I made a video follow-up to my past articles on Sigma DSLRs (see this and this), where I talk about where Sigma is today and why I think they’re lagging behind the market by 2-3 years.
Sigma’s R&D has not developed new DSLRs fast enough to keep up with market demands and the wonderful capabilities of the Foveon sensor are not put to proper use.
The Foveon sensor is remarkable in that it captures RGB color at each pixel due to its three plates (vs. a single plate in regular sensors). It is supposed to give much more accurate color reproduction than regular sensors.
Unfortunately, because Sigma has not worked fast enough to create DSLRs that can truly compete with those made by more popular camera makers such as Canon and Nikon at all leves (including, but not limited to low light performance and HD video), its DSLR arm now finds itself in a terrible slump.
Their latest offerings, the SD15 and the SD1 have not sold well, unsurprisingly, and I hope they do something amazing soon in order to catch up with consumer expectations.
A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them, if they chose to stay on course: Sigma, with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm, with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.
They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.
Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.
The megapixel game isn’t everything, and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area.
Sure, some people pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images,to 12 or 14 megapixels, and they would still have the quality you need, but in my book, 5 megapixels was still 5 megapixels, even if you could multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.
Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?
Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s still only 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game, or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is still not enough, but the AF is still only 5-point, and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.
Another tell-tale sign is that B&H Photo is out of stock on it, and I don’t think it’s because it sold too fast. About the only thing the SD15 manages to do well, given the demands of today’s marketplace, is to look pretty.
When you look on Flickr, no one is using the SD15. That should tell you something right there. And SD14 usage waned over time, as was expected, although the quality of the images posted with the camera is still remarkable.
In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s DSLR offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their tiny little niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light, and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).
I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What in the world have you been doing these last few years? You dropped the ball. You didn’t stay on course. You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you failed to develop it properly while others have taken their inferior Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. It should record HD video. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same little sensor I saw more than three years ago, dressed up in a relatively new camera body.
In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of that time.
It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.
Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:
“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”
In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.
People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now, when you look on Flickr, you see that people are using it, and the quality of the images they post is quite nice.
So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website, and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).
That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and close ranges.
What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.
When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.
Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR, which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer, even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.
Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design aped Nikon’s body design. And the camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?
I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.
I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.
Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.
I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.
I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. They went wrong in their strategy, and I don’t know why they aren’t taking steps to redress. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses, and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.
Another hint of the upcoming launch is the restlessness in the Rebel line of cameras. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve never seen so many new models launched in such a short span of time. It’s probable that Canon wanted to see what features consumers really want in an entry-level DSLR now that video and small size are the new must-haves, what cameras their competitors come up with, then take their time designing an entirely new body for the camera. Keep in mind they’re very entrenched in the classic SLR design, as their EOS line shows. A mirrorless DSLR without a viewfinder, or with a significantly different viewfinder, and a much smaller body, can be a serious challenge for any company.
Here’s what I think (and hope) will be in the new Canon EOS “Elph” (I made the name up, I don’t know what it’ll be called):
A 14 or 16-megapixel APS-C sensor — they’re going to choose less noise at high ISO, and that will mean less resolution, but that’s okay by me. I’m not too happy with the noise levels in the 7D. They might even downgrade the resolution to 12 megapixels, who knows…
High ISO capabilities — up to 12,800 natively, and possibly even up to 102,400 via ISO expansion. They’ll need to do this, because the Sony NEX line has raised the bar.
Fast frame rate — 5 fps, possibly even 7 fps. Again, this is because the NEX cameras have raised the bar. They can go up to 7 fps in burst mode. The mirrorless cameras can do about 3 fps.
14-bit image bit depth — pretty much all DSLRs are either there or going there.
Full HD Video Recording, with AF — it’s going to have to be full 1080p video, because Sony has raised the bar for all cameras in this category. I do hope though that Canon will make it 1080p, not 1080i, at selectable frame rates. AF is going to be tricky but will need to be implemented. Canon will have a choice of using the current USM AF built into its lenses, which can be slow, or build a new line of lenses, like Sony did for its NEX line, with fast, quiet AF that can’t be picked up by the microphone. I do hope we won’t have to invest in new lenses.
New lenses? This is possible, in which case they’ll be smaller and lighter, but my guess is Canon will either modify the mount or put out an adapter that will allow us to fully use existing EF or EF-S lenses.
