Monday, November 28, 2005

Marching Into The Digitial Renaissance

Here it is,late Novemeber 2005,and I feel like we're sitting right on the endge of a new Digital Renaissance. A rebirth,of sorts. Full-frame capture is back for those who can afford the entry price of a Canon 5D or 1Ds or 1Ds Mark II. (Used 1Ds models seem like a sort of good deal to me BTW,and I've seen some mighty tempting FF,recent-vintage used Kodak bodies for as little as around $1145.) So, it the sense that full frame imaging is now better,and more-affordable, there's a rebirth. Cropped-sensor cameras have their advantages and disadvantages, but the area where FF shines is angle of view,working distances,and the actual lens base that's on the market. SHooting with a full-frame camera, a number of legendary prime lenses are available in fixed lengths of 20mm,24mm,35mm,50mm,85mm,and also 100 or 105mm,as well as 135,200,300,400mm lengths. Crop-field sensors such as 1.5x or 1.6x models greatly change the 85mm fixed telephoto lenses and their field performance. 300mm lenses also suffer tremendously when used on 1.5x or 1.6x bodies; with the reduced angular field of view a 300mm lens has on a cropped-sensor camera, the lens is rendered too doggone LONG for use at many,many types of sports venues. And that's a shame, because the prime 300mm lenses are usually some of the best focusing, and most high-grade lenses many people will ever own, but when the crop factor is present, the lens's narrowed angle of view causes forced cropping of players' bodies.
The smaller format of a cropped sensor camera also renders pretty deep depth of field,which is is many ways a benefit. But, if one seeks foreground/background separation as a way to de-emphasize,subdue,or to almost remove distracting backgrounds through varying degrees of out of focusness, the crop-field bodies deliver deep depth of field,and so even a 300mm lens no longer gives the same degree of "pop" or foreground/background separation that one might 'expect' from a 300mm lens. The 300mm lens is hit hard two ways: 1: Its field of view is made even smaller, more narrow and 2:The reduction in the physical size of the capture format means that depth of field with given lenses and given apertures is greater than when the film format is large,and focal length alone now plays a lesser role in the degree of background defocus achievable with given lenses and given apertures.
The biggest problem with a 1.5x sensor body is that one's super-performance lenses, like 85mm and 300 are actually TOO long to do the very critical,important jobs those lenses were designed for,and at the longer end of the spectrum, there really is NO 300 to 400mm spanning zoom lens that can approach the performace of a prime tele, except for ultra-costly things like the 200-400 VR Nikkor,and even that is too slow aperture wise if 2.8 is mandatory,as it often is.
I think Nikon full frame digital is around the corner. Not imminent, but right around the corner. And that will bring about a sort of rebirth to those of us who LIKED the bigger viewfinders and the lens lineups.Canon's now delivered showroom new, GOOD high-ISO, full-frame digital with the 5D, for a little over 3k US Dollars. What once cost $8k US from Canon, and $5k or $4.5k from Kodak, is now $3,299 US. Big,big,big deal.
Nikon has apparently had a bit of a re-birth there, with the introduction of the imminent D200. A "new class of digital SLR camera" seems to be what several reviewers who have actually held and shot with the camera are trying to tell the masses. THe D200 introduces environmental sealing, super-tough chassis materials, and a new level of solidity and fit and finish that has heretofore been absent from anything except flagship-grade Nikon bodies. And all for $1,699 US from the get-go! For those who have not used multiple Nikon bodies, let me say that Nikon has over the years offered design advances which more or less set the industry standard,and which delivered almost perfect human/machine interface and control performance for their era. F, F2,F2A, F3 HP, FM, FM-2, FE, FE-2, FA, F5, D1...these bodies were at one time the protypes, the benchmarks, which other manufacturers aspired to. I think the D200 will be a similar camera, a real benchmark camera from the Nikon family.
We're moving into the era of more,and better, RAW converter software application choices. RSE, as well as Capture 1, Bibble,and Adobe Photoshop CS and CS-2 have made software chores less tiresome and more fruitful than ever before. Canon's DPP software is a nice free effort, and Nikon is,allegedly working on NEW underpinnings for Nikon Capture (praise be!),so there's hope in every corner I think. Software is where it's at I think.
Speaking of Renaissance, or rebirth, Ai- and AiS Nikkor lenses will be given new life as metering optics on the D200.Thanks Nikon. The smartest,best engineering choice won out in the D200's design. Designing the D200 so that it would meter with Ai-or-Newer was a brilliant choice on Nikon's part. All in all, times haven't looked so good in digital photography. Sony's moving the DX-size into the fixed-zoom lens hi-end prosumer EVF digicam right now,and that's interesting. iPods now can play video...a new era. Konica-Minolta has brought workable, body-based image stabilization to the market in two successful designs with the Maxxum 5D and the Maxxum 7D S-SLR's; with the new Sony-Konica-Minolta alliance now a reality, who knows what the future will hold. Consider that K-M and Sony make perhaps,arguably, the best pro-sumer digital cameras in the A2 and the 828,and that the unique selling proposition of body-integral anti-shake systems that K-M has perfected holds at least SOME potential upside in D-SLR sales. All in all, I see 2006 as the beginning of a Digital Rensaissance, as manufacturers successfuly revist old technical or manufacturing problems and economies of scale, and to now find new ways to actually overcome prior technical or manufacturing sticking points. I expect soon, to see EVF camera performance notched up to D-SLR-like specifications. It's a matter of when, not if. Olympus has announced its intention to re-focus the company away from compact digital sales, and more toward D-SLR sales. I've alwyas had respect for Oly as an engineer's company...a company whose products were always,always,always governed by sound engineering fundamentals. No bells that didn't work on Olympus gear.Sound technology,implemented right,has always been an Olympus hallmark.I'm not sure if Oly can make a viable run at D-SLR production and sales unless it REALLY delivers on something, like bang-for-dollar...I cannot see a 4/3 option being a viable money maker unless prices are modest and there's tremendous volume, but I will never underestimate Olympus as a camera-maker.
Konica-Minolta and their partnership with Sony..hmmm. I like the sound of that. A lot. It's interesting to live during an era when it _feels_ like there's a Renaissance going on.

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