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Bombs and revolutions

As we reported several weeks ago, US start-up Lytro has unveiled a new and more camera-like iteration of what it calls ‘light field technology’ in the shape of the Illum camera, a serious upgrade to the original oblong-with-a-lens which was the first Lytro camera announced around two years ago.

The Lytro Illum – the latest device touted as the future of photography.

Lytro cameras captures information about the angle from which light has arrived, allowing for post-capture depth of field control or 3D images – what Lytro calls ‘living pictures’.

The Illum has a design closer to the look of a conventional camera and uses a larger, 1-inch sensor. It has a fixed zoom lens (30 – 250mm equivalent) with an impressive f2 constant widest aperture.

The Illum sensor has 40 ‘Mega-rays’ (‘Holy holograms, Batman!’) of angular resolution, which delivers an image of around 5-megapixel resolution.

Lytro’s proprietary software platform enables users to fiddle with depth of field, view images in 3D, build custom animations, export images into common formats like JPEG and share to the Internet or mobile devices.

The Illum will be available in the US in July for US$1599 (pre-order US$1499).
In our intial coverage we contrasted two quotes. The first from the Lytro founder Ren Ng: ‘We are very excited by the potential of this camera to ignite a photography revolution on the magnitude of the transformation from film to digital.’ (Really! Ren, am I mistaken or is your nose getting longer?) 

On the other hand, a curmudgeonly IT writer opined that: ‘The Illum is a beautiful gadget that tickles the hearts and minds of camera lovers and device addicts alike, but it ultimately represents another museum piece; Lytro’s building hardware that can occupy an ‘Eccentricities of the early 21st century’ display at a photography exhibit in the Smithsonian…’

-There have been numerous products over the years hailed as having the potential to ignite a photography revolution which in reality turned out to be damp squibs…

Slipped Disc
Those of a venerable age will remember the Kodak Disc camera, introduced in 1982 as the future of snapshooter photography.

Sorry Kodak, half-a-fingernail’s worth of neg was never going to do it. What were you guys smoking up there in Rochester back in the ’80s?

The Kodak Disc film was embedded in a flat disc encased within a plastic cartridge. Each disc held fifteen 11×8mm negatives and the disc rotated to the next unexposed negative when a shot was taken.

The cameras were simple to load and unload and solved the problem of film being exposed to light. But the 110 format had done that already. The factor which dragged the Kodak Disc camera towards oblivion was that it produced fuzzy, grainy images. Kodak grossly overstated the capabilities of the half-a thumbnail sized film chips to do the business. The quality of the sample prints Kodak supplied in media kits and to photo retailers was not reproducible in real life, leading some to wonder if the company was being entirely straight with us…‘Here’s one I prepared earlier…

Kodak Advantix was heading inthe right direction - it even had 'metadata' embedded in the film. The digtial revolution rendered it irrelevant. (Except that's where we get the 'APS-C' format for digital camera  sensors.)
Kodak Advantix was heading inthe right direction – it even had ‘metadata’ embedded in the film. The digtial revolution rendered it irrelevant. (Except that’s where we get the ‘APS-C’ format for digital camera sensors.)

Kodak had more success with its ‘Advantix’ Advanced Photo System (APS) film and cameras in the ’90s, which was once again a smaller-than-35mm format. Smaller negs meant less sliver was being consumed, reducing costs for Kodak and also Fuji, Agfa and Konica, the other consumer film manufacturers of the era which jumped on board the APS bandwagon.

Consumers could actually choose to take photos in one of three three formats 16:9 (APS-H); 3:2 (APS-C); or the panoramic, 3:1 APS-P. APS-C format, from a 25.1×16.7mm negative, continues on in the digital era as (approximately) the sensor size used in consumer DSLRs and some up-market compacts. So it could be argued APS did make some contribution to the future of photography!

By that time film technology had moved on, so that smaller negatives could produce acceptable results. The appeal to consumers was an allegedly foolproof film cartridge, smaller cameras and the choice of format. The APS film cartridges automatically loaded and unloaded and when the film was developed the exposed negatives were housed safe inside the cartridge. Customers received their prints with an accompanying ‘index print’.

While Kodak Advantix had more going for it than the Disc system, it had literally run out of time a couple of years after its launch, when the first consumer digital cameras made any form of analog photography seem decidedly passé. (Although the APS system did incorporate some metadata on a magnetic strip.)

With the wisdom of hindsight, the decision-makers at Kodak should probably have turned their R&D focus on to being a bigger part of the digital revolution just around the corner, rather than trying to hold back the tide with a new, improved version of an old technology.