Same 19-point AF system as in the 7D — I honestly hope it’s not the same old 9-point AF system used in the Rebel line and in my 1st gen 5D and the 5D Mark II, because it seems to be troublesome in cameras with higher resolutions.
In-camera panorama stitching — Canon, please put this in! I was blown away by Sony’s Sweep Panorama feature.
In-camera HDR — yes, HDR is overrated and I can’t stand most HDR photographs, but when used judiciously and for the right scenes, HDR can help you can get a properly exposed photograph without blown areas.
Optical viewfinder — I know I just said a mirrorless DSLR won’t have an optical viewfinder, but think how cool it would be if Canon could somehow fit a great pentaprism inside a mirrorless body!
Better dust reduction — some people seem to be having trouble with the dust reduction system in the 5D Mark II. Perhaps this warrants a closer look from Canon. I’m sure there are ways to improve things, especially in a camera that will have no mirror, and where the sensor will be exposed to the open air during every lens change.
SDHC, not CF cards — I would have loved to see Canon adopt SDHC cards for the 7D. SDHC cards are smaller and less expensive than CF cards, so why keep using CF cards?
Tiltable LCD — the Sony NEX line has them, the Canon G11 has it, so why shouldn’t this new camera have it as well?
External microphone input — this is a must, as the in-camera microphone is never enough for quality video sound.
Those are my thoughts. What do you think? Don’t ask me how it’ll look though. I don’t know, and I’d like to be pleasantly surprised when I see it. I’d like it to be flatter and smaller than a Rebel, but with a good grip, and a good selection of physical controls. It doesn’t have to be too light, but it should be light enough and sturdy enough so that it’s easily carried anywhere.
It’s been well over a year since I put the Energizer Advanced Lithium batteries in my Canon 580EX II speedlite. In February 2009, I was contacted by an ad agency working for Energizer, and invited to test out the batteries. I’ve been using them in my speedlite ever since, and they finally gave out about a week and a half ago, on June 10, 2010.
According to Lightroom, I have 1,209 photos in my library that were taken with the speedlite since February 4, 2009. That’s how long four of these Advanced Lithium batteries lasted in my speedlite! I think that’s quite impressive, both in terms of battery life (how many shots I could take) and shelf life (how long they lasted inside the speedlite).
Another thing to keep in mind is that I delete about 10-20% of my photos as I winnow. That means, theoretically, that I got about 1,330-1,451 photos with these batteries.
Given my sort of use for the speedlite, where it sits in my bag and only gets used from time to time, I think these batteries are the perfect choice for it. Those who work in the studio quite a lot, or use their speedlites out at events may find that rechargeable batteries, which have a much shorter shelf life but can be recharged hundreds or thousands of times, work best for them.
If you’d like to give the Advanced Lithium batteries a try, they’re available from Amazon.
I thought it’d be fun to go through the meta-data for my photos in Lightroom and see what cameras and lenses I’ve been using since 2006, when photography became more than an occasional hobby for me — indeed, it became an obsession, and now it’s my daily occupation.
There are 30 cameras listed below, in reverse chronological order. I’ve provided a photo for each camera. If I’ve written reviews for them, they’re linked.
I’m doing this in order to share my experience with you. Perhaps you’ve used some of the same cameras, or are using one of these cameras now, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. I also believe it’s important to use a variety of cameras, because that expands our photographic horizons and improves our craft.
Canon EOS 7D: this is my current field camera. It truly is a beast: fast frame rate, sturdy, rugged, heavy — a camera I can truly rely on. In addition to photographs, I also record video with it. It’s the secondary studio camera for our web shows.
Canon EOS 60D: this is my current studio camera. I use it as the main video camera for our award-winning web shows (Ligia’s Kitchen, Romania Through Their Eyes and Quilling). I also take photos with it, also mainly in the studio. I like it because it’s lightweight, has the same video quality as the 7D, has a flippable display and because it’s not weather-sealed, it doesn’t tend to overheat when shooting video for long periods of time.
Olympus PEN E-PL1: a very portable mirrorless camera from Olympus with a resolution of 12.2 megapixels. I have two lenses for it, the 14-42mm and the 40-150mm. I carry it with me pretty much everywhere I go, because the whole kit (camera plus two lenses) is so light it’s cinch, even on long hikes in the mountains.
iPhone 4: my current phone. Not sure what I could say about it other than what you already know. It’s a great phone, so I take it everywhere and therefore I also use it to take photographs and record video. If you know its strengths, then you can get pretty good photos. And the key thing to remember about video with the iPhone 4 is that it should definitely be stabilized on a tripod and you should avoid panning with it so that you don’t get the “jellocam” effect.
