11 May 2011

[1] Home from Rome [2] Regarding the recent history of cameras

It has been a bit difficult to readjust to life at home. Almost a month now. In part plagued by continuing antibiotics for something acquired in Seattle. In part having difficulty finding things put in safe places by me before departure or by houseminder or cleaner in my absence.

First preoccupation has been collapse of kitchen electrics while we were away, which means I am working on four large wood slabs to make new kitchen cook bench for new cooktop, etc. Not confident to show photos till the job is done!!

The novel remains on hold, not sure where or how to resume. No use jumping on the toothpaste tube to force it out.

Beginning to review the travel photo collection. Far too many of the photos from the Fuji S3 are marred by dust on the CCD,  dark muck on images.

Detail of one of the Naiads in the fountain at Piazza del Popolo, Rome.
See the spot above her right shoulder (left as you look), generated by dust speck on CCD,
another larger blur to the left of that.
Easily smudged away in Photoshop where the sky is so even but some images impossible to correct that way.

Never again will I take an arm-breaking DSLR on the road with me. My right arm complained a lot (personal weak-side probem). In over-compensation I've bought one of these from ebay. I have also been reviewing merits of the Fuji F810 and Minolta A2 which I already have. The F810 close to the S3 in the look of its images, the A2 a bit big for pocket, though much lighter than the S3 and producing what I now recognise to be startling images.

The problem with mini-cameras is that somewhere back around that 8 megapixel size of the A2, they reached a point where there was no value in adding more pixels because the small CCD receptor of light in the camera gets very crowded. There were increasing problems of colour fringing (chroma) and noise (luminance) at any but slowest ISO speed. Yet the market and the marketing departments continued to declare the merits of more pixels. Moreover, the digital SLR (DSLR) cameras became cheaper — and of course it looked more manly or professional to use a DSLR than a compact camera, hello Dr Freud. The DSLRs had bigger receivers, CCD or CMOS, note please that quality (lenses, general performance and ease of use) depends still on money and many who will never use the quality still will shell out as much as $2000 or more for the evidence of doing best. The DSLRs had and still have, a problem of dust particles getting in, no matter how well one went about changing lenses. This has meant development of devices and actions inside the camera to wipe the chip or shake it to get specks off; mechanical complexity only partly solving a problem and eventually prone to breakdown. The compact cameras have by definition fixed lenses, dust does not enter. Psychologically interesting, at eBay, that people wanting to sell better compact cameras are prone to list them as DSLR rather than compact, for snooty reasons.

The A2 and the other cameras mentioned in that review were a wonderful last stand by the compact manufacturers competing to solve the problem of chip limitations and standing against the onslaught of the DSLR half a decade ago. The A2 was Konica-Minolta's last stand, immensely complex and capable, but too expensive for a market preoccupied by "good enough". Do your own search for the term 'good enough technology' or get the gist here. Konica-Minolta bailed out and sold its camera technology to Sony.

For this reason the better quality technology cameras of the mid-noughties, six to eight megapixel cameras with manual controls, are now wonderful value via eBay. I'm not going to tell you which!  :-)

There are some new compact camera developments, a resurgence in the last several years. About which a blather of commentary. This, the DMC-LX3 from Panasonic, was the earliest. Re-badged by Leica with some modifications as the Leica D-Lux 4 and sold for hundreds of dollars more (the incensed Leica traditionalists shouting "but it's not a Leica!").. The graph on this page I interpret as reflecting a stampede of D-Lux 4 users to D-Lux 5. Here are Flickr photos from LX3 and LX5. There may be a majority at the top end of the pocketable camera market wanting 'good enough' but always there will be a number wanting best, and the Leica badge rather than common Panasonic captures some of them, with some finicky comparisons out there of the differences — do your own search to compare the cameras. I've just bought a second hand LX3 from eBay. I suppose this means 'good enough' for me is buying last year's best or five year's ago's best, prices discounted.

The one strikingly different recent breakthrough in chip technology is in Sigma's DP1 and DP2 producing wonderful images from a much larger chip, but with 10 seconds saving an image before you can take another. Here's a positive review.

My affection remains warmly towards Fuji, for the general Fujifilm look the digital images have. Helen, while we were away, became besotted with photography for the first time, using her E900, though on review now the default processing in the camera may include some excessive sharpening. Photoshop is sorting this reasonably well. I was on this trip trying to learn my antique S3, an impractical course on a holiday. I borrowed Helen's camera for the modest quality films at our travel blog. (The Panasonic DMC-LX3 in the mail to me produces base quality HD film: sunrise and sunset examples.) Fuji since the mid-noughties have abandoned DSLR and run with the crowd to produce long-long zoom cameras producing high definition movies - but with such monster zoom lens quality is surely compromised and for the most part fully automatic cameras (looking at the credits of movies you will see the extent of Fuji dominance of the film market, a company dedicated to colour quality, this colour sense comes through in the digital offerings, colours historically different from Kodak). Now Fuji have produced a truly swoon-worthy high-quality handsome higher pixel compact camera, the X100.  I will await their next generation, or at least price drop via ebay. The basset hounds of the market will eventually run on elsewhere and sell off their x100s - or by not selling define the X100 as worth buying new.

Interestingly these new, higher pixel compacts for the most part depart from the popular expectation that compacts have zoom lenses (some as high as 30X). The Panasonic-Leica DMC-LX3 has a 2.5 zoom lenses, very fast aperture F2 to 2.8, which gives some prospect of managing depth of field, see this film clip. Fuji x100 is fixed, ditto Sigma DP 1 and DP2. Ricoh GR-Digital 3 also has a fixed lens. There is an argument emerging that with the image quality [IQ] and acceptability of higher ISO images (less of the chroma and noise, see discussion of such in most decent reviews of cameras) the photographer can return attention to composition, using, as some describe it, the 'two-legged zoom'. The higher pixel count enables cropping of detail with better prospect of printable image - depending on lens quality. See this page with 100% crops from Leica D-LUX 4 (based on Panasonic D-Lux 3). ("100% crop" means what a small portion of a huge image looks like when brought up from the usual reduced size on a monitor or print to 100% of what the camera recorded.)

This is Wikipedia's take on the Foveon chip in the Sigma camera. See the comparison of chip size down this Amazon page. Apart from Sigma, the other high end manufacturers are working with slightly enlarged conventional smaller chips with enhanced processing.

Well, these are my thoughts on the current state of quality compact camera development.

I am driven away from DSLR both because of the practical difficulty for anyone of handling big cameras discreetly and because my right arm is troublesome.

I have endeavoured in the above to link the reader to most of the best review places (see also Steve's). You will see different styles of review on a range from those who go into the lab to measure this and that to those who may disparage that approach and go into the field to try to make good photos. Both dimensions have merit, though the latter is most important and often at variance with the lab opinions. Emotions are more evident in the field, emotions are important, see this discussion.

I HAVE THE PANASONIC DMC-LX3 NOW: it is a world apart and on from those older cameras of which I have spoken fondly. But it's a bit like a classy dame.. moving up to having an LCD on the back with 440,000 pixels really is something, but what you see on the back is not the whole story in making good photos. I am thrust into a new world of some kind, new explorations... new brain stretches..