Monday, 28 September 2015

Democratization of photographic technical skills or is there a need for technical skill anymore?

In the days of film photography it made a difference if you had good understanding of the technical aspects of photography: aperture, shutter speeds, focusing skill, understanding of light and the use of speed lights, darkroom skills. You could arguably take better images if you had better technical skills.

With digital photography becoming available to everyone - and the universal access to mobile phones with cameras, plus the advances made in technology - the need for technical skill has diminished a lot. Of course there is now a different kind of technical skill required - that of the digital dark room - but on the whole I think that anyone with a good eye can take beautiful pictures now. This is good as it brings to the fore what should have always been what it is about - creativity and artistic sensibility.

For some of us who had the upper hand before due to technical knowledge - we suddenly find that others less skilled often create better images.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nikon's new 58mm F1.4g is a disappointment

If Nikon's aim was to better Sigma's 50mm f1.4 and Canon's 50mm f1.2 with the new 58mm f1.4g then I think Nikon has probably succeeded. Tests indicate that the new Nikon beats the Sigma as far as Coma correction is concerned. See the links below for comparative tests carried out by Thomas Rubach - whose lens tests are published by CameraLabs.
The new 58mm is also superior to Nikon's 50mm f1.4g, which exhibits significant coma at f1.4 as evidenced below, again thanks to testing done by Thomas.
Clearly the 58mm is an improvement. My disappointment though stems from the fact that Nikon has claimed that Sagittal coma flare is effectively minimised across the entire frame with the result that point light sources such as city lights are reproduced as fine rounded points, even at the periphery of the image, enabling unparalleled nightscapes. Yet clearly as demonstrated by the test above, this is not the case. Even Nikon's own sample below exhibits coma at the edges were point light sources are distorted.
If the Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4 had not been present, we might have consoled ourselves with the thought that perhaps it was not physically possible to do better than what the 58mm f1.4 achieves in coma correction. Except that the Zeiss Otus is better corrected for coma than the Nikon as can be seen in example below (again from Thomas Rubach's testing):
Not only is the Zeiss better corrected for coma, it is also much sharper. 

The question is in what way can the 58mm f1.4g be justified, given its price tag. If one wants the best performance then clearly the Zeiss Otus is the undisputed choice. If better bokeh is desired then perhaps the 85mm is a better focal length anyway. 

Friday, 28 December 2012

Nikon V2 is not the camera I was waiting for

I had been waiting eagerly for the Nikon V2 as I wanted to buy the second generation Nikon 1 system. However, V2 is not the camera I was waiting for. The problems with V2 as I see them are:

  • V1 had a cool styling - I felt that Nikon was trying to be like Apple and Leica. But V2 is traditional and boring. While it is to be appreciated that Nikon took the negative feedback on V1 and responded quickly - in my view the response is inappropriate. They should have improved the V1 rather than abandoning it in favour of an SLR look alike. 
  • Instead of a 14MP sensor that has worse performance rating than the V1's 10MP sensor, I would have liked Nikon to keep to 10MP but increase the sensor performance in low light and dynamic range. It seems that after stating 10MP was sufficient they decided to play the number game after all - as a response to Sony RX-100 no doubt.
  • What was wrong with the original V1 was its price, and the lack of fast lenses. Neither of these issues have been fixed. With smaller sensor, fast lenses are essential to make up for the loss of light, as well as to improve background blurring. I would have thought that given the sensor size, it should have been relatively easy to create compact but fast lenses. But Nikon appears to be following an inexplicable agenda of creating slow zoom lenses - with a couple of semi-fast aperture primes thrown in. Why is the 10mm wide f2.8 and not f1.4? Why is the 18mm f1.8 and not f1.2? 
  • I got the thinking behind V1 - to create a camera where a photographer could forget about his or her skill and just shoot like a novice. That is relaxing for someone who is always worrying about technicalities of taking photographs. So I personally did not have an issue with lack of a PASM dial. I think the new layout of the V2 is boring and ugly. I wanted a beautiful camera, but it seems true that the Japanese companies do not know how to create good looking products. 

Friday, 28 September 2012

NIKON 1 System

I do not yet have a Nikon 1 camera. I want to wait for the 2nd generation before buying one. But I do plan to buy one and this post explains why.

The Nikon 1 system gets bad press from photo enthusiast sites because it is found lacking in manual controls, big sensor, and fast lenses. I don't think photo enthusiasts get the Nikon 1.

I believe the Nikon 1 is aimed at people who want to take good pictures without manual intervention. It is also meant for professionals and enthusiasts who want to occasionally forget about control and just go with the flow. Nikon has tried to create a uniquely fast camera - I think the idea is that you will be able to capture moments that you simply cannot with most other cameras because they are too slow.

