious things, and little room for the anything else.  I think we can predict exactly what's going to happen and the disappointing part (no micro) shouldn't be a surprise.

For sure: some beginner junk.
For sure: amateur D90 replacement with 1080p video.
For sure: amateur 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 VR (or similar) to go with the new body.
For sure: professional 85mm f/1.4, with or without VR.
For sure: enthusiast 24-120mm f/3.5-4.5 VR.
Maybe: enthusiast FX body with D-movie.
Maybe: enthusiast telephoto lens (70-200mm f/4 VR or 300mm f/4 VR or 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR or 200mm f/2.8 VR).
Epic fail: no amateur/enthusiast micro camera with interchangeable lenses.

Canon

For Canon I see a similar certainty in the future as with Nikon, but I think there's a small chance we'll be very happily surprised.

For sure: some beginner junk (but less junky than Nikon's).
For sure: professional 1Ds Mk-IV with 2K/3K/4K video and/or RAW video.
For sure: amateur 60D.
For sure: professional 35mm f/1.4 Mk-II.
Maybe: enthusiast 17-40mm f/4 Mk-II.
Maybe: enthusiast 400mm f/5.6 IS.
Epic fail: no amateur/enthusiast Canon micro camera with interchangeable lenses.

Sony

Sony has some predictable things coming, but mostly it's all up in the air.  It would be tremendous of Sony did something with their HEXAR intellectual property.

For sure: amateur NEX camera, to complement the current beginner crop.
For sure: an enthusiast NEX lens that hasn't been pre-announced yet, maybe Zeiss-designed.
Maybe: a full-frame NEX in a rangefinder styling.
Epic fail: no missed opportunity would sink Sony this year (thanks to NEX).

Zeiss

Zeiss is a real wildcard this year.  They have one thing we're pretty sure is coming, but anything else is anyone's guess.  They have a really Epic opportunity to shine here but will they seize it?  We'll find out.

For sure: professional 35mm f/1.4 for ZF/ZE/ZK.
Maybe: professional 200mm f/2.8 for ZF/ZE/ZK.
Maybe: enthusiast ??mm f/?? for ZM, I just can tell which, a 28mm f/2 ASPH would be nice.
Epic fail: no Digital Ikon. (*)

(*) God I wish. I wish so much. Shit, now I’m wishing again.

Leica

Leica did so well last year that I think they can ride out this year, litterally coasting.  However a couple new things would go a long way.  They also have a huge opportunity with the micro-cameras gaining momentum - technically they are not competing, but in the hearts and minds of many they actually are - Leica should capitalize on this.

For sure: nothing is for sure with Leica.
Maybe: enthusiast 90mm f/2 APO with floating element.
Maybe: enthusiast 28-35-50 f/4 Elmar ASPH II – I predict this is coming, but maybe not this year.
Maybe: enthusiast ?? camera, like an X1 with a lens mount and an EVF, that would be amazing.
Epic fail: Leica doesn't have any "must have" this year.

Sigma

Sigma got a few things really right recently, and their push on classic primes has ways to go yet.  I hope they take it much further.

For sure: another refresh of beginner "2nd lens" kit lenses.
For sure: enthusiast fast wide-angle prime (21mm f/2, 24mm f/2, 28mm f/2 or faster).
For sure: amateur lenses for micro-4/3, preview only not hard launch.
Maybe: enthusiast telephoto primes (200 f/2.8, 300 f/4, 400 f/5.6).
Epic fail: no amateur/enthusiast micro camera with interchangeable lenses.

Panasonic

I really don't expect much from Panasonic this fall.  I think they will only refine what they already have on the market today.

For sure: amateur updated GF2.
Maybe: any number of 100 things.
Epic fail: nothing would hurt Panasonic if was left undone.

Olympus

I have higher expectations of Olympus, because they have stirred up associations to a glorious past.  I want to see a micro-4/3 that feels like a rangefinder.

For sure: nothing is certain for Olympus.
Maybe: enthusiast EP-3 with a built-in EVF in an RF styling.
Epic fail: nothing is terrible for Olympus either.

And now we wait.

Cheers,

Olivier

27Mar/107

Commentary : M9 analysis by DXO

This week some absolutely-completely-expected data from DXO came out for the M9 and the web forums caught fire.  All the usual tripe came out – cheaper cameras push better pixels.  Yes!  Whatever!

I’ll say my position on this: Leica’s cameras are desirable only because they mount Leica’s lenses.  If the M lenses weren’t so exquisite or so small, Leica probably could not sell M cameras above their manufacturing cost.  However, support for M lenses without cropping is a significant cause for enthusiasm about the M9.