Olympus PEN E-P2: a superb, small DSLR from Olympus with a resolution of 12.2 megapixels, which followed up on the company’s film PEN series of cameras. I loved using it, loved its small size, loved its low light performance. Reviewed it in March 2010. Took over 900 photos with it.
Canon EOS 5D: this used to be my main camera, a wonderful full frame, 12.8 megapixel DSLR, which I purchased in 2007. More than three years later, and after two repairs, it works. Being a full-frame DSLR, the depth of field and picture quality is amazing, but the downside is that the lenses cost a pretty penny. I’ve taken over 50,000 photos with it, and I still enjoy using it.
Minolta Hi-Matic 9: I got this as a gift from a distant relative (without an instruction book) sometime in 1991-92. It’s a classic rangefinder camera from Minolta that uses 35mm film. Sometime after 1998, I found an instruction book for it on the internet, figured out how to use it, and I love it. The photo quality is wonderful, and it’s got a ton of features for a classic camera, including a built-in self-timer.
Canon PowerShot G10: a prosumer digicam. Is resolution is 14 megapixels, picture quality is pretty good, but the lens is slower (f/2.8) than in the G3 and the bokeh isn’t as pretty. The movie quality (SD) is pretty nice though. I’ve taken over 1,200 photos with it.
Canon EOS 30D: this was the first semi-pro DSLR I used. I was blown away by its image quality — I compared it to digicams at the time — and by its low noise at high ISO settings. I reviewed it in April of 2007, and considered buying it instead of the EOS 5D, which was more than double its price, but settled on the 5D in the end. I don’t regret my decision. The 30D was a good DSLR, and were the market expectations the same today, I’d still recommend it to others. I took over 3,500 photos with it.
Nokia N95: my mobile phone for a few good years. I loved it. It had a 5 megapixel camera with flash, and it recorded SD video. It was small, versatile, I took it with me pretty much anywhere, and I depended on it when I didn’t have my main camera with me. The picture quality was pretty good, even in low light, provided you knew how to handle it. You could even do some in-camera photo and video editing. I’ve taken over 1,900 photos with it, and I must have recorded well over 50 hours of video with it.
Olympus C770UZ: even though it was made in 2004, and its resolution is only 4 megapixels, I still use this digicam because it has a 10x optical zoom, a fast lens (f/2.8), in-camera resolution doubling (turns a 4 megapixel photo into an 8 megapixel photo), quality SD video, and a superb macro mode, which allows me to get photos and video of minuscule things. And oh yeah, it has a microphone input, and a hot shoe. I’ve taken almost 2,500 photos with it.
Canon EOS Rebel XTi: a great beginner DSLR, which I reviewed in November of 2007. It had the same 1.6x crop as the 30D, the picture quality was about the same, but the noise at high ISO seemed to be a little higher than on the 30D. I took over 300 photos with it.
Fuji FinePix S6500fd: a 6.1 megapixel, 10x zoom prosumer digicam from Fuji. The “fd” stands for face detection, which was a new technology at the time. The camera would find a face (or faces) in a photo and focus primarily on them, to make sure the people were always in focus. A friend loaned it to me. I took about 30 photos with it.
Canon PowerShot G3: one of the first prosumer digicams from Canon’s PowerShot G line. It was slow, its resolution was somewhere between 3 and 4 megapixels, but it had a really nice, fast lens (f/2.0), which meant you could get really creamy bokeh if you focused just right. And it shot in RAW. I have over 100 photos taken with it in my photo library.
Fuji FinePix S9100: a similar camera to the S6500fd, but with a resolution of 9.1 megapixels and the same 10x zoom. When I tried it, I didn’t like it because of the high noise and poor performance in low light, but it is otherwise a wonderful and versatile camera. It used AA batteries, which was a plus, it had a manual zoom that didn’t eat into the battery life, a super macro mode, and neat physical controls on the camera body. Since then, I’ve found out that the noise would have been brought down significantly if I had used the Fuji software that came with it instead of using Lightroom to process the photos. I took over 50 photos with it.
Olympus SP560UZ: an 18x, 8 megapixel prosumer digicam from Olympus. While the picture quality suffers somewhat from the combination of the extra long zoom and small sensor, the camera is really well designed, the body has a nice, premium feel to it and as a plus, it uses AA batteries. As long as you stay away from the very long end of the focal range, you’ll get nice, usable photos, and low light performance is decent. I reviewed it in February of 2008, and took over 500 photos with it.
