Outside the frame

Thom Hogan, Nikon’s #1 critic and one of the  more knowledgeable and outspoken observers of modern camera technology, (http://www.bythom.com/), regularly grumbles about what he feels is a lack of real innovation from the leading camera makers.

He actually sees a cultural base for this – that the big camera brands are almost all from Japan, and it’s a reflection of, according to Thom,  a national tendency towards imitating and perfecting, rather than inventing.

While social anthropology is way beyond the scope of this trade website, there is a growing body of interesting camera bodies coming from other parts of the world which indicate the traditional camera makers do seem to be – this being close to Melbourne Cup and all – racing hard, but racing with their blinkers on.

For instance, while all the leading brands followed Olympus in releasing ‘tough’ models with solid, shock-absorbing bodies and waterproofing several years back, it wasn’t until US company GoPro took the outdoor camera to its logical conclusion – making a tough camera which was also wearable and gear-mountable – that some real excitement developed. That’s not to say that the outdoors cameras from the big brands haven’t been popular. Along with superzooms, they’ve been bright spots in an environment of declining demand for compacts (See separate story.)

Where the action is

But ‘actioncams’ have been a bigger hit in the outdoor-oriented Australian market – an even more welcome addition to the shelves in a pretty quiet retailing environment. And at the annual camera show held in Melbourne earlier this year, the most consistently  crowded area was the GoPro stand.

GoPro announced a new line, HD Hero3 in October. The top-of-the-line model can shoot stills at 12 megapixels, and video at the ‘Ultra HD’ 4K resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels), which is four times the number of pixels in 1080p res. It comes with a Wi-Fi remote control unit and it’s waterproof to 60m. Not bad for a camera which retails for around $500!

Other companies have followed suit, notably Contour, with its cylindrical cameras which strap onto a helmet, bike frame or appropriate bits of one’s anatomy, with a smartphone playing the role of viewfinder.

Yet it’s passing strange that for the most part, the camera makers seem to be sitting on the sidelines watching the, uh, action. Sony is the only major camera maker to release an actioncam, the cleverly named Sony Action Cam. It’s primarily for video, but shoots 16-megapixel stills in video time-lapse mode and has a Carl Zeiss lens and Sony’s SteadyCam image stabilisation system – the sort of features someone interested in photography as well as recording an active lifestyle would take note of.

If GoPro can develop an action camera from a standing start, how relatively easy would it be for an established camera maker, with a wealth of technology and a well-resourced R&D operation behind it, to develop an even better one?

Maybe now that one of the recognised camera brands has knocked one out, the others will follow, if the Thom Hogan thesis holds true.

Who’s on the phone? 

– And while they have also watched increasingly photo-capable smartphones crash into the compact camera market in the last year, the camera companies have been distinctly slow in coming up with models which respond to the challenge of social networking. While there is now a steady stream of Wi-Fi models being released, most of them still require a link to smartphone or computer to make that seemingly vital connection to Facebook and beyond.

The Samsung Galaxy is a full-featured digital compact which additionally has a 4.8-inch touch screen and connects direct to the internet – just like a smartphone or small tablet.

The latest and greatest exception is the Samsung Galaxy. This was a highlight of Photokina, and marries digital compact camera performance to tablet-like wireless network connectivity, ‘creating a brand new type of device’, according to Samsung. (Interestingly, it appears to have been the brainchild of Samsung’s mobile and IT division, rather than its camera division.)

The internet capabilities of the Galaxy are equal to those of the latest smartphone. Users can browse the web and run applications from Google or Samsung Apps stores.

The Samsung Galaxy is equipped with a 16-megapixel CMOS 1/2.3-inch sensor – the same physical size found in the majority of digital compacts, and much larger than the general run of camphone sensors in both size and resolution. ISO is from 100 through to 3200. Optical zoom is 21x, from 23-481mm, with optical image stabilisation.

Camera functions are touch-screen operated on a 4.8-inch, 308dpi LCD screen – well over twice the surface area of the 3-inch LCD screen on most compacts. There is also a real live shutter button atop the body, along with a pop-up flash. It has 10 Scene modes including macro. It also shoots video at 1920 x 1080 (30fps) and 720 x 480 (120 fps). The Galaxy’s 21x optical zoom can be controlled by either button or touchscreen.

A voice control option allows the user to control a number of functions such as ‘Zoom in’ and ‘Shoot’. It includes a set of 35 photo editing features through the ‘Photo Wizard’ and the ‘Movie Wizard’ also allows users to create and edit videos from the touch screen. So it’s got all the trimmings of a full-featured modern digital compact.

The camera’s ‘Auto Cloud Backup’ feature will save photos on a Samsung server the instant they are taken. The Galaxy also allows users to share photos at the same time as they shoot them with ‘Share Shot.’