In my humble opinion, the serious M9 buyer isn’t buying the M9 because it’s the best sensor in the business.  To a first order the M9 is only required to not suck eggs because it uses M lenses the way they were intended to be used.

Now, let’s see if we can make more sense of all the predetermined-yet-controversial data.

Here’s a comparison that speaks to me, from first-hand experience:


I’m sorry DXO, I wanted to link to your widgets but I have no idea how to make that work with my blog software.

The D80 was a good camera.  Under ISO 1000 the D80 delivered excellent results in my hands, even indoors, and even in crappy light.  When I paired it with a Zeiss lens the D80 just roared to life and produced results way above its price tag.  I probably came close to extracting maximum image quality from the D80 towards the end of my time with it, and those images still look as good as the best images I’m taking today.

The D700 is a better camera.  Purely judging from pictures, upgrading to a D700 brought me 1 extra stop of dynamic range and 2 extra stops of sensitivity with acceptable noise.  DXO agrees with both, note.  However, these aren’t all the improvements in the D700, and there are plenty of conditions where they are basically moot.

In my review of the D700  (forgive the bad product photography, not my cup of tea) I concluded that the D300 would have been a better choice, because it has all the same non-sensor improvements for half the price.  A year later, still with the D700, my final verdict comes down to the crop factor or lack thereof.  I’m very happy with the D700’s sensor but basically because of its physical dimensions.

One thing that the D700 did not terribly improve over the D80, and DXO doesn’t take into account much, is resolution.  DXO noise results do account for resolution in a way, but they never tackle the subject of image acuity and microcontrast.  In this area the D80 and D700 definitely fall within 10-20% of each other and the M9 ought to trounce both (expect ~50 better).  If any camera system can actually deliver a perfect 18MP image sample it’s the M system, as opposed to Canon’s APS-C system, say.

Let's combine the DXO data with other M9 facts to draw a bigger picture:

  1. The M9’s color depth is only slightly better than the D80.
  2. The M9’s dynamic range is halfway between the D80 and D700.
  3. Low-light ISO on the M9 is maybe a half-stop better than the D80.
  4. The M9’s image acuity is about 50% better than the D80 and D700.
  5. An M9 with lens is less than half the size and weight as the D700 with lens.

That’s a very good balance – I would gladly give up some high ISO performance for greater acuity and shoulder relief.  Especially if I can make up some sensitvity loss by leaning on fast Leica lenses, and here the trade-off gets really interesting.

As you know, I own a Zeiss 1.4/50 Planar ZF.  You may not know that I simply do not shoot this lens at f/1.4, ever.  At this aperture the bokeh is ugly and distracting, micro-contrast is lost in various fringe effects, and it is extremely difficult to focus closer than 12 feet if ambient light is low.  I use this lens starting around f/2.4 - 2.8, where it is much easier to focus and produces beautiful bokeh and micro-contrast.  This is basically 1.5 - 2 stops of light-gathering power that I choose to throw away because the D700 can make it up in ISO sensitivity.

Judging by lens availability right now, most M9 owners also carry a 1.4/50 Summilux-M ASPH.  This lens has beautiful bokeh at all apertures, is essentially apochromatic, exhibits almost no focus shifts and, best of all, delivers very high micro-contrast right from the maximum aperture.  Focusing in low light is easier on a rangefinder than an SLR ground glass.  I would shoot this lens wide-open by default, or step down 1 stop to gain some depth of field and forgiveness of focus error.

Some people will cry foul, that I’m excusing sensor limitations by finding lenses that mitigate them.  But these lenses in particular can only be used with this sensor, so the two might as well be considered together.  They would be right to complain if the Summilux could be mounted on a D700, but alas this is not possible.

So, in my opinion, the M9’s ISO performance being lower is both predictable and partly a moot point.  The M9 clearly does not suck and that’s really all it needed to (not) do to succeed.

Cheers,

Olivier

10Nov/091

Not sure what to think of the GXR

Did you see the interchangeable {lens+sensor} camera from Ricoh? I’m pretty sure I hate it. I think.

I was just telling my wife Sunday night about this rumor for another mirror-less camera, this time from a company that seems to “get” photographers. The rumor mentioned an APS-C sensor, I told her, and I started thinking of M lenses that would go with that. I thought Ricoh would be the one to deliver the goods this time. Finally we’ll get this one simple thing done right, bravo!

Apparently not. Come on. Instead the GXR looks like a stupid idea. Hey, at least we can’t accuse them of doing a me-too design.