Kodak Z1015 IS: a 10 megapixel, 15x zoom prosumer digicam from Kodak which should have had better photo quality, but sadly, I got mostly soft and fuzzy photos and videos from it, particularly toward the long end of its focal range. It also had 720p HD video capabilities, but the video was not only fuzzy but full of compression artifacts. I had to return it to the store after a few days. I took over 300 photos with it.
Olympus EVOLT E-510: the follow-up prosumer DSLR to the E-500, it had a resolution of 10 megapixels, a smaller, lighter body, a nicer interface, better quality at higher ISO but still not clean enough for low light use. I took over 1,100 photos with it.
Kodak v610 Dual Lens: a neat camera from Kodak with 10x zoom, featuring two lenses, one for 1-5x and one for 5-10x, so to speak. The camera switched between them. Interesting, small, light and versatile, but with its limitations, such as poor low light performance and lack of IS, which made it really hard to get good shots at long focal distances. Battery life was also not so good. Still, I used this camera for quite some time and depended on it, though I’d end up deleting a lot of photos I took with it for the reasons mentioned above. I took over 4,200 photos with it.
Exakta EXA Ia: this beautiful analog camera was given to me by a close friend along with a full kit of viewfinders, lens extension tubes and filters. It’s a fully manual camera made in the 1960s. It was a pleasure to use, and there was a certain three dimensional quality to the photos I got with it that made it worthwhile to use. Still, after I got my 5D, the camera sat unused in the closet, so I gave it to someone who would use it more frequently.
Olympus EVOLT E-1: the first flagship DSLR from Olympus, with a resolution of 5 megapixels. A friend loaned it to me. Picture quality was wonderful, as was to be expected from a pro DSLR. I loved the shutter sound. The ruggedized body also felt great in my hand. The grip was nicely made. Good physical controls. I took 30 photos with it.
Olympus EVOLT E-500: a prosumer DSLR from Olympus, with a resolution of 8 megapixels. I reviewed it in February of 2007. Picture quality was wonderful, noise at high ISO not so wonderful, battery life was pretty nice, loved the self-cleaning sensor. I took over 1,500 photos with it.
Nikon CoolPix L12: a little digicam from Nikon with pretty good picture quality for its diminutive size. The in-camera processing renders some pretty nice colors in the photographs. The resolution is 7.1 megapixels. I’ve taken less than 10 photos with this one.
Nikon CoolPix S210: another little digicam from Nikon with pretty good picture quality. Its resolution is 8 megapixels. It has a nice macro mode. I’ve taken less than 10 photos with this one, but I liked using it.
Panasonic DMC-FZ20: a wonderful 5 megapixel digicam from Panasonic with a 12x Leica zoom lens. Picture quality was superb, handling was great, lens was great, battery life not so great, noise at high ISO not so great. I really enjoyed using it, but sadly the zoom mechanism must have either gotten some dust in it or broken, because it stopped working properly, so I gave it up. I took over 1,800 photographs with it.
Gateway DC-M50: a 5 megapixel digicam from Gateway which I ended up returning. Poor interface, slow, poor picture quality. I’ve taken over 40 photographs with it.
Kodak CD33: I used this 3.1 megapixel camera for a short while before returning it to the store. It just didn’t suit my needs. The resolution was too low, the performance and controls too meager. I took over 70 photos with it.
Olympus C3000Z: this was the first quality digital camera I used. Its resolution was 3.3 megapixels, but compare to the stuff I’d used before (1 megapixel or lower) it was heaven. To this day, I’m amazed by the picture quality when I look at photos taken with it. I’ve taken over 2,500 photos with it.
Canon Elura 40MC: this was the first generation Elura camcorder made by Canon. It was diminutive in size, shot better-than-SD (720×540) video on DV cassettes, had a nice optical zoom and also took 1 megapixel stills, but the photo quality was fairly poor. I used it for years, mainly for video, and I loved it. It was incredibly portable and very useful at a time when all the other camcorders were much bigger and heavier. It still works, but I no longer use it, because the cassette mechanism fails sometimes. I’ve have over 200 photos taken with it in my photo library.