Kodak did a lot of ‘if we build it they will come’ thinking towards the end of its halcyon days. Other fine examples are ‘KodaVision‘ – a 1984 8mm video camera which disappeared virtually without a trace, and Photo CD – Kodak’s cunning plan to create a bridge between analog and digital technology from the early ’90s. Flopped big time.

Whatcha looking at, four eyes?
But perhaps the most notorious of the mooted photographic revolution incendiaries was the Nimslo 3D camera.

Launched in the early ’80s, the Nimslo – developed by a Mr Nims and a Mr Lo in high-stakes Atlanta, Georgia – was a stereo camera producing spectacle-free 3D(ish) photographs via lenticular printing. It was touted as the third breakthrough in photographic technology following roll film and Polaroid technology.

The 3D Nimslo – a near perfect launch followed by a giant belly flop.

The Nimslo featured four glass lenses via which four images were captured simultaneously from slightly different viewing angles on normal 35mm film. Each image was half a 35mm frame so that a 36-exposure roll would produce 18 3D prints.

There was much enthusiasm within the photo industry for Nimslo technology – it was the star of Photokina when launched there in 1982 – and it gained plenty of enthusiastic publicity from the mainstream press.

But when they ran it up the consumer flagpole, no-one saluted. The quality of the prints was so-so – with a 3D effect roughly on par with trinkets out of a box of Weeties. They were also extremely expensive and turnaround times drifted off into weeks… and then months.

By the end of the ’80s Nimslo was no more, and its patents were bought up by another company which produced lumpy-looking plastic cameras under the Nishika brand, tricked up with fake pentaprisms and with a 120-gram chunk of metal inside which did nothing but give the impression there was some heavy technology going down inside the toy camera body.

Nishika eventually went the way of Nimslo itself, helped along by a multi-million dollar court case brought against it by the US Federal Trade Commission – for misleading consumers.

Take Quattro
…But some innovations hold more promise than others. The odd-looking Sigma Quattro camera might just be one of those.

The Sigma DP Quattro range combines a superior Foveon X3 sensor and 19mm, 30mm and 50mm f2.8 fixed lenses in a camera design like no other.

The new Foveon X3 Quattro sensor captures 19.6 million pixels of data on its top layer and 4.9 million pixels on the two layers beneath. This, it’s claimed, will speed up processing, improve noise characteristics and offer a 30 percent improvement in resolution compared to the current Sigma DP Merrill range.

Sigma DP2 Quattro. Produces images better than DSLR quality, according to Sigma’s CEO. And I want one.

‘For the introduction of the new sensor I wanted to implement a high-end, high quality camera,’ Sigma CEO, Kazuto Yamaki, explained to Photo Counter during a recent visit to Australia. ‘We chose this camera for the introduction of the new Quattro sensor because the DP camera is very good for really high quality images.’

– This contradicts the common wisdom that DSLRs are the top of the totem pole when it comes to image quality – but you know what they say about common wisdom!

‘The interchangeable lens system camera is very good, very versatile,’ he explains. ‘By changing the lens you can take many kinds of photos. But in terms of quality, it’s much easier to get high quality with a fixed lens.

‘The lens is superb. Better than an interchangeable lens. It’s an optimised lens for this camera.

‘The second point is, we perfectly match the optical path to the focal image plane so you can expect the very highest sharpness from centre to corner. Very even.

‘Also you don’t have a moving mirror or shock from a focal plane shutter. This leaf shutter is very silent and quiet… So you don’t suffer from camera blur. If you need the highest image quality – for instance landscape photographers – this is a perfect solution.’

– Unlike Mr Ng’s over-reaching claims for the Lytro Illum, Mr Yamaki can support his baby with technical arguments. But he still has to convince an overwhelmingly conformist consumer market. (Half a billion Canon users can’t be wrong.) Maybe pros will take a punt…

The elongated body with a backward sweeping handgrip looks odd because of what we have been conditioned to expect a camera to look like. Sigma says it’s all about superior grip; a balanced shape, layout, and weight distribution; and added battery life.

I was actually able to handle the a Quattro during the interview with Mr Yamaki and in the hand it is surprisingly light, and the balance is better than good. Though it looks radically different to anything else, the buttons and controls are where you would expect them to be. Shooting with the camera is more the same than different.

As reported previously, the new Sigma DP Quattro camera will commence availability in Australia – the 30mm DP2 Quattro is likely to be first cab off the rank – early in the second half of this year.
– Adapted from an article in the current issue of Photo Review magazine.


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