The other thing I have noticed about the Nikon 1 system is how cheap the lenses are compared to other mirror-less systems. I imagine that cost is an important factor in the design and build of the lenses; it again highlights the fact that Nikon 1 is not aimed at the photo enthusiast who wants the best quality (and pricey) lens.

I intend to get the Nikon 1 because sometimes I want to forget about photography and just click, and trust the camera to do the job. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Will mirrorless cameras replace DSLRs?

You keep hearing these days that mirrorless cameras will replace DSLRs. Whether they do so will depend upon a number of factors.

Back in the days of film cameras, compacts never replaced SLRs. When you have the same imaging size, then the interchangeable lens is likely to be the biggest component in your equipment; any size advantage you may have purely on the camera body is likely to disappear. An attempt to make the camera body smaller while maintaining image size, requires reducing the lens flange focus distance which results in a reduction in image quality on the digital format due to loss of tele-centricity. Of all vendors, Nikon and Olympus seem to have recognised this issue. Olympus four-thirds design touted the benefits of tele-centric design of their lenses. So it seems that small size and great quality do not always go together.

It is possible to overcome the issues caused by short flange focal distance, firstly by designing sensors that allow for this, and secondly by using software to correct certain aberrations. The micro four-third implementation appears to rely heavily on software based correction. Leica M9 and Ricoh GRX cameras employ corrections at the sensor level as well, by using modified on-chip micro lenses. Eventually software based corrections may become perfectly acceptable, reducing the need for perfect optical performance. On the other hand the increase in sensor resolution will place more demands on optical performance; it remains to be seen whether systems relying on software based corrections can perform equally well or surpass those that inherently produce better results due to tele-centric design.

The through-the-lens view that an SLR offers has always been its strength. I remember the first time I used an SLR camera how astounded I was by the view, having previously used a compact film camera. To be able to the see the image as it would appear on film, to see the subject move in and out of focus, was exhilarating. Some of that pleasure has been forgotten even in the DSLR world as cameras with APS-C sensors often come with low magnification viewfinders, and focusing screens are no longer designed keeping the manual focusing requirements in mind. The mirrorless format, unlike the compact cameras of old, however can take on this challenge using high resolution electronic viewfinders. The EVF has an added advantage - the image can be magnified if required - and assuming that technology will eventually allow an electronic viewfinder to be superior to an optical one in terms of latency and low light performance, then it seems that the SLRs will eventually lose any advantage they have in this area.

Perhaps the last advantage SLRs have is their ability to use phase detection in autofocus. But the advent of Nikon 1 cameras indicate that this technology may well end up with mirror less cameras as well.

I personally think that the demise of the SLR is inevitable. Back in 2003 I wrote:
What I would like to see is for Nikon to take another bold step and get rid of the mirror from the SLR. Ofcourse, the name SLR would have to be dropped. With a good EVF, this seems to be the next logical step. It will allow Nikon to provide must faster framing rates, and will also enable better optics. If they could do this and still keep the F mount and backward compatibility ...
I have a feeling that while the DSLR may disappear, Nikon and Canon's SLR systems will live on. These two companies must already be working on cameras that will remove the mirror but work on their existing mounts/lenses. In fact, I had expected the Nikon D4 to feature the Nikon 1 on-sensor phase detection technology; it did not happen but surely its only a matter of time.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Thoughts on Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX

I have watched Nikon and Canon compete with each other since the mid eighties when I first became interested in SLR cameras. With the EOS system Canon took away a lot of the pro photographers away from Nikon - primarily due to better autofocus, and later on, better digital sensor technology. But with the D3 Nikon fought back and at present there is more of a level playing field.

It seems that in recent years Nikon and Canon have been anticipating each others developments. The 1DX and D4 have both adopted a number of features that are uncannily similar to each other.

I personally have not used the D3 series cameras - I own a D300. I also own a Canon 1DS - which is quite primitive compared to today’s DSLRs. So my thoughts here are more armchair speculation than real life experience with these products.

With the 1DX, Canon had to prove their autofocus credentials which were dented by 1D Mark III and did not recover fully with 1D Mark IV. They seem to have gone for an all out redesign of the system - giving up their original 45 point design that they introduced way back with EOS-3 I think. They have even copied Nikon’s AF layout - presumably this says something about the effectiveness of Nikon’s design.

Canon have also completely reworked their mirror technology - replacing the one they introduced originally in the EOS 1V in 2000. The new method seems to be much faster than any prior implementation - 60ms blackout compared with 74ms blackout in D3 and 80ms blackout in 1D Mark IV. Shaving off 20 ms is a major achievement I think. Nikon seems to be still tweaking their F5 based design introduced in 1996. This system probably needs a major redesign to reach Canon’s level of efficiency. An alternative approach for Nikon would be to develop the technology they used in the Nikon 1 series cameras as this would remove the mirror speed barrier - but I think the on-sensor phase detection technology is not yet mature enough for a pro DSLR and may have some fundamental limitation (such as requirement to interpolate missing pixels or low light sensitivity of the AF pixels or the degree of de-focus that can be detected - Nikon is tight lipped about any limitations) that may mean that it will never match the mirror based approach.