Canon Elph APS: the 1st generation APS film Elph camera from Canon, this little baby was my first real, modern camera. I got it sometime in 1996-97. I loved its diminutive size, its ease of use, the great photos I got with it, and its beautiful design. I used it for a good amount of time. I was still taking photos with it in 2003. Over time, the inside of the lens surface somehow got covered in dust, and this became more and more visible in the photos, so I had to stop using it. One of these days, I’ll open it up and clean it. And if I’ll still be able to buy APS film and find a place to develop it, I might just take some more photos with it.
I have no way of telling (short of approximating) how many photos I took with each of my analog cameras, so I’ll just say that I have about 3,300 scanned photos in my library. I’ve used a few other analog cameras, but I’ve forgotten the model names, so I haven’t listed them here.
The photo totals you saw listed next to each camera above don’t represent the total number of photographs taken with each camera, because I delete about 10-20% of the photographs I take.
Tom Dickson, host of the popular “Will It Blend” video series, recently blended a full line-up of Olympus gear: a DSLR, a point-and-shoot camera, a lens, a HD camcorder, a digital voice recorder, plus some art. But this video doesn’t finish in typical fashion, with him revealing the blended remains of the unwitting electronics. There’s a great twist, and it makes me think Olympus had their hand in this. The tagline is “The ultimate multimedia blend. What will you create?” It’s highly entertaining but also cringe-inducing — it’s hard to see all that good photo gear go to waste.
The nice folks at Olympus sent me a PEN E-P2 DSLR for me to review, and I got to use it for about a month. As I usually do with the cameras I review, the E-P2 became my primary camera. I took it everywhere with me, and I shot both photos and video with it. A succinct description of my thoughts on the camera goes as follows: superb design, diminutive, well-made, clearly thought out, reliable and a joy to use.
This camera made me think seriously about switching to it permanently, and using it as my primary camera all the time. I loved it so much I didn’t want to give it back (I did give it back in the end). I loved everything about it. Even its few flaws pale in comparison with the advantages it gives you. I’m not the only one who raves about it. My wife loved it too. Other photographers loved it. People on the street would stop me to ask about it. And it’s no surprise, because it looks really good.
All that wonderful design and the overall good looks wouldn’t mean much without actual performance, and boy, this camera really delivers! The photos are superb, wonderfully well exposed, details are great at 1:1 (100%), low light performance is beautiful, even with the fairly slow (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens, and auto white balance is right on the money (not too cool in low light, which was the case with earlier Olympus cameras, and not too warm, either).
The PEN E-P2 isn’t perfect. There are a few sticking points. The two you’re likely to notice are battery life and autofocus failure in low light.
I’m used to battery life that hovers around 500-700 shots per charge. Perhaps that’s why I usually take that many photos when I visit a place. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence, I don’t know. I do carry a spare battery when I shoot with my usual camera, so that means I can usually take 1200-1500 shots before I’m out of juice. The E-P2’s battery runs out around 250-350 shots, and it may run out faster if you take a lot of photos in rapid succession. That was a bit of a surprise to me, and since I didn’t have an extra battery, it did limit the amount of shots I could take. So, my advice to you is to get an extra battery (or two) depending on your shooting habits.
In low light (and I mean fairly low light, with little contrast between lighter and darker colors) the E-P2 will keep searching, trying to focus, and it will finally give up after a few seconds. You can overcome this if you use a faster lens, or if you switch to AF+MF or MF. That way you can choose to focus manually after the camera says it can’t do it, or you can start focusing manually right away.
Expecting the E-P2 to shine all around is a mistake. No camera is going to be perfect. In every camera ever made, some features were taken out, or couldn’t be put in at all. I look at the E-P2 as I look at my MINI Cooper S. It’s diminutive, the design is gorgeous, and the performance is great for my needs. I didn’t buy my MINI expecting it to perform like a Hummer, and by the same token, you don’t buy a PEN E-P2 expecting it to work like a Nikon D3X or a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV. They’re different cameras, designed for different purposes. When you buy an E-P2, you expect it to be light, versatile, stay out of the way, take good photographs (great photographs, actually), and to shoot HD video. It does all those things beautifully, and more.
I thought I’d place some weight on the DxOMark ratings for the E-P2 after I saw them, but in the end, it wasn’t a concern. It’s like the iPad, you see. You don’t get it until you hold it in your hands. Then it clicks. It’s the same with the E-P2. After you begin using it, you get it, and you don’t want to let go of it, because you know you can get great pictures with it, and you love the way it works, and the way it feels.