Here is my fictitious tale of the GXR’s coming into the world, I can see it…

First, they looked at installing an APS-C sensor into a compact camera and sketched what would be a great small camera with a nice normal prime lens. Then someone said they needed to offer a pocketable zoom to win sales against m4/3 products taking over Ricoh's home turf.  Meetings happened and interchangeable sensors were introduced into the story at that point. Interchangeable sensors! This idea is brilliant.

Second, multiple sensors introduced much complexity to the mix because some lenses and some sensors became entangled concerns. How would they teach users to use that complex system? Then a voice rose up and said they could just entangle them permanently to solve those problems. Engineering problems and marketing problems gone, and it’s intellectually stimulating to boot. But is this wise? Photographers’ wisdom is that lenses far outlive sensors. Photographer’s wisdom is that lenses and sensors combine to create options. This idea is unwise.

Third, they pondered the question of how to price these new {lens+sensor} creations. They realized they were basically like whole cameras. They concluded they should price them like whole cameras, premium cameras obviously. The camera body itself is also premium obviously.  When you combine them, it’s double-premium, and that’s for free! Too cool for school. This idea is arrogant.

What do you get when you combine brilliant, unwise and arrogant ideas? I’d say what you’ve got now is a stupid idea. Show me a lens mount.

Now that I think about it, I would have reacted better to the GXR if they had presented it only as an integrated compact with a 50mm lens. Drop the interchangeable story, it’s more of a future-upgrade story anyway. Drop the price, give me the body for free if I get the lens and viewfinder.

This second interpretation of the GXR sounds nice to me. I like it.

In any case, I'm not in the market for cameras that don't have lens mounts.  I have picked my lenses - lensmakers - already.  To a large extent I don't care who makes my bodies so long as the lenses I have or want will fit them.  I have no use for cameras that cannot take the lenses I choose.

Important note: Different people may feel differently, this is how I feel.  Don't take my harsh criticism personally.

27Oct/091

Lightroom 3 Beta and the Leica M9

I've been testing Lightroom 3 for a couple of days, and I confess myself extremely impressed.  The implementation of chroma noise processing is worlds better.

Case in point, here is an M9 image from one of the review sites taken at ISO 2500:

m9_full

The white rectangle denotes a shadow area that I used for testing.  Below is a comparison of the LR 2.5 and LR 3 renderings with the same settings for noise processing / sharpening. Other settings are their defaults so perhaps not the same but this is what you get when you open the file.

This is 100% pixels:

m9_100_old

m9_100_new

Remember: this is the same DNG file.  The one that's _vastly_ better is the Lightroom 3 image, I don’t think I need to say which is which.

Seriously this software just gave the M9 that little extra oompf I wanted to see. I think if that’s what ISO 2500 shadows look like then it’s fine.  No, no fine, great!  I'll take this any time.

What can the D700 do with this software wonder?  Well ISO 6400 is more usable for one thing.  But the lower high ISOs (heh) don't improve as much honestly.

Cheers.

28Sep/091

Dust settling after M9 launch

It's been about 3 weeks since the launch of M9. I love launch events where people get cameras in their hands the same day. We have DNGs available, lots of first-hand accounts…

Observation #0: M9 is awesome. Except where specifically noted below, I think one can assume the camera is great. If you don’t push the envelope on it then it’s just plain great.

Observation #1: KAF-18500’s noise is similar to KAF-10500’s and, adjusting for print or display density, it is comparable to contemporary APS-C cameras. The best supporting evidence is found on Sean Reid’s site.

At first I thought I was seeing terrible results compared to the D700 but I changed my mind after comparing the grain of hand-processed DNGs and NEFs on my own PC. The noise that’s there also looks like it can be tamed with noise processing plug-ins for LR/PS like DFine 2.0. Hence you still need to stay close to windows during daylight, get faster lenses if possible and brace yourself (literally).

My only remaining issue with M9’s sensitivity (indirectly) is that the M9 lacks a convenient way to fix bad lighting conditions with controlled light because both its flash units are unacceptably awkward.  I'm convinced that the M9 with a small flash (see: SB-400) can deliver as good quality as I can extract from the D700.

Observation #2: KAF-18500’s detail levels compare favorably to 24MP cameras but in exchange the risk of moiré is real. The best supporting evidence is found on Erwin Puts’ site.

It would probably have been more convenient to use a 24MP sensor with an AA filter. At this point Adobe Photoshop probably can’t be avoided anymore – and I have been avoiding it – so either learn to deal with moiré by hand and apply yourself on batches, or write a Photoshop macro for that, or get CaptureOne’s moiré removal plug-in.