It was announced in two versions, a 3G/Wi-Fi version, or a 4G/Wi-Fi version.

(As an aside, this kind of device could be the shape of the future, delivering a body blow to the now-ubiquitous smartphone and the telecommunications networks. Even though the Samsung Galaxy doesn’t have a an in-built phone, its broadband internet connectivity – especially at 4G – lends itself to voice and video calls over the internet using a VoIP service like Skype. The next connected generation might well never own a mobile phone, as a colleague noted after observing his teenage daughter blithely chatting away on her iPod Touch. Microsoft is heavily touting a Skype application as a feature of its forthcoming, dual camera-equipped Microsoft Surface tablets.)

Polaroid has also announced a ‘smart camera’ that also features a 16-meg sensor and runs on Android, the SC1630, and, spoiling the Thom Hogan ‘not made in Japan’ thesis somewhat, so does Nikon with its Android+Wi-Fi Coolpix 800c. But Nikon isn’t exactly shouting the 800c from the rooftops at the moment.

Another innovation in imaging technology delivered by a phone company rather than a camera company comes in the shape of the 41-megapixel Nokia Pureview 808 (click here for full report). Nokia has cleverly solved the problem of limited space for housing zoom lenses in phones by using a high quality fixed focus lens and a massive picture file, and then using in-camera ‘digital zoom’ – essentially cropping – to achieve a range of focal lengths and other benefits like oversampling pixels for a sharper image.

Meanwhile the camera companies (why couldn’t they have thought of that, some of them even make image sensors?) are squeezing ever-increasing millions of tiny picture elements onto a surface area smaller than a baby’s little fingernail, and combining these with ultrazoom lenses which at last count had reached 50x.

Zooming to where? 

If a 50x camera costs $600, what price a 25x camera?

This could be a recipe for imaging mediocrity. The small sensors tend to deliver noisy, ‘fringey’, artefact-ridden images unless in perfect lighting conditions, and the massive focal ranges render the zoom lenses ‘jacks of all trades, masters of none’. They will perform adequately, but never with the resolving power of a lens of which less is being asked –  and with more glass in which to do it.

But wait, there’s more! When the camera makers release 35, 50 or 60x zooms, market forces push down the prices of the 10, 15 and 20x zooms. If this is achieved by reducing costs, lowering the quality of lens technology is one key area in which savings can be made. Good optics aren’t cheap.

While the ultrazoom lenses perform ordinarily because they are being pushed to the limits of what’s possible, the next-generation of ‘superzooms’ might perform at lower levels than achievable because there will be scrimping to deliver them at a particular price point. This particular development path could be leading to lower image quality. So I wonder what’s coming next…

But back to more ‘outside the frame’ camera innovation: ‘Light field’ technology is yet another area where the camera companies have been backward in coming forward, with US start up Lytro  surprising the world first in 2011 with its announcement of a camera with an entirely new set of capabilities, and then the recent release of real, live products.

Once again, we have covered Lytro in a previous story, but to recap, light field cameras capture all of the light rays travelling in every direction through a scene via a light field sensor, which captures the colour, intensity and vector direction of light rays. In basic terms, this is achieved by adding an array of microlenses between the image and a sensor to boost the amount of information captured. Given this massive amount of image data, some aspects of a picture can then be manipulated after the fact.

The result is images with which, in soft display, you can in effect ‘pull focus’ to any area in the field of view. When you click on a point on any picture, this becomes the point of focus. Lytro calls this ‘living pictures’. You can change the point of focus at will after taking the picture.

The cameras are available in Australia from, among others, Camera House and Paxtons stores starting at $499.

The contrast between unlimited – though post-capture – depth of field control from Lytro with extremely limited depth of field control with the common range of sensor/lens combinations currently being used in conventional digital compacts is quite stark.

Salespeople required 

But while crazy ideas like mountable cameras and limitless depth of field break out left and right, the camera makers are somewhat hostage to demand for cameras with easy-to- understand features like umpteen megapixels and focal lengths which would make a paparazzo drool.

Wow: The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 has a full frame 24-megapixel sensor and a 35mm F2 prime lens. A sales challenge best met by experts.

There are some great recent innovations in the linear path the camera makers are on, such as larger sensors in digital compacts, and fast, DSLR-quality lenses.

The better image quality achievable from cameras like the Canon M and G1X, and the full frame Sony RX1 compact should increase their owners’ satisfaction with picture-taking, but the ability – and passion – to communicate the benefits delivered by these features will be more challenging.

Product knowledge and selling skills, rather than slick websites and sharp pencils, will be the necessary ingredients to move these higher margin cameras across the counter.

– The feature above was adapted from an original article to be published in Issue 54 of Australian Photo Review in November.  

 


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