Even my wife, who doesn’t like taking photos with my Canon 5D, because she thinks it’s too much work to get the camera set up and adjusted, and doesn’t like it even when it’s on full auto, loved the PEN E-P2 and was able to take great photos with it. That showed me that Olympus was able to strike a great balance between a DSLR that will cater to the needs of a pro through its many buttons and manual settings, and will also please the amateur by assisting them unobtrusively as they use it.
We’d do well to remember a few things about Olympus here:
First company to come out with a self-cleaning sensor for a DSLR
First company to come out with Live View for a DSLR
First company to come out with magnified view for TTL MF on a DSLR
First company to come out with the idea of capturing video and photos with same DSLR sensor. I call it the “idea”, because what they did was to capture Live View video shown on the camera’s display via the main sensor, and the leap from that to recording video from the sensor is a fairly small one.
First company to come out with the smallest DSLR on the market. The E-420 was the first one, and now the PEN picks up Olympus’ famed lineage of analog cameras and takes it digital.
Even though larger companies like Canon and Nikon are reaping the benefits of implementing things like self-cleaning sensors and live view and magnified focus assist, and HD video, it’s really Olympus who did the hard work to bring these features to the market. Their implementation of these features may not be the flashiest or the loudest, but they were first.
I’m going to repeat a few things I wrote in August 2008, in an article entitled “DSLRs and video to converge“, after the Nikon D90, the first DSLR that could also shoot video, had been launched:
As good as the [Nikon] D90 is though, it will soon be eclipsed. Why? Market forces. How long do you think it will be before we’ll have a DSLR that can record 1080p HD video? Or how about an even smaller and thinner DSLR than currently possible? How about a DSLR that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot, but gives you photo quality that’s equivalent to (or exceeds) today’s DSLRs? It’s all coming.
Keep in mind the time when I wrote those things, and what came afterward. Just a few short months later, the Canon 5D Mark II came on the market, and it could record 1080p video. The floodgates had opened. And now we have a smaller and thinner DSLR than ever thought possible (Olympus PEN), one that looks and weighs about the same as a point-and-shoot camera (Olympus PEN), but gives you photo quality that exceeds that of other DSLRs. And there’s a huge difference in sensor size between that of a typical digicam and that of a PEN camera, as you can see below. (The sensor of the PEN camera is on the right.)
Here’s what else I said back then…
You know where else I’ll be proven wrong? Back when I attended the Olympus E-3 launch party, I talked about the camera’s (somewhat) limited 10 megapixel resolution, and I thought they had reached the limitations of the Four Thirds 2x cropped sensor. I thought the sensor’s surface area was too small to get more resolution out of it. But now that Canon has proven you can get 16 megapixels out of a 1.6x cropped sensor, I don’t see why you can’t get 12 megapixels or more out of a 2x cropped sensor.
I had my doubts about whether or not the Olympus engineers would be able to squeeze proper low light performance out of the four thirds sensor while increasing resolution, given the sensor’s size when compared to a full 35mm sensor, but they’ve done it! The PEN E-P2 goes up to 6400 ISO if you want it to, and the photos taken at 1600 ISO are definitely usable. Even the ones taken at 3200 ISO look pretty good to me. I’d reserve 6400 ISO for daylight use, such as when you want to take a high-speed photograph. Nighttime photos taken at 6400 ISO were fairly grainy, but then again, I was using the slower kit lens, whose aperture stops at f/3.5.
One last quote:
Wait, it gets even better. The current aspect ratio of Four Thirds cameras is 4:3. The aspect ratio of Micro Four Thirds cameras will be 16:9. That’s the same aspect ratio used in movies. Where do you think that’s going? It means your photos and your videos will have the same aspect ratio, and the line between photography and videography will get even more blurred, and it’s quite possible that in the near future, we’ll have 1920×1080p HD video recorded by a tiny little DSLR with a tiny little lens on it.
Okay, I was wrong about that one. Things are even better now. The PEN E-P2 will let you shoot at the following aspect ratios: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9 and 6:6. It shoots 720p HD video at 16:9, and it’s only a (short) matter of time before the PEN will be able to shoot 1080p HD video, as predicted. Keep in mind it will still be the tiniest little DSLR on the market, with a tiny little interchangeable lens on it, and that will make all the difference.