The mirror blackout time is important as it increases the time available for the AF system to work. So at 10 fps, the Canon 1DX has more time available to track focus between shots, although that may be offset slightly by the Canon’s longer release lag of 55ms compared with Nikon D4’s 42ms. (Canon do say that the release lag can be reduced down to 36ms but I suspect this will work only when the max aperture is used so that the lens stop down time is eliminated.) Canon have also added more cross-type sensors - as well as improving their light sensitivity. So from a spec point of view, Canon’s AF system appears to have an advantage.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the 1DX performance in the field lives up to its specifications. Where the D4 has trumped the 1DX is in the ease of AF mode selection which no longer requires one to take the eye away from the viewfinder. Surely this is a major usability breakthrough - one that Canon must wish they had thought of. Canon is still relying on menus to configure AF mode selection. Canon’s AF options also appear far more complex - almost as if their auto modes are not as good as Nikon’s so the user must manually tweak the system.

On the sensor design front also the Canon system appears to be more efficient on paper - at least if one can infer this from the highest normal ISO rating of 51200 on the 1DX. Generally though my impression is that Canon rely more on noise suppression in software than Nikon - so it may well be that the higher ISOs in the 1DX use greater noise suppression - with potential side effects. But this is just speculation - the actual results will come out pretty soon. If Canon have indeed created a sensor that produces cleaner high ISO images than Nikon’s then it would be major advantage for Canon.

For Nikon the challenge must have been to maintain or surpass the D3S performance while increasing the number of pixels. I am glad that they stuck with ISO 12800 as the highest normal ISO - I hope this is because Nikon want a certain level of quality in the normal ISO range.

It seems that due to new laws in Japan, Nikon has reduced the battery capacity in D4. Also, Nikon's D4 design appears to be more power saving - for example less number of CPUs than the Canon 1DX, which uses two DIGIC 5 and one DIGIC 4 processors compared to a single EXPEED 3 processor in the D4. Given the restrictions on battery capacity - which presumably impacts the Canon 1DX as well - it will be interesting to see if the 1DX battery performance is as good as Nikon D4's. There is obviously a trade-off somewhere between meeting ever higher computing requirements and the power source available to support this requirement. Photographers do appreciate longer battery life - Nikon appears to work harder in this area traditionally than Canon.

My final thoughts are with regards to video implementation. Canon obviously have an edge here as they have been in the video business for long. But this advantage is also a disadvantage as it means Canon have more incentive to protect their video business - including the new Cinema EOS system. Nikon on the other hand have no competing video business - so they can go for an all out video implementation on their DSLRs. And they seem to have given it their best shot. The 2.7 crop mode which gives native 1080 resolution is a very clever move - I believe the Panasonic GH2 has a similar feature. Another feature that is desired by many is uncompressed 4:2:2 output via HDMI. The real test though will be the quality of the video capture - if Nikon has been able to achieve the same quality as Canon then they have a winner.

p.s. I previously put together some material on the Nikon mirror system here - http://www.cameragossip.com/nikon/nikon-f5-and-d3-shared-genes

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The real significance of Nikon V1 and J1

The Nikon V1 and J1 cameras indicate where Nikon is heading with regards to digital video and mirror-less solutions. These cameras are harbingers of what is to come in the DSLR world. I think the most significant  technologies showcased by these cameras are:

  • Phase detect autofocus at the sensor image plane - this is the holy grail for focus tracking of moving subjects. Until this technology is perfected, I do not think DSLRs can be supplanted in the professional world. I am hoping that Nikon will soon introduce this capability in the DSLRs.
  • Combined video and still photography - the ability to take full resolution snaps during video means that the user can shoot video and take snaps at the same time.
  • Full resolution high speed sequence photography - it seems that with the technology Nikon now have, it may be possible to take 30 frames per second even at a resolution of 20 megapixels. It would interesting to see if the Nikon D4 ends up with this kind of capability.
I think Nikon has succeeded in putting in enough unique features in the V1/J1 range that many people who originally thought it wasn't worth investing in this range, might be tempted to do so. 

It seems to me that the J1 and V1 cameras are Nikon's attempt to learn from Apple. Both models focus on simplicity of design and aesthetic beauty. They seem to also reflect Apple's view that if the product is good enough, people will be happy to pay a premium. Nikon needs to ensure that like Apple, their products not only look good, but also outperform other cameras in the same category.