There exist AA filters that screw into lens like ordinary filters, but so far they haven’t been made in sizes less than Series-8.  Still, this is a very interesting avenue to explore.  Maybe the company that makes them can be compelled to make smaller sizes to cater to the small rangefinder market.

Observation #3: M9’s system board writes its large files to SD flash memory at a slowish rate. It takes 11 seconds to write a 37MB file, at a rate of around 3.4MB/s, and faster cards aren’t really supported by the system’s hardware or firmware.

Compared to, say a D90, the M9 writes 3x larger files at about 0.5x the byte transfer rate – so if you think continuous shooting on the D90 is compromised, you haven’t experienced an M9 yet. Apparently under some conditions you can get your M9 system board to freeze if you keep hitting it with more frames while it’s busy writing, like the M8, but these reports aren’t widespread. There isn’t a solution for this unless a firmware update adds lossless compression or delivers the faster rates expected on faster cards.

This is fodder for a DSP-vs-ASIC (e.g. Maestro, Expeed, Digic, Bionz) debate that will lead us eventually to the M10. In the mean time the mantra seems to be “one shot is all you need, but 2 or 3 is supported for your convenience”. :^)

Conclusion from the above: The ugly sides of the M9 are now known. I don't see a deal-breaker, but the effervescent enthusiasm phase has passed.

7Sep/097

A tale of two 18MP cameras

In this first half of September 2009 we’re looking at two important new cameras, each vying for the position of standard-bearer for their categories. Both are built around high-tech 18MP sensors, but that’s where the similarities end because the two cameras could not be more different. One is a fast-action do-it-all reflex camera and the other is a more reflexive camera that will do all that you can make it do.

The 7D

Could we be looking at the end of the road for the xxD series as the standard advanced-amateur camera? The series surely isn’t dead but I’m not sure if the advanced-amateur will be the target from here on. There is one clear message from Canon though: if you were considering buying a D300s, please consider buying a 7D instead.

This said, the rest of the message from Canon is hard to hear because there is little 21st century communication coming out of Canon. There isn’t a 30-page PDF loaded with professional images shot by this year’s coolest photogs. There isn’t a flash website to take you through the features and the philosophy of the camera. There isn’t an interactive learning center where you can poke at a fake 7D or watch people shoot a 7D through its paces.

At face value the 7D has (perhaps simply is) more of everything. Lots of pixels per frame, lots of frames per second, good HD video.  There isn’t much to say because really it looks great at everything.

The only problem the 7D is facing is lens starvation. The meaning of starvation is either that you have no lenses to choose from, or the lenses don't feed your sensor to satiety.  I looked at the image samples from Dpreview, Rob Galbraith and others, and few of them have managed pictures to show off the 18MP sensor. The Dpreview samples simply aren’t good and they were (most/all?) using Canon’s topoftheline EF-S 17-55 lens.  Rob Galbraith's were all flat and muddy.  The resolution chart from Imagine-Resource is the only one I found that was detailed. These soft images aren’t caused by the AA filter either, because the resolution charts manage to generate moiré.

A 7D owner who’s planning on actually getting 18MP images is going to need really excellent lenses.  I mean forget 90% of the Canon lens portfolio because they’re not good enough.  This is going to be a very serious undertaking for those who are minded to harness the resolution that’s included. You will need primes, and they need to be modern, like from the last 2-3 years tops.  Look at Zeiss ZE's if you think you can use them.

The M9

Forget the last 3 years, this is the first digital M camera. The M8? It's going the way of the M5. The M series goes M4 to M6, M7 to M9, and so say we all.

No I am not putting a yet-unannounced product on a high pedestal. The M9 is probably still going to have variously-important flaws.

It probably doesn’t make any concessions for eyeglasses. It probably doesn't eclipse the M8 for memory interface performance. Weather resistance probably isn't on a higher level than the M8’s. It probably is still susceptible to accidental button presses. The battery and SD card are probably still hidden under an awkward metal plate. There probably is nothing surprising included either, so for example your dream of image stabilization probably probably isn’t being realized.

We’ll find out the details over the coming weeks, I’m sure David Farkas and Erwin Puts will have lots of meaty details for us to read, among others.  I'm looking forward to the Dpreview preview.

All of these probable flaws are irrelevant however, because more likely than not the M9 is now a good enough digital platform to be viable in the long term. The M8’s imaging pipeline plagued it with infrared contamination or cyan drift (take your pick), took away your high-speed wide-angle lens options and gave you few reasons to want to use it over a high-end Canon or Nikon camera. These issues we can expect have all been fixed with the M9 and that's why it's not an M8.3.