While I’m on the subject of video, do you want to know what else sets the PEN apart from other DSLRs that can shoot HD video? The fact that you can choose between several auto-focus modes, or image stabilization modes, or adjust both aperture and shutter speed, and apply live art filters to the videos, in-camera. I don’t know of another DSLR that lets you do this. As a matter of fact, you can shoot video in P, A, S or M modes, and you can adjust the aperture live, as you’re shooting. You can adjust the zoom, and if you have AF tracking enabled, your subject will continue to stay in focus. And you can see or preview all of the adjustments you’re making, on the screen or in the viewfinder, instantly.
Hands-on Video Review
I put together a hands-on video review of the E-P2, which includes the unboxing, a run-down of the camera’s exterior and its accessories, initial impressions and sample photos and video taken with it.
While you can find all the specs you’d want and more on the Olympus PEN website, I’ll point out the more important ones here:
12.3 megapixels resolution (4032 x 3024 pixels)
SSWF (Super Sonic Wave Filter) dust reduction system
Micro four thirds mount (of course)
17.3 mm x 13 mm LCD screen, 3 inches across, 230,000 dots, 100% FOV
11-area AF System: Imager Contrast AF (S-AF, C-AF, S-AF+MF, MF, C-AF+TR)
Shutter, 60 – 1/4000 sec or up to 30 min in bulb mode
3 fps drive, up to 10 sequential RAW images or 12 sequential JPG images
TTL Image Sensor Metering: 324-area multi-pattern metering, center-weighted or spot-metering, EV 0-18
Flash synchronization: 1/30 – 1/180
Photo ISO: Auto 200-6400 or Manual 100-6400 in 1/3 or 1 EV Steps
Movie ISO: Auto or Manual 160-1600
Color Space: sRGB, AdobeRGB
RAW, JPEG, RAW+JPEG for photos
AVI for videos, 30 fps, limited to 2 GB per file, 720p HD (1280 x 720 pixels), 480p SD (640 x 480 pixels), max recording time 7 min for HD, 14 min for SD video
Wave Format Base Stereo PCM/16-bit, 44.1 kHz for sound
SDHC memory card recommended (can use older SD cards, but they’re not recommended for HD video)
Live View, 100% FOV, 7x or 10x magnification assist for MF
Image Stabilizer for photos: 3 modes (2D, Vertical and Horizontal), up to 4EV steps compensation
Image Stabilizer for videos: shifting electronic image (aka Digital IS)
Aspect ratio: 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, 6:6
Battery life: up to 300 shots
Dimensions: 4.74in x 2.75in. (H) x 1.37 in (D) / 120.5 mm x 70mm (H) x 35mm (D) (excluding protrusions)
Weight: 11.1oz/335g (body only), 13.6/385g (body, battery and media)
Sample Photos and Videos
I took the camera with me to the Flagler Museum and The Breakers in Palm Beach, to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, to the Boardwalk on Hollywood Beach, where I met with Thomas Hawk, and to the Vizcaya Museum in Miami. If I had gotten it sooner, I’d have taken it with me to Las Vegas as well. I also used it heavily inside and outside the house. I shot photos and video with it in all sorts of light conditions — like this video on shaving. After an initial winnowing process, I have 954 photos taken with it in my photo library, and 2½ (149 minutes) of HD video recorded with it.
I didn’t get the chance to edit and publish all of the photos and video clips taken with the camera yet, but I will get to all of them in the near future, and will post them here on my blog, so stay tuned for that. Until then, here’s a good selection of what I’ve already edited.
This first photo shows what you can get right out of the camera. I set the E-P2 on i-Auto, and as you can see, the light is a mix between strong daylight and shadows. With other cameras, you’d get more contrast between the light and dark areas, and you wouldn’t see so much detail on the tree bark, for example. But the E-P2 was able to keep the sky blue and still give me vibrant, light greens and browns in the shadowy areas, which is great.
Notice again how it was able to render great detail in the shadowy areas, even when shooting directly into the sun.
Notice the fine detail and soft bokeh in this macro photograph of a palm frond. This was taken with the 14-42mm kit lens. Even though the lens is said to focus properly only from 0.25 m/0.82 ft to infinity, when the camera was set to Macro mode, it could focus much closer, up to a couple of inches away from the subject. Keep in mind this is not a point-and-shoot digicam that you can set to Macro and be done with it, but a DSLR with an interchangeable lens, which is much more complicated and normally has limitations on what it can do. After all, that’s why these lenses are interchangeable, because they’re built for specific purposes. Yet this kit lens proved to be much more versatile than I thought.
These are colors obtained right out of the camera. If you’d like to see the specifics of a photo, feel free to download it and view the EXIF data, it’s included in each sample photograph.