This is all that we really wanted: an M camera that does what it needs to, with little fanfare, and delivers richly detailed images that meet the current state of the art. Compared to the 7D, this camera will have no problem finding the right lenses to match. From day one the M9 will meet with the best lens portfolio there is, ready to crank out images to Leica’s signature.

It’s interesting to note that the M9 probably still leaves open plenty of ways to compete against it. A slightly larger body (à la Zeiss Ikon) with a larger viewfinder, weather seals and a well-positioned CF card slot at a lower price could compete successfully against the camera with a red dot.  Any kind of body with a motion-stabilized Sony backlit sensor could compete too, at any price. A Contax G style autofocus rangefinder is also an easy competition option.  Combine all three ideas and maybe you even have an M9 killer (oops, let's hope not)(oh no, wait... let's hope so).

I don’t see any threat to the M9 from micro-4/3. It’s not even close. The M9 is all about wide-angle journalism and micro-4/3, fitting in coat pockets. Except in fantasy the two systems do not meet.

In closing

The 7D is a nice camera, one which I think will feel most at home with an array of Zeiss lenses. I think many amateurs will have a blast with this camera, even if most of them will never know what 18MP really looks like. Either way they will love their camera and their pictures, and this is all that matters. Good job Canon!

The M9 should restore Leica’s place in the world, assuming that the price is right. Since the M8 makes no apparition in the new M system brochure (i.e. it is not shown as a low-end substitute) I will presume the plan is a strict replacement at a similar price. I can’t wait to get mine when my number comes up. Welcome back Leica!

For me personally, there is no discussion to have over the 7D and M9.  I have no stake in Canon and don't see the 7D as a historic milestone worthy of a cross-system leap.  The M9 however might well set my path for me - I think it shows the way I have to go, I feel compelled by it.  Unless some disastrous flaw is revealed in the M9's sensor then I will eventually get one even if I have to skip all other of life's luxuries.

29Aug/097

Sony A850 ties with Olympus E-P1 and Pentax K7 for cameras of the year?

[This isn't much a posting, I apologize.]

A 24x36mm stabilized sensor with 25 million pixels for less than $2000 by next year. The camera is small and well built, its viewfinder is spacious and bright. What does that say about the high end of the APS-C camera market? Does it still have room for high profit margins?

Starting next year it’s going to be difficult to price an APS-C camera where the D300s is today. We’re supposedly 4 days away from the unveiling of the Canon 7D, a high-end APS-C camera if rumors are true. Will the 7D be an outlier in its genus already on the day it is launched? Meanwhile the internet price of the D700 has fallen in price to almost $1000 less than what I paid for it in Massachusetts – unable to hold a premium price.

When I wrote the title above I had a moment of pause. Neither Nikon or Canon really deserve the label of camera of the year. They need some real innovation and soon. A high quality imager does not necessarily imply a large and heavy camera system with a premium price.

Side note

I was heartbroken when I read the rumor about Zeiss abandoning their digital rangefinder project because they felt it wouldn’t sell to pay for itself. I don’t quite believe it though. Maybe I’m in denial.

6Aug/094

Unboxing, part 3

DSC_3695
Close cousins, Ikon and Biogon 2/35mm ZM T* next to the N80 and Distagon 2/35mm ZF T*.

Even though the Biogon is petite next to the Distagon, the Ikon is not dwarfed by the N80.  I suppose a film transport has the same size anywhere.  Not that I wished it were much smaller, really.

I'm going through some early ergonomic issues with the Ikon...

  • With my glasses I can see the 35mm framelines, but not anything beyond.  This is acceptable but not optimal, I can't even see metered shutter speeds unless I move my eye.  Without my glasses I can see how much I'm missing and I want it all.  I guess I'll be getting myself contact lenses soon.
  • Another issue is that the rangefinder patch disappears quickly if your eye isn't at the exact right place for the viewfinder.  I am fairly sure this is another issue with eyeglasses.  I think the lengthened viewing distance makes the eyepiece much more sensitive than normal.
  • My fingers want to wrap around the camera and often block the rangefinder window, also causing the rangefinder patch to disappear.  When this happens, I tend to confuse this with the previous issue and move my eye around until I finally figure out my fingers were in the wrong place.  D'oh!

This is all stuff I'm going to work through.  I'm practicing the quickdraw (*)  at work while waiting for code to compile.

- Olivier

(*)  Camera up, frame, focus, camera down, defocus.  Repeat.