This next photo is unedited once more. It’s what the camera gave me at 14mm (28mm effective) and 1600 ISO. It was a fairly dark room, and I shot this against a bright window with early afternoon daylight (2 pm) coming right at the camera. Notice the detail and lack of noise in the darker areas.
This was a particularly dark room. It appears well lit only because I shot this at 1/20th of a second and 1600 ISO. Notice once more how vibrant the colors are, and how good the auto white balance is.
This next photo shows that you can get some neat bokeh effects if you play with the manual focus. The photo is unprocessed, as the camera made it.
Another reason to like the PEN E-P2 is that I can take great portraits with it. Yes, you’ve got to love the bokeh you can get with really fast lenses like the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, but you’ve also got to love the clarity of an Olympus camera. The whole face is in focus, and every minute detail can be seen if you zoom in. It feels like you can almost touch the skin of the person whose portrait you’ve taken. It’s a great characteristic, and I noticed this way back when I was shooting with the Olympus C-3000Z, as you can see in this photo from 2005. The photo you see below is of my wife, Ligia, and once again, it’s right out of the camera. It’s incredible how brilliant the colors are.
Here are a few more portraits I took of her with the PEN E-P2. I love this camera.
Here are a few more sample photos taken at Vizcaya, in Miami.
A few sample videos (shot in 720p HD) are embedded below. There are more on the way, as mentioned above. I used software motion stabilization on a fair number of the clips, as I shot them handheld, without a tripod or any other sort of external stabilization device, and I foolishly forgot to activate the in-camera stabilization.
VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder — if you didn’t get this in a kit with your PEN camera, it’s really worth getting, as it will pivot up and act as a WLF (Waist Level Finder); you can see me using the PEN E-P2 with the VF-2 mounted onto it and pivoted upward in the second photo from the top of the article.
These next accessories come down to personal preference. Get these if you like them:
Cable Remote USB RM-UC1 — if you do a lot of night photography, with long exposures on tripods, you’ll need this cable release, particularly as it will allow you to lock the shutter in bulb mode
The current selection of micro four thirds lenses is somewhat slim, but it’s growing. And the beauty of having adapters like the MMF-2 I listed above is that you can use any regular four thirds lenses with PEN cameras, so you don’t have to buy extra micro four thirds lenses if you don’t want to.
But what if you’re heavily invested in Canon or Nikon gear, and would love to get a PEN camera? That’s okay too, because there’s a Canon lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter. It’s the same if you’re a Nikon shooter. There is an adapter that will let you use Nikon lenses with a PEN camera.
Two companies out there make these kinds of adapters: Novoflex, a German company, and Fotodiox, an American company. Since I’m heavily invested in Canon EF lenses, I called Fotodiox and asked them what they have for me. They have a specific Canon EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, but it does not let you control aperture, so you’ll be shooting wide open. They did tell me they’re working on a specific adapter for Canon EF lenses that will let you mount them to PEN cameras and control aperture and auto-focus, just like you would with a normal lens. They said the price for it would be around $300 when it comes out later this year. That would be a very cool adapter, if it indeed delivers on its promise!
Then I called Novoflex and asked them whether they have a Canon EF to Micro Four Thirds adapter, but they don’t. They do have a Canon FD to Micro 4/3 adapter, which if I’m not mistaken will let you mount EF lenses as well, but you’ll be shooting wide open, without the ability control aperture, and of course you’ll be focusing manually.
I also found out that Canon makes a nice, simple metal EF lens to Micro Four Thirds mount adapter, and it’s only $40! So if you don’t mind shooting wide open and using manual focus, then definitely get this adapter, because it looks sturdy and it’s inexpensive.
It’s time to wrap things up. What can I say, other than what I’ve already said? I’m in love with this camera!
A number of significant design and engineering ideas from Olympus came together beautifully in the digital PEN: diminutive size, great sensor, beautiful design, IS, SSWF, Micro Four Thirds, HD video, light and capable lenses, a whole host of features design to make things easier for the photographer, and beyond the hardware, a tangible sense of soul, a certain something that binds you to the camera as you begin to use it.
Just like the analog PEN revolutionized the way people thought of cameras and of how they took photos, the digital PEN is a wonderful continuation of the PEN legacy, a beautiful leap through time, from film to the digital world of today.
Images of PEN E-P2 used courtesy of Olympus. The PEN E-P2 can be purchased from Amazon or B&H Photo.